Skip to main content

Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!

Dark Shadows 
(2012)

In eighteenth century Maine, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is cursed to become a vampire, then buried alive at the hands of spurned witch Angelique (Eva Green). Exhumed in 1972, he vows to restore the Collins family to its former glory, but must contend with Angelique to do so.

Put like that, Dark Shadows possesses a relatively straightforward structure. But Tim Burton’s latest is a difficult one to quantify, as at times it feels like neither fish nor foul. Ultimately this is more of a melodrama than an out-and-out comedy, but it wouldn’t be a Burton film if it weren’t presented with a self-amused flourish.

Somewhere around Sleepy Hollow Burton’s skill at handling action sequences improved significantly, and he handles the set pieces here with aplomb that was largely absent from (say) Batman. The scene setter opening promises more than it can pay off (Bella Heathcote’s dual role as his lover and her twentieth century double is underdeveloped) but the staging is exemplary. So too, you can almost hear Burton whooping with delight at the feeding frenzy of the unearthed Barnabas. In contrast, the seduction scene between Barnabas and Angelique falls flat. Unsurprising, as the director has always chosen such chaste material. It just doesn’t seem like his thing, and you can imagine him wanting to get it in the can as quickly as possible.

I wonder how much remained of John August’s script after Seth Grahame-Smith was brought in as a replacement. I suspect not a lot, as what is here feels messy and undisciplined. Which for a Burton film can be a boon, but he needs to be inspired enough to make the most of the material. Certainly, I felt the film succeeded for the most part despite, rather than because of, the writing.  The milieu is heightened in the way that most of Burton's films are, but the tone veers wildly even for him. Soap opera plotting mixes with blowjob jokes and a protagonist who makes no bones about massacring innocents. And then there's the entirely unnecessary '70s setting (which gives rise to an extended entirely unnecessary Alice Cooper cameo).

But this also meant that I was never too clear about what direction the film was going to take. Which is quite refreshing in blockbuster season, even if it was a symptom of an unfocused script. Again, maybe that just makes it a typical Burton film where script and character come second to distraction by the contents of his toy box.

There are no complaints regarding the supporting cast, with Eva Green reveling in her grade-A bitch, Michelle Pfeiffer (interesting to see her now in matriarch roles but only five years older than Depp, who's romancing someone a quarter of a century younger than him), Johnny Lee Miller wearing a syrup and Jackie Earle Haley having fun in full Renfield mode. Bella Heathcote can’t hold her own against this lot, but she neither can she be blamed for the weakness of the character (that said, one thing I did like was the ambiguity concerning her “reincarnation”). Chloe Grace Moretz does her best with the troubled teenager part, but gets a poorly-realised third act reveal.

Then there’s Depp. If you don't like Johnny in full eccentric mode you'll want to give this a wide berth. His performance is most amusing, but Barnabas Collins isn’t a comedy engine of a character in the way that Beetlejuice is. Depp has free licence to indulge himself, but Barnabas is granted his share of pathos too. The climax, in particular, is played very much for its dramatic content.

I've seen this compared to Zemeckis' Death Becomes Her and, quite aside from Eva Green's skin problems, that's not such a bad reference point. Both are curate’s eggs, and have received their fare share of brickbats. Indeed, Dark Shadows seems to have already been labelled a misfire (although it is proving more successful in the rest of the World than the US). Not unlike another perceived failure that has a lot going for it, Mars Attacks! Perhaps comparisons to the source TV show (little known outside of the States) worked against Shadows, as it fell at the twin hurdles of fan disapproval and throwing vast sums of money at reinventing a property that not enough people cared about anyway. This is not an unusual summer occurrence (Speed Racer, Land of the Lost) and there are often rewards in investigating fare that, for whatever reason, has proved too idiosyncratic for cross-over appeal.

I’d suggest this is Burton’s best since Big Fish, which some might retort wouldn’t be difficult. There’s an idea that the director has taken a prolonged tumble in the last decade (pretty much since his Planet of the Apes remake). But he’s always been an erratic filmmaker, less interested in narrative coherence than distractions and quirks of script or performance. It’s probably legitimate to bemoan settling for stamping his own stylistic template on pre-existing subject matter (rather than striking out with original material) but it’s not as if he hasn’t been doing that since his third feature. Dark Shadows may well achieve it’s own cult status in the future, distinct from that of the TV show, but it will more likely be a consequence of viewing it as an interesting failure, rather than a neglected gem. 

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.

Ridley Scott Ridders Ranked
During the '80s, I anticipated few filmmakers' movies more than Ridley Scott's; those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron's output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott's surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting, but sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far - and with his rate of  productivity, another 25 by the time he's 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

This is it. This is the moment of my death.

Fearless (1993)
Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a rubgy team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.

Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses …

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.