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…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

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

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

You use a scalpel. I prefer a hammer.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
(SPOILERS) The latest instalment of the impossibly consistent in quality Mission: Impossible franchise has been hailed as the best yet, and with but a single dud among the sextet that’s a considerable accolade. I’m not sure it's entirely deserved – there’s a particular repeated thematic blunder designed to add some weight in a "hero's validation" sense that not only falls flat, but also actively detracts from the whole – but as a piece of action filmmaking, returning director Christopher McQuarrie has done it again. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an incredible accomplishment, the best of its ilk this side of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.