Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dark Shadows - Theatrical Review


Release Date: May 11, 2012

It has been a very very very long time since I wanted to actually SEE a new Tim Burton directed feature let alone actually looking forward to it. Oh what a fool I was...

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 4:35 pm May 12, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 1 hr 53 min
Studio: Warner

Loves: Danny Elfman muscial scores (soundtracks), Tim Burton (of the past), Johnny Depp (sometimes), Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloe Grace Moretz
Likes: Very few of the jokes
Neutral: The fact that almost none of this movie makes any sort of sense
Hates: How dam boring this movie was
Based on: The late 60's soap opera of the same name

What was the last good movie that Tim Burton actually made? That was the question running through my head as I purchased my tickets for his latest venture with his long time compatriot, Johnny Depp. Looking back over the past decade reminded me of why I have lost faith in the once inventive director. For me it all started when he went down the path of the remake or re-imagining (a term he coined I do believe) with films like Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the most recent one being, besides the focal point of this review anyways, the dismal Alice in Wonderland. Despite them all being financial successes (only one of them without the charms of Depp), they were all pretty horrible in their own ways. There were only two of his more recent films I could recall that I held no animosity towards, which was Big Fish (which I have never seen so I cannot really comment on) and Sweeney Todd which was a rather enjoyable adaptation of the Broadway play (despite the questionable vocal talents of its cast). This time around I was cautiously optimistic about it, he had a solid cast full of some of his usual go-to actors and a stable of newcomers as well. But alas, this was never meant to be, for Dark Shadows is just a sad reminder of a director who once could do no wrong but now can't seem to get anything right.

It is the year 1766, the Collins clan has migrated from Liverpool London to a small port town where they proceed to lay claim by building a gigantic mansion and start a booming business in the fishing market. Their son, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) eventually finds love amongst the townsfolk which drives the lovesick Angelique (Eva Green) into a rage induced streak of vengeance where she invokes her witchcraft to curse him. After using her witchcraft to kill his family and his one true love, the witch then curses Barnabas to live as a vampire for the rest of his days shortly before burying him alive. Skip nearly 200 years later to the year 1972, the surviving Collins family who reside in their mansion are in a rough spot both financially and in their personal lives. In need of some assistance they soon find themselves playing host to the recently released Barnabas who must restore the Collins name to its former glory, win the hand of his true love once again, find a way to lift his curse and finally exact revenge on the witch who has damned him and his family.

Barnabas is cursed to live as a vampire for the rest of his days.

To put it as bluntly and plainly as possible, this movie is a horrible mess. It is a mess of ideas, plots and characters that all inhabit the same world but never feel as though they ever truly inhabit the same film. It seems to want to be this offbeat dark comedy about a cursed man but it also wants to be this touching romance about a man who has lost his one true love and then discovers his soul mate re-incarnated. Then it also wants to be this strange ensemble film about a dysfunctional family, but it also wants to be about this man who was cursed and seeks to have his cursed lifted. I had heard that Tim Burton and his writers sat down and watched every episode of the series before writing this film adaptation. Before I thought that was just some silly rumor but now I can believe it. This film feels like over a dozen television episodes worth of stories all dumped into one 2 hour film...and it just doesn't work.

It's not that a film needs to be cut and dry with only one goal, there have been plenty of films that deal with multiple plots and an assortment of characters and gotten it right. Where Dark Shadows fails in my eyes is by not knowing what key moments in each of its stories to use. As an example, when Barnabas first meets Victoria (Bella Heathcote) he is instantly taken aback by her resemblance to his former lover...but that's it. There are a couple scenes here and there, such as a quick scene with the two of them walking together and another during a party, where they talk a little bit...but that's it. By the end of the film we are supposed to have this moment where all of a sudden the two of them are hopelessly in love with the other, but we never had a moment where we saw that happen. There was no scene with them learning about each other or expressing their feelings in any real way. There just wasn't any time to spare for this particular part of the story, which would be fine if there were another part of the story that picked up the slack and gave us something that felt complete, but that never happens.

The Collins family is an odd bunch but that doesn't make them interesting.

All those other plots I mentioned before, the curse, the witch, the family and this very subtle fish-out-of-water scenario are half-assed in the exact same way. The big moment when the Collins family re-enters the business world and start their Cannery up again is just a quick montage and that's it. Never again is it ever mentioned or referred to. We never get any updates on how business is going, just a couple scenes with Angelique bitching about a loss in profits. Then there is Angelique herself who is largely the villain of the film but completely under utilized and seems to be bad just because we need an evil person in the film. While her motives are simple enough (she hurts Barnabas and his loved ones because of her unrequited love for him), she is never really explored in any satisfying manner. Without a doubt though I think she is still the only character in the film that actually had a true and consistent story arc, it's just a shame that it was handled so poorly. There is just too much stuffed in here, there isn't enough time to give everything it is trying to do enough substance to sustain itself and because of that it just fails to connect on every level possible.

Then there is the tone of the film, what is this supposed to be exactly? The opening prologue is a depressive and bitter sequence of events that lack any sort of humor at all. I would even go so far as to call it rather grim and tragic given all that goes down in it. But then we are thrown into the 70s where the tone is that of a quirky comedy with an assortment of odd characters who act...odd. Then Barnabas re-enters the picture and all of a sudden it is a dark comedy again, or perhaps not. You see, in the middle of his return he is spouting out these witticisms whilst ripping the throats out of these innocent workers but soon after it takes the shape of comedy again as we see Barnabas readjust to this strange new world he has been thrust into. When he finally meets the family it then appears to take on a tone and structure very similar to something akin to The Addams Family, but completely devoid of life and humor once again. The film then continues to shift continuously back and forth like that for its entirety until we are treated with a grand finale that not only feel completely out of place but doesn't fit with either the drama or comedic tones it had up to that point. It just turns into this bizarre horror concoction with mysteries being revealed that were never even hinted towards and people having powers that made very little sense. To say this film has tonal issues is just the tip of the iceberg however.

Barnabas is consoled by Elizabeth.

The cast of the film is a mishmash of different talents whom, with the exception of Green, are completely wasted here. The core actors that are traditionally found in Burton's films are on hand with Depp leading the charge doing his usual oddball hi jinks as the lead character. This is a role that on the surface seems tailor made for the eccentric actor but somehow it felt more like a chore for him than something to relish in. Another staple actor of camp Burton is Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Dr. Julia Hoffman the Collins family psychologist, she is usually a force to be reckoned with but here she seems completely disinterested in everything she says or does. Michelle Pfeiffer has only appeared in one previous Burton film (Batman Returns), but it was probably one of the most memorable roles the longtime actor has ever done. If you had never seen that film you could be forgiven for thinking that maybe she isn't the best pick for a Burtonesque world because as the head of the Collins estate she is more lifeless than the immortal vampire Barnabas himself. These actors have proven themselves more than capable of turning in memorable performances for the director before, even a quick cameo by Christopher Lee is pretty unremarkable here, they just seem to all be phoning it in.

While I have come to know what to expect from those actors in a Tim Burton film,  it was the newer faces that really caught my interest. Chloe Grace Moretz is without a doubt the current "it" girl when it comes to adolescent female roles and I was interested to see what Burton would have her do here. She is given the slacker teenager with an attitude role that seems perfectly suited for her but she is sadly given almost nothing to do beyond the occasional sneer and door slam. Jackie Earle Haley also seems perfectly suited as the drunken groundskeeper Willie, but he also is relegated to mostly a one note performance as Barnabas' hypnotized servant. Bella Heathcote as Barnabas' true love first appears to have more to her than meets the eye until she literally vanishes from the film until its final moments. Then there is Jonny Lee Miller in probably the most useless role in the film and newcomer Gulliver McGrath as his son, whom I kept forgetting was even in the film other than the couple times he is on screen. All of these actors are capable of so much more and it is just a crying shame that they were all wasted in a film that felt completely lifeless from beginning to end.

Without a doubt the only positive thing in the film is Eva Green.

That is ultimately what this film felt like, lifeless. But there is one lone exception to my disdain for the utter lack of personality that pervades the film and that is Eva Green as the witch Angelique. It is no secret that I am a fan of hers but I honestly believe she is the only actor in the film that appeared to not only be the sole individual who actually wants to be there but also the only one that is clearly having fun in such a juicy role as that of a witch who survives multiple centuries only to torture Barnabas and his poor ancestors. The character itself is just as muddled and incoherent as the rest of the characters (her origins and her powers remain a mystery all the way until the very end and beyond), but Green's passion and flair shine through brilliantly with that devilish smile and playful sense of humor. She is without a doubt the only reason I did not fall asleep during the film but her performance is unfortunately not enough to recommend the film as a whole due to all its other issues that weigh it down.

Beyond the tonal issues, the lack of enthusiasm from most of the actors and a script that can't decide who the main characters are, it is also chock full of some seriously tired jokes and a dreadful sense of humor. Am I really supposed to be laughing each and every time we see Barnabas attempt to hypnotize someone? Is it really supposed to be that funny when he asks for a ride and upon ordering that the carriage be brought around, he is promptly told they don't have horses, they have a Chevy? Is it really supposed to be funny that Barnabas is there smoking out with a group of hippies and explains his tragic love life to them as if he is some sort of Nostradamus? Then there is also the perplexing idea of setting the film during the 70s. Why? The television show it is based on took place during the 60s, so why the 70's then? It never even takes advantage of that time frame, none of the jokes are specific to that era. Barnabas discovering McDonald's or discovering that Alice Cooper is the ugliest woman alive is something that could be done in modern day. Perhaps this was just a visual choice by Burton (the far superior Edward Scissorhands had the exact same look to it with the solid colors and 70s style).

Even Johnny Depp seems to be wondering why he is in this movie.

Then you have the completely out of left field and somewhat asinine finale. For a film that had literally bored the crap out of me up until its final 20 minutes, it should have been a relief to finally have ANYTHING happen. Yet I found myself more confused and annoyed than anything else. When did this all of a sudden become an action fantasy where everyone all of a sudden had super powers? I won't deny that some of the visuals were interesting but as with the rest of the film, none of it made a lick of sense. It didn't help that I had checked out of the film mentally by that point either. The conclusion to the film does it best to wrap up all of its different stories but I couldn't help wondering, why even bother by that point? It didn't give a dam about its half dozen plots before hand so why even bother trying to give them a proper conclusion? Did I even mention how inconsistent it was with how the sun would effect Barnabas? Indoors he would get burned rather quickly by it but outside with just a hat and sunglasses he was completely protected..., what?

It may not seem like it by this point but I really wanted to like this film. Going into it I was hopeful that Tim Burton could use this talented ensemble cast and make something fun and quirky, which is what all the marketing made it look to be. It didn't seem like a lot to ask of a film that appeared to have modest expectations of its own. Even the score by composer faithful Danny Elfman felt completely arbitrary though which is just kind of unheard of. It is clear that Johnny Depp no longer must rely on Tim Burton for juicy roles as he once did, so his future is still secure, but I can't say the same thing for Burton at this point. If not for Depp's appearance in his films, I fear that the once visionary director would not meet with the same success that many of his previous works have. The film doesn't do its audience the courtesy of even seeming interested enough in itself to give a dam that it is boring the shit out of its audience and because of that I believe we should show it the same level of respect. Whatever the vision was by Tim Burton for Dark Shadows, it was not achieved and I don't think anyone should waste their precious time on this lifeless corpse of a film, so my recommendation sadly is to...




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