REVIEW: Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith (screenplay), John August & Seth Grahame-Smith (story), Dan Curtis (TV series)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter

Dark Shadows is a film inhabited by the Gothic art direction that has become Tim Burton’s staple in addition to the comic macabre his pale people act out.  Lately Johnny Depp has been the pale muse front and center in Burton’s productions, becoming just as much a staple of his work as those faded worlds. This latest collaboration is nothing really new for either of them; a vampire invading the gloriously tie-dyed era of the 1970s is a perfect example of a Gothic force imposing itself on a world of color.

The crux of the story is fairly simple.  Barnabas Collins (Depp) is turned into a vampire and imprisoned by the witch Angelique (Eva Green) after she kills the other woman he loved.  His suffering is extended for all eternity, so when he emerges from that chained-up coffin nearly 200 years later, he is a very bloodthirsty fish-out-of-water.  He meets up with the present-day Collins family, who happen to live in the same menacing, faded mansion as he did.

Upon arriving he meets the drunken butler (Jackie Earle Haley) and the grouchy matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer).  He explains his situation to her, she agrees to hide it, and they tell the rest of the family that he is a distant cousin.  Dark Shadows is based on a television show, though Burton leaves his distinct visual mark on the material.  He has always been more gifted at creating worlds than telling stories in them, and he does his best with the sloppy, seemingly aimless screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith.  Accenting the comedy was the right way to go here, and Dark Shadows is often very funny.  Depp and Green both give inspired, over-the-top performances as they continue their centuries-long magic duel in the era of Vietnam and hippies.

There is a fantasy much darker than the supernatural one operating beneath the surface of this latest Burton/Depp concoction, though.  The most troubling thing about Dark Shadows is not its sloppy storytelling but its disguised contempt for its plentiful female characters.  Angelique’s thirst for revenge is borne out of that male fantasy that a woman becomes so obsessed with him that she turns delusional and incoherent without his presence.  Then, of course, she must be scolded into submission or death.

This principle is also true for Helena Bonham Carter’s character, the psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman.  She is a boozing, pill-popping psychiatrist who throws herself at Barnabus simply because he pays her one simple compliment.  As in Sweeney Todd, Bonham Carter’s character comes up short in her director husband’s increasingly cruel roles for her.

It’s hard to take such a lightheartedly demented film like Dark Shadows so seriously, but its troubling misogyny travels with Barnabus from the dark ages as well.  There are quips early on by Elizabeth and the new maid Victoria (Bella Heathcote) about women being vastly superior to men, but it’s not long until Barnabus arrives and they all more or less succumb to his various charms.

For a PG-13 film, the amount of sex and death that is hinted at or partially shown is somewhat startling.  In such a finely veneered world it can almost seem barbaric, and yet when Angelique and Barnabus actually do have “sex” they remain fully clothed as they toss each other around the room.  Burton remains in frantic close-up trying to avoid what must be the studio’s worst fear: actually showing something.  He breaks his tradition of well-composed shots because this movie is afraid of the sex it so blatantly wants us to know is going on.  In this respect it resembles the Twilight films more than anything, even if its vampire is more of the Nosferatu variety.

Grade: C-

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Our (Belated) List of Favorite Movie Directors

1. Martin Scorsese- It may seem unimaginable that nearly three years ago director Martin Scorsese had yet to hold an Academy Award in his hands, but it is the disappointing truth. The once would-be Catholic priest entered the film making world with hits like Boxcar Bertha and Mean Streets which put him at the forefront of New Hollywood with his violent, audience-specific films. Though Francis Ford Coppola felt he was unfit to helm The Godfather: Part III, Scorsese quickly overshadowed Coppola to become an icon of his own, creating films filled with themes related to violence, machismo, Italian-American identity, immigration, Catholicism and New York City. Five decades of classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Departed, Scorsese set a style of quick editing, rock and roll soundtrack and frequent collaboration with actors and editors who claim Scorsese to be a living encyclopedia of film history. The film that did it for us: Though he’s created modern epics including a personal favorite, Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s talents are most apparent in Taxi Driver, a film with some of the most carefully constructed technical detail and powerful themes of isolation, violence, sex and how they are related and lead to destruction.

2. Stanley Kubrick– One of the unprecedented visual artists in all of cinema, it’s hard to not love movies when Stanley Kubrick makes them.  His gift for telling a compelling story is aided by those infamous distant shots, able to encompass the idiocy in The War Room (Dr. Strangelove) or gravity-defying in the great beyond (2001: A Space Odyssey).  He never told the same story twice, but each film carries with it his distinct visual flair,  helping him to create some of the most fully realized worlds the movies have ever seen.  Kubrick is one of the biggest influences on American cinema not only because of his artistic genius, though.  His ruthless dedication to his vision of the material led to feuds with his actors and the writers of the source material (both on The Shining.)  Perfectionism is costly, but with it he created many things that are, in fact, perfect.  The film that did it for us: There’s never been a more beautifully filmed comedy than Dr. Strangelove, and there are few as horrific.

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SPOTLIGHT: Johnny Depp

Renowned mostly for his mainstream work in Pirates of the Caribbean and by fans of Tim Burton movies, Johnny Depp can be categorized almost unfairly.  I say almost because he does great work in both of those categories, and I say unfairly because there is quite a bit more to this actor’s career.  Whether he be a playwright fighting to get back to his childhood (Finding Neverland) or a sly gangster evading the authorities (Public Enemies), Depp proves time and again to be one of the most diverse, high-quality performers working in film today.  He takes on projects of passion, and they just happen to make a lot of money.  This could be because he works with talented filmmakers with a built-in audience, but it’s not.  It’s because he carries a built-in audience to terrific filmmakers, and then everyone wins.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John Logan (screenplay), Stephan Sondheim (musical)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall

Welcome to the deep, dark abyss of Tim Burton’s mind, my friends.  In a land where logic takes back seat to lavish set pieces, art design, and terrible beauty, storytelling is of the most paramount importance to make the movie work.  With Burton’s obsession with visuals and macabre humor, this can be a problem.  Never has his ability, neigh, gift for storytelling been so brilliantly fused with his other obsessions as it is in Sweeney Todd.

It helps that Burton is working with an already legendary source material by the late, great Stephan Sondheim.  Though he was reluctant to approach a live musical, his risk has paid off and he appears a natural at it.  This is an entire movie filled with risks, especially with the casting.

Burton regulars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter may not seem too risky of a choice, but when they’ve never sang a word on screen before and have not been professionally trained, it is in Hollywood.  Luckily, Burton only appears mad and actually isn’t.

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