Friday, May 11, 2012

Dark Shadows

As a child growing up in awe of Edward Scissorhands, in all its strange, gothic charm, further lead down into a path where imagery from The Nightmare Before Christmas and Ed Wood continue to delight and wallpaper my memories, it's difficult in any fairness at this point to feel nothing for Tim Burton but a sense of regret and near embarrassment.  Whatever happened to his imagination that encompassed grandeur and offbeat humor and child-like innocence, now reduced to wannabe franchise mediocrity featuring fleeting bits of the idiosyncrasies that made him such a worthy and strange talent.  That sense of pity, foreshadowed in 2010's Alice in Wonderland hits it's till with Burton's adaptation of the 60s vampire soap opera Dark Shadows, a wan, tonally discordant, glacier paced piece of opulent production design in search of a script, story and direction of any kind.  There's passing moments that perk up the drab affair, and a few facets that point to a decent idea, but Dark Shadows mostly wanders, and coasts on the formidable relationship between director and his muse, Johnny Depp as its sole reason in existing in the first place, and the only discernible cause for moviegoers to shell out buckets of money to see it.

The Collins family, originally immigrants from Liverpool, established a massively successful fishing company in a small burb of Maine in the late 1700s.  Living richly, the town itself was named after their lineage, and Barnabas Collins (Depp) was the token part of that heritage.  His weakness was for women, falling madly for a comely lady named Josette, while having sideline fun with a fair lower class servant (Eva Green.)  Problem was that the help was madly in love with Barnabas, and quite mad herself-- she's a witch who cursed Barnabas into a hellish immortality by turning him into a vampire, and brandishing him to the town, who revolted in burying him.  Some 200 years later, Barnabas is dug up in 1972, where his descendants have fallen hard financially and mentally-- having a descendant that's cast aside for growing fangs has a toll on a family's reputation, I suppose.  But Barnabas, still in Victorian garb and refined British accent comes back to his estate to help salvage his doomed family.  There's a slight giddy thrill when Johnny Depp tackles a character, meant in great harmony and silliness, where his cartoonish tendencies are an asset, and his coiled, beatific speak has a charm and anachronistic spunk to it at the beginning, but that grows tiring and draining as Dark Shadows plods along.

There's a surprise as the witch who cursed him to begin with is still toiling around town, a bleached-blonde executrix now under the name Angelique Bouchard, who for two centuries has plotted to destroy the Collins name and family.  She's established a fishing company that's taken over the northeastern seas, and is jolted by the newly awoken return of her long lost love.  The spark of Dark Shadows, and there is truly only one, is the nearly transcendent performance of Eva Green.  The brunette beauty, who emerged as art-house hottie in Bernardo Bertulucci's The Dreamers (2003), breathes a freshness, a light but menacing sense of play, balancing the kitsch and camp with such a rare evocation, one only wished the rest of the production were at her speed.  She flirts and haunts, but nearly every one of line readings (some of which, as written, are terribly banal), she maintains the right sense of playful cartoonishness.  The problem is that Burton pulls away from that more often than not-- this isn't serious; nor should it drag.

The biggest drag is the character of Barnabas himself, who speaks in poetic rhythms but also is an undeniable danger due to the whole fang thing.  There's too much back and forth inconsistency on how to feel about him, which might be an interesting take had this been Ingmar Bergman's Dark Shadows, but moral complexity is out of reach in this script written by John Logan and Seth Grahame-Smith.  There's more of an sense that, oh well Johnny Depp will bring to it what he chooses, rather than much thought on conception.  This ambiguity grows especially tiring was Barnabas grows a fondness for the Collins' governess Victoria, played by a Bella Swan-inspired Bella Heathcote.  One passing joke that grows more and more tiresome is Barnabas' anger that she lets anyone call his crush by the oh-so-low class Vicky.  Their relationship has a bit more heft to it, but Burton and team give it so little attention, it hardly seems one should care a whip.  Instead, the production design, and costumes are fitting and continue the brand that this filmmaker has long established.  Longtime collaborators Rich Heinrichs and Colleen Atwood do a marvelous job as always, but that embarrassment comes in again, as they appear to again be creating things they have long ago mastered.  The story itself seems mostly jettisoned by its period soundtrack.

That embarrassment thing hits its reach in a sex scene between Barnabas and Angelique, who after a meeting of trading insults engage in gymnastics sex that's so awkward to watch, one feels sad for the furniture that was built, only to be destroyed for the couples kinkiness.  That scene especially, but others also establish a near auto-pilot response from Burton, once a conjurer of imagination, now a mere cog in a the movie making world of excess and dollar signs.  His cast includes talents like Michelle Pfeiffer (who was such a memorable part of his Batman Returns) as the Collins' matriarch who poses imperiousness well, but is largely ignored, his wife Helena Bonham Carter as the Collins' live-in psychiatrist, whose along for hubby, but saddled with a ridiculous side story, Jackie Earle Haley as the family's butler, who appears bored, and Chloe Grace Moretiz as the family's rebellious daughter, who scowls, per normal.  There's ingredients that make Dark Shadows appear that it might be the campy, bad in a good way fun like Burton's Mars Attacks, but Burton himself seems uninterested, as does, sadly, his once faithful audience.  C 

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