Friday, May 18, 2012

Burton and Depp serve up eighth round of 'dark' laughs

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp reunite for the eighth time to do a comic riff on the 1960s/1970s TV series "Dark Shadows."

Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, who in the effective Gothic 18th century prologue rejects the love of servant girl Angelique (Eva Green). The spurned Angelique is a witch who curses Barnabas to being a vampire, kills his true love (Bella Heathcote) and locks him a box. All and all a pretty normal reaction to rejection.

The film flash forwards to 1972 when Barnabas is finally released from his prison. He seeks out the remains of once illustrious manor and remnants of his family. Angelique is still alive and has been assuring the failure of the Collins family. She is also still harboring a crush on Barnabas. He is still rejecting her. She's still being witchy. Some things never change.

We are also introduced to what remains of the Collins family including Michelle Pfeiffer as the matriarch of the family, Chloƫ Grace Moretz as her moody daughter, Jackie Earle Haley as the groundskeeper and Helena Bonham Carter as a live-in psychiatrist. Barnabas also meets Victoria (also played by Heathcote), the reincarnation of his true love. She is working as governess for young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), who communicates with the ghost of his dead mother.

After all the characters are introduced, the film's focus shifts to the love/hate relationship between Barnabas and Angelique. This central conflict does yield a lot of entertainment value including a raucous fight/sex scene and some well written barbed exchanges. Depp is given some lively insults that are spoken in a very prim and proper manner.

Green is a fantastic mix of menacing and sexy. Depp gives a nicely measured and controlled performance. He gives an eloquent recitation of the Steve Miller Band's "The Joker."

But it is unfortunate that so many of the other characters get sidetracked. Pfeiffer in particularly feels underutilized especially since at first she is presented as suspicious of Barnabas and as having hidden motives.

The Victoria character also feels underwritten. Outside of one exchange with David, we don't see any of their interactions nor do we really get much sense of the love between her and Barnabas. It would've been nice to have Victoria's relationship with both David and Barnabas fleshed out.

Burton has been taking some hard knocks for this film and other recent productions such as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Alice in Wonderland," which prove popular upon release, but are then largely derided.

The main criticism, from both professional critics and the general public alike, seems to be that Burton is going through the motions and that his newer films lack the originality, personality and creativity of his earlier films like "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood" or "Nightmare Before Christmas."

The implication of such criticism is that Burton is no longer the young, vibrant, passionate filmmaker he once was and now he's just another cog in the Hollywood machine churning out mass market product.

That doesn't seem fair. Burton has been making big budget movies since "Batman." While some films he makes are more clearly commercial products, he also does deeply personal projects like his forthcoming stop-motion animation expansion of his short film "Frankenweenie."

Burton is still very much the same, offbeat, quirky filmmaker making the films he wants to make. Burton is an auteur filmmaker meaning he has a distinct style and likes to work with the same people. This can be perceived as a staleness and lack of growth as a filmmaker, but for those who appreciate what he does it is a comfort. You know what you get with a Burton film.

It may seem as if I'm trying to make excuses for "Dark Shadows" being not as good as Burton's previous films. It is true, if you put "Dark Shadows" next to "Edward Scissorhands" it pales in comparison, but the film is entertaining in its own right.

"Dark Shadows" has much to admire. The whole cast is solid with Haley and Moretz standing out in the supporting cast. As always with Burton, the art direction is spectacular. The film looks amazing and finds an interesting tone of quirkiness balanced with an uneasy tension. This holds most true during scenes at a ball which features Alice Cooper as himself. Cooper's music is effectively utilized in the sequence.

This is middling Burton, not bad, not great, but it succeeds at what it sets out to do. Burton still remains such an interesting filmmaker that even when he is not on his A game, it is still more compelling than most films that come out any given week.

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