“DARK SHADOWS” (2012) Review

“DARK SHADOWS” (2012) Review

I have never been a diehard fan of director Tim Burton. Honestly. In fact, I can only think of one or two of his movies that really impressed me. Okay, I can think of two . . . before I saw his latest opus, “DARK SHADOWS”

The last Burton film that really impressed me was his 2007 Oscar-nominated film, “SWEENEY TODD”. I did not love it. And I have no desire to see it again. But it did impress me. So, when I discovered that he did a big screen adaptation of the 1966-71 ABC television series, I reacted with mild interest. I have never seen the old television series. And to be honest, I have no real desire to watch it. It was the humor featured in the trailer for Burton’s new film that led me to see it.

“DARK SHADOWS” told the story of Barnabas Collins, the 18th century scion of a wealthy Colonial family, who is transformed into a vampire by a scorned lover named Angelique Bouchard, who also happened to be a Collins family servant and a witch. After transforming him into a vampire, Angelique led a lynch mob that captures Barnabas and buries him alive in a chained coffin in the woods. Two hundred years later in 1972, a group of construction workers accidentally free Barnabas, before he feeds on them. He later makes his way back to the Collins manor and finds it inhabited by his mid 20th century descendants; family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, her 15 year-old daughter Carolyn Stoddard, Elizabeth’s brother Roger Collins, his 10 year-old son David; and their servants who are caretaker Willie Loomis and David’s governess, Victoria Winters, who is a reincarnation of Barnabas’ lost love, Josette du Pres. One last occupant is David’s live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman.

Barnabas convinces Elizabeth of his identity when he reveals a secret room behind the fireplace. The room contains a vast treasure that can help the Collins family restore the family business. However, Elizabeth makes him promise to never reveal his identity as a vampire to the rest of the family. All seemed to be well for the Collins family, until Angelique, who has used magic to extend her life, discovers that Barnabas has been released from his coffin. Angelique has also used her own fishery business to bankrupt the family. Upset that Barnabas has returned, Angelique tries to win back his affections through sex. However, Barnabas makes it clear that he does not love her. And Angelique goes out of her way to ensure the destruction of Barnabas and his immediate family.

“DARK SHADOWS” is not perfect. I am quite aware that it is not ensemble piece, despite the likes of Michelle Pfieffer and Helena Bonham-Carter in the cast. I also realize that is basically about Barnabas Collins. But I do believe that two or three supporting characters were barely used in the story. And those characters proved to be young David Collins, Dr. Julia Hoffman (portrayed by the marvelous Helena Bonham-Carter) and Roger Collins, portrayed by the woefully underused Jonny Lee Miller. And I wish the movie had explained how Angelique managed to survive and not age for two centuries. From what I had read, this was never explained in the television version either. I also found the revelation of Carolyn Stoddard as a werewolf near the end of the movie, very contrived. Either screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had failed to hint this revelation or I simply failed to notice any his hint(s). And I also found the movie’s pacing slightly uneven three-quarters into the story. I suspect that Burton and his screenwriter, Seth Grahame-Smith, were in such a hurry to get rid of Roger Collins and Dr. Hoffman that the pacing somewhat became off-kilter.

But despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy “DARK SHADOWS” very much. First of all, I was dazzled by Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography. He gave it a rich, blue-tinted look that really contributed to the film’s setting and tale. This was especially apparent in the prologue that introduced the Collins family’s American origins and Barnabas Collins. Delbonnel’s photography also enhanced Rick Heinrichs’ production designs. Heinrichs did a beautiful job in re-creating both the mid and late-18th century Maine, along with the same location in 1972. And I feel he was ably supported by Chris Lowe’s art direction team, John Bush’s set decorations and Colleen Atwood’s beautiful costume designs.

Although I was somewhat critical of Grahame-Seth’s screenplay, I do not believe it was not a complete waste. In fact, I thought it was wise of him to center the main narrative around Barnabas Collins. The latter’s attempts to assimilate into the early 1970s had me shaking with laughter. And Grahame-Seth was wise to not only enrich Barnabas’ love for Josette du Pres and later, Victoria Winters; but also his concerns for his family. Family seemed to be very important to Barnabas, which allowed Grahame-Seth to focus more on Victoria and the Collins family . . . even Roger. Barnabas’ concerns for his family also made his conflict with Angelique Bouchard even more pressing. I am also glad that both Burton and Grahame-Seth’s portrayal of Barnabas was complex. They allowed him to feed on other human beings without labeling him as evil. Barnabas feeds on the blood of others to survive, just as we humans feed on other living beings – both animals and plants. He does not like feeding on others anymore than he likes being a vampire. There is no taint of one-dimensional morality that has marred television series like “BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER”“ANGEL” and “CHARMED”. Several critics and many of the old television series also criticized Burton’s film for not being a close adaptation of the show. I find their criticisms a little irrelevant, due to the fact that I have yet to see a film adaptation of a television series to be that particularly close to its original source.

The cast for “DARK SHADOWS” is first-rate. Even those performers forced into roles that were not fully explored did a great job. It was nice to see Burton’s willingness to use again, actor Christopher Lee, who had a brief appearance as the top fisherman of Collinsport, Maine. I have never seen Jonny Lee Miller portrayed such a negative role like Roger Collins. And despite the minimal exposure, he did a great job of expressing Roger’s shallowness and lack of concern for his son and other members of the family. Helena Bonham-Carter was hilariously entertaining as young David Collins’ live-in psychiatrist, who developed a crush on Barnabas. It wsa nice to see Jackie Earle Haley again, who was also rather funny as the Collins family’s caretaker, Willie Loomis. I wish I could say something nice about Bella Heathcote. But her performance as Victoria Winters struck me as a little too ethereal and . . . wooden. Gulliver McGrath gave a sweet performance as young David Collins, but he did not strike me as particularly memorable.

For me, the best performances came from lead actor Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer, Eva Green and Chloë Grace Moretz. The latter has certainly grown a lot since I first saw her in “KICK ASS”, two years ago. I find her take on the fifteen year-old Carolyn Stoddard to be very eccentric (in a positive way). She also seemed to be a younger version of Michelle Pfieffer, who portrayed her imperious mother, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. I thought that Pfieffer was spot on as the indomitable matriarch of the Collins family, who hid her ruthlessly passionate and maternal nature behind a reserved facade. Eva Green nearly scared me out of my wits with her frightening portrayal of Angelique Bouchard, the witch who developed an obsessive love for Barnabas. Apparently, Angelique’s love and hatred proved to be so strong that she continued to slowly destroy the Collins family, long after Barnabas was locked in a coffin. Johnny Depp has portrayed some memorable characters over the years. But I must admit that his take on the Barnabas Collins character has proven to be one of my favorites. The man was superb. I could describe his performance with as many adjectives as possible. But it would take a great deal of my time. All I can say is that I believe he was perfect.

I realize that “DARK SHADOWS” has disappointed many fans of the old 1966-71 television series. And I must admit that I found a few aspects of Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay rather questionable. But “DARK SHADOWS” proved to be an entertaining movie thanks to Tim Burton’s direction, the story’s concentration on the Barnabas Collins, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography and the excellent cast led by the always talented Johnny Depp.

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

I never understood director Tim Burton’s decision to name his latest film, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. I mean . . . why did he do it? His new movie was not another adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, ”Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. It was a sequel set thirteen years after the original story. So why use the shortened version of the title from Carroll’s original title? 

Many of you might be wondering why I had just made a big deal about this new movie’s title. For me, it represented an example of what I consider to be the numerous missteps that prevented me from embracing Burton’s new movie. Before I continue, I should confess that I have never been a Tim Burton fan. Never. I can only recall two of his movie that knocked my socks off – 1994’s ”ED WOOD” and the 2007 Golden Globe nominee, ”SWEENY TODD”. I wish I could include ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” in that category, but I cannot. The movie simply failed to impress me.

As I had stated earlier, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” was a sequel to Carroll’s original story. Thirteen years after her original adventures in Wonderland, Alice Kingsleigh has become a nineteen year-old young woman on the verge of accepting a wedding proposal from one Hamish Ascot, the son of her late father’s partner, Lord Ascot. Unfortunately, Hamish is a shallow and self-absorbed young man with very little character. Salvation arrived during Hamish’s very public marriage proposal, when Alice spotted a familiar figure – the same White Rabbit who had previously lured her to Wonderland – scampering across Lord Ascot’s estate.

History repeated itself when Alice fell down into the rabbit hole. However, she soon discovered that Wonderland (orUnderland) had changed during her thirteen years absence. The Red Queen had managed to wreck havoc and assume control over most of Underland, thanks to her new ”champion” – a dragon known as the Jabberwocky. Only the realm of the Red Queen’s sister, the White Queen, has remained beyond the red-haired monarch’s reach. However, that situation threatened to change if the White Queen fails to acquire her own champion. A scroll called “the Oraculum” predicted that Alice will not only be the White Queen’s champion, but she will also defeat the Jabberwocky and end the Red Queen’s reign of terror. But due to her stubborn belief that Underland was and still is nothing but a dream, Alice was reluctant to take up the mantle of the White Queen’s champion.

Judging by the plot I had just described, ”ALICE OF WONDERLAND” should have been an enjoyable movie for me. Granted, Linda Woolverton’s script seemed like a typical ”slay the dragon” storyline that has been used in numerous fantasies. But it still had enough adventure, intrigue and personal angst for me to find it appealing. So, why did it fail to light my fire? Production designer Robert Stromberg created an interesting mixture of Gothic and animated styles for the film’s visuals in both the England and Wonderland sequences. Anthony Almaraz and his team of costume designers created lush and colorful costumes for the cast. And Dariusz Wolski’s photography brought out the best in the movie’s visual styles.

”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” could also boast some first-rate performances from the cast. Johnny Depp gave a wonderfully complicated performance as the Mad Hatter. His Mad Hatter was an interesting mixture of an extroverted personality and pathos, punctuated by bouts of borderline insanity. The Red Queen might possibly be one of Helena Bonham-Carter’s best roles. She struck me as the epitome of childishness, selfishness and cruelty. Crispin was slick, menacing and subtly funny as the Red Queen’s personal henchman, the Knave of Hearts. Anne Hathaway’s delicious portrayal of the White Queen reminded me of a Disney princess on crack. I really enjoyed it. Both Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James (who were both in the 1985 miniseries, ”JEWEL IN THE CROWN”) gave solid performances as Alice’s potential in-laws – the kindly Lord Ascot and his shrewish and bullying wife, Lady Ascot. And Alan Rickman gave voice to the Blue Caterpillar in a deliciously sardonic performance. Despite my positive opinion of most of the film’s technical aspects and performances, it still failed to impress me. Why?

First of all, the movie rested upon the shoulders of Australian actress, Mia Wasikowska as the lead character, Alice Kingsleigh. I understand that Ms. Wasikowska has recently received critical acclaim for her portrayal of a suicidal teen in HBO’s ”IN TREATMENT”. It seemed a pity that she failed to be just as impressive as Alice in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Some people have labeled her performance as ”subtle”. I would call it ”insipid”. Or perhaps just plain boring. I swear I have never come across such a bland and boring performance in my life. No only did Wasikowska managed to make Alice’s battle against the Jabberwocky seem dull, she still came close to putting me to sleep in her character’s moments of triumph in the movie’s finale.

Tim Burton’s direction of ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” proved to be just as uninspiring to me, as Wasikowska’s performance. Actually, I found myself thinking of the 1992 movie, ”DEATH BECOMES HER”. I was not comparing the visual effects between the two movies. Meryl Streep had uttered a word in the 1992 movie that perfectly described my opinion of Burton’s direction. Flaccid. ”FLA-A-A-A-CI-I-ID!” How did a director with Burton’s reputation managed to take a solid fantasy adventure and make it one of the most boring films in recent Hollywood history is beyond me. His direction lacked any pep. Or spark. I had felt as if I was watching a piece of limp lettuce in action. I even began to wonder if Burton’s dull direction had affected Wasikowska’s performance. Then I remembered that actors like Depp and Bonham-Carter managed to rise above his direction. I might as well dump the blame of Wasikowska’s performance on her shoulders. As for Tim Burton . . . what is there to say? His direction simply disappointed me.

I might as well say something about the movie’s 3-D effects. They were not only disappointing to me, but also a waste of time and the extra cash I had to pay for the movie tickets. I did not care for the 3-D effects in ”AVATARS”, but it was an example of technical wizardry in compare to the 3-D photography shown in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Speaking of ”AVATAR”, I have one last thing to say in regard to 3-D . . . ’Damn you, James Cameron!”. Seriously. I would like to take the man’s head and bash it through a wall for introducing 3-D to the movie going experience. In the two movies I have seen it in, I found it unimpressive. Worse, I had to pay extra movie because movie theaters are more willing to show the 3-D versions of movies like ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”, instead of the 2-D versions.

In short, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” had all of the hallmarks of a solid and entertaining movie experience for me. It was the continuation of a classic fantasy adventure. Talented actors like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Crispin Glover and Anne Hathaway gave first-rate performances. And I must admit that the movie’s production designs and photography gave it a unique visual style. But all of that could not save a movie hindered by pedestrian 3-D effects, a dull and insipid performance by Mia Wasikowska and an even more insipid direction by Tim Burton. Frankly, I think it is a miracle that this movie managed to become a box-office hit.