“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.

“SHERLOCK HOLMES” (2009) Review

“SHERLOCK HOLMES” (2009) Review

I have never been a major fan of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other writers. Once, I tried to get interested in them by reading one or two novels. But they had simply failed to spark my interest. 

I have shown a little more enthusiasm toward the various movies and television adaptations of Doyle’s novels and characters. Mind you, I never became a faithful viewer of the television series that starred Jeremy Brett as Holmes. But I have do have my private list of Sherlock Holmes movies that I consider as personal favorites. Including this latest film directed by Guy Ritchie.

The movie opened with Holmes; his good friend, Dr. John Watson; and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade rescuing a young woman from becoming the latest victim of an occult worshipper named Lord Henry Blackwood. Actually, Holmes and Watson rescued the young woman. Lestrade and his entourage of uniformed officers arrived in time to arrest the culprit. In the aftermath of the case, Holmes becomes bored and indulges in a series of bizarre experiments and bare knuckle fighting to relive his boredom. He is also upset over Watson’s recent engagement to a young governess named Mary Morstan. Before Lord Blackwood is executed, he informs Holmes that he will rise from the dead more powerful than ever, leaving Holmes and the police unable to stop him.

The story continues when a former ”nemesis” of Holmes named Irene Adler engages the detective to find a missing man named Reardon. Holmes discovers that Irene has been hired by a mysterious man to recruit him, but fails to follow up on his suspicions. When Reardon turns out to be linked to Lord Blackwood, who has ”risen from the grave” as promised, Holmes and Watson find themselves involved in another case.

One can see that ”SHERLOCK HOLMES” is not an adaptation of any of Conan Doyle’s novels or stories; or any other Holmes work of fiction. The movie’s screenplay; written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg; is an original story. Yet, the three writers managed to incorporate certain small aspects from Conan Doyle’s original works into the script that have rarely been seen in previous Sherlock Holmes adaptations. They include:

*Holmes’ untidy habits

*Holmes’ photograph of Irene Adler

*Watson’s military background

*Lestrade’s comment about Holmes’ potential as a master criminal

*Holmes’ ability to speak French

*Watson’s gambling habit

Before my first viewing of the movie, an acquaintance had warned me that some critics found the plot to be convoluted. After seeing ”SHERLOCK HOLMES” twice, I can honestly say that aside from the opening sequence, I found nothing confusing about the plot. Johnson, Peckham and Kinberg created a complex and clever tale about Holmes’ investigation into the murderous, yet alleged supernatural activities of one Lord Henry Blackwood. The story’s mystery was never a”whodunit”, but a ”how did he do it”. How did Lord Blackwood rise from the grave? How did he kill three men by supernatural means? And what was his goal? In Holmes’ final confrontation with Blackwood, the screenwriters did a first-rate job in allowing the detective to reveal Blackwood’s methods and goals.

”SHERLOCK HOLMES” also captured the feel and nuance of late Victorian London beautifully, thanks to Ritchie and his crew. One can thank the combination work of Philippe Rousselot’s photography, and the visual effects team supervised by Jonathan Fawkner. I also have to commend designer Jenny Beavan for the costumes she had designed for most of the cast, and Jane Law for the colorful costumes she designed for the two leading female roles. They seemed straight out of the late Victorian period. I could not write this review without mentioning Hans Zimmer’s score for the film. Quite frankly, I adored it. I found it to be very original and unique. I also loved how he used the Dubliners’ song, ”The Rocky Road to Dublin” for two scenes and the movie’s final credits.

Ritchie also had the good luck to work with a top notch cast led by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. As far as I know, Downey Jr. is the fourth American actor to portray Sherlock Holmes. Most of them have been pretty good – with the exception of Matt Frewer – but I must say that Downey Jr.’s performance not only rose above them, but also a good number of British and Commonwealth actors, as well. Aside from two or three moments, the actor’s English accent seemed spot on to me. Even better, Downey Jr. did a brilliant job in capturing the nuances and complexities of Holmes’ character – both virtues and flaws. And he managed to do all of this without turning the character into a cliché or portraying a second-rate version of the performances of other actors who have portrayed Holmes. Most importantly, Downey Jr. managed to create a sizzling chemistry with the man who became his Dr. Watson – namely Jude Law.

It has been a while since I have seen Jude Law on the movie screen. At first glance, one would be hard pressed to imagine him in the role of Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ colleague. Then I saw a drawing and read a description of the literary Watson and realized that his casting in this particular role may not be a complete disaster. When I saw his performance on the screen, I immediately knew that he was the right man for the role. Law perfectly captured Watson’s firm and dependable nature that kept Holmes on solid ground. He also did an excellent job of portraying Watson’s intelligence and bravery as a man of action. I am also thankful that Law did not follow Nigel Bruce’s example of portraying Watson as Holmes’ bumbling, yet well meaning sidekick. Thank goodness for little miracles.

While reading some articles about the movie, I have come across many negative comments about Rachel McAdams’ performance as the mysterious adventuress, Irene Adler. Even worse, many have expressed disbelief that McAdams’ Irene was a woman who had bested Holmes twice, claiming that she had been fooled by her employer. I found this last complaint rather irrelevant, considering that Holmes ended up being fooled, as well. Personally, these are two assessments of McAdams’ performance that I found difficult to believe or accept. In fact, I ended up enjoying her portrayal of Irene very much. I thought she gave an excellent and subtle performance as the intelligent and sly Irene, who enjoyed matching wits with Holmes. Some fans also complained about McAdams’ accent. Why, I do not know. It seemed clear to me via the actress’ accent that she was portraying an intelligent and educated 19th century woman from the American Northeast. Her Canadian accent helped her on that score. When I had first laid eyes upon Mark Strong in 2007’s”STARDUST”, I had no idea that I would become such a major fan of his. Three movies later, I definitely have. Strong was exceptional as always as the mysterious Lord Henry Blackwood, a nefarious aristocrat with a thirst for power who claims to have great supernatural abilities. Although I would not consider Blackwood to be Strong’s most interesting role, I must admit that the actor’s interpretation of the character as one of the better screen villains I have seen in the past five years.

The movie also featured first-rate performances from supporting actors Eddie Marsan and Kelly Reilly. Marsan portrayed the long-suffering Scotland Yard police officer, Inspector Lestrade. I first noticed Marsan in 2006’s ”MIAMI VICE” and genuinely thought he was American born. When I saw him in ”THE ILLUSIONIST” portraying a Central European, I began to wonder about his real nationality. It took me a while to realize that he was English. If Lon Chaney was ”the Man of a Thousand Faces”, then Marsan must be ”the Man of a Thousand Accents”. In ”SHERLOCK HOLMES”, he used his own accent. However, he also gave a first-rate performance as the intelligent, but long-suffering Lestrade, who constantly endures Holmes’ mild ridicule in order to get a case solved. I have to be frank. When I first saw Kelly Reilly in 2005’s”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, I had not been impressed by her portrayal of Caroline Bingley. I am still not impressed. But after seeing her as Watson’s fiancée, Mary Morstan, my opinion of her as an actress has risen. Either Reilly’s skills as an actress had improved over the past four years, or she simply found herself a better role. I liked that Reilly’s Mary was not some missish Victorian woman prone to hysterics over her fiance’s relationship with Holmes. Instead Reilly portrayed Mary as a woman who understood the two men’s relationship and Holmes’ dependence upon Watson’s presence. Even if she was not that enamored of the detective.

I do have some problems with ”SHERLOCK HOLMES”. One, there were times when I could barely understand some of the dialogue. Especially when it came out of Robert Downey Jr.’s mouth. When it came to using a British accent, he had a tendency to mumble rather heavily. Honestly? I could have used some close captions for some of his scenes. Although I found the movie’s panoramic views of London and visual effects impressive, I was not particularly fond of the gray-blue tint of Rousselot’s photography. According to the movie’s official site, ”SHERLOCK HOLMES” is supposed to be set during 1891. Yet, Jane Law’s costumes for McAdams and Reilly seemed straight out of the late 1880s. Their bustles seemed too big for the early 1890s. My biggest gripe centered around the movie’s opening sequence. The screenplay never really explained why Blackwood had murdered four women and tried to kill a fifth. If it had, would someone please enlighten me?

What can I say about ”SHERLOCK HOLMES”? Sure, I have a few quibbles about the film. But I still love it. Guy Ritchie not only did a superb job of recapturing late Victorian London, but also the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary hero, Sherlock Holmes. And he did so with a superb cast led by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, a first-rate script written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg; and a group of craftsmen that managed to bring the world of Victorian London and Sherlock Holmes back to life.