Dark Shadows (2012)
by Steve Habrat
After the debacle that was 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, things could only look up for auteur Tim Burton. My initial reaction was not blame at Burton himself but rather was aimed at Disney, who I was certain was tinkering with Burton’s vision. Now we have a new Burton and Johnny Depp mash-up with a remake of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows, which is a small step up from Alice in Wonderland but not by much. Dark Shadows is half a good movie and half an even bigger disaster than Alice in Wonderland was. Depp has said in interviews that Dark Shadows is meant to do away with “vampires that look like underwear models”, which is an obvious jab at the perplexingly popular Twilight saga. While Dark Shadows does restore a smidgeon of honor to the vampire genre, Burton shoots his own film in the foot by tacking on an asinine climax that is slathered in CGI nonsense and a droll final showdown that is a stiff as they come. The ending of Dark Shadows left me wondering if Burton is indeed loosing some of his creative juice after all and Disney wasn’t fully to blame for the botched Alice in Wonderland.
Dark Shadows begins in 1782, with Joshua and Naomi Collins leaving Liverpool, England to begin a new life in North America. They bring with them their young son Barnabas, who grows up to be a wealthy playboy and master of Collinwood Manor, the Collins’ gothic seaside dwelling. Barnabas (Played by Johnny Depp) ends up breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Played by Eva Green), who in turn puts a curse on the Collins to get revenge on Barnabas. After the horrific death of his parents and the love of his life leaping to her death, Barnabas finds himself cursed as a vampire and buried alive in a shallow grave by the fearful citizens of Collinsport, Maine. After being confined for 196 years, a construction crew accidentally frees Barnabas into the alien world of 1972. Confused by the new world around him, Barnabas returns to Collinwood Manor to find the once glorious estate in ruin. Barnabas is quickly introduced to family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and the rest of his dysfunctional descendants. Horrified but the state of the family, Barnabas sets out to restore honor to his family but finds himself pitted once again against the evil Angelique, who is determined to make his undead life even more of a living hell than it already is.
The first half of Dark Shadows is a hilarious fish-out-of-water tale about Barnabas trying so desperately to adjust to life in 1972. He tiptoes about Collinsport with weary caution, baffled by McDonalds, lava lamps, the board game Operation, and television (Trust me, there is tons more that intrigues Barnabas). Elizabeth’s rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Played by Chloe Grace Mortez) is appalled by Barnabas, especially when he mistakes her for a prostitute during the first meeting. Set to classic tunes from the Nixon era, Dark Shadows really finds its funky groove early on even if that groove is made up of dry humor. Things really get moving when Barnabas revives the family business, attempts to connect with his relatives (a conversation about wooing women with Carolyn is the highlight moment), and is tortured by Angelique. Half way through, it seems as if Burton remembered that he is making a film that will be released during the summer movie season. He crams the second half of Dark Shadows with nonsensical explosions, CGI creatures, narrow rescues, and a fiery final confrontation. It’s like Burton began making an entirely different movie altogether.
In addition to the quirky first hour, Depp and his supporting cast manage to keep Dark Shadows afloat even when the project falls apart around them. Speaking in a rich British accent and painted up in pasty white make-up, Depp’s Barnabas is one of the politest bloodsuckers to inhabit the screen. He apologizes when he drains one of his poor victims of blood and stands for a lady when she approaches the dinner table. When the vampire violence is called for, Depp becomes vicious but he remains delicate and sensitive for a good majority of Dark Shadows. Near the end, Burton attempts to sell Barnabas as an action hero, a requirement that Depp seems uncomfortable with and it’s blatantly obvious. In addition to his awkward turn at the end, Burton edges Depp out of the way almost completely to unleash multiple twists and reveals for the rest of the cast members. Yet overall, the entire film and the supporting cast really perk up when Depp enters the screen. His performance is silky smooth and his comedic timing is impeccable.
Burton fills the supporting roles of Dark Shadows with the usual suspects as well as several new faces. Burton’s squeeze Helena Bonham Carter shows up as orange haired Dr. Julia Hoffman, the family psychiatrist who is perpetually recovering from the night before and has an infatuation with staying young. Michelle Pfeiffer, who (funny enough) appears to not age, holds her own as the family matriarch Elizabeth. Pfeiffer has some razor sharp chemistry with Depp and I would have liked to have seen more. Christopher Lee has a brief cameo as a sailor who enjoys sipping beer in the local pub. As far as new faces go, the always-welcome Chloe Grace Mortez as Elizabeth’s daughter does rebellious teen a little too good and snags all the best moments with Depp. Eva Green smolders as the sexy Angelique, who seems on top of the world seducing and tormenting Barnabas. Bella Heathcothe as governess Victoria Winters checks in with a rather quiet and reserved performance. She isn’t given too much to do besides be wooed by Barnabas and interact with a CGI ghost. Jackie Earle Hayle as caretaker Willie Loomis, Jonny Lee Miller as Elizabeth’s irresponsible brother Roger, and Gulliver McGrath as Roger’s ghost-seeing son David all do a fine job but are given very little to do.
I wish that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had developed a better story that would have stretched through all 113 minutes of Dark Shadows. The film’s plot dries up halfway through, pauses for a musical intermission from Alice Cooper, and then continues to sputter by on fumes for the rest of its runtime. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Burton and the rest of his crew realized that they had a bunch of money left over so they decided to dump a bunch of unnecessary CGI into the hollow climax. Had Dark Shadows remained consistent, this could have been a serious return to form for the vampire genre, one that manages to be fun, sexy, thrilling, and, yes, creepy too, but Burton and Warner Brothers just couldn’t resist blowing a few things up to appeal to the summer movie crowd. At least Depp held it together and refused to allow Burton to drive a stake through his dignity.
New Moon (2009)
by Steve Habrat
While watching and battling to stay awake through the trudging second chapter in the Twilight saga, I came to the realization that New Moon is responsible for all the laughable clichés that have burdened this franchise. Every other scene in this turkey of a film is filled with a shirtless male pouting and explaining to Bella that they can’t be together. I guess they had to have some sort of selling point for New Moon because it certainly wasn’t going to get far on its storyline, performances, or writing, all which fall substantially from the first film. If you’re looking for the culprit, look no further than this film right here. There is no action aside from a fairly entertaining chase sequence in the middle of the film, cheap special effects, and a plotline that can’t quite decide what it wants to be about. To think that there is an army of rabid fans out there for this film truly amazes me after sitting through it. My advice: Stay home and read the book again. What you can imagine in your mind while reading is infinitely more fun than what director Chris Weitz cooked up and severed.
New Moon picks up with lovebirds Bella (Played once again by the stiff Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Played once again by Robert Patinson) openly dating and fairly happy. The film picks up with Edward and his family throwing Bella an 18th birthday party. She is less than enthused, as she suffered a horrible nightmare about growing old a night earlier. At the downer of a party, Bella suffers a paper cut while opening one of her gifts, causing Edward’s brother Jasper (Played by Jackson Rathbone) to attempt to kill her. In response to this event, Edward decides that Bella is not fit for Edward’s world and he leaves Forks with the rest of his vampire clan. Bella slips in to a deep depression and after an empty threat to send her to live with her mother by her Sheriff father Charlie (Played by Billy Burke), Bella agrees to bounce back from the break-up. Bella soon discovers that if she thrill seeks, she will see the apparition of Edward warning her to be careful. She also strikes up a friendship with the perpetually shirtless Jacob Black (Played by Taylor Lautner) which blossoms into hinted romance. Jacob soon starts acting funny and Bella eventually figures out he is a werewolf who is aiming to protect her from a revenge-seeking vampire that aims to kill her.
New Moon has absolutely no focal point whatsoever. It can’t quite decide what it wants its plotline to be causing the film to bounce around with no discipline to speak of. This falls on the shoulders of screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, who botches yet another adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s already rocky novel. One second the film is about the blossoming relationship between Bella and Edward. The next second it’s about Bella and Jacob developing a relationship just so Jacob can pull the same bullshit that Edward did. Then Edward is brooding about something and then so is Jacob. Director Weitz puts no cap on the film at all, never once cutting something out and making a more straightforward film. It actually begins to be unclear on who is upset with whom and who has feelings and treaties with whom. It’s daft! It’s drama for the sake of drama and the furthest thing from art. This lack of narrative structure and flow, for that matter, causes New Moon to collapse on itself.
Further driving New Moon into the ground is the performances from the actors themselves, which actually end up being worse than the first time. Bella is even more pathetic and boy crazy. She’s superficial, feeble, and the furthest thing from a feminist hero. She falls to pieces over every guy she meets and constantly longs for a male crutch. The best bit from Stewart’s performance comes when Bella takes a tumble off of a crotch rocket that she builds with Jacob. She rolls into a giant rock, smashes her noggin, and nearly knocks herself out cold. Jacob rushes over, takes his shirt off (naturally), and wipes the gushing blood from her head. “Are you trying to kill yourself!?”, he asks. She just stares at him and says, “Sorry”. Oh, come on!! She just suffered a serious injury to her head! When Jacob points this out she says, “Oh”. Reconsider you day job, Miss. Rosenberg. Edward is largely absent from the entire project, only showing up in asinine hallucinations. Pattinson must have been instructed to leave his sense of humor in his trailer, as he just stands around and looks like he is in desperate need of a toilet. Lautner is supposed to be playing a real rough and tough killer but the only way Weitz and Rosenberg know how to convey that is by having him consistently taking off his shirt. Billy Burke’s Charlie Swan is a clueless moron, someone who is frustratingly ignorant to everything going on around him. How he hasn’t figured out that werewolves and vampires are running rampant in his town, I will never know. You’re best friends with a pack of them, you imbecile! Michael Sheen pops up at the end of the film as Aro, the leader of the vampire council called the Volturi. He appears amused by all of the nonsense around him and plays Aro with a flamboyant bounce to his step. Everyone else in the film is forgettable, yes, even Dakota Fanning, who is hidden behind red contact lenses.
Where Twilight had some fairly ordinary camerawork, at least it had the good sense to be somewhat eye grabbing. Director Weitz can’t even make the picture he has framed a joy to look at. He stages a nifty chase sequence through the woods set to Thom Yorke’s stuttering single Hearing Damage. This killer sequence boasts the best CGI of the movie, puts some of its characters in harm’s way, and it even kills off a character. How bold of you, New Moon! The rest of the action is a retread of the battle at the end of Twilight only set in Italy. The effects on the werewolves look like they belong in a made-for-T.V. movie on the SyFy channel. The film never visually pops off the screen and instead retreats in to an amber glow that engulfs everything Weitz points his camera at. Maybe he is trying to imply that this entry is much more “rustic”. Your guess is as good as mine.
The crime you will be quick to accuse New Moon of is monotony, but it is also guilty of inanity. It never once asks the viewer to think about anything, never hinting at deeper meanings or motives. The film throws around implied romance every chance it gets but it never gives us anything. There are, once again, a few pecks here and there, but nothing definitive ever comes to a head. This is just filler in between entries, simply introducing us to a new character for women to swoon over. It feels like there is a real story that is ready to be cracked, but it’s not in this film. This is just leftovers from the first entry and ones that have gone moldy. New Moon is also entirely too long and could have helped itself by scaling back. They just cram more and more crap into it, and by crap, I mean Bella, Jacob, and Edward just staring at each other. I guess all I can say is kudos to the author, screenwriter, and director who have made millions of dollars from blind teenagers. Open your eyes and see that New Moon is nothing more than a diversion from the fact that this film is about nothing. Except, well, Lautner’s abs.
New Moon is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.