Dark Shadows


Dark Shadows

You’d be grinning too if you had a sex scene with Johnny Depp that ended up trashing a set.

(2012) Gothic Comedy (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Helena Bonham Carter, Bella Heathcote, Christopher Lee, Gulliver McGrath, Ray Shirley, Alice Cooper. Directed by Tim Burton

 

Sometimes without meaning to we cause harm to people. We never know exactly who we’ve created an enemy of, or what they’re capable of doing though even if we’re innocent of any real wrongdoing.

Barnabas Collins (Depp) was living the high life, 18th century style. His family owns a wildly successful fishing fleet in Maine; the town built around their enterprise, Collinsport, is thriving; they’ve built an extravagant mansion overlooking the town and the Atlantic that would be the equivalent of a castle. And Barnabas is deeply in love with Josette duPres (Heathcote).

This is bad news to Angelique Bouchard (Green). She and the handsome Barnabas had a fling which meant much more to her than it did to him. She was a maid, he the master of the house; a relationship between them would not be appropriate if it were even possible. Scorned, Angelique resolves to get even and since she happens to be a rather powerful witch, that’s even worse news for Josette. Angelique casts a spell on her, causing her to throw herself off a cliff into the sea despite Barnabas’ desperate attempts to save her. Heartbroken, he throws himself off the same cliff but fails to die. You see, he’s been cursed as well – to become a vampire, a hideous creature of the night.

The implacable Angelique lets the good citizens of Collinsport know they have a monster in their midst and Barnabas is dragged out into a remote field where he is chained up and buried alive. There he remains, deep in the ground in the woods far outside of town.

That is, until he is dug up some 200 years later by contractor. It is now 1972 and two centuries without a meal can make one…peckish as the workers find out to their dismay. He longs to find his estate and get his bearings. When he gets there, he is overjoyed to find that the family still survives (although it’s never explained quite how, since he apparently was the only son – perhaps some other Collins’ emigrated from England to take over the family business). However, they are definitely down at heel. Their fishing business is a shadow of its former self. The mansion is crumbling and what was once a vast army of servants is down to two – the elderly Mrs. Johnson (Shirley) and the booze-addled Willie Loomis (Haley) who does most of the heavy lifting.

The family is down to four members – matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Pfeiffer), widowed mother of rebellious teen Carolyn (Moretz). Her brother Roger Collins (Miller) who is also a widower and a womanizer, not to mention somewhat useless. The last is his son David (McGrath) who talks to and sees his dead mother. This tendency to dwell on his late mother has alarmed Elizabeth who has opened her penurious pursestrings and hired Julia Hoffman (Carter), a psychiatrist who seems more interested in drinking and smoking than therapy and Victoria Winters (Heathcote), a governess who bears a remarkable resemblance to Josette.

They welcome Barnabas with mostly open arms although Elizabeth alone is aware that Barnabas is that Barnabas rather than a distant English relation (the cover story they use for Barnabas’ unusual and sudden appearance). Elizabeth wants to regain the family name and glory and she knows that his keen business acumen can only help (it doesn’t hurt that as a vampire he can use his mind to control others to do his will). However, they have a long ways to go to catch up with Angel Bay, the corporate entity that has taken over the fishing business in Collinsport. However, Barnabas is dismayed to find out that at the head of Angel Bay is an old nemesis (emphasis on the old) – Angelique (going by Angie these days) who hasn’t aged a day. Like as not, their old quarrel is going to resurface and there’s going to be fall-out and only one of them will be left standing.

On the surface this seems like a perfect fit – Burton, one of the quirkiest directors in Hollywood but one who knows how to tell a good story and the iconic gothic soap opera from the 60s and 70s. He has chosen to go the cheeseball route, not just by setting the movie (mostly) in the 70s but by changing its original dark, gothic tone to one that is more comedic. In all honesty it doesn’t work as well as I would have hoped.

It’s not Depp’s fault. He takes the late Jonathan Frid’s (who played Barnabas in the series) mannered, courtly vampire and takes that to the extreme, playing up the fish out of water angle a great deal more. In the original, Barnabas seemed to adjust much more quickly and readily to his new time. Frid was a sex symbol in his time albeit not to the same degree Depp is now. Depp’s Barnabas seems sexier more by accident than by artifice; indeed, the original Barnabas was far more evil and dangerous than Depp who is almost apologetic when he feeds. In fact, Frid seems to revel in his undead status more than Depp who would just as soon be rid of his curse.

The supporting roles vary wildly. Pfeiffer is always magnificent and although she seems a bit young to play the matron, she pulls it off here well. Green is the most impressive; with her carefree grin, she sees to be having the most fun of everybody (she does get to have a hot and somewhat violent sex scene with Depp so I suppose she comes by her smile honestly) and it translates into making her character more attractive to audiences. She may be vindictive and cruel but she’s a woman scorned – they’re supposed to be vindictive and cruel.

Personally I think the filmmakers missed an opportunity there. She was supposed to be desperately in love with Barnabas despite his rejection, but as he noted she saw him as more of a possession than a partner. I think if she had shown real love towards Barnabas it would have been much more poignant, but then it might have ruined the comic tone which I also think may have been a misstep – the film rarely achieves more than being amusing which is not what you want in a summer comedy.

The movie looks impressive with Collinswood being an amazing set, full of nautical touches that are gratifying in their detail and fully understandable given the family’s source of income. However, as lavish as the film looks and as well as Green and Depp do, it doesn’t hide the fact that there isn’t really a whole lot of passion displayed by the filmmakers; at least, I never feel inspired by the movie to do much more than smile occasionally. The movie felt to me almost workmanlike which is a shame because I had high hopes for it. Despite a lot of nice little touches it doesn’t add up to a satisfying film overall; but those touches are enough for me to recommend it with the caveat that it isn’t going to remain in your memory as long as the original series did.

REASONS TO GO: Depp inhabits his role well. Green has fun with her part. Nicely Gothic sets.

REASONS TO STAY: Most of the funniest bits are in the trailer. Purists will bemoan the comedic tone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence, a fairly bizarre sex scene, some drug use and smoking and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To prepare for his role as Barnabas, Depp subsisted on a diet of green tea and low-sugar fruits in order to slim down to 140 pounds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews have been mixed although leaning more towards the negative side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vampires Suck

DARK SHADOWS LOVERS: Original series cast members Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby and Jonathan Frid (in his last onscreen role before his death earlier this year) have cameos as guests at a party at Collinswood.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Pirates! Band of Misfits

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The Air I Breathe


The Air I Breathe

Forest Whitaker ponders how much simpler his life would be if he were a butterfly.

(THINKfilm) Brendan Fraser, Andy Garcia, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Bacon, Emile Hirsch, Julie Delpy, Clark Gregg, Kelly Hu. Directed by Jieho Lee

An ancient Chinese proverb breaks life down to four core emotions – Happiness, Sorrow, Pleasure and Love. These are as essential to life as the air we breathe (clever, no?) and without a balance of these things, we are unable to live our lives properly.

Each of the four vignettes in this film is centered around one of these emotions, or at least so we’re told. The first, “Happiness,” presents Whitaker as a timid banker who overhears a conversation at work in which a snide young man with “connections” tells some friends that they need to bet heavily on a race in which the outcome has been fixed. Whitaker goes to the same underground and illegal betting parlor and puts everything on his credit cards on the horse, going so far as to take a $50K line of credit out from the house. This is an extraordinarily unwise thing to do when you don’t have the ability to pay that kind of money back, especially from this kind of house.

The horse that was supposed to win stumbles and falls and the banker is on the hook for fifty grand to the notorious Fingers (Garcia), who came by his nickname honestly albeit gruesomely. At first, the banker resolves to skip town but a visit from Fingers’ menacing right-hand man (Fraser) dissuades the banker, who in a knuckleheaded move then decides to rob a bank to get the cash. For a vignette that is supposed to be about happiness, things sure don’t end happily.

The second vignette, “Pleasure,” is about Fingers’ man Friday, who has a special gift – he is able to foresee the future, only not his own. Fingers orders him to take his nephew Tony (Hirsch) on his rounds and show him what’s what. As the clairvoyant flunky complies, he discovers that he has lost his gift – which has been both a blessing and a curse. It certainly hasn’t been much of a pleasure.

The third vignette, “Sorrow,” concerns Trysta (Gellar), a pop singer who is on the verge of breaking out. Her manager gives Fingers her contract to pay off a gambling debt, which makes Trysta uneasy. The direction she wants her career to go isn’t necessarily the one that Fingers wants her to go to; when she attempts to flee, Fingers sends his clairvoyant assassin after her. This was the first segment that is aptly named.

Finally, there’s love in which an MD (Bacon) who is in love with his best friend’s wife (Delpy) is horrified to discover that she requires a transfusion in order to survive a bite from a rare snake (don’t ask) and her blood type is impossibly rare – unless you write for the movies, in which case it so happens that a certain pop star serendipitously has the same blood type.

Lee is a first-time director, so it is impressive that he put together a cast the caliber of this one together, which includes the Oscar-winning Whitaker and A-listers like Fraser and Bacon, as well as the up and coming Hirsch who may yet turn out to be the next Leonardo di Caprio.

In terms of performance, he gets what he pays for here as nearly the entire cast delivers, with outstanding grades to Fraser in particular, who plays the grim and rough clairvoyant with enough heart to make him sympathetic, but with a reptilian cold shell. Garcia plays Fingers with the same oily menace that made his performance as Terry Benedict in the Oceans movies so delicious.

What submarines this movie is the same thing that torpedoes most independent anthology movies; the unevenness of the vignettes. While the Fraser bit is the best of the bunch, the tone and flow are jarring when put next to the Bacon bit (I always wanted to say that – groan if you must) so in other words, the ride gets bumpy.

Also, the thematic conceit of linking each vignette to one of the Chinese core emotions doesn’t work for me as well; perhaps the point is to illustrate the lack of those emotions in order to play up their importance. If so, then the filmmakers are being unnecessarily indirect and sly; if not, then they probably could have used a steadier hand on the rewrites.

The main problem is you wind up wondering if you haven’t seen this all before and better, and the truth is that you have. With the success of Crash and Babel, indie filmmakers were anxious to channel their inner Robert Altmans and there consequently has been a rash of these sorts of movies that were released with varying degrees of success – including another one in which Whitaker stars that was previously reviewed here entitled Powder Blue.

I like a movie that takes chances and this one takes a few, but if you’re going to take chances you need to have your act together first and this movie isn’t quite there. It has enough moments that make it worthy of a mild recommendation, but understand that this isn’t a movie that’s going to give you a case of the “oh wows” by any stretch of the imagination.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some interesting moments and performances, particularly from Fraser, Whitaker, Garcia and Hirsch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overall pretty disjointed and as most independent anthology movies are, uneven in terms of quality.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and foul language and a fair share of sexuality and a smidgen of nudity; add it all together and it spells out “mature.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The pop songs supposedly sung by Gellar’s character Trysta are in reality sung by Kim Wayman.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Summer Hours