Saturday, 19 May 2012

Dark Shadows aka Depp Gets to be Weird Again

Trailer for Dark Shadows (2012)

Trailer for House of Dark Shadows (1970)

Dark Shadows is director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp’s latest film collaboration. And while it’s not their best (Ed Wood) it certainly isn’t their worst (Alice in Wonderland anybody? No? Okay.)

Based on a US supernatural daytime soap from the 60’s, Dark Shadows follows Barnabas Collins, a cursed vampire imprisoned in a coffin for two hundred years, who is accidentally freed in the year 1972. Finally freed from his centuries old prison, Barnabas sets about helping his descendants in the small New England fishing town of Collinsport rebuild the once great Collins family name and business empire. Unfortunately for Barnabas the witch who cursed him back in the 1770’s is still around in the delectable form of Eva Green and is currently running the town through her own business empire, much of it poached from what the now faded Collins’ family once had. Cue goofy fish out of water fun as Barnabas negotiates his way around 1972 and its many strange social and technical advances while also scheming and plotting to get the family business back on top. Not to mention getting his revenge on nasty/sexy Eva Green. Amidst all these shenanigans the old world vamp also manages to fall for the Collins’ new governess Victoria Winters who bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman he loved long ago and who killed herself while under evil witch Eva’s spell.

If this all sounds like some bad soap opera, well, um, that’s cuz it is.

Now I’ve not seen the original Dark Shadows but I have seen the early 90’s revival and one of the two 70’s movies adapted from the show. And Burton and Depp’s movie sticks pretty close to the main storylines of both: the fading dysfunctional family, Barnabas falling for Victoria, Dr Hoffman’s devious actions, the nasty witch. All present and correct.

But does this new version work as a movie? Yes and no.

I enjoyed Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. A fair bit. I enjoy Burton’s obvious affection for gothic melodrama. I can relate. I was brought up watching old Hammer horror films - a clear influence on Tim B, especially in Sleepy Hollow, The Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd and now Dark Shadows (and why Christopher Lee cameos in most of ‘em). I enjoy the aesthetic. Also I’m pretty sure that if the original Dark Shadows had been on TV over here in the UK when I was a kid, then I, like Burton and Depp, would have been hooked too. But a movie is not a TV soap opera. Burton’s movie, like a TV soap opera, has many plot lines and subplots, all lifted from the series. Unlike a TV show, though, a movie is constrained by certain narrative needs and a running time. That’s not to say that multiple plot lines, character arcs etc. can’t be done well in a movie. They can. Look what Joss has just achieved with The Avengers: multiple story strands, character arcs, set ups and payoffs all perfectly balanced and effortlessly successful. Not a minute of screen time is wasted. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. Here various story elements feel short changed, rather pointless, lacking in weight.

Oddly, storywise Dan Curtis’ 1970 film House of Dark Shadows did a better job of it. Curtis’ film cut loose all the business stuff and witch revenge seen in Burton’s take. Instead it focussed on Barnabas’ escape from his two hundred year imprisonment, ingratiating himself in to the family by posing as a distant cousin from England while slowly sucking his way through the locals and trying to woo the family’s governess who reminds him of his long lost love. In Curtis’ film Barnabas is a tragic, reluctant monster. But a monster nonetheless who wilfully kills out of need, lust and anger, stopping at nothing to get the woman he thinks he loves. Original actor Jonathan Frid imbued his Barnabas with a cold, ruthless charm and noble theatrical viciousness. Quite effectively. In the new movie, Depp’s Barnabas is a funny, weird oddball who even though he does kill never really comes across as a dangerous monster. He isn’t selfish or cruel, which, from what I saw, Frid’s version most certainly was. Curtis’ 1970 film is far from perfect. It is cheesy (especially to our modern jaded eyes) and relentlessly old fashioned. But it does have atmosphere, a couple of ok scares, some cool Dick Smith make-up, and Frid being coldly creepy in the lead. It also has a more focussed narrative than Burton’s all-over-the-place remake.

In the end, Burton’s film might not hang together too well, but at least I was never bored and laughed a fair bit while loving the gorgeous photography and art direction. The entire cast were great too, especially oddball Depp, sexy Eva and the wonderfully sneering teen angst of Chloe Moretz. I also dug the overall 70's vibe (loved the opening credits to the Moody Blues while tracking Victoria's journey to Collinsport). And any film with Alice Cooper singing No More Mr Nice Guy scores at least some points in my book. But it is Depp who holds it all together. He might not have the cold menace of Frid but his Barnabas is a nicely oddball/weird/silly reluctant fish-out-of-water who's trying to do the right thing despite having to kill the odd hippie or ten.

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows ain't perfect and is perhaps a little too slavish to its soap opera origins to make for a strong film in its own right, but I had a pretty good time with it. On the Burton scale it's perhaps one notch down from Sleepy Hollow, which to my mind is a movie that gets the weird/silly/creepy Burtonesque balance just about right. 3.5 (out of 5)

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Awesomeness Assembled

I f*****g LOVED Marvel’s The Avengers!

Any worries that this might have ended up an epic and misjudged disaster or simply Iron Man and his Amazing Friends were pretty quickly dispelled. The Avengers is basically a SHEILD movie that features Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk in equal measure. They all get equal screen time and are served with full character arcs. If anything it can be argued that Avengers ends up more as Hulk’s movie as his is the character that pretty much destroys every scene he is in…in fabulous ways. Hulk is the one audiences will lose their shit for. He owns.

To be honest, I wasn’t overly worried about The Avengers not being great, at least not once I knew Marvel had hired my own personal god Joss Whedon to write/direct. I had faith. I just wondered what degree of great it would be? Because when allowed to pursue his own vision Joss has never let me down. Plus he’s a huge comic book geek having written comics for Marvel (as well as his own Buffyverse ones for Dark Horse) meaning that with The Avengers the guy was on home turf.

And Joss didn’t let me down.

I've been a Marvel fan (solid fan, not rabid) since I was a lil' kid and a massive (semi-rabid) Whedon fan since I saw the very first episode of Buffy waaay back in 1997. So, match made in heaven much?

Hell yeah!

What Joss has done is to make The Avengers a joyful, colourful, exciting, old fashioned, non-cynical, non-revisionist superhero adventure ripped right out of the pages of classic era Marvel. It is Fun with a capital F. But he’s also gone and added his own tropes making it smart, witty, laugh out loud funny and adding familiar Whedon themes of thrown together ‘families’, of troubled, flawed outsiders finding strength in each other and in a common purpose. Oh yeah, and kick ass women who struggle with the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Yes, the action is spectacular and a whole load of awesome but as always with Joss it is the dialogue, humour and wonderful character arcs/beats that you really take away with you. If nothing else, what he manages to do with Hulk makes this one damn great movie. And then when you add in Downey Jr, Evans et al then my tiny little geek brain goes and explodes all over the shop. But going back to the action, we of course get the promised hero on hero fights – all of which are great (love the early Thor/Iron Man tussle). But Joss being Joss all the fights and the action have emotional weight. The characters aren’t just fighting each other; they are fighting themselves and their own issues/demons. Also, I love how the end battle is huge yet expertly staged, easy to follow and strategically contained to a relatively small area – done so deliberately by Cap who steps up to be the team’s battle commander and does an awesome job of it. The scene where he barks out orders to a bunch of bemused NYC cops and convinces them pretty darn quick not to question their new Captain is fab. He then does the same to the rest of the Avengers. And they listen and obey. And why not? The man knows his shit. Captain America, f**k yeah!

The entire Avengers cast is fantastic. Downey Jr is full on egotistical but charmingly playful and razor sharp as Stark. Evans is nobly stoic and effortlessly commanding as Cap. Hemsworth is wonderfully sensitive yet also hugely powerful and charismatic as Thor. Sam Jackson is, well, Sam Jackson as Nick Fury. And Jeremy Renner is cool and nicely low key as Hawkeye. However the three standouts are Scarlett Johansson as a deeply troubled, guilt ridden Black Widow, Tom Hiddleston as a venomous and barkingly mad Loki, and the best of the bunch, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk. Ruffalo as Banner/Hulk pretty much steals the show. He gets the movie’s biggest cheer moments with ‘Thor Puncher’ and "Puny God" turning me in to a giggling idiot. What Joss has done here is to allow Hulk to be a fully formed character and to make Banner someone who is more or less at peace with who and what he is. Basically Joss has allowed Banner and Hulk to be heroes, and to have fun. And Ruffalo does great, great work in both human and big green form (he acted Hulk via mocap unlike what was done in the previous Hulks). This is by far the best treatment of the character yet seen on screen.

But what about the actual story?

Okay, so the basic story of The Avengers is nothing original or particularly special. It’s a pretty standard alien invasion job played out like a superhero Dirty Dozen. Dastardly Loki hooks up with an alien army to invade Earth, which he wants to have for himself. In exchange he’ll get the aliens the cosmic crystal which is currently in the hands of SHIELD. That’s your prologue. The rest of the film is then your classic three-act structure. Act one is introducing the threat of Loki to Earth and then SHIELD rounding up The Avengers with those super egos quickly butting heads…and everything else. Act 2 is the guys coming together, working out their differences and what to do about stopping Loki (mostly on the SHEILD helicarrier) before being beaten down by events and dividing. Act 3 is the heroes finding their inner resolve, coming back together and setting out to stop Loki’s army invading Earth is what turns out to be a huge battle on the streets and in the skies of New York. It’s pretty functional stuff. But what elevates it are its many constituent parts and how Joss fits them all together concentrating on set-ups and payoffs and keeping strong character arcs front and centre. He even gets to play with a regular Whedon theme – mistrust of authority/governments. SHIELD are the good guys…or are they? But above all, what Joss does with his movie is to always keep the tone fun. Even when things get heavy and bleak there’s always a witty line or a perfectly timed sight gag just around the corner. And Joss being Joss he loves to undercut things and/or subvert expectations. Loki’s final beating by a certain angry green dude being a prime and hilarious example of both.

In the end, The Avengers is quite the achievement. It’s not a perfect film. Not many films are. But considering the many genre and story/character constraints Whedon inherited and had to stick to, he’s done one helluva job. In anyone else’s hands this could easily have ended up a shallow, lopsided, godawful mess. But in Joss’s hands it’s a smartly written, well-paced, well-balanced and massively entertaining piece of pop culture blockbuster entertainment. The Dark Knight Rises will most likely end up as the year’s best superhero film and possibly its best film, period. But The Avengers will likely end up as the most out and out fun.

What with this and The Cabin in the Woods, 2012 is the year Joss Whedon let the rest of the world know what we, his long time loyal fans, have known for a long time: Joss is Boss.