Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows”: A Movie Review

Last week, Tim Burton’s newest film Dark Shadows was released and opened to a modest $30 million domestic at the box office. But it is Burton after all, and the perfect opportunity to welcome another guest post by William Buhagiar, a connoisseur on all things Burton. Of course, William went to see it the first chance he got. Here’s his very favorable review:

When I first reached the age in which I was capable of reading the opening credits of the films I loved, I noticed a recurring component in a significant handful of the movies I watched obsessively: each one, prior to the revealing of the film’s title, featured the words: “A Film by Tim Burton.” My six (or maybe seven?) year-old curiosity inspired me to wonder who this guy was and why his name seemed to pop up in the majority of the movies I would play, rewind and play again. I’ve always been a passionate film buff, and as long as I have been, I’ve been a wildly outspoken, consummate Tim Burton fan: obsessively, repeatedly, studiously seeing his films, defending his work to infuriatingly-cynical skeptics, spending all but my limbs on ludicrous amounts of Burton-related merchandise and movie tickets – but also, much to everyone’s great shock, admitting that occasionally, Tim Burton doesn’t always make a great film. Despite the fact that he is undoubtedly my favorite filmmaker, I’m not delusional – he is not perfect, nor is he the best.

Mars Attacks! (1996) and Planet of the Apes (2001) are prime examples of Burton features that woefully missed the mark. His 2010 adaptation/re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland was also a brutal, sobering deflation of my arguably unreachable expectations; a breathtaking movie to look at, but ultimately a flavorless, generic Disney casualty that felt less like a movie and more like a product.  To prevent myself from experiencing the same bitter disappointment Alice in Wonderland slapped me across the face with, I put as much effort as possible into limiting my expectations for Dark Shadows, an adaptation of the 1960’s-70’s gothic afternoon soap opera chock full of vampires, witches, werewolves and poltergeists – a show that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were devoted fans of during its original 5-year run on ABC. Admittedly, I was rather anxious about Dark Shadows, (Burton and Depp’s now 8th collaboration) and much of my apprehension came from concern that the supernatural vampire genre has been exhausted in pop culture recently, and the source material was, to put it as kindly as possible, a tad ridiculous. I was terrified of another disappointment.

Alas, I can say with a blessed elation, when the end credits began to roll after Dark Shadows, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Any and all previous cynicism vanished, and I found the movie to be enormously entertaining, and an instant classic, featuring everything I seek in Burton/Depp collaborations. Many non-believers mistake their excessive collaborations for overblown repetition, an argument that frankly, I’ll never understand. Sure, I’ll admit that their films are often bizarre, dark in tone, and feature a lonely, isolated and eccentric protagonist. However, if you properly examine each of the individual characters and stories they’ve created for two decades now, they’re all wildly original and unique.

Dark Shadows opens with a wonderful prologue narrated by Barnabas Collins, whose parents brought him from Liverpool to America in 1760 and established a fishing business in Maine and built their home, Collinwood Manor. (The production design is superb and all of the set pieces are magnificent.) When Barnabas breaks the heart of the Collins family servant, the witch Angelique, she places a curse upon the family and turns Barnabas into a vampire and with the help of an angry, god-fearing mob, buries him alive.

Two-hundred years later, in 1972, Barnabas is freed from his tomb by a construction crew and violently drains each of them, courteously taking a moment to apologize to one of them: “I am terribly sorry, but you cannot imagine how thirsty I am…” The following sequence is hilarious – Barnabas wanders about the town of Collinsport, Maine in a state of intense confusion, trying to make sense of gas stations, pay-phones, cars and paved roads, among many other puzzling fixtures of the 70’s. When Barnabas returns to Collinwood, he finds his beloved mansion in a state of disrepair and the family business run into the ground. The mansion is now home to his distant descendants: Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard, (The stunning Michelle Pfeiffer, reuniting with Burton for the first time since their genius creation of the greatest Catwoman portrayal ever), Elizabeth’s daughter, Carolyn (Chloe-Grace Moretz), her brother, Roger, (Johnny Lee Miller) and his son, David (Gulliver McGrath).  It wouldn’t be a complete Burton movie without the always-glorious presence of the goddess that is Helena Bonham Carter, playing Dr. Julia Hoffman, the Collins’ live-in psychiatrist, a pill-popping alcoholic.

The real stand-out performance here is Eva Green as Angelique Bouchard, the witch who cursed Barnabas and is now running her own seafood business in Collinsport, consequently responsible for the collapse of the Collins family business. She is an extremely compelling villain and her performance is explosive and her motivation intriguing – she chillingly purrs to Barnabas, “If I can’t have you, I’ll destroy you.” There is real menace and fury in her eyes, and we, the audience, believe every furious word.

Burton recruited Bruno Delbonnel as cinematographer, whose previous work includes Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a stunningly-photographed film for which he deservedly received an Oscar nomination. In Dark Shadows, Burton and Delbonnel aimed to shoot the film in a style reminiscent of 1970’s films (horror films, specifically) for the sake of authenticity and atmosphere. Delbonnel’s work here is equally as stunning as in “Harry Potter,” and the cinematography will most likely earn him another Oscar nomination. I’m never surprised whenever a Tim Burton movie is visually pleasing (they always are), but the achievement in photography here is particularly impressive – especially when taking into consideration the accomplishment of the 70’s feeling.

Dark Shadows has moments of wild, over-the-top camp and many of the dialogue-driven scenes are over-acted to perfection. If the film wasn’t tongue-in-cheek, self-aware or took itself seriously, the camp and the soap opera tone would ultimately render the movie a failure. The film isn’t meant to do anything but provide entertainment, and it truly is a piece of good old blockbuster escapism; and I was delighted during the film to perceive it as precisely what I seek in Tim Burton’s films: you will never see another movie like this anywhere else. His greatest movies are always the most unique – Frankenstein-like men with scissors for hands, a barber singing beautiful melodies while viciously slitting open his customer’s throats, an eccentric, cross-dressing filmmaker, and now, an out-of-place 18th century vampire struggling to re-adjust to his new surroundings. Burton and Depp’s critics can say whatever they like, because regardless of their excessive cynicism, after twenty-two years of collaborating, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp continue to inspire.    — William Buhagiar

William’s Rating:

The Hunger Games – “a beautiful rarity in cinema”

Well, better late than never, right? As of this post, this film has already grossed over $460 million worldwide. Shockingly enough, I have yet to see it. I will make sure to do so in the next week or two. I can’t see these huge blockbusters in the first week or two…the crowds are too ridiculous for me and I prefer a quieter theater atmosphere. But enough about my own idiosyncrasies — our guest columnist William Buhagiar (see his past posts on the Harry Potter series) made sure to see it and was kind enough to submit his personal commentary. Here it is:

When it comes to the precarious topic of book-to-film adaptations, the opinions amongst fans of the source material are essentially unanimous: the book is always substantially better. When it comes to The Hunger Games, a shockingly violent, disturbing trilogy of books geared towards young adults, none of the fans (including myself) anticipated the first cinematic installment of Suzanne Collins wildly popular series to parallel the quality of the source material.

Shockingly enough, director Gary Ross has masterfully crafted a film that not only does the novel an extraordinary degree of justice, but has (arguably) improved upon the book. Directly prior to the dimming of the lights in the theater, I was apprehensive that perhaps my expectations were too high and my feelings toward the film would be lukewarm at best. But mercifully, I found the movie to be not only satisfying, but equally as suspenseful, riveting, intense and moving as the novel.

The Hunger Games is set during an unspecified time in a dystopian future – North America has been nearly annihilated by an implied nuclear war and is now the nation of Panem, a country comprised of twelve impoverished “districts” and a wealthy, lavish metropolis city simply referred to as “The Capitol.” The government is a totalitarian regime under the control of the cruel dictator President Snow, (a brilliant Donald Sutherland) and each of the twelve outlying districts are essentially servants of the Capitol, and labor tirelessly to provide the city with various resources – and District 12, the primary focus of the story, is a grim, poverty-stricken colony of starving coal miners. Established as both a punishment for a past rebellion against their government and a reminder of the absolute control the Capitol holds over the districts, Panem stages an annual event: The Hunger Games.

Once a year, each of the twelve district’s children between the ages of twelve and eighteen attend the Reaping, a ceremony during which two teenagers are selected by lottery to compete in the Games – a nightmarish fight to the death staged in an outdoor arena that is televised across the country and is mandatory viewing for each of Panem’s citizens. To the subjugated districts, it’s a terrifying reminder of the government’s power – to the Capitol, it’s the final word in entertainment.

When Katniss Everdeen’s younger sister, Prim, is announced as District 12’s female “tribute” during the Reaping, Katniss desperately volunteers to take her place in one of the film’s most heart-wrenchingly moving scenes. Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark, are sent to the Capitol to be stylized, interviewed, and showcased for the sake of introducing Panem to this year’s competitors and to gain sponsors: wealthy citizens of the Capitol who could assist them during the Games by sending food, weapons or medicine that could ultimately decide their fate in the arena.

One of the film’s finest achievements is in the establishment of the futuristic country of Panem: the early scenes introduce the audience to the dismal, depressing squalor of District 12 and skillfully showcases the poverty and hunger that plagues it. Katniss, at sixteen years-old, is responsible for providing food for her mother and sister by hunting illegally in the woods surrounding her home. When Katniss arrives in the Capitol, the environment couldn’t be any more dramatically contrasted – the excess, outrageous fashion and ignorance of the Capitol citizens is palpable.

The brilliant talent that is Jennifer Lawrence (Oscar nominated for the indie flick Winter’s Bone) beat out several other actresses for the role of Katniss Everdeen, and rightfully so. Lawrence’s performance as the film’s bad-ass heroine is nothing short of extraordinary, and she carries the two-and-a-half hour feature masterfully, bringing to her character both the aggressive ferocity of a consummate survivor and the delicate vulnerability of a young woman thrust into overwhelming circumstances to spare the life of her beloved sister. She has a keen ability to make the audience experience her terror, desperation and grief just as she does throughout the film.

The supporting actors certainly deserve acknowledgement, as well. Josh Hutcherson, whose most notable role prior to The Hunger Games was in The Kids Are All Right,  plays Peeta Mellark: District 12’s charming, good-natured male tribute that harbors romantic affection towards Katniss. I found Hutcherson’s performance to be pleasantly surprising – his character could easily have been bland and forgettable, but mercifully this character became endearing and very enjoyable to watch. Woody Harrelson is Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor and the only living District 12 tribute who has survived a past Hunger Games. His performance is certainly satisfactory, and though the treatment for his character came across as slightly watered-down, the pros regarding Haymitch undoubtedly outweighed the cons. Elizabeth Banks plays Effie Trinket, the irritatingly sprightly Capitol citizen assigned to escort Katniss and Peeta through their pre-Games interviews and training. Banks, in outrageous clothing, wigs and make-up, (typical fashion for the Capitol residents) provides well-needed levity beautifully. Her moments of comic relief were a necessary (albeit brief) departure from the often overwhelmingly grim atmosphere of the movie. Lenny Kravitz, an unexpected choice, plays Katniss’s compassionate stylist, Cinna, whose performance isn’t necessarily inadequate; but with very little screen time, it is ultimately the most forgettable. Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci, is absolutely perfect as the oily, eccentric commentator of the Games.

Much of my apprehension regarding the film was the PG-13 rating, which inevitably indicated a substantial sacrifice in adapting the source material. Collins’ novel was brutally merciless in its portrayal of child-on-child violence and the descriptions of slaughter are truly shocking. Naturally, I doubted that the film would be able to properly convey the degree of intensity I felt during passages of the book. However, yet another of the film’s finest accomplishments was avoiding any explicit bloodshed with astoundingly clever editing and cinematography yet managing to establish just how horrific the Hunger Games are. None of the violence is ever glorified or gratuitous, and though the gore is significantly toned-down to avoid the R-rating, the suspense, intensity and terror are all there, which essentially renders the carnage unnecessary.

What I found to be the most incredible aspect of the adaptation is the level of quality the filmmakers have achieved. Blockbuster action films, more often than not, are mediocre at best – writing and acting are constantly secondary priorities whilst box-office earnings are ultimately a studio’s main concern. In the case of this film, however, Gary Ross’s pursuit was not towards earning as much money in ticket sales as possible, but simply making the finest film he could. The Hunger Games is a beautiful rarity in cinema: a large-scale, big-budget popcorn movie that delivers not just violence and explosions, but an expertly-paced, terrifically entertaining story that is beyond satisfying. I and the millions of other fans of the trilogy will now be forced to patiently wait for the sequel, Catching Fire, which has been given a perfect set-up at the conclusion of The Hunger Games. I was desperately hopeful that Gary Ross would return to direct the remaining two films – in my personal opinion, franchises should always stick with one director for the sake of atmospheric consistency, and his work on the first film is superb. Unfortunately, Lions Gate has officially announced that they have just begun a hunt for a new director. I can only hope their choice is respectable, and their new candidate is prepared to fill some very big shoes.

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