Your Dark, Shadowy Weekend at the Movies

05/11/2012 11:44 AM |

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Dark Shadows: Tim Burton skeptics will ding this for being another adaptation of someone else’s kitschy pop-culture property (in this case a cultish gothic soap opera from the 60s and 70s), which is weird, because adapting various cultural artifacts to his sensibility is practically Burton’s mission statement. He takes comic books, old horror stories, literature, whatever, and makes mostly personal and often strangely mass-appealing versions of them. Except Beetlejuice (which he did not write) and Edward Scissorhands (which he conceptualized but, again, did not write, because he is not a screenwriter), both over two decades old at this point, Burton only really tackles original stories via animation.

Dark Shadows also finds him doing that apparently now horribly tiresome thing where he continues his working relationship with Johnny Depp; if Internet-based film punditry had existed when De Niro and Scorsese were making movies on the regular, there almost certainly would have been some form of “oh, this again,” based on the popular school of criticism that if you can notice any kinds of patterns in filmmaking, from superficial to formal to thematic, they are, after two or three times, unbearable. [So, reverse auteurism? Also, internet-based film punditry exists now that Scorsese is making every movie with Leo DiCaprio, if you're looking for nontheoretical examples... -Ed.]

Like most maligned Burton movies, I expect Dark Shadows will be (a.) enjoyable and (b.) a decent-sized hit, if audiences can get on a half-comic, half-soap tone that even Burton himself seems to find fascinatingly difficult to describe. In terms of pure curiosity, I’d also like to who Burton and Depp’s non-snarky fans are that make Alice in Wonderland and such gross a billion dollars and change worldwide. Not because I don’t believe they exist—indeed, I used to know tons of people who would go see a Burton and/or Depp feature—but because they have a less easily identifiable demographic than other billion-ish movies that “everyone” (by which is actually meant: a lot of people in the media echo chamber) hates.

I mean, a bunch of bros and kids like the Transformers movies, right? In terms of grosses, Burton has been playing near that field for much of his career, but he often makes fantasies that quite insistently lack hurtling-forward story momentum; it’s not so much that he’s more interested in sets than story, as the old saw goes, but that he’s more interested in sets, characters, mood, and jokes, among others, more than plot (I guarantee you that whatever its storytelling weaknesses or, um, strengths, Battleship will have a plot; probably a surprising amount of it for a movie about shooting different stuff at aliens). I guess we can just say it’s goths, but if they had that kind of consumer power, I feel like at very least, the Billboard 200 would look a bit different.

Girl in Progress: I wanted to like this coming-of-age story, until it starts going on about being a coming-of-age story via a main character, the teen-of-undetermined-age Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez), who decides that she wants to create her own coming-of-age story and sets about self-consciously engineering steps in this process (displaying promising academic skill; falling in with a rebellious crowd; losing her virginity… I’m not sure if these are actually universally recognized coming-of-age tropes so much as afterschool special checkpoints, but that vagueness is among the least of this movie’s conceptual problems).

This is actually what the movie is about, and I try not to knock movies for not simply deciding to be about something else entirely, but fuck it, this movie should’ve been about something else, because it is a tremendously stupid idea, at least the way it’s realized onscreen with cringe-inducing clumsiness. Ansiedad has a role-reversed relationship with her hard-working but flighty mother Grace (Eva Mendes), and when the movie concentrates on their push-pull over what each lacks in adulthood bona fides, it works better, though it still suffers from a lumbering obviousness. But the actors’ nice character work drowns in the watered-down meta-story.

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God Bless America: Bobcat Goldthwait’s latest is getting some strong reviews, but I’m feeling a little hesitant: World’s Greatest Dad got great marks, too, but its ideas are far more interesting and thought-provoking than the movie Goldthwait actually made, which has a bit of that indie-screenwriter fakeness that so often pops up when an ambitious screenwriter has Things to Say about the Ways We Live (see also: Girl in Progress). God Bless America also looks prone to the repetition that sunk Dad; the movie is about a depressed, suicidal guy (Joel Murray) who goes on a violent rampage against society’s everyday ills, and it’s hard to tell from the trailer what the movie has to offer beyond the cathartic sight of Murray blasting away people who disrupt movies or park across two spaces. Maybe it’s better than it sounds. But from what I’ve seen, Goldthwait, obviously a pretty smart and ambitious guy on some level, might do well to take a cue from those few Tim Burton originals: explain his idea to someone else; let that person actually write the screenplay.

6 Comment

  • I will say that, if you have a higher tolerance for Burton and Depp’s latter-day schtick (which has grown too self-indulgent to sustain a sensitive mood) and aesthetic (which looks like airbrushed ass) than I do–my review is pretty much about me exhausting my own personal level of tolerance for same–you will have, in the case of DARK SHADOWS, a bit of an out. Pinkerton’s review in the Voice, which digs in rich detail at Seth Graeme-Smith’s screenplay, points out that the schtick from whence the movie’s lamest jokes come is recycled from his high-concept lit-historical-genre mashup novels, so there’s *that*, anyway.

  • So I just watched Sweeney Todd again last night, and that is the crux of why I don’t really get this “Burton and Depp exhausted their goodwill years ago” business. It’s (to my eye) a gorgeous-looking movie; genuinely dark and respectful of its source material, far more serious than Burton’s rep would suggest; and has a Depp performance that in no way resembles his work in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… come to think of it, none those performances much resemble each other, so far as I can see. One thing I find interesting about his work with Burton — which now even many laypeople will dismiss as the same old thing, which means, I guess, his general oddness — is how it’s of a piece thematically while also exploring many different aspects of the shifting Depp persona. Edward Scissorhands is very much an Early Johnny Depp quiet sensitive type; there’s a coldness and ferocity to his Sweeney Todd that showcases his potential intensity; the Willy Wonka schtick may be just that (I personally don’t mind shtick if it’s distinctive enough), but it’s also Outsized Depp in a way many of his other Burton collabos are not.

    “Reverse autuerism”… GREAT term. I’m not sure if I can fold in the critical tendency to want things to be less stylized, more austere; less weird or “quirky,” more serious and stripped down; that may just be a pet peeve of mine. But I may try someday. And RE: Scorsese and DiCaprio — that’s just what I mean. A lot of that seems to be greeted with some degree of “oh god, this again,” and I’m sure the argument would be that DiCaprio is no De Niro. But I think the actual argument that makes is nobody is no anyone. Not that DiCaprio is automatically the equal of De Niro because they both did some movies with Scorsese; I just find myself more interested in repeated actor-director collaborations than not, which makes me averse to “oh not this again” unless the movie itself actually resembles a previous movie. To that end, Sweeney Todd doesn’t remind me much of Alice in Wonderland; Shutter Island doesn’t remind me much of Gangs of New York; etc.

  • The Depp performances are varied, sure, but he’s essentially just picking new celebrities to subtly imitate, and new facial expressions to wear when breaking character to deliver one-liners…

    Ok, I don’t necessarily believe that 100%. But still. I’m a great fan of repetition, honest (Hong Sang-soo!), but I find this whole exercise to be increasingly wink-nudge and self-gratifyng. (This is especially evident in the in-jokey conceptions of the roles Burton invariably casts his wife in.)

    Preferences will differ but–and this is a reason why I love the b&w cardboard sets of ED WOOD–I did rub my eyes when you called SWEENEY TODD a great-looking movie, as I find Burton’s aesthetic to be so much smoothed-over color-correction. (Also, he doesn’t really know what to do with the camera. All his camera movements happen in postproduction, it looks like, and it’s frankly embarrassing watching him put together an action sequence, as with the DS vamp attacks.)

  • SLEEPY HOLLOW had some good action sequences, though, and Christina Ricci. Loved that movie, and I didn’t like either BATMAN or his PLANET OF THE APES movie.

    re: Seth Graeme-Smith’s: I wish someone would make a movie about the real Herman Melville? or the real Walt Whitman? can we get a kickstarter on that? There’s so much great 19th century history out there to mine for material and instead we get Abe Lincoln the Vampire Hunter? ridiculous.

  • GJK, to be fair, the record for really strong movies about historical figures, ESPECIALLY TIMES A THOUSAND famous writers, is not particularly heartening. That said, the Vampire Hunter movie rubs me the wrong way, more because the director made Wanted which I loathed.

    And the script for Dark Shadows was an absolute mess; people often say that about Burton-movie scripts and I don’t agree, but that’s definitely the case here. But I also loved how it looked, and by “it” I mean the usual art direction and color-correction and such but also EVA GREEN OMG. Their sex scene (though hampered slightly by the PG-13 version of sex) was great. All in all, kind of a goof of a movie, and storytelling so sloppy that it’s downright strange, but I had a good time drinking it in on a proper IMAX screen. And laughed a lot.

  • It wasn’t ever thus, you guys–George, you can always content yourself with Ford and Fonda’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN.