Friday, May 11, 2012

Your Dark, Shadowy Weekend at the Movies

Posted By on Fri, May 11, 2012 at 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.

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