Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Dark Shadows"

Directed by Tim Burton, written by Seth Grahame-Smith and John August, starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, and Eva Green - Rated PG-13

"Then we shall have spirits enough to fill a schooner's hull!"

I’ve always found the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp films to be hit or miss.  What’s strange is that I’ve ended up enjoying the misses more than the hits.  I am not that crazy about the popular films the duo has created.  My favorite film they’ve made is the under seen Ed Wood.  That fantastic film is a far cry from the plastic, bubble gum worlds of Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.   Yet the latter (and later) films were extremely profitable.  I suppose it’s fitting that Dark Shadows is slightly bombing at the box office, because I enjoyed it. 
At first glance, Dark Shadows appears to be another colorful, yet dull film.  While the film hasn’t unseated Ed Wood as my personal favorite, this film surprised me very much by being funny and just dark enough to rise above the cartoonish worlds of the previous films. It is not a perfect film and most likely will never be considered among Burton nor Depp’s best, but the 1970s setting, Depp’s performance, and a bit of violence elevate Dark Shadows above previous efforts.

While this film is based on the supernatural soap opera of the same name, it is doubtful that many people are flocking to the cinema because of that.  No, the main reason that this film will make any money is Johnny Depp.  If Depp is the only reason you are watching, then you won’t be disappointed.  He gives his funniest performance in years.  Sure, Depp got to be weird and all with Charlie and Alice, but here he gets to be properly funny as well.  The set up of Dark Shadows allows Depp to energize the film. 

Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a cursed vampire who was buried away from his family and the world for nearly two centuries.  Thanks to some unlucky construction workers, Barnabas is unleashed back into the world.  Barnabas is astonished, not only by the changes time has made, but also by the disrepair his family has fallen into.  The basic plot of the film is Barnabas’s attempt to bring the family back to prominence and right some wrongs from his past. 

As a fan of the original series (I watched reruns with my mom when I was little), I was a bit concerned with this adaptation at first.  The soap opera was a bit funny, but never on purpose.  That was what I enjoyed about it.  It was a super serious soap opera about vampires, witches, werewolves, and ghosts.  Burton decided to take the funny aspect and bring it out in the open.  I didn’t like this idea at first, but after watching the film, I think that this was the right choice. 

The fish out of water gag might be overdone (especially since that’s the concept of  The Dictator as well), but there are still good laughs to be had from that scenario.  Are they “easy” jokes to make?  Absolutely.  But they still made me laugh.  Who better than Depp to spout off 18th century answers to 20th century questions?  The arrogance in his voice coupled with the archaic vocabulary cracked me up many times. 

Viewers who find that type of humor outdated or annoying should not fear, though.  Dark Shadows isn’t a film that consists of Depp walking around commenting on electricity and cars.  He’s also a vampire and there are some darkly funny moments.  Thankfully, the filmmakers made Barnabas a true vampire.  He kills many people in the film and is not shown to be a villain at all, even though the people he murders are mostly innocent.  That provides a bit of edge to a film that was presented to be rather goofy. 

The 1970s setting is a blessing and a detriment to the film.  The time period allows for some of the goofiest elements of the film (lava lamps and disco balls), but it also allows for a slightly gritty style since Burton attempted to make the film look as ‘70s as possible.  In fact, Dark Shadows could be considered a period piece.  The music of the time features prominently in the film as well, and the soundtrack provides a very ‘70s feel. 

The setting and tone are vastly important to the film, but this is still Depp’s movie and the film is better each moment he is on screen.  The almost ageless Depp is clearly having fun with this role and while you can find shades of Captain Jack Sparrow in there, it is still a performance all its own and the bright spot of the film.  Dark Shadows features fine turns from many other actors, as well, but no one stood out to me.  The sheer amount of supporting players may be the biggest problem with the film, actually. 

A film based on a soap opera has the tough task of deciding which storylines to embrace, since there are literally hundreds of possibilities.  Dark Shadows attempts a few too many and kind of falls apart near the end.  Some of the events, especially in the end, seem random and rushed.  An element involving a werewolf is brought up and dismissed within three minutes and it was all completely unnecessary and served only to complicate the already busy finale.  It’s almost as if the writers were told this would be a one-off so they needed to cram as much stuff in there as possible.
The forced storylines don’t ruin the film, though.  Despite the over the top action of the ending and a flat out stupid fight/sex scene, Dark Shadows provides a fun ‘70s feel, a dark undertone, and a fine performance from Johnny Depp.  It’s not a groundbreaking collaboration between Burton and Depp, but it’s definitely one of their better films.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Seriously, the werewolf crap was just stupid.  I know there were werewolves in the series, but they just tossed that in during the last five minutes.  And having Chloe Grace Meritz say, "Yeah, I'm a werewolf.  So what?" (or something like that) doesn't excuse the laziness of it.

And what about the stuff with David?  He was the main plot point for the first third and then he disappears.  His father is quickly dismissed as well.  Seems like there was more of a story there than there was in the whole, "Let's rebuild the cannery" storyline. 

I actually enjoyed the hippie scene, even though it was an easy gag.  I loved that he still killed them after their talk.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"The Avengers"

Directed Joss Whedon, written by Whedon and Zak Penn, starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Samuel L. Jackson - Rated PG-13

Captain America: And Hulk...Smash!

This is the comic book movie people have been waiting for.  Anticipation is high for any big name comic book property adaptation (for instance, we still have The Dark Knight Rises on the way), but The Avengers is unique because it is so unlikely.  Take some of the heaviest hitters from the Marvel universe (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, etc.) and combine them in one huge movie.  The fact that a studio was able to plan this out after each character had his own film produced is impressive.  But The Avengers doesn’t skate by on the simple existence of itself; instead it soars up there in the higher echelons because it is one of the most enjoyable action films in years.

The Avengers was always a project I was on the fence about.  I’ve always been more of an X-Men and Batman fan, so the crew of this film didn’t excite me all that much.  On top of that, I had doubts that a big studio could come up with a storyline that managed to balance all of the personalities of the film, both in character and out.  How do you justify a scene between relatively unknown characters like Loki and Black Widow when you could just have The Hulk and Thor duke it out for a half an hour?  Why have a scene with Clark Gregg and Jeremy Renner when you can have Robert Downey, Jr. talk smack to Samuel L. Jackson? 

Surprisingly, the filmmakers (writer/director/geek god Joss Whedon and writer Zak Penn) found the perfect balance of star power and character moments.  I cannot come up with a gripe along those lines.  I felt that each actor and character was given just the right amount of screen time.  This is most likely because of Whedon’s involvement (not to take away anything from Penn), but it is certainly because there are only two screenwriters on this film rather than half a dozen.  (I’m sure more than two writers took a crack at the script, but still, only having two credited writers is a good thing.)  Hollywood should take note: you don’t need a dozen writers to hash out a script.  Less can be more, especially when you’re dealing with so much. 

Speaking of balance, The Avengers also finds a great balance between action and comedy.  I cannot remember the last film I watched that had me glued to the action one moment and laughing aloud the next.  I don’t want to ruin any gags; I just want to point out that any joke situation I could think of among these vastly different characters was addressed and it was addressed well.  Thankfully, the film never delves into deadly serious territory (that’s what Batman is for), but instead keeps things light and entertaining. 

This is not simply a comedic action film, though.  The Avengers features some very exciting action sequences, whether it’s a fight amongst the team or a full-on intergalactic war.  The characters complement each other perfectly in battle.  As if it wasn’t already awesome to see Thor and The Hulk fight (both one-on-one and as teammates), the filmmakers managed to hit on every possible fanboy desire while also making the action compelling and easy to follow.  This applies to the entire film as characters have to work together and use their specific skill sets to help each other. 

It’s easy to forget that there are actors inhabiting these characters when you’re dealing with such an action-heavy, funny film; but if you stop and consider it, every actor does a fine job.  I don’t want to waste space and write an individual comment for every performance, especially since almost all involved have played these characters before.  Downey, Evans, and Hemsworth have their respective characters down and it’s a lot of fun to simply watch them talk to each other.  Lone newcomer Mark Ruffalo has some amusing moments as well as Bruce Banner, but it is the CG-enhanced Hulk version that is the real force behind the film. 

It’s not just that the CG Hulk actually looks like the actor portraying him (previous incarnations involving Eric Bana and Edward Norton tried to personalize the face, but failed); it’s that The Hulk has finally found a film formula that works.  First, he’s not just trying to free himself of his power this time around.  Second, The Hulk is so much more fun to watch when he’s only part of the crew.  As ironic as it is, The Hulk is just not capable of carrying his own film.  Throw him in with some other superheroes, though, and you wonder why his character isn’t as popular as the rest.  Just to be clear, though, I still think The Hulk is not right for a full feature film.  Perhaps they can work him into some of the other individual films to keep the audience sated until the next true Avengers film. 

If The Hulk is the bright spot in the line up of The Avengers, then baddie Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is the weak point.  Nothing against Hiddleston, he does a fine job and is obviously having fun as the bad guy of the film, but the character of Loki pales in comparison to the iconic villains of other franchises.  This is hardly a major problem, though, especially when you’d rather spend all of your time with the heroes, anyway. 

The Avengers is nearly perfect in accomplishing what it sets out to do.  It’s a big budget movie that looks expensive.  It’s an action-comedy that provides thrilling set pieces and hilarious gags.  It’s a movie about a team that also seamlessly caters to each individual.  It might just be the best comic book movie ever made, if you’re judging it based on the sheer level of enjoyment it provides.  As of this writing, The Avengers has already broken box office records.  Part of that might be hype.  But a larger part is because The Avengers is simply a good movie.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Everything with Thor and The Hulk was simply awesome.  The Hulk unable to lift Mjolnir, Hulk punching Thor out of nowhere, etc.

I loved how the film acknowledged that some characters don't understand modern references.  My favorite moment was when Captain America spoke up after hearing "flying monkeys."  "I get it! I understood that reference..."