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GOING FOR A BURTON?

Tim Burton has always been a very strange director. His films have always looked sumptuous but often they have suffered from either a weak script or poor direction. Dark Shadows was a cult TV series in the US that ran from 1966 to 1971 about an eccentric family in Maine who hid a dark secret, that one of its number, Barnabas Collins, was actually a vampire. The TV series didn’t really get shown in the UK but it has quite a following in the US so it was an obvious choice for someone like Burton to bring to the big screen. I admit that I have never seen the original TV show so expectations were uncertain when I went to see the film. Burton has brought in regular collaborators Johnny Depp (as protagonist Barnabas Collins) and the director’s partner Helena Bonham Carter (as psychiatrist Dr Julia Hoffman) here while the rest of the cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Lee Miller and Chloe Grace Moretz as the rest of the Collins family. The plot is simple enough: vampire Collins is cursed and entombed in a coffin by witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) at the end of the 18th century after he spurns her advances. He is woken up almost two centuries later in 1972, when the family fortunes have dwindled and the town that they gave their name to, Collinsport, is controlled by Angelique, who now runs a huge fishing company. So Barnabas makes it his mission to restore the influence of the Collins family to its former glory while searching for his former love and coming to terms with living in a strange and unfamiliar future. Dark Shadows is a real mess: Depp does have some nice lines and he looks great in costume but any empathy for his character disappears when you watch him dispatch his victims to feed on. The rest of the cast are pretty forgettable: Eva Green looks stunning as witch Angelique but doesn’t have much to play with while Collins matriarch Pfeiffer and her estranged husband Roger (Lee Miller) are totally wasted, appearing as nothing more than flimsy foils for Barnabas’s story. The film’s script is all over the place as well: not scary enough to be a decent gothic horror and not quite funny enough to cut it as a straight-out comedy, the film ends making little sense, dispatching Angelique but setting things up for a possible sequel. Burton is a frustrating director: his ideas are nearly always interesting but he just doesn’t know how to put them all into a cohesive whole. Dark Shadows is worth watching for Depp’s amusing performance but otherwise it’s just the same old thing from Burton. File under mostly forgettable…

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A BIT OF A RUM DO
Pirates of The Caribbean is a film series that rapidly went downhill. The first one was surprisingly entertaining, the second (Dead Man’s Chest) was less so and the third, At World’s End, was an abomination with no plot and real script to speak of. So we fast forward four years to Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom and director Gore Verbinski are gone with Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane stepping into the supporting roles as Angelica and Blackbeard, respectively. Verbinksi has been replaced by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) and only Johnny Depp, back as Captain Jack Sparrow, and Geoffrey Rush, as Barbarossa, have any connection with the previous three. At World’s End received quite a kicking critically but it still made $300m in the US alone. So On Stranger Tides is intended to be a little bit of a reboot with a new director and two main cast players. As with seemingly every big Hollywood film at the moment, it is getting its release in 3-D. On Stranger Tides sees Jack Sparrow in London to rescue the Black Pearl’s first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from the hangman’s noose. Once he has succeeded in this, he decides to gather a crew to locate the legendary Fountain of Youth. Falling in with Blackbeard (McShane) and Angelica (Cruz), who is masquerading as Sparrow, he sails to try and track down the Fountain. At the same time, Barbarossa, who has now taken a Royal Navy commission, and the Spanish are also determined to find the fountain. The plot is fairly secondary here as the question is whether the pyrotechnics of the special effects work and the answer is that On Stranger Tides, while better than its predecessor, is a tawdry, dull and overlong affair. Depp’s Captain Sparrow, charming once, is now annoying and idiotic, McShane’s Blackbeard is rather wasted and Cruz is bland and uninteresting. The sub-plot of the love affair between the human and the mermaid is clumsy and unengaging. Rush must have signed up again purely for the cash as he looks bored and out of place here. The 3-D also looks really murky and the rivalry between the three parties is badly directed and the whole thing comes across like a very poor man’s Indiana Jones. It will undoubtedly make buckets of gold at the box office regardless of what the critics say but On Stranger Tides is manipulative, tedious and far too long…


DAYLIGHT ROBBERY?
Michael Mann is a director, like Michael Bay, who is all about the surface. Since he got his start on slick Eighties TV series Miami Vice, that’s not terribly surprising. Public Enemies, his biopic of bank robber John Dillinger with Johnny Depp in the title role and Christian Bale as his adversary Melvin Purvis, looked impressive when the trailer started doing the rounds at the beginning of the year. Now I’ve had the chance to see it, at a press screening last week, I’m afraid that it suffers from the flaws that nearly all of Mann’s films possess. We are treated to a rather meat-and-potatoes account of how Dillinger, after spending years on the FBI’s most wanted list and pursued by agent Purvis, played with nuance by Bale, is tracked down and brought to justice in quite a brutal way. Mann’s film looks elegant and he manages to recreate the Thirties with style and pizazz but structurally Public Enemies is very much by the numbers. The law enforcement who try to apprehend him come across as incompetent and almost Keystone Cop-like in their lack of savvy and there is even a scene where Depp as Dillinger walks into the police station, wandering unimpeded amongst the police. Depp is quite charismatic on screen and you are left cheering for him but Bale, while his performance is understated and probably his best in years, doesn’t have much to work with. There also isn’t any chemistry between Bale and Depp and Public Enemies just isn’t very thrilling as a cinematic experience. If you were to compare it to something like Arthur Penn’s classic Bonnie and Clyde, it isn’t even in the same league. Visually it is impressive but it is a hollow and unemotional experience and it makes you question just how versatile Johnny Depp actually is as an actor. In the hands of another director, Public Enemies could have been a modern movie classic but it falls so short that it is nothing more than an interesting curio with a solid but unengaging cast…


A CLOSE SHAVE?
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Tim Burton’s latest effort. An adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s phenomenally successful musical, it stars Johnny Depp as the eponymous psychotic barber, Helena Bonham-Carter as his accomplice Mrs Lovett and a cast of impressive supporting thesps including Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall. I went to see it at a press screening last Friday as it doesn’t come out over here until the end of the month and I found that Sweeney Todd suffers from the same problems nearly all of Burton’s efforts do. It looks stunning and production designer Dante Ferretti, who has worked with Scorsese and Gilliam, does a magnificent job of bringing a gothic Victorian London to fantastic life but there is little emotional connection here between the characters and their audience. Sacha Baron Cohen’s cameo as snake oil salesman Pirelli is pointless and arbitrary. Having said that, Depp is very good indeed: he looks the part, inhabits the role well and his charismatic malevolence is a pleasure to watch on screen, while Rickman as the judge who slighted Todd years ago turns in a masterful performance. Bonham Carter isn’t terrible, although she does feel slightly miscast on occasion. Vocally the cast do themselves proud too as I was fairly skeptical as to whether the musical element would work but nearly all of characters are far too unsympathetic to feel any empathy with them. It is also very bloody and visceral on screen, making it quite unpleasant to watch. So Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is recommended to see once with some reservations…