Archive for Helena Bonham-Carter

Darkness Lite

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Painting, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2012 by dcairns

David Wingrove, being a big fan of the TV Dark Shadows, and a fan of Tim Burton (he even liked ALICE IN WONDERLAND, gah!), went to see Burton’s DARK SHADOWS with an open mind — and found it inspired a number of intriguing observations, which he has assembled into the following piece (writing as David Melville) —

Darkness Lite

Afternoons in my childhood were a strange and dangerous world. School over, my parents still at work and my grandmother busy in the kitchen boiling dinner, I would sneak into the living room and pull the curtains shut against the light. Creeping on tiptoe towards the TV – remotes (in our house, at least) were not yet invented – I would turn the switch softly to ON. Thrill to the wail of a theremin; a black-and-white seascape of waves crashing onto rocks. Then the magic words would fill the screen: DARK SHADOWS.

For the next half-hour or so, I was transported. Away from school and suburbia, and into a hidden world of dreams. Girls in filmy white night-gowns wandered alone through graveyards, bathed in moonlight and swathed in mists of dry ice. Tall and dark and lethally handsome men would rise, abruptly, out of coffins. Loom over the girls, resplendent in their dark capes, and sink their teeth – lovingly and ever so gently – into their soft, pale throats. Portraits of long-dead ladies would shiver and come to life. Drift about in unlit corridors, transparent ghosts of crinoline and bone. Wolves would wail and howl. Lurking always, conveniently, just off camera. It was, in a word, paradise.

I took care, on those far-off haunted afternoons, to keep the sound turned low – almost silent. My middle-class Canadian family was vigilant against anything ‘unsuitable’ or, worse, ‘unwholesome’ and Dark Shadows was the one show I was flatly forbidden to watch. My mother was convinced – with good reason, I suppose – that it would scare me and give me nightmares. I was a sensitive and impressionable child, frightened of many things. School, with its uniform of grey shorts, ugly red blazer and matching cap. Science and arithmetic, both totally beyond me, as was – horror of horrors! – sport. Teachers with gunmetal eyes and barking voices. Bicycles, on which I could never balance and always fell off.  Assembly, where we sang ‘God Save the Queen’ and my throat seized up with fear so I could barely speak.

Yes, life at six years of age was full of terrors. But Dark Shadows with its setting, Collinwood Manor, was the least frightening and most beautiful place I had ever seen. The one world, perhaps, where I truly felt I belonged. Clearly, a whole generation of misfit kids felt the same way. The original soap opera, created by Dan Curtis, ran every weekday from 1966 to 1971 and spawned two big-screen movies – House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971) – neither of which I have ever seen. Unsuccessfully revived as a TV series in the 90s, it has now become a mega-budget screen epic directed by Goth maestro Tim Burton.

By any regular cinematic standard, this is fantastically good news. Like any other Tim Burton extravaganza (leaving aside the perplexing Big Fish) the 2012 Dark Shadows is slick, smooth and uniquely compulsive entertainment. Johnny Depp, alluring in black eyeliner as vampire Barnabas Collins, adds one more to his list of camp Gothic grotesques. Michelle Pfeiffer, in full-on diva mode as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, wears her eye-poppingly hideous 70s outfits with commendable aplomb. Eva Green is more expressive, and Helena Bonham Carter less annoying, than past experience gives us any right to hope. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (whose other recent film is Alexander Sokurov’s Faust) has images inspired by – indeed, worthy of – such Romantic painters as Henry Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich. The visuals, as always in a Burton movie, are several quantum leaps ahead of the script.

Had I not made the mistake – forty-odd years ago, I admit, at an age when I was far too young to know better – of watching and loving the original Dark Shadows with such passion, I might well be wholly thrilled with the Burton remake. Yet somehow, there was something not quite right. So wrong, in fact, that I went on Amazon and ordered the newly reissued Dark Shadows box set. (Don’t worry, not the whole series – just three discs and twenty episodes, which introduce the lead vampire, Barnabas Collins.)  This was something I felt obscurely afraid to do. Revisiting the past could only expose my childhood dream as the cheap, shoddy mirage that it undoubtedly was. Like a fairground Haunted House with the lights on. Black paint peeling, and sawdust and chewing gum piled up in the corners.

It took me one episode – well, perhaps two – to see where and how Tim Burton had slipped up. The original Barnabas Collins (played by the craggy-faced Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, whose one film of note is Oliver Stone’s 1974 debut Seizure) is a ruthless bisexual seducer who preys, both physically and psychologically, on other main characters. Rising out of his coffin, he latches onto the resident beefcake Willie Loomis (John Karlen, later the hero in Harry Kümel’s 1970 Daughters of Darkness) and revives by draining his bodily fluids. Willie is the protégé of a camp older gentleman named Jason McGuire (Dennis Patrick, whose name is the author of Auntie Mame, only backwards). Jason is blackmailing Elizabeth (played by film noir legend Joan Bennett) for the murder of her husband – who may also have been (we can’t help but wonder) his lover. He and Barnabas swiftly form a gay triangle around Willie. Everything hinges on who gets to suck what from whom.

After resuscitating himself with the blood of a man, Barnabas turns his attentions to a nubile young woman (Kathryn Leigh Scott, as local waitress Maggie Evans) but keeps Willie on as his factotum and blood bank. (This is the same pattern – Dark Shadows was nothing if not derivative – as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s original novel, feasting initially on the hero, Jonathan Harker and only later on Mina, his wife.) Willie seems, at once, protective and obscurely jealous of his female rival. His relationship with Barnabas grows ever more twisted. Towards the end of the episodes I saw, Barnabas gives him a sadomasochistic thrashing with a huge carved metal walking stick – an heirloom the vampire proudly shows off to Maggie, and which she greatly admires.

The implicit queerness of the original Dark Shadows was, of course, never spelled out in the script. But it is expunged, ruthlessly and systematically, from the 2012 remake. The cutesy Barnabas Collins played by Johnny Depp seems to feed exclusively on extras. At no point does he pose a threat to the Collins family, or to any of the other major characters. (His killing of Dr Julia Hoffmann, the psychiatrist played by Helena Bonham Carter, is done purely in self-defence.) The film’s Willie is no sexy young stud, but a shambling grotesque out of The Addams Family. His older male protector is, of course, nowhere in sight. A menage so relentlessly heterosexual, it is more Little House on the Prairie than Collinwood Manor.

In de-gaying and de-fanging Dark Shadows, Burton has made his vampire only slightly less innocuous than Robert Pattinson in the Twilight saga. Barnabas, as played by Johnny Depp, embodies not good old-fashioned Eros and Thanatos – the way a vampire should – but squeaky-clean 21st century Family Values. “The greatest wealth of all is family,” Depp intones as he revives the Collins fortune and saves his mortal relatives from the brink of ruin. Legions of Born Again Republicans across America would doubtless agree. Tim Burton, who was hailed two decades ago as the Great Dark Hope of Hollywood, is now looking more and more like a Gothic Steven Spielberg. Yes, he’s still a unique film artist but – as the TV Barnabas so memorably quipped – “Uniqueness is not necessarily a good thing.”

David Melville

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Paralysis in Wonderland

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2010 by dcairns

Nineteen-year-old Charlotte Henry as Alice in 1933. She also appears in the similarly demented BABES IN TOYLAND.

I love Lewis Carroll, and maybe as a result I’m generally iffy about filmed versions of his stuff. I like Jan Svankmajer’s ALICE, although it’s not funny, which seems to miss a lot of the point, and Jonathan Miller’s TV adaptation is beautiful and sometimes amusing, and strange, all of which is good, but it does have a very self-absorbed and unappealing central perf.

(WHY is Alice always at least five years too old?)

It’s fashionable to be snooty about the Disney animated ALICE, but I still remember how weird it made me feel as a kid, which must be a good thing. Although it seems that the kind of “zaniness” embodied by Ed Wynn’s voicing of the Mad Hatter is entirely wrong for Carroll’s queer, concussed mindscape.

A grin without a cat — played by Richard Arlen.

The Paramount ALICE IN WONDERLAND which William Cameron Menzies co-wrote (with Joseph Mankiewicz) is in all kinds of ways a fairly stupid travesty of the books — Alice doesn’t really need to go through a looking glass AND down a rabbit hole, does she? — not if we have any understanding of these moments as signifying a passage into Dream — and cluttering the thing with chess pieces AND playing cards seems likewise misguided. But the design is beautiful and the thing does have a trippy, floaty, fizzy-facky feeling throughout.

Tim Burton’s new ALICE IN WONDERLAND can’t really claim anything like that. Alternately slack and inappropriately boisterous, generic and completely broken-backed, it’s his biggest mess since, depending on your taste, BIG FISH or PLANET OF THE APES. Reading Burton’s interview in this weekend’s Guardian, it’s hard to work out what appealed to him in the material, although one might think his taste for surreal fantasy would make him a natural choice.

(It’s always dubious using a filmmaker’s own words against them, since one can’t be sure that anything said while promoting a film is sincere anyway, and the author, as they say, is dead. But Burton can be bracingly franker than most, replying to a question at the premier of APES as to whether he’d direct a sequel, with the words, “I’d rather jump out of an open window.”)

“I’ve always hated Alice on screen. She’s a very annoying, odd little girl. I wanted to make her into a character I could identify with: quiet, internal, not comfortable in her own skin, not quite knowing how to deal with things, being both young and having an old soul.” Drivel, that last stuff, but it does make me wonder if he’s read the damn book, and why he’s gone for an older Alice, making his version just like every other movie.

I’ve read reviews that name-checked Walter Murch’s disturbing, brilliant film maudit RETURN TO OZ (which is better that Burton’s film) and Spielberg’s HOOK (and even that chocolate-box infarction may be better than this mess) which both seem apt comparisons, given the new film’s device of having an older Alice return to Wonderland during a teenage crisis. (Incidentally, tiny Mairi Ella Challen is very good as the six-year-old Alice.) The remarkable thing is that Alice’s previous visit to Wonderland has no bearing on the plot, and making her older is purely a device to sell her as a Disney princess, a ghastly commercial commodification of a classic story. When you warp an already hugely successful property in order to sell toys, well, you might as well put Ewoks in it.

Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, a name he will later bestow upon John Qualen in HIS GIRL FRIDAY (HGF director Howard Hawks had a fondness for referencing his star’s previous roles — John Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY evokes just about every famous role he ever played on screen).

Shit, screenwriter Linda Woolverton actually wrote for the Ewoks TV show. She also wrote THE LION KING, a rare Disney original, and I don’t want to knock her too much because this seems like a film which has been much messed-about with. Does the Jabberwocky need to talk? No, he has nothing useful to tell us, it’s just an excuse to get Sir Christopher Lee in there as a voice. Welcome as Sir Chris is, it adds to the sense of redundancy and bloat which characterize the film. Watching is like stilt-walking through an ocean of trifle — occasionally pretty, quickly exhausting.

Johnny Depp tries hard, but the Mad Hatter as hero is such a crass misconception of the character (a bit like when Groucho and his brothers turn noble in the MGM Marx Bros. films, although at least there it was only in the final reel) that he’s left with no role to play. Helena Bonham Carter is generally fun, and it’s nice whenever the film slows down long enough to allow a bit of acting in — the performances provide the only wit here — but she should be paying royalties to Miranda Richardson, who originated this entire characterization in Blackadder II. (Incidentally, Rowan Atkinson’s turn in that show owes an enormous debt to Michael Kitchen’s interpretation of Edmund in a BBC version of King Lear, directed by… Jonathan Miller.)

Edward Everett Horton is a divinely mad Mad Hatter, with strong supporting madness from Charles Ruggles as the March Hare.

But acting honours go to Anne Hathaway, channeling the spirit of Lisa-Marie (whose presence in Burton’s films I kind of miss), particularly her weird physical acting in MARS ATTACKS! With very little to work with, she manages to create some actual fun, and her playing of the White Queen as hideously self-absorbed and uncaring actually subverts the whole good-versus-evil plot, which is one of the screenplay’s lamest inventions.

Look: Alice is a sensible little girl stuck in a nonsensical world. What’s difficult about that? It is, in fact, something all little kids can identify with, hence the need for her to be, like, little.

By the way: Burton hasn’t got any consistent angle on what to do with 3D. The opening stuff in reality was originally shot flat, and then converted at great expense, but it doesn’t look particularly deep. The trip down the rabbit hole should be an explosion of colour and depth, but it’s just loud and incoherent, not because of the 3D but because of lousy filming. Some possibly-interesting props fly past, but we don’t get to register ANY of them. And what made the fall magical and weird in the book is that it was slow — this breakneck descent isn’t actually any different to what Burton could shoot for BATMAN or PLANET OF THE APES.

The editing, apparently completed just in time for the premier, is astonishingly sloppy, especially in the opening sequences. The real-world stuff makes no sense (China was opened up for export long before this — and what’s Alice going to be trading, opium?), although it’s nice to see Frances De La Tour. Her dotty old maid is the only character in the real world who seems both happy and honest, so naturally Alice advises her to get therapy.

There is also a “comedy dance” which I find deeply offensive.

“Here I am!” — perhaps my favourite line in the film.

I’m illustrating this piece with stills from the Menzies-designed film because I don’t think I could bear looking at any more images from Burton’s garish soup. It’s 108 minutes! That’s too long for ANY film of Alice, since without a narrative spine (Carroll doesn’t feel the need for one and Woolverton fails to graft one on) you’ve got to be really good to keep the audience focussed across the various episodes. Fellini managed it in SATYRICON, but even Svankmajer’s ALICE is only 86 mins.

Here’s one reason I think people get Alice wrong so much — many of the jokes, situations and characters are very familiar and it’s easy to take them for granted or else mess with them without a clear idea of why they are the way they are. But here’s a less familiar bit —

‘Crawling at your feet,’ said the Gnat (Alice drew her feet back in some alarm), ‘you may observe a Bread-and-Butterfly. Its wings are thin slices of Bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.’

‘And what does it live on?’

‘Weak tea with cream in it.’

A new difficulty came into Alice’s head. ‘Supposing it couldn’t find any?’ she suggested.

‘Then it would die, of course.’

‘But that must happen very often,’ Alice remarked thoughtfully.

‘It always happens,’ said the gnat.

I think that’s funny, anyway. Burton’s film includes Carroll’s Rocking-horse-fly and Dragon-fly, which are usually left out (along with the poor Gnat), but neglects to include any funny lines. I don’t want to be melodramatic and say “This will kill 3D!” But it’s not going too far to say that if anything could, this would.

On His Todd

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2008 by dcairns

Sweeney Scissorhands 

So we attended the tale of SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, Tim Burton version.

On the whole I liked it. The score has a massive amount of sheer OOMPH, the lyrics are spectacular (if you want dance numbers, just watch those words leap to and fro), and I enjoyed the performances, especially Sacha Baron Cohen and Timothy Spall. I was intrigued to see that Johnny Depp’s vocals boast their own producer…a touch of digital pitch-correction going on there, Fiona suggests.

There are a few unfortunate things about the film, and I’m going to dwell on them, I’m afraid. It’s a testament to the strength of the story and score and acting that the film entertains as well as it does, because these problems could really butcher a lesser film.

1) The Look. I think it’s too murky, and this combines with the C.G. backdrops and the theatrically enclosed narrative to make it rather claustrophobic. This might be OK if it’s your kind of thing, but since films with a very C.G. look — like “300” — tend to feel a little stifling no matter how the filmmakers try to open them out and give them sweep, I’d have awarded points to Burton for breathing some air into this.

(Very dark films sometimes look sharper on DVD than on the big screen — Darius Khondji’s most eye-straining work sometimes has this quality. So Dariusz Wolski’s smeary work here may likewise shine on home vid — the stills look much clearer than the movie did when I saw it. Perversely, Wolski’s lensing of DARK CITY was radiant by comparison.)

thru a glass very darkly indeed

2) The Plot. I don’t know the play but I was sure there had been some kind of ineffectual tampering when we got to the aftermath of the climax. I looked it up on Wikipedia and, although I hadn’t guessed the exact nature of the changes, tinkering had indeed taken place and the ending of the original sounded markedly more effective. I can’t go into this without major spoilers, but it’s largely a structural thing. Burton has never had much story sense, tending to favour image over word and missing the Hitchcockian principle of telling stories with pictures. Burton’s images are often stand-alone tableaux or, at most, gags.

(MASSIVE SPOILER:

Todd spares his daughter’s life for no convincing reason, and then she disappears from the narrative altogether. In the play, the authorities arrive at the end, obviously alerted by her, so at least there’s a pay-off to her survival. The film also soft-pedals young Tobias’ madness at the end, so that his killing Sweeney isn’t quite credible.)

Razorhead

3) The Squeamishness. This might be an odd thing to charge an 18-Rated musical with, but it seemed to me that the makers were rather shy of the whole cannibalism thing. You wouldn’t know, from the mise-en-scene, that there was anything unusual about the pies all those extras were munching. I can sort of understand Burton wanting to hold back on the horrors of the kitchen until they are discovered by little Tobias — except that doesn’t sound like the sort of narrative concern that would even occur to Timbo. It feels like he’s been told he can have his head with the throat-slitting, but could he please hold back on the old anthropophagy? And since that’s what the whole film’s about, it strikes me as an unfortunate area to ellide. When somebody doesn’t actually want to tell the story they’re telling, it never bodes well.

Sheer Barberism

4) The Momentum. The thrust of the story is maintained fairly well, and that’s something that musicals often sacrifice in order to celebrate a moment. But this film has too oppressive a milieuto really get away with that, so it needs to drive forward, from a bad situation to a worse: without shark-like constant forward motion, the audience isn’t going to want to hang about waiting for the next sordid crisis. The sequence which damages the momentum most is the song “By the Sea,” which doesn’t advance the story at all, but may be absolutely essential as the only scene to admit bright light, blue sky and fresh air into the film. It helps the sense of space even as it damages the sense of time. My theory is that the song may have been necessary on stage to show how Mrs. Lovett feels about Todd, but due to the huge amounts of emotional information conveyed by Helena Bonham-Carter in close-up, it’s redundant several times over in film terms.

5) Alan Rickman. Although he fills his trews prodigiously, Rickman has an unpleasant singing voice and is too predictable a baddie to offer much here, except when Judge Turpin has a sentimental moment. Rickman wisely makes the most of these: it’s unexpected to see how moved Turpin is by Todd’s lie that his ward has “repented” and wants to see him again.

6) Blocking. David Bordwell has argued very coherently that the art of complex blocking in Hollywood films has almost been lost. Characters either “walk and talk” or “stand and deliver” — no longer do they stalk around each other and move from close-up to long-shot and back within a single take. Burton has a reputation as a visual stylist, but he struggles to bring the songs to dramatic life through dynamic movement: shot as if they were dialogue scenes in a very dark episode of Eastenders, the songs feel somewhat squashed. Since this musical doesn’t use dance at all, a choreographic interplay of camera and actor would have been nice — oddly, this is something Burton has often brought to action sequences in other films. He does a bit of his trademark swooping, but that’s a bit overpowering. The Minnelli touch is lacking.

Hair today

7) The deplorable absence of Christopher Lee. It was announced early on that Lee would play a part, but he was later dropped (along with the other ghosts). He would have been the best singer in it. Lee has suggested that his part was cut due to time difficulties: Johnny Depp’s daughter became ill during filming and some shooting days were lost. In which case, one can only sympathise, and admire Depp’s performance even more.

Still, despite my admiration for Johnny and Helena’s work here, I can’t avoid a little thought experiment, as to who could have been cast if the film had been rushed into production in 1979, after the play’s premiere…

BLUE SKY CASTING #5:

SWEENEY TODD: the British horror version

demon in need of barber

Director: Piers Haggard. His experience with the BBC period musical Pennies From Heaven and the Tigon horror BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW makes him a fitting choice. and his lovely and talented daughter Daisy would have been just the right age to play the baby Johanna. (Daisy, who always cries at the end of KING KONG because the big gorilla reminds her of her dad.)

SWEENEY TODD: Christopher Lee.

MRS. NELLIE LOVETT: Barbara Steele.

ANTHONY HOPE: Tim Curry.

JOHANNA: Britt Ekland, dubbed by Annie Ross.

TOBIAS RAGG: Dexter Fletcher.

JUDGE TURPIN: Peter Cushing.

BEADLE BAMFORD: Donald Pleasence.

BEGGAR WOMAN: Sheila Keith.

ADOLFO PIRELLI: Vincent Price.

Hmmm, I can’t quite decide which version I’d rather see. With my usual perversity, I think I’ll plump for the one that doesn’t exist.