A to Z April Blog Challenge

I never intended this blog to be about ONLY Johnny Depp movies. I wanted it to be about my writing and other passions in life, but have been slow to introduce other topics to the blog. Partly because I haven’t gotten over my initial shyness of sharing my thoughts publicly and partly because I figure I don’t want to alienate the few followers that are reading the Johnny Depp posts.

Like any good writer though, I have to step out from my comfort zone and not worry about alienating people, but to write for me and to be true to myself. To this end, I decided to sign up for the A to Z April Blog Challenge which is pretty much like it sounds. Write 26 blog entries during the month of April (Every day except Sundays), each one being based of a different letter of the alphabet. The topics can be anything the writer wants and there’s no limits.

I don’t have any broad plan other than to write about myself, my interests and what ever catches my imagination when I sit down to write – Hey look a squirrel! I’m hoping you’ll follow my posts in April and if you’re so inclined there’s still 10 or so hours left to sign up at the website to register as a participant.

I’ll still be posting regular Johnny Depp movie reviews during the month and should have a review for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? up later this week.

Thanks for reading and here we go…

Benny and Joon (1993)

DVD Cover

Benny & Joon (1993) – DVD Cover

With Benny & Joon director Jeremiah S. Chechik delivers a timeless tale about ‘eccentric’ characters trying to find their niche and connect with those around them in a meaningful way.

The movie features Adian Quinn as Benjamin ‘Benny’ Pearl and Mary Stuart Masterson as his sister Juniper ‘Joon’ Pearl. The adult siblings are struggling to lead a normal life more than a decade after their parents died in a car crash. Artistic Joon leads a lonely life, mostly housebound and suffering from some unnamed mental illness. After their latest house keeper and aide for Joon quits, Benny is left with the difficult task of finding a replacement or considering the possibility of putting her in an institution.

In a sit-com worthy twist Benny ‘wins’ Sam (Johnny Depp) in a poker game with his buddies Mike (Joe Grifasi) and Thomas (Dan Hedaya) in which the stakes range from manual labour to odd items like snorkelling equipment and 100 ft of coaxial cable. Honouring his word, Benny takes the eccentric Sam home with them after the poker game.

Sam (Johnny Depp) and Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) share some tapioca pudding.

Sam (Johnny Depp) and Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) share some tapioca pudding.

Sam is no less ‘eccentric’ than Joon, dressing in period clothing and affecting the mannerisms of silent movie stars Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Sam also comes across as having some sort of learning disability that is hinted at during several scenes through out the movie. From the moment Sam arrives on the scene, the audience knows there is no question that Joon and Sam are meant to be together. Through their ‘handicaps’ and eccentricities the two seem to get each other, making each other comfortable, yet challenging each other to test their boundaries in ways they wouldn’t normally on their own.

While the Sam and Joon get to know each other better, Benny is forced to weigh the question whether he can let go of his sister and stop being her full-time protector and care-giver. Neither of his choices, setting her free in the world or putting her in a group home, hold very much appeal to him, but he realizes he needs to get on with his life as he watches potential relationships with the local waitress / actress Ruthie (Julianne Moore) slip through his fingers.

After the situation comes to a head, Joon makes the decision for him choosing to be admitted to a psychiatric ward at the hospital and refusing outside contact. In the climatic scene Benny and Sam are forced to team up to break into the hospital to see Joon and get her to change her mind.

Look at me!

Look at me!

While I found the film charming and boasting touching performances from all the actors involved,  I still found it frustrating on some deeper level. One of the reasons I put ‘eccentric’ in quotes through out this review was that I felt the film makers were purposely blurring the lines between mental illness and eccentricity for their own gain and to avoid directly confronting the issue of mental illness head on. I know this is a film meant to entertain first and foremost and that if the directors and writers want to put whatever spin they want on a story they are free to do so and as an audience we are free to buy into the ‘myth’ they are creating on the big screen or not. But on the other hand, I can’t simply put my brain in park and ignore the mixed messages I am getting on the big screen either.

One of the mixed messages I got watching Benny & Joon is that love conquers all and that perhaps Joon is not mentally ill, but rather just ‘broken’ and can be fixed by love. I felt that by muddying the waters sufficiently through out the the film about whether Joon was schizophrenic or suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress from the horrific death of her parents or something else, the film makers could conveniently play it in which ever way it suited the story. The other message that bothered me on some level was equating the eccentric nature of Joon and Sam’s characters with some sort of disability whether mental or otherwise. It was like hey, look there is something not right about these people, but hey they’re quirky and fun, so its okay. My problem with the message is that I want to accept eccentric people for who they are not assume their being ‘weird’ or different because of some underlying mental health issue or learning disability. Conversely I don’t expect everyone who is suffering from real mental health issues to be quirky and entertaining.

Ranting aside, I rather enjoyed the film, despite its flaws, and would rank it up there as another classic Depp film in which he disappears in the character of Sam and uses his talents as an actor to convey so much emotion with so little dialogue. Again as we will see through out Depp’s acting career his hair and wardrobe become key influences on his character. In Benny & Joon, Sam’s ‘long’ hair reinforce his image as someone who doesn’t fit the social norms and is more feminine than say Benny or his poker playing buddies. Likewise Buster Keaton’s trademark pork pie hat and Charlie Chaplin’s iconic bamboo cane become part of Sam’s character defining who he is. Depp who admired Keaton’s work before this film (and you can see Keaton’s influences in Depp’s character Edward Scissorhands) spent a lot of time watching old silent films of Keaton in preparation for this role.

Up next in my steady diet of Depp films is the second Depp film realeased in 1993, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, directed by Lasse Hallstrom and featuring Depp and newcomer Leonardo DiCaprio. Before I leave you though, I wanted to share this youtube video talking about Buster Keaton and his trademark hat.

Arizona Dream (1992)

DVD Cover Image

Arizona Dream (1992) – DVD Cover

Arizona Dream is one of those obscure films from Depp’s repertoire that I wasn’t familiar with until I started down this path of reviewing all his films. Directed by Serbian film maker Emir Kusturica, who is probably best known for Time of the Gypsies (1988), the film is a surreal meandering tale that is comic and tragic by turns.

Arizona Dream, features Depp as Axel Blackmar a young 20-something working as a fisher counter with New York’s Fish and Game department who claims to listen to the fishes dreams.  Axel receives an unexpected visit from his friend Paul (Vincent Gallo), who has been sent by Axel’s Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) to bring him home to Arizona to stand up for him at his wedding to his new bride.

Reluctantly Axel accompanies Paul back to Arizona where Leo tries to convince him to help run his Cadillac dealership. While apprenticing at the dealership, Axel encounters Elaine Stalker (Faye Dunaway) and her suicidal step-daughter Grace (Lili Taylor) who’s inheritance has left her independently wealthy. Elaine, a mid-40s widow drunk on life and determined to “sleep with every man under the age of 30”, according to her daughter, becomes involved with Paul and Axel. Grace meanwhile distraught at her mother’s immature behaviour and fascination with Papua New Guinea threatens to kill herself.

Does this bow tie make me look geeky?

Does this bow tie make me look geeky?

A coming-of-age movie narrated by Axel, the film explores the interactions between the various characters and their dreams and fears. While the arc of the story leaves a lot to be desired in my opinion, slow and meandering, there are a lot of good bits in this film and the performances by the actors are solid. Lewis as Leo dials up and down the charm as  required and his chemistry with Depp on screen as his nephew seems genuine. Dunaway plays her character with gusto, never backing down from Elaine’s zest for life regardless of others opinions of her.  Gallo nearly steals the show as wannabe thespian who recites dialogue from Hollywood classics like Wizard of Oz and Godfather II as well as having an irrational fear for the plane chase scene from Hitchcock’s North By Northwest that he acts out more than once in the movie. As for Depp he ranges the spectrum from innocent idealist to smouldering lover in this movie with stops at geeky and dorkry (see pic above with bow tie – not that there’s anything WRONG with bow ties) and while the whiplash between scenes is sometimes a bit much, it’s still mesmerizing watching this movie waiting for something to happen. Even Depp’s hair gets into the act, seemingly having its own ‘look’ from scene to scene. In New York, its classic hat head, while working his Uncle’s dealership its windswept emo, and during the dinner party scenes he had an annoying rooster tail happening that was distracting me.

Depp and Lili Taylor in Arizona Dream

Depp and Lili Taylor in Arizona Dream

Filmed in 1991 this film didn’t see release in North America until 1995 after playing Europe and the film festival circuit in 1992 and 1993. Warner Brothers released it in limited theatres in North America with 20+ minutes cut from the original version which only exists on some of the European DVD releases. While researching this movie, I came across a review that summarized Arizona Dream as a mashup between a Robert Altman and a Gus Van Sant film, which I can totally see.

Uncle Leo Sweetie (Jerry Lewise) and Axel (Johnny Depp)

Uncle Leo Sweetie (Jerry Lewis) and Axel (Johnny Depp)

Arizona Dream is one of those movies that only works if  you’re in the right frame of  mind  to receive it. If you go into it expecting a coherent linear arc with everything neatly tied up in a bow, this isn’t a film that you’re going to enjoy. If you appreciate magic realism, stories that are filled with metaphors about flying and fish, and a plot that meanders like a drunk walking home from the liquor store, then you might have the patience for this film. Personally I found myself somewhere in between these two extremes. Frustrating wanting more coherence and a quicker pace, but fascinated by the characters and their stories.

While I am glad I took the time to watch the film, I don’t think it’ll be on that I will be revisiting    any time soon.

Up next in the Johnny Depp Tribute is 1993 film Benny and Joon, co-starring Mary Stuart Matheson and Adian Quinn as those where-are-they-now actors from the 1990s.

 

 

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Edwards Scissorhands (1990)

Edwards Scissorhands (1990)

In the same year that saw Depp hit the screens in John Water’s Cry-Baby, the actor was busy teaming up with another eccentric director with a very distinct style – Tim Burton. Having previously directed the off-beat and commercially successful, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetle Juice (1988), Burton was coming off his Hollywood blockbuster, Batman (1989) when he directed Edward Scissorhands (1990)

For those that may be unfamiliar with the premise (are there seriously people that haven’t seen this movie?), Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) lives alone in a decaying mansion on the edge of suburbia after the sudden death of The Inventor (Vincent Price). Physically incomplete – with unwieldy scissors for hands – and emotionally stunted due to lack of social interaction, Edward is part Frankenstein’s monster and part Pinocchio. Edward’s isolation is interrupted when neighbourhood Avon Lady and bored housewife, Peg Boggs (Dianne Weist), desperate for a sale ventures up the desolate mountain to the run down mansion. When she discovers Edward alone and abandoned she does the only thing in her bored suburban life that makes logical sense and takes him into her home.

Team Edward - Johnny Depp as Edwards Scissorhands

Team Edward – Johnny Depp as Edwards Scissorhands

Despite his ‘grotesque’ appearance, the novelty of a stranger in the suburban enclave with its pastel painted houses generates enough attention and envy from the other bored house-bound women, that Peg soon finds her social status elevated. As Edward tries to gain acceptance and fit in he discovers his talent at sculpting things with his scissors – first topiary, then dog grooming, and finally hairdressing. Each talent bring him increasing popularity within the neighbourhood and notoriety outside it.

Edward’s rising fortunes take a turn for the worse when he gets mixed up with Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder) and her boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall). His fall from grace snowballs and is eventually cast out of the neighbourhood when Jim and the neighbours turn on. Despite Kim and Peg’s continued acceptance and understanding of Edward, they are unable to mend the rift. The ending, which I will try to avoid spoiling for those that may not have seen it (go watch it now!), is heartbreaking it’s a fitting end to Edward’s story and avoids any Hollywood cliché that may have otherwise been attached to it.

The film runs the gamut from dramatic to comedic and everything in between. The humour is often derived from Edward’s reaction to unfamiliar situations and people’s reaction to him, but it never feels forced in Burton’s colourful fantasy world.

Depp’s performances up until now have only hinted at his chameleon-like abilities as an actor, but have mainly alternated between clean cut boy-next-door and bad boy heart throb. As Edward, Depp relies heavily on facial reactions to convey much of his characters mood, and when he does speak, Edwards soft, child-like voice makes a big impression. While I haven’t counted them myself, it’s been said that Edward has fewer than 126 words of dialogue in the entire movie. Depp draws inspiration for his Edward Scissorhands character from silent movie greats Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

While the film primarily deals with the themes of isolation and self-discovery, there is also underlying themes of art and the power of creativity and imagination. In the early scenes, we are shown the brightly coloured houses of the subdivision in contrast to the dreary muted greys and blacks of the mansion. The subdivision gives the impression of being alive and vibrant while the mansion appears deserted and decaying. When Peg arrives a the mansion we see how alive and creative the mansion is, with its sculptured topiary and lush greenery. Burton’s visual style seamless blends 1960s, 70s, and 80s styles together in the look of the subdivision and the fashions to give it a retro feeling that I find actually works to make the film feel timeless in a way.

Not the last time Depp would play a character with barber skills.

Not the last time Depp would play a character with barber skills.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Depp playing the iconic role now, but it has been reported elsewhere that before his involvement other leads had been considered, including Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Robert Downey Jr., and William Hurt. While I personally would love to visit the alternate universe in which Robert Downey Jr. plays Edward, I am thankful Burton and Depp found each other since they would go on to make a total of 8 films together (so far).

There’s a million other things I want to say about this film and could probably write a thesis on it, but I’ll leave it at that for now and we’ll move on to our next film in the journey and one I have not seen before – Arizona Dream.