The Brave (1997)

The Brave DVD Cover

Johnny Depp’s directorial debut The Brave (1997) tells the story of Raphael (Depp), a young Native American father who, out of desperation, makes a pact with a sadistic McCarthy (Marlon Barndo) to be tortured and killed in exchange for $50,000. The film premiered at Cannes in 1997 to standing ovations , yet devastatingly bad reviews in the press. Depp’s reaction to the reviews was to refuse to release it in North America. As a result it’s a difficult to find film. I found a version someone had posted on YouTube. Otherwise foreign  DVDs are available on sites like Ebay for sale.

Overly long at 2 hours and slowly paced, the film isn’t so much as bad as it is weak. Raphael is an ex-convict, a failure as a husband and father, and feeling useless enough that he is willing to make this Faustian bargain to end his life to save his own family’s, but his sense of desperation is never convincingly portrayed. We’re also told (repeatedly) that his family and relatives are going to be forced off their land by developers in the coming days, but other than being mentioned, there is no reaction to the threat by anyone in the community and the opportunity to build on the tension is squandered.

Johnny Depp as Raphael in The Brave (1997)
Johnny Depp as Raphael in The Brave (1997)

Once Raphael has accepted an advance on the $50k he is given one week before he is expected to return to meet his fate. With the premise in place, Raphael is left to try to make amends with his family, trying to buy their love and make up for lost time, without ever explaining where the money came from or what it is he’s gotten himself into. The family and Raphael feel disconnected and isolated in the story and it’s not until the second half of the film that we begin to have more of a sense of how they fit into the community when they begin to interact with other characters.

One assumes Depp was trying use the film to underscore the plight of Native American’s but that theme never feels fully integrated with the story. Quite the contrary actually, I felt that you could have easily transplanted Raphael and his family’s plight into any culture, any poverty stricken neighbourhood, and the story would have functioned equally well if not better.

The film is based on a book by mystery writer Gregory MacDonald who is better known for his Fletch series, and was adapted for the screen by Depp, Paul McCudden and Depp’s brother D.P. Depp. Iggy Pop provided the score, which went a long way to supporting and elevating the action on the screen. Iggy also makes a cameo towards the end of the movie at Raphael’s going away feast.

The last twenty minutes of the movie is worth sticking it out for as everything does come together in an unexpected way and Depp shows some restraint as a film maker in choosing which violence he does show and what he does not.

Personally, I think the heart of the film is overshadowed by the sensationalism of the “snuff film” premise. I also felt that Raphael as a character could have been more nuanced and gained more empathy from the audience had he simply been struggling against impossible odds and still not been able to overcome them.

Not nearly as big of a train wreck as I had been anticipating, and while I am glad I sought the film out, I don’t think it will ultimately rank very high on my list of memorable performances by Depp.

By the Numbers

  • Directorial debut by Depp and screen-writing credit.
  • 2nd film in which Depp shares screen time with Marlon Brando. Don Juan DeMarco (1995) being the the first.
  • 3rd film in which Depp wears a bandana. Platoon (1989) and Don Juan DeMarco (1995) being the other two.
  • 3rd film in which Depp has connections to Native American or Aboriginal Character – the others are Arizona Dream (1992) and Dead Man (1995)
  • 2nd Depp related film in which Iggy Pop makes an appearance – Dead Man (1995) was the other.

Ironic Trivia – Larry (Marshall Bell) says to Raphael (Depp) after threatening his family “I guess we will see you in the movies, Tonto.” Depp would eventually go on to play Tonto in this year’s The Lone Ranger (2013).

Toronto the Good

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Toronto Thunderstorm – by John R. Southern

I grew up in a Northern Ontario town that felt smaller than its population of 75,000 would have you believe. The fact that Toronto was a 7+ hours car ride in one direction and Thunder Bay 7+ hours in the other direction IN GOOD WEATHER made it feel more isolated than it was. When I got the opportunity to move to Toronto to attend university when I was 19, I jumped at it. In my naive thinking of the time I figured it was a great opportunity to experience life in the big city for 4 years while I got my degree before I moved home to start my life as an adult. (Okay you can stop laughing now, no seriously.)

Well probably after my first year of living in Canada’s biggest metropolis I realized that I had no intention of ever going ‘home’ again to live. I spent the next 19 years living in a variety of different neighbourhoods – a basement apartment in Etobicoke,  the student ghetto in the Annex, an apartment in Don Mills, a high-rise bachelor apartment at Yonge & Eglington, an apartment in the Annex (just outside the student ghetto this time), a basement apartment off of the Danforth, an apartment in North York, and finally in my last year and a half in the GTA to a townhouse in Mississauga. Toronto and its neighbourhoods slowly seeped into my DNA (figuratively, not literally although that would be a cool SF premise right there.) In short it became my adopted home town.

Oddly enough the way these things work, I didn’t really feel like I was “from” Toronto until I moved back to Northern Ontario for work in 2006 (albiet one town over from my birthplace). I guess there’s some truth in the old adage that you don’t know what you have until its gone.  Toronto had served as a backdrop in several of my short stories that I wrote while living there, but it never became a character in any of my stories until now.

In my current WIP (translation for non-writers: Work in Progress) I’m trying to distil my memories of Toronto into the story. Writing about a specific place has its unique challenges. On the one hand you’re describing a place that has to ring true to people that live there, but on the other hand you’re trying to describe a place in a way that people that have never been there (and may never experience the city first hand) can relate without sounding like a travelogue. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, my novel is about two characters travelling between alternate universes, so not only does my Toronto need be “real” it also has to be unreal in very unique and distinct ways.

Toronto’s history has been shaped by it’s weather, geography, politics, art, and above all else the people that have called the city home over the past 200+ years. In the late 1880s Mayor William Howland coined the term “Toronto the Good” in an effort to campaign to clean up the less savoury aspects of the city and paint the town with his own Victorian morality. While much of Howland’s reforms have been forgotten, the nickname stuck with Toronto for a long time in a derisive way, describing the city’s its uptight nature. My challenge now is trying to imagine the Toronto the good, the bad, and the ugly as it were and make them come alive on the page in a way that serves the story.

 

Donnie Brasco (1997)

DVD_COVERDonnie Brasco features Johnny Depp as the title character, an undercover FBI agent infiltrating the New York Mafia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Based on a true story of undercover agent Joseph D. Pistone the movie follows his gradual acceptance into the Mafia family and his close relationship with Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) while sacrificing connections to his real life and family.

Donnie Brasco is one of those near perfect films that works on all levels. Pacino who has built a career out of chewing scenery is practically subdued and his performance is spot on in this movie. Depp and Pacino are so immersed in their characters they, like Pistone, have gone deep undercover. Depp turns in his best “straight” performance to date and while you can convincely argue he’s still playing a “character”, its an effective illusion that serves the movie’s plot.

NewYork_Donnie_Brasco

1970’s New York – Donnie Brasco (Depp) and Lefty (Al Pacino) go for a walk.

Writer Paul Attanasio (Creator of Homicide: Life on the Streets) makes a shrewd choice to open the movie with a scene where Donnie Brasco is in a local bar trying to initiate contact with Lefty for the first time. By immediately immersing the character and the audience in the world of the Mafia it becomes our primary point of view. The writer and director want us to question whether this guy is really FBI since he plays the role of a criminal as if he was born to it. Had they led with some background story on Pistone’s career, or the parameters of the case the movie would have been more about the cops and how they are going to make the case. Instead we are allowed to concentrate our attention on Donnie (Depp) and Lefty (Pacino) until we have firmly embraced the gangster point-of-view. Only then does the movie slowly begin to include more and more details of Brasco’s connection to the FBI.

The story plays on both Pistone/Brasco’s identity as a cop/criminal as well as his loyalties to his new Mafia family as well as his own wife and children who have lost him to his job.

When the climax of the film finally comes and Donnie is pulled out from undercover we feel his pain as he is torn away from a life he’s built and the relationships he has built. Yes he was doing a job and trying to bring these criminals to justice, but the intensity of the life he was living undercover and his betrayal of those in the Mafia that took him in affect him in ways we can’t imagine.

As for Depp’s I thought he reached new heights with the intensity of his performance in the movie. Up until now it feels like many of the characters he’s played have been “along for the ride”, reacting to what life throws at them, whereas in Donnie Brasco, we get a feel for both Depp’s ability to “go undercover” in a character while the character he is playing is still calling the shots and putting it all out there. In Donnie Brasco both the actor Depp and the FBI Agent Pistone are, to borrow a poker term, “all in”. It’s all or nothing.

The movie does a great job of giving us a glimpse into the complexity of the politics, relationships, and dealings of the criminal underworld without overly glamorizing the lifestyle like some gangster movies do. Well written, directed, and acted by all involved its a movie I would highly recommend to anyone that likes a good drama.

By the Numbers…

  • The fifth movie in which Depp plays the character the movie is named after. The other four being Ed Wood, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Edward Scissorhands, and Don Juan DeMarco.
  • The second movie in which Depp’s character has facial hair for part of the movie.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

01~15 As much as I like Johnny Depp as an actor and what he brings to a role, you have to wonder what he and Disney were thinking when they decided to take on as dated a franchise as The Lone Ranger. As far as I can tell there hasn’t been a big demand for Westerns by Hollywood audiences in recent years. The last summer blockbuster that gambled on that genre and lost was the 1999 reboot of the Wild Wild West starring Will Smith.  In 2011 Cowboys and Aliens tried to take the genre in a different direction, but had mediocre success as well. The only movies to have succeeded  in the genre were the remake of the True Grit in 2011 and Tarantino’s genre bending Django Unchained (2012).

Regardless of the relative popularity of the genre, the larger question that has been raised is how can you present modern audiences with a Native American sidekick like Tonto without it being a stereotype and racist? There are lot of more detailed discussion on this subject out there on the web if you do a quick search for it, but here’s one article – Johnny Depp as Tonto: Is The Lone Ranger Racist? (Read more: http://entertainment.time.com/2013/07/03/johnny-depp-as-tonto-is-the-lone-ranger-racist/#ixzz2YNkSyJZ8) that is good jumping off point with links to other articles.

I know Depp has an interest in Native American culture* and in interviews has claimed to have some Native American ancestry. I want to believe that Depp’s heart is in the right place, but the Tonto I saw on the screen sadly reinforces those stereotypes.

Cultural appropriations aside, the movie has enough other faults. Overly long and padded at 2 1/2 hours the movie suffers from an identity crisis unable decide if it wants to be an irreverent action/comedy or a straight-up Western. The plot is paper thin and telegraphed so far in advance that I doubt few are surprised by any of the twists.

Depp’s performance alternates between mystic Indian and class clown, which makes his face paint even more troubling as a costume choice. At one point I could have swore he was channelling Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown,  Reverend Jim Ignatowski)  in his mannerisms. Depp does reference another Lloyd – Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton in some of his comedic stunts including a scene in which he uses a ladder to switch between trains in the climatic scene.

The film is not with out a few laughs, but it’s never a comfortable laugh. Sadly this won’t be one of my favourite Depp roles for a variety of reasons.

 
*Depp’s directoral debut – The Brave (1997) also had Native American’s at the heart of the story and has a troubled history as well.
 

Nick of Time (1995)

nick-of-time-1995-cover

Nick of Time (1995) DVD Cover

[Warning: May Contain Spoilers]

Johnny Depp stars in this 1995 thriller directed by John Badham (Saturday Night Live, WarGames, Short Circuit). Depp plays Gene Watson, a public accountant and father to six year old Lynn (Courtney Chase) who is travelling with him to Los Angeles on unspecified business when the two are caught up in a conspiracy to assassinate the Governor of California.

Christopher Walken plays Mr. Smith, a bad-ass agent working for the Governor’s security detail. Smith and his partner Ms. Jones (Roma Maffia) kidnap Watson’s daughter and coerce Watson to assassinate the Governor within the next 90 minutes or they will kill his daughter.

With that improbable plot the clock is set in motion and for the next 90 minutes Watson tries to find a way out of his predicament while being dogged by Walken who is intent on making sure he follows through.
Christopher Walken - Nick of Time (1995)Walken does what he does best in these type of roles, chewing scenery and looking like he is about to snap. Depp plays the mild-mannered-straight-laced-working-father-type and while he manages to look meek and frightened for the most part, I found myself waiting for the transformation of his character that never came. I kept expecting a  similar transition to what we saw in Dead Man, where William Blake grew to accept his role and embrace it.

When this film was first released many people, myself included, viewed it as an attempt by Depp to go “mainstream”. Depp, however has said in interviews that was the furthest thing from his mind.

Johnny Depp as Gene Watson

Johnny Depp as Gene Watson in Nick of Time (1995)

“It’s not a conscious attempt to be commercial at all – I read the screenplay and liked it a lot. I was on the edge of my seat when I read this thing. It reminded me a lot of the old Hitchcock films. I wanted to do it, and I wanted to work with [director] John Badham. I was a big fan of Saturday Night Fever, which he directed; it’s a great movie. I also wanted to work with Christopher Walken, whom I’ve always admired.”
–Johnny Depp
Interview magazine
December 1995

If you can look past the ridiculousness of the premise and some of the larger plot holes, the movie delivers on what it promises – a fairly tense, but forgettable thriller. While it feels like Badham is reaching for something akin to the Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece “The Conversation” it never comes close. In addition to the weak plot, the film suffers from never allowing the audience to invest in Watson and his daughter beyond their immediate predicament. Watson’s deceased ex-wife is briefly mentioned, but it seems like more of an excuse for why a busy 90s dad is travelling alone with his daughter than for any emotional stake. Similarly the audience is kept at arms length from the conspiracy plot and the stakes for the individual players.

Not one of Depp’s most memorable roles, but still an essential stepping stone on his growth as an actor.

By the Numbers

  • 2nd film in which Depp plays an accountant, the other being Dead Man (1995)
  • 2nd film in which Depp wears glasses for significant portion of the film , the other being Dead Man (1995).
  • 1st film in which Depp plays someone’s father.

Next up in the rotation is the 1997 gangster drama – Donnie Brasco featuring Al Pacino.