Before Night Falls (2000)

Before Night Falls (2000)

Before Night Falls (2000) – DVD Cover

Johnny Depp turns up in this 2000 film from director Julian Schnabel in two small, but pivotal roles. Before Night Falls examines the life and death of Cuban poet and novelist, Reinaldo Arenas in a series of vignettes from his life.

Javier Bardem plays Arenas with the great emotion, conveying not only Reinaldo’s sexual awakening as a gay man in 1960s Cuba, but his struggle of conscience as he continues to write in the face of increased government pressure to silence him. Many of the sequences are poetic and dreamlike in the sense they feel ethereal and detached from reality. In several scenes we see Reinaldo imaging one reality only to be confronted with another starker image.

Johnny Depp as Bon Bon

Johnny Depp in glam mode as Bon Bon in Before Night Falls (2000)

Depp shows up two-thirds of the way into the film as  Bon Bon, a transvestite inmate who in makes a deal with Reinaldo to help smuggle his manuscript out of prison. In an interview in Johnny Depp Starts Here” by Murray Pomerance, Depp said his character was channelling his inner Sophia Loren in this role. Depp demonstrates his ability to amplify his feminine side as an actor. The confidence he exudes in this role makes the character stand out in the few scenes Bon Bon appears in.

Image of Johnny Depp as Bon Bon

Johnny Depp in peasant mode as Bon Bon in Before Night Falls (2000)

Image of Johnny Depp as Lt. Victor

Johnny Depp as Lt. Victor in Before Night Falls (2000)

Depp’s second role is almost the polar opposite of his role as Bon Bon. Instead of the feminine, transgressive, co-conspirator and fellow inmate of Reinaldo, Depp plays Lieutenant Victor, a hyper-masculine oppressor, and interrogator of Reinaldo’s writing, sexuality, and political views. Victor wants to break down Reinaldo and force him to renounce his writing and counter-revolutionary propaganda in exchange for the promise that he will be released. In one of those “Is he dreaming?” scenes Reinaldo visualizes Victor pressing his crotch to Reinaldo’s face in a moment of faux-comfort, but real domination.

Reinaldo eventually escapes Castro’s regime in Cuba by becoming part of the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, claiming refugee status in New York City. The remainder of the film touches on his time spent in exile and his declining health which is alluded to in the film as being AID/HIV related.

One of the central things I took away from he film was about the power and beauty of art. In a scene when Reinaldo is first discovering his voice as a writer he is taken aside by two famous writers, Virgilio Piñera  and José Lezama Lima to help mentor him. Lima explains in a speech to Reinaldo that art is dangerous.

“People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship
They create beauty 
and beauty is the enemy. 
Artists are escapists.
Artists are counter-revolutionary.

There’s a man that cannot govern the terrain called beauty so he wants to eliminate it.”

An interesting and powerful movie worth watching not just for Depp’s small roles, but Reinaldo Arenas’ story and Cuba’s struggle.

By the Numbers

  • 4th film in which Depp wears a bandanna or scarf in his hair.
  • 2nd film in which Depp appears in women’s clothing.
  • 2nd film in which Depp uses a “Spanish” accent.
  • 2nd film since Platoon where he is not one of the principal characters of the film.

Up next in the queue for review is the Sally Potter drama “The Man Who Cried” (2000)

 

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Sleepy Hollow (1999) - DVD Cover

Sleepy Hollow (1999) – DVD Cover

In this Tim Burton adaptation of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, Depp is cast as Ichabod Crane. Instead of portraying Crane as the jittery schoolmaster, Burton recasts him as a New York City constable bent on applying forensic science and “modern” investigative techniques to everyday cases. Crane’s fastidious investigations and doing things by the book puts him at odds with his superiors’ preferred method of rough justice. Partly as punishment and partly to get rid of him, Crane is dispatched to Upper State New York to investigate several beheadings in the village of Sleepy Hollow.

Burton’s adaptation seems to be at odds with its own narrative from the start. In his native New York City we see Ichabod Crane being depicted as a cool customer, ready to confront his superiors and take on the system, yet later in the movie we quickly see how ‘delicate’ Crane is and that his confrontational nature witnessed in the courtroom is no where to be seen.

Who's a pretty boy? - Ichabod - Don't Touch My Hair - Crane investigating

Who’s a pretty boy? – Ichabod – Don’t Touch My Hair – Crane investigating

As with many of Depp’s roles he’s noted in interviews that he took inspiration from a number of real life sources for his performance as Ichabod-  Angela Landsbury, Roddy McDowall, and “a frightened little girl”. Depp’s gift of being able to turn off and on these masks, almost hinders him in Sleepy Hollow in my opinion as his performance felt uneven to me.

The film is gorgeous to look at it as you would expect for a Burton film, but I was surprised rewatching how few Burton-esque flourishes there are. The pumpkin scarecrow, that bears a striking resemblance to Jack Skellington, and the haunted tree are two of the creations that are immediately recognizable as Burton.

Somewhat less glamorous shot of Ichabod in Investigate mode.

Somewhat less glamorous shot of Ichabod in Investigate mode.

Certain “comedic” touches such as Ichabod getting splattered by blood on numerous occasions seemed over-the-top*. I joked with a friend that between the blood splatter and Ichabod’s squeamish face / near fainting spells you could have yourself a pretty good drinking game with Sleepy Hollow.

Oh wait, someone has already had the same thought – Fire Frog’s Sleepy Hollow Drinking Game.

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Christopher Walken is criminally wasted as the Headless Horsemen here, channelling his inner Tasmanian Devil, gnashing his chiselled teeth and growling in the few scenes when he’s in possession of his head.

"Alas Poor Yorrick, I knew him well"

“Alas Poor Yorick, I knew him well”

Christina Ricci does a good job as Ichabod’s foil / love interest Katrina Van Tassel when she’s not being upstaged by her step-mother, the Headless Horsemen, or Ichabod’s fainting/showboating. Burton is blessed with a wonderful cast of supporting actors from Ian McDermid and Christopher Lee (both of who played critical roles in Star Wars), to future Harry Potter stalwarts Richard Griffiths and Michael Gambon.

Unfortunately, I never found the film as suspenseful or as terrifying as I did the original Disney cartoon of Sleepy Hollow. Granted the movie was entertaining to watch, but I found that I cared little for unravelling the mystery of who was controlling the Headless Horsemen, or what their motive was. For me I, spent more of the film wishing that Burton had jettisoned the entire Headless Horsemen plot and instead explored Ichabod Crane and his crime fighting in NYC – consider it an early precursor to CSI: New York. Of course your mileage may vary, depending on your affinity for all things Burton/Depp.

*Especially when the blood is from a corpse.

Note: As fate would have it, immediately after I re-watched this movie, the new TV series – Sleepy Hollow aired on Fox in the fall of 2013. An interesting mix of cheesy action and creepy horror had me far more interested than Burton’s 1999 film.

Up next I review Depp’s small roles in the 2000 film – Before Night Falls directed by Julian Schnabel about Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas.