The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)

The Astronaut's Wife (1999) - DVD Cover

The Astronaut’s Wife (1999) – DVD Cover

One of three Johnny Depp movies released in 1999, The Astronaut’s Wife is definitely the weakest of the three and had me questioning my resolve to watch ALL the films Johnny Depp’s appeared in during his career.

The Astronaut’s Wife features Depp as Spencer Armacost the astronaut while Charlize Theron plays his wife Jillian. An explosion occurs while Spencer and a fellow astronaut are  conducting a space walk to repair a satellite. The ground crew and their fellow crew mates lose contact with them for 2 minutes. They are retrieved and immediately returned to earth where they slowly come out of comas, but to their wives they are changed men. Dun, dun, duuun.

The Armacosts in happier times - The Astronaut's Wife (1999)

The Armacosts in happier times – The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)

The directing and acting go for heavy handed including slow motion shots of glasses falling to the ground and shattering while people scream in the background and ominous dream sequences in which Jillian sees dead people. Oooh, the tension. As much as I like Theron and Depp as actors, the on-screen couple have about as much chemistry here as Angelina Jolie and her brother James kissing.

Jillian (Charlize Theron) and Spencer (Johnny Depp) share a kiss.

Jillian (Charlize Theron) and Spencer (Johnny Depp) share a kiss.

No wait, the siblings have more chemistry than Depp and Theron and that’s saying something.

Angelina and James share a kiss.

Angelina and brother James share a kiss.

Other than the central mystery of what happened during the blackout there is little driving the plot. We are continuously told by Jillian how much her husband has changed and how much he doesn’t sound like himself, but we are never shown enough of the pre-event Spencer to be able to make that connection ourself.

After Jillian becomes pregnant with twins, dun, dun, duuun things are supposed to become creepier (a la Rosemary’s Baby) but it never achieves that level of suspense for me. It plays like a drawn out episode of the X-Files, but without the redeeming forces of Agents Mulder and Scully to propel the plot and give us context.

The resolution of the plot is as heavy handed as the rest of the movie and would have had me fuming had I paid good money to see this in the theatre back in the day. Let’s face it Johnny Depp playing an asshole misses the whole point of his charm as an actor. There’s no redeeming this movie and I haven’t even started on how they play up Jillian’s history of mental health issues as a reason why no one is going to believe her alien conspiracies.

The movie faired poorly at the box office taking in less than $10 Million during its run making it one of Depp’s worst performing film given its $75 budget, and yes that includes The Lone Ranger.

Whew, thankful to have that one out of the way. Now I can move onto the third film from 1999 for Depp – Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.

 

 

The Ninth Gate (1999)

The Ninth Gate (1999) - DVD Cover

The Ninth Gate (1999) – DVD Cover

In 1999, Johnny Depp teamed up with director Roman Polanski to star in The Ninth Gate, a supernatural thriller that was loosely based on the 1993 novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte called The Club Dumas.

Depp stars as Dean Corso, a rare book dealer who is hired to locate and authenticate the remaining copies of The Nine Gate of the Shadow Kingdom, by a wealthy businessman Boris Balkan (Frank Langella)  who wants to know which of the copies is authentic and which are forgeries. The book is reputed to have been co-authored by Satan himself and unlocking the secrets of the book enable the owner to summon the devil.

Corso’s greed and arrogance quickly lead him to become entangled in a satanic conspiracy after several of the people involved with the books are found murdered.

Mind if I smoke? - Depp as Dean Corso in The Ninth Gate

Mind if I smoke? – Depp as Dean Corso in The Ninth Gate

Depp plays Corso with a self-assured confidence benefiting his character. His supreme confidence is exhibited in an early scene when he suavely swindles a couple out of their invalid father’s rare Don Quixote manuscript by playing into their greed. This contrasted with Corso’s vulnerability when physically confronted makes for an interesting character.

During Corso’s travels to authenticate the manuscripts he crosses paths on several occasions with a strange young woman with green eyes. After he confronts her they form an unspoken alliance of sorts, with the girl showing up unexpectedly when Dean needs her the most.

As the film builds to its climax, Dean and the audience begin to piece together the mystery of the Ninth Gates manuscript and how all the players fit together.

The film is one of those supernatural horror films that does a good job of creeping you out without relying on cheap scares, blood or gore. I enjoyed Depp’s strong performance in this and would almost put it on par with his role in Donnie Brasco. The only reason I think I wouldn’t elevate it to that level is because The Ninth Gate is lacking a strong foil for Depp to interact with. Depp relies on a lot on reaction shots in the film and his expressive face does not let him down. For those who like their Depp films with a bit of sex and Johnny bare chested, there’s definitely some of that going on here as Dean Curoso is seduced by two of the principal female characters.

Do I look like I believe the bullshit you're feeding me?

Do I look like I believe the bullshit you’re feeding me?

 

Despite Polanski’s abhorrent personal history he still has talent as a director and this picture has some great shots and timeless feel to it. Depp in interviews said that working with the notoriously rigid Polanski was tough after working for someone as free as Tim Burton, but was thankful for the experience.

By The Numbers

  • 4th film in which Depp’s character wears glasses. The round glasses he wears for the first half of the film have been identified as Savile Row Beaufort Panto 
  • 3rd film in which Depp’s character has some form of facial hair.

Next up is another 1999 flick Astronaut’s Wife starring Charlize Theron as the wife to Depp’s Astronaut.

 

 

 

 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) DVD Cover

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) DVD Cover

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) Depp takes on iconic gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and his drug-fuelled road trip to 1970s Las Vegas with his friend and attorney Dr. Gonzo (aka Oscar Zeta Acosta) . What initially started as photo assignment for Sports Illustrated, to write captions for the annual Mint 400 off-road race, becomes a debauched lost weekend in which Raoul Duke (aka HST) and his “Samoan” lawyer burn their way through a suitcase full of drugs.

 We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.

This is Bat Country! - Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke aka HST.

This is Bat Country! – Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke aka HST.

Based on Hunter S. Thompson’s 1972 book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream the unique combination of the source material, Depp’s manic acting, and director Terry Gilliam’s unique eye behind the camera, the result is something behold.

On the surface it feels like a nonsensical, disjointed, drug-induced hallucination that can leave you scratching your head, but on closer examination there is a method to the madness in Thompson’s confrontation of the American Dream and what lies beneath. In one scene Duke’s writing about the height of the counter-culture movement in 1965 and how far they’ve come (fallen) since then. Images of social unrest are contrasted through out the movie (Vietnam war protests and News footage of bombings) with the ‘bread and circuses’ mentality that is the reason for the very existence of Las Vegas.

Depp digs deep for his transformation into Hunter S. Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke. From living in Thompson’s basement for a period of time to get to know him and his quirks, to allowing Thompson to shave his head, to borrowing vintage pieces of HST’s clothing for the actual movie, Depp knew no boundaries in his effort to become the character.

Hunter S. Thopmson shaving Johnny Depp's head. - Source Unknown.

Hunter S. Thopmson shaving Johnny Depp’s head. – Source Unknown.

Ah, devil ether. It makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel. Total loss of all basic motor skills. Blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue. The mind recoils in horror, unable to communicate with the spinal column. Which is interesting because you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it.

It’s ultimately one of my favourite Depp performances watching not only his manic facial ticks and physical acting while pretending to be under the influence of drugs, but also the rapport between him and Benico Del Toro on screen. I can’t imagine how they delivered some of the scenes and managed to stay in character.

Definitely not for everyone, but anyone with appreciation of satire, Gilliam, or Depp’s acting should definitely give this ago. If you haven’t been exposed to the world of Hunter S. Thompson before now, this is a fucked up and brilliant spot to begin.

I also read a great biography a couple of years ago by the artist Ralph Steadman called – The Joke’s Over – Ralph Steadman on Hunter S. Thompson which highlights the pair’s working relationship as well as provides a nice coda to Thompson’s suicide in 2005.

By the Numbers

    • 3rd film in which Depp’s character wears glasses.
    • 4th film in which Depp’s character wears a distinctive hat or hats.
    • 1st film in which Depp shaved his head for the role.
    • The film was referenced in the 2011 animated movie Rango (Starring Johnny Depp) when the title character wearing a very HST-esque shirt lands on the windshield of a red convertible.

Next up in the rotation is the 1999 Roman Polanski film The Ninth Gate which features Depp as a rare book collector that has a run in with the supernatural and occult when he goes looking for a couple of lost books.

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).

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.

Dead Man (1995)

DeadManCoverJim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man follows the journey of a Cleveland accountant, William Blake (Johnny Depp) as he travels to the end of the rail road and America’s Western frontier in the late 1800s in search of work only to find his own death and spiritual awakening.

As a fan of Jarmusch’s earlier work Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991), I was up for whatever the director had to offer. The fact that Depp was staring in the movie made it a definite must-see for me when it was initially released in theatres.

Reaction to the movie when it was first release was divided; people either loved it or hated it. I definitely fell into the ‘love it’ category and still do love it nearly 20 years later. It has a languid, dream-like quality to it punctuated with brief moments of intense action and violence. I think that some people are also put off by Neil Young’s instrumental guitar score that can feel both alien and disconnected from the film at times, but for me worked to heighten the tension and underscore the surreal aspects of the landscape.

[Contains Spoilers]

Cleveland Accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp)

Cleveland Accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp)

A naïve city dweller, Blake heads west from Cleveland on the rail road to an industrial town aptly named Machine at the end of the line with the promise of a job in an iron foundry run by John Dickson (Robert Mitchum). Blake arrives to find that the job he had been promised has already been filled and demands to speak with Dickson, only to be laughed out of the office. Nearly penniless, Blake buys some whiskey and sits down to contemplate his next move. He witnesses a flower girl named Thel (Mili Avital) roughed up by a drunk patron and comes to her aid. After walking her back to her room, the two exchange stories and end up in bed together. Discovered by Thel’s jealous ex-boyfriend Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) the encounter turns violent leaving both Thel and Charlie dead, and Blake mortally wounded with a bullet lodged near his heart. Fearing for his life Blake escapes with Thel’s revolver and Charlie’s horse. As fate would have it Charlie is the son of John Dickinson who brings his money and influence to bear, hiring ruthless bounty hunters as well as putting out a bounty for Blake’s capture or death for anyone who wants it.

ThisIsAMERICA_2

Thel: Watch it. It’s loaded.
Blake: Why do you have this?
Thel: Because this is America.

On death’s doorstep from his gunshot wound, Blake is found by a Native American called Nobody who tries to cut out the “white man’s metal” from Blake’s wound while he sleeps. Nobody becomes Blake’s guide leading him through the wilderness on his journey. Played by Canadian born actor Gary Farmer, Nobody is worldlier than his “educated” friend having been at one time enslaved and shipped to Europe to show off as a “savage”. Nobody is familiar with the work of William Blake’s poet/artist namesake quoting his poetry throughout the movie even when Blake himself is oblivious, calling Nobody’s seemingly mystic ramblings “Indian malarkey”. As cryptic as Nobody’s wisdom is sometimes, it’s his direct bare dialogue that is comedic and often poignant. Nobody’s recurring refrain of “Stupid fucking white man” and constant question of “Got any tobacco?” serve to underscore the absurdity of many of the situations they find themselves in.

GotAnyTobacco

Got any tobacco? – Blake (Johnny Depp) and Nobody (Gary Farmer)

In his weakened state Blake’s journey becomes a foggy, disjointed, series of interactions with those chasing him and those people that he and Nobody encounter along the way. These encounters fluctuate between the absurd, such as the encounter with Sally (Iggy Pop) and her band of misfit trappers, and the heartbreaking such as a scene of a burned out Indian settlement along the river bank.

Wanted_WilliamBlakeDepp goes into full on subdued mode in his role as Blake in the first half of the film, being a passive participant in his journey reacting to the alien circumstances and environment. It’s not until after Nobody has abandoned him on his quest does Blake wake up to his fate and become an active participant in his journey. Depp’s bewildered and confused expressions evaporate as Blake takes charge, confronting some of his hunters with a stone faced look of determination. With guns trained on him, they ask: “Are you William Blake?” He coolly responds “Do you know my Poetry?” before shooting them dead.

Despite the meandering path the characters and the story take through the American West, it feels as if its building to something with Nobody and Blake looking to get to the ocean where Blake can be reunited with the spirit world, and with the psychotic bounty hunter Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) closing in on their trail.

While film does end on a climatic note, the narrative itself is anti-climatic with the characters stories ending abruptly with their deaths. As in real life, death doesn’t always make for a neat narrative resolution, but rather leaves the survivors with the task of struggling to find meaning in the arc of the character’s lives. While many viewers are left feeling cheated by the ending of the movie (That’s it?, was the reaction I remember many people having watching it in the theatre and on DVD.) I can’t imagine the film ending in any other way and wonder what people were expecting was going to happen.

In retrospect I am not sure why I have more patience for a film like Dead Man which clocks in at 121 minutes, than say Ed Wood which is just slightly longer at 127 minutes. Perhaps, it’s because a movie like Ed Wood feels like its trying to cram too much narrative into the time its given, where as a movie like Dead Man gives the narrative and characters room to breathe without rushing the story along.

While Depp is the central character in this movie and helps make Blake’s transformation believable, the film succeeds as a result of a group effort from Jarmusch’s directing to the unbelievable ensemble cast and all the cinematography and art direction in between. A film with a lot of subtle and not so subtle commentary on the fabric of the America, its a film I’d highly recommend.

By the Numbers…

  • Dead Man is Depp’s second role in a black and white film after Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).
  • Depp’s character William Blake wears a Jaxon or John Bull Topper throughout the film. It’s the third film in which his character wears a distinctive hat. The other two films being Benny and Joon (1993) and Don Juan DeMarco (1995).
  • It’s the second film in which a character played by Depp has a connection to Native American or Aboriginal character. The other was the Inuit hunter in Arizona Dream (1992).
  • The first line of dialogue is not spoken until almost 6 minutes into the film.

Up Next…

The 1995 “mainstream” movie Nick of Time in which Johnny plays someone’s DAD!

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

In Don Juan DeMarco, Depp plays the title character, a seemingly delusional 20-something who believes he is the direct descendant of Don Juan and dresses like “Zorro” complete with mask and sword. The movie opens with Don Juan seducing one last woman before preparing to sacrifice himself in a duel with his great rival since he can’t have the woman of his dreams, the beautiful Dona Ana. Dr. Jack Mickler an ageing psychiatrist, played by Marlon Brando, is days from retiring when he gets the call to talk down the suicidal Don Juan. Pretending to be Don Juan’s rival’s uncle – Don Octavio DeFlores, Mickler gets Don Juan into a psychiatric hospital where the county gets an order to hold him for assessment. Mickler has 10 days to assess him before they have to decide to commit him or release him. Mickler is forced to try to unravel Don Juan’s incredible tale before the clock runs out on the holding order and his own career.

Please to make your acquaintance, I am Don Juan DeMarco...

Please to make your acquaintance, I am Don Juan DeMarco…

Don Juan DeMarco is a charming film with Depp managing to lose himself in the character of Don Juan, so convincingly that it’s almost as if he’s a time traveller plopped down in the present from some 16th or 17th century romantic fairytale. Even when Dr. Mickler is trying to poke holes in Don Juan’s story pointing out the anachronistic nature of his life growing up in a remote village in Mexico that still embraces duels with swords, Don Juan never wavers in his conviction. His own fantastic story seems less delusional since he acknowledges the reality of the situation that he is being held in a psychiatric hospital and that he accepts that his story seems unbelievable to those around him.

Does this outfit make me look like a Pirate?

Does this outfit make me look like a Pirate?

Don Juan’s charm allows him to win over his attendants male and female alike and infuse everyone around him with a new found zest for life and love, Dr. Mickler included. Mickler’s own romantic life is awakened with his wife (Faye Dunaway) who he begins to see in a new light.

It’s not until more than half way through the movie that Don Juan’s incredible story starts to show some signs of becoming unravelled as his paternal grandmother is found living in Queens begins to fill Dr. Mickler in on the “truth”. At this point both Dr. Mickler and we the audience have bought into Don Juan’s story and don’t want the fantasy to end.

The film does a good balancing act of resolving the central conflict while still allowing the audience and pivotal characters have their cake and eat it too. After all this IS a romantic fantasy and demands a happy ending.

Love wins the day - Don Juan DeMarco gets the girl.

Love wins the day – Don Juan DeMarco gets the girl.

I enjoyed the film and the performance of the principle actors Depp, Brando, and Dunaway. One of the reasons I appreciate Depp as an actor is because he has the ability to own a character by completely giving himself over to a character. He becomes the character to the point where the audience only sees the character and not necessarily the actor. A little aside, I had the privilege of seeing Michael Caine introduce “The Quiet American” at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002. During his introduction Caine commented that when he watches one of his own performances he always catches glimpses of himself acting, but that his performance as Thomas Folwer in The Quiet American he found that he disappeared as an actor in the role. It is exactly Depp’s ability to become so engrossed and disappear in the role that suits him so well to these “character” roles. Actually, whenever someone describes Depp as a “character” actor I wince a little because it sounds as if they mean it in a demeaning way. Don’t get me wrong there are truly great character actors that serve a specific role in movies that act as pivotal characters, but are meant to be forgettable and meant to blend into the story and scenery. By contrast the characters that Depp so often plays are unique, larger than life personae that form the very heart of the story. There’s only one Edward Scissorhands, only one Capt. Jack Sparrow, and only one Don Juan Demarco. Yes he becomes engrossed in the characters and the characters become larger than life, but “character actor” is not the right way to describe what he does.

So you think you can act? - Two greats square off.

So you think you can act? – Two acting greats square off.

It’s been mentioned that when Depp signed on to play Don Juan DeMarco he did so under the condition that Brando be sought to play the role of Mickler. Whether true or not, Brando screen presence as an actor is still undeniable even at this late stage in his career. From the moment he is on screen he commands your attention. While Faye Dunaway is given little to do other than react to Brando’s attempts to rekindle their love life as a married couple in the film, she too has a presence about her that was previously demonstrated in her pairing with Depp in “Arizona Dream”.

In case you’re keeping score this is Depp’s tenth film, the first in which we see him with earrings, first with ‘funky’ facial hair in the form of a goatee and moustache, and the second film in which he wears a bandanna on his head in at least one scene – the first being a brief scene in Platoon. I guess you could debate the facial hair since Depp did have a pretty good pencil moustache going in Ed Wood.

As far as romantic comedies go it’s a light movie that has its charms, but it’s doubtful it will leave you with any renewed passion for life. It may however leave you with an earworm in the form of Bryan Adam’s title song Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman? which is used throughout the film as incidental music.

I bet you’re humming it right now…

Up next in the tribute rotation is the Jim Jarmusch indie film “Dead Man”.

Happy Birthday Johnny!

Happy 50th Birthday Johnny Depp!

Happy 50th Birthday Johnny Depp!

Happy Birthday to Johnny Depp who turns 50 today – June 9th.

If that isn’t hard enough to fathom, chew on this – the man has been acting in film and tv for THIRTY years. Yup you read that right. 30 years. I’ve been falling behind on my year long tribute to Depp and his career, but fear not I have not abandoned reviewing his 40+ films.

Just finished watching Don Juan Demarco the other night and need to finish writing the review.

Here’s a quick recap of the films (and TV) I have reviewed so far that either star or have an appearance by Depp.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Private Resort (1985)
Platoon (1986)
21 Jump Street (1987-1991)
Cry-Baby (1990)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Arizona Dream (1992)
Benny and Joon (1993)
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)
Ed Wood (1994)

10 down and 30+ to go. Up next is one of my favourite Depp films – Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

Happy Birthday Johnny and here’s to many happy returns!