What I Read in 2015: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Audio Books

So I thought I would take a few minutes to wrap up what I read in 2015.

2015 was the year that I finally embraced the power of Audible. Back when I was living in Toronto and commuting on public transit it was easy to read a book weekly. These days if I am reading it can take me a month to get through one book. As my GoodReads stats can attest  I was having a hard time making 12 books a year for the last couple of years. You can’t imagine how sad that makes someone who loves fiction in all shapes and sizes both as a writer and a reader. There are so many books and so little time.

TimeEnoughAtLast

An apocalypse might be the only way to free up enough reading time, but we all know how that works out.

I first tried out Audible.com in late 2014 and was soon hooked buying a membership which gives a free monthly credit and discounts on other titles. One of the reasons I “resisted” audio books (and this is going to sound dumb) is because it felt like cheating. It felt like reading the Coles Notes (Cliff Notes to you Americans) version instead of the real thing. That’s being unfair of course, because Audible versions are mostly unabridged and there’s no explanation/summary of the concepts in the story for you to grasp. Still when talking to people about a book I just read in conversation, I pause and explain that I didn’t “read” it that I listened to it on audio as if I am apologizing for not being literate enough to read it. I guess that’s probably the real reason right there. That I somehow think people are going to judge me as less literate or something. Huh, see blogging can tell you something about yourself. Anyhow this was the year that I embraced the audio book full on. As you will see from my list, the majority were audio books.

I set my goals for 2015 at 24 books, but ended up only hitting 16 for the year. Just slightly more than a book a month, but still progress on my recent downward trend.

Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin translated by Ken Liu

Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu translated by Ken Liu

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu Translated by Ken Liu. Narrated by Luke Daniels

First up was this mind-bending tale from China’s celebrated science fiction author Cixin Liu whose work is just being discovered by English audiences thanks to this fabulous translation by SF author Ken Liu.

I don’t think I can even begin to summarize the plot of this novel and do it justice. The description in GoodReads mentions that it’s “a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.” Yeah, lets go with that.

It involves aliens trying to communicate via physics and using simulated worlds/game in a conspiracy all set against the backdrop of China and all the politics that go with it. If you like Hard SF and head scratchy this one is for you.

As for the Audio production of this story – I would listen to ANYTHING narrated by Luke Daniels. The first audio book from Audible that I listened to was Michael Underwood’s “Crocus and Shield” which Luke narrates with a full cast of voices that brought the text to life.

I’m looking forward to listening to the other books in this series as they become available.

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep by Timothy Verstynen, Bradley Voytek

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep by Timothy Verstynen, Bradley Voytek

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek. Narrated by Scott Aiello.

I would have read this one just  based on the title’s play on words of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?” alone, but it had the added bonus that it came recommended by Canadian SF author Robert J. Sawyer.

Basically Verstynen and Voytek are two neuroscientist dudes by day and geeks by night who pulled together some very scientific observations about zombie behaviour based on representation of zombies in pop culture.  While I went in expecting them to lean more on the pop culture side of the equation, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the book is structured in such a way that you are sneakily being educated about neuroscience.

Don’t be put off by the thought of trying to understand neuroscience terms like ganglia and how Alzheimers works on the brain. The audio production of this novel lends itself beautifully to the text as it is related in a very informal lecture style and Scott Aiello’s delivery as narrator is very accessible. I would definitely recommend to fans of Zombies or someone just wanting to learn more about how the brain works, but to approach it in a fun way.

Silver Screen Fiend - by Patton Oswalt

Silver Screen Fiend – by Patton Oswalt

Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt. Narrated by the Author.

I’ve been vaguely aware of Patton Oswalt’s career as a comedian and an actor for a few years now, but had never really tuned into him until recently. I was curious when this book came out since I’m a lapsed cinephile myself and this book covers a period of Oswalt’s life when he was obsessively watching “classic” films as part of his education on the way to becoming a film director during the ’90s when I too was an active movie junkie.

As far as autobiographies go its an interesting inside look both at the comedy business and the cult like nature of cinephiles that relish that next hit of celluloid. Oswalt does a great job of telling a good anecdote while at the same time having the maturity and insight to put it in perspective. One part coming of age story and one part pursuing the creative dream, it was a worthy read.

Autobiographies on audio books are a perfect medium if they are read by the author. The author knows the stories intimately and the delivery is better than anything you could expect from either reading it on the page yourself or having someone else narrate them.

Hominids - Robert J. Sawyer

Hominids – Robert J. Sawyer

Hominids (Neanderthal Parallax #1) by Robert J. Sawyer. Narrated by Jonathan Davis

I read this book initially back when it was first released in 2003 and decided to revisit it when it came up as a deal on Audible.com one day. Here’s what I said in my GoodReads.com review of it (lightly edited for clarity here)

The first in a trilogy Hominids does a good job of being a stand alone book as well as opening up the world for future books. To date I have still only read/listened to the first book of the series.

While I have problems with some of the choices the author makes for telling the narrative in this story including rape as a character motivation, I have to temper that disappointment/frustration with the things the author gets right.

In addition to imagining an alternate universe where Neanderthals rose to prominence as Humans faded from existence, Robert Sawyer explores a number of larger issues including religion, violence in society, and the rise of consciousness. He does this while essential framing the narrative as both a stranger-in-a-strange-land story and a courtroom/mystery drama.

While the book may not be for everyone and I would have a hard time recommending it to a general audience based on the issues I outlined above, I think its a worthy read for the larger issues it explores.

Nothing in particular stood out about the audio production of this one, maybe because I was already familiar with the story.

An Improvised Life: A Memoir by Alan Arkin

An Improvised Life: A Memoir by Alan Arkin

An Improvised Life: A Memoir by Alan Arkin Narrated by the Author

My second memoir of the year was by Alan Arkin. His journey into acting is an interesting one and as you’d expect with someone with such a rich career, Arkin has a lot of insight into his life and a creative process. A short book (4 hours and change listening time) it was  quick read.

I enjoy listening to people talking about their creative process as it is often illuminating and gives me food for thought for my own creative process. My only criticism of the memoir was that it was very narrowly drawn memoir and Arkin, doesn’t dwell on aspects of his life that he doesn’t want to share. Which is fine, except that it sometimes fell like he was glossing over things to perhaps paint himself in a better light. Regardless I would recommend it to people with an interest in acting or Arkin himself.

Not My Father's Son: A Memoir

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming, Narrated by the Author

I had wanted to check out this memoir of Alan Cumming since it came out in print back in 2014, but getting it on Audio was worth the wait. Again having the author read his own words carries so much more emotional weight and in the case of Cumming’s memoir its essential.

The memoir deals largely with the emotional and physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father growing up and how he’s been forced to deal with it all his life. Not an easy topic for him to discuss or the audience to listen to, but a very poignant one that was worth listening to. The novel is also about family and what it is that means. Alan recounts the story of his mother’s father, his maternal grandfather, Tommy Darling, and the mystery behind his disappearance in the Far East after WWII as it came out during the filming of an episode of the genealogy show “Who do You Think You Are?”.

Genius by by Steven T. Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen

Genius by by Steven T. Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen

Genius by Steven T. Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen (Illustrations)

I picked this graphic novel up at a used book sale, intrigued by the premise and the artwork. Middle-aged Teddy Marx works as a quantum physicist who feels like he’s not living up to his potential genius. He becomes obsessed with his father-in-laws connection to Einstein and a potential secret that Einstein shared with his father-in-law that may unlock secrets to the universe and could elevate Teddy’s standing as a physicist if he could uncover it.

The story didn’t really go where I expected, which is a good and a bad thing. I liked what it did with the story, but just didn’t feel as connected to it as I wanted to be. Your mileage may vary.

 

The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

I’m cheating a bit with this one since it was a stand alone short story and not a novel, but I am counting it and sharing it all the same. It won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 2014 and I finally got around to downloading it and reading it.

Definitely not your typically SF story, but so poignantly done that you can’t call it anything else but speculative fiction. Here’s the description from the GoodReads.com blurb about the book:

In the near future water falls from the sky whenever someone lies (either a mist or a torrential flood depending on the intensity of the lie). This makes life difficult for Matt as he maneuvers the marriage question with his lover and how best to “come out” to his traditional Chinese parents.

Definitely check it out.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, Narrated by Almarie Guerra

My favourite new book of 2015, this book hit all the sweet spots for me. It was gripping, well written, great characters, had a nice blend of SF and Detective Noir going for it, plus Almarie Guerra’s delivery in audio was on fire.

Set in a near future that hits a little too close to home for comfort, Bacigalupi paints a frightening picture of a perpetually drought stricken Southwest where those with wealth have sought to control their destinies and insulate themselves from the impending environmental disasters while the rest of the world lives on the edge of ruin. Thrown into this is a Water Knife named Angel who is essentially a hired gun for powerful interests who does what it takes to secure the water rights necessary for his clients prosperity. Angel’s story becomes intertwined with two other characters – Lucy Monroe a investigative reporter who’s become increasingly caught up in the corrupt powers at play, and naive but tough Maria Villarosa, an orphaned Texan migrant who calls Phoenix home but dreams of breaking free and escaping to the North.

The ride was well worth it and in the end its one of those stories that you can’t stop thinking about.

Charlotte's Web - E.B. White

Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

I took time this summer to read Charlotte’s Web to my 8 year old daughter. A classic that was a treat to go back and read as an adult. I found E.B. White’s characters delightful and the voices he lends the animals are so distinct and memorable.

The other thing I liked about Charlotte’s web is that it doesn’t pull any punches. Things such as Wilbur’s fate and Charlotte’s future are not shied away from.

There’s a reason why this is such a timeless book. If you haven’t read it before or it’s been a long time since you last spent time with it,  I suggest you take a moment to get reacquainted. You’ll be surprised at how well it stands up.

An Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler's Army by Georg Rauch

An Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army
by Georg Rauch

An Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army by Georg Rauch

Another memoir, this one brought home by 11 year old son from a Scholastic book fair. I was a bit dubious at first that this book was being market to such as young audience. My son and I chose this to read along together.

It’s essentially a posthumous reprint of the author Georg Rauch’s memoir that was initially published in the 1980s while he was still alive. Repackaged and promoted to a new audience the book is well written and harrowing first hand account of a young man conscripted against his will and forced to serve in what he knows is a losing war.

Georg survives what sound like impossible odds in the book. He shares his opinion and experience with the war through a series of letters sent home to his Mutti (Mother) and fillls in the remaining recollections with very vivid anecdotes.

My son who was on a real World War II history kick appreciated this insight into the war from such a unique perspective as a Austrian Jew forced to fight for the German army. Definitely mature subject matter, but a good eye opener for a young audience.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora (#1 Gentlemen Bastards) by Scott Lynch, Narrated by Michael Page

I had hear a great many good things about this novel before downloading it on audio. I haven’t been a big reader of Fantasy novels since high school which was many years in my past. After listening to this audio book, all I had to say was that if more Fantasy was like this I would read more.

The Lies of Locke Lamora was fun, entertaining, gripping and managed to transport me to a fantasy world unlike most I had seen. Set in a vaguely Venetian setting, the story revolves around Locke Lamora, an orphan with a unique talent for thieving. The book builds, taking the time to inter-weave Locke’s back story into the present intrigue that he and his gang are working on. Locke’s Gentlemen Bastards soon find themselves caught up in the Grey King’s own plans to unseat the ruling Capa Barsavi.

I loved the characters and the world building that went into this book. Throughout the book the author pauses after a particular action filled chapter to cut to an “Interlude” where he takes the time to tell more of Locke’s and his bands’ backstory, which one some level should be frustrating delay in the action for the reader, but actually worked for me as the interludes were a good mix of delayed gratification and foreshadowing that made the story stronger.

I had the good fortune of meeting Scott Lynch in person this year (no, not name dropping at all!) and had a chance to tell him first hand how I admired the amount of craft that went into this novel, as well as thanked him for the frustration he caused me at these drawn out interludes that worked so well.

I can see why he has the following he does. I hope to get a chance to read/listen to the rest of the series in the near future. I would highly recommend the audio production of the Lies of Locke Lamora because the banter works so well and the narrator Michael Page does a good job of coming up with so many distinct voices for the characters.

Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson

Sister Mine
by Nalo Hopkinson

Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson Narrated by Robin Miles

I read and enjoyed Nalo Hopkinson’s earlier urban fantasy novel Brown Girl in the Ring a few years ago and wanted to try her more recent novel – Sister Mine.

The novel focuses on the relationship of Makeda and Abby, formerly co-joined sisters, with an special bond. Their family is descended from celestial beings and there is a power struggle going on that they are not fully aware of. Nalo Hopkinson does a wonderful job painting a picture of a Toronto not seen by others and the familial struggle between siblings is all too real. The ending was a little less tidy than you might otherwise expect, but in hindsight I was okay with that and how it fit with the rest of the book. It was an enjoyable read/listen and I look forward to more of her work.

Camp X by Eric Walters

Camp X by Eric Walters

Camp X by Eric Walters

I recommended this to my son as story that might interest him. I hadn’t read it before myself, but was aware of Eric Walters writing and this series. Set in Canada during World War II the Camp X series follows two young protagonists 12 year old George and his older brother Jack as they get entangled in a series of adventures involving the secret spy camp located outside of Toronto called Camp X.

We read this together and I have to say it was a gripping read and a perfect fit for my 11 year old son who has some learning disabilities and has been a delayed reader. Perfect, not in that it was easy for him, but rather that it was such a page turner that he couldn’t put it down. More than once he said to me that he didn’t want to put it down and go to bed. Since finishing the book in September he has left me in the dust reading another 3 or four in the series. I think Eric Walters has a fan for life now.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral by William Gibson, Narrated by

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this novel. I hadn’t read any reviews or descriptions, but knew there was some sort of ‘time travel’ element to it. As with much of Gibson’s work he doesn’t slow down to explain concepts to the reader and expects you to keep up and that you’ll piece together things as you go which was fine by me. I’m glad I listened to it on audio though, because I think had I been reading it I would have tended to put it aside for long stretches as I tried to absorb what was happening. With audio I was afforded the luxury of being able to push ahead and keep going while on my daily commute.

Gibson’s characters and his world building were fabulous in this story, although the central plot driving the tale left me a bit wanting. It seemed to be a bit of a MacGuffin (definition here) and I felt that despite the tension throughout there was not as much at stake as was let on.

I loved how Gibson captured the nuances of the characters dialogue and that it felt authentic to their different eras and circumstances. The narrator Lorelei King did a great job with the dialogue for the characters, but I found her narration otherwise robotic sounding. So much so that I found myself googling the narrator to see if she was the voice of Siri or not. I am not sure the choice was intentional or not, but I found it distracting at first.

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Star Wars: Aftermath – By Chuck Wendig, Narrated by Marc Thompson.

Despite being a life long Star Wars fan, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything in the Expanded Universe growing up. Not sure why I hadn’t, but I decided it was time to dip my toes into the Star Wars literary world by reading Chuck Wendig’s book Aftermath. The story takes place in the wake of the explosion of the 2nd Death Star and the fallout from end of the Empire’s iron-fisted reign.

First a word about the production values of this audio version. This was the first audio book I had listened to where it was more of a ‘radio play’ than a dramatic reading as it was complete with sound effects and some musical score during critical scenes. I can’t complain about added Star Wars sound effects of blaster fire or Tie Fighters screaming across my speakers, because who doesn’t love that.  I have to admit, though there were a few times where I muted the sound to check to see if the noises I was hearing were the background thrum of Star Destroyer engines or some odd noise my car was making.

I thought the story was well done and I loved the characters and their interactions.I thought the parent/child relationship at the heart of the story played well and I love stories that include family. I felt the story was a good balance of action and introspection on the nature of the battle between the Empire and the New Republic and what it meant to overthrow the government. I think Chuck Wendig brought a unique perspective to the Star Wars universe both in his love for Star Wars and in his view of the world. I don’t know how to explain it, but the novel felt to me like it had a very uniquely American perspective to it, and I mean that in a good way. Buy me a beer sometime and I will try to do a better job of explaining what I mean by that.

I’d highly recommend this to fans of the Star Wars franchise and people new to Star Wars the same.

I thought Marc Thompson did a good job narrating, but his voice characterizations for Temmin Wexley and Admiral Ackbar reminded me a bit too much like other characters from non-Star Wars properties that it distracted me at first. I won’t mention who they reminded me of to avoid prejudicing you in case you choose to listen to it.

In Conclusion

Not the most diverse reading list in the world, but perhaps one reflective of my random/eclectic tastes. I didn’t plan out this reading list in 2015, but rather just went from one property to another. There were a few books on my reading list in 2015 that I started but didn’t finish before the year ended, so they didn’t get included here. They will probably make appearances on my 2016 list, assuming I finish them.

For 2016 I hope to make it to 24 books as planned. I suspect there will be fewer books that I read to my kids (not that I don’t enjoy reading to them!), and fewer autobiographies, but you never know.

I also read a lot of comics during 2015 (although my backlog of comics to-be-read is getting out of hand), and hope to do a little retrospective post of that side of my literary reading elsewhere on this blog.

Oh, and congrats if you read this all the way through this post. I had no idea I was going to write 4,000 words plus about 16 titles I read this year. Thanks for reading along.

What were some of your favourite reads of 2015?

Chocolat (2000)

Chocolat (2000) with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp

Chocolat (2000) with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp

Chocolat (2000) directed by Lasse Hallström tells the story of a insular French village in the late 1950s that finds it’s conservative attitudes and morality challenged when a young single mother and her child come to town and open a Chocolateir.

Juliette Binoche’s character Vianne quickly becomes the lightning rod of the community, first by befriending the “outcasts” of the community and drawing the ire of the more “respectable” citizens like the uptight Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) who’s busy trying to protect his public image and the Serge Muscat (Peter Stormare) who abuses his wife Josephine (Lena Olin).

The film does a good job ratcheting up the tension as the forces align against Vianne, culminating with a visit from a group of Irish gypsies which includes Depp’s character Roux. Watching Depp’s performance was bit cringe-worthy for me, not in the acting per se, but rather his accent. The Irish accent sounds somehow mangled to me and in retrospect like a bad parody of Depp’s later character Capt. Jack Sparrow. The chemistry between the two actors (Binoche and Depp) is good and the smouldering attraction between the two characters is well done.

Chemistry_Depp_Binoche

Fire Extinguishers on Standby. There’s some heat happening!

"Let me fix that squeak in your screen door."

“Let me fix that squeak in your screen door.”

I remember the film when it was first released being talked about as one of those “hot” Johnny Depp movies, which seemed strange to me at the time. I’d never thought of him as sex symbol, and frankly most of the roles I had seen him in up to that point where not traditional “sexy” roles (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). After watching this movie, a light suddenly went on and I could see what the women were talking about.

Depp’s role, while relatively small in the context of the film, is pivotal. The carefree and almost hedonistic nature of the gypsies is too much for the village to take and the town turns on them. Without giving too much away, there are a number of characters whose lives begin to unravel as they must come to terms with the choices and relationships they have built for themselves.

There are so many great characters and actors in the story. There’s Judi Dench as the ailing matriarch who is being kept from her grandson by the boy’s mother played by Carrie-Anne Moss. There’s the young parish priest, played by Hugh O’Conor who’s own lust for life is being stifled by the Church and the community’s demands of him. There’s also Vianne’s daughter Anouk and the toll the lifestyle they have chosen is having on her coming of age. The movie held up watching it 10+ years later and despite Depp’s accent it’s worth a look.

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)

 

Cry-Baby (1990)

Cover of Cry-Baby DVD

Cry Baby (1990)
Directed By John Waters

Up next in my year long tribute to Depp’s acting career is a review of his first movie role post-Jump Street. This time out Depp teamed up with a fellow outsider, director John Waters to make Cry-Baby a campy, musical send up 1950s juvenile delinquent films like Rebel Without a Cause (55), Jailhouse Rock (57), The Wild One (53), The Restless Years (58), and Live Fast, Die Young (58). In it Depp starts as Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, a teenage ‘greaser’ complete with slicked back pompadour, leather jacket and white t-shirt.

Set in Waters home town of Baltimore, the ‘drapes’ are at odds with the middle-class ‘squares’ and their socially acceptable lifestyle. Despite his bad boy looks and outsider attitude Cry-Baby and his gang of misfits are essentially good kids at heart. At the centre of this class war is a star-crossed love story between Allison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane) and Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp).

Cry-Baby Ensemble Cast

Cry-Baby Gang – Milton Hackett (Darren E. Burrows), Wade ‘Cry-Baby’ Walker (Johnny Depp), Mona ‘Hatchet-Face’ Malnorowski (Kim McGuire), Pepper Walker (Ricki Lake), and Wanda Woodward (Traci Lords)

Among Waters impressive ensemble cast are Iggy Pop, Susan Tyrell, Polly Bergen, Traci Lords, Ricki Lake, Darren E. Burrows, and Kim McGuire.

Allison is being raised by her socialite grandmother Mrs. Vernon-Williams (Polly Bergen) who runs the charm school and who has everything to lose socially by having her granddaughter involved with Cry-Baby and his low class of characters. Allison’s boyfriend Baldwin is happy to stir up anger against the drapes, antagonizing Cry-Baby at every opportunity and leading a party of squares on a raid of the drapes home turf – Turkey Point.   The raid ends up with the drapes being rounded up despite being the victims and dragged before the court. Hijinks ensue as people plot to break Cry-Baby out of jail. In the end the lovers are reunited.

Johnny Depp and Amy Locane as Star Crossed Lovers in Cry-Baby

Johnny Depp and Amy Locane as Star Crossed Lovers in Cry-Baby

Ironically Cry-Baby was Waters’ acceptance by the very Hollywood machine Depp was attempting to distance himself from. After scoring a moderate success with Hair Spray (1988) (the first incarnation not the 2007 version), Waters succeeded in getting green lighted for a Hollywood production and a modest budget that was several times larger than anything Waters had worked with up until that point. Depp was looking to break away from his teen-idol image that he had earned working on 21 Jump Street.

Cry-Baby is the first role in which we can see Depp’s process as an actor beginning to shine through. He immerses himself in the role and convincingly alternates between threatening bad boy and sensitive and misunderstood outsider. One of Depp’s trademarks as an actor is taking inspiration from other well established figures and making them his own. Whether they are real people  or other fictional characters, his knack for choosing the right combination of characteristics from these figures is what makes Depp’s characters interesting. In the case of Cry-Baby Walker, Depp admits in It Came From Baltimore documentary that he took inspiration from his father – a real life Greaser, rockabilly pioneers Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and finally a young Elvis.

Cry-Baby with Match

Come On Baby Let Me Light Your Fire


Although Waters chose to go with professional singers to dub both Locane and Depp’s musical numbers the lip-syncing is barely noticeable and does not distract from the film in the least. In the It Came From Baltimore documentary available on the Directors cut DVD, Depp confesses that he can’t dance and actually hates it. He admits that it was only with the help of the cast and choreographer he was able to get through the dance scenes.

Cry-Baby was one Depp’s films that I hadn’t experienced before. Although it took me a bit to get into it, the movie turned out to be a fun, ride, with some great campy performances and cheesy musical numbers that I think would best experienced with a group of people and some copious amounts of alcohol.

The film helped open a number of doors to Depp including our next film up for review Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.

21 Jump Street (1987-1991)

Do you know the way to Jump Street?

Do you know the way to Jump Street?

When I started this journey of reviewing Johnny Depp’s acting career I said I was going to stick to his films, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t ignore his stint on the late 80s teen cop show 21 Jump Street.

The show is central to Depp’s development as an actor for any number of reasons. For starters it was the vehicle that exposed him to reach a larger audience. Secondly, it solidified his resolve not to become, in his words, a ‘product’ to be manipulated by others. Finally, it was a great opportunity to showcase his chameleon-like abilities as an actor.

Set in an unnamed Washington town, 21 Jump Street follows Detective Tom Hanson (Johnny Depp) as a baby-faced rookie patrolman that isn’t taken seriously by his fellow cops or criminals. Recognizing his passion and talent for police work Hanson is reassigned to work with a secret undercover unit operating out of an abandon church located at, you guessed it, 21 Jump Street.

21 Jump Street came at time when a crop of long running and successful cop/detective dramas of the day either had just ended or were in their final few seasons: Hill Street Blues (1981-87), Cagney and Lacey (1981-88), Magnum P.I. (1980-88), T.J. Hooker (1982-86), Simon & Simon (1981-89), and Remington Steele (1982-87). While many of those series were critically acclaimed and reached broad audiences, none of them connected with the ‘kids’ of the day in a way that Jump Street did. Sure we all wanted to be Magnum and drive a Ferrari, but growing up in the 80s teens rarely saw themselves or their culture reflected in the TV drama of the time, unless you count preachy ABC Afterschool Specials.

Enter upstart FOX Broadcasting that was determined to launch an edgy fresh network to take on the big three (NBC, ABC, and CBS). Starting in 1987, Fox was only broadcasting two nights a week – Saturday & Sunday – and while there many forgettable shows launched during that first season (anyone remember Matthew Perry’s debut series – Second Chance?), it launched successful shows as 21 Jump Street, Married… With Children, and the Tracey Ullman Show, which would in turn spawn The Simpsons. 21 Jump Street was co-created by Stephen J. Cannell, no stranger to the police procedural with over 40 TV series to his credit, including Rockford Files, Baretta, and Tenspeed & Brownshoe, to name a few.

Office Tom Hanson - Freeze Punk!

Office Tom Hanson – Freeze Punk!

 

Tom Hanson transformed.

Tom Hanson transformed.

The pilot for Jump Street is slow to get going, following Hanson on patrol with a senior partner (Barney Martin) and setting up his back story about his passion for the job and desire to follow in his deceased father’s footsteps. Depp’s ability to switch between clean-cut boy next door and bad boy hunk convincingly is put to good use in the pilot as the Hanson’s new boss, hippie Captain Richard Jenko (Frederic Forrest), and his youthful crew makeover the square detective with the ‘Jack Kennedy haircut’ into something more contemporary. While Hanson looks at home in his leather jacket, jeans, and 80s version of the pompadour, he reverts to argyle sweater vests and khakis the moment he’s off duty.

The plot of the pilot is fairly inconsequential, revolving around saving some rich-boy white teen who is in over his head mixed up with a black thug named Tyrell ‘Waxer’ Thompson who drives a Ferrari to school. When not playing on stereotypes, the pilot does a good job building on the relationships between Depp and his new undercover partners Harry Truman Ioki (Dustin Nguyen), Doug Penhall (Peter Deluise), Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson Pete). Depp and his cast-mates do a decent job of carrying the story and are believable as teens in their undercover roles although we don’t get a chance to see Ioki or Hoffs in their high school settings this episode.

Deluise, Nguyen, and Depp bonding over car repairs.

Deluise, Nguyen, and Depp bonding over car repairs.

Filmed around Vancouver, Canada, license plates featuring Britsh Columbia logo are visible, the Gastown Steam Clock is prominently shown in another scene, and in a climatic chase scene Waxer and Hanson are shown running through the New Westminster Sky Train station. I am sure someone more familiar with the city could probably point out a dozen more landmarks in the pilot.

While 21 Jump Street brought Depp to a larger audience and turned him into a teen idol, it also strengthened his resolve to do his own thing. Quitting the series after the fourth season in 1990, Depp went on to take two movie roles to avoid being typecast as a teen idol – John Water’s Cry-Baby and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Next week we begin with a look at the first of those two films – Cry-Baby.

Platoon (1986)

Just a little disclaimer for anyone stumbling upon this review via a search engine. This is the third in a series of reviews discussing Johnny Depp’s acting career. If you’re looking for straight up review of the movie Platoon, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere.

Oliver Stone's Platoon

Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986)

Written and directed by Oliver Stone, Platoon is based on his own experience in the Vietnam War. The film was initially released at Christmas in 1986 in order to qualify for the all important award season. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and won 4 including Best Picture and Best Director as well as Best Sound and Best Film Editing. Platoon was followed later in 1987 by Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill (1987) both of which featured the Vietnam War as well.

Charlie Sheen

Charlie Sheen as Chris Taylor

The plot revolves around naive college-aged Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) who volunteers to serve as an infantry man in Vietnam. While the main arc of the story follows Taylor’s transformation from a wide-eyed “cherry” that the regulars ridicule and devalue to a man of action, hardened by the grim realities of war, the plot is driven by the war itself and intense rivalry between Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger).

Johnny Depp as Pvt. Gator Lerner

Depp’s youthful soldier – Pvt Gator Lerner

Depp turns up in Platoon in a blink-and-you-might-miss-him role as Pvt Gator Lerner,  the platoon’s interpreter. Despite this being his third film, he looks almost younger than in either A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) or Private Resort (1985) and manages to portray the innocent clean cut American soldier by just walking through the shot.

Lerner Interpreting for Sgt. Barnes

Lerner Interpreting for Sgt. Barnes

Depp’s screen time is limited to two key scenes – the encounter with the villagers where he acts as interpreter and later when he is wounded in the ambush and rescued by Taylor (Charlie Sheen). He pops up in a few other scenes in the background mostly, but if you look hard you catch a glimpse of the real Johnny in the scene during the drug den at base camp when Taylor and King enter. Johnny’s character Gator is sitting on the couch with a guitar and smoking up next to another soldier hot-boxing in a gas mask. This version of Gator appears nothing like the other “clean-cut” version we see in the field – here Gator exhibits more of the Depp flair for fashion that we’ve become accustomed to over the years. He’s sporting a bandanna (pre-Jack Sparrow!), his tattoos are visible in his white wife-beater t-shirt and if it’s not a trick of the light, there might even be some sign of that Johnny Depp scraggly facial growth that he somehow manages to make look manly.

Johnny depp as Lerner

Want a toke?

It’s little wonder that Depp is but a bit player in this movie awash in talented actors with larger parts. Besides the leads Tom Berenger (Sgt. Barnes), Willem Dafoe (Sgt. Elias), and Charlie Sheen (who actually looked like a serious thespian in this movie) the supporting cast is fabulous. Keith David plays the paternal King who takes Sheen’s Taylor under his wing, Forest Whitaker turns up as lovable Big Harold, Kevin Dillon is riveting as the shotgun wielding redneck Bunny, Francesco Quinn as the philosophical drug king Rhah, and John C. McGinley as the fast talking, brown-nosing Sgt O’Neill all command more screen time and juicier roles than Depp and his fellow background players.

Wounded in Action - Lerner being EVACed.

Wounded in Action – Lerner being EVACed.

In Platoon Depp, like his character Lerner, is doing his part, paying his dues and biding his time until he comes into his own. In an Actor’s Studio interview Depp reveals that this film, shot in the Philippines, was his first opportunity to travel outside of the US.

On returning from filming Platoon, Depp received his next big break in his acting career by landing the role of Officer Tom Hanson in an undercover cop drama 21 Jumpstreet that was being debuted by the fledgling Fox network. It’s also coincidentally the topic of discussion for next week’s installment in my year long review of Depp’s acting career.

Edit: Not sure what happeend with the pics in the original post, but they turned out a lot darker than the screen caps originally looked. I’ve since lightened a few of them, hopes it a little more readible now.

 

Private Resort (1985)

Private Resort (1985)

Private Resort (1985)

The second film in my year of watching Johnny Depp films is the 1985 comedy Private Resort that features Johnny and Rob Morrow as two horn dog teenagers (early 20s?) that spend a weekend at posh resort trying to nail anything that moves. (Wow, I think I just slipped into 1980s speak there for a minute, does anyone actually use the phrases horn dog and nail anymore?) The plot, what little there is of it, is further complicated by the Maestro, a would-be jewel thief played by Hector Elizondo, and his wife Bobbie Sue (Leslie Easterbrook) who are at the resort to steal a diamond from wealthy grandmother.

Rob and Johnny on the Prowl

Rob and Johnny on the Prowl

The opening scene of Jack (Johnny Depp) and Ben (Rob Morrow) arriving at the resort and sizing up the pool-side bikini clad guests leaves you feeling like you walked into the movie late. There’s no context to their relationship or what they are doing at the resort other than trying to get laid and I suppose that’s the point. No mention is made of whether they are rich kids out for a lark or middle class kids crashing the place. At least the director and writer make it clear up front that this is the level of plot and character development that you can expect for the rest of the movie.

Its hard to believe that there was a time before internet porn where the promise of a flash of a bit of skin and sexual innuendo was enough to get people, well teenage boys at least, to part with their cash. As far as 1980s sex comedies go Private Resort (1985) is close to scrapping the bottom of the barrel. I’d have to argue that Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Porky’s (1982), Zapped (1982), and perhaps even Spring Break (1983) are much better examples of the T&A genre from that period.

Boxer or Briefs? Johnny bears it all in the name of art.

Boxer or Briefs? Johnny bears it all in the name of art.

To the film’s credit the nudity is equal opportunity with both Rob Morrow and Johnny Depp dropping trouser and flashing their pasty white backsides in the name of their art.

The situational and physical comedy in this film is so ridiculous its as if the writer or director were trying to shoehorn their childhood memories of Marx Brothers films or maybe Three Stooges short into a modern comedy. It all falls so amazingly flat that it was painful to watch. I was so desperate to laugh or smile at least one joke or gag, but it never came. The closest scene to prying a smile from my frowning lips was during an absurd fight between the House Detective, Reeves played by stage actor Tony Azito, and the hotel Barber played by the German-accented Ron House. The scene was like some tired skit that you might find on Saturday Night Live, but at least the two actors were committed to the scene and their characters.

Andrew “Dice” Clay also pops up in the film as Curt, a meathead womanizer, that crosses paths with Johnny and Rob in what is meant to be a farcical scene, but just had me cringing. Mainly at the display of Clay’s back hair and how high up he has his boxers hiked. You can thank me later for sparing you a screen capture of that scene!

Johnny and Rob carry the movie as best they can given the material and have decent chemistry on the screen as friends. While some of Depp’s charm with the ladies comes through, it feels awkward when he’s hitting on the older women in the movie like Bobbie Sue.

The movie predictably ends with the jewel thief foiled and the boys finding true love. Aww.

I have to admit that Private Resort had me seriously reconsidering my decision to watch all 43 of Johnny Depp’s films this year. In the end it wasn’t Depp’s acting or screen charisma that got me through the flick, but rather a boy-ish looking Rob Morrow and his 100 Watt smile. Its a bit goofy, but also charming in a way this film wasn’t.

Rob Morrow as Ben

Smile Rob, Smile!

Up next on the list is Oliver Stone’s mainstream breakout film Platoon in which Johnny plays Pvt. Gator Lerner to Charlie Sheen’s Chris Taylor.

 

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street - Poster

Poster for A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Before Johnny Depp became the Johnny Depp we’ve come to know and love for his unique characters that fall outside society’s norms, he played the clean-cut, prep/jock, boy next door Glen Lantz in the 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street. His role in this movie consists of being the supportive, good-looking (but non-threatening), boyfriend to Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy.

The movie itself revolves around four teens who are having nightmares that involve the same disfigured man who wears a glove with knife-like fingers on one hand. While invading their dreams, Freddy Kruger has the ability to affect them in the real world, and begins to pick them off one by one. Afraid to sleep, Nancy tries to devise a plot to capture Freddy, only to discover the truth behind who Kruger is and why he’s haunting Nancy.

Being of a certain age, I had the pleasure of seeing Nightmare on the big screen many moons ago when it first debuted. Actually, I saw it at the local Drive-In complete with screaming teenage girls in the back of a pick-up truck, but that’s a story for another time. When it was first released it was a very enjoyable flick and memorable for its creepy atmosphere and unique premise of a killer haunting your dreams. In terms a younger generation might appreciate, Freddy Kruger and A Nightmare on Elm was the equivalent of what Jigsaw and the SAW franchise is today.

Watching A Nightmare on Elm Street a second time around, it’s a lot harder to love it as much as the first time, partly because its harder to look past the bad 80s fashions, old school special effects, and ancient artifacts like boomboxes, rotary dial phones, and portable tv’s.

Glen's got a rad mixed tape he would just love you to hear.

Glen’s got a rad mixed tape he would just love you to hear.

Johnny has said in interviews that he took the role basically to support his music career and had no real desire to become a full-time actor. In a way we have Nic Cage to thank for Johnny Depp’s career, since it was Cage who first introduced him to a casting agent that eventually led him to the role in A Nightmare on Elm Street. He looks so young in this movie, you can almost believe he’s in his teens watching it now despite that he was likely 20 at the time of filming.

That's can't be comfortable!

That’s can’t be comfortable!

Depp’s performance as Glen doesn’t stand out in a way that might lead you to think he would go on to have a long career in Hollywood, but it’s probably a good thing that none of the trademark Depp eccentricities came out in his portrayal of boyfriend who eventually meets his demise by being sucked through his bed, portable TV, stereo turntable and all only to be regurgitated as some kind of human slurry. I’m no CSI-like scientist but I am pretty sure even if you could put a human into some sort of giant blender it would be physically impossible to create the sheer volume of goo that is produced in that scene.

Surprisingly there are only 4 deaths in the movie, Tina, Rod, Glen, and Nancy’s alcoholic Mom, but its not the deaths that are so memorable as the interludes between the deaths. The scene where the body of Tina is dragged through the school in a body bag by an invisible hand, leaving a gruesome blood trail for Nancy to follow is creepy as hell and was one of the scenes I vividly remember from nearly 30 years ago watching this.

Someone to watch over me.

Someone to watch over me.

Other old school effects like the scene where Freddy menaces Nancy through what looks like an Olympic sized dental dam on the ceiling may be dated but are still creepy looking even if they would be rendered in CGI today.

While I have not seen the 2010 remake (and hope never to have the misfortune to) the original still holds a fond place in my heart equally for the acting debut of Johnny Depp as well as the memories of those teen years that it invokes.

Tune in next week when I review the 1985 comedic masterpiece Private Resort in which Depp teams up with Rob Morrow (Numb3rs, Northern Exposure) to chase girls and get mixed up in a jewel heist gone wrong.