Archive for the ‘Johnny Depp’ Category

Black Mass

28 Sep

Black Mass – directed by Scott Cooper. Crime Drama. 122 minutes Color 2015.


The Story: A Boston racketeer becomes an FBI informant and The Godfather of Boston.


Johnny Depp is the inheritor of Brando’s mantle. I don’t mean the mantle that had “The Greatest Actor In The World” written on it that everybody in the world could see but him.

That mantle ruined Brando. No, I mean the mantle of all the parts Brando never played, through laziness, perversity, and ruin.

Depp made two movies with Brando, one of which Depp directed, The Brave in which Brando gave one of his most brilliantly conceived and terrifying characterizations. Brando kept contact with Depp; the long midnight calls for which Brando was known, yes, but also the fact that who else was there? Sean Penn, whom Brando also called? Penn didn’t have the range, and he was also lazy.

Brando’s mantle is not the parts that Brando never played: Coriolanus, Lear, Macbeth. No, Brando was a heavy actor; Depp is not. Depp must choose lighter fare to dine on. Depp is a miniaturist. Depp could play Iago, but never Othello. Both could do Restoration comedy, but Depp only has done it. His brilliant performance in Mordecai is a version of it. He keeps setting before us small masterpieces of technique. And Black Mass is one of them.

He wears a big makeup from the start, and it does not relent as the character ages and becomes more ruthless before our eyes. He plays a gang lord who achieves immunity from his crimes because he has enlisted himself as an informant to the FBI on the doings of gangs rival to him.

However, this betrays a code common to his community, his cohorts, and his Catholicism. You do not peach! Those you were raised with, in the Boston hood and boyhood, you remain loyal to through thick and thin, mainly thick. No murder, crime, betrayal, divorce, may clash with the code of this loyalty. You stand by this code as you would your family, your own dearest child. You sacrifice all higher ideals for this code. It is more to you than religion.

Now when the story of Black Mass appeared, I read it with fascination because it recorded the daring of this gang lord, James “Whitey” Bulger, his long career, his eluding arrest, and his eventual escape. Set against this story is the story of Bulger’s younger brother, William Bulger, who was a state senator and as honest as James was dishonest – but would not betray him, nor more would he benefit from Whitey’s crimes. The story is starling and daft. As journalism it is superb.

But as drama it looses force because the power that brings Bulger down is not the arrival of a new FBI chief in Boston as we are told, but the arising and resumption of a set of standards and codes older than loyalty codes. Those codes are the codes of human decency. They are more primordial than any code of loyalty, justice, or retribution. For Whitey is seen in time as the enemy of the survival of family itself. Whitey kills everyone slightly suspicious. And, as he does this, his cohorts stir and see that his loyalty code does not hold true. It is being used for assassination. Any of them might go next.

However, in the journalism on which Black Mass is based this older code of decency is not given play, and in the movie it is only hinted at. The women are the first to express it, but we lose track of them in impotence and focus. Eventually the men of his gang see his madness and arise loyal to that decency, and turn state’s evidence against Bulgur. But this is only done cinematically and slightly. There is no scene for it. There is no confrontation.

So in the end, the film disappoints. It is not high and noble ideals that brought Bulger down, but simple, primitive, human ones. But that’s not what we get. Instead, we get is journalism. What we need is a movie.

Whitey Bulger was never brought down. He slipped away and lived in hiding for years. In a way, his escape was from the very human values that did him in. But we never see this.

What we see is a superb production, beautifully acted by everyone. And Johnny Depp with nothing to play against.

Here he is, though, playing The Godfather, an Irish one. How different he is from Brando. And how right he is to tackle a role of this ferocity. Played, unlike Brando, without humor, without kindliness. But just as sane, just as determined. He is a businessman for our time. It is a chief work in Depp’s portfolio.


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Posted in Benedict Cumberbach, GANGSTER DRAMA, Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon



04 Feb

Mortdecai – directed by David Keopp. Action/Farce. 107 minutes Color 2015


The Story: A highborn British scoundrel and his delicious wife deploy their expertise in pirating a stolen Goya.


Oh, oh, oh. Go, go, go!

For I shall go three times myself. For – oh, my dears – it is the funniest film you have ever seen or listened to. At least this year. At least don’t bother hoping for anything better. At least this year. Unless they make a sequel. At least this year.

The screenplay is witty beyond measure. The language positively rejoices one! If you want dandy lines, don’t despair, come here! If you want your attention alerted, don’t weep for sorrow, let your brains be restored! Here lies succor. If you want to experience the full range of comedy, high, medium, and low in one costly banquet, pray step this way.

If you enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, and thought you would never meet its match again, well you were wrong! For this director knows, as Anderson knows, and I have no telling how they both doth know, how to fashion fine film farce. The speed of it! The connivance with the audience of it! The exploding of disbelief of it! The snippety snap of the editing of it! Where are you going to go for such fine fare save to this Dorchester of comedies, Mortdecai!

Now you may have lost faith in Johnny Depp by now. I know I had. I had never thought to see him do a piece of good work again. But – a-ha! – not so. For here he is in full actor fig! From the moment he wiggles that calamitous moustache I am rising from the floor from laughter to witness the next twitch.

This nasal vestment is the principal plot factor between himself and his much smarter wife, played by – oh, pray before you say those words – that church of charm, Gwyneth Paltrow. She is gorgeous, self-possessed, full of heart, and she loves our Johnny madly but not too well – for she cannot endure or overlook the moustache.

Which sits on his chops like a venomous beast from the bottom of the sea. Their escapades together and separate have to do with some masterpiece or other, for they are in the stolen-art-game. Gwyneth is there to outflank him and save the whole day, while Johnny is there to get into trouble with Those Of Overweening Greed, such as Jeff Goldblum and his nymphomaniacal daughter who want the Goya for themselves and who are willing to do mortal harm to our Johnny.

Fortunately our Johnny is a pusillanimous ninny (pusillanimous is a word which is applied never to low-born, only to high-born cowards), soooo, he is likely to oft come near mortal harm, but bound to be saved from it by his body-guard played by Paul Bettany. They are the Jeeves and Bertie of action/adventure comedy. Paul has so many notches on his belt, women tear off his britches on sight.

We have before us Depp’s best work since Jack Sparrow, and just as funny, original, and rash. Depp dares the camera to miss a single detail. The lowering of an eyelid. The raising of an eyelid. The lowering of an eyelid.

He has made a rare caricature of this plummy Englishman, a first drawing of a type now given the breath of its first public spanking, yet recognizable to us from all we dared not say or think.

The trick in it is to arrange a parity between this cartoon and Paltrow, who is not a cartoon. How do Depp and Paltrow go about – from such disparate technical poles – making the love story hold? It’s mainly Paltrow’s job, and while I don’t know how she does it, the movie does depend on her in the matter.

Oh, my dears, my darlings, my beloveds, do go and delight yourselves. What more can I tell you? What more pipe you to it? Don’t wait for Johnny and Gwyneth. Lace up your boots! Be quick! Be nimble! Be beguiled!


Into The Woods

04 Jan

Into The Woods – directed by Rob Marshall. Musical. 125 minutes Color 2014.


The Story: In art, all woods are The Woods Of Error. Here, Little Red Riding Hood, The Miller and His Wife, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk stumble into one another’s stories in the woods in order to lift the curses of their various character traits.


It’s so unevenly cast that I didn’t know what to do with it. Then I just sat back in my seat and decided to let it wash over me. After all, here I was being presented with a great big dolloping Hollywood musical: just my dish of tea.

What’s wrong with it is that some of the principles seemed not belonging in a musical at all. Actors who might be able to sing, as opposed to singers who might be able to act. No dancers in sight. That sort of thing. I name no names. It’s too late for that.

What’s good about it is the rampant artificiality of the sets. What’s not so good is that one senses the two brothers who sing on a waterfall appear to have been filmed somewhere else and then stuck onto the cascade like paper dolls. They relate neither to the water nor to the peril of their situation. What’s good about it is that the two young men sing a song of the agony of frustrated love wonderfully.

What’s bad about it is Steven Sondheim’s hardened acidity, a quality which has etched away melody from his songs and left him with utilitarian recitatives, systems of music he can open like bureau drawers and put some new words into. (He used the same music in A Little Night Music.) His songs have no song. What’s good about it is that if the words are sometimes too witty to go anywhere inside you, they are matchless in their dexterity, which like a rapid game of badminton, is fun to watch – or rather hear.

What’s good about it is the complicity with which the plots of the story intersect and feed one another. What’s bad about it is that the stories eventually over-complicate.

What’s good about it is that happily-forever-after is just a trope to close down a tale, not an oracle of future bliss. For what’s bad about it is that, once we reach that point, the movie extends itself into unhappily-ever-after. Plot developments then wreck the use of fairy tales. Fairy tales are psychologically profound without the intrusion of a realism inapt to their own decorums.

What’s good about it is that it’s delightful to meet the old friends of these tales. What’s bad about it as that towards the end one wishes they would pick up their skirts and dash for the finish line.

I loved Daniel Huttlestone as Jack and Johnny Depp as The Wolf. I like mischief. I liked the intimacy and realism of Meryl Streep’s witch singing of motherhood to Rapunzel. I wished the story’s director had rationed her trick of goosing the story up by sudden magical appearances out of nowhere.

But I didn’t let any of this bother me at the time. Or only a little. I watched. As I say, I let it wash over me. I shall go to the theatre to see it again – or rather to listen to it again. I say all this to encourage you to go also. But be warned in advance. Gird yourself. The fractured fairy tale does become compound.









The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus

16 Jan

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus – directed by Terry Gilliam. Fantasy. A travelling theatre offers its eternal creative powers out to a world not interested in them whatsoever, until a certain Tony turns up. 123 minutes Color 2009.

* * *

Terry Gilliam is your ordinary fantasist, thank goodness, which means that his story is firmly lodged in classical narrative rubric, e.g., once upon a time there was an ancient magician who had a beautiful daughter. Living in their magic cave was a monster and a servant boy who was in love with her. The magician had failed in his work, however, because he had made a deal with a demon: he could live forever if he gave his first daughter as the demon’s bride. One day, the theatre company saved a young man from drowning. This man, named Tony, was set dire tasks to save the daughter: he had to enter the magic world of the wizard with three females whose souls he would sacrifice.  And so forth and so on. All we see is quite delightful and well grounded. The piece is fanciful and well cast, with Christopher Plummer as the magician, and where it is not well cast, the costumes supply the deficiency. All is well, or would be well, until the drowning man appears. Then things fall apart. For Tony is played by Heath Ledger, in what should have been the most daring and entertaining performance of his career, save for one thing: it is made invisible by facial hair. You cannot see what he is feeling or thinking; you cannot see what he wants; you cannot see what sort of person he is. The performance is a dead loss. For there is a rule for young leading male film actors. Keep hair out of all parts of your face. Keep your head hair combed back off your brow, no matter how much younger than you are you want to look, and keep all beards, goatees, mustaches, sideburns miles away from you. Beards are fine for the stage where the close-up is outlawed, where no one can see your features anyhow, but on film, nope, never. In film, they do not define character; they demote it. (You may, as Clark Gable did so effectively, wear a thin mustache as a sort of medical prescription. But that’s it.) Facial hair destroys performances. It never adds character. It always conceals character, because it conceals filmed human response. If you are a leading man, that is. If you are Monty Woolley, do as you please. Anyhow, we sigh and wander on through the film in all its expected and unexpected treats. Jeff and Mycheal Danna have written charming music and the special effects are a riot. Until we come to a point in the story when Ledger has to take three of the ladies through the magic mirror, at which point he turns into impersonations of himself, which is a lot of fun. The first is played by Johnny Depp, and that’s all right; the second by Jude Law, and that’s all right too; the third, however, drowns us in excess and even Colin Farrell, who is fine in the part, cannot rescue the logorrhea of the director, who throws into the last episode everything he ever thought up about everything – and the movie is swamped and goes under. He has a fecund imagination but no talent to cull the fruit.  Too bad.  A lost film. A lost performance.



The Tourist

06 Jan

The Tourist – directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – an international thriller in which two casual acquaintances must elude their assassins together. 103 minutes color 2010.

* * * * *

An Angelina Jolie picture guarantees luxe. Creamy photography, svelte closeups, and the promise of ineffable lips. And so it proves here. This is not a picture such as Changeling, where she is required to create a character. No indeedy, that is not in her gift. What we get is Angelina Jolie once more in one of her power-beauty roles, and boy is she good at it. We see her walk down the street in a fabulous dress, and everyone makes way for her to the right and the left and everywhere else in the picture — which is an international intrigue show. She sits at a cafe table — and the entire film rotates around her, spies, detectives, gangsters. For what more could one ask? The film really delivers your money’s worth in the realm of elegant mystery suspense along the lines of To Catch A Thief– and set in Technicolor Venice, to boot! Grand Canal, grand palace, grand hotel – wow! Johnny Depp plays the stranger she meets on a train, and it’s good to see him play such a gormless chap, a Midwestern, community college math teacher. She comes on to him, and he doesn’t know what to do with himself, and which of us would? Depp doesn’t miss a trick in playing this part. This is high praise for an actor who has seemed to become over-exposed of late, and given to performances which have not been worked through properly beforehand or mistakenly accepted, such as the demon barber of Fleet Street. But here the whole film is a fancy latte. It cools off a bit at the end as it becomes under-edited. But never mind; that’s what happens with a latte. Until then, you sip slowly and in a civilized manner, and you don’t ask for anything more than to be beguiled by the tasty confection presented.




15 Dec

Blow – directed by Ted Demme – a young man grows into a big time drug dealer, then withers. 2 hours color 2001.

* * * * *

Johnny Depp can carry a film all right all right. The trouble is, as the film goes on, the burden gets lighter and as the burden gets lighter the film is harder for him to carry, because there’s nothing left to carry, until he almost staggers under the exhausting weight of nothing. And this is noticeable here. The material is actually quite thin. Its first thinness is that it is about drugs to begin with, and not really about any conflict or irresolution between the characters or even in the characters. For years Depp has played noble crooks and cranks doomed to betrayal by life and love and oh so many octopi. And he had made other films about drugs, but films about drugs, stories about drugs, always end up collapsed partly because drugs are not human and partly because drugs are a power larger than any human, no matter how successful one might be in doing business with them. So the final thinness is that all films about drugs become enfeebled by the foregone conclusion that they will not end well. Ray Liotto and Rachel Griffiths are especially good as Depp’s parents, and Griffiths, who is younger than Depp and Australian, nails her New England accent and character with one blow. This is a very well made, beautifully shot and written and filmed piece. The wigs are dreadful and in them Depp and Penelope Cruz look like … well, they look like they’re wearing wigs. As Elia Kazan said, “No wigs. Wigs always look like wigs.” And he was right. So there is never a single moment when the wigs here give character registration. All they give is: “Why is Johnny Depp wearing another peculiar wig?” Depp, of course, we root for, not because of his performance, but because it is inherent to his nature that we do so. Will It Work? is our suspense. Will He Get Away With It? How Will it Turn Out? Yes. Yes. And Badly.


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