Tag Archives: Johnny Depp

CAPSULE: THE RUM DIARY (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi

PLOT: An alcoholic journalist goes to Puerto Rico where he encounters unscrupulous

Still from The Rum Diary (2011)

capitalists and bottomless mini-bars.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The confluence of three offbeat talents—-seldom seen cult auteur (How to Get Ahead in Advertising) directing quirk king Johnny Depp in an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel by gonzo godfather —produces a movie that’s far more conventional than you might have guessed.

COMMENTS:  For better or worse, it’s impossible to avoid comparing Rum Diary (unfavorably) with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The film’s producers can’t complain the comparison is unfair, because they cut a trailer that’s obviously aimed at hooking Loathing fans: it’s filled with boozy shenanigans, a bowling ball knocking down ten pin rum bottles, and Johnny Depp promising, in his best deadpan Hunter S. Thompson drawl, “all of this might sound like some crazed hallucination…”  Diary even contains a mild LSD trip sequence that sees Michael Rispoli’s tongue extend six feet in the air “like an accusatory giblet”; of course, this sixty seconds of psychedelics occupies a prime place in the marketing scheme.  There’s also a scene with a voodoo priestess who coughs up frogs—and that’s about it on the weirdness front.  The rest of the movie is a series of drunken war stories in which part-time journalist, full-time imbiber and would-be novelist Paul Kemp (Thompson’s alter-ego, played by Depp as a less manic and assured Raoul Duke) worries about “finding his voice” and flirts with joining up with the “Bastards.”  Why the Bastards (represented by real-estate developer Aaron Eckhart) are so keen to recruit horoscope writer Kemp into their venal cabal isn’t clear; corrupting idealists is what makes them Bastards, I guess.  Also not clear is what’s so darn evil about their plan to build a hotel that would supply thousands of jobs for the local populace on land previously only used for the noble purpose of naval test bombing.  Their marketing plan, which would involve Kemp slipping some favorable words into his columns, is unethical, sure, but hardly a screaming headline, page one outrage.  But the scheme’s investors smoke cigars and complain about Negros and Communists, so they are pretty clearly villainous.  Despite their wickedness, though, the only moral objections Kemp actually raises have to do with the way Eckhart treats his flighty, arm-candy lover (Amber Heard, who looks fabulous in a bikini but disappears from the movie like a neglected girlfriend).  Joining Depp, Eckhart and Heard are Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi as a couple of colorful drinking buddies (Rispoli plays his photographer role like a 1940s New York City cabbie, while Nazi-obsessed basket case Ribisi affects an annoying whine).  The trio’s wandering adventures build to a remarkable anticlimax.  None of the plot lines dangled off this tropical pier snag a catch, but Kemp/Thompson does eventually find his literary voice—too bad for us it only happens after he’s finished narrating this tale.  It’s pleasant to see Depp reprise his role as Thompson, and there are memorable lines of dialogue and set pieces (all of which find their way into the trailer).  But the movie sips at drunken insanity rather than gulping it down; it never goes four-sheets-to-the-wind crazy.  The tone of muted madness here doesn’t do justice to Thompson’s gonzo spirit.  Call it “Mild Concern and Dislike in San Juan.”

“The Rum Diary” was written by Thompson some time in the late 1950s or early 1960s but was rejected by several publishers.  Johnny Depp reportedly discovered the manuscript in Thompson’s basement while he was researching the writer’s mannerisms in preparation for his role in Fear and Loathing.  Depp encouraged Thompson to revise the lost novel; it was published in 1998.   The actor also served as executive producer for this adaptation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has no mighty gonzo wind… it leaves our freak flag limp.”–David Edelstein, New York Magazine (contemporaneous)

86. DEAD MAN (1995)

“Do what you will this life’s a fiction,
And is made up of contradiction.”

–William Blake, Gnomic Verses

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, , Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, , , Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avatal, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT: Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west to take a job as an accountant in the wild town of Machine, but when he arrives he discovers the position has been filled and he is stuck on the frontier with no money or prospects. Blake becomes a wanted man after he kills the son of the town tycoon in self defense. Wounded, he flees to the wilderness where he’s befriended by an Indian named Nobody, who believes he is the poet William Blake.

Still from Dead Man (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Blake, the namesake of Johnny Depp’s character in Dead Man, was a poet, painter and mystic who lived from 1757 to 1827. Best known for Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, he is considered one of the forerunners of English Romanticism.
  • Jarmusch wrote the script with Depp and Farmer in mind for the leads.
  • Elements of the finished script of Dead Man reportedly bear a striking similarity to “Zebulon,” an unpublished screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Rudy (Glen and Randa, Two-Lane Blacktop) Wurlitzer, which Jarmusch had read and discussed filming with the author. Wurlitzer later reworked the script into the novel The Drop Edge of Yonder.
  • Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum coined the term “acid Western”—a category in which he also included The Shooting, Greaser’s Palace and El Topo—to describe Dead Man. Jarmusch himself called the film a “psychedelic Western.”
  • composed the harsh, starkly beautiful soundtrack by improvising on electric guitar while watching the final cut of the film. The Dead Man soundtrack (buy) includes seven solo guitar tracks from Young, plus film dialogue and clips of Depp reciting William Blake’s poetry.
  • Farmer speaks three Native American languages in the film: Blackfoot, Cree, and Makah (which he learned to speak phonetically). None of the indigenous dialogue is subtitled.
  • Jarmusch, who retains all the rights to his films, refused to make cuts to Dead Man requested by distributor Miramax; the director believed that the film was dumped on the market without sufficient promotion because of his reluctance to play along with the studio.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nobody peering through William Blake’s skin to his bare skull during his peyote session? Iggy Pop in a prairie dress? Those are memorable moments, but in a movie inspired by poetry, it’s the scene of wounded William Blake, his face red with warpaint, curling up on the forest floor with a dead deer that’s the most poetically haunting.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Man is a lyrical and hypnotic film, with a subtle but potent and lingering weirdness that the viewer must tease out.  It’s possible to view the movie merely as a directionless, quirky indie Western; but that would be to miss out on the mystical, dreamlike tinge of this journey into death.


Original trailer for Dead Man

COMMENTS: Dead Man begins on a locomotive as a naif accountant is traveling from Continue reading 86. DEAD MAN (1995)

69. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)

This entry was originally published Nov. 3, 2010, but lost in a server accident. The version here was recreated from scratch and re-published on Oct. 24, 2012. Eric Young contributed to this article.

Recommended

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”–Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Journalist Raoul Duke heads to Las Vegas with his attorney (“Dr. Gonzo”) and a suitcase full of exotic drugs to cover a motorcycle race. Somewhere around Barstow, the drugs start to take hold. The mission changes into a quest to find the secret of the American Dream, an excuse for an orgy of hallucinogenic hedonism and dangerously antisocial behavior as the pair tromp through the unreal neon wonderland of Sin City.

BACKGROUND:

  • ‘s novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” was published in 1971 and became an instant counterculture classic. Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone each hoped to adapt the novel to film, but plans fell through.
  • The character of Dr. Gonzo, played by Benicio Del Toro in the film, was based on Hunter S. Thompson’s real-life friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, an attorney/activist. Acosta mysteriously disappeared three years after the publication of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1974 while traveling through Mexico and has not been seen since.
  • The original script for the film was written by Alex Cox and his colleague Tod Davies, but differences between Cox and the producer Laila Nabulsi, as well as open disdain of his treatment by an unhappy Hunter S. Thompson, led to the script being dropped. This left only a few precious days for Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Tony Grisoni to write a new script to begin production with. Gilliam and Grisoni allegedly finished their script in only eight days, with two additional days for rewrites.
  • Featured heavily in the opening of the book, the Rolling Stones track “Sympathy for the Devil” was going to be the opening theme that set the tone for the rest of the film, but Allen Klein, former manager of The Rolling Stones and owner of a sizable chunk of their early library, demanded an exorbitant $300,000 for the song. As this would have devoured half of the soundtrack budget, so Terry Gilliam opted for the more fiscally reasonable “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as the closing track.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the scene where Duke, who is peaking on acid while checking into the Mint hotel and has already seen the carpet climbing up a cowboy’s leg and hotel clerk Katherine Helmond‘s face stretching like Silly Putty, suddenly sees the denizens of the hotel bar transformed into a tribe of literal lounge lizards.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Master fantasist Terry Gilliam brings Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical satirical novel about a degenerate journalist and his equally debased attorney companion whose idea of a good time is to sniff ether and scarf mescaline before striding into the whirling carnival of the Bazooka Circus casino to howling life. Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s increasingly deranged pilgrimage to the Mecca of American venality turns into a grim and perverse endurance test for both them and the viewer, as the pair see how far they can push the limits of decency without losing their lives, freedom or sanity.


Original trailer for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

COMMENTS: When Terry Gilliam was promoting Fear and Loathing Continue reading 69. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)

LIST CANDIDATE: ARIZONA DREAM (1993)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Lili Taylor, Faye Dunaway, , Jerry Lewis

PLOT: Axel is a fish-tagger who reluctantly moves to Arizona to help his uncle run a car

Still from Arizona Dream (1993)

dealership; there, he becomes romantically entangled with an emotionally unstable older woman and her suicidal stepdaughter.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  The fish swimming through the desert past a Saguaro cactus and darting in and out of a Cadillac window certainly helps.  With intrusions of magical realism and pretentious pseudo-philosophizing by a cast of fish-counting dreamers, madwomen who dream of flying, suicidal turtle-loving accordion players and the comic tics of Jerry Lewis, Arizona Dream plays out like a European attempt to make a Coen brothers comedy.  It’s quirkiness magnified to a metaphysical level.  Considered scene-by-scene, the movie’s almost always interesting and funny, but it doesn’t stick together to create a satisfying vision, and its weirdness isn’t thorough enough to justify the lack of coherence.  It just misses making the List on the first ballot.  Mr. Kusturica need not sweat, however; even if Arizona Dream is ultimately denied admission to the Halls of Weirdness, he has plenty of other contenders on his resumé (Time of the Gypsies, Black Cat White Cat, and Underground) and he’s unlikely to be left out in the cold.

COMMENTS:I don’t want to completely false impression that Arizona Dream is a bad movie, but, given its considerable assets—a peak cast sinking their fangs into crazy characters, a visionary director, and some humdinger scenes—it’s fair to start out a review by defining what holds it back from being a great movie.  Arizona Dream is a movie that’s obviously eager to say something profound about the human condition, but has trouble spitting it out.  Instead, we get a parade of aphorisms that progress from “People think that fish are stupid, but I was always sure that they weren’t because they know when to be quiet and its people that are stupid, and fish that know everything and don’t need to think” to “even though I no longer felt like a fish, and realized I knew nothing, I was happy to be alive.”  There’s lots of talk about Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ARIZONA DREAM (1993)

ED WOOD (1994), TIM BURTON’S GLORIOUS SWANSONG.

In 1980 , two years after Ed Wood‘s alcohol related death at 54, film critic Michael Medved and his brother published “The Golden Turkey Awards” and gave Wood the award of being “The Worst Director of All Time” and naming his film Plan 9 From Outer Space “The Worst Film of All Time.”  The forever constipated Mr. Medved must had the biggest bowel movement of his life when he discovered that he and his brother unintentionally put the wheels in motion for the cult celebrity status of Wood who, to Medved, was little more than an object of derision.

Quite simply, Ed Wood was an outsider artist, whose medium was film.  He managed to create two highly personalized “masterpieces” of naive surrealism; Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) with “star” Bela Lugosi, who was clearly at the end of his tether.

In between these two films Wood made Bride of the Monster (1955) , also starring Lugosi (the only one of the three Wood films in which Lugosi actually ‘starred’), but that film was more of a concession to the genre and lacked the pronounced Woodian weirdness found in either Glen or Glenda or Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Fourteen years after Wood’s cult status rocketed out of the pages of Medved’s book, Tim Burton produced his valentine to Eddie.  Clearly, Ed Wood was as personal a film for Burton as Glen and Plan 9 had been for Wood.  Burton faced immense difficulty in mounting the project and was given what, for him, was a small budget.  Artistically, the endeavor paid off and even did so financially, in time, although it took Touchstone years to realize the film’s cult potential for the DVD market.
Still from Ed Wood (1994)
In 1994 Tim Burton was the perfect artist to bring Ed’s story to the screen.  Burton, recognizing a fellow auteur and genuine oddball, treated Wood, not with derision, but with the respect he deserved.  Before Ed Wood, Burton, although trained at Disney, was still an outsider with Hollywood backing, which makes him (in that regard) a kindred spirit to Stanley Kubrick.  Burton’s first big budget feature effort Continue reading ED WOOD (1994), TIM BURTON’S GLORIOUS SWANSONG.

CAPSULE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: , Johnny Depp, the head of , , voices of Stephen Fry and Christopher Lee

PLOT:  About to be proposed to by a doltish fop, Alice excuses herself to tumble down a rabbit hole where she learns she has been chosen to slay the Jabberwock[y].

Still from Alice in Wonderland (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Burton, perhaps fearful of angering the gravy-train drivers at Disney, dims down the absurdity in this version of Alice, recasting the tale as an epic fantasy war fought by a cast of weirdos.

COMMENTSAlice in Wonderland (which should have been titled Alice in Underland, if anyone had been paying attention) is a good-looking film with a few positives, but a recycled story that’s far from enchanting.  The candy-colored visuals are as top-notch as expected, with plenty of little details to soak in: look for a dragonfly-sized flying rocking horse and a moat with floating stones that appear to be petrified severed heads.  Helena Bonham Carter’s macrocephalic visage is almost worth the price of admission, and her performance as the Red Queen is suitably comic and imperious.  But the story—ouch!  Alice’s previous visit to Wonderland—oops, make that Underland, as it’s denizens insist it’s properly called—nine years ago was real, but she’s forgotten it for some reason, which is fine because her past adventures served no purpose whatsoever.  In this sequel, the poem “Jabberwocky” is a prophecy that predicts Alice will find the vorpal blade and snicker-snack it into the neck of the dreaded Jabberwock(y) on Frabjous Day.  The Mad Hatter reads the verse word for word to the disbelieving Alice, neither of them noticing that the lines refer to a “beamish boy;” Alice may be beamish, but she’s no boy.  But who cares about such details?  They can’t even get the monster’s name right after reading it off the page: everyone refers to the Jabberwock as the “Jabberwocky” (which is like calling Odysseus “Odyssey”).  We may wonder about such inconsistencies, but such uffish considerations only matter in a tightly constructed nonsense world like Wonderland; we’re in Underland, and here there are quirky companions to collect before galumphing off to slay dragons with magical swords.  Burton’s non-nonsense epic fantasy plays like an original concept by Lewis Carroll that’s been script doctored by J.R.R. Tolkien, then sent back by the corporate suits to add more fight scenes to appeal to boys and a feminist moral about self-actualization for the girls.  Despite the occasional chase scene by a pack of guards who look as much like Terminator robots as playing cards, curiously, for the most part the early story plays out much as in Carroll’s tale.  Alice retraces her steps, eating and drinking shrinking and growing potions and cakes and meets a hookah smoking Caterpillar.  The Cheshire Cat directs her to a mad tea party.  But things get less and less curiouser and more and more familiarer as the tale continues.  It turns out that the tea party really isn’t mad, it’s just a ruse by the Resistance to avoid detection by the authorities. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter isn’t mad either (and certainly not bonkers); perhaps he’s slightly perturbed, but his faculties are all about him as leads the fight for freedom, even taking up a sword for the final battle.  I have no problem with taking liberties with Carroll’s tone and story, but if you’re going to depart from the original you should replace it with something interesting, not just a generic fantasy quest rehash.  Nick Willing’s Alice, with it’s human “oysters” being drained of their emotions, tapped into a more cusiously skewed Alice scenario.  It’s a shame that that premise couldn’t have been matched to this budget.  Tim Burton’s Alice isn’t bad, it’s just forgettable—something that could only happen in Underland, not Wonderland.

To some extent, Burton may be the victim of high expectations.  Carroll and Burton seemed the perfect match, and there were high hopes that this material might allow Tim to return to the glory days of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, when his fantasies managed to tap the popular consciousness while still dripping with edgy originality. Those of us who got our hopes up should have recognized that Alice in Wonderland is a kids’ movie intended as a blockbuster; Disney isn’t about to let Burton take chances with the story.  His commission directed him to deliver Tim Burton visuals inside a safe script, and that’s what he did.  The movie works fine for the little ones, but offers little to adults besides eye candy and a couple of chuckles.  If Burton’s going to bounce back (and I’m starting to doubt he ever will), we’ll have to wait until he feels like he’s finally garnered enough dough and Hollywood validation to start taking chances again.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…neither is [Burton’s] Alice, sad to report, in the least bit lysergic. On the contrary, the movie is positively sober in its positive image projection and concern with itself as a business model. Like more than one recent movie, Alice seems a trailer for a Wonderland computer game—and it is. The final battle is clearly designed for gaming.”–J. Hobermann, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: DEAD MAN (1995)

NOTE: Dead Man has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Commenting is closed on this review, which is left here for archival purposes. Please visit Dead Man‘s Certified Weird entry to comment on this film.

DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Robert Mitchum, Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avatal, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT:  Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west, becomes a wanted man after he

Still from Dead Man (1995)

shoots a man in self defense, and, wounded, flees to the wilderness where he’s befriended by an Indian named Nobody who believes he is the poet William Blake.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEDead Man is a lyrical and hypnotic film, and one that comes about as achingly close to making the List on the first pass as is possible.  The quality of the movie is no obstacle to its making the List, but the weirdness, while there, is subtle and must be teased out by the viewer.  There is a mystical and dreamlike tinge to Blake’s journey into death, but the strangeness is almost entirely tonal; Jarmusch’s artiness aside, it’s possible to view the movie as a rather straightforward, if quirky, indie Western.

COMMENTSDead Man begins on a locomotive as a naif accountant is traveling from Cleveland to a the western town of Machine to begin a new life.  We see him on the train playing solitaire or reading a booklet on beekeeping.  He looks up to survey at his fellow passengers, who meet his glance with indifference.  The train’s whistle blows as the scene fades to black, accompanied by twanging chords from Neil Young’s guitar (sounding like abstract, electrified snippets stolen from a Morricone score).  The scene repeats and fades back in again and again, each time with the traveler glancing around the compartment to find his companions slowly changing: their dress becomes more rustic, their hair longer and more unkempt; female passengers become less frequent, firearms more common; the indifference in their eyes turns into quiet hostility.

Dead Man tells the story of an innocent who becomes a refugee after being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It’s a standard story, but the way Jarmusch tells can be strange indeed.  This opening scene sets the rhythm for the movie: it proceeds in a series of slow pulses punctuated by fadeouts and anguished bursts from Young’s guitar, and it slowly shifts locale from the civilized to the wild.  The continual fading out and Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: DEAD MAN (1995)