4 Performances - Johnny Depp

This weekend we wered treated to the fourth film in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, ON STRANGER TIDES.  In honor of that film's release (which could honestly have one of these columns written about any number of actors in it), and its star attraction Johnny Depp, I want to discuss four of my favorite performances from the prolific, idiosyncratic and extremely talented actor.  I'm also going to forego discussing his terrific (and career changing) turn in Jim Jarmusch's minimalist masterpiece, DEAD MAN because I want to write about that a bit in-depth in the near future.

1)  Sam, BENNY AND JOON (Jeremiah S. Chechick, 1993)

One of Depp's earliest attention-grabbing performances was as Sam, an eccentric man who has apparently modeled himself off Buster Keaton, opposite a terrific Mary Stuart Masterson as Joon, an emotionally distant woman who opens up to be herself in the presence of Sam.  Funny, sweet and just enough oddball to herald the career to come, BENNY AND JOON is remarkable character work by a burgeoning star.

2) George Jung, BLOW (Ted Demme, 2001)

BLOW is one of only two pictures that have ever made me cry in the theater (I don't mind telling you the other is Tim Burton's BIG FISH).  A wholly engaging crime drama as well as character study, BLOW follows George Jung, a big time cocaine dealer who, at one time, was responsible for roughly 70% of the imported coke in the U.S.  Tracking his rise and fall, the film utilizes the considerable acting chops of Depp and Ray Liotta, who plays his father, who gets all the best lines.  Directed by the late Ted Demme (nephew of Jonathan), BLOW is electrifying in its use of rock music, the production design and gorgeous, coked-out set pieces that rival the best of De Palma and Scorsese for 70s/80s period gangster drama.

3) Ichabod Crane, SLEEPY HOLLOW (Tim Burton, 1999) / Inspector Frederick Abberline,  FROM HELL (The Hughes Brothers, 2001)

I often conflate these two characters, though I don't rightly know why.  Perhaps its because Depp plays the same character very similarly, though adding or subtracting a bit of aloofness from his performances (respectively).  His Ichabod Crane is a man of science on the hunt for the Headless Horseman, and who is nearly driven mad by the ordeal.

Ditto Inspector Abberline, who is searching for a similar boogeyman in the shadows of London with Jack the Ripper on the prowl and the city gripped with fear.  While neither role is a huge departure from Depp's usual repertoire of weirdos and malcontents, it's refreshing to see him take on characters that are at least grounded in the real world, and who partake in normal movie star activities like solving murders and being hunted by ghouls in the night.

4) John Dillinger, PUBLIC ENEMIES (Michael Mann, 2009)

While the film itself has some problems - chiefly its on-again off-again commitment to a watchable image during its action sequences - Depp's portrayal of John Dillinger, America's favorite antihero, is spot-on perfection.  Dapper, clean and charming, Depp here proves that he can really be an everyman, just as long as that everyman has charisma and is terribly handsome.  In this regard it's a better role for him than other forays into similar territory, like 2004's SECRET WINDOW or last year's THE TOURIST, which gets my vote for best film everyone hated for no good reason in 2010.  It also doesn't hurt that he plays against type by being the flat-out bad guy, and that he gets to go head-to-head with fellow pop-thesp Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the Federal agent given the assignment of taking Dillinger down.


Lars Von Trier, the Cannes Controversy and Talking to Adults.

I usually don't write about super current issues in the filmmaking world, but I'm really interested in the current debacle happening in France.  For the past couple of days, the cinema world has been in an uproar over some comments made by controversial filmmaker Lars Von Trier during a press conference for his new film, MELANCHOLIA.  Apparently, the film was a serious contender for the Palme d'Or until the incident, and remains in competition, even as the festival itself has banned the director from attending any of it, including the awards ceremony on Sunday.

His banning has been greeted with praise from The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendents, who condemned his comments as "repulsive" and went so far as the call his comments an "exploitation of victims' suffering for self-serving promotion and publicity." (Source: Moviefone Blog)  The comments were also taken wildly out of context, as discussed in depth by both Jim Emerson and Ben Kenigsberg at TimeOut Chicago, not reflecting the situation as it happened at all.

So what did really happen?  Von Trier, who has quite the reputation for being a provocateur as much as for his divisive films, and who has a well-documented history of deep depression, seems to be getting at the ways in which he understands hopelessness, discussing Hitler in his bunker, making plans even as Berlin is falling around him.  He also seems to be discussing his relationship with fellow Danish filmmaker Susanne Biehr (who recently won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for IN A BETTER WORLD, who is also Jewish), as well as the conflicting sense of identity within himself after he spent much of his life believing that his Jewish step-father was his biological father, and his recent discovery that he is, in fact, of German descent.  

That's a whole lot of context.  Certainly his apology gets at the heart of all of that seeming to be the case - something was blown way out of proportion, and Von Trier couldn't help his own dark impulses to not keep his mouth shut.  (For a really in-depth experience of the play-by-play, you can check out the coverage on Deadline, which has given much more context to the types of questions he was being asked as well as the general mood of the conference and some of his previous acts as European filmmaking's enfant terrible).

In any case, what I find most astonishing is that the entire context of the comments was missed so completely by the press, as well as the parties who would wish him harm or are glad that he is banned from the festival.  Even the official press release from Cannes is laughable, and in the space of one paragraph makes a case for its showcasing of talent without boundaries while condemning one of the world's most prominent directors for conducting himself in the manner they say the festival operates in the spirit of two sentences earlier.  Ridiculous.  

Are we really not allowed to be adults anymore?  Are we not allowed to grapple with difficult subjects and think about what is being said and why before we jump on the bandwagon of calling someone an anti-Semite and smearing his reputation?  Apparently not.  There are already comparisons of Von Trier to Roman Polanski, which is laughable, not because Polanski's past isn't problematic or worthy of some derision, but because Von Trier did not commit the same level of offense, no matter what you may think of him.  

Von Trier was obviously working toward some sort of overarching metaphor about himself in relation to his films and fellow filmmakers, maybe even seriously discussing ethnic background at some level, but he even says in his statements that he doesn't condone what the Nazis did.  But that doesn't matter, because Von Trier had already forgotten that there is no such thing as adult human beings capable of processing reality.  At least, there aren't any out there according to how everyone has reacted to this situation.


So Summer is now in full swing, with the tent pole releases of THOR and BRIDESMAIDS heralding in the official launch of the blockbuster season.  In honor of this, I give you a new entry in my once-frequent series in which I discuss several of my most highly anticipated flicks and their trailers.

Lars Von Trier is probably the one filmmaker furthest from my mind when I think of Summer movies, but the timing of the release of his latest depress-fest is oddly appropriate.  Described as "a beautiful movie about the end of the world," the film takes place as a planet threatens to crash into Earth, which is certainly the plot of many a summer blockbuster even if Von Trier's film is guaranteed to be totally unlike anything we could ever hope for from a Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay.  I was really affected by his previous effort, ANTICHRIST, a rumination on man's relationship with nature, historical and supernatural malevolence, and the many ways we can destroy ourselves, so I'm looking forward to MELANCHOLIA, which looks to share a lot of the same thematics.  A director unafraid of controversy or audience disgust, there is always one guarantee when encountering a new work by Lars Von Trier: there will definitely be something to talk about, one way or the other.

Focusing on the superstar of the Marvel Universe, this is the last production before next year's superhero megafilm THE AVENGERS.  Directed by Joe Johnston, who has already made a pretty great alternate-history superhero movie with 1991's THE ROCKETEER, and knows how to craft a rousing adventure film out of period drama (for proof see HIDALGO and his work on the television series THE INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES).  Following the hero, Captain America, from his birth in the super soldier program during World War II, we are guaranteed many a showdown between Cap and his arch nemesis, The Red Skull.  Yes, it's yet another superhero film, but this one is going to be a bit different, and hopefully up to the task of introducing us to a character as important as Captain America is to the Marvel cinematic project of replicating their comic book mythologies.

The new slice of weirdness from Miranda July, the genius artist behind ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, seems to be told (at least partially) from the viewpoint of an adopted, sickly cat.  Maybe.  And it definitely details the lives of two thirty-somethings who haven't really got a handle on their lives just yet.  July is an artist who I wholeheartedly respect, and this looks and feels a lot more like some of her book of short fiction more than her previous work as a filmmaker.  This is a high profile art house release for the Summer season, and I'll be seeking it out as soon as I possibly can.

I was a big fan of ZOMBIELAND a couple years back, and I'm looking forward to this film which rejoins Jesse Eisenberg with director Ruben Fleischer, and also brings Asiz Ansari into the fold for a movie about a pizza delivery driver who gets tangled up in a bank robbery scheme.  The red band trailer in particular is very strong (and totally NSFW), and gives a good set of laughs to all the main characters, including Danny McBride and Nick Swardson as the two criminals who strap a bomb to Eisenberg's chest so he'll rob the bank for him.

A found footage film about troll hunters in Norway?  I'm there.  No question.  This movie is already available on demand, so I'll probably see it sooner rather than later, but I really think it was meant to see theatrically, which is why I'll be planning a trip to see it when it opens in either Asheville or Atlanta (if I've moved down there by then).  In any case, the special effects and troll designs look amazing, and I'm all about supporting international and low budget genre cinema that seems to actually capture something magical and doesn't look and sound like utter crap.