Posts Tagged ‘johnny depp’

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When I look back at the now-two-decade-long film career of Kevin Smith, I can’t escape the conclusion that it all just happened a little too fast for the guy : he went from “edgy” indie wunderkind with Clerks to tired one-note Johnny with Mallrats to an “older,wiser, more responsible” version of his previous self with Chasing Amy and Dogma to a one-man cottage industry milking his own semi-celebrity for all it’s worth (and then some) by way of podcasts, “reality” TV shows, etc. in the space of six or seven years, and then he basically remained stagnant — yet curiously immune to over-exposure — for about the next decade, occasionally trotting out middling “comedy” fare like Cop-Out and Zack And Miri Make A Porno (perhaps curiously, or perhaps not,  his two biggest box-office successes) to prove that he could break out of the confines of his internet-centric genre ghetto, but more or less not doing anything that you wouldn’t entirely expect of the guy.

Then, in 2011, something rather curious happened — he hustled up funds via Kickstarter (an entity which seems tailor-made for filmmakers such as himself with a somewhat small but amazingly loyal fan base) for an independent horror feature called Red State that, while deeply (and in many respects fatally) flawed, at least showed some willingness on his part to step outside of his comfort zone. And while that flick certainly bore all the hallmarks of a “one-and-done” type of deal, it appears that Smith, forthcoming (and depressingly inevitable) Clerks III aside, is embarking on a new phase of his career now — one that’s at the very least interesting, and perhaps even threatening to be good, Could the same guy whose irreverent take-no-prisoners approach to offending everyone with Clerks quickly descended to the tired “you never go ass to mouth” and donkey-fucking of its sequel possibly be positioning himself as an indie horror auteur as a sort of second (or maybe it’s third — or fourth) act? With the late 2014 release of Tusk, it’s beginning to look like the answer to that question is “yes.”

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Of course, many of the hallmarks of the Kevin Smith of old remain — he’s essentially unable to write characters that don’t come directly from his own life experiences ( this film centers around a protagonist named Wallace Bryton — played by Justin Shaw — who’s a — wait for it — podcaster by trade), and there’s a smattering of dull and tired “toilet humor” throughout the proceedings here, but by and large this is a reasonably intelligent, contemplative horror story that manages to tackle somewhat-weighty themes without having its characters resort to sounding like talking textbooks the way they did in heavy-handed earlier efforts like Chasing Amy and Dogma. It’s far from perfect, to be sure, and flirts perilously close to disaster by way of its major plot development, but Smith manages to battle his constant urge to overplay his hand with a reasonable level of success here, even if the central conceit of human-to-animal transformation has been done before (and, to be honest, better) in films like David Croneneberg’s The Fly and Tom Six’s apparently-still-ongoing Human Centipede series.To draw a forced and not entirely applicable (so why the fuck am I even doing it?) basketball metaphor, earlier directors set up a pretty clear lane to the basket for ol’ Kev, but rather than than charge hard to the hole and provide a rim-shattering slam dunk, he delivers a graceful, no-look, behind-the-back pass the to somebody else (probably a “2” guard) who has a wide-open look at a three-pointer. The results are less spectacular in the short term, but add up to an extra point for his team and, therefore,  a better chance at winning the game.

Okay, yeah, Smith wrote and directed this thing, so that wide-open off-guard he’s dishing that behind-the-back pass to is — errrmmm, himeslf — but like I said, the analogy isn’t the greatest. So what the hell — let’s strain it just a bit more, shall we?

Obviously when a center or forward indulges in a pass like that, he’s showing some trust in his teammate- and Smith the writer shows a heck of a lot of trust in Smith the director here when he chooses, arguably for the first time since Clerks, to be genuinely audacious. But first a bit of plot recap so that what I’m talling about will make at least a little bit of sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet : the storyline of Tusk follows the exploits of our aforementioned podcaster as he departs LA for Winnipeg in search of an overnight YouTube sensation he wants to get on his show. When that particular well turns out to be dry for an admittedly weird set of reasons, he encounters another local through a similarly bizarre convergence of circumstances and figures this old-timer, who goes by the name of Howard Howe (Red State holdover Michael Parks, who delivers a fine, and very chilling, performance) would make an even better on-digital-“air” guest. Unfortunately, their meeting — well, to put it mildly, it just doesn’t go as planned, and Wallace ends up waking up the next morning as an amputee.

Sounds bad, right? And rest assured, it is — but things are about to get even worse, because Howard’s got this weird fixation on walruses. He loves ’em so much, in fact, that he’s determined to make one —

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Tusk‘s small cast and isolated setting make for a genuinely claustrophobic-feeling film (even if the mansion most of it was shot in is enormous), and while Long doesn’t really have the acting chops to carry the lead, by about the mid-way point he’s just barking and yelping, anyway, so that’s not too big a problem. There’s a side-plot involving Wallace’s girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and podcast  co-host, Teddy (Haley Joel “So That’s What Happened To Him” Osment) teaming up with a private dick to find him after he goes incommunicado in the Great White North that doesn’t add too terribly much to the film but apart from preventing it from becoming a two-character psychodrama, but it’s at least not distracting, either, and along the way Smith shows an impressive eye for shot composition and blocking his actors that I certainly never would have guessed at based on his previous work.

All in all, it adds up to a set of circumstances that really work in Smith’s favor by the time his “big reveal” comes to pass. I have no doubt that many folks will laugh out loud and/or shake their heads when the “walrus-man” makes his appearance (remember what I said about this flick being audacious?) — and I was even sorely tempted to do so myself — but the tone Smith manages to set in the early-to-mid-going helps to head that off at the pass and actually ensures that the second half is both damn horrifying and thoroughly engrossing. It’s a close call, to be sure, but it’s proof positive of the “Smith the writer trusting the Smith the director” thing we just talked about.

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Okay, so Smith does, in fact, overplay his hand with the insertion of an obvious and thoroughly uninspired song choice that accompanies his big climax here, and a surprise cameo by Johnny Depp feels a bit like a desperate ploy on the director’s part to prove he’s still got plenty of clout in Tinseltown, but on the whole this flick shows a willingness to be bold and take chances that I honestly didn’t think we’d ever see from him again. Red State may have been a baby step — or even a stumble — in the right direction, but this is a fairly impressive leap, and has me re-thinking the whole “Kevin Smith? That guy’s been played out for years” notion that I was living by.

For those interested, Tusk — which had only the most limited of theatrical runs and has largely been marketed to so-called “home viewing platforms” — has just come out on DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate and boasts an impressive package of extras including two behind-the-scenes featurettes, a selection of deleted scenes, and a full-length commentary track from Smith that’s surprisingly light on the self-indulgence and reasonably interesting throughout. Weird as it would have sounded a couple of years ago to say this, I get the feeling that Kevin Smith may be on the verge of making a truly great horror movie — and while this may not be it (yet), he’s inching ever closer all the time.

 

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Don’t look now, but the “mindfuck” subgenre appears to be alive and well in Hollywood after all. Hot on the heels of the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, it seemed as if every major studio was hot to trot out product designed to play with our collective perception of reality, and  from the runaway blockbuster Bradley Cooper “starring vehicle” Limitless to Duncan Jones’ eminently forgettable Source Code to the surprise hit Looper, no linear view of time, space, or human history was safe. High weirdness was definitely the flavor of the month for a good little while there.

And then things got kinda quiet. It’s almost as if the powers that be decided they wanted us firmly grounded in “the way things are” after all. But apparently not everyone got the memo.

Perception-bending seemed like fertile ground for ace cinematographer Wally Pfister to explore in his directorial debut — after all, he won a well-deserved (and frankly overdue) Oscar for his work on Inception — and so here we are again, with another big-budget, big-name production designed to make us question all we know about what it means to be human, how immortality might be achieved via electronic means, what constitutes conscious “life,” how an individual with limitless power might affect the world, etc. By now, you know the drill.

The funny thing is, though, that there seems to be another memo that Pfister didn’t get, either — namely, the one that says movies of this sort are already played out, irrelevant, and passe — because this here flick he’s come up with, Transcendence, is actually pretty good.

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Okay, fair enough — it’s hardly great, but it certainly deserves better than the woeful 23% (last I checked, at any rate) score it received at Rotten Tomatoes, and the subsequent cool reception it got at the box office is kind of a shame, too. Think of it this way : this film, which actually asks relevant questions about life after death, has struggled to find an audience, while “the punters,” as the Brits would say,  have positively lapped up the feel-good pablum of Heaven Is For Real (even though, sorry, it ain’t). Are you depressed yet? Because I kinda am.

One thing Transcendence has going against it is the fact that it does, in fact, feel rather dated — not just because the “mindfuck” is supposedly over and done with, but because the cast is peppered with a few folks who were supposed to be the “next big thing” a few years back, but never quite hit it big (look for supporting turns from Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy, for instance), but I’m not going to knock Pfister too hard for that, given that they actually do a pretty good job for the most part.

Johnny Depp, on the other hand, does seem a bit uneven as Dr. Will Caster, our protagonist who gets shot with a radiation-laced bullet by “Neo-Luddite” activists who aren’t exactly keen on his artificial intelligence experiments. His devoted wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, who turns in a really nice, and very human, performance) finds a way to use her old man’s own tech to keep him “alive,” in a manner of speaking, as a disembodied, semi-discarnate series of electrical impulses, and it’s when Depp has to basically play an A.I. simulation of himself that he runs into a little bit of trouble.

It’s not that his sudden even-keeled blandness is a problem, per se — hell, I’d be kind of flat and listless if I were “living” inside a fucking machine, too — it’s just that he never seems entirely synched up with the scale of his own ambitions after his “rebirth.” He decides to pretty much fix every problem in the world by thinking his way around them, and seems oddly resigned to the fact that nothing can really even threaten, much less stop, him, and is therefore just playing out some pre-destined role as the “guy” who’s going to elevate humanity out of all of our various dilemmas simply because, well, he can.

I’ll grant you, the megalomaniac sci-fi computer overlord bit has been done to death, but some kind of emotional affect would have been welcome here, rather than Depp just playing Caster 2.0 as, essentially, Dr. Manhattan minus not just the blue cock, but the whole entire body. To say audiences are going to have a tough time connecting with this character is an understatement of epic proportions.

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Still, both the aforementioned Hall and Morgan Freeman, playing the couple’s one-time friend and colleague, do a nice enough job providing points of entry to/identification with the admittedly far-fetched proceedings, and House Of Cards‘ Kate Mara is eminently believable as the anti-A.I. crusader/”terrorist’ who eventually wins over the Casters’ closest ally. Bettany, to her cause. The ethical and philosophical tug-of-war being played out as Caster keeps on ‘transcending” us, whether we want or need him to or not, is indeed very palpable at least among the supporting players, who are asked to carry a lot of the weight here given that the film’s star is, for the most part.  a digital re-enactment of himself.

And it’s when it’s asking those tough philosophical and ethical questions that Transcendence really shines. Sure, all this may seem like the kind of movie that would have been more at home ha it come out two years ago, but given that no less an authority than Stephen Hawking (hardly a technophobe) just said earlier this week that artificial intelligence could prove to be “our biggest mistake ever.” the themes that Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen are exploring here remain, in my view at least, as relevant as ever. Some form of this shit is coming down the pipeline at some point — what that means, and how we deal with it, could very well determine whether our species has any sort of future, at least in any form that we recognize,  or not.

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If I were to compare this film to any other recent offering, though, I might not look in the direction of Inception (even though, stylistically, this is very much recognizable as coming from the House of Nolan) so much as I would Spike Jonze’s unjustly-celebrated, and frankly downright offensive, Her — the main difference being that whether or not Evelyn Caster “loves” her now-electronic husband is already settled from the outset, and that Pfister has the guts to actually answer the questions he’s raising rather than cop out like Jonze did. Best of all is that his answers actually make sense, as well, and demonstrably show, as Alan Moore managed to do 20-plus years ago in the pages of Miracleman, why a perfect world is the most frightening one of all, especially if the guy (or consciousness) trying to “give” the rest of us that perfection is unaware of what’s so damn scary, and frankly wrong, about it.

Admittedly, I went into this one with decidedly low expectations and that probably helps Transcendence in terms of coming off as a “pleasant surprise,” but even if I knew nothing about it, I think I’d be impressed (albeit with some reservations, obviously). This is smart, gutsy film-making, and Pfister takes a hell of a lot more risks than most established directors would ever dream of doing. He forces us to confront all the possible ramifications of a forced utopia, and both what it will mean for us if we play along or if we don’t. He has a definite point of view, and isn’t shy about expressing it, but he’s honest enough to show the issue from all angles, and to let us decide for ourselves.

Confident without being brash, opinionated without being preachy, intelligent without being overbearing, dramatic without being overly (or worse yet nauseatingly) sentimental, Trasncendence is, much like the humanity it ultimately embraces and champions, full of flaws but nevertheless worth experiencing.

"Public Enemies" Movie Poster

"Public Enemies" Movie Poster

This is one I’d been looking forward to. Maybe it’s just a “guy thing,” but apart from the rather limp “Ali” and the disappointing “Miami Vice,” I think Michael Mann’s movies are, as the kids would say, the bomb. One of the most technically accomplished filmmakers around, Mann has an eye for the visual, an ear for the streets, and an intuitive understanding of the psychological mindset of both lawman and criminal unparalleled among today’s A-list Hollywood directors. “Public Enemies” looked like a winner from the get-go, with a top-notch cast, great historical backdrop, and a talented team behind the camera lead by Mann and his gifted cinematrographer, Dante Spinotti.

The results were everything I’d been hoping for and then some. As with “Miami Vice,” Mann drops us right into the middle of the action in “Public Enemies” with some  very brief introductory exposition followed by an intense jailbreak sequence that puts the pedal to the metal right off the bat, and once Mann’s got his foot pressed down hard on the accelerator, he seldom lets up.

The movie focuses on just a brief period of legendary bank robber John Dillinger’s life, from his absolute pinnacle to his eventual end, and while Mann doesn’t give us much by way of detailed background involving any of his characters, he smartly trusts his actors to convey that information to us and for the most part they deliver the goods and reward his faith in them.

Johnny Depp is out of this world as Dillinger, the screen’s coolest outlaw since Clint Eastwood’s Josey Wales. He’s a man of thoughtful action who’s always two steps ahead of everyone else, sometimes even himself. It’s the most intense and charismatic performance of Depp’s career, and he effortlessly conveys the charm and nonchalance that made Dillinger a folk hero in his time while giving hints at a raging cauldron boiling underneath the surface at all times. Dillinger’s life was a tightrope act, and Depp reminds us of that with every word and action.

Marion Cotillard is a stunning beauty who took the film world by storm with her portrayal of Edith Piaf in “Ma Vie En Rose.” She’s terrifically believable as  Billie, a girl with a hard past and little to dream of in the future who’s suddenly whisked off into a world of dangerous excitement when she meets Dillinger. The chemistry between herself and Depp is palpable and even the most jaded audience member will feel that even though these two just met and hardly know each other, their love is a smoldering fire that threatens to burn them both, but that they can’t turn away from. While one can plausibly argue that Cotillard is, if anything, underutilized here (and leaving an audience wanting to see more of a compelling character is a constant undercurrent in Mann’s working going all the way back to Brian Cox’s superb, and agonizingly short, turn as Hannibal Lecter in “Manhunter), what cannot be denied is that her appearance in this film represents a  second consecutive major international casting coup for Mann, hot on the heels of his landing Gong Li in to play the nominal female lead in “Miami Vice.”

Billy Crudup has a small amount of screen time as J. Edgar hoover, but he makes the most of it, portraying the paranoia, desperation for acclaim, and quiet ruthlessness that would consume him in his later years in their earlier, nascent stages with subtlety and intelligence. There’s no doubt in the viewer’s mind that Hoover will develop into a monster as his power grows over time.

The only somewhat disappointing turn in Christian Bale as G-man Melvin Purvis. He’s a stereotypical straight-shooting flatfoot who displays little of anything beyond an Elliot Ness-type caricature—plus his accent isn’t too terribly believable. Not a rotten performance, but nothing special, either.

On the technical side, while I’m not too crazy about movies shot on high-def video and transferred to film (a technique Mann also used on “Collateral” and “Miami Vice”), I have to begrudgingly admit that it works here. This is a movie that drops you right into the middle of the action, and the crystal clarity of high-def combined with cinematographer Spinotti’s frequent use of hand-held and unconventional angles does a fantastic job of making the viewer a part of the action rather than just an observer. The muted color palette Mann uses throughout also captures the feel of popular psychological preconceptions of the Depression era and adds an extra layer of ambiance to the proceedings.

All in all, “Public Enemies” is one to put on your must-see list, and represents something of a return to form of an American cinematic archetype that has been sadly missing lately—the outlaw as folk hero. While Mann has always excelled at creating sympathetic and believable villains,  in the past the editorial viewpoint of his films has always favored the lawmn in the end. Not so here. This time there’s no doubt the good guys and vice versa, as we’ve got a man of the people bank robber who only wants the bank’s money, not yours, up against ruthless G-Men who will beat, torture, and kill anything in sight if it means getting their man. In an entertainment environment where film and TV cops are always good and any shortcuts or abuses they partake in are always shown as well-meaning and just, it’s both a refreshing—and necessary—change of pace. The heroic outlaw is as American as apple pie and on this July 4th, I’m glad to see it make its return after far too long an absence.