(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) It’s been a frustrating ride on the Pirates of the Caribbean express: While the first film remains slick blockbuster entertainment, the second and third entries in the series quickly became self-indulgent to the point of nearly drowning their considerable assets in too much chaff. Given that the fourth film was surprisingly unremarkable (with surprisingly cheap production values considering its record-breaking budget), who knew what to expect from a fifth film? As it turn out, Dead Men Tell No Tales becomes a bit of a return to form. Never mind that Johnny Depp now plays Jack Sparrow as a buffoon with few of his previous redeeming qualities, or that the action sequences don’t make a whole lot of sense: the fun of the series is back, and the vertiginous set-pieces have a visually imaginative kick to them. Javier Bardem plays a great villain, Geoffrey Rush is back in a reluctantly heroic role, and Kaya Scodelario is not bad as a heroine. Perhaps the worst thing about Dead Men Tell No Tales is the way it suffers from the contemporary tendency of blockbuster movies to over-complicate everything from the visuals to the plotting details, to the point of risking incoherency whenever the slightest detail is out of place. A slightly shorter, substantially cheaper movie would achieve as much, of not even perhaps more. But go tell that to Disney, which is holding on to the series as one of its reliable cash cows. At least the series is now headed up again … although who can really tell how it’s going to be before the end credits of the next film?
(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) Considering that I really disliked the 2010 Tim Burton live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland (for being dull and ugly, mainly, but also useless), I really didn’t have very high expectations for the sequel, and in fact delayed its viewing for more than a year before its impending disappearance from Netflix hurried matters along. To my surprise, I actually liked Alice through the Looking Glass a bit better. But here’s the crucial distinction: I liked the aspects of the sequel that wandered further from the original, and still disliked whatever linked the film to its predecessor. I’ll allow that Mia Wasikowska is fine as the lead actress. Otherwise, though, the farther away the film runs with its time-traveling concept, the better it becomes. Alice through the Looking Glass never breaks out of the increasingly mechanistic nature of 2010s fantasy films, but it does have some fun along the way, playing with grand visuals and peeking at younger (and less ugly) versions of the characters. Heck, even the story is slightly more original than the usual time-travel stuff. Even the chronological theme does harken back to the Lewis Carroll mathematical games in the original novel. It’s when the sequel clings to the original that it becomes much weaker. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is just as annoying as in the first film, Helena Bonham Carter’s character is still grotesque, and what the heck is Anne Hathaway doing with her hands in that role? Pink’s catchy “Just Like Fire” anthem song makes for a nice single illustrating an expensive-looking end credit sequence but has nothing to do with anything in the film, the series or Lewis’ legacy. As for the science-fictional devices, forget it – time-travel here is a story device that explicitly positions itself as taking place in an unchanging timeline. Even the framing device fails to find a satisfying denouement, showing quite a bit of laziness in the story department that fails to properly support the visual aspect of the film. And I won’t talk about the inevitable tendency of modern sequels to over-explain everything in their entire pocket universe. I still don’t think Alice through the Looking Glass is a good movie, but at least it’s better than its predecessor, and it offers a few good moments even as the rest of the film drowns it in market-mandatory mediocrity.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2017) Iconoclast writer/director John Waters takes on the 1950s teenage musical comedy with Cry-Baby, and the result is just as proudly weird as anything else from his filmography. The satirical intent is obvious, but so is the affectionate attempt at recreating a lineage that goes from Rebel Without a Cause to Grease, perhaps beginning with Romeo and Juliette. High on camp, Cry-Baby endures today partially because it’s a send-up that doesn’t betray its inspirations, and because it features Johnny Depp in intentional teenage-idol mode. It’s not always interesting: the opening half does push far too much in the freak-and-geeks-are-the-true-cool-people direction, and there’s strong feeling of déjà vu throughout it all. The affection for the grotesque can be off-putting even to the most iconoclast audiences—Kim McGuire’s bravura performance as “Hatchet-face” is the kind of thing liable to make everyone uncomfortable even as the discomfort is the joke. (On a related note: Do read up on Kim McGuire for an amazing life.) Still, the film does pick up a bit of steam toward the end, with a spirited “Please, Mr. Jailer” number leading to a good court scene and a classic teen-movie climax. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s not a bad time at all. Cry-Baby’s French dubbed version combines the best of both worlds by thankfully not translating the songs, and adding a delightful layer of French slang over fictional Fifties teen-speak—I recommend the result to everyone who understands even a bit of French.
(On TV, August 2016) At first glance, a summary of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape sounds like a word salad, perhaps written by a foreigner whose understanding of Middle America is shaped by Hollywood clichés: Here’s a twentysomething man from a family where the father committed suicide, the mother is morbidly obese, the youngest son is autistic and the daughters are obsessed with pop trivia. Our small-town protagonist has an affair with an older married woman, sees his job as a grocery clerk threatened by the arrival of a big-box store and gazes wistfully at the people passing through… Not exactly promising stuff, isn’t it? But as it turns out, there’s a lot more than a plot synopsis in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the most noteworthy of them being the handful of astonishing actors brought together for the occasion. Johnny Depp stars as the brooding over-solicited protagonist, but he’s upstaged by an impossibly young Leonardo DiCaprio as his developmentally challenged brother, a performance so convincing that it’s a relief to know that it’s not real. Elsewhere in the movie, the ever-beautiful Mary Steenburgen shows up as an adulterous wife, John C. Reilly is a hoot as a mildly dumb handyman, and Juliette Lewis makes an impression as a girl passing through town. Director Lasse Hallström assembles a perfectly watchable film from it all, a slice of weird Americana that’s occasionally grotesque, but engaging from beginning to end.
(On DVD, August 2016) I was about to watch the 2010 remake of Nightmare on Elm Street without paying homage to the 1984 original … but then common sense came back to me and I had to take a look at it. Despite the film’s flaws, I’m glad I did, because this original Nightmare has a few things that weren’t captured by the remake. Probably the most significant of them is the eerie horror of the film’s dreamlike logic: Freddy’s first confrontation alone has more disturbing imagery than the entire remake, and the roughness of the film’s execution often highlights the disarming surrealism of writer/director Wes Craven’s vision. It’s this nervous energy that runs through Nightmare on Elm Street and makes it far more memorable than many slasher horror movies of the time. In other aspects, the film doesn’t fare as well: The acting isn’t particularly good (Heather Langenkamp is disappointing as the lead, and Johnny Depp does not impress in his big-screen debut), the pacing stops and goes, the cinematography is recognizably low-budget. And that’s without mentioning the somewhat unsatisfying ending, which just throws reality and nightmares in the same dumpster, then sets fire to everything and runs around laughing. Meh. It’s worth noting, from a perspective thirty years later, that Freddy’s character in this inaugural film, even played by Robert Englund, isn’t the wisecracking chatterbox of latter films: he largely remains this implacable threat and that further distinguishes this film from latter sequels and remakes. While this original Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t, strictly speaking, an exceptional movie or even a particularly good horror movie, it does have, even today, something more than other horror movies of the time. No wonder it still endures.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) The problem in trying to like Black Mass is that it’s based on source material (the life of Boston crime lord Whitley Bulger) that has already inspired the best version of itself in The Departed. Going back to present Bulger’s real story invariably leads to comparisons that aren’t at Black Mass‘s benefit. For a story with a quasi-unbelievable accumulation of crooked cops, tainted politicians and a bigger-than-life sadistic criminal, this fictionalized biography seems tame and conventional. Johnny Depp does turn in a very good performance as Bulger—for the first time in a long time, he disappears in a new character bereft of his usual tics. There are plenty of other good actors in smaller roles, but they don’t make as big an impression. This is Bulger’s biography, obviously, but the film doesn’t have as much grace and flow as we’d expect. Scenes seem to come out of nowhere, with Bulger’s moral devolution being explained as much as it’s shown. The Boston setting isn’t particularly gripping and the film’s cinematography seems pedestrian at times. The longer it goes on, the more Black Mass seems like methadone compared to the giddy rush of The Departed, and while that’s not exactly a fair comparison, it remains not to the film’s advantage.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) I don’t think anyone can claim that Secret Window is a great thriller, but it’s a pretty enjoyable one in its own ludicrous way and I’m sorry it took me more than a decade to see it for myself. What makes the film almost-instantly recognizable as adapted from a Stephen King story is its focus on elements dear to King’s body of work: the writer-protagonist, the emphasis on the process of writing, the bloody escalation of horror, the gruesome violence, the touch of meta-fiction… Misery may top the list of typical-King movies, but Secret Window comes close. Johnny Depp is enjoyable as the writer-protagonist: his relatively normal performance here seems even more remarkable now that he has settled in a post-Jack Sparrow rut of eccentric characters. Writer/director David Koepp knows how to keep things interesting, and the gradually deepening mystery of the film eventually gives way to full psychological and then physical horror as the story reaches its inevitable conclusion. While the ending may repeat a crucial few lines once too often, the coda is pitch-black enough to make a mark. It’s not a respectable film, it’s not even a memorable film, but Secret Window is more than good enough to be interesting.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) I quite enjoyed Mordecai, but I’ll be the first one to admit that it’s got a peculiar sense of humor: it’s far more ridiculous than funny, and that’s a tricky tone to appreciate. Johnny Depp stars with, once again, a consciously off-the-wall performance as an art dealer who gets embroiled in all sorts of shenanigans surrounding an infamous painting. (While he’s initially portrayed as incompetent, the film improves immeasurably when we get an idea of his true skills.) Gwyneth Paltrow, unexpectedly radiant, joins the fun as Lady Mortdecai, while Paul Betttany, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Goldblum also seem to be enjoying themselves in their respective roles. Of course, Mortdecai makes a few bold choices along the way, taking on a particular kind of humor than runs the risk of falling flat for those who aren’t perfectly attuned to what it’s trying to do. I, for what that’s worth, didn’t laugh much throughout Mortdecai, but I smiled a lot, and found myself looking forward to the next ridiculous scene or bit of snappy dialogue. Much of the humor is forced (the mustache gags are… special) but the silly tone itself is amusing, bringing to mind respectable references such as Wodehouse and less-respectable ones such as Hudson Hawk. Director David Koepp keeps things moving briskly (the place transitions are a work of beauty), and it doesn’t take much to be swept up with the infectious oddball charm. But, then again, keep in mind that I actually liked Hudson Hawk –don’t trust me if you don’t feel the same way.
(Video on Demand, July 2014) Even as science fiction concepts make their way to the mainstream, I remain more and more convinced that there is a fundamental difference between the mindset that gravitates toward cord SF and the rest of the population. And here’s Transcendance to make the case, as it plays with heady concepts while reassuring audiences that technology is inherently evil. Sort-of updating the moral virtual panic of The Lawnmover Man for a new generation, Transcendence once again shows an uploaded mind turning evil: SF as an excuse for horror, and a film in which characters gravely say “we fear what we don’t understand”… before doing exactly that. The technical errors abound in this film, which is almost a relief given the silliness of the entire script (“hey, let’s set up a consciousness upload laboratory in an abandoned high-school gym”). There’s a lot to dislike in the structure of the film that spoils much of the ending early on, while the rest of the script doesn’t quite seem to understand where it’s going besides an apocalyptic conclusion. (The ending can sustain a multiplicity of interpretations, the most charitable being that our two lead characters are still working quietly at changing the world.) Director Wally Pfister has a good eye for ponderous images, but he’s really not as sure-footed during the action sequences, which play out as fairly silly on-screen. Johnny Depp once again plays Johnny Depp, but the film’s tight-lipped seriousness undercuts the eccentricity that is his biggest strengths as an actor. Meanwhile, as much as I like Rebecca Hall (to the point of watching nearly everything she’s been doing lately), she is definitely underused in this film, her usual brainy character being neutered into nothing much more than the damsel-in-distress. There’s also something strange about Morgan Freeman being in the film, but in a nearly-useless role. Other flaws abound, from the herky-jerky nature of technological innovation to risible terrorist antagonists to a climax that looks amazingly cheap considering the scope of the film so far. Transcendence is the kind of maddening film that holds a strong set of ideas, but can’t be bothered to actually do anything interesting with them… or take the leap forward that technological innovations can actually be, you know, beneficial without anyone turning into a creepy omniscient god-monster. I suspect that being a fairly knowledgeable SF reader is tainting my impression of Transcendence in ways that may not occur to the average moviegoer, but such is the baggage that I bring to the film.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) On paper, it’s clear that The Lone Ranger tries to replicate the surprise success of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy: Same star (Johnny Depp), producer (Jerry Bruckheimer) and director (Gore Verbinski), along with two screenwriters (the Elliott/Rossio duo) and the hundred-plus other crew that the movies share. Once again, we go back in time for thrilling adventures, lavish action sequences, more than two hours’ worth of stuff and an off-kilter supporting character played by Johnny Depp that ends up overshadowing the so-called protagonist. It’s very familiar, and it’s partly why The Lone Ranger feels like such a slight disappointment. There is, for one thing, a bit too much of everything: The 149-minutes running time feels more bloated than generous, with numerous side-stories that don’t do anything to further a focused plot. Even the fantastic action scenes, as detail-oriented as they are conceived, can’t escape a certain lassitude past their halfway mark. I can’t help but blame Verbinski for a failure to tighten up the film and even up the tone: The Lone Ranger often loses itself momentarily in side-scenes that don’t bring much, indulges in a far grimmer tone than expected (gee… Eating a heart? Genocide twice?) and the framing device isn’t good for much more than a few unreliable-narrator gags. While Depp does fine as Tonto, his character’s eccentricities seem more studied than fascinating, and by the time his Big Trauma is explained, viewers may be tempted to shrug and motion for the film to move along. This being said, there is something grand and wonderful about truly-big-budget filmmaking: It seems as if every penny has been spent on-screen, with careful period recreations even in the most fleeting scenes, to say nothing of the extravagant craft with which the action sequences have been put together. The two train action sequence that bookend the film are worth seeing for anyone who appreciates the kind of big action beats that only hundred of SFX technicians can deliver. While the film isn’t particularly good, it’s nowhere near a disaster, and it’s sad that Armie Hammer’s career may suffer from the film’s lack of financial success: he’s likable enough in the lead role, and anyone who maintains that this among the year’s worst clearly hasn’t seen enough films yet. The Lone Ranger has plenty of visual delights, even if it could have benefitted from a few judicious trims at the screenplay level.
(On-demand video, October 2012) Director Tim Burton’s artistic sensibilities are almost always interesting, but that doesn’t always translate in purely enjoyable films. I had issues with his latest Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland, but Dark Shadows renews with a strong sense of fun, readapting a long-running supernatural soap opera into a scattershot blend of character comedy, gothic visuals and straightforward plotting. Johnny Depp turns in another quirky performance as a vampire protagonist, indulging in his usual affectations to create a rather sympathetic blood-sucking hero abruptly thrust from 1760 to 1972. He is ably surrounded by a good cast, most notably Michelle Pfeiffer as the head of the modern family in need of help by the protagonist. The adaptation’s 1972 setting is good for a good soundtrack, cheap (but funny) jokes and knowing nostalgia. (If I wasn’t pressed for time, I’d have something to say about how setting a film thirty years in the past allows context legibility, as we think we know all about 1972 in ways that 2012 still feels very strange and to-be-determined.) Dark Shadows works in bits and pieces, the overarching plot never as interesting as the film’s various moments. The fish-out-of-time aspect is tolerable despite its overused nature, the special effects aren’t bad, there are some surprisingly racy/violent moments and the fantastic is well-integrated with the comic (some of the best gags coming from a lack of reverence toward supernatural tropes.) Where Dark Shadows doesn’t work as well is in trying to present a consistent viewing experience: the straightforward plotting is a bit dull, but the tone of the film keeps going back and forth between avowed camp, earned gothic drama or crowd-pleasing fantastic adventure. It’s not entirely satisfying… but it is fun, and that certainly counts for something after a few dour entries in Burton’s filmography.
(In theaters, October 2011) It’s a good thing that I’m a certified fan of Hunter S. Thompson’s work, because otherwise I’m sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Rum Diary as much. It’s already a trying experience even for those who have absorbed Thompson’s life and work: Thompson’s bottom-of-the-drawer “first novel” was a triumph of atmosphere over plot, as it followed a young journalist as he made his way throughout 1960s Puerto Rico and lost much of his illusions. Blending fiction with autobiography, The Rum Diary offered a more melancholic view of Thompson’s early years than you’d expect. The movie version has a hard time trying to put a plot where the novel doesn’t have one, and the result is a bit of low-key comedy interspaced with more serious plotting about corruption and unbridled development. Many of the anecdotes are amusing (although it speaks volume about the film’s pacing that the trailer has a far clearer sense of comedy), but the dramatic narrative of The Rum Diary peters off in a “nothing worked out, but we all learned a lot so… to be continued…” fishtail of a conclusion. The film works best as an affectionate homage to Thompson himself, as it clearly feels like a romanced “birth of an author” narrative: If you don’t know what Thompson would go on to write after his own Puerto Rico transformative experience, then the ending of the film will be more frustrating than anything else. Fortunately, Johnny Depp is wonderful as a young Thompson (it’s a performance clearly meant to lead into his own work in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), while Amber Heard finally makes an impression in a paper-thin role. As a drama for people who haven’t read Thompson, it’s a hit-and-miss film with a strong Puerto Rican atmosphere… but frankly, this one is for the fans. And even they may feel that the two-hour film runs a bit long.
(In theaters, May 2011) Expectations ran high for this spin-off to the swashbuckling action/adventure trilogy of 2003-2007, but few expected this follow-up to be this… dull. Despite sporting the same screenwriting team than the first films, this fourth entry feels flat, unremarkable and even boring at times. The scale of everything has been scaled back (there are noticeably fewer special effects set-pieces, and not a single sea battle), while the sense of fun that seemed so contagious in the first two-third of the series seems lessened as well. The first few scenes show how off-track the film feels, with broad comedy that fails to amuse, familiar hum-drum action beats and incoherent plotting. Those who couldn’t get enough of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow will reconsider as the series tries to promote him to protagonist status, putting far too much dramatic demands on a trickster/comic foil character. While neither Depp nor Penelope Cruz as the feisty Angelica do badly, they’re not very well served by a script that feels noticeably uneven, even sloppy to the point of confusing the audience. The film even feels cheap at times, its climax taking place on an obvious soundstage, three groups clashing without much of a sense of involvement. There are a number of scenes that work well (the palm tree escape shows flashes of the madcap action sequences that made the first two films of the series so memorable), but they never sustain any kind of narrative energy. (A sequence set aboard a perilously-perched derelict Spanish galleon ends up noticeably short, to the point of cheating viewers.) In fact, the surprise about this film is how much intriguing material it squanders without care. You’d think that it would take work to mess up something involving mermaids, Blackbeard, the Fountain of Life, bottled ships, Keith Richards, Gemma Ward and Judi Dench in a split-second cameo… and yet the film unspools without raising too much excitement. Even the film’s link to Tim Powers’ fantasy novel On Stranger Tides is slight: the film is “suggested by” the novel, but it seems more like a case of retroactive acknowledgement of the first film’s debt than any correspondence to the written work. This way, at least, Powers gets plausible deniability when people will ask him about the mess that is the film itself.
(In theaters, March 2011) From a distance, Rango feels like a family western: a stranger comes to town, fights evil and drives the bad guys away. Plot-wise, no need to look for a complex structure or a complicated sequence of twists and turns. But everything’s in the details and it’s in its execution that Rango becomes interesting to older viewers. Director Gore Verbinksi has an unusual track record for off-kilter projects, and this one is no exception: Filled with references to other films, torn between comedy and action, often breaking the fourth wall and leaving full place to Johnny Depp’s equally-offbeat personae in a scrawny animated chameleon body, Rango surprises as much as it delights in surrealistic interludes, caricatures (most will recognize Clint Eastwood; nearly as many will catch the quick reference to Depp as Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), throwaway gags and quirky character portraits. ILM’s first fully-animated film features top-notch animation; it’s a shame, however, that the cinematography and character design are often a bit too busy (and brownish) to be instantly enjoyable. Still, it’s the film’s constant oddness that makes it a small delight to watch, keeping us alert rather than carried along comfortably by a well-worn plot. It’s the first film of 2011 that’s not only worth watching, but re-watching a few months later.
(In theaters, December 2010) In retrospect, The Tourist doesn’t look like the kind of film that’s difficult to mess up: Take two hugely popular stars, a picturesque location, and a premise that allows for both a bit of comedy and some action. Easy! Yet much of The Tourist plays as an introduction for a movie that never ends up on-screen… and the conclusion seems deliberately engineered to vex anyone still looking for some coherence. Part of the issue is that the film occasionally presents itself as a thriller when it’s not much more than a romantic comedy and its attempts to play up the thrills are misplaced through a depiction of incompetent police operations, tepid action sequences and half-hearted justifications for the cops and criminals acting as plot drivers. As a romantic comedy, The Tourist can at least depend on the presence of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, even though only Jolie seems perfectly adapted to her role as an elegant woman with secrets: Depp, on the other hand, seems uncomfortable playing a supposedly normal man thrust in the middle of so many shenanigans. His specialty as an actor is the oddball character, not the kind of bland romantic lead that The Tourist wants him to play. What doesn’t help is the unremarkable dialogue: despite the star power of the two leads with Venice in the background, the entire film is barely worth a shrug. Perhaps worse than the result is the almost-there quality of the film it should have been. Fans of Depp and/or Jolie may find enough of their favourite to be happy with the results, but anyone wanting something more than celebrity tourism may want to look elsewhere first.