Tag: johnny depp

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The highly expository follow-up to the energetic and entertaining “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” may likely force the viewer to wonder if the series has enough fuel to stretch its arms across three more pictures. At its worst, for a story that offers magic, a wealth of imagination, strange-looking creatures, it is talkative but uninformative. For long periods during the middle, nothing much of value happens; I caught myself checking my watch a few times. I considered if author and screenwriter J.K. Rowling ought to have allowed someone else to translate her work through a cinematic medium. What results is a ponderous picture that lacks the power to capture the curiosity of both children and children-at-heart, a quality that seems to come so naturally to the “Harry Potter” movies.

As a sequel that strives to expand its world-building, the material offers a group of new potentially interesting characters. The first that comes to mind is Theseus Scamander, played by Callum Turner, brother of our protagonist who is played by Eddie Redmayne. This character is engaged to be married to Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), former schoolmate of our quirky magizoologist. Newt and Leta seems to share a special, possibly even a romantic connection, and it would have been an interesting avenue to explore had Theseus been a fully developed character. In addition, Newt feeling insecure whenever his “normal” brother is around is hinted at but never explored. Instead, the siblings are reduced to giving each other hugs. Another possible interesting personality that may have been worth looking into is the alchemist Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky) whose name should be familiar to fans of the magical series. Instead, there are jokes about him being old.

Delivering top-notch special and visual effects is clearly the film’s forté. Particularly impressive is the sequence involving Newt and Jacob (Dan Fogler), the latter lacking magical ability, attempting to track down the whereabouts of an Auror (Katherine Waterston). A spell is cast to retrace the literal steps of their target in addition to the circumstances surrounding this person. The fact that the scene is executed in a calm manner is solid choice because it builds tension. Another example of ace visuals, but of feverish approach, is the opening scene involving the villainous Grindelwald (Johnny Deep) executing a daring escape in the sky as a storm rages on. It takes place at night and it is hard to see in the rain. And yet—we have a complete idea of the events unfolding. The technical mastery of the action scenes cannot be denied. The camera is so alive and the editing is willing to match the beat of the wild dance exploding on screen.

The problem is, when the action dies down, so does the film to an extent. It comes alive somewhat during flashbacks of young Newt and Leta attending Hogwarts. I loved learning about them, especially in how they felt like outcasts as students. This feeling did not disappear as they became adults. It evolved and, in a way, their experiences in Hogwarts stuck with them and helped to shape who they are. It is these moments that “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” directed by David Yates, manages to capture the essence of Rowling’s excellent Potter series. The human drama creates more intrigue than the politics—just as exploring Harry and his friends’ relationships is more interesting than having to defeat Voldermort.

Despite its shortcomings, I remain interested in what is going to happen. There is a surprising revelation during the closing minutes involving Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) and his quest for discovering his biological connections. It is about time that this character moves to the center because he has been running around since the predecessor with little progress, if any. He is beginning to feel like decoration. This, too, can be attributed to the screenplay: it lacks efficiency and urgency. Things that can be accomplished in five minutes are stretched to fifteen. Clearly, a film is not a novel, vice-versa. Given that this series will only grow larger in scope and ambition, I hope that a more effective screenwriter will be taken aboard.

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
★ / ★★★★

“Alice Through the Looking Glass,” based on the screenplay by Linda Woolverton and directed by James Bobin, is capable of faking everything else except the most important ingredient in a fantasy picture: real emotions. It boats special and visual effects that are nothing short of impressive, but if one were to peer a little closer, it actually offers nothing worth of value—deeply ironic because the story dares to preach about the importance of family.

Most awkward are the scenes involving human interactions. These should have been perfectly calibrated and executed given that the majority of the film is composed of computerized imagery to the degree that is dizzying and vomit-inducing. These ought to have functioned not only as a breath of fresh air but a chance to anchor the story on a human level despite the story taking place in a wonderland. Yet notice the exchanges between Alice (Mia Wasikowska) and Hatter (Johnny Depp)—the two characters who are dead center of the plot involving time travel—so wooden, forced, not at all intriguing or the least bit warm.

One gets the impression that an illusion were created. I questioned whether the actors were ever in the same room together, let alone have gotten a chance to see each other face-to-face. This is because is a constant disconnect between not only the words uttered but the overall emotions they attempt to convey. Although Hatter is supposed to be mad and Alice is a cheery figure by default, the script fails to underline enough commonalities between the characters. When interacting with someone in person, there is a baseline when it comes to the level of engagement. Here, there appears to be nothing at all.

Despite the pavonine special and visual effects, from the animated characters to Alice’s travels through time, they suffer from diminishing returns. This is due to the fact the material fails to engage the audience in an active manner, it seems too content to give the viewers eye candy and nothing else. It goes to show that you can have the most expensive, most dazzling effects in the world but if there is little to no meaning or heft that propel them, then what’s the point? Over time, I found the images so unrealistic—even for an adventure-fantasy film—that they end up merely serving as decorations.

Notice how I have not delved into the plot. This is because the plot is completely immaterial. The filmmakers did not concern themselves with plot or story because what they wished to make was a not a product that entertained or one that they wanted to be proud of. This is merely a fashion show of greed and ego, serving to cash in on its predecessor. And it shows.

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp), a freelance journalist and novelist, is hired by Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) to work for a local newspaper in 1960 Puerto Rico. Paul wishes to get away from New York so even though he is not exactly happy that he has been assigned to write daily horoscopes and banal stories about bowling alleys, he takes comfort in holding down a job. Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a real-estate developer with a beautiful fiancée, Chenault (Amber Heard), introduces himself to alcohol-addicted Kemp. Aware of Kemp’s gift with words, Sanderson hopes to use the writer to help support his business partners’ dubious plans.

“The Rum Diary,” directed by Bruce Robinson, sweeps important issues like alcoholism, ethics of journalism, and political/racial tension under the rug in order to make room for would-be funny trivialities like Kemp experimenting with drugs with the newspaper photographer (Michael Rispoli), getting in trouble with the locals due to classic American hubris, and visiting a hermaphrodite witch.

The material is not at all entertaining, despite the so-called misadventures, because it does not bother to juggle action and reaction. Kemp, despite being a hardcore alcoholic, is miraculously able to function and proudly stand up for his ideals in a clear and rational way. By the end, it seems like the lesson that the movie wants to impart is that adventure is a product of alcoholism—a message so off-putting, it left a bitter aftertaste on my palate.

Would it have been too much to ask for the filmmakers to have given us an ounce of realism or a pinch of genuine human drama as a trampoline for comedic situations as to not insult our intelligence and time? I chuckled once or twice because of brilliantly delivered lines by Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), the newspaper’s writer who covers stories about religion. His obsession with drugs and Hitler as well as his rivalry against his boss, Lotterman, are the highlights of an otherwise lifeless film.

The rest of the time, however, I was disappointed by the material’s innate stupidity. For instance, after Kemp drowns himself in alcohol the night before, the picture shows him with a hangover the next morning for about one or two scenes: bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair, his stomach urging to gag. So far so good. But by the third scene, Kemp looks perfectly normal, sober, not a trace of evidence that his health—forget the hangover—is on a downward spiral. Look, many of us have had nights where our friends had been a little too generous taking shots. Morning is hell: very rarely do they get over the nausea, dehydration, and other symptoms that come with the condition in under one hour. As a result, when the screenplay makes incredible jumps as such, we no longer see the character; we see Depp acting and we are completely taken out of the picture.

Furthermore, since the material lacks focus and a proper dosage of realism, when it takes very serious turns, the human drama does not feel earned. I did not care about Kemp being regretful of his failed career, his wanting to expose Sanderson’s shady business, and his tricky romance with Chenault. I just wished it would end so I could do something better with my time.

Based on a novel by Hunter S. Thompson, “The Rum Diary” is chock full of badly executed ideas, slothful pacing, and careless editing that causes confusion. Just because the main character is an unapologetic drunk it does not mean that the work should not have had an ounce of clarity.

Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows (2012)
★ / ★★★★

In the eighteenth century, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Deep) is cursed by a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) to become a blood-sucking creature of the night because he chooses to love Josette (Bella Heathcote) over her. To further demonstrate her hatred toward him, the scorned sorceress then unveils to the townspeople that a vampire lives among them. She benefits from their fear after a mob captures Barnabas and buries him in a coffin to rot for eternity. Two hundred years later, however, a group of construction workers come across the vampire’s tomb and decide to open it.

If “Dark Shadows” had not been advertised as directed by Tim Burton, I would have assumed that it been under the helm of a young filmmaker who wanted to prove himself and had been given the opportunity to direct his first commercial Hollywood picture because every square inch of the material reeks of potentially good ideas but lacking in narrative focus to give the bland recipe some much needed seasoning.

The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is an exercise of mediocrity. What exactly is the story about? Have you ever played the 1985 Super Mario Bros. game where if Mario or Luigi stays on one platform for too long it collapses? The player then must control the avatar as quickly as possible toward stable ground without falling into the depths. That is the same approach taken here. In its attempt to cover up the plethora of weaknesses in the film, it gives the illusion that it’s about a lot of things and moves through them with nervous energy.

In the end, it’s all subplot and no central story. Although there is talk about the importance of family prior to the opening credits, once Barnabas is let out of his cage and joins his distant family members who are living in his castle, not one scene is constructed with dramatic heft or flow to make us believe that he genuinely cares for his clan, at least on an emotional level. Instead of focusing on developing the story and exploring the characters that inhabit it, the performances take center stage.

Depp sports his now usual weirdness and proves once again that he’s a master technician, from his range of intonations depending on the level of threat his character faces to the way he looks at someone with just enough menace as to not appear as a complete monster. Green, on the other hand, amps up the sensuality by giving intense glares that are perfect for high fashion editorials. They share one funny scene rolling around in a loft and breaking expensive furniture in the process, cheekily suggesting sexual intercourse.

But what about the family? As the head of the Collins clan, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) is not given enough scenes to show that she is a capable leader of her family as well as the cannery business. Most of the time we see her looking stern, almost constipated, like she’s having a bad day and wanting a strong drink. What is done with Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s hormonal daughter, is depressing throughout because she is only allowed to play two emotions: sexy and stoned. Moretz is a thespian capable of exuding a balance of sensitivity and strength so watching her reduce herself to a would-be sex kitten is embarrassing. I would personally like to ask her what she saw in the role while reading the script because she does not look like she is being challenged here.

The visuals are outstanding especially during the final confrontation between Barnabas and Angelique. I liked watching the transformation of inanimate objects suddenly having a will of their own. Still, it was difficult to care how it would all turn out because we had no understanding of the characters. We have epidermal information about what the winner might gain and the loser might lose but there hovers a deafening emptiness in the squabbles.


Rango (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

A chameleon named Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) was throwing a play for himself, an inanimate fish and a headless barbie being his co-stars, when his terrarium was literally thrown off the car after his owner violently swerved on the freeway. He was left to fend for himself in the cruel desert until he met Beans (Isla Fisher), a strange lizard who unconsciously froze up from time to time, and the two headed to a town called Dirt. Beans and the Mayor (Ned Beatty) informed him that the town’s residents were in desperate need of water. Rango was to be sheriff in order to maintain law and order in the land. Written by John Logan and directed by Gore Verbinski, “Rango” was an unusual animated film because the characters were not adorable, more than half of the jokes appealed to adults, and the western milieu were not always easy on the eyes. However, I enjoyed it for those reasons because those elements were not something I immediately expected. I found myself focusing on the character’s facial expressions and body parts because they ranged from homely to downright strange. It was difficult not to appreciate the level of detail added in, for instance, a possum’s hair and the way they moved when the creature walked or the manner in which a lizard’s scale changed texture when it was doused with water. But the visuals were not only impressive when the camera remained static. There were a number of rather inspired visual acrobatics. I had two favorite action sequences. The first was when Rango was hunted by a hawk and he took refuge in an empty bottle. Just when we thought our protagonist was safe, it turned out that the hawk was smart enough to grasp the bottle by its neck, fly to a great height, and let go. The second involved a battle in the canyons between Rango and Dirtonians against the thieving moles that knew how to ride bats. They used guns and other explosives; it was absolute chaos but it was astonishing to watch because the things happening on the background were as interesting as things happening on the foreground. Halfway through the picture, I realized that perhaps the film was not for young children. Topics like death, torture, and mysticism were explored. Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) was introduced and exhibited true menace. One could easily get the feeling that he could eat any Dirtonian in one big gulp and not feel bad about it. The snake’s presence reminded me of Ron Clements and John Musker’s “Aladdin” when Jafar turned into a giant cobra. There was also a scene involving a Clint Eastwood-type figure known as the Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant) when Rango experienced an identity crisis. While I thought it was bearable, I wasn’t sure children could endure speeches about one’s place in the world. I enjoyed “Rango” because it wasn’t afraid to be different. It wasn’t cute but not all animated films need to be.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Fearing the Spanish would get to the mythical Fountain of Youth first, King George (Richard Griffiths) assigned Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to lead a British crew to where it was located. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Gibbs (Kevin McNally) happened to know exactly where it was. Gibbs was captured by Barbossa and just when he was about to get killed, he revealed the map and immediately burned it. He evaded certain death because he informed Barbossa that he had memorized the map by heart. Meanwhile, Sparrow bumped on Angelica (Penélope Cruz), a former flame, whose father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), was also on a quest to find the fountain. Blackbeard heard of a prophecy of a one-legged man taking his life and he believed that drinking from the fountain would give him eternal life. Directed by Rob Marshall, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” was painful to sit through because it was essentially a compilation of lackadaisical dialogue and uninspired action sequences. Sparrow made a comment about the journey being more important than the destination and I wish the writers kept that advice in mind. The highlight of the picture was the first thirty minutes. When Sparrow impersonated a judge, we were reminded why we fell in love with watching a pirate who acted drunk and loved to make wisecracks during the most dire situations. Impersonating a judge was an act of poking fun of a justice system and its unchanging, sometimes unfair, rules. Being a pirate meant being a rebel and there’s a rebel in all of us. I also enjoyed the scene that came after when Sparrow tried to escape from the hands of British guards while half of his mind was focused on grabbing a cream puff. However, when all the key characters boarded their respective ships, it was downhill from there. The mermaids were interesting because they weren’t just there to look pretty. They could actually defend themselves. Unfortunately, the momentum came to a screeching halt when the romance between Philip (Sam Claflin), a cleric, and Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a mermaid Blackbeard’s crew captured, began to take center stage. I didn’t care about either character. The romance was predictable and out of place. Given that a mermaid’s tear was requisite for eternal life, it was transparent that Philip had to suffer in some way. With the way Blackbeard treated the mermaid, she wouldn’t give up her tears so easily. There should have been more meaningful scenes between Sparrow and Angelica yet they were reduced to meeting in secret, arguing, flirting, and talking about their past. It was like being in a room with two lovers and we weren’t in on any of their jokes. “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” was unnecessary, at times, excruciatingly, for a lack of a better word, boring. It made me wish there was a wind strong enough to let a hefty two hours and twenty minutes fly by.

The Tourist

The Tourist (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Elise (Angelina Jolie) worked for a mystery man who ordered her to pick a stranger on a train that resembled his height and build in order to throw the cops (led by the determined but ultimately incompetent detective played by Paul Bettany) off the real identity of the mystery man. Elise had chosen Frank (Johnny Depp), a math teacher from Wisconsin, who inevitably fell in love with the woman who used him. Naturally, the police believed that Frank was the man who pulled all the strings, but a group of gangsters (Steven Berkoff as the mob boss) also wanted Frank for themselves because the mystery man had stolen money from them. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, expectations were high for the film because it was Depp and Jolie’s first time being together on screen and it was the director’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed “Das Leben der Anderen” or “The Lives of Others.” The most prolific complaint was the fact that the film lacked action sequences but that was exactly what I liked about it. It was a different kind of thriller because it was more about the ambiance between the two leads. Notice the scene when Elise and Frank met for the first time. Initially, there was no chemistry between them. Elise was breathtakingly stunning and Frank was, well, as nondescript as a math teacher who taught in the middle of nowhere. But the more they spoke to each other, the more they wanted to know each other in a deeper level and somehow that was enough. Flirtation was in the air but Elise had to remain focused on her mission. Frank wanted to have Elise but was afraid to take risks. Even his cigarette was not really a cigarette. Maybe he feared getting cancer. Depp’s acting was easy to criticize because the audiences are used to seeing him play characters who were bigger than life. Over-the-top had become the norm for him. I actually enjoyed Depp’s minimalist approach to this picture which was a big risk but it worked. As he attempted to run away from the gangsters on the rooftops, it was actually refreshing to see someone move slowly and stumble. We feared for him because he was just a regular folk thrown into an incredible situation. He was no Jason Bourne. Admittedly, I was slightly thrown off by the film’s many twists, especially toward the end when we finally discovered the true identity of the mystery man. In my opinion, they should have left the identity not known to the audiences so we could have something to talk about. The movie wasn’t really about the man’s identity. It was about an ordinary man swaying an incredible woman to take notice of him. Perhaps they could even fall in love.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” stars Christopher Plummer as the title character who won a bet against the devil (Tom Waits) and gained immortality. About a thousand years later, Doctor Parnassus now with a daughter (Lily Cole), the devil came back to make another deal. That is, whoever seduced five souls into entering a magical mirror and making certain decisions would win and ultimately keep the girl. Quirky characters played by Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer and Heath Ledger (with a mysterious past) were a part of Dr. Parnassus’ traveling performers. I thought this was a particularly challenging film to watch because the fantastic elements mixed with playing around with time and malleable loyalties of characters were difficult to keep track in one sitting. Added on top of it all was Ledger’s untimely death so Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell had to come in and fill in his shoes whenever Ledger entered the cryptic mirror. While the three did a good job across the board, I thought none of them could match the intensity and fluidity that Ledger put on the table. The visuals were a sight to behold but sometimes the picture got too carried away with the images where it took some power away from the story. I thought the movie functioned best when the story was at the forefront and the visuals were used as an aid to make the players realize something within themselves. For instance, I thought one of the most effective scenes in the movie was when Depp lured a rich lady into stepping onto a boat to meet her fate. There was something about it that was so poetic–almost touching–but at the same time creepy because of the anticipation of what would happen to her next. When the story and the images worked together, the project had me in a vicegrip. Unfortunately, exemplary scenes like that came few and far between. Another problem I had was only toward the end did we get to see what lengths Dr. Parnassus would go through to save his daughter. Most of the time, he was just in the background drinking like there’s no tomorrow while the movie focused on Ledger’s past. I was less interested in the mysterious stranger’s past. I actually wanted to know more about the man who lived for a thousand years and the many things he had to go through and only to meet the devil again at the most inopportune time. In a nutshell, the lead character needed more dimension by means of a more focused writing. Imagination is something that “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” directed by Terry Gilliam, did not lack. However, the execution was ultimately weak and I felt like it could have been so much darker. I wouldn’t mind seeing a remake of this film twenty or thirty years from now because the elements of a great film were certainly there. It’s just that circumstances prevented it from reaching great heights.

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Director Tim Burton who rarely fails to deliver cinematic magic in his work, whether the story takes place in a fantasy world (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) or the real world (“Ed Wood”), takes a step backward in a sort-of sequel of “Alice in Wonderland.” Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now ninteen years old and was asked by a pompous lord for her hand in marriage despite the fact that the proposal was simply driven by societal pressures and conveniences. Before making her decision, she ran as far away as she could only to end up falling in a hole that led to a world full of strange yet familiar creatures such as Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the Red and White Queen (Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway, respectively), twins with hydrocephalus (Matt Lucas), a smoking blue caterpillar (Alan Rickman), a cheshire cat (Stephen Fry), and many others. My biggest frustration with this film was that there were far too many cuts which led to scenes with no gravity or even amusement. I understand that it was rated PG and a huge portion of the picture was geared toward children. However, proven by Pixar’s range of fantastic work, the rating should not inhibit the film from engaging both children and adults. This could be done by instilling the audiences a sense wonder to the point where they forget they were watching a film for kids. My second biggest frustration was that I did not connect with any of the characters despite them being strange, which is very uncharacterstic in Burton’s work. The characters lacked heart so being strange was not enough if we were not able to root for them. I could not even root for Alice because she just unaware most of the time and she was not exactly the most courageous. I also understand that the characters were based on Lewis Carroll’s work but at the same time Burton is the kind of director that takes risks and he just failed to do that here. While the animation was nice because everything was bright and energetic, I did not feel that sense of wonder that the title had promised. Something I did not notice that a friend of mine pointed out was its lack of consistency, especially with Depp’s character. He claimed that Depp changed his accent from one scene to the next. While I did agree that the story was at times inconsistent, I would like to think the accent issue was intended because I think it worked with the character’s craziness. Depp has proven that he’s a great actor time and again and I think he made a concious choice of changing accents from one scene to another. I was disappointed with this film but I did not hate it because I saw potential–potential to be so much darker, funnier and more involving. I think if the writing had been stronger and had it not been limited by the PG rating, the movie would have been more enchanting and memorable.


Platoon (1986)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) signed up to be a soldier because he felt like participating in a war was a family legacy since his grandfather and father fought the wars of their generations. Being a new soldier, he looked up to two people who had higher ranks: Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). The former represented composure, control and ethics despite the craziness of war, while the latter embodied the evil, darkness, and cruelty. I thought this movie was going to be another one of those war classics that was overly long. I was quickly proven wrong because of the number of scenes that highlighted the silence and all we could hear was the rustling of the leaves as the soldiers slithered their way through the jungle. I also didn’t expect a lot of character development because war pictures often focus their energy on the epic battle sequences. The narration worked for me because the thoughts and insights that Sheen’s character was unable to talk about with his comrades was out in the open for the audiences. There was a real sensitivity to his character; the real turning point for me when I decided that I was going to root for his character was when he proudly wore his naïveté on his sleeves regarding one of the reasons why he volunteered to be a soldier. He reasoned that that the rich always got away from all the dirty work and he felt that he shouldn’t be anyone special just because he was born with money. Also, since he felt like he wasn’t learning anything in college, essentially, he might as well make himself useful by joining the army. Scenes like those when the characters were just talking and measuring each other up really fascinated me and I was interested in what ways they would change by the end of the picture. Oliver Stone, the director, helmed a war film that had an internal mologue mixed with moral ambiguities instead of taking the easier route of simply entertaining the viewers with empty explosions and guts being flung into the air. “Platoon” was gorgeously shot in the Philippines and the night scenes really captured the horror of the enemies blending into the environment. Lastly, it was interesting to see future stars such as the younger Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon, and Forest Whitaker. “Platoon” ranks among other unforgettable war pictures such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket.”

Donnie Brasco

Donnie Brasco (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on true events, director Mike Newell tells the story of how FBI special agent Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp), whose mob alias is Donnie Brasco, climbs the ladder of the mafia hierarchy. Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) takes Brasco under his wing because Brasco can become somebody that he always aspires to be–a high-level member of the mafia who has genuine power so he can be proud of his life and the things he has done. As Brasco becomes more into the mafia life, he starts to detach from his responsibilities to his job and, more importantly, his family (Anne Heche plays his wife). “Donnie Brasco” was not the kind of movie I expected. Although I did expect for it to have very entertaining tough guy conversations that were common to gangster films, I did not expect it to have as much heart. The relationship between Brasco and Pistone was fascinating because the two almost had a father-son relationship. The tricky thing was that Brasco knew all along that he eventually had to turn Pistone in to the FBI; how could he do that to a friend or a father figure? The performances were exemplary, especially from Depp and Pacino, because there’s a real complexity and tension between the characters and their respective families. I felt like the more they tried to help each other out, the more their families’ lives started falling apart–as if their relationship was toxic or was never meant to be. I also really liked Michael Madsen as Sonny Black. His tough-but-cool persona reminded me of his character Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs.” Ultimately, this film is about the two lead characters’ evolution: one toward the mafia life and one away from it. For a two-hour running time, we wereable to observe the differences between what a character was thinking and what a character was doing. Although there were a plethora of similiarities between the two, the differences were enough to trigger a certain nuanced intelligence that are worth discussing when the credits start rolling. “Donnie Brasco” is arguably unlike other gangster pictures because it does not necessarily focus on how to be a gangster but on what it means to be a gangster. It’s worth seeing.

Ed Wood

Ed Wood (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Ed Wood,” directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as the lead character, fascinated me in so many ways. It tells the story of a director that I’m very unfamiliar with, his strings of bad movies–how he made them, the behind-the-scenes drama, how the audiences reacted to his pictures–and his relationship with Bela Lugosi (played brilliantly by Martin Landau). Even though it had just enough of serious undercurrents, the comedy was consistent from beginning to end. Each character that Depp interacted with, such as his eventual bitter girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), life-long partner (Patricia Arquette), and idol Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) brought multiple dimensions to the table. I’ve never seen Depp smile so much in any role. But yet he doesn’t become another commercial character. In fact, that smile had a certain edge to it, as if he’s smiling in order to distract others from his real thoughts and the secrets he wants to keep hidden. I felt like Burton really captured the era he wanted to portray. From the stunning black-and-white look of the film, the kinds of movies that studios were interested in producing at the time (science fiction films which involve giant animals or bugs that terrorize communities), and the cooky groups of people such as cross-dressers, drug addicts, dimming stars, and dreamers whose lives passed them by. And even though Burton sometimes made fun of Depp’s character from time to time, I still felt as though Mr. Wood’s memory was respected because he was portrayed as a man who never gave up on his dreams of making not just movies but actual art that he’s proud of even if others easily come to label his works as the “worst movies of all time.” I admired his determination to his raise the money himself when no other person or company would fund his projects. That struggle really carried this film through for me because it did not merely portray a series of funny moments just for the sake of laughter. In the end, it did not feel like another movie with a quirky way of telling a story. It felt like a near-masterpiece tribute for a man who was never taken seriously but still succeeded because of his undying spirit.

Public Enemies

Public Enemies (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-43” by Bryan Burrough, Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, a notorious bank robber in the 1930’s. Along with his friends, they rob banks but do not take the citizens’ money, have intense showdowns with the police, and find intense ways to escape from jail. Just when I thought Dillinger was simply a tough (yet charismatic) criminal with some immutable principles, he falls in love with Billie Frechette (the lovely Marion Cotillard) and the couple’s bond is challenged by going through myriads of trials. What I love about this film was its action scenes. They reminded me of that infamous scene in “Heat” when all the audiences could hear were silence, rushing footsteps, and guns going off. Those scenes, especially the climactic cabin scene at night, are reasons enough to see this film. Another aspect I liked about the picture was that it didn’t try too hard to be cool. With most gangster films I encounter (even though I enjoy them), at times I’m taken out of the experience. With “Public Enemies,” not for one second was I distracted because the scenes had an innate organic flow despite the film being a period piece. Lastly, I enjoyed the idea that we didn’t know much about Dillinger’s past. There’s something about him, right off the heart-pounding first scene, inclined me to think that how he reacts to certain situations is more important than how he became the way he is. However, this film definitely had its weaknesses. Now that I had more time to think about it, I felt that it was a bit too long. While I did enjoy how the FBI agents (led by Christian Bale) found ways to find their targets (sometimes through illegal means), they were a bit repetitive. I get that Mann was trying to show that there are no good guys but did we really need to see Bale getting theatened by his superiors? Right away, I knew that he was a serious man all about reaching his goals (but still maintaining some sort of ethics) because if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have been assigned to catch Dillinger. If the film had been about two hours long, it would have been leaner and some weaker extraneous scenes could’ve been cut out. Nevertheless, “Public Enemies” will reward the audiences who are willing to think about the subtleties of each character. If not, then the very realistic action scenes should be more than sufficient.