Showing posts with label johnny depp. Show all posts
Showing posts with label johnny depp. Show all posts

Sep 14, 2020


In 2009, Michael Mann had hoped to tell the definitive story of the most famous bank robber ever—Public Enemies. With Johnny Depp as the John Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his love, and Christian Bale as “G-Man” Melvin Purvis, the potential was there for not just another solid crime thriller from the director of Heat and Collateral, but for a new classic to stand alongside the great period crime films like The UntouchablesRoad To Perdition, and more. Unfortunately, Public Enemies proved to be, er...the nice way of putting it would be an underwhelming disappointment, when taking into account the pedigree involved in bringing it to the screen.  It’s hard to gauge how much of Public Enemies’ audience was aware that the story of the John Dillinger Gang had already been told nearly forty years prior, written and directed by John Millius. It’s also hard to gauge how many people realize just how much better Dillinger is. The film opens with a sequence which sees this version of John Dillinger, played by Warren Oates, ordering a bank teller to make with the cash, even though he’s at this moment breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience. “Nobody get nervous, you ain’t got nothing to fear,” he tells us. “You’re being robbed by the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is!” This opening scene alone is better than the best parts of Public Enemies.

Back-to-back viewings of Dillinger and Public Enemies will tell a pretty similar story, though in different ways, and utilizing a different timeline of events. Like Public Enemies, however, Dillinger presents its title “character” as a charming, lively, no-nonsense bank robber more interested in stealing from the federal government than from the pockets of the individual. Oates’ take on Dillinger might be a bit more true to life, presenting him as someone who takes what he wants—including women—by force. The start of the union between himself and Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips) ain’t exactly romantic, as it’s more akin to a kidnapping, and the black eye she later sports is dismissed as a “marital disagreement,” The usual suspects are there: Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton), Harry Pierpont (Geoffrey Lewis), Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly), Baby Face Nelson (an irascible Richard Dreyfuss), with Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) pursuing them all.

Dillinger unfolds in a docudrama fashion similar to Roger Corman’s period Chicago gangster flick The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, relying on voice-over to provide fact-based narration that propels the narrative forward (supplied by Johnson’s Purvis). Being that more time is spent with the gang than with the FBI agents hunting them down (very little time is spent on investigatory techniques; mostly these confrontational scenes begin with the agents already at the scene), it’s easy to determine that Millius was infatuated with these criminals and less so with “the law.” 

Ben Johnson offers a gruff performance as Purvis—one punctuated with glee each time he takes the life of a criminal and lights a cigar in celebration. In fact, one of his final scenes has him promising the woman who ultimately gives up Dillinger's location that “no harm” will come to him, with Pruvis stating he wants to take him in peacefully. Whether this is something the real Purvis had promised and subsequently defaulted on, or was a cinematic creation to heighten Millius’ seeming skewering of the FBI of that time period, that moment pushes Johnson’s Purvis from a relentless law agent to an Ahab-like figure pursuing a personal vendetta. (Historically, Purvis does not fire the fatal shot.) (Also, interesting, two historical accounts slightly differ in Dillinger’s final moments—some claim he realized the agents were there and attempted to pull a gun from his coat pocket; another claims he did successfully retrieve his gun and ran into a dark alley, intent on shooting his way out of the situation. Both Dillinger and Public Enemies have him being shot down in the street with no attempts to take him alive. This, likely, leans closer to history than what “history” claims.)

Dillinger’s post-Little Bohemia shootout finale takes a bit more time to draw to a conclusion, as we see each of the Dillinger Gang’s surviving members disperse and attempt to elude authorities, and it slows the film’s pace somewhat, but the before mentioned theater assassination punctuates the film and allows it to end on a somewhat somber (and violent) note. (The whole film, in fact, boasts much more violence than Public Enemies—with no cheap CGI blood to offend the eye.)

The John Dillinger Gang story has been told numerous times already, and it’s safe to assume Public Enemies won’t be the final word on the subject, all the Depps and Bales notwithstanding. Dillinger, however and so far, is the best attempt. Historical inaccuracies and somewhat broad character archetypes aside, it’s a captivating, violent, well-made, and mostly accurate account on the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is.

Sep 11, 2013


Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.

Dir. Roman Polanski
Artisan Entertainment
United States

"I'm entering uncharted territory. Taking the road that leads to equality, with God. You can't come with me. I must travel alone. But you may look on, and marvel. ... There have been men who have been burned alive or disemboweled for just a glimpse of what you are about to witness."

Personal feelings about Roman Polanski aside, his early dabbling in the horror genre is still cited today as inspiration for multiple filmmakers. It seems four out of five horror directors cite Rosemary's Baby as an influence either on any one of their particular films, or their career in general. The more studious may cite Repulsion or The Tenant, and the real nerd will name-drop Knife in the Water, which while not all-out horror still maintains quite a bit of tension and discomfort. It was for this reason that his 1999 return to horror with The Ninth Gate at first elated those with an awe for Polanski, though audiences didn't really turn out in droves. This one seemed in the bag, really – Depp was on a hot streak and Polanski was returning to the genre. But for whatever reason, it never took off, and that is a damn shame.

Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso (the surname being Italian for "run"), a sort of collector, investor, investigator, authenticator, and tracker of extremely rare books. (No idea if this is an actual, real-life profession, but, I'm certainly willing to go with it, as it sounds way better than my job.) His chosen profession gets him into all sorts of "unscrupulous" conflicts, but he always seems to come out on top, with a non-grin, and a lot of green in his pocket for his troubles. 

After swindling the children of an invalid man with a very valuable book collection, Corso meets with Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a client with another very unique job. You see, Balkan has spent "a lifetime" amassing a collection of books devoted to the occult. He boasts there is no larger collection in the world. Among these books is The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, written by Aristide Torchia in 1666(!) in Venice. Though three copies exist, only one is authentic. Allegedly The Nine Gates was based on the Delomelanicon, a previous tome written by Satan himself. The legend goes that the sole genuine copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows has the power to raise Satan up from the underworld. Balkan pledges to pay Corso nearly as much as he wants should he travel to Europe and examine the other two copies to determine which of them is genuine. His journey finds him embroiled in sex, murder, and even Hell itself. (All the best European holidays do.) And whether or not he finds what he is looking for, there's no coming back.

The Ninth Gate's story is mapped out using perhaps my favorite underutilized sub-genre of horror, which would be noir – a man chasing a mystery that leads him into unfamiliar and diabolical territory. Sure, you could argue that every horror film has a mystery at its core, but those that follow the very established tropes – the detective in over his head, the femme fatale, the client firmly entrenched in the horror that awaits his hired help – deserve special mention. Other films of equal power and unfortunately equal lack of appreciation previously befell In the Mouth of Madness and Angelheart, both about private detectives who find themselves in very unfortunate circumstances. 

Depp signed onto The Ninth Gate back during the phase of his career when he hadn't yet lost his soul to the Mouse House and was willing to take on riskier roles. And during the late '90s, having come off both Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and Donnie Brasco, he had nothing really to lose and everything to gain from working with a living legend such as Polanski. And if you're going to hire someone to play a complete douchebag who still manages to earn sympathy from your audience, there's no one better than Depp. 

Do you believe in the supernatural, Mr. Corso?

I believe in my percentage, Mr. Balkan.

Regardless of how lazy and uninspired his role choices have been over the last decade, there's no denying Depp was great, and could still be under the right circumstances. Corso will literally yawn as you speak to him, or clean his glasses without bothering to hide his complete disinterest in small talk. His mustache/goatee and glasses cause him to skew a bit older (likely the intention, as it complements the salt-and-pepper hair), and it helps to explain his extremely cynical and jaded view of...well...everything. Money leads his life, which he lives in isolation – no wife/girlfriend, and certainly no friends, which Balkan is quick to notice, point out, and appreciate. His only "friend" – if you can call him that – is Bernie (James Russo), co-owner of Corso's rare book store, though the importance of this friendship is certainly determined later once Bernie meets an untimely end.

Langella, who has done consistently great work in every genre (once having played Dracula), does a very fine job of playing a psychopath masquerading as a boring aristocrat. It's easy to ham it up in some if his lesser projects, like Masters of the Universe, but it's a lot more rewarding, I'm sure, to equally lose oneself entirely in a performance while under the tutelage of someone like Polanski. Though a large portion of his performance is relegated to a voice on the phone, Langella is still capable of presenting a dominating presence. Emmanuelle Seigner as "The Girl," and your requisite femme fatale (one of two), knows her role: be sexy and be mysterious. She plays it well. "I like books," she tells Corso, though her choice of reading materials (How to Make Friends and Influence People) certainly isn't along the same lines as the titles Corso is used to tracking down. And this strange choice of reading material may or may not hang, ironically, in the back of your mind as The Girl's true identity is eventually revealed. As for the other femme fatale: Lena Olin as Liana Telfer out-sexes sex itself. She is gorgeous here, mid-forties not withstanding, and she's ably both sultry and dangerous. (Or maybe I'm a sucker for garters.)

Composer Wojciech Kilar, one of my personal favorites (and responsible for the wonderfully operatic and over-the-top score for Frances Ford Coppola's take on Dracula) turns in some pretty wonderful work here. His themes alternate from ominous and pulse-pounding to nearly whimsical and clumsy. His theme for Corso alludes that the man isn't the most intelligent, as his musical accompaniment suggests a sort of doddering man who is haphazardly wandering from one clue to the next. This doesn't exactly match up with the actual on-screen version of Corso, who I would argue is actually more unprepared than outright stupid, but then again, that's the beauty of interpretation. 

As for the film's direction, well, I'd be incorrect, simply put, if I were to say Polanski was at the top of his game here. But those people who call his direction over The Ninth Gate lacking are equally misguided. He was never a director who did or tried interesting things with the camera (for the most part, anyway, as there's a fun in-camera gag where Corso is knocked out), as he was always more interested in drama – in spending time with his characters and having the audience join them on their journey. In that regard, The Ninth Gate fits well into his filmography. Corso runs afoul of many different characters - both benevolent and malevolent – but his goal is never deterred. It's his journey we're undertaking here, and we get to experience his sexual misadventures, his close calls, and even his utter befuddlement in the events that surround him. In the earlier exchange where he avoids labeling himself either as a believer or refuter of the supernatural, it seems to me that Corso might just be a believer after all. As he becomes embroiled in the events, he certainly comes off as disturbed and fearful, but never altogether surprised. You could argue that Polanski's interpretation of the Corso character is of a man who is eager not to authenticate The Nine Gates, but instead to determine the actual existence of the devil. After all, what is it they say: If God exists, then surely so should the Devil? If Corso is out to determine the existence of a god, he can surely do that by locating one lousy fallen angel. (I suppose you could also argue that The Ninth Gate is about fate, but that's kind of fucking boring, seeing as how you could argue every film is about fate.)

Not having seen every Polanski film, I still think I'm safe in saying he generally keeps his humor separate from his purposely darker stories. But in The Ninth Gate, he seems absolutely willing to have some fun, as I suppose the rather silly nature of the story he is telling needs to be lightened up occasionally. He is never without respect for this unorthodox mystery, but at the same time he likes to pop up from time to time and state, "Don't take this too seriously." Despite this, Polanski isn't exactly throwing pies and asking who's on first. Yes, there are some fun characters who show up to provide whimsy, but Polanski's idea of humor is a character confined to a wheelchair, recently dead, motoring unguided through a set of double doors and directly into fire, or Liana, post-coitus, telling Corso, "Don't fuck with me," and Corso responding, "I thought I just did?" Some of The Ninth Gate's humor has darkness and edge. At its core it's mean-spirited and even a little angry, and it fits right in.

Partly based on the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and as previously mentioned, Polanski has fun with his version of Dean Corso, who slowly becomes more and more obsessed with his assignment, though he's not entirely prepared for where it will bring him. A good detective Corso may be, he's still entirely in over his head.

No matter how many plays or Dickens tales he adapts for the screen, to horror fans (and I mean this in every respectful way possible) Roman Polanski is always going to be the man who directed Rosemary's Baby – considered to be one of the greatest horror films of all time. And because of this, every announcement of a new Polanski film will have fans scanning the log line hoping to see his return to the genre. It's not impossible, nor even unlikely, that he'll return to the genre that put him on the map. 

I know I'll certainly be waiting.

[Reprinted on Daily Grindhouse.]

Oct 24, 2012


When a character dramatically rolls his eyes at Ichabod Crane’s emphasis on adhering to facts over superstitions in regards to solving a case and says, “This is the only book you’ll need,” and drops a gigantic bible on the table, you'll know you’re not exactly seeing a subtle take on the classic Washington Irving tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But then again, Tim Burton has never made subtlety a part of his repertoire.

Right off the bat I should say that I do not think the filmmaker’s 1999 adaptation of the tale is a great film. For me it hovers somewhere around good. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker gets points for taking a fairly simplistic story – which spends more time describing the sights, sounds, and foliage of Tarrytown, New York, rather than trying to creep anyone out – and turning it into something layered and intelligent…almost too much. It’s so far removed from the original source that the only things they eventually have in common are the names of characters and the love triangle between Ichabod, Catrina, and Brom Bones (the best name in literary history).

Johnny Depp actually makes for a great Ichabod, a character described as gangly, almost sickly looking, and awkward. He ups the handsome factor a little bit, but this is Hollywood, folks, where pretty people reign supreme. The chemistry between he and the eerily unaging Christina Ricci is serviceable enough, and the actual iteration of the Headless Horsemen is perfectly intimidating. Not to mention the score by Danny Elfman, one of the best as far as the duo's collaborations go.

Visually, Sleepy Hollow is Burton’s best film as a director. For a classic tale long associated with our favorite holiday, Burton crams in all the dead leaves and twisted trees that you can stand. And if that’s not enough for you, how does witchcraft sound? And fields of corn? Ghastly jack-o-lanterns? Scarecrows? The movie comes as close to achieving the look and feel of Halloween without actually being about the damned holiday.

Although maybe it is?

Halloween has traditionally always contained all of those earlier stated iconography: witchcraft, jack-o-lanterns, scarecrows, dead leaves, cold winds, things that go bump, and beautiful autumn. This one straddles the line between ya or nay, but it's a film that I love to revisit every year around this time, so I will certainly allow it.

When I think of Halloween, I think of small towns in rural areas. I think of farms and cabins and isolated areas. I think of the past, with its antiquated celebrations in the town square complete with wooden masks and jolly fiddle music. For me, Sleepy Hollow – overly complicated plot or no – captures that.

Plus it’s got pumpkins!