Tag Archives: David Koepp

Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten Johnny Depp Performances

Johnny Depp is known as one of the ultimate chameleon actors, and since he got his start in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street he has been entertaining audiences for over two decades with lively, theatrical and off the wall characters. Sometimes it works wonders (our beloved Jack Sparrow), other times comes across as weird (that lame Mad Hatter) and sometimes it’s downright creepy (oh man his misguided attempt at Willy Wonka). He’s also adept at voice work as well as some gritty, brooding, down to earth character roles and whether the particular performance lands nicely or flounders awkwardly, he’s never not fascinating in some way. Here are my top ten favourites of his work!

10. Rango in Gore Verbinski’s Rango

Depp lends his voice to the titular chameleon and hero of this most unconventional, unclassifiable and wholly brilliant animation film. Set in the Mojave desert, it follows Rango as he encounters a town called Dirt, and just about every western archetype you could think of within it. It’s a dazzling sendup of both the western genre and the medium of storytelling itself, speckled with off the wall adult humour and vivid voice work from a huge cast. Johnny brings obvious physicality to the role and embodies the energy, tone and style of this unique piece flawlessly.

9. Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

In bringing this classic Washington Irving character to life Depp uses a hilariously ironic fear of blood and all things morbid that’s constantly at odds with his fascination, intuition and knack for solving grisly murders. Burton’s flat out gorgeous palette, Depp’s nervous yet strong willed performance and a whole pack of epic supporting actors make this one of the best gothic horror flicks out there.

8. Frederick Abberline in the Hughes Brother’s From Hell

An opium addled Scotland Yard inspector with some serious demons in his closet, Depp’s keen but damaged cop investigates the Jack The Ripper slayings in Victorian London and uncovers more than he wished. This is a sumptuous, gloriously stylized Alan Moore adaption that captures the horror and grim malice of this period of history. His performance finds the haunted notes of the character while still retaining a lucid intellect and trusty intuition, displaying terrific chemistry with Heather Graham as a prostitute he falls in love with and Robbie Coltrane as his salty captain.

7. Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas

Depp was close friends with author Hunter S. Thompson and it’s apparent in his balls out, maniacally dedicated performance as a junkie journalist on a madcap bender through sin city with his trusty and equally deranged sidekick (Benicio Del Toro). This is a love it or hate it experience of mind blowing insanity, but there’s no denying his headlong commitment to character and willingness to go the extra mile and then some.

6. Tonto in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger

This film inexplicably bombed and got a bad rep, but it’s one of my favourites and Depp’s loony, off kilter turn as Tonto is something to be seen. He’s a nut job with a crow on his head that spouts enough mumbo jumbo to confuse anyone and yet there’s something sad, forlorn and lonely about the work here, which becomes even more apparent as his character arc comes full circle.

5. Mort Rainey in David Koepp’s Secret Window

Channeling his inner wacko, Depp brings a deranged Stephen King character vividly to life in this tale of a depressed writer holed up in a cabin on the lake until he gets an unwanted visitor and things get spooky. He’s always had a great loony side to his work but here he really gets to explore a character who, bit by bit, is completely losing his marbles. Featuring scary supporting work from John Turturro as a bumpkin who comes wandering out of the woods looking for trouble, this is a deliriously fun and very atmospheric thriller, one of the best page to screen King translations.

4. Ed Wood in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood

Ed Wood was considered the worst director of all time, but that’s just an aside to Burton and Depp, who choose to make their film ultimately about a man so in love with filmmaking that he overlooks every flaw in the process, finding beauty in blunder. Wood was a guy who essentially made Z grade junk for less than dimes and soldiered on through rejection and infamy. Depp plays him as a warm and very passionate guy who wants to give everyone a shot, including now washed up and drug addicted Bela Lugosi, played brilliantly here by Martin Landau. Whether perceived as jokester hack artist or dedicated exploitation pirate, there’s no denying that Depp finds all the perfect notes, sad nuances and beautiful aspects of Wood’s life and legacy in a performance that practically comes to life in crisp, gorgeous black and white.

3. Jeffrey Sands in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time In Mexico

Sands is a rogue CIA operative who is so spectacularly corrupt that the agency doesn’t know what else to do but station him way down in Mexico where he can’t cause trouble but somehow manages to anyway. He’s is just so hilariously eccentric in the role, whether he’s wearing a prosthetic arm to hide a firearm, murdering a chef because his slow cooked pork was *too good*, deviously instigating an explosive coup that tears Mexico City apart or reading a biography of Judy Garland in between double crossings and back stabbings, he’s too much fun and steals a film that already stars people like Willem Defoe, Mickey Rourke Danny Trejo, which is no easy accomplishment. He also gets arguably the most badass shootout of the film in a sequence that’s beautifully reminiscent of Sergio Leone in all the coolest ways.

2. William Blake in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

This haunting, unconventional art house western sees him as a meek accountant from Cleveland who travels out to the Wild West for work and instead finds himself becoming an outlaw, murderer and eventually arriving at his own death, but not in the way you might think. This is one of my all time favourite films, it’s a meditative work of brilliant art with stunning black and white photography, a wonderfully eclectic star studded cast and a hypnotic guitar score by Neil Young. Johnny anchors it with a performance that travels an incredible arc from mild mannered city boy to archetypal phantom of the frontier.

1. Captain Jack Sparrow in Gore Verbinski’s Pirates Of The Caribbean

What can I say, this is the flagship Depp performance, the most inspired piece of acting he’s done and one of the most lovable, roguish, hilarious and perpetually tipsy characters to ever be born of cinema. With roots in Keith Richards’s essence he made specific costume, mannerism and vocal choices in bringing Jack alive, he’s the heart, soul and dreadlocked hair of the Pirates franchise and pretty much a pop culture icon too.

Thanks for reading! Tune in for more content and let me know if you have any requests!

-Nate Hill

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Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes

I love those films that revolve around a feverish, high profile celebrity boxing match, whether the stakes are placed on the fight itself or on the characters spectating. There’s a sense of intrigue and danger to that kind of sporting event that makes for great mood setting and story establishment. In Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes, Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinise find themselves pulled into a shadowy assignation attempt on the life of the Secretary of Defense as a fight rages just past ringside in Atlantic City (Vegas Lite).

The character dynamic between the two actors here is superb; Cage is Santoro, a cheerfully corrupt detective who dresses like a pimp, ruthlessly schmoozes his way into profitable exchanges and has hopes of one day being the mayor simply due to the fact that he’s well connected. Sinise is Commander Dunne and couldn’t be cut from a more different cloth, he’s a buttoned down, modest, even toned military man who resents Santoro for being such a merciless showboat but has reconciled that with the fact that they grew up together. After the chaotic assignation, they’re tasked with interviewing any and all witnesses and let me tell you in an arena that crowded and fired up, this is no easy task. Stan Shaw (remember him from Fried Green Tomatoes?) is terrific as Lincoln Tyler, the hulking prizefighter who clearly knows something based on the dark, sheepish looks he casts around when being interrogated. Others involved include Carla Gugino as a mysterious operative, John Heard as a fast talking politician, Kevin Dunn, Michael Rispoli, Luis Guzman, Mike Starr, Peter McRobbie, Tamara Tunie and more.

I’ve heard claims that this film builds into a third act that’s bombastic and ridiculous, but hello people, this is a Brian De Palma film and the guy is in love with overblown sensationalism. That’s not to say he doesn’t have tact or skill in building slow suspense either. He has a way with long, uneasy tracking shots (I’ve always thought he’d be a great helmer for a Michael Myers Halloween film) as characters pursue each other through detailed, densely populated environments. There’s an extended sequence set in a hotel here where a baddie searches for a witness with cold resolve that’s among the best thriller set pieces I’ve seen anywhere. Of course it gets kind of WTF in the third act but I love that turn of events just as much, it adds a level of political paranoia that rises above simply a few people conspiring to take out a leader they don’t like, and the fun is in watching each hilarious new piece of the puzzle land with a boom n’ crash. I’ll tell you one thing, although I could have guessed early on who the mastermind behind all this hubbub is, I would have *never* in a million years guessed why or how it plays out or the reasons behind the whole thing, and you have to give De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp mad props for pulling that off. Plus the thing just has energy, adrenaline, personality and fucking awesome visual panache to spare. Great film.

-Nate Hill

David Koepp’s The Trigger Effect

What if the power in an entire state/province all went out at once, for an indefinite amount of time? David Koepp’s The Trigger Effect shows you just what would happen in this scenario, albeit in the 90’s before everyone had a smartphone to keep them on the grid. After a mass blackout across California, one suburban couple (Kyle MaClachlan and Elizabeth Shue) attempt to weather the storm of confusion, vandalism and eventual madness that sweeps across the region. It starts with subtle domestic friction between the two, but as they venture out for provisions they bear witness to the lawless, frenzied chaos that such an event can do to the populous. It doesn’t help when Maclachlan’s roughneck buddy Dermot Mulroney shows up to turn an already strained marriage into an outright deceptive love triangle, adding to the tension. Some of the finer plot points and scenarios can be a bit silly but the aura of unease that covers everything is quite well done, and the acting is solid. Supporting turns include William Lucking as a gruff pharmacist, Richard T. Jones as a desperate father, Richard Schiff, Jack Noseworthy, Bill Smitrovich and more as various individuals affected by the widespread panic. The best performance of the film, however, comes from an explosive, scary Michael Rooker as a mysterious hitchhiker who may or may not be friendly. His extended cameo blasts the energy level of the film from mellow to frenetic in a matter of seconds, leaving us shellshocked in his wake. This isn’t a knock your socks off thriller by any means, and has it’s own strange way of pacing itself that may leave some cold, but I really enjoyed the atmosphere it offered, the eclectic cast and how immersive the experience was from that first blackout until the resolution. Good stuff.

-Nate Hill

David Koepp’s Secret Window

David Koepp’s Secret Window is a terrific little psychological chiller, with just the right doses of fright and camp. Based on a Stephen King short, it’s got everything you’d want in a little vignette from the master: secluded wilderness setting, paranoia, whacked out protagonist, cerebral mind games wrapped in a classically meta package, the story being about a writer itself. The problem with the film is that it has a twist, and in this day and age after the loss of cinema’s innocence, everyone and their mother has seen a film with some variation of the revelation that Window has to offer. But this is not the film’s problem, really, because it hails from a simpler time back in the late 90’s, early 00’s, when twists like that were still somewhat new. The Sixth Sense hype had barely died down, the new age of psychological horror hadn’t yet dawned and stuff like this seemed really fresh. This one is terrific on its terms though, and has a certifiably loony central performance from Johnny Depp as Mort Rainey, a depressed nut-job novelist who’s holed himself up in a cabin on a lake to cook up his newest book, but really he’s just there to mope about his wife (Maria Bello) leaving him for the considerably less dreamy Timothy Hutton. His bout of self loathing is interrupted when freaky stranger Shooter (John Turturro) shows up at his door and aggressively accuses him of plagiarism. Turturro plays the guy in a weird Amish getup and with enough menace in his southern drawl to rival his perverse lunatic Jesus from The Big Lebowski. Anywho, after that Depp descends into sketchy paranoia, unsure of what’s real, who’s real, who double-crossed who and who’s trying to get the better of him. Set in rural Maine as per usual, this is classic King and benefits a lot from Depp, who wisely chooses to make his performance fun, engaging and just cartoonish enough where other actors might try to be too realistic or serious. If you watch it these days in the wake of countless other thrillers that have filled the gulf of time between 2004 and now, you might not be all that impressed. Try and retain your sense of wonder in terms of the genre, you may have a blast. I always enjoy this one.

-Nate Hill

David Koepp’s Mortdecai

So… I don’t quite get… how this film ever got green-lit, aside from Johnny Depp pulling a few strings. It’s like the most unfunny, painful thing to see unfold, like a Pink Panther flick with all the wit, heart and humour sucked out of it by dementors, leaving nothing but an acrid, soulless shell. That may sound harsh, but give David Koepp’s Mortdechai a day in court yourself and you’ll probably have similar things to say of it, or worse. Depp plays the titular buffoon, an aristocratic, borderline senile art dealer with a plummy British accent and a silly moustache that becomes the butt of a tiresome running joke involving the gag reflex of his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow, barely even trying with her accent). Mortdechai becomes involved in some overwrought global art-hunt that makes little sense and drags on for an interminable length, with his trusty lusty manservant Jock Strapp, ha ha, (Paul Bettany miscast in a role better suited for someone like Jason Statham or Vinnie Jones). Ewan McGregor and his sunny disposition show up for a while as a detective with the hots for Paltrow, as well as Olivia Munn embarrassing herself in a role that’s well beneath her, and an unforgivably underused Jeff Goldblum, showing up so briefly that it’s a wonder he agreed to waste his time here at all. This is junk of the highest order, not even fit for vague background noise as one immediately just tunes into tallying up the many ways in which it blows. You’d think Depp would know better, but he’s still in the preening dress-up quagmire phase of his career that he hasn’t been able to wade out of yet. He tries hard here, but every effort waddles forth like a lame duck, every comic beat royally missed. Don’t bother.

-Nate Hill

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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A lot was riding on Mission: Impossible (1996) for Tom Cruise. Not only was it the first film he produced (in addition to starring), it was also his first attempt to kick start his own film franchise. And what better way to do this than resurrecting a classic television show from the 1960s? Cruise, always the calculated risk taker, wisely surrounded himself with talented people: Robert Towne co-wrote the screenplay, Brian De Palma directing and the likes of Jon Voight, Jean Reno, and Vanessa Redgrave in the cast. At the time, the James Bond franchise was in a transitional period and didn’t produce a new film until the following year. Mission: Impossible was a huge box office success spawning a franchise that continues to produce installments.

Jim Phelps (Voight) leads his group of IMF agents on a mission to intercept Alexander Golitsyn (Marcel Iures), a traitorous attaché, who has stolen a list of the code names for all of the CIA operatives in Europe. He plans to steal the other half of the list with their real names from an embassy in Prague. One by one, members of the team are killed off by mysterious assailants. Only Ethan Hunt (Cruise) survives the bungled mission and rendezvous later with his superior, Kittridge (a wonderfully twitchy Henry Czerny) in a restaurant. Over the course of their conversation, Ethan realizes that he was set-up and that another team was shadowing his own. Kittridge reveals that the embassy debacle was actually an elaborate scheme to expose a traitor within the IMF organization and he believes that it is Ethan and that he also killed his entire team.

De Palma conveys Ethan’s growing sense of paranoia and panic in this scene through increasingly skewed camera angles as the magnitude of what has happened begins to sink in. Henry Czerny plays the scene beautifully as Kittridge talks to Ethan as a parent might scold a child. The conversation between them culminates with a daring escape as Ethan causes a large aquarium to explode, using the ensuing chaos to make his getaway. This scene was Cruise’s idea. There were 16 tons of water in all of the tanks but there was a concern that when they blew, a lot of glass would fly around. De Palma tried the sequence with a stuntman but it did not look convincing and he asked Cruise to do it despite the possibility that the actor could have drowned.

Ethan regroups at a safe house where he meets Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), another surviving member of his team. He must find out who set him up and retrieve the list. To aid him in his endeavor, Ethan enlists the help of Claire and two other disavowed agents (Ving Rhames and Jean Reno). The film really gets going once Cruise hooks up with Reno and Rhames (playing an ace hacker no less) and they decide to break into CIA headquarters for what is Mission: Impossible’s most famous set piece. This impressively staged sequence is cheekily dubbed the “Mount Everest of hacks” by Ethan and is masterfully orchestrated by De Palma. The heart of this sequence is nearly soundless proving that one doesn’t need a ton of explosions and gunfire to have an exciting, tension-filled action sequence (Michael Bay take note).

Paramount Pictures owned the rights to the television series and had tried for years to make a film version but had failed to come up with a viable treatment. Cruise was a fan of the show since he was young and thought that it would be a good idea for a film. The actor chose Mission: Impossible to be the first project of his new production company and convinced Paramount to put up a $70 million budget. Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner worked on a story with filmmaker Sydney Pollack for a few months when the actor hired Brian De Palma to direct. They went through two screenplay drafts that no one liked. The screenwriting team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) wrote a draft and then David Koepp (The Shadow) was reportedly paid $1 million to rewrite it. According to one project source, there were problems with dialogue and story development. However, the basic plot remained intact. De Palma brought in screenwriter Steve Zaillian (A Civil Action) and finally Robert Towne to work on the script. According to the director, the goal of the script was to “constantly surprise the audience.”

Amazingly, even with all of these talented screenwriters working on it, the film went into pre-production without a script that the filmmakers wanted to use. De Palma designed the action sequences but neither Koepp nor Towne were satisfied with the story that would make these sequences take place. Towne helped organize a beginning, middle and end to hang story details on while De Palma and Koepp worked on the plot. The director convinced Cruise to set the first act of the film in Prague, a city rarely seen in Hollywood films at the time. Reportedly, studio executives wanted to keep the film’s budget in the $40-$50 million range but Cruise wanted a “big, showy action piece” that took the budget up to the $70 million range.

The script that Cruise approved called for a final showdown to take place on top of a moving train. The actor wanted to use the famously fast French train the TGV but rail authorities did not want any part of the stunt performed on their trains. When that was no longer a problem, the track was not available. De Palma visited railroads on two continents trying to get permission. Cruise took the train owners out to dinner and the next day they were allowed to use it. For the actual sequence, the actor wanted wind that was so powerful that it could knock him off the train. Cruise had difficulty finding the right machine that would create the wind velocity that would look visually accurate before remembering a simulator he used while training as a skydiver. The only machine of its kind in Europe was located and acquired. Cruise had it produce winds up to 140 miles per hour so it would distort his face. Most of the sequence, however, was filmed on a stage against a blue screen for later digitizing by the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic.

The filmmakers delivered Mission: Impossible on time and under budget with Cruise doing most of his own stunts. Initially, there was a sophisticated opening sequence that introduced a love triangle between Phelps, his wife Claire and Ethan that was removed because it took the test audience “out of the genre,” according to De Palma. There were rumors that Cruise and De Palma did not get along and they were fueled by the director excusing himself at the last moment from scheduled media interviews before the film’s theatrical release.

In some scenes, Cruise has a tendency to over-emote, like when Ethan is reunited with Claire after their entire team has been wiped out. Sleep deprived and paranoid, Ethan yells at Claire, “They’re dead! They’re all dead!” It’s an embarrassing bit of overacting on Cruise’s part but the actor redeems himself somewhat later on in a cheeky bit of acting when he cons Reno over a CD of vital information through a clever display of sleight of hand.

The film’s overriding theme is one of deception, a world where nothing is what it seems. The prologue has a disguised Ethan trick a captive man into giving up a name of a key operative. This is only one of many disguises (created by make-up legend Rob Bottin) he adopts throughout the film in order to obtain information or trick an opponent. The prologue also cleverly serves as a metaphor for filmmaking. The spy trade, like cinema, is all about creating an illusion and pretending to be something that you’re not. In addition, several members of his team are not who they appear to be as well and this keeps the audience guessing as to who is “good” and who is “bad.”

mi_still02The common complaint leveled at Mission: Impossible was that it was hard to follow, fueling speculation that De Palma’s original cut was non-linear in nature and that Cruise re-cut it after disastrous test screenings. Regardless, if one is paying attention to what is happening and what is being said (or not being said, in some cases) it isn’t difficult to navigate the film’s narrative waters. The script is lean and unusually well-written for a big budget action blockbuster, which is quite amazing when you consider how many writers worked on it. Make no mistake about it; this is a paycheck film for De Palma. However, being the consummate professional that he is, the veteran director still delivers an entertaining film with some nice stylistic flourishes. What more could you ask for from this kind of film?