‘I Will Face My Fear’ — The Mind-Killing Little Deaths of ‘Dune’ (Part One)

‘Dune’ – Fan Art by Toadz (Lawrence Rhodes) (Photo: Deviant Art)

A Test of Survival

There are many kinds of fear in this world. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Fear of dying, fear of living, fear of making a fool of oneself. Fear of making the wrong decision. Fear of the other and of those who are different.

How does one overcome such fears?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt railed against fear. At his first inaugural address, the new president charged his fellow Americans with a task: to conquer their fear. What was he referring to? To the mindless, unpredictable illusion of fear and what it can do to those who give in to it. Of inaction in the face of dread, the kind that prevents real action from taking place.

“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

FDR at his First Inauguration, March 4, 1933, in Washington, D.C.

After three years of an ever-deepening and ultimately stupefying depression, President Roosevelt knew that by convincing Americans of the need for firm decisions and an immediate plan of action, he could rally the country’s forces to surmount their fear. But by what means could he do this? By being honest with them.

“In every dark hour of our national life,” he went on, “a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

The president’s mantra suggested that the way forward was to confront one’s fear. In this way, the immense problems the country and its people had been facing could be turned around. He did this by challenging them, and by giving them a choice: either to take that fear of the unknown and work their way out of their troubles, or give in to despair.

Paul Atreides, all of 15 years of age, had a lot to fear. His father, Duke Leto of House Atreides, had been assassinated by his adversaries; indeed, by the very spies the detested Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, his family’s sworn enemy, had planted within the palace at Arrakeen.

Alone, except for his surviving mother, the Lady Jessica, Paul would grow out of his fear to become that indomitable force of nature that would unite the desert tribespeople known as the Fremen — that is, the “free men” of Arrakis.

Arrakis, the “Dune” planet, where giant sandworms roamed the arid, windswept plains. Where water, the very symbol of life, was scarce. Where spice, an even more precious commodity, could be harvested and utilized. But for what purpose?

Paul Atreides would inspire all people of faith and those who longed for freedom from tyranny to prevail over their fears, to face down their foes, and to succeed in spite of the insurmountable odds against them.

Early on in the story, young Paul, uncertain and unsure, is tested by the Bene Gesserit witch, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. He’s told to place his hand inside a small box. As he does so, the Reverend Mother swiftly raises her arm to his neck, pointing a thimble with a deadly dart at his artery. This is the Gom Jabbar, the crucial test of pain.

Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) places his hand in the Pain Box, as Reverend Mother (Sian Phillips) holds the Gom Jabbar to his neck

Paul must resist the pain at all costs. If he removes his hand prematurely from the box, the Gom Jabbar will pierce his neck, resulting in immediate death.

Can he survive the test?

While his hand is in the Pain Box, Paul experiences a torture of the mind. He has horrible visions of his hand burning and melting, the flesh and bone ripped from his person; the excruciating pain of his hand and wrist being torn apart before his eyes.

If Paul pulls his hand out, he recalls to mind, the Reverend Mother will kill him — instantly and with no remorse. Instead, Paul wills himself to conquer his anxieties.

Having been taught the litany against fear by Lady Jessica, Paul recites its precepts silently to himself: 

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”  

This scene, as brief as it is, remains crucial to the Dune ethos. It is the declaration of Paul’s independence, his unshackling, as it were, from the stifling coils of the Bene Gesserit order. His triumph begins an affirmation of a new way of life, that of choice: either to live in fear, or live to survive; either to take up the challenge, or allow yourself to wallow in self-pity. From self-pity comes destruction of the self and that of an entire nation. Which is it?

Paul chooses wisely. He does not give in to fear, but allows it to pass over and through him. He would see his fear evaporate before his mind’s eye. And when it has gone past and through him, there will be nothing. Only he, Paul Atreides, will remain — until the end.

A Classic Revisited

Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic Dune is a long, drawn out Greek tragedy of quasi-Shakespearean protagonists and complications. Barring further unforeseen developments (the coronavirus pandemic, for one), this long-admired magnum opus, a seminal work in its day — and for all days — is scheduled for re-emergence in the Fall of 2021. You can sense that excitement is brewing.

Paul Atreides (Alec Newman) in the Arrakeen desert — Scene from the 2000 miniseries (Photo: Sci Fi Channel)

Surely, French-Canadian film director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), the cinematic visionary who deigned to lay hands on Herbert’s 1965 epic novel, will kindle fond (and not-so-fond) memories of previous traversals so that the spaces of one’s mind can be savored.

The hope is that this newest iteration of the tale, a timely “space opera” worthy of the collective wisdom of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, and other farsighted auteurs, will snatch Herbert’s victory from defeat through the gaping jaws of Arrakis’ monstrous sandworms.

At least, that  is the expectation. Will this be a case of “third time’s the charm”? Or will it grind this hoary old fable down into the dust from which it came; one more failed attempt at maintaining the status quota — the oft-repeated catchphrase, “the spice must flow” — by becoming just another “doomed Dune”?

To address these concerns, we’ll take a time-traveling peak into prior motion-picture attempts at resurrecting this enduringly popular fable.

The less said about Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted mid-seventies effort, the better for all concerned. While exceedingly ambitious and exorbitantly over-priced at the time, Jodorowsky’s wildly imaginative concept, to feature such erratic casting choices as Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen and surrealist painter Salvador Dalí as Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, never reached fruition. A shame, really, but over-ambition killed this cat before it left the shop.

For an in-depth glimpse into that abandoned project (and for pure entertainment value), I strongly recommend watching the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’sDune’. It’s guaranteed to activate those science-fiction salivary glands. However, prepare yourself for a big letdown.  

Art work from the 2013 documentary of ‘Jodorowsky’s ‘DUNE”

What remains is not exactly what I’d call “choice.” Instead, the surviving examples of Dune pictures are more in the way of “acceptable” fare or, at the very least, worth a “once-over.” As a matter of fact, one of them, issued by Artisan and available (if you’re fortunate enough to acquire it) in a three-disc extended edition with tons of supplemental extras, merits repeat viewings. Mainly, it’s value is in satisfying one’s curiosity regarding creative mind-sets, what those individuals felt about Herbert’s writings and how they were addressed within the limited means given to them to work with.

We’ll be discussing the superior 2000 version, which debuted as a miniseries that stretched over three nights in December (from Dec 3 to 5) on the Sci-Fi Channel — written and directed by John Harrison — alongside that of veteran filmmaker David Lynch’s idiosyncratic 1984 Reader’s Digest edition, or, as I like to describe it, a messy “baroque meets punk” eyesore.

For curiosity seekers, there’s also Sci-Fi’s 2003 Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, an inferior sequel (also written but not helmed by Harrison) based on the original author’s Dune Messiah (1969) and Children of Dune (1976). The casting of young James McAvoy as Leto II and Susan Sarandon as the wily Princess Wensicia are the main attractions.

With many of the same performers taking on different roles, this rather tame effort to keep the narrative alive only brought painful reminders of how much better the year 2000 production was by comparison. Unless you’re an absolute completist, I’d give this one an especially wide berth.   

“The saga of Dune is far from over….”

(To be continued).

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Godfather’ Parts I and II — “Of Mike and Men”

Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ logo (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Today’s guest contributor is writer, artist, fanzine publisher, and animator Natalia C. Lopes. A graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master’s Degree Program of the College of Art & Design, her essay below is an analysis of director-producer Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather epic, specifically the fraught relationship between Vito Corleone and his youngest son, Michael.

Michael’s Failure to Be Like His Father

Both different and alike, Michael and Vito Corleone’s relationship is an unique one. All of his life Don Vito has tried to set a different path for his youngest son than the one he himself had chosen as a child. But when Michael is faced with his family threatened, he takes on the role of the don, or “Godfather,” and tries his best to fill his father’s shoes. However, as time passes, both his friends and his enemies realize that he could never be like his father, that this was not the path he wanted for himself. And it is not until the end of Part II that Michael realizes that perhaps everyone was right all along. Unfortunately, the lesson is hard learned.

Throughout both Godfather movies, Vito is portrayed as a respectable and admired don to the Corleone family. He listens to all who come to him and can “take care” of anyone’s troubles simply by “making them an offer they can’t refuse.” When we, the audience, are first introduced to Vito’s youngest son, Michael Corleone, who has just returned from serving in the army during World War II, we note that he seems a bit different from his other siblings, in that he doesn’t want to get involved in the same “business” as his father, that is, the Mafia. Instead, he has a desire to create his own path. We can see that in the mere fact of his dating Kay, an American woman who is outside of the family loop and tradition — and who does not understand the ways of Michael’s family.

Young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) at his sister Connie’s wedding

We can see a prime example of his dislike for the Mafia when he and Kay are at his sister Connie’s wedding. Michael tells her that his father kills for a living and threatens people’s lives to avenge his family and friends. He distinctly claims that it’s his dad’s business, yet he wants no part in it. From that moment forward, the audience feels a great sympathy for him, in that we want him to succeed in creating his own path.

With all of that in mind, however, Michael takes an unexpected turn that manifests itself in Part I, where, with his father’s life at stake, he takes extreme measures to seek vengeance for the family. When in the hospital, at his father’s bedside, he tells him “I’m with you, Pop,” this means that he has finally crossed over to the other side and decided to be part of the Mafia after all. While we see his father in tears as he hears his son say this, it is a very ominous scene, mostly because the audience cannot tell whether or not Vito’s tears are of joy or of sorrow.

This is because later we find out that Vito did not want Michael to take on the family business. This is made much more prominent in Part II, where we see the young Vito’s efforts to shield his son away from doing so.  As much as he voices his dislike for his father’s business, toward the last half of Part I Michael decides to take action and to “be a man” in order to protect his family. In the famous scene where the camera closes in on Michael sitting among his brothers, he speaks of killing Sollozzo, the individual behind the attempt on his father Vito’s life, and the corrupt police captain, McCluskey. Nobody takes him seriously when he says this, because his brothers know him as the baby brother who didn’t want to get involved in the family “business”. Yet he insists that he will kill them both, so they let him do it just to see what he’s really made of.

Michael (Al Pacino) hears his father, Don Vito (Marlon Brando), confess his true feelings regarding his son’s career move

As it turns out, he succeeds in killing both Sollozzo and McCluskey, yet he does not follow directions on how to do it. While the specific details are not necessary to point out in this scene, it shows how Michael was, despite his strong words, afraid of killing them, something that Vito would not hesitate to do to his enemies — especially those who had threatened his family at an early age.

However, once Vito decides to make Michael the new don, he shares a moment with him outside of his house in which he explains to Michael that “I didn’t want this for you.” He would much rather have his youngest son be known as “Senator Corleone,” “Governor Corleone,” or someone of political power. And with the mood of the scene, it feels as though Vito has been waiting his whole life to say that to Michael directly.

Throughout the two films, we see Vito’s efforts in keeping Michael away from following the Godfather’s path. While in the past he killed the two heads of the Mafia in Sicily and in Nevada (and, we might add, he killed them both brilliantly and brutally), he did it to protect his family. We can see that after he has killed Don Fanucci, Vito walks over to his family and holds Michael in his arms, telling him, “Your father loves you very much, very very much.” The interesting part about this scene is that he tells this specifically to Michael. Upon his saying that line, Vito has set him apart from the rest of his sons, in hopes that Michael would not have to go to such extreme lengths to protect his family.

Sadly, despite all of Vito’s best efforts, Michael becomes the don and takes over officially after his father’s death. The fascinating part is that Vito placed his full trust in him, so that when some of his own men hesitate to obey Michael’s orders, Vito tells them, “If you trust me, then listen to my son.”

While he seems as if he is meeting his father’s expectations, later on Michael becomes a far more aggressive killer, and at times the exact opposite of his father. He starts ordering people to kill left and right, for example, the heads of the five families, Connie’s abusive husband Carlo, and even his own brother, something he later bitterly regrets. He also does not care to hear people’s objections, and fails to satisfactorily take care of those who come to him for advice. Tom Hagen, his adopted brother, comes to him toward the end of Part II to ask, “Are you going to kill everybody?” To which Michael casually replies, “Only my enemies,” which goes to show just how many of them he supposedly had.

Alone, Michael Corleone (Pacino) ponders his disturbing path to “success”

Toward the end, people lose trust and confidence in him, and begin to question his methods, especially after killing his own brother, an act that contradicted the theme of family togetherness the entire Godfather series has emphasized. And the saddest part of it all is that it is only at the very last scene that we realize how much the decision to become the don has taken its toll on him.

He is left alone contemplating, the camera slowly closing in on his face, which is worn and tired. For the first time since Part I, the audience has regained its sympathy for him. As much as he tried his hardest to make his own destiny, Michael was not really meant to fill his father’s shoes. Only at that moment does he realize this.

Copyright © 2007 by Natalia C. Lopes

‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014) — Last Bastion of Civility

‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ — A Film by Wes Anderson

A Tragicomedy of Errors

The screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s were benchmarks for generations of Hollywood filmmakers. Such laudable efforts as those of Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), Ernst Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not To Be), Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), and Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace) exerted a strong influence on many of the era’s directors — and on those yet to come.

As a rule, comedy films are governed by a given set of parameters, many of them holdovers from the silent movie era. The standard formula for these pictures, then, combined aspects of a wacky plot, zany antics, an ensemble cast, the requisite chase scene, oh, and the occasional pratfall or two. With the injection of cynicism into the picture, epitomized by the classic films of Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), and the incongruous romances and knuckle-headed folly found in Woody Allen’s work (Bananas, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan), the world of madcap comedy took on a decidedly modern turn.

Be that as it may, the above properties began to rub off on a young and up-and-coming Texan named Wes Anderson. An independent writer-director, who followed in the footsteps of another well-known advocate for autonomy, the equally gifted Jim Jarmusch (whose Only Lovers Left Alive was reviewed by yours truly: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2020/06/15/only-lovers-left-alive-2013-a-parable-of-class-consciousness/), Anderson adopted many of the attributes normally associated with screwball comedies and turned them into quirky character studies.

Among his contributions are Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and Moonrise Kingdom (2012). As for myself, I am embarrassed to admit that, for a variety of reasons, I remained ignorant of Anderson’s previous output — that is, until I was introduced to the absurdly audacious but adorable The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). I am happy to note that it was this feature that led me to explore all of Anderson’s work in reverse order, from the newest to the oldest.

But let’s call The Grand Budapest Hotel what it is: i.e., the cinematic equivalent of a Russian nesting doll in which layer after layer of stories within stories are peeled back to reveal, well, more layers of stories. The “truth,” if indeed such a concept exists, is eventually exposed, and the contents of what lies therein are spilled out for all to see and admire (or not).

Indeed, Mr. Anderson, along with veteran cinematographer Robert Yeoman, set designer Adam Stockhausen, costume designer Milena Canonero, editor Barney Pilling, and composer Alexandre Desplat, have concocted an utterly enticing comedic showcase in the form of an “Encyclopedia Europa.” The experience of sifting through this filmic compilation, while scanning its horizons for deeper meaning (whether or not it relates to the basic premise), is left up to the viewer.

“An impossible assignment,” you say. Not really. How Anderson and his dedicated crew of technicians succeeded in dissecting this amalgamation of material is part of the fun of watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even after multiple viewings, we can still find something new and fresh to sink our teeth into. For instance, the whizz-bang, fast-paced aspect of the story; the constant back-and-forth of characters entering and exiting; those head-on camera angles and revelatory tracking shots. Why, there’s no end to the innovations that Anderson employs in telling his faux-Continental fairy tale.

The way that he achieves his objectives is by an extension and reduction of the film frame in conformance to the story’s intent. It begins in the present time, with a little girl walking through a cemetery on a bleak winter’s day. She stops at the gravesite of a famous writer, modeled after the Viennese author Stefan Zweig. The girl carries a storybook in her hand, bearing the inscription The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Suddenly, viewers are transported back in time, to the year 1985, with the old Author (Tom Wilkinson) sitting front and center, reading from a prepared text. He is interrupted by his little grandson (Marcel Mazur), who shoots a pellet at him from a toy pistol — a juvenile act that, in the course of the story, will come to symbolize the loss of innocence cloaked in deadly seriousness.

The old Author (Tom Wilkinson) and his grandson (Marcel Mazur)

Next, the old Author whisks the viewer off to 1968 and the ramshackle rudiments of the Grand Budapest Hotel, tucked away in the fictional Zubrowka hills. The film frame, which began with the Standard aspect ratio of 1.85:1, expands to the full 2.40:1 ratio of CinemaScope, the apogee of widescreen movie-making. Here, we are introduced to the Author as a young man (shades of Ernest Hemingway), played by an actor (Jude Law) of suitable age and vigor, in yet another manifestation of Herr Zweig. Young Author now takes over the narration.

In this section, though, the young Author is drawn to an elderly gentleman who sits motionless in the hotel’s lobby in contemplation of who knows what. Both men have a variant of the “meet cute” in the vast and empty bathhouse. Despite their unfamiliarity with each other, the elderly gentleman (F. Murray Abraham) invites the young Author to dine with him that evening. After the older gentleman has ordered his meal, he begins to open up about his life to the intensely receptive Author.

As it turns out, the older gentleman is Zero Moustafa, the former lobby boy and current owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel. His lined face and heavily-lidded features betray an individual who has spent a lifetime harboring sadness and loss. When Zero begins his sorrowful saga, we are once more treated to a further reduction of the frame, this time to the Academy ratio of 1.37:1. This steady narrowing of the movie’s viewing space is a deliberate choice by the director, in that we begin our journey down old Author’s memory lane with a wide-angle shot — indicative of a broader grasp of the world at large.

The elder Zero (F. Murray Abraham) with the young Author (Jude Law)

As the frame tightens around a cluster of separate settings and images, the focus has correspondingly shifted along with it. With the frame having reached the aforementioned Academy ratio, the viewer can finally sit back and savor the nest of colorful characters and their individual dilemmas — a cinematic narrowing of the eyes, as it were, on exactly where Anderson wants his audiences to focus: mainly, on the year 1932.

This technique parallels Zweig’s own writing style. In other words: the more open the presentation, the less focused the story; the less open the presentation, the more focused the story. To be precise, Anderson has settled on a visual form of storytelling — the equivalent of picking up a favorite book and leafing through its pages, while stopping at key moments in the narrative so as to place one’s concentration on what’s written on the printed page. That it works as well as it does in this motion-picture format is a tribute to the director’s ingenuity and persistence in bringing his story to light.

When we are long past the movie’s three-quarter mark, the aspect ratios reverse course and return to their original proportions. We end up, surely enough, exactly where we began: with the little girl furtively closing the pages of her storybook.

Smash and Grab World

‘Boy with Apple’ by Johannes van Hoytl the Younger

The basic plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a slapstick, knockabout comedy of the most absurd, revolves around a murder mystery tied to the theft of a dubious masterwork of Northern Renaissance art by fictitious painter Johannes van Hoytl the Younger. (Note to readers: Spoilers ahead!) To complicate matters further, audiences should be alert to the existence of a half-dozen or so side plots. Bear in mind, too, that one can hardly scratch the surface of these myriad plots in this review.

The painting, Boy with Apple, is an abominably crude, amateurish recreation modeled after Hans Holbein the Younger’s portraits of European nobility. It also bears a striking similarity to a High Renaissance portrait of The Magdalene by one Bernardino Luini (1525) that hangs in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. Any relation to religiosity or the church, however, is purely incidental.

‘The Magdalene’ by Bernardino Luini (Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

In actuality, the Boy’s features have an uncanny resemblance to that of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the head concierge of the illustrious Grand Budapest Hotel and (as described below) one of many principal protagonists. For those art history buffs out there, the apple the Boy holds in his hand is synonymous with the forbidden fruit which Gustave has not only tasted but indulged in to the fullest.

This garish artwork also happens to be Wes Anderson’s version of Hitchcock’s infamous MacGuffin, or that thing which the characters, both the good and the bad, are desperately searching for. The good guys, in this case, are M. Gustave and the young Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, in a literal pencil-thin mustache), his lobby boy in training. For the most part, the bad guys are comprised of the malevolent Dmitri (a more naturally-mustachioed Adrien Brody) and his sharp-toothed henchman Jopling (brass-knuckle-wielding Willem Dafoe).

Zero (Tony Revolori) is rescued by his lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan)

Stuck in the middle somewhere (among other places) are the wealthy widow Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), apprentice baker and Zero’s intrepid lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), executor of Madame D.’s estate Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), Serge the nervous butler (Mathieu Amalric), the intimidating prisoner Ludwig (bald-pated Harvey Keitel), and the inquisitive Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), the officer in charge of finding the murderer. There are also a number of cohorts and accessories after the fact, to include members of the secret Society of the Crossed Keys(!).

Almost laughably, the stolen Boy with Apple is replaced with the all-too revealing Two Ladies Masturbating, their wide-open “charms” leaving nothing to the imagination. The irony lies in the fact that this prurient painting happens to be a true work of art, whereas the simplistic Boy with Apple is a travesty of portraiture. That its monetary value happens to drive the lunatic plot along is, in itself, farcical and hard to fathom. Seemingly, everyone runs around town after an object of questionable worth, which is as it should be in a screwball comedy. Lessons are learned, some for better and some for worse.

Upon seeing Two Ladies Masturbating instead of Boy with Apple, the easily angered Dmitri reacts in horror: “Holy fuck! What’s the meaning of this shit?” And immediately smashes the Two Ladies against a piece of sculpture. “Thus, always, to filthy artists!” he seems to be saying with this gesture. There will be more such moments to come.

Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Dmitri (Adrien Brody), Serge (Mathieu Amalric) & Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) have a “difference” of opinion

Proof of Boy with Apple’s worthlessness can be seen in the episode that takes place in 1968 involving the nearly dilapidated Grand Budapest Hotel, where the painting hangs ignominiously above the bored desk clerk’s post. Similarly, it is pictured on the back of the hotel’s dinner menu (but you’ll have to look closely to find it). In this risible aside, Anderson mocks what the art world of the time considered “treasurable.” This revives the age-old argument over what one society reveres as “art” as opposed to what another deems as “obscene.” The film’s theme, in retrospect, becomes the story of an openly permissive society about to face artistic and socio-political repression.

Introducing Monsieur Gustave: From Hero to Zero

There are several star attractions in this convoluted comedy of errors, chief among them the ubiquitous Monsieur Gustave H., the Old World ambassador of a now-forgotten past. Handsome, debonair, charming, smooth-talking, sophisticated, and resolute — there are not enough adjectives to describe this fellow’s magnificence. A bon vivant par excellence, M. Gustave is discretion personified. His movements are planned to split-second perfection. His speech and rapid-fire delivery are executed with Swiss-watch precision. Indeed, timing is everything to this professional busybody. He’s not only a master of all he surveys, but is immaculate in his appearance  and dress (as to be expected).

Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) admires Madame D.’s makeup

Additionally, Gustave H. is blessed with a sharp wit, whose mind races constantly at breakneck speed, a thoroughbred among also-rans. For a concierge, he is quite the man-about-town. Ah, but Gustave does have his faults. For one, he never thinks of himself as simply a concierge. He’s the prime cut to everyone else’s roast beef, the filet mignon to their rib steak. And, as a matter of course, his supreme belief in himself and his abilities confirm what he sees in his mind’s eye: that he’s up to the challenge of any given situation, give or take a few exceptions.

As the film progresses, the viewer experiences a subtle pulling back of the bedsheets — more like a peeling away of the layers of a pungent-smelling onion (whew…). We learn, among other things, that Gustave is prone to exaggeration (that’s putting it mildly). He also possesses a terribly short fuse, especially when matters get out of hand. There are points in this tragicomedy where, down for the count and seemingly out, M. Gustave manages to wrangle his way back from a tricky situation. Where most people would give in to despair (for example, the brief time he spends in prison), Gustave seeks out opportunities to be of service. Each time, he rises above the tumult, only to find that by movie’s end his luck has run out.

He is especially favored by the doddering dowager, Madame D. Sporting a Marie Antoinette hairdo by way of Antoine of Paris, Madame D. is enamored of the man. Early on, she confesses to him that she fears for her life. “She was shaking like a shitting dog,” Gustave mutters in an aside. Incredibly, the concierge is not repulsed by the woman’s advance age, nor by the dozens of elderly widows he surrounds himself with. On the contrary, he finds them much to his liking. “She was dynamite in the sack, by the way,” he observes. “She was 84,” queries Zero. “Mmm, I’ve had older,” Gustave adds. He cultivates the illusion of subservience and refinement, but they’re all for show and (obviously) for later telling.

Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) dines with M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes)

Our lobby boy in training, the young Zero, is a cipher by comparison, a real “nothing” as his name implies. Conveniently, he becomes Gustave’s protégé, someone the seasoned concierge can take under his wing. No doubt, M. Gustave sees much of his younger self in Zero. A youth barely out of his teens yet burdened with a lifetime of heartache over the loss of his family, at best Zero is a survivor. He tells us so at key moments in the story, as when Gustave, desperate to get his cooperation on learning the police want to question him about Madame D.’s passing, lets it slip that his family had been tortured and killed.

Still, Zero knows how to keep silent. “Zip it,” M. Gustave curtly orders. To his credit, Zero is a fast learner and always willing to pitch in. But as quick a study as he is, Zero cannot possibly touch Gustave H. in the (how shall we put it) gratification department. Gustave aims to please, which takes on many forms. With a wealth of rich old spinsters at his feet, Gustave is much in demand for his, uh, services. No wonder he’s so beloved by Zubrowka society! Who could resist such a treasure? The ladies find him eminently desirable, a reminder of their own youthful dalliances. Likewise, Gustave plays on the ladies’ vanity, until he is no longer able to.

Note the quick flashback to Gustave’s servicing of the old biddies. These “quickies” fulfill the dual purpose of solidifying Gustave’s patronage of and acquiescence to the “old ways” of doing things. Whether those old ways actually worked in his favor, no one can tell for certain. If anything, Gustave H. is the hotel’s last bastion of civility, the final redoubt of a way of life that will shortly cease to exist; an Old World society on the brink of all-out conflict and, as author Zweig termed it, “the end of all we know.”

Regardless of the consequences, both Gustave and Zero’s positions are a calculated means toward a desired end, designed to give themselves enough leeway — call it a “pause for effect” — where personal service, of a kind no longer in existence, takes absolute precedence.

As the top dog of (at one time) a luxury establishment, Gustave’s responsibility is to see to the comfort of his guests. As he’s putting young Zero through his paces (a terribly funny sequence punctuated by nonstop banter), Gustave explains that a lobby boy must anticipate his guests’ needs without their knowing what those needs are — a veritable feat of mind over matters of fact. This motto has served Gustave well, to a point. It will also serve our survivor, Zero, well into his old age.

Lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) shares a drink with M. Gustave (Fiennes)

For chaotic chase scenes and preposterous situations that defy the laws of gravity, nothing in recent years has topped the remarkable skiing sequence where Zero and Gustave are hot on the trail (on a cold, snow-covered slope) of the nasty little assassin Jopling, who experiences a nasty little comeuppance. There are mad dashes across the frozen tundra and others too implausible to give credence to. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the climax and dénouement of The Grand Budapest Hotel are nothing if not bittersweet. You’ll be forced to wipe away a tear or two, as you smile broadly at the outcome.

Stefan Zweig wrote, in his autobiographical The World of Yesterday, that “our world of security was a castle in the air.” In Wes Anderson’s film, that bygone period is embodied by the once-elegant Grand Budapest Hotel (Zweig’s “castle in the air”), whose lobby boy and head concierge are past emissaries of that last gasp of civility in an increasingly uncivil world. M. Gustave had both feet planted in each of these worlds, although anachronistically speaking he was out of step with the times. His genteel manners and general air of bonhomie were woefully inadequate to thwart the coming menace, especially when confronted by brutish military guards. And with most of the deaths occurring offscreen, it’s left it to our imagination to fill in the gruesome details.

Writer-director Wes Anderson, along with his collaborator Hugo Guinness, have given audiences not just a tale as tall as Zubrowka’s hills but one involving a world that once prided itself on knowledge and culture, on nourishing the intellect and satiating the senses. However, towards the end that same world, corrupted by forces from within, rebelled against common decency. It turned away from knowledge and understanding to perpetuate false notions of superiority; to raising borders against those who were different, and allowing their basest, most bellicose instincts to take over.

In that, and in most other respects, The Grand Budapest Hotel has much in common with Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, a dark, portentous comedy premiering in March of 1942 (and set ten years after Anderson’s film) that poked fun, if we can call it that, at Hitler, the Nazis, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the German occupation of Warsaw, and the Second World War. The alarm was already sounding when United Artists released this classic picture.

A month earlier, in February 1942, in the resort city of Petropolis near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his second wife committed suicide together. Despondent over the state of their beloved Vienna and the chaos unleashed upon the world, Zweig and his spouse resolved to put an end their suffering.

Civilizations, take note: The warning signs are as viable today as they were so many decades ago. We must not let the world of yesterday become the world of tomorrow. Zweig’s message was clear. And Anderson’s film has underscored it.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Nausicaä Awakens: The Influence of Hayao Miyazaki on the ‘Star Wars’ Sequel Trilogy

Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’

(Today’s guest contributor is The Metaplex film critic Brendan Hodges, who has provided a deeply insightful and exceptionally fitting analysis of Japanese anime’s influence on the latter-day Star Wars series of pictures.)

Brendan Hodges (from the Roger Ebert Website)

April 15, 2020

A small, masked scavenger glides through the ruined wasteland, dwarfed by the towering wreckage of old wars. Beneath the mask is the hidden, protected face of a beautiful young woman, flying through a labyrinth of ruin above the sand below. She’s searching for salvage to survive, and rescues someone, or rather something from mortal peril.

Who am I describing: Hayao Miyazaki’s heroine Nausicaä or Rey in the opening of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens? The answer, of course, is both. The openings of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and The Force Awakens aren’t identical, but their similarity is unmistakable and opens a dialogue between not just Nausicaä and The Force Awakens, but Miyazaki and Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy in general. 

Rey’s first scene in ‘The Force Awakens’

The legacy of Japanese cinema influencing the most prolific franchise in the history of film is a strong one. George Lucas famously transposed key elements from Kurosawa’s jidaigeki (get it, “Jedi”) samurai movies for the original Star Wars, especially borrowing from The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo. Yet, if there’s a filmmaker whose work is felt with similar presence in Disney’s own Star Wars trilogy, it isn’t the works of Kurosawa, but the internationally beloved Japanese animation writer and director Hayao Miyazaki, who is sometimes called the Steven Spielberg of Japan. J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson haven’t connected Miyazaki’s filmography as closely to Star Wars as Lucas had Kurosawa, but the similarities between Miyazaki and the sequel trilogy run deep, whether you’re talking about how the films look, feel or what they’re really about. 

Look at the closest thing The Force Awakens has to a fresh aesthetic identity. While fairly maligned for indulging in a victory lap of the X-Wings, TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers of a Galaxy not that long ago, it’s wrong to think the sequel trilogy is a completely derivative visual copy. In the new era of Star Wars, J.J. Abrams and production designer Rick Carter endeavored to make literal what the series always has been in spirit: a fairy tale. 

The Force Awakens took the classic stormtrooper design and made a knight in shining armor in Captain Phasma. Kylo Ren’s costume evokes the ‘long skirt’ and chainmail scarf worn by templar knights in The Crusades. His lightsaber, co-created by Apple design genius Jony Ive, is a cross-guarded (laser) sword. In the commentary track for The Force Awakens, Abrams calls Kylo Ren a prince and Rey a princess. This leads, inevitably, to the need for a fairy-tale castle, represented in Maz’s castle, perched in a classically European landscape. There’s even a Sword in the Stone moment when Rey and Kylo Ren fight for custody of Luke Skywalker’s former lightsaber. Rey, the princess, wins. 

What does this combination of the medieval with the modern sound like if not the fantastical worlds of Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky or Howl’s Moving Castle? Miyazaki’s love of mixing old and new has defined his sense of cinematic style from his earliest works; Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki’s first feature film, introduces a princess locked inside a classic fairytale castle fit for Cinderella. Only, a castle with lasers and security cameras. The constant blending of the mythical with the technological is key to understanding what gives his worlds their sense of possibility and wonder, limited only by the imagination of its author, a sensibility I call anachronistic foiling.

‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ on the move

Planes and castles to Miyazaki are like lens flares to J.J. Abrams, and nearly every Miyazaki movie with castles (a lot of them) feature great aerial battles in the periphery above, below or to the sides of them. Recall Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle, where Edwardian semi-steampunk airships, never explained with science or logic, loom over castles and classic European cities alike, sometimes obliterating the structures below. Think of the world of Nausicaä, a post-apocalyptic society who live in castles, wear leotards and plated armor, use swords, yet wage wars with techno-magic planes and city-sized airships. These images are iconic and definitive in the brand of Miyazaki, too specific not to recall during the attack on Maz Kanata’s Castle on Takadona, as TIE Fighters blast it into the ground, a Miyazaki-like image brought to life with live-action. 

Rian Johnson and production designer Richard Heinrichs continue this anachronistic foiling in The Last Jedi, albeit in a much different direction than invoking the medieval era. In the same way Miyazaki recreated his favorite plane designs from WWI and WWII into magical (but often deadly) machines (he also dedicated an entire film, The Wind Rises, just to celebrating the art and beauty of World War II aircraft), Johnson extends that sensibility to his new slate of Star Wars-like fighter craft. There are his Resistance bombers (reminiscent of B-17 or B-29 bombers), the ski-speeders (rickety old fighter craft) and The Supremacy (a “flying wing” like the Northrop YB-35, similar to the faked plane in Raiders of the Lost Ark), a collection of WWII inspired starships fit for the armies in Howl’s Moving Castle and might remind you Lucas based his dogfights in A New Hope off WWII documentary footage.

Another key anachronistic foil in The Last Jedi isn’t in The Last Jedi at all: It’s a deleted scene. Johnson depicts Captain Phasma armed with the blaster equivalent of a handgun, held close to her chest. This instantly recalls Princess Kushana from Nausicaä, a warrior adorned in golden armor who carries an ornamented handgun in the same position. They are the two greatest movies to ever depict handgun wielding knights.

Captain Phasma – Deleted Scene from ‘The Last Jedi’

In the same way Ozu is famous for his use of “pillow shots,” non-narrative shots of nature or an empty room bridging one moment to the next (something Lucas tapped into in his trilogies), Miyazaki is famous for transitional shots of his own for a different effect. He frequently employs brief, humanist interludes where he gives his characters permission to simply be. Few filmmakers have the courage to pause the plot just to watch a character engage in the beauty of the everyday or the charm of the mundane. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki stops on a busy street to gaze through a storefront window at dazzling red shoes. She’s amazed by them. Howl’s Moving Castle has a sequence where we watch Sophie, the protagonist, slowly cook and eat bacon. These moments reveal the humanist inside Miyazaki, gestures of the familiar to ground the otherworldly and fantastic through simple acts of human behavior. 

Miyazaki explained [to Roger Ebert in 2002] why these quiet beats are so vital: “We have a word for that in Japanese,” he said. “It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally … If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.” 

Directors J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson recognize the softening power of these intimate intervals, and for the first time in Star Wars, we take breaks to enjoy them. These three films don’t pause for as long or as often as Miyazaki, but the impact is so acutely felt they are beloved by the fanbase. Upon seeing the endless green forests of Takadona, Rey exclaims: “I didn’t know there was so much green in the whole galaxy.” She rushes out of the Falcon to take it all in, a moment mirrored in The Last Jedi, when Rey is excited by seeing rain for the first time. In Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Rey is dazzled by the festival on Pasaana, taking in delight at the laugh of younglings, moments rare or entirely absent in Lucas’ vision of Star Wars

Rey and BB-8 on the planet Takodana

These humanist interludes endear us to our heroes, but they serve an even more important purpose: they amplify the reality of the world as we see ourselves inside it through the characters. This is crucial in Miyazaki, whose films are so deeply concerned with the natural world. From My Neighbor Totoro to the environmental fable Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki treats nature with a pious, quasi-religious devotion. The Shinto religion of Japan has a literal, enormous presence in Miyazaki’s films, a belief system that posits a system of co-existence with gods and spirits called “Kami,” of which we are not the center. This same sentiment is expressed almost verbatim in Luke’s first training lesson to Rey in The Last Jedi: “That Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity. Can you feel that?” 

Luke tests the novice Rey in ‘The Last Jedi’

According to the Shinto tradition, our relationship with the Kami is symbiotic with nature; they are invisible to the human eye, yet often manifest as an object, like the sacred tree in My Neighbor Totoro. Lucas or Johnson might call such locations “strong with the force,” hubs with the greatest connection to the energy of all living things, such as Ach-To’s mist-enshrouded Jedi Tree or the mirror cave that gives Rey her second force vision. 

To Miyazaki but also in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, we are the failed stewards of the natural world. This is why Miyazaki’s villains are often hawkish abusers of the Earth. Princess Mononoke’s Lady Eboshi goes full Saruman on the nearby forest to build weapons, only to use those weapons against wolf and boar gods outside Iron Town. While she is benevolent to her own disenfranchised residents, her violence and hubris towards the forest and the life inside it triggers a chain reaction that “curses” the main character, Ashitaka, that ignites rage and violence inside him he can barely control, a Miyazaki equivalent of the dark side. 

Ashitaka of ‘Princess Mononoke’

The casino planet of Canto Bight is an equal depiction of anti-capitalist fervor to Lady Eboshi’s Iron Town, demonstrating the galaxy’s inhumane status quo of war economy thugs, enabling cycles of violence for power and profit. Their abuse extends to the torture and enslavement of children and horse-deer with anime eyes called “Fathiers.” Miyazaki, a lifelong feminist whose work often celebrates the power of female heroes and villains alike, seems to hope the maternal power of his heroines will restore the forests, hillsides and lakes, which may be why his saviors are so often women. It’s also possibly why Johnson chose Rose, and not Finn, to free the Fathiers and literally smash the toxic status quo to the ground in a glorious stampede.

The Last Jedi takes devotion to the natural world more seriously than any Star Wars movie before it, with Johnson acknowledging to the Los Angeles Times, “I think you can see some of [Miyazaki’s] influence in this movie … how you engage with the natural world.” Johnson brings that philosophy into every planetary ecosystem, but especially on the planet Ach-To. In an epic sequence surveying a day in Luke’s monk-like existence, we observe Luke’s harmony with the island: fishing in the seas, traversing the rain swept hills, and drinking green milk straight from sea-cows called “thala-sirens,” all the while surrounded by the Totoro influenced porgs. 

The Last Jedi even has a “circle of life” prayer-like visual mantra on the essence of the force. The camera dives from a wide-shot of the island into close-ups of flowers scored with birdsong, to the bones of death and decay below the surface, that “feeds new life” as we see plants rapidly grows. Of this circle, Luke says “It’s the energy between all things, a tension, a balance, that binds the universe together.” Kinship between all forms of life is reaffirmed in the climax; it is the jingle of the foxlike Crystal Critters on Crait that lead a trapped Resistance to Rey, not the heroics of Finn or Poe. Crait itself is a great visual metaphor for the natural world: when struck with a laser blast, it bleeds in plumes of red dust, only to slowly restore itself to its pearly white surface once the fighting has ceased, like the forest healing itself in Princess Mononoke

The Battle of Crait from ‘The Last Jedi’

Heroism is a dominant theme in The Last Jedi, and no previous Star Wars movie has placed as much emphasis on the redemptive power on the natural world, redefining that heroism can often mean protection and stewardship. Listen to Master Yoda’s choice quotes: “Use the force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” Or “Your weapons, you will not need them.” Or heed Master Obi-Wan: “There are alternatives to fighting.” These are thematic ideas scarcely brought to the fore in Star Wars, and The Last Jedi is the first to take that subtext and make it text in a serious way. Imagine this: The Last Jedi is the first truly anti-war Star Wars movie. 

But it’s Luke Skywalker’s astounding act of bravery on Crait that shatters normative conceptions of what a hero looks like, both within Star Wars and narrative art in general. Luke, standing before The First Order army order in a force projection, sacrifices himself in an act of pure pacifism that defeats the entire First Order and reignites hope throughout the Galaxy, while letting The Resistance flee to safety. He is the ultimate aspirational hero in Star Wars, the first Jedi to embody every positive tenant of Jedi Philosophy in practice. It is one of the greatest feats of cinematic heroism in all of movies. 

Luke Skywalker’s sacrifice in ‘The Last Jedi’

Reconsidering the rigid, masculine boundaries of heroism is the core ethic of Miyazaki’s life’s work. Like Rian Johnson, he is an unapologetic pacifist, and he has been unafraid to dedicate nearly each of his movies to that end, depicting his villains as those who misunderstand power and how to use it, the greatest of sins to Miyazaki. Nausicaä’s Princess Kushana and Castle in the Sky’s Colonel Muska want to use ancient technology as personal Death Stars, the war in Howl’s Moving Castle is banal and unending, and Lady Eboshi’s on a mission to murder the Great Forest Spirit for a trifling profit.

In inspiring contrast, Miyazaki’s protagonists often refuse to use lethal force, frequently sacrificing their own well-being for others. Ashitaka defuses a stand-off between Princess Mononoke (the character) and the people of Iron Town, allowing himself to be stabbed in the process. Nausicaä’s Master Yupa permits a sword through his hand if it means saving his princess, prioritizing the betterment of the collective over desire for vengeance.

One of the great acts of compassion in all of Miyazaki comes back to Nausicaä, who like Luke in The Last Jedi willingly sacrifices herself to prevent a slaughter. A horde of enormous insectoids known as Ohms are charging towards the last bastion of human society, and rather than join the battlements to open fire, she tries to rescue a baby Ohm and calm the swarm. She does, but she dies. Miraculously, the Ohms bring her back to life and are pacified, an intervention of goodwill for a pure spirit that puts into action her love of the natural and spiritual world. 

Just as the journeys of Rey and Nausicaä begin in parallel, so do their ends. On Pasaana in The Rise of Skywalker, Rey encounters a massive serpent, a symbol in mythology for fertility, as well as cycles of life, death, and rebirth, a continuation of a motif in The Last Jedi. The serpent, like an Ohm, appears deadly until pacified, and rather than fight, she heals its wounds and sets the creature free. Pasaana’s serpent is a living metaphor for Ben Solo; he appears deadly, but beneath his violent nature is a wounded soul whose spirit is “split to the bone,” in need of healing. She does for him what she did for the serpent, and in an act of transcendence that tethers the spiritual and natural worlds in one, Rey, like Nausicaä, dies saving civilization (through an act of defense, no less) only to be resurrected in an act of love, sacrifice, and redemption from Ben back to her, saviors of the Kami and of the force. To Miyazaki and Star Wars, nature itself is restorative, healing, and beautiful. As its custodians, we must aspire to be like our heroes: Rey, Ashitaka, Luke, and Nausicaä.

Copyright © 2020 by Roger Ebert Website


March Sadness and Humanity’s Hope

Tom Hanks (L.) meets with Astronaut Jim Lovell

Today is Sunday, March 15. In poetic terms, it’s the ides of March.

According to historians (and to playwright William Shakespeare), Julius Caesar, the “noblest Roman of them all,” was assassinated on that date. He was warned by a soothsayer to “Beware the ides of March” and avoid setting foot in the Roman Senate.

But Caesar ignored the warning. Instead, he was killed at the Theatre of Pompey, where the Roman Senate met.

Look where we are today.

This used to be a time when fans of college basketball could root for their favorite teams. The NCAA championships take place in March, which gave rise to the description “March Madness.” Not this year, I’m afraid. It’s morphed into something else; that is, something approaching “March Sadness.” It’s a sad epitaph indeed, and not just for college basketball.

The NBA, or National Basketball Association, has suspended its season. So have Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the PGA Tour, and the Masters Golf Tournament. The National Hockey League has also postponed its season, as have the XFL, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and the Women’s Tennis Association. The opening run of the Formula 1 racing season has been cancelled, too. And NASCAR has moved back its opening-day events by two weeks or more.

In addition to which, production of many cable television shows has been halted. The nation’s museums are closed, while movie theaters’ doors have been shuttered as well. Lamentably, Broadway’s Great White Way has dimmed its lights. And the Metropolitan Opera House has lowered its golden curtain on upcoming performances. “La commedia é finita!” the house has announced. Translation: “The play is over!”

All this because of the coronavirus outbreak. But that’s not the worst of what’s happened. There are real lives at stake, with so many families and friends being affected. Workers and employers sent home, multiple school closings, businesses and stores shuttered, elderly loved ones and relatives in peril — all at the mercy of this unseen menace. Unable to participate in life’s simple pleasures, we’re about to closet ourselves away, for our own safety and for the safety of others.

Oh, and financial markets around the world have taken a nosedive. While Wall Street is all wound up, we’ve wound our way down. Big time! We ignored the warnings, and now the ides of March are upon us.

Despite the dire news, the final straw occurred the other day when word got out that Tom Hanks and his actress wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for the coronavirus while working on separate projects in Australia.

Oh, no, not him! Not Tom Hanks!!! Please, Lord, say it ain’t so! My God, if Tom Hanks and his spouse can be hit by the coronavirus, is there any hope for humanity?

Who Ya Gonna Call?

The nation is reeling. In times of stress, who do we turn to? Who can we rely on to save us from ourselves, and from our worst impulses?

Why, the self-same Tom Hanks. That’s who! Who better than filmdom’s most reliable and most beloved screen actor?

So let this Sunday homily be my open invitation to Mr. Hanks:

Dear Tom,

Please excuse the directness of my approach. We need your help. Let me rephrase that: America needs your help. At this terrible moment in our country’s history, when things are looking grim for all Americans — and indeed, for the world at large — only you can save us.

Now, now. Don’t give me that look. You know the one I’m talking about, Tom. That clueless, wide-eyed Forrest Gump stare. I know you can do this. You’ve helped us out before — and you can do it again.

Try taking a look at your own past, Tom. See what you’ve been able to accomplish with your movies. Come on, Woody. Don’t let your get-up-and-go get the best of you. Let’s go over those exploits together, shall we?

In Saving Mr. Banks, you played Walt Disney (and you don’t even LOOK like Walt). As good ole Mr. Disneyland himself, you managed to convince the curmudgeonly P.L. Travers into granting your studio the movie rights to her book, Mary Poppins. Now, if you can charm P.L. Travers, then you can charm anybody.

As Forrest Gump, you FINALLY won the heart of the woman you loved, Jenny Curran. (Just between us, I thought she was undeserving of your affection, but that’s me.) If you can win young Jenny’s heart, you can win anybody’s heart.

                               Jenny (Robin Wright) sits with Forrest Gump (Hanks)

As terminally ill AIDS victim Andy Beckett in Philadelphia, you won a wrongful termination suit against your former law firm — with Denzel Washington’s help, of course. If you can beat your former law firm, you can beat any law firm.

In Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, as attorney James B. Donovan, you successfully negotiated a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And you did it by staying true to your profession as a defender of your client’s rights (even if that client happened to be a Soviet spy). Heck, if you can negotiate a successful prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union, you can negotiate anything. Am I right so far?

And, in Saving Private Ryan, as Captain John Miller, you practically lost your entire squad in trying to locate and bring Private James Ryan back to his mother’s side. I can’t help recalling, Tom, that earlier in the picture, you informed your skeptical squad members that, “This Ryan better be worth it. He better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb, or something.”

Do you remember that line?

Towards the end, after Captain Miller is mortally wounded by enemy fire, he gathers what strength he has left and grabs hold of Ryan so he can hear what Miller has to say. Miller’s final words to him are, “Earn this… earn it.”

                              Captain Miller (Hanks) whispers into Private Ryan’s ear

His meaning was clear: “Earn the sacrifice that my men have made in helping to save you.”        

Now, I know you can’t cure this disease, Tom, or invent a longer-lasting light bulk, but surely you can do something, even if you’re holed up in the outback. Let me make it plain, then: You can continue to encourage us by your honesty, your devotion to your craft, and the truthfulness you convey in all your movie roles. No, really, I mean it!

We need your kind of courage, Tom, more than we’ve ever had at any point in our recent history. We need your strength, we need your fortitude, and especially your ability to inspire — as you’ve done throughout your career. That calm, resolute manner you showed as Astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13. That’s what I’m talking about. I know you have it in you, sir.

Pandora’s box has been pried opened. The ills of this world have spilled out and spread a contagion called COVID-19. Help us to close the lid, Tom. Keep giving us hope that better days are ahead. Take away the sadness, help restore the madness. In a pinch, you can deploy Buzz Lightyear! Consider this a really big pinch…

Come on, Tom! Let’s get the ball rolling. You and Rita can overcome this affliction, of that I am certain. In doing so, you would have fulfilled your mission — just as Captain Miller did, just as Jim Lovell did.

                                     Tom Hanks as Astronaut Jim Lovell in ‘Apollo 13’

You are humanity’s last, best hope. Don’t let us down in our time of need. Get back on your feet, mister. Do it for me, and do it for America. And for the world.

You’ve earned this!

Yours sincerely,

Joe Lopes

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Seven) — Oh Brothers, Where Art Thou?

‘Finding Neverland’ (2004) – Airbrushed movie poster of Johnny Depp & Kate Winslet

The Value of Family

Whether it be a crime family or a makeshift coterie of privateers; whether it involves one spouse married to another, or encompasses a string of failed marriages and divorces; whether it be a foreign-born family or the all-American variety, film fans know that Johnny Depp will be at its center.

Does all the above mean the prolific and versatile actor, producer, and musician has had relatively few anxieties where his own family is concerned? Um … not likely. The famously tightlipped Mr. Depp had been in a live-in relationship with singer-actress Vanessa Paradis since 1999. This resulted in the birth of a daughter, Lily-Rose Melody (now an actress), and a son, Jack Jr., two offspring who happen to be born three years apart.

They say that parenthood brings out the crinkly-eyed mellowness in people. And being a father certainly has its positive “up” side, as well as those negative “down” aspects nobody likes to talk about. Like everything else, you never know how married life can turn out until you try it. Likewise, you never know how you will turn out as a parent (a mother, a father, a surrogate, whatever) when it comes to raising your own brood.

During Johnny’s filming of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, he would often stay in character — so much so that little son Jack once thought “Dad” was a real buccaneer (how quaint!). Too, Depp would throw on the three-cornered hat, fancy boots, and frock coat, along with gold-trimmed teeth and unwashed “dreads,” in his visits to children’s hospitals, orphanages, and cancer wards where, like seagulls, the kiddie inhabitants would flock to see him. Charity work, to paraphrase an old expression, begins in one’s home.

On one occasion, Johnny paid a call on a British grade school that resulted in leading his young charges in a fake mutiny against the faculty — and the students loved every minute of it. This was all staged in response to a cute little girl’s letter to “Mr. Jack Sparrow” about her plans for a “rebellion.” To further embellish the proposal, Depp brought along a few cast members (they were shooting a scene nearby) as backup. The girl’s teacher was “in” on the scheme and conspired with “Jackie” to make it all happen. As for the little girl? She was absolutely thrilled!

Depp in costume as Jack Sparrow at Meridian Primary School in Greenwich

Aw, shucks! Why couldn’t Mr. Depp turn this humorous, true-to-life incident into a lovable onscreen endeavor? Sounds like a fun concept, don’t you think? Something to tell the grandkids about. Well, now, we’re waaaaaay ahead of you! If fantasy can mimic real life, then real life can be turned into fantasy — a childhood fantasy, at that.

Finding Neverland (2004)

On a related theme — one that was miles removed from either Once Upon a Time in Mexico, The Secret Window, or the Pirates of the Caribbean chronicles (well, not SO far away from “pirates”) — director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Magee’s fanciful Finding Neverland takes a wide-eyed innocent’s view of the world as a place where childhood never ends; where adults in the room are the ones with the hang-ups, while the kids, like birds, are free to let their imaginations soar.

One adult in particular, a Mr. James Matthew Barrie (the Johnny Depp character) is, in reality, a big kid at heart. Based on a true-life episode in Scottish-born novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie’s own life and career, the plot of Finding Neverland focuses on his attempts to write a successful stage play.

Although, in actuality, Barrie was already a celebrated author, the film emphasizes his inability, at first, to attract an audience for his convoluted theater productions — much to his producer’s consternation. That producer, a Mr. Charles Frohman (played by Dustin Hoffman with a not-too-convincing, fading in-and-out British accent), is at wit’s end, trying to eke out a profit from his protégé’s repeated duds.

But Barrie has other concerns. His stiff-upper-lip society spouse Mary (Rahda Mitchell) is all about keeping up appearances. They sleep in separate bedrooms and lead separate lives. You know, your typical upper-crust, British society couple, all Victorian reserve and highfaluting airs. “Mustn’t do this, James. Mustn’t do that. What will the neighbors think?” Yadda, yadda, yadda…

Barrie doesn’t even bother to attend the premiere of his most recent fiasco. He’s too busy inside his own head to worry about what others think. Into his life comes Mrs. Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (a subdued Kate Winslet), an attractive widow with four young sons and another of those harpy-like British matriarchs, the over-protective Mrs. Emma du Maurier (the marvelously cutting and still-captivating Julie Christie). A platonic relationship soon develops between Mrs. Llewelyn Davies and Mr. Barrie, with the boys the primary focus of their concern.

Mr. Barrie (Depp) meets Mrs. Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet)

One of the lads, the super-serious Peter (Freddie Highmore, in a masterful performance), misses his late father to distraction. Peter’s the realist, and the most pragmatic of the bunch. As Barrie tries his best to establish himself as someone the boys can depend on (and have fun with), Peter fights his efforts tooth and nail. The older boys take to the whimsical Mr. Barrie from the start — his earnestness can be quite disarming. But Peter’s growing tendency to throw cold water on their budding acquaintanceship betrays long-buried issues involving repression of hurt feelings and his unresolved loss over a loved one.

In our day, such a man-boy association would be treated with “kid gloves,” in view of the countless scandals (among others) reported about pedophile priests that has rocked the Catholic Church in this country and abroad. In the movie, rumor and innuendo regarding Barrie’s closeness to the Llewelyn Davies children are surreptitiously whispered about town. Those rumors not only trouble Barrie’s snooty spouse, but the widowed Sylvia and her mother as well.

Leave it to surrogate daddy Depp to step in and play this one straight. His acting assumption and lightly-accented Scottish “burr” are spot-on ideal and highly infectious to boot (uh, no pun intended). Staying in character throughout and never grandstanding to prove a point, Johnny’s built-in naïveté charms the screen family, to a degree, with his sincerity and childlike wonderment.

As the plot machinations move along, we too are enchanted by Barrie’s visions. Soon, he gets the brilliant idea of creating a character out of his harmless dalliance: Peter Pan, a boy (very much like himself) who never grew up but leads a life of adventure, to encompass fairies, pirates, Indians, mermaids, and pixie dust in a magical place he calls Neverland. This is where the picture ultimately “takes off” on its own coattails — and where the boys, including the skeptical Peter, begin to notice that they’ve become part of Barrie’s latest theatrical experiment.

One of the orphans watches ‘Peter Pan’ in the theater

Trying to convince his producer into financing another flop is only one of Barrie’s hurdles. Another is making sure that society audiences are more receptive to this venture than to his previous doomed efforts. As such, Barrie takes out a little insurance: instead of pixie dust, he sprinkles the first-night audience with ragamuffins from the local orphanage. His instincts prove correct: Enjoying the production to the hilt, the audience is charmed by the orphans’ spontaneity and mirth at the premiere of Peter Pan. This results in a triumph from beginning to end. (Art imitating life? You betcha!)

When several audience members at the post-premiere celebration rightly take young Peter as the inspiration for the title character, the boy immediately insists that Barrie, not he, is the real Peter Pan. He’s right, of course. One problem solved, one more to tackle.

But the big payoff is yet to come. The ending (and there are two of them, quite frankly) involves the stricken Sylvia, who is deathly ill and unable to attend the premiere. In a fantasy-inspired sequence, but one that will take your breath away, Barrie has the first-night cast recreate Peter Pan in Sylvia’s home. Suspension of disbelief is called for here, but viewers attuned to the director’s internal logic will succumb to this fabulous sequence. Neverland materializes as a living, breathing place, not only in Barrie’s imagination but in Sylvia’s living quarters. She strolls off in the end with her boys to find peace and solace in this wonderful spot.

Mrs. Du Maurier (Julie Christie) voices her concerns to J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp)

The final minutes take us to Sylvia’s funeral. Mrs. Du Maurier, as stern and businesslike as any bereaved matron would behave in her situation, informs Barrie that her daughter’s last will and testament appoints both her and J.M. as the boys’ guardian. She hasn’t softened her approach (nor changed her opinion about him, either), but is at least willing to give this newly created association a shot.

Returning to the park bench where he first encountered the Llewelyn Davies clan, Barrie sits next to the downcast Peter. Their heartfelt exchange — an honest and open one, for once — will have you blubbering in your seat. It’s one of Johnny and Freddie’s finest cinematic encounters.

Working organically from the script, a straight-faced Depp feeds his lines to little Freddie, who reacts perfectly in time to his character’s story arc. Freddie’s tears flow naturally, as the boy comes to the realization that acceptance of loss is a part of life. We will always remember our loved ones in our mind’s eye. Yet, we must move on from there to make use of what time is given to us.

Barrie (Depp) takes Peter (Highmore) in his arms

With the exception of Edward Scissorhands, where Johnny’s earlier film triumphs may have failed to move viewers emotionally, this one easily passed the acid test. Appearing with like-minded colleagues, Johnny D and company delivered the goods. There was lovely work overall from every cast member, especially from Ms. Winslet and the very talented Mr. Highmore. We’ll give this flick the Good Parenting Seal of Approval.

Filmed in England, Finding Neverland was another milestone in Depp’s British period pictures, earning nearly five times the cost of its production. He was even tapped for a Best Actor Oscar, only his second nomination after Pirates of the Caribbean (a surprise move, savvy?). The film also boasted a wonderfully enchanting, Academy Award-winning music score by Polish composer Jan Kaczmarek. The story was later turned into a 2015 Broadway musical, adapted from the same source material as the film.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

The cast of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (2005)

No sooner was Finding Neverland in the can when Depp and Highmore were reunited a year later for the filming of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a re-imagination of the 1971 feature Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The earlier flick was billed as a musical fantasy, with words and music by the British songwriting team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley (Stop the World – I Want to Get Off). This updated version would adhere closely to the author’s original theme: that of a whimsical garden of chocolatey delights run by an eccentric entrepreneur.

Both film versions were tied to Roald Dahl’s eponymously titled children’s book. However, Burton’s newest iteration, unlike its predecessor, would take a much darker view of the story. The emphasis, as the title suggests, would be placed on the boy Charlie Bucket (then-twelve-year-old Freddie Highmore) and his impoverished family of Buckets, who occupy a ramshackle, off-kilter Expressionist home flat in the middle of London town.

The Bucket’s rickety house near London

Shot at Pinewood Studios on the far outskirts of the city, with a tuneful score and witty song structures by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman (the lyrics were taken directly from Dahl’s writings), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory presented a primarily UK cast headed by Highmore and Irish-born actor David Kelly as Grandpa Joe. Johnny, of course, embodied the top-hatted, pasty-faced Willy and played him as allergic to children and fearful of parenting.

Helena Bonham Carter co-starred as Mrs. Bucket (a test drive for her casting as Mrs. Lovett in 2007’s Sweeney Todd), and Noah Taylor (the teenage David Helfgott in Shine) played Mr. Bucket, with AnnaSophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) as the ambitious Violet Beauregarde, Missi Pyle (Big Fish) as Mrs. Beauregarde, Julia Winter as the snooty rich kid Veruca Salt, James Fox as her accommodating “Daddy,” Jordan Fry as video-gamer Mike Teavee, Adam Godley as Mr. Teavee, Philip Wiegratz as the chocolate-loving Augustus Gloop, Franziska Troegner as Mrs. Gloop, Brian Dunlop as young Willy Wonka, hard-working Deep Roy as the Oompa-Loompas (ALL of them!), Christopher Lee as Dr. Wilbur Wonka, and dancer, actor, choreographer, and costume designer Geoffrey Holder providing the lilting Trinidadian-accented narration.

Similarities abound between this production and Finding Neverland, to say nothing of overt hints of Edward Scissorhands in the overall concept and design. Whereas the focus of Neverland involved a boy’s difficulty in accepting a substitute parent, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the roles are reversed. Here, Depp, as renowned chocolatier Willy Wonka (a mild reference to the Juliette Binoche character in Chocolat, an earlier Depp vehicle), the self-made businessman and purportedly “mature” adult is the one who experiences post-traumatic issues concerning his dentist father Wilbur; while Charlie, the pre-pubescent schoolboy, is a well-adjusted adolescent much wiser than his years.

He’s the genuine article, all right. Indeed, Charlie’s strength is in his goodness and honesty. He loves his down-to-earth working class parents to death; and wholeheartedly worships his elderly grandparents (a feisty and comical foursome who share the same bed!). His generosity and selfless devotion to his family and to what’s right holds him in good stead. One telling aspect to Charlie’s persona is his upstanding moral authority, something that thoroughly puzzles the self-centered Willy to no end.

After he lucks into purchasing the winning Golden Ticket that will enable him to spend a day at Mr. Wonka’s fabled factory, Charlie insists on selling it so he can help his family out. Grandpa George (David Morris), the orneriest and wisest of the group, manages to talk some sense into the boy: “Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money.” With plucky Grandpa Joe along for the ride, Charlie sets off on his factory adventure.

Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) rides with Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) as Willy Wonka (Depp) looks on

With the exception of honest to goodness Charlie, all of the so-called winners are little monsters in disguise. Augustus is a glutton, Violet is an over achiever, Veruca a spoiled brat, and Mike a snotty know-it-all. Their parents, however, are no better. They are either easily manipulated automatons (the condescending Mr. Salt) or type A-personality go-getters (the obsessed-with-her-image Mrs. Beauregarde).

Later on, after the other ticket holders are eliminated one-by-selfish-one, a delighted Willy Wonka congratulates Charlie, the last kid standing. His prize will be to come live and work in the chocolate factory — with the proviso that he leave his family behind. Will Charlie take Willy up on his offer? Not if director Burton has anything to say about it.

Audiences are taken on a trip down memory lane (er, Wonka’s memories, to be precise), where we learn the cause of the chocolatier’s childhood trauma. Afterwards, while shining the magnate’s shoes, Charlie convinces Willy to let bygones be bygones. The scene of Dr. Wonka (“Lollipops. Ought to be called cavities on a stick!”) and his estranged son Willy’s belated reconciliation — where six-foot-five-inch Lee places his long-limbed arms around five-foot-nine-inch Johnny — is almost a carbon copy of Depp (as J.M. Barrie) embracing the bawling Freddie Highmore (as Peter) at the end of Finding Neverland.

Dr. Wonka, DDS, embraces his son, Willy, in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’

And talk about controversy, the scuttlebutt that circulated at the time of the picture’s release involved Depp’s mimicking the looks and mannerisms of Michael Jackson (down to the gloved hand), which Depp denied. Instead, Johnny claimed he was channeling the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (he also stated it was an old high school teacher of his, but never mind). Whoever Johnny based his performance on, the resultant box-office payoff assured the film’s success; certainly, no one complained about the profits that poured into Warner Bros.’ coffers (least of all, Burton and Depp).

Director Tim Burton summed up his interest in filming the book with this quote from Mark Salisbury’s Burton on Burton: “I responded to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because it respected the fact that children can be adults.”

You’ll get no argument from me on that point.

(End of Part Seven)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars,’ The Original Series (Part Eight): ‘Episode VI, Return of the Jedi’ — Nothing Is as It Was

“Impressive!” Opening sequence to ‘Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi’ (Photo: 20th Century-Fox Productions)

Hope Springs Eternal

Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), the third film in the original three-episode series, completes the cycle first started back in 1977. The story has come full circle; in fact, it even repeats the basic premise of the initial feature, Episode IV: A New Hope — in this case, with the rebuilding of a larger, more destructive, and “fully operational” battle station and the Rebel forces bravely allied to combat it.

The opening scroll makes the case clear from the start: Jedi knight Luke Skywalker has gone back to his home planet of Tatooine to rescue Han Solo from the evil clutches of Jabba the Hutt. In the meantime, the Galactic Empire has been beefing up its defenses against further attack. Their plan? To counter any future offensives with another “secret” weapon: an impenetrable new Death Star. Big, bad and bold, that’s how the Empire plans to hold out.

On the one hand, the Empire must be stopped at all costs. On the other, the epic confrontation between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker must be played out. In their prior encounter (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), Luke lost a limb and almost his life, just as Yoda and Obi-Wan had predicted, to Vader’s lightsaber. But the circle must be closed. The two must meet each other again to finish what had been started.

Before all this can take place, however, Han Solo must be freed from his carbonite confines. And to that end, producer George Lucas decided to divide his picture into three distinct parts, mirroring the three decisive issues at stake: 1) the rescue of Han and his budding relationship with Princess Leia; 2) the Rebel Alliance’s clash with the Galactic Empire (to involve the furry Ewoks); and 3) Luke and Vader’s duel to the death.

Jabba the Hutt’s favorite trophy: Han Solo (Harrison Ford) frozen in carbonite: ‘Episode VI: Return of the Jedi’

If notions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings strike any bells with readers, that’s because the mythological constructs present in the Star Wars trilogy have been etched in higher relief with this, the final installment of Lucas’ space opera.

Originally titled Revenge of the Jedi (until Lucas correctly surmised that Jedi do not seek retribution against their foes), Return of the Jedi starts off with a display of the Empire’s awesome arsenal. The images are large in proportion to their surroundings, and the Battle Cruisers are massive in their scale. Indeed, there are more FX shots throughout this feature than in the other two films combined.

March to the Music

In time to his gravely portentous theme music (i.e., the Imperial March), Lord Vader arrives at the new Death Star’s docking bay to deliver a brief “pep” talk to Commander Tiaan Jerjerrod. The Emperor is displeased with the lack of progress, Vader hints, hence the reason he’s been sent ahead: to (ahem) speed things up. Placing a gloved hand in the commander’s face (gulp!), Vader warns that His Excellency will soon make a personal appearance to inspect the end results. Oh, joy!

Darth Vader “speaks” with Commander Jerjerrod (Michael Pennington) (Photo: 20th Century-Fox Productions)

A quick wipe takes us to Tatooine, where C-3PO and R2-D2 grouse at each other about their latest mission. Grumbling and complaining every step of the way, Threepio knocks timidly at the gate of Jabba the Hutt’s palace. Relieved that no one has answered, he’s about to scurry off in the other direction, when suddenly a mechanical arm pops out to probe the intruders. Threepio states his case: they need to see Jabba. The mechanical arm retracts.

Thinking they won’t be let in, Threepio and Artoo are startled when the huge gate opens to permit their entry. They’re greeted by the red-eyed Bib Fortuna, Jabba’s adviser, and some pig-like Gamorrean guards. Jabbering in makeshift “Huttese” (a composite of Central African and/or Asian Pacific dialects), Threepio claims to have a message for Mr. The Hutt, as well as a gift.

“Gift? What gift?” questions Threepio. Artoo beeps out a response. Threepio does the first of many double takes. No matter, they are escorted directly to Jabba’s notorious throne room.

At the throne room, they (and viewers) are greeted with all manner of intergalactic beings. Among the assorted aliens are smugglers, thieves, scoundrels, and lowlife types, specifically the bounty hunter Boba Fett and a disguised Lando Calrissian (he’s wearing a helmet with four protruding ring tusks emerging from either side). In the revised version of this sequence, new digital creations appear to be milling about, mixed in with old-fashioned puppetry and dozens of rubber-masked extras.

Bib Fortuna (Michael Carter), Jabba the Hutt’s adviser (Photo: Databank)

Lucas was never pleased with this sequence to begin with. And true to his ever-shifting nature, he couldn’t help fiddling around with it a good 20 or so years after the fact. By that, we mean filling in and touching up the empty spaces and dark corners with computer-generated hookers, dancers and what-have-you. Speaking of which, he replaced Max Rebo’s bouncy mood music with a most unmemorable number, along with deleting puppet pop star Sy Snootles — mostly to the scene’s detriment and the fans’ eternal enmity.

So much of the original’s charm has been lost because of these foolish “makeovers.” Personally, I find Lucas’ so-called enhancements to be unappealing and devoid of inspiration. They’ve been tossed into the salad more to please the producer’s whims. In addition, they detract from the main story line, one of which has to do with Han Solo’s reawakening from his forced “slumber” to his rebirth as a freedom fighter. The other involves Master Luke’s growing maturity in the adult world, where taking responsibility for one’s actions has severe and long-lasting consequences.

The sad part is that Lucas did not stop there. Much to everyone’s dismay, he went on to tinker with practically every special effect sequence he could find, all the way to the end. Although his gratuitous meddling did not affect the other two features to the extent that was perpetrated in Return of the Jedi, the “damage” that was inflicted overall has taken their toll on this production. (Oh, sigh…)

A Fun Time is Had By All

Fortunately, curvaceous Oola and the birdlike Salacious Crumb were spared the iniquity. Crumb’s hideous cackle was, and still is, a highpoint of Jabba’s court. Speaking of which, Threepio and Artoo are brought before the disgusting slug. Artoo plays a recorded message of Luke offering the two droids to Jabba as a goodwill gesture. Threepio is appalled at the prospect. Regardless, he and Artoo are taken to the boiler room where they are inducted into the Hutt’s service.

Exotic dancer Oola (Femi Taylor) in the Rancor’s lair (Photo: iMDB)

Meanwhile, Oola does an enticing dance, but Jabba wants more from her. She hesitates (bad move!). Tugging at Oola’s chain, Jabba throws open a trap door which causes the dancer to fall into a pit — a pit that houses the monstrous Rancor beast. Her terrified screams fill the throne room, while Threepio looks squeamishly away.

Just then, a disturbance is heard as a strange little alien appears with the mighty Chewbacca on a leash. The alien asks for a stratospheric amount as bounty, which throws Jabba into a rage — so much so that he knocks poor Threepio to the floor. The Hutt’s counteroffer is finally accepted as Chewie is led off to prison. Boba Fett, who knows a thing or two about bounties, eyes the little alien with suspicion.

Later that night, while most of Jabba’s cronies are asleep, the tiny alien is spotted making its way toward where the frozen figure of Han Solo hangs. The alien lowers the figure onto the floor with a powerful thud. Adjusting the controls on the carbonite’s outer hull, the structure slowly gives way until the unfrozen form of Solo emerges. Han falls to the floor and is cradled in the alien’s arms. As you may have guessed, the alien is none other than Princess Leia in disguise.

Han is blinded by hibernation sickness, but the alien/Leia assures him it will wear off in time. “Who are you”? he asks. “Someone who loves you,” she replies, to the tune of their love motif. At that point, Jabba’s bawdy chuckle is heard, along with those of the other no-good-nicks. A protesting Han is taken away, but Leia is forced to take Oola’s place by Jabba’s side (yuck). The toad flicks his lustful tongue at her in anticipation. Again, Threepio looks the other way in disgust.

Leia (Carrie Fisher) rescues Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from Jabba’s clutches (Photo: hellogiggles.com)

Transitioning to the jail cell where Chewie has been held, the eight-foot-tall walking carpet greets old buddy Han with a warm bear hug of recognition. The disbelieving Han is happy to “see” (more like “feel”) his old companion, but is astonished to learn that Luke is now a Jedi knight and will be arriving soon to free them from their bonds. Yeah, right…

There’s Safety in Numbers

We can assume that some time has elapsed before we’re back at the gate. The heavy steel doors open with a metallic clang (great room-rattling sound effects!) as the Gamorrean guards are mysteriously brushed aside to allow a hooded stranger safe passage. It’s Luke, of course, doing his best Obi-Wan imitation (or is it Lawrence of Arabia?). He easily manipulates the susceptible Bib Fortuna into taking him to Jabba.

Upon entering the throne room, we see that Leia has taken Oola’s place as the trophy dancer alongside Jabba the horny Hutt. How do we know this? Why, she’s dressed (or, rather, UN-dressed) in a skimpy metallic outfit — and she’s wearing Oola’s chain about her neck. Nice touch, that!

Game of Thrones: C-3PO, Leia, Jabba the Hutt, and Bib Fortuna (Photo: pinshape.com)

Threepio is thrilled to see Master Luke, but Jabba is furious with Bib not-so-Fortuna, who gets smacked down in short order. Jabba is unimpressed by Luke’s calm, Jedi-like demeanor. In no time, Luke grabs hold of a weapon, but Jabba beats him to the punch.

Both Luke and a Gamorrean guard drop through the floor (bet you knew THAT was coming!) and into the Rancor’s lair. The court gathers around the opening to watch Luke and the guard struggle to escape the huge Rancor’s grasp — second time’s the charm? Maybe not! The Rancor, an actual Muppet blown up to cinematic proportions, makes short work of the guard. Next, it turns on Luke, who scrambles about the pit looking for any kind of weapon to beat the monster to a pulp.

Their battle has its ups and downs (for the time, it’s actually quite impressive). Using his catlike reflexes, Luke ducks his way into a corner and notices that the Rancor is about to pass under a gate. Thinking quickly, Luke grabs hold of a handy skull and tosses it in the direction of a switch. Crash! The gate comes down on the poor, unsuspecting creature, killing it instantly. The watching throng gasps in disbelief while Jabba throws another shit-fit.

It’s at this point that Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (executed by film director Richard Marquand) add what the late movie critic Roger Ebert termed “a small moment … that extra level of detail that makes the Star Wars pictures much more than just space operas.” To wit, they have the Rancor’s keeper, a burly, overweight bloke, break down and cry at the sight of the mangled beast. “Everybody loves somebody,” wrote Roger. Ain’t it the truth?

Ah, but the fun’s only getting started! Luke and Han are brought before the enraged Hutt, who has Threepio translate his orders: Our adventure seekers are both to walk the plank and suffer a thousand years of agony as (quote) “they are cast into the pit of Carkoon, the nesting place of the all-powerful Sarlacc.” Oh, my! The prisoners (what, again???) are dragged away. In the meantime, Chewie and Leia (according to the script) “exchange concerned looks.” Concerned did you say? Heaven forbid!

In the Belly of the Beast

The scene now changes to the Tatooine desert (filmed in Yuma, Arizona) where the gruesome Sarlacc resides. There is another of those extraneous bits, this one involving the buffalo-like Banthas (courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, or ILM). Jabba’s barge hovers close by, along with two nearby skiffs. Luke and Han are aboard one of them. To ease the tension, the duo trades some light-hearted banter. Switching to the barge, Threepio bumps into Artoo who is serving drinks to the invited guests; back at the Sarlacc, everything is made ready for the coming execution.

Threepio delivers a short speech about begging Jabba for mercy. You will notice that Lando has moved into position, while Luke gives him and others a look of recognition. Without warning, Luke does a reasonable imitation of Olympic gold-medalist Greg Louganis as he high dives off the gang plank to turn himself around. Artoo shoots off Master Luke’s lightsaber which signals to everyone to get into fight mode.

Scene of the Grime: The Sarlacc and barges (Photo: iCollector.com)

General mayhem ensues, with guards and other standbys, including possibly Lando and Han, plunging headlong into the Sarlacc’s gaping jaws of death (digitally enhanced, to be precise, to make it look as if Audrey II, the “mean green mother from outer space” from The Little Shop of Horrors, had rented living space inside). Another needless expansion features an added bit with Boba Fett for no other reason than to capitalize on the subsequent popularity of this minor character. There’s no point to these irrelevant supplements except to drag the action out to interminable lengths.

One “charming” sequence occurs at the barge where Leia, taking advantage of the confusion, wraps her chain around Jabba’s chunky neck and chokes the living daylights out of him. With eyes bulging and slimy tongue protruding, the infamous Hutt meets a fitting end as his thick tail rattles away. His demise should be greeted with thunderous applause, but the danger is not yet over for our heroes.

Han and Lando dangle precariously for dear life (and exchange comedic barbs at one another), while Luke continues to slice and dice his way through, in true  samurai fashion, to eventually reach Leia. A wounded Chewie does his best to keep it together, but is saved from annihilation when Luke overwhelms the gunners. At the same time, Artoo relieves Leia of her bondage; in the next instant, the little droid takes potshots at the mischievous Salacious Crumb, who’s busy picking at one of Threepio’s metallic eyelids. (Ew, don’t you hate it when that happens?)

With Luke and Leia in command of the barge, Artoo and Threepio abandon ship. After they plunge head-first into the hot desert sand, Luke grabs hold of Leia in another of those patented Tarzan swings (one he’s perfected since Episode IV: A New Hope) and kicks the deck gun into high gear. As a result, the barge explodes into a gazillion pieces.

“Swing your partner!” Poster art for ‘Return of the Jedi’

Luke and Leia land safely onto the skiff (whew, what a relief) which, as luck would have it, contains both Chewie and Lando as well as the nearly sightless Solo. Off they go, but not before they pick up Threepio and Artoo. Note: The sight of C-3PO’s spindly metallic legs sticking out from the ground like golden antennae always provokes a gale of laughter.

Did we say “comic relief”?

(End of Part Eight)

To be continued….

Transcript of dialogue from the original screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas, and taken from the novel by Lucas

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Six) — British Period Two-Point-O

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (2003)

Batten Down the Hatches, Boys!

When last we left the eclectic Mr. Depp, he was caught up in cocaine smuggling in the 2001 movie Blow. Sent to Otisville Federal Correctional Institute for a goodly number of years, his character — a potbellied, older-but-wiser George Jung — experiences a vision of his grown up, high-cheek-boned daughter Kristina Sunshine (Jaime King) paying a visit to him in prison.

As the pair hug each other tight, George has a flashback in which police carry his little girl (Emma Roberts) from their home after he’s been busted for possession of illegal drugs. In another, his estranged spouse Mirtha (Penélope Cruz) sits down to speak with George via the prison’s phone system. But she purposely drops the phone’s receiver on him, as does Kristina Sunshine when it’s her turn to talk to daddy.

In the concluding episode, George walks hand-in-hand with Kristina, who fades away to nothingness as the prison guard tells him it’s time to pack it in. Turns out she was nothing but a dream. And the moral of the story? “Ain’t no ‘Sunshine’ when she’s gone” (my apologies to Bill Withers), with or without the darkness.

Close family relationships have been at the center of Depp’s cinematic output from the start. The most prominent of which (Edward Scissorhands, Cry-Baby, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and The Brave) have emphasized the ties that bind an individual to one’s brood. However difficult it may be to break those ties, the family unit stays intact. It remains the focal point in such crime-based dramas as Donnie Brasco and Nick of Time — even Sleepy Hollow — or the pseudo-sci-fi incongruities of The Astronaut’s Wife.

Family, of an entirely different sort, would take over the main section of Johnny’s next projects. As a matter of fact, the very term “family” and what it meant to be a contributing member of one underwent a drastic re-modification.

Perhaps reflecting the changing attitudes of American society as a whole and the notion of what comprises the so-called “modern family unit,” Depp’s personal relationships with his own children, and to children in general, had a profound influence on how he would approach such box-office bonanzas as Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But before he reached that critically-acclaimed stage, Depp agreed to don dreadlocks and braids, to cap his teeth with fake gold trimming, and to assume the bawdy carriage and boozy aspect of a stoned-out rock ‘n’ roller, in what would become his most lucrative film venture yet.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is shipwrecked on a deserted Caribbean islet with Elizabeth (Keira Knightley)

The first picture in the (gulp) “ongoing” series, the nautically predisposed Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, set the unwavering course, so to speak, for Hollywood’s obsession with franchises. It was followed three years later by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) — the best of the bunch — and the subsequent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007).

As far as we can measure, this money-generating mania (what in motion-picture parlance is referred to as a “cash cow”) began, more or less, with the runaway successes of the Wakowski siblings’ cyberpunk series The Matrix (starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishbourne) and Peter Jackson’s blockbuster The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, trailed quickly by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man action epics (with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst), as well as the earlier The Fast and the Furious (the team of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Michelle Rodriguez).

What made the faux saltiness of the Pirates of the Caribbean brand of adventure stories — an essential chapter in Johnny’s British-period outings — so entertaining to both critics and public alike? That’s hard to say.

It had been some time since a pirate picture would translate into profits for penny-pinching movie studios. Their heyday had come and gone in the late 1940s and ‘50s (the best example being Burt Lancaster’s The Crimson Pirate), with a fitful smattering of efforts thereafter that dotted the cinematic seascape, to include such titles as Swashbuckler (1976), The Pirate Movie (1982), The Pirates of Penzance (1983), Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986), Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995), Brian Henson’s Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and Disney’s animated Treasure Planet (2002).

After having taken a bath at the box office with the gimmicky Treasure Planet, a half-hearted science-fiction take at a swashbuckler resurgence, industry mavens expressed alarm that the Disney Studios, in conjunction with megabuck producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon, Remember the Titans, Pearl Harbor), would revisit the time-worn story line — in this instance, basing a script (by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) on Disney’s eponymously titled theme-park ride. Tackling another such high-sea saga was a risky venture in their view (with or without an eye patch). Ah, but money speaks louder than words.

Action sequences galore (under the purposeful direction of Gore Verbinski), lush location shooting on the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean (where else?), along with a full-blown symphonic film score by Hans Zimmer (with borrowings from his previous hit, Gladiator), and a plethora of mindboggling stunts and special FX, dominated this initial entry.

Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush, l.) on deck with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, r.)

And the plot? I knew you’d ask me that question! Let’s say the story is so hopelessly complicated, so overblown, and so lumbering and elephantine that it took two subsequent sequels to untangle and resolve — and not to everyone’s gratification.

The principal “character” (and we use that term loosely) is that of Captain Jack Sparrow, a slightly effete, slightly tipsy, and incessantly scheming buccaneer with a penchant for pretentious dialogue and dark eyeliner. He also has a one-track-minded obsession with women and rum. Despite his unsavory nature, Sparrow is a delightfully daffy personification: quick-witted and beguiling, he can outsmart, out-think and out-maneuver any number of His Majesty’s Royal Guardsmen, not to mention the entire British Fleet. What Sparrow has going for him is his ability not to be taken seriously.

As the roguish Jack, Depp drew upon his earlier enactment of Hunter S. Thompson, the whacky gonzo journalist-turned-writer we first encountered in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To that performance, he added the slurred speech patterns of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who makes a cameo appearance as Sparrow’s papa, the Keeper of the Pirate Codex, in 2007’s At World’s End.

Johnny’s part, as originally conceived, was in the upstanding “action hero” mold. Always looking to bring a sense of novelty to whatever he did, Depp decided to embellish the character with his own tongue-in-cheek twist. Michael Eisner, who headed Disney at the time, took one look at the rushes and was not amused. “He’s ruining the film!” Eisner was quoted as saying. Johnny was unperturbed by the comment. His response was reported to be: “You either trust me or give me the boot” (pun intended). Eisner decided that too much had been invested in the production to make any changes at that point.

As one producer once came to a similar conclusion concerning the late actor-producer-financier Robert Evans’ own modest beginnings in movieland: “The kid stays in the picture.”

Instead of walking the plank, Depp took his character’s license to offend by the horns and allowed himself a bit of leeway: He turned the fey Captain Sparrow into a one-man side-show. The main event, then, took shape in the evolving (and evermore contrived) relationships between Elizabeth Swan, Will Turner, and James Norrington, with Jack occupying the inner-and-outer fringes of comic relief. He would later take up this same methodology for his original, deadpan take as Tonto in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013).

The large supporting cast highlighted the diversity inherent in practically all of Depp’s features, with the Pirates series being no exception. Among the talents deployed were those of Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as the ghostly Captain Barbosa, Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) as the highborn Elizabeth Swann, Orlando Bloom (Legolas in The Lord of the Rings) as love-smitten swordsmith Will Turner, Jack Davenport (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as the snooty Lt. Norrington, Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) as Governor Swann, Kevin R. McNally as Mr. Gibbs, Lee Arenberg as the bald-pated Pintel, Mackenzie Crook as loose-eyed Ragetti, and Zoë Saldana (Uhura in the Star Trek reboots) as female pirate Anamaria.

Now, about that winding plot … It has something to do with Captain Jack’s attempts to take possession of his ship, The Black Pearl, from some mutinous rival privateers. Oh, and there’s also a mighty curse that needs to be broken. And a spectral crew to overcome. And a mind-of-its-own compass. And 882 pieces of eight, mate.

As I said: It’s complicated. And I’ll be damned if it’s not entertaining to boot (pun VERY intended!).

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Depp up to the bar in ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’

From a side-show attraction, Johnny fixed his ever-watchful gaze on a violent, nausea-inducing contemporary sagebrush saga by Tex-Mex writer, director, producer, cinematographer, musician, and editor Robert Rodriguez.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico, an obvious ode to Italian auteur Sergio Leone’s grandiloquent spaghetti Westerns, in particular The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), was part of a trilogy of films by the enterprising Mr. Rodriguez that began with the low-budget, self-made El Mariachi (1993) and the ensuing slicker but no less ferocious outlaw epic Desperado (1995), the former starring Carlos Gallardo as the titular gun-toting musician and the latter with Antonio Banderas in the name part.

Banderas returned to the role in this outlandish sequel (Desperado was distributed, in fact, by Columbia Pictures, as was Rodriguez’s earlier creation). In Once Upon a Time in Mexico, El Mariachi is charged by CIA Agent Sheldon Jeffrey Sands (played with typical self-reliance by Depp) with the killing of one of those corrupt Mexican generals one hears so much about. The general is played by Willem Dafoe. There’s also a revenge-themed angle to this setup that, for all intents and purposes, outdoes anything that came before.

Johnny Depp as CIA Agent Sands

Perhaps that’s the reason why the series faltered after Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Once upon a time in Depp’s movie career, he might just as easily have played the lead protagonist as he had the minor CIA sidekick. He could certainly fake a Mexican accent better than many native speakers could pronounce their own surnames (see his Don Juan DeMarco if you have any doubts). Still, Johnny’s fidgety nature preferred to let others have their moment in the hot desert sun, which is all to the good.

Our favorite sequences in this long, drawn-out shoot-em-up (which also stars Salma Hayek, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Rubén Blades, and Enrique Iglesias) happen to be: 1) Depp’s “conversation” in a fancy Mexican bar/restaurant with ex-standup comic Cheech Marin as Belini, which ends rather badly for poor old Cheech and the waitress serving them both; and 2) the CIA agent’s violent shootout with hitmen that is so blatantly outrageous and so ridiculously over-the-top that one is forced to laugh the whole sequence off. It’s almost too cartoony to take seriously.

The Secret Window (2004)

Depp as Mort Rainey, with John Turturro as Shooter, in ‘The Secret Window’

Johnny’s subsequent brush with the “law,” The Secret Window from 2004, was a dreary, offbeat affair. Based on a Stephen King novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, it reminded one of a poor man’s Edgar Allan Poe psychological horror fantasy (“The Telltale Heart” would be what we had in mind), with some semi-biographical elements thrown in.

The basic premise involves an author, Mort Rainey (a stand-in for King, which is where the semi-biographical aspects come into play), trying to overcome his writer’s block by shacking up, all by his lonesome self, inside a log cabin in the woods (the movie was shot in parts of Quebec, Canada). Mort spends most of his time dressed in a bathrobe and lying around the couch while attempting to snap out of the doldrums.

One day, he’s visited by one of those tall and sullen strangers that seem to inhabit such woodland fright fests as these. The stranger’s name is John Shooter (a grim-faced John Turturro). He wears a big black hat (could he be the bad guy?), and he’s pissed off something fierce. Shooter accuses Mort of plagiarizing his murder-mystery novel. “You stole my story,” he declares, in a slow, portentous drawl meant to make Mort and the audiences’ skin crawl. That starts the plot a-rolling.

From there, we learn a little more about Mort as a person: that he really did “steal someone else’s story” a while back and published it as his own; that he wrote and published his own story two years before Shooter’s tale; that after confronting Shooter, the next night Mort’s dog is stabbed to death with a screwdriver. Yikes! Looks like this guy Shooter is (cough, cough) deadly serious about that plagiarism claim.

What’s an author with writer’s block to do? In Mort’s case, he reports the slaughter of his pet pooch to the local sheriff (Len Cariou). To prove that his story really did come first, Mort goes off to see his estranged wife Amy (Maria Bello) to retrieve a copy of the magazine where it was originally published. He also hires a former policeman turned private detective (Charles S. Dutton) to ferret out the situation with the lugubrious Mr. Shooter.

Mort (Johnny Depp) has a bout of cabin fever in ‘The Secret Window’

One thing leads to another and, as in all of King’s stories, the final “reveal” is both thought provoking and preposterous at one and the same time. The best parts of the picture are when Johnny is left alone, talking a blue streak to himself and sorting out in his mind (or what’s left of his sanity) as to what’s been going on. The ending, while not particularly shocking, is somewhat of a letdown but true, overall, to the story arc that’s been laid out beforehand (keep a close eye on the objects around Mr. Depp at the outset — they’ll come in handy towards the finish).

No spoilers here, folks. The best we have to say about this minor effort is the creepy music score by Philip Glass (The Hours) and Geoff Zanelli (which will remind viewers of Depp and Polanski’s The Ninth Gate), the steady directorial hand of veteran screenwriter David Koepp, and the fine location photography by Fred Murphy. All in all, a modest achievement for the always adventurous Johnny D.

(End of Part Six)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Five): ‘Together We Stand, Divided We Fall’

Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) chews over Napoleon Stone’s advice (Denzel Washington) in ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

‘Reel’ Life and Real Life

Whether it be on the big or small screen, or in the intimacy of the legitimate theater, to bring their characters to life actors must be able to draw from personal experience. One of Denzel Washington’s chief assets as a film star and stage performer is his ability to capture, so vividly and earnestly, the essence of what makes his protagonists tick.

As a for instance, in Mo’ Better Blues (1990), where the youngster Bleek would rather go outside and play with his friends than practice his scales, the mother (represented by legendary African American artist Abbey Lincoln), is, at her core, a figure taken from real life. Denzel’s own mother, “Lynne” (a nickname for Lennis), was cited by him as a probable inspiration for that portrayal, as well as the actor’s driving force behind his success.

Near the end of the film, when Bleek finds himself teaching his young son Miles the finer points of trumpet playing, the boy gets distracted by friends calling out to him to come and play. Bleek’s wife, Indigo, takes Miles to task by insisting he practice his scales. Instead of a reprimand, Bleek, recalling his earlier encounter with mom and how she and his father ended up arguing about what to do, relents and allows Miles to go and join his pals.

Denzel revealed similar facets of his Mount Vernon upbringing in a 1992 television interview with Barbara Walters. “I thought [my mother’s] purpose in life was just to embarrass me,” he let on. “She’d come get me on the street, at any time, in front of anybody.”

He recalled an incident where his mother once smacked him across the cheek when young Denzel started to make faces at friends about his predicament. “I know that she never gave up on me. She had a lot of reason to. You know, I got kicked out of college and she did the same thing.”

Walters asked Denzel how he managed to overcome that setback. His response was that he took a semester off to read acting books, which then led to his finding work in summer stock. That’s how he got interested in the profession. Walters mentioned his private life, which remained private as far as the actor was concerned. She also brought up his family and the fact that he had four children, two of whom were twins.

Denzel Washington with his wife Pauletta

“One named Malcolm. After Malcolm X?” she queried. And who could blame Barbara for trying to make the obvious connection.

“No,” was Denzel’s immediate response.

“No?” she asked back, puzzled.

“No,” he added coolly.  “After my wife’s cousin Malcolm.” Apparently, Ms. Walters, the seasoned reporter and interviewer, and possibly her staff had failed to do their homework. Maybe they were out in the street playing ball.

Denzel switched the topic to his spouse Pauletta. “My wife, you know, is the backbone of our family. And I’m wise enough to admit that … We’ve known each other too long, we’ve been through too much … And being a star and all of that, temptations all around, and I haven’t been perfect. I’ll be quite candid about that. We’ve gone through ups and downs and we’re still together. And we’re best friends.”

This self-revelation about his past — and his acceptance of the conjugal life as a serious contract between two consenting adults — smacks of the understanding Denzel has had not only about his own life’s purpose and his reliance on strong women, but of what he could bring to his onscreen portrayals.

Getting to the “Heart” of the Matter

Two minor efforts and one reasonably competent release comprised the next phase of Denzel Washington’s cinematic output.

Advertising poster for ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

The first film, titled Heart Condition, a drama-fantasy-comedy-police thriller, was released in February 1990 to mixed (code word for “middling”) reviews and less-than-decent box office returns. Starring the versatile English actor Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Brazil, Hook) as police officer Jack Moony, the dashing Denzel as ambulance-chasing lawyer Napoleon Stone, Chloe Webb as the hooker with a heart of gold Crystal Gerrity, Roger E. Mosley as Captain Wendt, and Ja’net Dubois as Stone’s mother, the film has a reputation for having been a “career killer.” Surprisingly, neither Hoskins nor Denzel suffered any lasting repercussions because of it.

In Roger Ebert’s review, the late movie critic blasted the picture for being “all over the map,” one that “tries to be all things to all people” with multiple points of view, subplots galore, major and minor mishaps (including but not limited to endless car chases, shootouts, mistaken identities, etc.), and an over-abundance of double entendres and dumb sight gags, some in excruciatingly poor taste. And we thought Carbon Copy was bad! This flick tops even that early entry in the “comedy without substance” category.

The premise concerns a racist cop, Jack Moony, whose clashes with lawyer Stone come about through the shifty advocate’s spirited defense of his clients — namely, a pimp named Graham (Jeffrey Meek) and his stable of whores. One of the prostitutes, the aforementioned Crystal, is Moony’s ex-girlfriend. Things get “complicated” when (a) Stone starts to date the lovely Crystal; (b) Moony suffers a near fatal heart attack from over-indulgence; and (c) Stone gets shot and killed at around the same time. What, too many hitches for you? You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!

While Moony is in the hospital, he undergoes an emergency heart transplant. Guess whose heart he gets? No, really! One of the flick’s (um) “funnier” moments comes when somebody plants an over-sized black rubber penis between the recovering officer’s legs as he lies in bed. His reaction? The aptly named Moony dashes out to the nurses’ station and plants the fake penis on the counter.

“You put it in, now you take it out,” he demands. The nurse looks over at the doctor and asks, “You wanna tell me where he had it?” Hardy, harr, harr. Of course, what Moony meant was to take the heart out. You see, he’s a bigot, a regular Archie Bunker-type. And being a bigot, he can’t stand the thought of a black man’s heart beating inside his white man’s chest — specifically, that of his worst adversary Stone. Imagine Archie Bunker getting, say, George Jefferson’s heart! Or worse, Fred Sanford’s from Sanford and Son! That’s the basic setup.

The ghost of Napoleon Stone (Denzel Washington) stares down at Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) in ‘Heart Condition’

And there’s another gimmick to contend with: the lawyer reappears to Moony as a ghost (in expensive suit and tie, no less), not just to haunt him but to make his life a living Hell. How miserable does he make it? Well, Stone keeps after him about eating healthier (“Keep away from them cheeseburgers! They clog your arteries and make your breath stink!”); and he snatches his cigarettes to prevent Moony from getting cancer. But what Stone really wants from Moony is to solve the mystery of who killed him.

Oh, and one more point: the ghost tries to hook Moony up with the hooker, who’s really a nice girl underneath the glamorous lipstick and wardrobe. As I said, it gets complicated. I promise not to reveal any more of the plot. So you’ll have to take my word for it: this is one convoluted crime caper. Still, Hoskins and Washington make a rambunctious pair — each with his own acting style. These two “bosom buddies” go at it tooth and nail, and then some. They’re about as compatible as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Just don’t expect anything in the way of intelligent conversations about race. It’s all for laughs, until it isn’t.

On a side note, neither actor would work together on any subsequent film projects.

Along similar but more violent lines, Denzel’s next picture, Ricochet (1991) — released in October 1991 and co-starring John Lithgow, Ice-T, Lindsay Wagner, Kevin Pollak, Josh Evans, and John Amos — was a police crime caper helmed by Australian action director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow).

Poster art for Russell Mulcahy’s ‘Ricochet’ (1991)

In this one (unseen by your truly), Denzel plays both a cop and a lawyer, occupations he will assume in many an upcoming feature. Lithgow is a vicious killer (talk about casting to type) who swears vengeance on Denzel, especially after the ex-cop becomes an assistant district attorney. And, like the ghost in Heart Condition, the Lithgow character succeeds in making Washington’s life miserable — a purer Hell, to put it plainly, but without the cornball antics.

This picture boasts so many twists and turns and hard-to-believe story angles that the characters gets lost in a maze of double- and triple-crosses.

Man Without a Country

On a slightly more believable note, the underrated Mississippi Masala (1991) held promise as a “date flick” with serious overtones. First released in France in September 1991, later in the U.K. in January 1992 and in the States a month later, Mississippi Masala blends a clash of ethnicities (one Indian American, the other African American) with a story about two everyday people who fall in love. Call it a romantic brew laced with social awareness.

Denzel plays Demetrius Williams, a self-employed carpet cleaner in Greenwood, Mississippi, about as far from the Mason-Dixon line of demarcation as you can get. Sarita Choudhury is Mina, a young Ugandan-born Indian woman who falls for the smooth-talking Demetrius. True to his gladiatorial namesake, the carpet cleaner engages in verbal combat with Mina’s father, Jay, played by Indian-born British actor Roshan Seth (Gandhi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

Mina (Sarita Choudhury) walks beside her main crush, Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in Mira Nair’s ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

Indian-American director, writer, and producer Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding), along with Indian-born screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay!, The Namesake), fashioned an intelligently conceived account of racial conflict and reverse discrimination among working-class folk. Although there were problems at the outset with casting (for example, Ben Kingsley, a British subject with Indian ancestry, was originally slated to take on the part of the father) and the film barely broke even at the box office, Mississippi Masala can be seen as a precursor to Denzel’s next outing, the controversial Spike Lee-directed biopic Malcolm X.

Director Nair and her screenwriter completed the story in Brooklyn, after considerable research into the various cultures and locales involved. Filmed on location in and around Mississippi and Kampala, Uganda, the film has the ring of authenticity about it, as do the main characters and their hot-headed temperaments.

One of the movie’s prime attractions is the rapport shared by a charismatic Denzel with his attractive co-star, the engaging Sarita Choudhury. Their on-again, off-again, then on-again relationship is more than credible and firmly rooted in their respective character’s familial dilemmas. As critic Ebert observed, it’s “more than a transplanted Romeo and Juliet,” or an updated version of West Side Story. If anything, the lead characters’ issues are comparable to those of Tony and Maria.

Actress Sarita Choudhury as Mina, the love interest in ‘Mississippi Masala’

In Mina’s case, her father Jay, as head of the family, has suffered humiliation and expulsion from his home in Uganda due to ex-dictator Idi Amin’s edict that all “Asians” must leave the country forthwith. (This narrative corresponds, to some extent, to several of Denzel’s earlier forays Cry Freedom and For Queen and Country). Jay’s distrust of people of color and the motives behind their actions are the guiding forces of his and his wife’s objections to their only daughter dating an African American, albeit a successful sole proprietor. The situation is a difficult one for actors as well, in that they must convey bias towards one another in ways that audiences can relate to and sympathize without seeming obvious or cloying.

Much of the success of this production comes from Roshan Seth’s truthful yet poignant depiction of Jay as a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Both cultures, Indian and African American, are given equal time to make their case, both pro and con. Even the sharp-witted and keenly discerning Demetrius must contend with mindless preconceptions of so-called “family values” where his own relatives are concerned.

Jay (Roshan Seth) has a heart-to-heart with Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

We, the viewers, can make up our own minds based on our background and experiences. Whether you agree with Jay and his wife’s viewpoints (who appear to discriminate among others of their own kind), or whether you take Demetrius and Mina’s side of the argument (one that shines a light on the struggles of all people of color in the segregated South), there will be lots to discuss after the houselights come on. The closing footage, wherein a young Ugandan child stretches forth his hand to touch Jay’s cheek, will touch your heart as well.

Indeed, this highly recommended flick has topical resonance for today’s displaced migrants and for all individuals who identify with country and culture — the essence of what makes us tick.

End of Part Five

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Five) — The British Period and Thereabouts

Actor-musician Johnny Depp at the turn of the half century

Nice Work (If You Can Get It)

That old proverb about “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” could never be attributed to our eponymously titled, middle-aged thespian, i.e., the remarkably adept Mr. John Christopher Depp II, aka Johnny Depp.

With a rich bevy of diverse acting assignments before him, many as varied and sundry as stars half his age would absolutely die for, Depp remained at the forefront of the most-sought-after-screen-personalities category from the New Millennium onward.

Not all of Johnny’s cinematic endeavors were paved with gold, mind you. In spite of ever increasing budgets, exhaustive work schedules, stratospheric salary demands and critical brickbats, the still-popular film actor continued to impress reviewers and fans alike with his versatility and wide-ranging choice of projects.

Indeed, the time he spent in Western Europe, directly (and indirectly) correlated to his live-in relationship with the French-born Vanessa Paradis, certainly had a pervasive effect on how, where and when Depp would put in his next big-screen appearance.

Many of his choices were, for lack of a better word, “odd” or bordering on cameo and/or “supporting player” status. Still, nothing could stop the ever-striving JD from seeking out more satisfying challenges — something that would continue to occupy his hyperactive imagination for years to come and ensure a prominent spot on his expanding curriculum vitae.

‘Lasse, Come Home!’ — Chocolat (2000)

Johnny Depp (l.) helping himself to a treat from Juliette Binoche’s hands in Lasse Hallstrom’s ‘Chocolat’ (2000)

One of Depp’s better-than-average characterizations occurred in his next international film foray. Swedish movie director Lars Sven Hallström, more commonly known as Lasse Hallström, tapped Johnny Depp to appear in the whimsically themed Chocolat (2000), based on the novel by English author Joanne Harris. Lasse and Johnny had formerly worked together on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, which had also placed an ensemble cast in quirky yet tantalizing situations.

Filmed on location in both France and England, Chocolat stars the amiable French actress Juliette Binoche as chocolatier Vianne Rocher, a sort of modern-day fairy godmother but without the magic wand and pixie dust. Instead of those standard accoutrements, Vianne uses sweets to charm her customers. In Binoche’s words, “Vianne sells small dreams and little comforts through chocolates.”

Featured as well are some familiar names as repressed village types, among them a dour-faced Alfred Molina as the killjoy mayor Comte de Reynaud, fabulous Judi Dench as the resentful landlady Armande, and Matrix alumnus Carrie-Anne Moss as her straight-arrow daughter Catherine. Rachel Portman (The Cider House Rules), one of the few female film composers under-utilized by Hollywood at the time, wrote the starry-eyed music score.

Others in the cast include Lena Olin (reuniting with Ms. Binoche since their joint appearance in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being) as the abused wife Josephine, hulking Peter Stormare as her menacing husband Serge, veteran actress Leslie Caron as a lonely widow, John Wood as the old geezer secretly infatuated with her, and America’s own charmer, Johnny Depp, as an accommodating barge owner named Roux with a faux Irish brogue.

Despite a misleading ad campaign showing Binoche feeding Johnny a bite-sized morsel (which implied a much larger part in the picture than he actually had), Depp’s short-lived contribution as Juliette’s gypsy lover is fleeting but significant enough to merit our consideration.

Blues Brother: Juliette Binoche listens to Johnny Depp as he tunes his resonator guitar in ‘Chocolat’ (2000)

By the way, Johnny’s guitar playing is for real and, according to director Hallström, it was the first time he played the instrument on screen. In addition, his little dance with Dame Judi is an absolute delight and rekindles fond memories of the Brando-Dunaway partnership in Depp’s Don Juan DeMarco.

In a 2015 interview for The Hollywood Reporter, Binoche admitted that neither Johnny Depp nor Alfred Molina liked the dark, tasty treat very much. In fact, Depp spat out his portion of chocolates after each of their takes, which goes against the spirit of the script’s premise. Ah, but that’s real life for you.

Indeed, this fanciful tale, billed as a “sinfully delicious comedy” (wink, wink) of a stagnant French village frozen in time, abounds in intimate side-stories. But over the “main course” of the feature, Binoche manages to change even the humorless mayor’s mind through her delectable confections. Which goes to show that sweetness and light make everything right.

Since the story takes place at Easter (as close to Christmas time as you’re liable to get), Vianne can be seen as the angel third-class Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, or at best one of Charles Dickens’ three ghosts. Which ghost would that be? Take your pick! Then ask yourself this question: Who can know the mysterious ways of whimsy?

From Hell (2001)

A deadly serious Depp as Inspector Abberline in ‘From Hell’ (2001)

From the unbearable lightness of dark chocolate, we plunge into the darkest recesses of the human mind. From Hell, a thriller loosely based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic-novel take on the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper, was Johnny’s next venture.

Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, collectively known as the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents), From Hell stands as the official start of what we like to refer to as Johnny’s “British period,” wherein the actor displayed an ersatz (yet perfectly respectable) English affectation in several big-budget pictures.

Prior to From Hell, Johnny participated in two minor features, specifically The Man Who Cried (directed by Sally Potter) and Before Night Falls (under Julian Schnabel’s direction, the fellow who befriended street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and who made a motion picture about him — see my review of that film: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/an-artists-life-for-me-ten-motion-pictures-that-ask-the-question-does-life-imitate-art-part-three/).

Another Anglo-French flick, The Man Who Cried is an operatically-themed work that re-teamed Johnny (fourth-billed from the top) with Christina Ricci, his co-star in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Sleepy Hollow. For yours truly (opera lover that I am), to hear actor John Turturro emoting as Italian tenor Dante and singing Nadir’s aria from The Pearl Fishers (voiced by true-life tenor Salvatore Licitra) is a bit hard to swallow.

In the biopic Before Night Falls, Johnny forgoes his heartthrob status to take on dual character parts: that of the transvestite Bon Bon (an unintended reference to Chocolat, no doubt) with that of Lt. Victor; opposite the Spanish Javier Bardem, who portrays gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Viewers may be reminded of Depp’s wacky assumption of famed Golden Turkey Award winner Ed Wood (if you see the movie, you’ll know what we mean).

Javier Bardem (l.) has a falling out with “Bon Bon” (Johnny Depp) in Julian Schnabel’s ‘Before Night Falls’ (2000)

Depp’s skill at vocal mimicry came in handy in the above features, in that he successfully undertook a Romanian accent in The Man Who Cried, as well as a Cuban one in Before Night Falls. Beyond that, both films slipped off the radar as far as box-office was concerned. But the one that got them all talking again came direct From Hell (quite literally in fact).

You might call this a “slasher fest” or body horror-cum-murder mystery. However you see it, From Hell will curdle your hair. Depp takes the part of Police Inspector Frederick Abberline, an opium addict who spends his off hours in a den of haze and smoke, with horrid “visions” of killings dancing in his head. He takes a personal interest (a little too personal, it turns out) in investigating what became known as “the Ripper murders,” due mostly to the brutal way the homicides of Whitechapel prostitutes were committed.

True to form, the inspector falls in love with, and tries to protect, one of the targeted streetwalkers, Mary Kelly (played by a much-too-wholesome Heather Graham). And why were the Whitechapel hookers being targeted for execution? Well, if you believe the cockamamie theories put forth, they were all unwitting participants in a coverup perpetrated by Freemasons (what, those guys again?) to protect the libidinous Prince Albert, heir to the English throne and Queen Victoria’s randy grandson, from being caught with his breeches down. Shame, shame, shame, Uncle Bertie!

Robbie Coltrane (the giant groundskeeper Hagrid from the Harry Potter series) plays Abberline’s assistant, Sergeant Peter Godley, in good-natured, friendly-banter fashion. Mr. Coltrane uses his large frame to buttress Johnny’s slenderer figure. They come across as squabbling combatants à la Laurel and Hardy. Ian Holm (The Fifth Element, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) invests the role of Dr. William Gull, a former surgeon and physician to Her Royal Highness, with just the right amount of highborn reserve; while Ian Richardson (Dark City) as Abberline’s superior officer is impatience personified, and perfectly capable of cutting anyone down to size with a mere look.

Much of the thunder was taken out of this newest screen version of old Jack’s tawdry tale — mostly, in our view, due to a previous trip down this same rabbit hole via the much better Murder by Decree from 1979. In that earlier incarnation, Sherlock Holmes (a perfectly cast Christopher Plummer) and Dr. Watson (a fumbling yet pensive James Mason) are assigned to investigate the Ripper murders and wind up implicating the usual suspects (Freemasons, Royal Family hijinks, etc.). We can take the comparison further with the recent Sherlock Holmes (2009), directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as master detective and loyal cohort, respectively, where the recycled Freemasons plot gets skewered with an absurd sleight-of-hand angle.

Ad poster for the Hughes Brothers’ ‘From Hell’

In the Hughes Brothers’ grislier adaptation, which author Moore vehemently distanced himself from (with claims of their having turned the inspector into an “absinthe-swilling dandy”), the blood and gore quotient was turned up to 11. Somehow and despite the distasteful aspects to the story, both Depp and Ms. Graham managed to avoid the temptation of a tagged-on “happy ending” by a parting of the ways (oh, what sweet sorrow). Sadly, a disillusioned Inspector Abberline closes out his police career with one last shot of dope in a public bath house.

Any resemblance to Johnny’s deadly serious Inspector Abberline with his deft comic portrayal of the bumbling Constable Ichabod Crane is sheer coincidence. The two detectives are worlds apart in temperament and tone, as are Depp’s love interests in each. Incidentally, Depp uses a mild Cockney accent to underscore Abberline’s humbler background to that of the supercilious blue-blooded twits populating the upper-echelons of British society.

Blow (2001)

Johnny Depp as drug dealer George Jung in ‘Blow’ (2001)

What came out From Hell, and what many critics and reviewers drew from Johnny Depp’s performance, was his affinity for and attraction to ensemble work. Similar to fellow actor Denzel Washington (an older star whom we’ve also written about), but unlike his contemporary Tom Cruise, Depp much preferred to share the limelight with his fellow practitioners.

You can interpret that decision as either claiming the glory or spreading the blame, but Johnny was serious about taking a backseat to fame and fortune. He already had it, to put it plainly; let others have their turn.

This led to his next assignment, one most leading men would either give their right arm for or refuse to touch with a ten-foot pole. Directed by Ted Demme (filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s nephew), the movie Blow (also from 2001) sported an unusually unlikeable and unglamorized central figure for Johnny (in blond tresses, no less); that is, of 1970s cocaine dealer and drug smuggler George Jung.

One thing about this production that stood front-and-center from the rest was that Johnny would no longer need to hide his American speech patterns underneath a foreign accent. That would be left to the Latin participants, namely Penélope Cruz, Jordi Molla, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Gimenez, and others. Cruz, however, proved especially egregious in the part of Jung’s Colombian wife Mirtha, a shrill-toned shrew that, as the story progressed, became impossible to tame.

Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp & Jordi Molla party hearty in ‘Blow’ (2001)

On the other hand, reliable and complimentary support would come from the likes of the excellent Paul Reubens (the former Peewee Herman) as Derek Foreal (no, really, for real!), Jung’s middleman in La-La-Land; Cliff Curtis as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel; a sullen Ray Liotta (GoodFellas) as Jung’s old man; and young Emma Roberts (Julia Roberts’ niece) as Jung’s daughter Kristina Sunshine. This was a “reel” family affair (no pun intended).

Another, more important discovery was Johnny’s apparent concern for the downtrodden, i.e., the lowlifes, the miscreants, the so-called “scum of the earth” — people best left to wallow in their own misdeeds. This “empathy” for the down and out, for lack of a better word, would manifest itself on-and-off the screen in future portrayals that would bring the restless actor low box-office receipts but much professional satisfaction.

(End of Part Five)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes