Comedy

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Four): Dial ‘M’ for Mo’ Better Movies

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Bleek (Denzel Washington) practicing his scales in Mo' Better Blues
Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) practicing imaginary scales in Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

Play for Your Supper

From the reverse racism and self-loathing of A Soldier’s Story to the lofty sentiments expressed in his Oscar® winning performance as Private Trip in Glory, Denzel Washington was on his way to forging an outstanding career as one of Hollywood’s most reliable — and versatile — screen actors.

He already won more hearts with honey than with vinegar in the delightful comedy-crime drama The Mighty Quinn. Now, Denzel (or “Dee,” as he was known to intimates) was steeling himself for the musical, verbal and romantic calisthenics of his next picture, Mo’ Better Blues from 1990.

Written, produced and directed by Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee, Mo’ Better Blues had the undeserved distinction of following his topical and highly controversial third feature, Do the Right Thing (1989). Suffering mixed reviews by comparison, Mo’ Better Blues is better known as the first of Denzel’s four outings (to date) with the Atlanta-born, Brooklyn-bred Mr. Lee. Their chemistry on and off the screen would, in years to come, result in what many critics would regard as both artists’ best work.

The Bleek Quintet: Jeff Watts, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Denzel, Wesley Snipes & Bill Nunn
The Bleek Quintet + One: Jeff Watts, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Denzel, Wesley Snipes & Bill Nunn

The action of Mo’ Better Blues revolves around Bleek Gilliam (Washington), a smooth-talking, easygoing trumpet player. Bleek, as descriptive a name as it implies, harbors a soft spot for childhood buddy Giant (the 5’6” tall Lee), who acts as his band’s no-account manager. Giant has a 24/7 gambling habit that lands him in hot water with the local bookie (Rubén Blades). Robbing Peter to pay Paul, he’s also in debt to two take-no-shit loan sharks named Madlock (Samuel L. Jackson, in a trial run for his role as hit man Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction) and Rod (Leonard L. Thomas).

As in practically all of Lee’s work, there are multiple plot lines that vie for audience attention. However, the main thrust here concerns Bleek’s love life — or rather, the dilemma of being caught between two equally bodacious babes. Who will win first place in his heart? Is it the overly ambitious, light-skinned lounge singer Clarke Betancourt (Cynda Williams) who longs to join Bleek’s jazz band, or the earthier and more level-headed Indigo Downes (Joie Lee, Spike’s real-life sister)? Complicating matters to some extent is the unassuming Bleek’s rivalry with his quintet’s tenor saxophonist, the flashy Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes).

Indigo (Joie Lee) & Bleek (Denzel) sharing down time
Indigo (Joie Lee) & Bleek (Denzel) sharing down time

In line with both his earlier and later efforts, Mo’ Better Blues expands upon Lee’s love of sports and jazz. According to the director, he basically grew up in a jazz household. This is reflected in his father, jazz musician Bill Lee’s background score, as well as the participation on the soundtrack of trumpeter Terence Blanchard with the Branford Marsalis Quartet. Blanchard coached Denzel for months on end until he felt reasonably assured the star was capable of giving the appearance of someone who could go beyond holding his horn.

“When Spike called me to do this,” Blanchard told Los Angeles Times critic Leonard Feather, “it seemed like a tough assignment.” Fortunately for him, Denzel had prior experience with playing the piano in high school, as he demonstrated in The Mighty Quinn. He brought to the part his customary professionalism and preparedness. Blanchard even wrote out the fingering for all the tunes and the beginning portions of his solos. “I figured that actually teaching him to play the horn was going to take too much concentration away from his acting.”

In all, Lee used his familiarity with the genre to channel the well-documented friction that existed between two legendary jazz giants, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It was common knowledge that Miles, at the time the Kind of Blue album was being cut for Columbia — while simultaneously appearing in nightclub dates with “Trane” — would express his constant annoyance with the player’s longwinded, spiritually-motivated sax solos.

In Mo’ Better Blues, there’s a scene early on where Bleek steps backstage for a breather between sets. He runs into Giant, who takes him to task for allowing Shadow to “show off” by hogging the limelight in Bleek’s absence. Returning to the stage, Bleek gets back at both Giant and Shadow: with his dark shades and head bent low so as to commune more closely with his instrument, Bleek strikes an iconic Miles Davis-like pose as he purposely cuts short Shadow’s groove with a muted turn on his trumpet.

Bleek & Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) try to top one another
Bleek & Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) try to top one another, as Bottom (Bill Nunn) plays on

Talking with Washington about the film for the 2006 DVD edition of Inside Man, Lee acknowledged the existence of a downside to the jazzman’s lifestyle. He raised the issue of what happens when an artist devotes his entire life to his art; and then, when something unexpected happens, how it can prevent him from doing what he loves most. “What’s going to happen to [Bleek] when he can no longer play?” he queried.

Far be it for me to give away the game, but a situation eventually occurs — when Bleek steps in to save his manager from those vicious loan sharks — that changes the outcome for all concerned.

Family Time

There are two scenes of urban family life in Mo’ Better Blues that bookend the picture. In the prologue, a young Bleek (Zakee Howze) resents having to practice his trumpet. He’d rather play ball with his friends than work endlessly on his scales. But Bleek’s iron-willed mother Lillian (Abbey Lincoln) insists he finish his scales before running off into the street.

In the final scene, Bleek’s son Miles (guess who he’s named after?), also played by Howze, is seen practicing his scales. His friends call out to him from the street, pleading with Miles to come and play. Only, this time Bleek’s son is allowed to scurry off and join his pals in their game. Consequently, the film ends on a poignant note. Lee relied on the same dialogue in each of these scenes, while ingeniously utilizing subtle gradations of tone, looks and shading that, true to the nature of jazz per se, were remarkably effective in delineating character.

Young Bleek (Zakee Howze) wants to go out and play
Young Bleek (Zakee Howze) wants to go out and play ball

Speaking of character, audiences learned a thing or two from Do the Right Thing about associating Lee’s eccentric personalities with their given names. The viewer is bombarded with an assortment of colorful monikers, among them Bleek’s pianist Left Hand Lacey (Giancarlo Esposito), bass player Bottom Hammer (Bill Nunn), drummer Rhythm Jones (Jeff “Tain” Watts, the only trained musician in the group), the aforementioned Shadow, Giant and Indigo, and Moe and Josh Flatbush (John and Nicholas Turturro), the Jewish nightclub owners.

Denzel mentioned, in that same 2006 talk with Lee, that he and his cohorts were free to ad lib more in Mo’ Better Blues than in other pictures. Indeed, the nearly all-male ensemble fires off one-liners faster than those rapid-fire bebop notes Bleek practices ad infinitum in his apartment. This scene is an excellent example of what Lee calls his trademark “money shot,” i.e., the background appears in constant motion around a stationary figure or two. Here, Bleek, motionless save for the twitching of his eyes and the constant flexing of his fingertips, goes over the music in his head, whereas the camera takes a 360-degree pan of the room behind him.

The extensive use of improvisation, especially backstage, drew the gentle ire of the late Roger Ebert in his initial critique of the film. Knowing that Roger had freely admitted to limitations in his knowledge of music (many if not all of his reviews hardly mention a movie’s score), we must take issue with his assessment. This is a jazz-based feature, is it not? And, as indicated above, improvisation is the life essence of jazz. It’s what makes the music original and unique. Too, it can be a hit or miss affair, with some numbers sounding fresh and others falling flat. But that’s the chance you take when you’re trying to be innovative. Incidentally, the rambunctious Robin Harris, who passed away months before the film’s release, delivers a particularly raunchy standup routine as the motor-mouthed comic, Butterbean Jones.

Bleek entertains Clarke (Cynda Williams) in his apartment
Bleek entertains Clarke (Cynda Williams) in his apartment

Lee’s eye for detail and economy of means and time (helped in large measure by longtime cinematographer Ernest Dickerson) contributed to the film’s most startling fantasy element: that of Bleek’s coitus interruptus, a virtuoso sequence in which he inadvertently calls Indigo by Clarke’s name, while doing the same for Clarke with Indigo’s name. The women take turns berating him for his slip-up. Meanwhile, Bleek stares blankly at one, then the other, then turns his visage toward the camera in glassy-eyed disbelief at the sheer inanity of his actions.

The issue of whether jazz was or was not the exclusive property of those who invented it is addressed in the bit where Bleek complains to Shadow that he doesn’t see his people appreciating their own music. “I see Japanese, I see West Germans in the audience,” he notes. “We will go to see some crossover created by other people, but we don’t come to see our own. It incenses me,” Bleek goes on, that “our own people don’t realize our own heritage, our own culture. This is our music, man.”

“That’s bullshit, man!” Shadow snaps back. “Out of all the people in the world, you never gave nobody else a chance to play their own music.”

“I’m talkin’ about the audience,” Bleek shouts right back at him. Shadow is indignant. “That’s right! The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you play the shit that they like, then people will come. Simple as that.”

And if Denzel Washington and Spike Lee continue to make movies that treat their subjects with as much dignity, respect, pride and affection as they did in Mo’ Better Blues, then audiences will continue to flock to see them. It’s as simple as that!

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Four) — Foreign Travels Without His Aunt

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Johnny Depp & Vanessa Paradis (thesun.co.uk)
Johnny Depp & Vanessa Paradis (thesun.co.uk)

Adventures in Paradis

Having befriended the trippy gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in real life — and whose funeral expenses he would pay for upon the drug-addled author’s untimely 2005 passing — Johnny Depp continued to push the outside of the envelope as far as it could go with respect to his choice of film roles.

The excitement and anticipation of a new millennium — more specifically, what those expectations might bring in the way of a possible course-change in his career ambitions — were telegraphed in the hugely popular star’s next round of cinematic forays.

Similarly, Johnny’s personal associations also began to normalize. Exuding a somewhat calming effect on his high-flying lifestyle, in 1998 the actor met and started a live-in relationship with French-born singer-actress and model Vanessa Chantal Paradis. The by-product of their 14-year partnership would result in two new additions to the Depp household: a daughter, Lily-Rose Melody Depp (born in May 1999), and son John “Jack” Christopher Depp III, who was born in April 2002.

Fatherhood and all the customary encumbrances that went with it appeared to suit Depp’s newfound outlook on life quite well, thank you. “Johnny is the perfect father,” Vanessa Paradis would claim in a 2002 Elle magazine article. “He dresses the children, he makes them laugh… [But] he does give Lily-Rose too many potato chips.”

Too many potato chips? She should be so lucky if that’s all there was to complain about, given his past notoriety. There’s an unwritten rule that as an actor’s domestic life improves (sometimes, by leaps and bounds) one’s craft tends to suffer along with it. Well, then, like anything else that concerns the acting profession, we believe there exists some level of “truth” to this parable.

In Johnny’s case, while it may have influenced his performance to a noticeable degree in such family-oriented features as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and particularly the emotionally draining Finding Neverland, the pictures he participated in before and after he set up shop in the Plan de la Tour region of southeastern France were basically all over the map in terms of story line and character development.

Depp & Theron in The Astronaut's Wife (and matching hairdos)
Depp & Theron in The Astronaut’s Wife (and matching hairdos)

For starters, take the big-budget sci-fi thriller The Astronaut’s Wife from August 1999, written and directed by Rand Ravich and co-starring South African-born actress Charlize Theron. In the picture, Johnny had his hair bleached blond (to transform himself into an all-American boy?), while Ms. Theron cut hers to resemble Mia Farrow’s crew cut. Talk about a lack of family values, this obviously derivative combination of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) crossed with Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate (1997) — to include several ripped-off segments from the Alien saga — was a certifiable bomb at its initial release.

It’s creepy and it’s kooky, and altogether loopy, with both stars giving substandard performances of a slow-moving screenplay hardly worth bothering about. To top it off, the “shock” ending was as lame as they come, something writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (with all due respect) might have thought up had he been consulted on the matter.

As Depp’s first in a series of FX-laden, budget-heavy productions, The Astronaut’s Wife took in nowhere near the amount it was expected to make, nor did it earn back what was expended in its making. Did that bit of disappointing box-office news stop Johnny from seeking further challenges along the psychological horror-film front? Not on your life!

A Devil of a Time

As a matter of fact, his next entry would be directed by that old schlockmeister Polanski himself. How’s that for “good” timing? The Ninth Gate (1999), billed as a supernatural mystery thriller, was shot on several European locations in and around France, Spain, and Portugal. Real castles (or châteaux) were used as backdrops for many of the outdoor scenes.

Johnny as Dean Corso in The Ninth Gate (1999)
Johnny as Dean Corso in The Ninth Gate (1999)

Despite the exotic locales Johnny played it safe, remaining calm, cool and collected, and properly subdued much to producer-director Polanski’s annoyance. Depp’s character, Dean Corso, was supposed to be a New York rare-book dealer and part-time con artist. So how would it look if the guy went off the deep end every time a wealthy client approached him about retrieving some long-lost copy of an ancient manuscript, including one purportedly written by Beelzebub?

Along with Depp, former leading man-turned-character actor Frank Langella was hired for the part of the myopic Boris Balkan, that wealthy client mentioned above who harbors an all-too-visible penchant for dusty-old books. Lena Olin played a rich widow named Liana Telfer, with James Russo as Bernie Rothstein and Barbara Jefford in strong support as the Baroness Kessler. The director’s main squeeze and current wife, Emmanuelle Seigner (Frantic, Bitter Moon), was mysteriously billed as “The Girl” Johnny has sex with outside one of those spooky-looking castles. Hmm …

The movie starts off well, with a convincing atmosphere of dread and gloom pervading the action, sets, and color palette, ideally provided by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, City of Lost Children). Polish composer Wojciech Kilar’s groaning, eerie-sounding film score, suggestive of the excellent one he did for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, helps to maintain the unsettling mood.

Soon, however, we are introduced to what Village Voice critic J. Hoberman termed “barely releasable hokum, stuffed with cheesy blah-blah” via satanic devil-worship and all sorts of occult-like razzle-dazzle. This is where things start to unravel, especially towards the end. The late Chicago Tribune movie critic Roger Ebert’s crack about the “fade-to-white” finish holds especially true.

Still, this was also the spot where Johnny got to meet and greet Ms. Paradis, so it wasn’t a total loss (if you get my drift). In the future, he could work closer to home as well as be near his growing brood and sprawling two-million-dollar estate.

Career-wise, most reviewers agreed that Depp had performed well under Mr. Polanski’s direction, despite so-called “creative differences.” He even sported patches of graying hair on both sides of his temples to portray the 40-something Corso. Now THAT’S acting, folks, or at the least total role immersion.

Way to go, Jack!

This is Halloween

Or maybe we should change that to Jack-o’-Lantern in deference to his next project, Sleepy Hollow, also from 1999. Directed by Tim Burton, with a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and a powerful organ-based score by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman (who also did the music for Burton and Depp’s Edward Scissorhands), this screen adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was a direct homage to Britain’s Hammer Studios and their blood-soaked horror output of the late 1950s to 1960s.

Hammer Studios, you may recall, was renowned for their bloody-good recreations of those time-honored Universal monster classics Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy, in addition to side trips involving Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The difference, however, lay in their full-color splatter effects, oozing guck from open wounds, and Victorian ladies’ tight bustiers bursting to overflowing. Sex, blood and gore: that’s the ticket!

A thorough re-imagining of Irving’s tale, this newest edition of the Sleepy Hollow yarn (a place this writer once visited as a boy, and which cartoonist Walt Disney felt the utmost pleasure in animating) was filmed in Merry Olde England, naturally. Production values and craftsmanship there, along with small-town village ambiance, were said to recapture the spirit and essence if not the literal letter of the story better than in the real Tarrytown, in spite of numerous deviations in the script.

Depp was signed on to play the sniveling, snipe-nosed pedagogue Ichabod Crane. Proving far too handsome to embody Ichabod as the original author had conceived him, Depp and Burton hit upon the novel idea of reshaping the character into a New York City police inspector who employs the most “modern” of scientific techniques to track down and capture the killer who’s been lopping off the heads of the helpless citizens of the titular town.

Depp as Constable Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow
As “Constable” Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

Deemed too “prim and proper” by some reviewers, Depp nevertheless excelled as a colonial Sherlock Homes-type who wades far too deeply into Sleepy Hollow’s tawdry familial ties for his own good. It’s been rumored that Johnny modeled his finicky, nerve-wracked portrayal of Constable Crane on the shakiness of former child actor Roddy McDowall, to include some of his vocal ticks and inflections. There might even have been a bit of Norman Bates, but I do digress.

“I always thought of Ichabod as a very delicate, fragile person,” Johnny confided to the supermarket tabloid Entertainment Weekly, “who was maybe a little too in touch with his feminine side, like a frightened little girl.” This would account for Ichabod’s frequent fainting spells at the slightest provocation. Johnny’s particular gift was in making this cowardly lion into a sympathetic, albeit clownish adversary to the hellish Hessian known as the Headless Horseman.

The washed-out, monochromatic color scheme and hazy look of the picture was credited to Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who was feted in February 2016 with a third Academy Award for his back-to-back efforts (i.e., Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant) for directors Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The visual FX by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and the Headless Horseman green-screen effects by Kevin Yagher (story credit), complemented by Rick Heinrichs and Peter Young’s Oscar®-winning production designs and Colleen Atwood’s superb period costumes, came together to make this a meaningful endeavor.

Although Johnny was the obvious star of the proceedings, the cast assembled for the outing read like a laundry list of Hollywood’s finest supporting players, or Central Casting gone amok: from Michael Gambon as Van Tassel, Miranda Richardson as Lady Van Tassel, the always dependable Jeffrey Jones (along with Heinrichs, a Burton regular) as the periwig-wearing Reverend Steenwyck, Richard Griffiths as Magistrate Philipse, and a slimy Ian McDiarmid as Dr. Lancaster, to the dyspeptic Michael Gough as Notary Hardenbrook. Odd that for a town predominantly settled by Dutch descendants, there wasn’t a native Dutchman or woman in sight.

There were, however, brief but memorable turns by octogenarian Christopher Lee (a Hammer Studios alumnus), Alun Armstrong, Martin Landau (unbilled), Lisa Marie, and Christopher Walken as a pointy-toothed Headless Horseman (doubled by stuntman Ray Park). Among such lofty company, only a far too low-key Christina Ricci failed to impress as Katrina Van Tassel.

Bloody fingertip: Depp with Marc Pickering & Christina Ricci in background
Bloody fingertip: Depp with Marc Pickering & Christina Ricci in background

With deft ensemble work, credit must also go to casting directors Susie Figgis and Ilene Starger for assembling such a uniformly excellent company of players. And let us pay homage to the more junior members of the group, including the adorably dimpled, dark-haired Sam Fior as Young Ichabod, Marc Pickering as Young Masbath, Tessa Allen-Ridge as Young Lady Van Tassel, and Cassandra Farndale as the Young Crone.

Burton upped the ante on the blood and gore quotient to rival the best horror that Hammer had to offer, including a fairly gruesome gnarled tree that serves as the entranceway to Hell itself. What that studio once lacked and that he and Johnny introduced into Sleepy Hollow was a good deal of black humor that made the horrendous portions more (gulp!) … digestible???

There were even gentle reminders of Edward Scissorhands in Crane and Katrina’s blossoming romantic relationship (on and off the set, so we are told). The ghoulish Grand Guignol aspects would reassert themselves a few years later in Burton and Depp’s 2007 interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990) — Sensitive and Scarred in California

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Wynona Ryder embracing Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands
Wynona Ryder embracing Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands

This is the movie that firmly cemented heartthrob actor Johnny Depp’s teen-idol “creds,” and with good reason. Sensitive and scarred, the impressionable Edward (charmingly played by Depp) is the scissor-handed Figaro for the laid-back California set — in actuality, the movie was filmed in Central Florida, sort of a return to Johnny and director Tim Burton’s small-town roots. It’s a beautifully crafted, highly sentimental, and mostly enjoyable film, despite brief episodes of crude language and forced humor.

Edward Scissorhands (1990) represents a modern parable of Burton’s pet hang-ups and pent-up feelings of having grown up in middle-class suburbia. It was also his and Depp’s first joint venture, a partnership made in cinematic heaven and one of (at last count) eight feature films they’ve participated in together.

Depp had his best role ever as the misunderstood boy-monster, a walking textbook of physical deformities and psychological debilities, but with a cookie-cutter-shaped heart of gold. In essence, Edward is a Quasimodo for the nineties, an atypical success story driven to fits of anger and violence by the very townspeople he earlier had befriended — fair-weather friends is more like it. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, his story ends in death and tragedy, but Edward lives on, alone but happy in one of those stereotypical old mansions — blissfully trimming the verge as he goes about his business. Parallels to the legend of King Midas and that monarch’s two-sided gift of turning everything he touched into gold are evident throughout.

Edward (Johnny Depp) gives Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) a haircut
Edward (Johnny Depp) gives Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) a haircut

An allegory of our own equal fascination with and fear of anything different or abnormal, Burton exploits Johnny’s sensitive side to its fullest. Indeed, his angst-derived interpretation of a misfit who just can’t seem to fit in was spot on casting. When the perky Avon lady Peg Boggs (played by a clueless Dianne Wiest) comes a-calling, only to discover Edward hiding under the ruins of what appears to be a window — with one of the window panes shaped like a broken cross — you know you’re in for a makeshift ride through pseudo-religious territory. I’ll be damned if that ruined castle where Edward resides in isn’t a stand-in for a makeshift cathedral.

The young Winona Ryder (whom Depp had been dating during the filming) is equally winning as Edwards’s would-be girlfriend, the blonde cheerleader Kim. Wiest is wonderfully ditzy as the perky, never-say-die Avon lady; a laid-back Alan Arkin is equally fine as Bill, the easygoing head of the household, and an all-but grown-up Anthony Michael Hall is cast (against type) as Jim, Ryder’s spoiled brat of a jock boyfriend. Kathy Baker (The Right Stuff) is a howl as Edward’s sex-starved next-door neighbor Joyce, who just adores Tom Jones, a recurring Burton motif (see Mars Attacks!). And horror-movie icon Vincent Price has a field day as Edward’s elderly inventor, who tries to teach him the finer points of table etiquette, while his half-formed hand twitches nervously nearby.

Composer Danny Elfman’s lovely and evocative score, with celesta and women’s choir in the foreground, is beautifully sung and played by a 79-piece orchestra, a major factor in the movie’s long-term popularity and success. It’s worth comparing to Burton’s next opus, the Henry Selick-directed stop-motion feature The Nightmare Before Christmas, of which it shares a similar production design and art direction. Otherwise, this is early Tim Burton at his emoting best. Just the thing for a romantic Halloween night out for two!

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Bossa Nova’ — Carioca Love Story: The Rio of One’s Dreams

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Doing the Bossa Nova

Antonio Fagundes & Amy Irving in Bossa Nova
Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes) & Mary Ann (Amy Irving) in Bossa Nova

While Walter Salles’ Central Station attempts to bind up old wounds from Brazil’s past with expectations of a brighter future, Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova (1999) takes a step backward towards an altogether different set of standards. There’s no point in making a side-by-side comparison of the two pictures, although if one were attempted it would be the equivalent of pitting, say, Mark Hellinger’s documentary-style The Naked City against Hope and Crosby’s farcical Road to Rio — both flicks from the same late-forties time period.

Adapted from the 1989 novel A Senhorita Simpson by carioca writer Sérgio Sant’Anna, Bossa Nova (a Woody Allen-like romantic comedy, by most descriptions) stars the director’s spouse, Amy Irving, as the widowed Mary Ann Simpson, a forty-something former airline hostess-turned-English language instructor; and Rio-born leading man Antonio Fagundes as Pedro Paulo Silva, a middle-aged lawyer who finds the still fetching Miss Simpson worth pursuing (don’t we all?) during the course of its long-winded plot.

The other cast members, most of whom have worked together in diverse capacities throughout the years, include Drica Moraes as Mary Ann’s friend and assistant Nadine; Alexandre Borges as Acácio, a girl-crazy soccer player who frets about his recent trade to a British club; Débora Bloch as Tania, Pedro Paulo’s wife of seven years who recently left him for a Chinese tai-chi practitioner; Pedro Cardoso as Roberto, Pedro Paulo’s lovesick brother who hankers after the law firm’s new intern; Giovanna Antonelli as Sharon, the new intern who only has eyes for the soccer player; Kátia Lyra as the English school’s one-track-minded receptionist; and Stephen Tobolowsky as Gary/Trevor, a nerdy American corporate type who strikes Nadine’s fancy via an online dating service.

You can imagine the endless combination of circumstances this mixed-up group of individuals gets into! Here’s a tiny sampling: still smarting from his wife’s separation, Pedro Paulo has a meet-cute with Miss Simpson; in fact, they share an elevator ride to the English school where she teaches. Naturally, he’s immediately taken with the tutor, so he signs up for nightly classes as a pretext for getting to know her better (his master-tailor father just happens to have an office in the same building as the school).

Pedro Paulo is but one of numerous of complications Mary Ann has to contend with, among them that over-sexed soccer player who wants more than private lessons from her. His prankish efforts at turning Brazilian expletives into their English equivalent (“Go to shit!” and “Kiss it, my ass!”) are nothing short of strained.

Acacio (Alexandre Borges) tries to kiss Mary Ann (Amy Irving)
Acacio (Alexandre Borges) tries to kiss Miss Simpson(Amy Irving)

Billed as a “love letter to Rio” — and a perfect Valentine’s gift to his wife — Barreto’s Bossa Nova was produced by his parents, Lucy and Luiz Carlos Barreto, and co-produced by the movie arm of Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest TV network. Shot in ultra-photogenic style by French cinematographer Pascal Rabaud, the city itself has never looked lovelier, scrubbed down and polished up in the manner of another French-guided frolic, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959), which also happened to have been filmed in Rio.

Miraculously, there are no street urchins or beggars to mar the luscious backdrops — and no prostitutes or drug dealers to confront, either; nor are there glimpses of ramshackle housing developments (known as favelas) to distract from this celebration of Rio as a place for lovers. From interior shots of rooms with strategically-positioned camera angles, to exterior settings of picture-postcard comeliness, the city’s idyllic landscapes (Corcovado, Guanabara Bay, Sugar Loaf Mountain, and Copacabana Beach) are expertly arranged to elicit wistful sighs of longing and nostalgia.

“Everybody has some kind of fantasy about Rio,” Barreto claimed in the Los Angeles Times, on the occasion of Bossa Nova’s release, “and I wanted the film to take place in the Rio that people fantasize about … There is the Rio of the social problems; that’s there. Then there’s the Rio of the bossa nova; that’s there too.”

Dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of the pioneers of bossa nova, Barreto’s candid admission is a most telling change from that of veteran filmmaker and fellow Brazilian Cacá Diegues, whose own views on the subject of Marvelous City, along with his motives for remaking Black Orpheus into something less pandering to potential tourists, are markedly different.

Pass the Soap, Please

Rather than go with the flow of more serious late nineties fare, Barreto kept to a winning formula that pays homage to the work of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, two of Hollywood’s finest purveyors of screwball comedies. Though scarcely what most people would think of as a Cary Grant or even a Katharine Hepburn, Mr. Fagundes (closer in build to the burly Gérard Depardieu) and Ms. Irving did make for a credible pair of over-aged lovebirds. The other participants gleefully joined in the fun, resulting in a generally pleasing if hardly innovative feature.

Amy Irving as Miss Simpson
Amy Irving as Miss Simpson at the airport

Not surprisingly, the high-gloss sheen behind the film’s facade was shaped by a variety of factors, primarily those “soap-opera” vehicles called telenovelas (or novelas, for short) that super-conglomerate Rede Globo continues to export to countries beyond those of Latin America.

Those carefully crafted images of Rio — likely held together with spirit gum and baling wire — were deliberately designed to produce an effect, a dream vision of Cidade Maravilhosa which, as evidenced by the above quotation, the film’s director made no bones about exploiting. However, at this point some additional cultural background may be warranted.

For decades, Globo’s writing teams have been churning out dozens upon dozens of formulaic scripts, many if not all of these “serialized dramas” boasting interlocking story lines tailored to the serendipitous lives of the rich and fanciful. Most are ensemble pieces, i.e., character-driven dilemmas with serio-comic undertones that thrive on the chemistry and interaction of a capable cast, if only to make it in the highly competitive 9 to 10 p.m. viewing slot.

At their best, novelas are models of their kind, a factory product of enormous popularity and appeal, and, of course, staggering ratings success. Two of the more watchable examples from about the same period as Bossa Nova are Laços de Família (“Family Ties”), which aired between June 2000 and February 2001, and featuring such stalwarts as Vera Fischer, Carolina Dieckmann, Reynaldo Gianecchini, José Mayer, Tony Ramos, Marieta Severo, and the aforementioned Alexandre Borges and Giovanna Antonelli; and the earlier Torre de Babel (“Tower of Babel”), broadcast from May 1998 to January 1999, that included an all-star lineup headed by the ubiquitous Tony Ramos, Glória Menezes, Tarcísio Meira, Cláudia Raia, Maitê Proença, Edson Celulari, and Adriana Esteves.

With his qualified team of screenwriters (Alexandre Machado and Fernanda Young), Barreto employed the same logic that TV Globo had mastered and developed for its own vast repertoire of sudsers. The web of interconnected plot threads that made Bossa Nova so typical of the genre is neatly untangled by movie’s end, though not always to an individual character’s liking. (No spoilers here, I’m afraid. Let’s just say that not everyone lives happily ever after, and leave it at that.)

The job of taking this kind of culturally specific program out of its natural element and preparing it for international dissemination must have been challenging not only to Barreto’s sense of his own Brazilianness (i.e., of his having been born a carioca), but also the California lifestyle he’s been leading for well on twenty years.

Bossa Nova is very personal to me on every level,” he admitted to IndieWire magazine in April 2000, “in the sense that I wasn’t aware as I was doing it. I guess that’s actually good … When I started to edit the film and then looked at sections of it, I went, ‘It’s so close.’

Bruno Barreto behind the camera
Director Bruno Barreto behind the cameras

“The fact that the more time I spend here, the more I miss the city where I come from. I remember that while driving all the time in L.A., whenever a Brazilian song played, some song from when I was growing up, I would just cry. I’m so homesick. At the same time, I’m very happy that I have a career here. That I do what I love to do.

“The way [Rio] is in the movie doesn’t really exist. It’s the way I like Rio to be. It’s a totally idealized city. People go, ‘Oh, wow!’ But the minute they get off the plane, they see a very different Rio. The Rio in the movie is the Rio I have in my heart. It’s the way I remember Rio. That is why I think this is my most personal movie.”

If we’re to understand the director correctly, Bossa Nova represents one man’s unrequited passion — a love story, if you will, though not necessarily about a woman but for a city. In the same IndieWire interview, Barreto explained his picture’s other dedication: to the late Nouvelle Vague director, François Truffaut.

“I think Truffaut was maybe the last truly romantic filmmaker in my opinion. Above all, he was a master for me. All the films I make are very much about relationships and encounters and miscommunications. All of these in a light romantic atmosphere. And I think Truffaut was the master of that.”

Along the lines of l’amour toujours, Barreto indicated that “In Brazil, there isn’t this obsession with youth and being young … People are not self-conscious about their bodies. They go around, even the men, in their small bikinis, and they go to the beach and they don’t care much about the way they look. They’re having a good time, and they think they can fall in love and have affairs in their sixties or seventies. They don’t think that love and romance is just for young people.”

Of course not! One is never too old for love, and the film proves that. It may also help to explain Barreto’s decision to adjust Pedro Paulo’s age in the novel from a young and restless public servant to a silver-haired legal professional in pin-striped suits and expanding waistline.

What of the movie’s namesake, that calmly soothing and rhythmically enticing beat of bossa nova? Alas, there are moments where the music is simply too overpowering — that is, when it’s not relegated to the background in a way that speaks inoffensively of Muzak. At other times, as in the gathering at the cemetery, the soundtrack wells up expectantly. But then, we hear the raspy tones of rocker Sting, groaning his rendition of Jobim’s “How Insensitive.” How apropos is that?

Pretty Little Love Songs

Michelle Johnson & Michael Caine in Blame It on Rio
Michelle Johnson & Michael Caine in Blame It on Rio

Whether Barreto was conscious of it or not, his film bears a striking resemblance to another “rom-com” from the mid-eighties, Stanley Donen’s sex romp Blame It on Rio (1984), which starred Michael Caine, Joseph Bologna, Valerie Harper, and a young Demi Moore.

Caine plays a foreign businessman living in São Paulo, who, on vacation in Rio, meets up with his best friend’s daughter, the buxom Michelle Johnson. He’s hard-pressed to resist her nubile charms, so he winds up having an illicit affair with the girl. In return, his wife (Harper) has an affair of her own with his best pal (Bologna). The outcome? Emotional and family mayhem.

This irritating piece of fluff boasted a purely bossa- and samba-strewn score, with original music by guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, a longtime resident of the West Coast. Most of the movie’s songs were written by Kenneth Wannberg and Dennis Spiegel, with the title tune and another number, “I Must Be Doing Something Right,” the work of Cy Coleman and Sheldon Harnick.

Basically, the plot stayed at B-movie levels, and was the kind of thing done better by expert hands: case in point, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), which, in 1973, was transformed into the musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim; and Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy from 1982.

As bad as it turned out, Blame It on Rio did serve its purpose as a stepping-stone to better things; in this instance Bossa Nova, as thoroughly acceptable a domestic product as any in recent memory, but only slightly more authentic as a snapshot of present-day Rio with its share of unresolved issues.

Bossa Nova poster art
Bossa Nova poster art

How, then, did Bossa Nova stack up in the popular song category? From such classics as “Useless Landscape” (“Inútil Paisagem”), “One Note Samba,” the inescapable “Girl from Ipanema,” “Wave,” “The Waters of March,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (“Corcovado”), “No More Blues” (“Chega de Saudade”), and “Once I Loved,” it was a veritable Jobim love-fest.

This is where the film finally came into its own to live up to that iconic title. And with the artistry of orchestrator and musician Eumir Deodato, along with performers Djavan, Bárbara Mendes, Stan Getz, João and Astrud Gilberto, Claudia Acuña, Carlos Rogers, Elis Regina, and Jobim himself, how could it be otherwise?

Still, one can’t help recalling this sage advice, allegedly attributed to the self-same Tom Jobim. When pressed for his thoughts, upon stepping off his plane at Galeão International Airport, of having lived and worked in New York and Rio de Janeiro, the shy and unassuming Tom, in that vaguely understated fashion of his, complied as only he could:

Nova York é bom, mas é uma merda. Rio é uma merda, mas é bom.” Roughly translated, it means: “New York’s good, but it sucks. Rio sucks, but it’s good.”

That sums it up for Bossa Nova as well: “The film’s good, but it sucks. The film sucks, but it’s good.”

Oh, wow! ☼

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Graduate’ (1967) — Mike Nichol’s Homage to Wayward Youth

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The Graduate (1967)
The Graduate (1967)

Note to readers: In homage to director Mike Nichols and his recent passing at age 83, I am re-running one of my earlier blog posts concerning his fabulous comedy-drama The Graduate.

Never had poster art so succinctly summarized the essence of a motion picture. The raised leg forming either an arch or a bridge to unimagined pleasures; the low camera angle reflecting the seriocomic situation at hand; the shot of a smirking, incredulous college graduate named Benjamin Braddock; the rhetorical and self-fulfilling query uttered by him (“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”); and, of course, the half-mocking, self-implicating laughter by the cynical Mrs. Robinson.

And then, there is the music:

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sounds of silence

The first musical strains of director Mike Nichols’ screen adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate come from “The Sounds of Silence,” written and performed by singer-songwriter Paul Simon and his partner, Art Garfunkel. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the song was unrelated to Nichols’ iconic feature, but only became part of the finished soundtrack as an afterthought — a soundtrack that spoke to a generation of disgruntled youth.

At the time, The Graduate seized upon the prevailing mood of the period, i.e., the mid- to late 1960s, which reflected the angst, the awkwardness, and the uncertainty of modern life, as well as the feelings of impending doom that the Vietnam War (and other crises) would soon bring to the fore. What Nichols brought to the material (an opening salvo in the so-called Hollywood “New Wave” of contemporary productions) was a biting wit and satiric edginess that captured the essence of the turbulent sixties as few flicks of the era could.

Not to say there weren’t other, equally absorbing glimpses into sixties pop culture (for example, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night were among the better ones); but this film, which made stars of its leads — and a household word out of Simon and Garfunkel – was the hands-down popular favorite.

The sexual revolution is about to kick into high gear when Benjamin Braddock (a perpetually befuddled Dustin Hoffman, in his first major screen role), the clueless graduate of the title, comes home after four years of undergraduate studies in the East. Benjamin has no idea what to do with his life; his rich, upper-class parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) provide little guidance, as do their unhelpful neighbors:

“I just want to say one word to you,” the kindly Mr. McGuire advises him. “Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” Benjamin no more cares for that tidbit of information than he does for the other mindless indulgences of the Southern California lifestyle.

Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) brooding about life
Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) in his room, brooding about life, in The Graduate

Unable to face up to the challenge of life away from school, Benjamin isolates himself in his room, brooding and reflecting upon his worthlessness. Into his dreary world walks Mrs. Robinson (a supremely self-possessed Anne Bancroft, who was only a few years older than Hoffman), the alcoholic wife of his father’s best friend and law partner (delightfully underplayed by the laid-back Murray Hamilton in an array of coordinated cardigans).

Mrs. Robinson initiates the young fool into the pleasures of the flesh, which boosts the ungainly Benjamin’s confidence level to no end. A hilarious hotel rendezvous notwithstanding, wherein the utterly bewildered Benjamin almost loses what’s left of his bearings (and his sanity), all goes well with the illicit affair. That is, until he is introduced to Mrs. Robinson’s strikingly attractive daughter, Elaine (angelic-looking Katharine Ross). When Mrs. Robinson hears of the couple’s budding romance, she decides to take matters into her own hands, to disastrous but ultimately comic effect.

Many of the film’s most memorable moments, including Dustin’s head-banging episode in the hotel room, were spur-of-the-moment inspirations, as recounted in Mark Harris’ tell-all book Pictures at a Revolution (Penguin Books). Besides the other Simon and Garfunkel hits scattered throughout the story (“Mrs. Robinson,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “April Come She Will”), the remaining music was supplied by jazz artist Dave Grusin.

Calder Willingham and Buck Henry wrote the riotous screenplay, with Buck playing it straight as the deadpan Room Clerk. There are many priceless vignettes by an army of featured contract players, including (try to spot them all) Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne, Norman Fell (“I don’t think we’ll have any more of this agitation. Will we, Mr. Braddock?”), Mike Farrell, Richard Dreyfuss, Elaine May (who partnered with Nichols onstage in the fifties and sixties), Jonathan Hole, Noam Pitlik, and Kevin Tighe.

Even approaching “middle age,” the film is still as fresh, funny, and sharp as it was back in 1967. Our favorite scenes are Benjamin’s disruption of Elaine’s wedding (with Benjamin rattling the doors of the church at back and on high, and shouting “Elaine! Elaine!” to the startled onlookers), and the iconic last shot of the two of them in the back of the bus with a look of “Now what do we do?” on their faces. This one scores a perfect 10 in my book. Millennials, take note: you are not the only ones who’ve gone through difficult days!

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Three) — The Bad, the Brave and the ‘Beautiful’

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Johnny Depp (galleryhip.com)
Johnny Depp (galleryhip.com)

We left off a while back, in our appraisal of actor Johnny Depp’s cinematic output, with comments concerning some of his more (ahem) “eclectic” performances. Continuing with our reflections on his art, we pick up the thread with a series of film forays from the late 1990’s.

Making Sense of It All

Having made a name for himself not only as a leading man but as a quirky and versatile character player, it will come as no surprise to fans that the dark-haired, dark-eyed Johnny — the physical embodiment of that oft-abused term “dreamboat” — has attracted his share of controversy with respect to the opposite sex.

A short-lived marriage to makeup artist Lori Anne Allison, for example, lasted all of two years; his various associations with attractive young starlets, among them Jennifer Grey, Sherilyn Fenn, and especially Winona Ryder — responsible for that “Winona Forever” tattoo on Johnny’s forearm, later surgically modified to “Wino Forever” — have led to less than amicable breakups; and his four-year, on-again/off-again liaison with supermodel Kate Moss culminated in angry outbursts, incidents of misbehavior, suspected drug-abuse, and a notorious New York hotel trashing.

Never one to let a good brawl go to waste, Depp, like so many artists before and after him, used those heated exchanges as grist for the acting mill. Unlike most heartthrobs of the period, Johnny consistently steered his film assignments in a direction opposite to that which one would have expected him to take, accepting any number of out-of-the-way roles, with nary a thought given to the potential downside of things.

“I mean, all those films [i.e., Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Don Juan DeMarco] didn’t do well at the box office,” he told the British newspaper The Guardian in November 2011. “But I still had paparazzi chasing my tail… Everywhere you went you were on display. It was always some strange attack on the senses; I was never able to embrace it. So self-medication,” interpreted by the Guardian to mean “drink and drugs,” was Johnny’s way of dealing with the situation.

His reputation as a partier and self-destructive mischief-maker has preceded him. However, according to Depp, in an Access Hollywood interview from 1997, it was predicated upon what individuals supposedly heard and read, something columnists have “written about and that has turned into fiction. Now that fiction is something I have to carry around with me, and it’s based on rumor, it’s based on lies. So it’s not the worst thing in the world, but a bit of a drag to have to live with that.”

One comes away from this self-analysis with the impression that Depp doesn’t go after fame for fame’s sake, which in this day and age is quite a refreshing viewpoint and very much apart from those of other celebrities.

Don’t Be a Wiseguy

Al Pacino & Depp in Donnie Brasco (tailgate365.com)
Al Pacino & Depp in Donnie Brasco (tailgate365.com)

By now, spurning the predictable in Hollywood had become an all-consuming passion for the certifiably dependable mega-star. For starters, one of his brashest performances yet came with Al Pacino, a childhood method-acting idol of his, who co-starred with him in British director Mike Newell’s potent crime drama Donnie Brasco (1997).

As FBI informant Joe Pistone, who poses as apprentice wiseguy Donnie B, Johnny D is tapped by the Feds to penetrate the inner workings of organized crime — specifically to pass himself off as a loyal friend and able ally to a low-level mobster named Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino). It’s a story about conflicting loyalties, of the rise of up-and-coming hood Donnie Brasco and the fall of down-and-out hit man Lefty.

The main thrust of the picture, though, inasmuch as it can be compared to Depp’s previous entries, is the relationship of the title character to Pacino’s Lefty persona, i.e., that of the streetwise old mentor passing along his expertise and know-how to a younger generation. This closely parallels (if not exactly replicates) the bond of friendship that existed between no-talent, eager-beaver Ed Wood and the washed-up, drug addicted Bela Lugosi.

Pacino is wonderfully low-key here, a welcome reprieve from such frothing-at-the-mouth permutations as Tony Montana in Scarface or John Milton in The Devil’s Advocate. His and Johnny’s scenes are perfectly timed character studies of two men torn between the demands of their violent profession and the shared feelings they have for one another.

In Donnie’s case, it’s his concern for the safety of his wife Maggie (Anne Heche) and their three children (“This job is eating me alive,” he confesses to her. “I can’t breathe anymore”), played off against his duties as a squealer, which is further complicated by his possible “rat” status vis-à-vis his pal Lefty, a fellow incorrigible he’s grown to love and respect.

Donnie feels sympathy for the racketeer and personally responsible as well for Lefty’s vouching for his reputation to the underworld bosses. There are future hints of the HBO series The Sopranos in several of the film’s sequences — most conspicuously, those involving Donnie’s strained relationship to his family.

Not to be too dismissive, I feel I may be painting too warm and fuzzy a picture of the project, so let me call a spade a spade: this is a graphically violent and unremittingly bleak portrait of mob life at its most abhorrent. A viable companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s equally nefarious Goodfellas, which preceded it by a good seven years, the film has a soft-spot for its protagonists as well as moments of genuine levity.

Just Be Brave!

Depp as The Brave (entertainment.ca.msn.com)
Depp as The Brave (entertainment.ca.msn.com)

Moments of genuine levity were clearly absent from Johnny’s next venture, the independently produced and financed filming of The Brave (1997). At the time of the movie’s release, the L.A. Times published an article, “The Sad, Strange Journey of Johnny Depp’s ‘The Brave,’” outlining the troubled gestation of this peculiarly bizarre production.

As Depp’s one and only directorial effort to date, The Brave was based on a book by Gregory McDonald. It’s overarching theme — that of a Native American in poor financial straits who, wishing only to help his impoverished family, decides to appear in a “snuff” film for the sum of $50,000 — was a shade too dark even by Hollywood standards, especially after it was learned the original director Aziz Ghazal, who had optioned the rights to McDonald’s novel, murdered his estranged wife and daughter prior to killing himself.

With a back story like that, who in their right mind would come within 50 feet of such a prospect? Who indeed: “I didn’t particularly like it,” Johnny remarked upon hearing the producers’ pitch. “But I liked the idea of sacrifice for family. I felt driven to do this movie. It just about ripped me to shreds. And I kept thinking of things I’d like to add.”

Feeling the timing was right, Depp, who could’ve had his pick of the lot as far as film roles go, rewrote the script with his brother D.P., then put up enough of his own funds to guarantee that any cost overruns would be covered. Not only that, but he retained total control of the work, a rarity in La-La-Land; he even got his friend, actor Marlon Brando — a well known Indian rights activist in his day — to work alongside him as the “spiritual sadist” who pays and tortures the Native American for the snuff film (we shudder at the thought).

It would be unfair of me to pass judgment on this sincere if misguided effort, since the film itself has never been released in the U.S., and yours truly has never seen it. And to be honest, I don’t think I ever will. Although The Brave had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival — reportedly to scathing reviews and a mixed reception combining boos with a standing ovation — tales of its sickening contents had already reached these shores.

And the bad news was… Well, to quote New York Times journalist Chris Wallace, the movie “isn’t terrible, exactly — it’s not good.” Not much of a wholehearted endorsement, is it? Still, any project that includes the high-cheek-boned artist in the guise of a Native American, which he himself has claimed to be a descendant of (Cherokee, on his grandmother’s side I believe… or is it Creek?), is worth the proverbial once-over. More than that, I dare not say.

Now, Go Get Stoned!!!

Certainly the most “elastic” if not the lithest accomplishment in Johnny’s expanding catalog of screen parts came in ex-Monty Python animator turned producer-director Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas from 1998.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Benicio del Toro & Johnny Depp

Depp’s twitchy, weirdly accurate portrayal of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s questionable sixties lifestyle (in alter-ego Raoul Duke), taken from Thompson’s outrageous roman à clef — replete with ginormous aviator glasses, fisherman’s cap and bald noggin — is considered by many to be one of the actor’s more, uh, “defining” moments.

His transformation into a human lizard, one that prefigures his later motion-capture work for Gore Verbinski’s Rango, was uncanny. It wasn’t so much the loopy outfits he wore throughout but the spastic contortions, the Groucho-esque stoop, and those back-and-forth limb movements that seemed most germane to said creature’s behavioral patterns. (Shiver me timbers, mate, did I detect a touch of Jack Sparrow in his step?)

Indeed, this is what set his performance off from anything Johnny had attempted before, the sheer audacity of it — now, if he could only stay still. Not even dear old Edward Scissorhands could compare to this cartoon car-wreck of an individual.

After befriending the real-life Thompson and picking up as much of his voice, traits and mannerisms as his four-month stay in the writer’s home would allow, Depp went before the cameras to deliver not just a skillful impersonation but a full-fledged caricature of Homo sapiens in a continuous haze, the drug-addled embodiment of British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s superb line drawings from the original novel.

Johnny’s gift for mimicry, which manifested itself early on with Benny & Joon, in this picture, was set to overdrive. In fact, he managed to capture the writer’s clipped delivery — a torrent of verbal hemorrhaging Thompson was well-versed in; along with that stop-and-go facet of his volatile personality. Not for nothing, but here was a man whose mental stability was dangling on the edge of a cliff, a frazzled reporter supposedly on assignment for his magazine who spends the entirety of the film’s running time in a perpetual state of blissful unawareness.

Depp as Hunter S. Thompson (alysonwonder.tumblr.com)
Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson (alysonwonder.tumblr.com)

There are visions of giant bats, a literal gathering of lounge lizards, and unhealthy dollops of debauched behavior — all of it, mind you, photographed in visually arresting colors, with varying degrees of damaged décor strewn about the set, as well as sonically assaulting soundscapes. The aura of late 1960’s Vegas is recreated by Gilliam’s omnipresent fisheye lens, indicative of his subject’s skewed vision of the surreal.

On the whole, Johnny’s Duke is a brilliantly conceived achievement, but to what end — and to what purpose? To dramatize the more lurid aspects of Thompson’s distorted opinions of American values gone sour? Ah, ’tis a ponderous piece! Gilliam’s film, similar in style to his other major works (e.g., Brazil and The Fisher King), owes as much to the writings of William Burroughs, too, a contemporary of Thompson’s. But why does the director have to bludgeon his audiences over the head with every film frame? That’s a question that remains unanswered.

Co-starring Benicio del Toro as Dr. Gonzo, a stand-in for Chicano lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta, a more witless and gruff version of the so-called “loyal” sidekick, along with an all-star complement of supporting players, among them Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Mark Harmon, Cameron Diaz, Michael Jeter, Harry Dean Stanton, Jenette Goldstein, and the voice of Debbie Reynolds (don’t ask). And let’s not forget Christina Ricci (who we’ll meet again in Sleepy Hollow) as the acid-tripped Lucy.

In our humble estimation, Depp could never be accused of wanting to play it safe, no sirree! From the borrowed L.L. Bean shorts to the Butte sheepherder’s coat, his Duke is as authentic as they come, right down to the protruding cigarette filter dangling precariously from his lips — all courtesy of Hunter S. Thompson himself, who makes a brief cameo appearance, as if that made any difference.

(To be continued)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Bye Bye, José Wilker (1947-2014) — An Appreciation for an Underrated Performer

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The well-known actor, director, movie, theater and television personality died Saturday in Rio at age 66

José Wilker (www.bms.co.in)
José Wilker (www.bms.co.in)

T.S. Elliott once wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” He wasn’t joking! In the span of a single weekend, the entertainment industry was rocked by the loss of two of its favorite sons: the passing of ageless funnyman and jack-of-all-trades Mickey Rooney, who died Sunday of natural causes, was preceded by Brazilian actor-director José Wilker, who experienced a fatal heart attack on Saturday morning.

About the iconic Mr. Rooney, little can be said that hasn’t already been stated — and better — by other writers. He lived a long and fruitful life, both inside and outside his chosen field. That he reached his 93rd birthday is a blessing in itself, but those four score and thirteen years were incredibly diverse ones. As far as his many fans are concerned, Mickey’s earned the right to his eternal rest.

As for Wilker, what can I say? I’m saddened, of course, by his untimely demise. Although we never met, I invariably came away from his film and TV appearances with the feeling that I’d like to know this guy better: that puckish grin that seemed to imply he knew a lot more than he was letting on; those oriental-like eyes that betrayed an underlying Slavic streak to his makeup; and that baritone voice that lulled unsuspecting moviegoers into taking Zé Wilker at his word.

Who wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon in conversation with a man like that? As I understand it, he was a most considerate and erudite individual in real life. That being the case, I would gladly have welcomed the opportunity to exchange ideas. And not only was Wilker a fascinating interview subject, he was also an attentive interviewer as well. Oh, the stories we would’ve told…!

A Two-for-One Special

DVD cover of Dona Flor e seus dois maridos
DVD cover of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

One such story would be my first encounter with the gifted actor, which came in 1978 with the American release of Bruno Barreto’s Dona Flor e seus dois maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), one of whom — a lovable rogue named Vadinho — was taken by Wilker.

The film opens on a Sunday morning in Salvador da Bahia, in the northeast corner of Brazil. It’s Carnival time in the early 1940s. A handful of rowdies, among them the boisterous Vadinho, have been whooping it up till the predawn hours. Suddenly, one of the merrymakers spots a nearby mulata twitching her bottom in time to the music. With that, the revelers form a dance circle around her. Vadinho, dressed as a baiana, flips open his “skirt” and displays a makeshift male appendage.

After cavorting in this manner for a few minutes, Vadinho runs out of steam and collapses to the ground in a faint. Thinking he’s faked a swoon, his friends try to revive him, but it’s too late. He’s pronounced dead at the scene. Dona Florípides, or “Dona Flor” for short (played by the young and nubile Sonia Braga), emerges from her house. Catching sight of the crowd that’s gathered in the street she runs over to where her husband has fallen. But there’s little she can do except to cradle Vadinho’s head in her arms while weeping inconsolably over her loss.

We next find Dona Flor at Vadinho’s wake. Outside, the sounds of Carnival intrude upon the reverent atmosphere of the onlookers. After all, the party must go on, no matter what fate has in store for them. A friend places a bouquet of flowers in Vadinho’s hands, as one by one mourners express their condolences to Dona Flor. In the kitchen, several women are speaking ill of the deceased. One of the ladies claims he never wore a wedding ring: “That’s because he gambled it away after the ceremony.” Another lady asks if he had ever beaten his wife. “Not only did he beat her, but he spent all her money on the losing number in a game of chance.” That lowdown good-for-nothing!

In another part of the house, the conversation turns to the cause of Vadinho’s death: “His kidneys were shot, his liver went to pot, and his heart gave out. As for his lungs…” A dissipated lifestyle, no doubt! The camera returns to the wake and focuses on the downcast Dona Flor, whose sorrow is at least sincere when compared to that of the others. Her mother, Dona Rozilda, begs her to take a seat; after what she’s gone through, she deserves a break. “I’m fine, Mama,” her daughter replies. Just then, Flor glances up at a pretty girl crying her eyes out, opposite her husband’s casket. She realizes to her dismay that even in death Vadinho will be sorely missed by more than just the members of her family.

At the same time, Flor’s mother ticks off a litany of complaints against her late son-in-law. The epithets are piled on thick and fast, one more descriptive than the other, in an amusing display of verbal dexterity: “That man was a spendthrift, a vagrant, a gigolo, a scoundrel and a bum, as well as a heartless cheat… After seven years of suffering I finally have my daughter back.”

There’s a quick cut to Vadinho’s corpse, an immense close-up of the man’s facial features. With his eyes shut, his blond hair neatly combed to one side, we see the rascal respectably dressed (for once) in a blue suit, white shirt and tie. Cotton balls protrude from his ears and nostrils. His mouth is agape, the lips somewhat parted in what might be the vaguest glimmer of a grin — a wicked, perverse kind of smirk Vadinho never had the chance to display.

At the theater where I first saw the film, the effect of that close-up magnified my impression that here lay an individual who was indeed larger than life. And I’m sure there were plenty of folks in attendance who’d swear they caught Vadinho cracking a smile. (Not a chance!)

The Actor’s Studio

Barely eight or nine minutes of footage have elapsed, yet spectators have already been clued in to the fact that everything about this scoundrel has been relayed to us without his having spoken a word of dialogue. It’s an intriguing cinematic concept that actually works, thanks to first-rate screenwriting, direction and camerawork.

As good as this beginning is disappointment inevitably follows when the actor in charge fails to live up to expectations. Not so with Wilker, for it is here that he begins to make inroads of his own: incorporating Vadinho’s wantonness (told in flashback) in farcical as well as lustful ways, he intentionally downplays the more reprehensible aspects of the womanizer’s personality, never straining for effect or over-reaching to make a point.

Instead, Wilker presents the native nordestino as a reincarnation of Rhett Butler: all sensual allure and saucy insouciance, with a taste for fun and mischief, along with a high degree of self-confidence. It’s the way that Wilker “fleshes out” the character (at times, quite literally!) that makes Dona Flor’s passion for him all the more credible. If nothing else, Vadinho is shown as a man comfortable with the carnal pleasures of life. Of course, Wilker knew the type well, having been born in Juazeiro do Norte, in the northeastern state of Ceará, and raised in Recife, prior to relocating to Rio de Janeiro. All told, he lets what has already been conveyed about the character do the acting for him.

Sonia Braga & Jose Wilker (braquiocefalico.blogspot.com)
Sonia Braga (Dona Flor) & Jose Wilker (Vadinho) (braquiocefalico.blogspot.com)

While I concede that the entire film hinges on the performance of its leading lady — and without question, the worldwide popularity of Dona Flor can be attributed to Sonia Braga’s titillating presence — it never fails to amaze that Wilker was able to successfully compete with his co-star on equal terms. Another actor might have been completely overshadowed by her charms, or have given up hope of ever being noticed, what with the future Spider-Woman nodding by his side.

The ability to make audiences sit up and take notice was one of Wilker’s most valuable assets. It served him well in a variety of pictures, including two by Brazilian director Cacá Diegues: Xica da Silva (1976) and the cult classic Bye Bye, Brasil (1979). Of his countless television assignments, certainly the soap opera Roque Santeiro (1985), in which the supposedly dead title character returns to his village and wreaks havoc on the lives and livelihood of its citizens, can be counted as his most memorable TV portrayal.

A Fond Farewell

To have lost such an underrated performer in his prime is a tragedy no amount of praise can overcome. Yet watching one of Wilker’s earliest screen triumphs — especially the riotous scene at Vadinho’s wake and that half-formed smile of his — reminds me that an actor’s life can be heavily influenced by his art.

There’s little friends and family can do at this point except to cradle Wilker’s memory in their thoughts and in their hearts, while weeping inconsolably over the acting world’s loss. But there is one thing we can all do: we can bid farewell to one of Brazil’s finest all-around performers. So let me give it a shot:

“Bye bye, José Wilker! You will be sorely missed by more than family members. And if the sounds of Carnival happen to intrude upon our thoughts, so be it. After all, the party must go on, no matter what fate had in store for you.”

That’s Vadinho talking… and he’s cracking a big, fat smile. †

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes