REVIEW: “Mortdecai”

Mort poster

Life is full of important questions. Does Donald Trump really think his hair looks good? Will Tom Cruise ever age? Do people actually watch “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”? But perhaps the most perplexing question is this – what has happened to Johnny Depp? And to go a bit further, what is driving him to pick such wretched projects these days? Over the years Depp has chosen a wide variety of weird and eccentric roles. But since his last “Pirates” movie, several of his choices have been…well…suspect.

Simply put, “Mortdecai” is his worst yet. It’s an appallingly unfunny action comedy fueled by lazy humor, juvenile gags, and its absurdly creepy main character. The film is based on a book series by English novelist Kyril Bonfiglioli. There were several books in the series which makes me think there was some decent material there. But screenwriter Eric Aronson doesn’t capture anything interesting or entertaining.

Mortdecai (Depp) is a shady art dealer and charlatan who, along with his high maintenance wife JoHanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), is financially strapped due to heavy tax debt. Inspector and old college acquaintance Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) comes to Mortdecai to help find a stolen rare Goya painting in exchange for settling his tax debt with the government. Along with his trusted manservant Jock (Paul Bettany), Mortdecai globetrots around the world, encounters a variety of uninteresting people, and faces plenty of dangers. Whatever.

Yep, that's the face you'll have as the final credits roll

Yep, that’s the face you’ll have as the credits roll

I’ve already mentioned how terribly unfunny the film is. You can only handle so much of Depp’s measly voice and bizarre gap-toothed smile. Humor focused on vomit, dry heaving, and body parts gets old quick. It also doesn’t help that the entire stolen painting mystery is sleep-inducing. It’s dull, lifeless, and smothered out by all of the vain attempts at humor. The movie tries to liven things up by injecting a few comedy-laced action sequences, but they are just as uninspired and forgettable.

I feel as though “Mortdecai” revolves around a continuous inside joke that I was never let in on. Surely a comedy can’t be this anemic, lame, and humorless. I sat stone-faced the entire time watching a talented and wasted cast flounder around with some of the worst material of the year. It could be said that this is a new low for Johnny Depp. The guy has talent. We have seen it in the past. But you see none of it in “Mortdecai”. Instead you get Depp at his most annoying and you have to wonder how much more of this nonsense can his career take?

VERDICT – 1 STAR

1 star

REVIEW: “Transcendence”

TRANSPOSTER

On paper “Transcendence” sounded like a sure thing. It had an intriguing science fiction premise. It had a fabulous cast featuring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, and Cillian Murphy. It was the directorial debut from one of my favorite cinematographers Wally Pfister. But as with anything you can have some great pieces but that does automatically equal a great whole. That’s certainly the case with “Transcendence”.

Without question “Transcendence” is a film with loads of ambition and some good things to say. It gets off to a good start and lays an interesting foundation. Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is a renowned scientist working on the creation of a sentient artificial intelligence. His devoted wife Evelyn (Hall) is a strong supporter and organizes the funding for his research. His best friend Max (Bettany) is a fellow scientist and an important contributor to Will’s work.

TRANS1

After speaking at a science and technology convention Will is shot by an anti-technology extremist. The act is part of a series of attacks by a terrorist group known as R.I.F.T. That stands for “Revolutionary Independence From Technology” and if you need something else to make you laugh, one of their weapons of choice is a poisonous birthday cake. Oh, and the bullet used on Will is radioactive. It poisons his blood and with no cure available he is given a month to live.

Desperate to hang onto her husband, Evelyn uploads Will’s consciousness to a super computer. He soon dies but is revived within the computer. Hunted down by R.I.F.T. and their dogged leader Bree (Kate Mara), Evelyn uploads Will to the internet giving him freedom and access to all the web’s information. As with any A.I. (or so we’re told) they survive by getting more information. With Evelyn’s help Will grows more powerful and soon crowds the line between helping the world and overtaking it.

This collision between mankind and technology does provide for some good conversation. There is also a compelling unconventional love story buried within this material. Unfortunately to get much of either you have to navigate through a litany of cavernous plot holes and inconceivable stretches of our imagination. As the movie moves forward we are constantly asked to overlook numerous gaps in logic and in the story itself. The film ends up smothering all of the interesting elements with one narrative blunder after another.

TRANS2

It also doesn’t help that some of the film’s plot machinations are so incredibly preposterous and implausible. This is frustrating because once again it overshadows the intriguing concepts that do have a lot of promise. We just can’t buy into it all and at times it looks like the cast doesn’t either. I wouldn’t say that they are phoning in their performances. There are moments where they are trying to salvage something from the ramshackle script, especially Hall and Bettany. But no one feels thoroughly engaged or convinced in the material.

Again, “Transcendence” looked good on paper but not in execution. It has so much going for it but it lacks one vital component – a competent script. There is a good story to be found here and I got just enough to be annoyed by the mishandling of it. It did engage me at first and I really liked what the film was going for with its ending. It’s the rocky road in between that makes this a tough movie to recommend. And that’s a shame because this should have and could have been better.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “The Lone Ranger”

Lone Ranger poster

“Pirates of the Caribbean” set in the old west. It’s an unavoidable comparison. It’s also a very accurate description of Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer’s “The Lone Ranger”. Johnny Depp again takes center stage and is the ringleader of this wacky and sometimes absurd action adventure. The ingredients are all here. A charismatic and eccentric lead, a fun and action-packed story model, and a filmmaking team who has experienced success before. Maybe that’s why the end result is so disappointing.

As a kid I loved the old television reruns of The Lone Ranger starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. Well let me say that it didn’t take long for me to see the mammoth sized differences between this film and the great original material. I mean to call this film a reimagining would be a gross understatement. There is almost no similarity between these film and the classic story other than the name and some of the basic cosmetics. There is the white hat and white horse. There are silver bullets and the black masks. There are also a few familiar names and familiar plot points. But you’ll be hard pressed to find many other resemblances. Who knows, maybe that’s where the first of the film’s many missteps begins.

Lone Ranger 2

Now I wasn’t expecting this to be an ultra-serious tribute to this classic character. Again this is from the makers of “Pirates of the Caribbean”. But I also didn’t expect it to be so drastically different and so blasted silly. It starts with the Lone Ranger character himself. Armie Hammer seems completely lost at times playing a character who is a bumbling oaf from the first time we see him until the final credits. The character has good intentions but he’s a far cry from the heroic masked administrator of justice I was hoping for. Hammer’s performance doesn’t help. He struggles through a ridiculous and sometimes numbingly lame script that drags him through a plethora of slapstick and oddball humor that admittedly works on occasions. But more often than not it lands with a thud and Hammer just can’t sell it.

The nuttiness isn’t just confined to Hammer and the lead character. Johnny Depp’s Tonto is in many ways a Native American Jack Sparrow. He channels his famed pirate character in a variety of different ways and I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. But he also has his share of ludicrous, over-the-top moments. And that can be said for the entire film. It has several eye-rolling moments that are so insanely absurd that they’re impossible to digest. But it also sharply turns in other directions. “The Lone Ranger” has some jarring tonal issues. One minute horses are standing up in trees wearing cowboy hats and the next has a character cutting out and eating a human heart. The movie is literally all over the map.

But perhaps it’s biggest sin is that it’s just so boring in the middle. It starts with a some promise and there are hints of a good story throughout the picture. But soon the film bogs down in a mire of drab and pointless plot. There’s an underwritten and poorly serviced romance. There are throwaway characters such as Helena Bonham Carter’s ivory-legged brothel head whose story would better serve on the cutting room floor. Then there is the film’s general snail paced way of telling the main story. It takes way too long and it becomes a test of endurance just to make it through the arduous 2 hours and 30 minute running time.

Lone ranger 1

But I have to say that the big finale saves the film from being a total disaster. The huge set piece is quite the spectacle and I remember perking up the moment that the William Tell Overture suddenly kicked in. The ending almost feels like its own little short film. It doesn’t feel anything like a Lone Ranger sequence and there isn’t a semblance of realism to be found. But it is insanely entertaining if you can accept its cartoonish and exaggerated approach and go with it. For me it was easily the best part of the film even with its absurdities.

There are some beautiful locations and some of the action is really good. There are moments where the wacky humor works very well. I also enjoyed seeing an assortment of my favorite supporting actors (William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, and James Badge Dale) even if their roles aren’t particularly well written. But in the end “The Lone Ranger” loses itself in its overbearing insanity and bloated, uneven plot. It never feels like a western and it never knows when to end. What really stinks is that this could’ve been a really good summer movie. Instead it’s $250 million dollars worth of mediocrity and a waste of some really good talent. I may be wrong but I would think Disney would want more from such an investment.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

“DARK SHADOWS” – 2 1/2 STARS

Director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp’s history of collaborations could graciously be called a roller-coaster. The two have worked together on a total of eight movies, each to some degree sharing the same Tim Burton gothic quirkiness. Burton’s style is unique and specific and it’s easy to see how someone could be turned off by it. He’s also known to dabble in the same general themes and his movies often have the same look and tone. “Dark Shadows” is no different and you almost instantly know you are watching a Tim Burton picture. But to be honest, I’m not the biggest Burton fan and I’m rarely attracted to his films. But there was something about “Dark Shadows” that caught my attention.

The trailer and TV spots showed what could potentially be a hilarious dark comedy based on the “Dark Shadows” vampire soap opera from the late 60’s and early 70’s. Depp plays Barnabas Collins who finds his life turned upside down after breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique (Eva Green). The Collins family had moved from Liverpool, England to Maine and started a fishing village. They called it Collinsport and built the huge Collinwood Manor on top of a hill overlooking the town. Angelique was part of the Collins’ work staff and immediately fell for young Barnabas. But he never notices her especially after finding the love of his life Josette (Bella Heathcote). Taking the ‘woman scorned’ idea to new levels, she uses her black magic to cause the deaths of Barnabas’ parents and Josette. To take things even further, she turns Barnabas into a vampire then buries him in the forest in a chained up casket where he stays for almost 200 years.

But his casket is accidentally unearthed and Collins is eventually freed. The problem is that the year is 1972 and things certainly aren’t how they were when Barbabas was buried. At this point the movie seems set up to be another absurd fish-out-of-water story. In fact, that’s exactly what it was advertised as. And while there are some genuinely funny moments when Barnabas clashes with his new 1972 environment, it’s far from the meat and potatoes of the story. “Dark Shadows” actually plays things straight for much of the film and I often found the comedy to be back-burnered. To me Burton squandered a lot of potential by not spending more time on laughs. One minute he and Depp are winking their eye and having fun with the old show. The next minute they’re taking the story in a more serious direction. I found the absurdity of the comedy to clearly be the most fun.

After being freed, Barnanbas connects with the dysfunctional Collins descendants now living in the rundown Collinwood manor including Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). He also meets Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), a rebellious teenager and David (Gulliver McGrath), a young boy who believes in ghosts. Helena Bonham Carter plays a boozing psychiatrist living in the house supposedly to help David. He also meets Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote) David’s governess who has a striking resemblance to Josette. Barnabas finds that his descendants have allowed their family fishing business to fall apart. He takes it upon himself to rebuild the business back to prominence especially after seeing that the rival fishing company is run by an incarnation of none other than Angelique.

One thing you instantly notice is that the film looks fantastic. Even when the story sputters, the visuals never do and the movie features some gorgeous camera work and fantastic makeup and costume design. Burton also does a nice job a recreating a believable 1972, an unusual time in American history that strangely fits a Tim Burton project. I loved the selection of 70’s pop and rock songs chosen for the film and there are several funny jokes involving things such as lava lamps, hippies, and The Carpenters. And while we’ve seen comedies that focus on misplaced people before, here it works pretty well. But unfortunately we only get snippets of it scattered throughout the picture. It’s mixed in with the more serious and straight-laced narrative which often times causes a frequent and almost distracting change of tone throughout the film. This isn’t so much due to Burton’s direction, but to the structure of the story.

Depp plays weird really well and here he gives his usual solid performance. His comfort level with pasty-faced Burton roles is evident and his own quirky sense of humor shines through. His goofy facial expressions and sometimes exaggerated line delivery really sells the Barnabas Collins character even during the times where the main story feels lifeless. Depp can get a laugh from the audience just by lifting an eye brow at the right moment and his performance was one of my favorite things about the film. Most of the other cast members are good particularly Jackie Earle Haley in a fun role as the Collinwood caretaker. There are no glaringly bad performances and to be honest, it’s Depp’s show.

“Dark Shadows” is a genre-jumper that moves between comedy, horror, drama, romance, and action yet never feels grounded in any of them. An argument could be made that this is a typical Tim Burton picture and if you’re a fan, you’re probably going to like it. And I certainly won’t deny that Burton’s fingerprints are all over the movie. But I just didn’t find myself as interested in the main story as I hoped to be. The comedy works and there are some truly clever and funny gags that you have to appreciate. Depp carries many scenes and makes them work just by his stiff and unusual character presentation. Things like this really work in the film. In other words, “Dark Shadows” isn’t a terrible movie. In fact, it’s far from it. But it is an inconsistent movie and one that I have a hard time embracing. I may like the film more after a second viewing, but right now it feels like a movie that had great comedic potential but only gave us a sampling of it.

THIS WEEK IN MOVIES (May 11th)

“DJANGO UNCHAINED”

“Django Unchained” is the highly anticipated next movie from director Quentin Tarantino. The director has had the ability to line up all sorts of acting talent to star in his films….at least until now. The movie has been plagued with cast members dropping out of the project. Early it was reported that both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Kevin Costner had to drop out of the film due to conflicts. This week we found out that Sacha Baron Cohen has left the film. It turns out his role was fairly small but the other bit of news is a bigger problem. Kurt Russell (who has signed on to replace Costner) has now bowed out of the movie. No reasons were given but his role was much more important than Cohen’s. This is pretty unusual since Tarantino is known for his great casts. I’m anxious to see how this affects the film and it’s release.

“THE AVENGERS”

Well, I can’t help it. I have to throw in another bit of Avengers news. “The Avengers” shattered the record for biggest opening weekend previously held by the last Harry Potter picture. It brought in a domestic total of $200.3 million shattering the previous record. Those are monster numbers but that doesn’t even consider the money it’s brought in overseas. The movie has made almost $750 million worldwide easily justifying it’s $220 million budget. Is it any surprise that news also came out of the planned sequel?

NEW IN THEATERS (May 11th)

  • “DARK SHADOWS” (PG-13) – Comedy
  • “FOOTNOTE” (PG) – Drama/Foreign

It’s a light week at the theaters as everyone is scared to take on “The Avengers” even in it’s second weekend.

“THE TOURIST” – 2 STARS

You would think a movie starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, two of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood, would give us fun and charismatic performances even if the material wasn’t the best. Perhaps one of “The Tourist’s” biggest letdown is that it features two of the flattest performances of these two actors careers. Combine that with a rather inconsistent and preposterous story and you have a film that isn’t nearly as good as it should have been.

The movie begins with the French police following a woman named Elise (Jolie) who, after receiving a letter from a mysterious man known as Alexander Pearce, hops a train and heads to Venice where the two will rendezvous.  Once onboard she targets and manipulates an American math teacher and tourist named Frank (Depp) who she uses as a decoy to knock her pursuers off track. After arriving in Venice, Frank soon finds himself being pursued by Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff), a gangster who has mistaken him for Pearce. Also in the mix is John Acheson (Paul Bettany), an Inspector from Scotland Yard who is after Pearce as well. From there the movie becomes a rather absurd picture that lacks any real pizzaz.

 The story tries to be both a comedy and a thriller but it never fully succeeds at either. It’s attempts at comedy are so underplayed that they are virtually nonexistent. It’s two big twists/revelations do nothing to make it a quality thriller. It’s lack of identity is made worst by the complete lack of chemistry between Jolie and Depp. Both feel like cardboard cutouts and it’s impossible to buy into any real attraction between the two. It’s hard to believe I’m calling a Johnny Depp performance lifeless but here he’s utterly emotionless. Jolie spends most of her time making seductive faces for the camera and seems just as cold as Depp. I don’t want to assume this was just a cash grab especially since these two actors are pretty sought after but it certainly feels like it.

One thing you have to give “The Tourist” is that it’s beautifully filmed by cinematographer John Seale. Whether it be the streets of Paris, the French countryside, or waterways of Venice, Seale captures the sheer beauty of these European locales and I have to admit, it really drew me in. And while the story is full of holes, it’s really quite harmless and there are moments that I found entertaining. But even with its good-looking cast and locations, “The Tourist”  is too shallow, too flat, and ultimately forgettable.