Kevin Smith ought to stop it with the Canadian-centric films. Because this one is pretty damn rough.
Secret Window. 2004. Directed & Written by David Koepp; based on the novella Secret Window, Secret Garden by Stephen King from the collection Four Past Midnight.
Starring Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton, Len Cariou, Joan Heney, John Dunn-Hill, Vlasta Vrana, Matt Holland, Gillian Ferrabee, Bronwen Mantel, & Elizabeth Marleau. Grand Slam Productions/Columbia Pictures Corporation/Mel’s Cite du Cinema.
Rated 14A. 96 minutes.
While I do love Stephen King’s full length novels, some of his deeper, more penetrating work is found in the novels and short stories with which he fills the rest of his time aside from writing epic, sprawling books. I’ve read almost everything King has done, except for a few books here or there. As far as the short story and novella collections, I’ve run the gamut. So many great tales, such compelling writing. The collection from which Secret Garden is adapted, Four Past Midnight, also contains The Langoliers, which has also seen a tv movie treatment. It further has two more novellas, though neither of those has been adapted on film or for television.
The novella Secret Window, Secret Garden tells the story of Mort Rainey (played here by Johnny Depp), a novelist who one day is visited by a man named John Shooter (the ever wonderful John Turturro) accusing him of having plagiarised a story of his own. Mix in a failed marriage, an ex-wife (Maria Bello) that cheated on him that’s currently in a relationship with the same man, Ted (Timothy Hutton), and there’s plenty of psychological tension, as well as real life horror. Although there are a few portions of the movie that could have been tighter, some dialogue that doesn’t work properly or well as it should, Secret Window improves on a couple aspects of the novella, mainly the ending; I do like the source, but this adaptation makes things more sinister, more eerie. Not everything works. What does work is the gradual sense of reality slipping away, as the script leans deep into the perspective of Mort and Depp is able to carry that with a top notch performance. Even if there wasn’t enough to ultimately feel as scary as it ought to, writer-director David Koepp does well by coming to a different conclusion than the original story and at least pulls the tension tight for most of the runtime. Far as King adaptations go this is absolutely better than most.Something I love about both the writing of Mort’s character and the performance by Depp is that the feeling of being a writer comes across effortlessly. As someone whose days have been filled before by naps, the lure of that comfy couch, food, cigarettes (and before I went sober, booze and so on), Mort feels impossibly real. Of course that comes from King as an author himself, putting what he knows into the character. He knows exactly what it’s like. More than that, Depp ingrains a sense of that writer’s life in the performance. This could actually come off easily as a standard character, and in a way he is, but Depp allows for more than that and brings his talent to the table in spades. Just how he sulks, heading back to the couch for comfort, picking away at his food, and even laying on the floor with his dog, all in lieu of actually being productive and doing some writing.
Overall, the cinematography is solid, courtesy of Fred Murphy (Auto Focus, The Mothman Prophecies, Stir of Echoes & more). The look of the film has a rich look, and at the same time the colours are muted; not too bright, yet not muddled either. It goes well with the mood of the story. On top of that, Murphy captures certain shots interestingly, and Koepp makes nice choices as director to keep the visual aspect of the movie exciting. At times, you could almost see this falling into a melodramatic tv-styled production. What saves it is the production value itself. In addition to the nice look, the score is phenomenal. There are foreboding scenes filled with tension, suspense enough to choke you, and a large part of this is due to the music from Philip Glass and Geoff Zanelli. On one hand, Zanelli is more of a blockbuster type composer, some nice titles under his belt. On the other hand, Glass has done some large scale stuff, but his strengths lie in the smaller, more heart-filled stories, working on everything from the recent Leviathan to Errol Morris’ groundbreaking (and life changing) The Thin Blue Line. Somewhere between the two men their talent converges to become a pulsating wall of sound. Many moments are the typical mystery-thriller sounding pieces. At other times Glass and his sensibilities ring through, an ambient and soft glow of music hovering around the scene, and then there are those unexpected bursts of sonic goodness which are expected of the unusual, talented composer.
A lot of people, that don’t read his books enough, usually peg King as a horror writer. As if he does nothing else. Secret Window doesn’t contain much horror, other than the psychological sort and a slice of existential dread. Most of what becomes scary in this story concerns watching poor Mort try and distinguish what is reality, and what is fiction. There’s a large focus on the theme of fiction blurring into reality, which ultimately plays into the very end of the plot. Before that we already see how the story Shooter confronts Mort about parallels the life of the author, his failed marriage and subsequent divorce, the paranoia and suspicion, et cetera. Best of all is that psychological deterioration of Mort into which Koepp allows the viewer to fall. His talents for character and plot are what makes him capable of actually adapting King, a task not many who take on one of his stories are capable of achieving. He doesn’t write it all perfectly, some of the comedic elements come off too cheesy even for King. But the mystery and the thriller elements of the screenplay are well done. You may predict how some things play out before the end. Regardless, getting there is mostly a treat.
This is a better novella than it is a film. I don’t think it’s a bad movie, and it’s definitely worthy of 3&1/2 stars. There’s something missing, which I can’t exactly put my finger on. I really dig King’s writing. Again, that novella is a solid read I’ve gone through a couple times. And I even enjoy the adapted end Koepp comes up with better, as I mentioned. So why is it that Secret Window comes up short? Depp’s performance can’t hold up everything. The look and feel of the movie is good, the score comes off fantastic. Yet other than a sequence nearing the end when Mort figures everything out, there isn’t any overtly innovative filmmaking at play, nothing other than a bit of interesting camera work to compliment the storytelling. No matter how good some of the shots are and despite the atmosphere, the nice colouring all around, Secret Window is mostly just the Depp show. Were there more interesting, bold choices by Koepp, aside from the changed ending, this could be great. The directing isn’t bad, at all. King and his storytelling simply deserve more than run of the mill thrills. I can say all this, and still I own the DVD, I pop it on once every so often. It isn’t bad. Just could be much more.
A Nightmare on Elm Street. 1984. Directed & Written by Wes Craven.
Starring John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Jsu Garcia, Johnny Depp, Charles Fleischer, Joseph Whipp, Robert Englund, Joe Unger, & Lin Shaye. New Line Cinema/Media Home Entertainment/Smart Egg Pictures/The Elm Street Venture.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
All those who love horror, truly, are bound to miss Wes Craven. He’s firmly planted amongst the masters of the modern horror genre. His film The Last House on the Left completely rocked and shocked viewers, though, even behind that brutal picture are bigger things than merely a rape-revenge horror. Some people pass over a later effort of his, The People Under the Stairs, yet that attacks everything from racism to Regan.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is a different story. Craven completely hit the mark in every way imaginable, both on a subtle level and the more obvious ones. Freddy Krueger became synonymous with nightmares, the bad dreams which shake you from your sleep. Little kids weren’t afraid of a faceless boogeyman anymore after 1984 – from then on, it was Freddy. Because he was different than the other popular slashers, being a totally mind-based killer; he comes for you through dreams, and that means rules change. The unconscious is our most vulnerable place. He gets there, invading the private spaces of our inner mind. It’s a delicate subject when you boil this slasher-horror down to its basic parts. Craven does his best job crafting a masterpiece of horrific dreams on the back of Freddy, along with the appropriately impressive and inventive effects to boot. This is a classic of horror if there ever were one.
We all know the plot. Let’s skip that part this time around.
Part of my love for this movie is the innovation of Craven and his team. Everything from the blood bed to the simplest practical effects. Such care goes into the movie to make it look so excellent.
Love the effect of Freddy pushing through the wall, then Nancy wakes up with the cross knocked off on her, and the wall’s back to normal. Always thought it was creepy, subtle. Then not long afterwards Freddy comes down the alley with those long arms, so surreal and dreamlike. Everything is warped and weird. And it is terrifying. Plus, once we finally get the few looks at his face, all scarred and burned up, it’s hideous.
Freddy’s the pure mercury liquid of nightmares. At first he doesn’t even respond to Nancy when she asks “who are you?”, but simply cuts his chest open to reveal ooze and maggots.
And that’s the most terrifying part about Freddy. He’s a dream, a nightmare figure. He gets you if you fall asleep, which time and time again tests the characters of the film. There’s an unfathomable aspect to Krueger and his entrance through the unconscious mind. Almost as if your fears will literally eat you alive when he’s around. Plus, there’s also the angle of the buried secrets in a tight-knit community. Once the truth of Krueger, who he was and what happened to him comes out, then we start to see what the past does to the present. It invades and infects the next generation. You could make a case that Craven is talking about generational trauma, in a sense. Either way, the fact Freddy worms his way into the minds of the young people on Elm Street is a creepy sort folktale, a modern era Pied Piper leading the kids to their deaths. Sort of the death of youth, bringing adolescence to an end in horrific ways. Freddy is ultra creepy, as he’s already a child murderer, but the injustice portion of things comes into play; questions of morality, and what exactly is justice, so on. You can dive deep into Craven, I’ve been saying that for ages.
Apart from being the big screen debut of Johnny Depp, there are a couple good performances. Heather Langenkamp as Nancy is a perfect choice. She’s likeable, as well as sweet. Yet she’s strong and independent, she wants to track Freddy down, no matter how she has to go about it; whether by force, or by dream. As opposed to the typical “Final Girl”, Nancy is much more than just that. She’s an antagonistic protagonist, if I can mix and match. I say that because she’s able to turn the tables on Freddy and get the upperhand by going at him on his own turf. So, Nancy comes off as a decently strong, resilient female character in a genre with a dearth of those types of characters.
Of course we can’t talk about this Craven masterpiece without mentioning the talent of Robert Englund. Nobody else can ever fill his shoes. Sure, you can remake it. And Jackie Earle Haley is actually a great actor. But certain roles are not meant to be played over and over like in the theatre. In stage acting, nobody is recording you (or at least they never were before these days), and so the performances are not cemented; many people can grace the role. Someone like Freddy Krueger can never be anyone else but Englund. He put the stamp on that role, giving it the performance of a lifetime. His character remains ever creepy, both slightly perverted and terrifyingly mad. The makeup effects involved with him, just his appearance alone, are insane. They remain with you, after years and years. You could be on a desert island for a decade and still remember who Freddy was if they showed you a picture. It’s an iconic piece of horror, of cinematic history itself.
Craven’s Nightmare is a 5-star horror. It defined what a supernatural horror could be without the need for the same old ghosts and spooky things in the dark. Freddy branded himself onto the brain of genre fans forever. Not only that, he marked the world. He’s a phenomenon, still is really. Even kids knew who he was back in the ’80s when they couldn’t see the movies. They just knew. I knew who Freddy was before I’d actually seen the movie myself. So Craven not only gave people a good scare, he contributed to pop culture in a hugely significant way during the ’80s, and then later in the ’90s with Scream. This one always creeps me out, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Never a boring watch, always good for that solid, enjoyable scare I crave.
Black Mass. 2015. Directed by Scott Cooper. Screenplay by Jez Butterworth & Mark Mallouk; based on the novel by Dick Lehr & Gerard O’Neill.
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, and Adam Scott. Cross Creek Pictures/Grisbi Productions/Infinitum Nihil/Free State Pictures.
Rated 14A. 123 minutes.
The story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is a wild one. I remember when the excellent drama Brotherhood came on, with Jason Clarke and Jason Isaacs; that had roots in Bulger’s story, the parallel between him and his political brother. It’s a story that, if you know anything about it, is intense and has many layers. Almost as if it were written and made up. Yet the details most certainly are not made up. After things eventually went further south for Whitey, he went on the run as a Most Wanted face on the FBI’s list. Only a few years ago, at age 81 ripe and tender, he was apprehended and in 2013 his trial started.
So naturally, after seeing Scott Cooper was taking on an adaptation of this man’s boisterous, wild life, it had every bit of interest I needed. Black Mass gives us big heaping slices of the life of Bulger, from a time when he was already known to later on when he became one of the most well known names of the underworld. A ton of what makes the movie interesting are the central performances, particularly Johnny Depp in one of his strongest roles – ever – and then there is great writing on top of great directing from Cooper. This intense and at times fairly grim tale is weaved out of real life, pumped full of bravado, but best of all it breathes air into a true villain out of the history books.
James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a tough customer. One of the worst. He’s a notorious criminal from South Boston whose reputation precedes him. Better yet, he’s the brother of prominent politician Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch). While Billy is busy climbing the political ladder, Jimmy is on the streets busting heads, killing, doing the most illegal of business.
But a terrifying deal is struck behind the scenes between Jimmy and the FBI, led by John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who just so happens to have grown up on the same street as the Bulger boys. Using the FBI to essentially take out competition and aid his nefarious dealings, from guns to drugs, Whitey spins the entire deal into a downward spiral. Soon enough, the FBI informant in Jimmy is lost and he is officially on the Ten Most Wanted List. His story is one of family, corruption, ego and above all else – crime.
Immediately we’re introduced to Whitey Bulger as someone who does not mince words, nor does he put up with anything he sees as bullshit. No nonsense. The opening scene with Depp his eyes are piercing through the darkness, Bulger is sitting in silence and watching Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown) – an extremely dangerous and feared man in his own right – sloppily eat peanuts on the table, which he does not like. And makes it known. But this semi-funny scene brings a little more to the front. If you understand who Martorano is, then it’s even further evident that Whitey does not care who is in front of him. He says it like it is and couldn’t care less what anyone feels about it. The menace is present enough in the shots where Depp is barely visible through the darkness, almost like a predator laying, waiting in the black. More of that comes out later, though, it is heavily featured in this first moment. As time goes by, it isn’t only the contacts Depp wears that makes the eyes of Bulger burn into your soul. It is the absolute dead eye stare Depp seeps through the frame, it won’t let you go. With only a few looks Depp conveys the nastiness in Whitey.
Everyone is really solid here. One of those ensemble casts you dream of, as there’s a number of performances to enjoy. Of course you can’t not talk about Cumberbatch, whose American Boston accent is pretty great, and natural. Not just that I found he was well contrasted with Depp; they truly felt like brothers, two guys at the opposite end of one spectrum. Their chemistry was good when they shared the screen. Then there are smaller roles that worked well, such as Peter Sarsgaard (always a fan), Rory Cochrane, and more. But I also have to mention Joel Edgerton. He is a talent, one who can play interesting roles with lots of weight. He is compelling from scene to scene, especially considering what his character is involved in, and Edgerton definitely sells the performance. He and Depp do nice work together, too. Having all the actors in this film together is a definite plus. Without them these real life characters would’ve felt like caricatures and bad impressions. With them, Whitey Bulger, John Connolly, Billy Bulger and the rest of them all appear to us vividly and full of passion.
There are certainly similarities at times to the classic Martin Scorsese mob picture Goodfellas. Cooper does an excellent job mirroring some of the music montage moments in that film, excellent homage. Although, it isn’t borrowing too heavily. This is its own story, its own film all the way. But apart from some of the techniques Cooper uses to move the plot along, particularly the first montage with “Slave” by The Rolling Stones, there are plenty differences. The writing doesn’t fall back on homage. We get lots of exciting dialogue, which in turn obviously brings us fun, intense, and likewise exciting relationships between characters, scenes that come to life. It’s not just some period piece jumping from one decade to the next with a couple decent characters. The screenplay is solid. I love the pace of the movie, from start to finish. Never once during the 123 minute runtime did I find myself hoping for more excitement. There are bits of extensive expository dialogue, but only in the sense that we need it re: FBI actions, and so on. Then, we also get our fill of the character development, the violent scenes, the mob talk. There could’ve easily been too much, or not enough, of all these aspects. Instead, Cooper & Co. offer us up a good variation most of the time.
Easily a 4 star film. There could’ve been a few things edited better, to ramp up the intensity and suspense, but overall the pacing of the film especially keeps things proper. Boasting a massively impressive performance from Johnny Depp, as well as a handful of great supporting roles, Black Mass packs a heavy, bloody punch. Maybe people see too many parallels with other films and that Scott Cooper drew off classics too much. Not I. This is a truly compelling story that deserved to be told and this was told in fine fashion. There are moments you’ll laugh, moments you will root for a good outcome. But this is a dark, twisting story. There are no happy endings. Regardless, the film is very well made. It has a wonderful atmosphere and a constant tone that brings out the best in every aspect of the production. This is top notch and one of the best crime biographies of the past decade. Some bits and pieces need tuning, though, if any Depp shows us he’s not done yet. Not by a long shot.
Tusk. 2014. Directed & Written by Kevin Smith.
Starring Michael Parks, Justin Long, Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment, and Johnny Depp. Sony Pictures Releasing Canada.
Rated 14A. 102 minutes.
First of all, a lot of people seem to misunderstand Tusk as a film overall. It’s meant, above all else, as a comedy and a drama. Yes, there is horror, and it is a horror film, but the comedy and drama trump everything. Just a little over halfway through the movie, things get divisive because a lot of people think it gets ridiculous, or silly, or whatever.
Me – well, I think differently.
Second, I just love the premise of this movie. Kevin Smith is not particularly one of my favourites, though, I really love Clerks (the first one – I don’t dig the second so much), Mallrats, Dogma, and Red State a lot. His move into a bit of horror while still holding onto the comedy roots he works so well with really is spectacular. Red State was a lot of fun, and I’ve re-watched it a bunch of times since the first; for me, it holds up time after time.
The story of Tusk follows Wallace Bryton (Long), a rising podcast star, who interviews weird and wild people everywhere; he travels to different locations, interviews different characters, and then retells his experiences for Teddy Craft (Osment) who never travels. There emerges a side story involving Wallace’s girlfriend Ally; the two share a bit of a rocky relationship, as we see both Wallace’s infidelity, as well as Ally’s eventual, secret at first, indiscretions, too. Wallace goes up to Canada to interview the Kill Bill Kid – a young man who chopped off his own leg with a sword accidentally – but once he arrives in Winnipeg, he discovers the kid has taken his own life, and the story is quite literally now dead.
Unfairly pissed, Wallace heads to a bar before moving on home. In the bathroom he discovers a wanted ad: an old man, once an adventurer at sea, has a room for rent, and stories to tell. Out in the woods of Manitoba, Wallace finds Howard Howe in a beautiful, sprawling estate type home. Howe seems just a little eccentric at first telling stories of being at sea, meeting Ernest Hemingway (even claiming one of old Ernie’s most famous quotes about drinking was first quoted to him personally), however, soon enough it’s really damn clear the old man doesn’t just want company. He misses an old friend, and Howe is determined to bring him back by any means necessary.
Once Wallace goes missing, Ally and Teddy wake up to a frantic voicemail he left them both; he claims Howe has kidnapped him, and wants to turn him into a walrus. Worried, they seek out the police, who are of course sceptical (I spell it that way ’cause I’m Canadian, eh). They then meet a man named Guy Lapointe (played hilariously by Johnny Depp). He has been hunting a serial killer across Canada, and it turns out this is most likely Howe. They join together hoping to track down and save Wallace.
A lot of people have trouble with the way Tusk shifts gears between horror to drama to comedy, and back, and forth. I don’t necessarily see the problem. If either of these genres were being inappropriately served up, then I would understand, but to my mind it’s all carried out pretty well. The horror works. Some may say the “transformation” is silly. I understand. I mean, the comedy of Long’s “transformation” is not lost on Smith – he knows it looks a bit funny. Aside from the initial laugh it might get, the “transformation” (I say that because I don’t want to outright describe anything and give it away) is pretty fucking disturbing. Especially when you couple Long’s appearance with the shrieking and moaning he does after being transformed. After awhile it really gets grating on the nerves. Not in an annoying sense. It grates on them hard and makes me uncomfortable. Watching Parks’ character rant at Long, transformed into a hideous thing, feeding him, making him eat; it’s awful. But awful in the best sort of way.
The bits of drama worked into the storyline served things well. Once you get to the end and look back at the drama Smith infused into the screenplay, they really add to one another. The ending (I won’t give it away) sort of makes you look at how both Ally and Teddy feel about Wallace, deep down, regardless of everything which came before. Some might see the ending as foolish, or whatever – I don’t see it that way. There’s a real sentimental angle at work that serves the dramatic storyline well. It isn’t just an attempt for a goofy/happy ending to a horror-comedy. It’s how Smith closes out the emotional angle he’d been playing at with the Wallace/Ally/Teddy story. I thought it was probably the best way for Tusk to end. In a way, it’s sentimental, yet still a bit horrifying.
The comedy really works. I’m Canadian, and I thought a lot of the Canada jokes were hilarious. The ‘aboot’ thing is a bit overworked in film/television generally, but other than that it’s really funny. I thought the ‘double double’ joke was pretty funny because I’ve heard lots of people actually say things like that. Some might misinterpret the joke as Smith not understanding what a ‘double double’ actually is, but it’s the opposite – he knows, and he’s making fun of Tim Hortons lovers. At least that’s how I see it.
Also, near the opening Long’s character goes through the airport, and one of the Canadian guys working there is just so ridiculously funny it makes me tear up – plus, his beard is gnarly as all hell.
The performances in Tusk are what really make things chug along wonderfully. Of course people will talk about Parks because he did a great job, as he did in the previous outing with Smith on Red State. And he was fascinating. Really creepy, especially in the early dinner table scenes opposite Long. Some very ominous stuff.
Even Just Long, who I’m admittedly not huge on really, does a good job with the material. He is a perfect fit for Wallace, and was pretty funny at times, especially in his banter with Parks, as well as with the two young girls at the Canadian convenience store (played by the daughter duo of Depp and Smith’s girls). There are a few really creepy points where Long does a fantastic job after his “transformation”; his vocalizations are really god damn scary at times, to me, and I watch a lot of horror. He could have simply wailed, but you could really feel some of Wallace’s fear by the way Long screamed and pleaded for help.
Mainly, though, I really want to talk about Mr. Depp. A lot of people like to say he isn’t actually a great actor, he only takes a role depending on the hat he gets to wear, he sold out, blah, blah, blah. I think that is a load of bullshit. Depp is not only an extremely talented actor, he absolutely blows the screen to bits in Tusk. First off, his portrayal of a French Canadian Quebec accent (for those who don’t know, yes, there are other French people in Canada aside from the people of Quebec..) is so awesome. Even just his speech patterns, let alone the accent, are perfect. Loved it. A lot of times we see Depp in roles where he’s got a sexy sort of edge to him; even his dirty, fiendish Jack Sparrow was meant to have a kind of sex appeal to him. Here, Lapointe is just a really awesome dirtbag. He’s lovable, but good lord is he strange and sort of gross.
One of my favourite parts of the whole movie is when Lapointe mashes down a slider, nearly flat against a table, reminiscing on the only downfall of the great people of Quebec, and then eats it up (special note: wait until after the credits before you leave the theatre or turn off the film – there is a fun little post-credit scene with Lapointe recalling his love of the slider). Plus, there are plenty of other little bits where Depp absolutely sucks the marrow out of every bit of the Lapointe character. Anyone who says he “ruined the movie” or some such nonsense is a hater. Depp is hilarious here. For a second, I almost didn’t recognize him. Once he speaks, of course you’ll know. Before that, though, the prosthetics and the facial hair and the accent almost conceal him. I loved every second of his performance.
I really have to give Tusk a 4 out of 5 stars. It isn’t a perfect film. There are points where things sort of drag a little. I don’t know if the switch between genres had anything to do with pacing – I really liked the genre mashup here – but it’s possible that maybe a little less of a stark contrast between the genres in Tusk might appease more fans. Regardless, this film really hits the right notes. As I said, Smith finds a way to loop all those dramatic elements back together into something tangible while still hanging onto all the comedy and horror of Tusk. Not to mention Smith shot the film gorgeously. His eye for shot composition has only gotten better with time, film after film.
People will say it’s too funny to be all out horror. I say bullshit. People say the “transformation” is too silly to take seriously – I say, you’re watching a movie about a man wanting to turn another man into a fucking walrus, stop acting like it’s an Ingmar Bergman film. Sit back, enjoy Tusk for what it is – a horror comedy with dramatic elements and a few really awesome, creepy, and fun performances to boot. I really can’t wait for this to finally get out on Blu ray because I will most certainly be picking it up. Smith continues to impress me with his horror efforts on this second outing after his initial dip into the genre with Red State. I like the way he approaches horror. Looking forward to some more.