Johnny Depp

Sherlock Gnomes (2018)

Here’s a pressing case for Sherlock Gnomes – why is this movie so terrible? Its predecessor, Gnomeo and Juliet, was a clever, fun-spirited retelling of a work with no shortage of creative retellings, but this movie, which tries to do the same, fails to stir up any excitement. Unlike the first gnome-y installment, it doesn’t attach itself to a familiar or beloved story, and though the characters may be well known, they are drawn from two distinct worlds that don’t have a natural meeting place. The star-crossed lovers intersect with a pair of uptight detectives but never occupy one cohesive narrative space.

Since Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) manage to make it out of their first movie alive, we’re venturing into fresh territory, and this time around they are preoccupied with post-marital troubles. Now it looks like their marriage might be the casualty. Their bickering is just a lot of petty back and forth though. If it’s supposed to be something more, we wouldn’t know. We hardly see what’s gnawing at their relationship before the story jumps to Sherlock (Johnny Depp) and Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The two sleuths are hard at work trying to trying to catch Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a Kewpie-like pie mascot who’s been kidnapping a bunch of gnomes throughout the city. This Moriarty is low-key bonkers, more manic energy than deliberate murder-maker like his counterpart in Sherlock and Elementary. He seems content just causing chaos, which is appropriate since this is a family film. When Gnomeo and Juliet’s family and friends go missing, lovers and detectives join forces to get to the bottom of the mystery. At least that is what should happen. Instead, Gnomeo and Juliet, being simple gnome folk, lack serious crime fighting chops and instead just tag along while mostly Sherlock does the work.

I’m game for another attempt at literary mash-up, one that is more purposeful and that uses the diverse characters and plot points to support one another. But as this film shows, bringing together two popular literary universes (do we have to use that word now?) does not in and of itself generate a good or meaningful story. Even the set pieces are dodgy, particularly the most colorful one set in a Chinatown toy/souvenir shop. That Sherlock smugly announces clocks are unlucky gifts in Chinese culture does not make it less racist or self-aware. Also, if you wouldn’t have a white actress to wear a cocktail umbrella as a vaguely Asian disguise, and that’s a big ask, you shouldn’t have your white gnome to do the same. I’m only giving Sherlock Gnomes credit for its care in bringing the minor gnomes to life. When the mossy figures are unpacked and newly settling into their misty London backyard, you want to scoop them up and give them a good clean.

Alt Title: Gnomeo and Juliet 2: Sherlock Gnomes
Released: 2011
Prod: David Furnish, Steve Hamilton Shaw, Carolyn Soper
Dir: John Stevenson
Writer: Ben Zazove
Cast: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mary J. Blige, Jamie Demetriou, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Stephen Merchant, Julie Walters, Richard Wilson
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018

Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie (2016)

art-of-the-deal-movie

The Art of the Deal was probably conceived as a timely send up of Donald Trump, a lighthearted laugh-in to accompany the real business of a presidential campaign. But times have changed, even if Trump hasn’t, and the buffoonish nature of the candidate and candidacy is no longer a late night joke. The golden haired businessman is by sheer force of his personality ramming his way through the country’s political system, taking down the Republican Party and civility along with it. His attacks on Latinos, blacks, and women have given voice to the racists and misogynists, and chances are those voices aren’t retreating without a fight. In light of this and the actual violence that has characterized Trump’s rage-fueled rallies, it’s hard to watch this Funny or Die production and laugh at something that we’re just not laughing at anymore.

The parody is based on his 1987 book and is impressively written, directed, produced by, and starring The Donald. It takes the form of a found footage film and begins with a kid nicking Trump’s book and escaping into his office. The wide-eyed boy sits attentively as his idol recounts his past business exploits, schooling him in the process on how to screw people over to get ahead. The film borrows from its source material and is sectioned off into bold chapters – The Art of Intimidating Rent Controlled Tenants and The Art of Suing Those Losers at the NFL. Anyone with a passing interest in the election will recognize references to Trump’s discriminatory rental policies and his penchant for suing losers (i.e. anyone who disagrees with him). The narrative arc, however, traces his all consuming quest to own the Taj Mahal, not the actual Taj Mahal but the Atlantic City hotel and casino. You know, the classy one.

The film captures the sideshow nature of Trump. He’s bombastic and vainglorious, proud of destroying valuable artwork if it secures him building rights and even more self-satisfied if he inflames protestors in the process. Behind the scenes though, he’s so insecure that he can’t even take a dump without proclaiming it the biggest and best shit ever. The movie also revisits his greatest hits reel, at least that’s what he might call his collection of jaw-dropping proclamations. He tells the kid that his Vietnam vet father would have been more heroic if he had lived instead of died in action, recalls his small $14 million loan from his father, and casually mentions killing people in the middle of the street.

These all have the force of a soft jab though; there’s nothing that comedians and reporters haven’t brought up and broken down hundreds of times already, seemingly to no effect. The movie concludes that what Trump really needs is a healthy dose of humility, as if that would soothe his toxic candidacy. He’s given a few chances and gets some sympathetic, perhaps pathetic, moments. Trump spends his 40th birthday alone, with the exception of his lawyer and some strange kid, and it turns out that Alf, the muddy haired muppet, is his best friend. It is also, in my estimation, his most genuine relationship.

As almost two years of campaigning nears its end, however, light entertainment doesn’t seem an effective commentary on the times – and if that’s all this movie’s aiming for, then one wonders what’s the point. Johnny Depp may provide an amusing and admirable facsimile of Donald Trump, but the divisions in our country and the candidate’s own code of conduct invite more sober reflection and more cutting satire. The most instructive scene is when Trump dismisses and belittles his wife Ivana, literally pushing her out of view so that she remains unseen and unheard. Otherwise, the film is too happy just parroting what he says and does, exaggerating for comedic effect. Fifteen months ago, it might have been funny to watch him taking phone calls while lizarding across his office desk on all fours, but with the election weeks away and the possibility of a Trump presidency upon us, I’m not laughing.

Released: 2016
Prod: Funny or Die
Dir: Jeremy Konner
Writer: Joe Randazzo
Cast: Johnny Depp, Ron Howard, Emjay Anthony, Kristen Schaal, Patton Oswalt, Jason Mantzoukas, Henry Winkler, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer, Alfred Molina, Andy Richter, Michaela Watkins, Stephen Merchant, Albert Tsai, Jack McBrayer, Jacob Tremblay, Christopher Lloyd
Time: 50 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

Into the Woods

into the woods

Revisionist tellings are the thing these days, and upending popular notions of heroism, chivalry, and romance says something about our willingness to part with the way things are supposed to be and instead see things the way they are. Maybe that’s some of the appeal of reality TV, which pretends to be a reflection of some life, though never one that I lead. There is also the much lauded boom of anti-heroes, mostly men, mostly white, fronting massive hit television shows. We like them because they’re badass, or complex as critics say, but also because they share our penchant for really screwing things up.

So it’s appropriate that Into the Woods, the beloved stage musical, is finally getting the flashy cinematic treatment after years in development hell. A staple for the Broadway set, it sucked the glitter out of fairy tales long before Wicked and Frozen’s far tamer efforts at subversion. Was it worth the wait? I can guess what purists would say but for my money, Rob Marshall’s star-studded film delivers a magical and poignant adaptation that may not equal the stage production but is a worthy substitute.

Into the Woods was always a scattershot story, combining pieces of half a dozen fairy tales to create a new anti-fairy tale. In translating the musical to the screen, James Lapine, who penned the original book, excises a few deaths and romantic liaisons and trims some roles. The result is still sprawling, just less so.

The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) center the story with their desire to have a child. Their neighbor, a hideous witch (Meryl Streep) who cursed the family line, promises to grant their wish if they can collect certain items within three days time. They must find the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.

The couple set off into the woods and gradually encounter some familiar characters. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), of beanstalk fame, is forced by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell his beloved cow so that they don’t starve. Little Red (Lilla Crawford) is on her way to visit her old grandmother. Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) is locked in her tower, and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is running to and from the King’s festival.

Each has something that the Baker and his Wife need, and in their desperation, the couple resort to trickery and outright theft to get it. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from a sanitized fairy tale, and those fantasies are precisely what Into the Woods aims to deconstruct. There’s a happily ever after, but it occurs midway through the movie, leaving the second act fertile ground for the dashing of dreams.

Director Marshall has the monstrous task of bringing the beast to life and is more successful with this than with his previous efforts in the genre. Whereas Chicago and Nine are characterized by frenetic direction and editing, here Marshall leads with a more patient hand. It helps that the movie is firmly planted in a world given to the magic of musical storytelling. He lets the lyrics and characters dictate the camera’s eye, and it roams leisurely over the impressive set. (It also helps that he didn’t attempt to film in 3D.)

The movie avoids another pitfall that plagues film adaptations of musicals by casting actors who can sing. They might not all have the power of Broadway vocalists, but their voices suit the medium. Blunt, in particular, brings a gentle nuance to her role as the Baker’s Wife and is especially moving in “Finale/Children Will Listen.” Kendrick already has a Tony nomination (for High Society) to back her up, and Huttlestone and Crawford are likewise experienced singers who add perk but much knowing to their young characters. After a middling performance in Mamma Mia!, I didn’t hold out great hopes for Streep, but she lives up to her billing, instilling fear and ache in equal measure. The real discovery though is Chris Pine, who puts his leading man reputation to good use. Not only does he belt out the film’s funniest number (“Agony” with Billy Magnussen), he proves that he’s damn good at comedy. His buffoonish, over-the-top Prince Charming is something to savor.

Of course the real magic is in Lapine’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics. The words and melodies are some of the most haunting and emotional on stage. As disjointed as the story may seem at times, the moments of clarity each character experiences are arresting and ring with truth, ripping the fairy tales from colorful pages and throwing them into reality. There is charm, beauty, and enchantment, but there is also selfishness, greed, and lust. And while the stories we tell try to keep kids’ naïveté intact, Lapine and Sondheim remind you that children see the world around them. They grow up, and they can’t always be protected. Says Little Red after she’s been tempted and devoured by the Wolf (Johnny Depp) and then freed by the Baker, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot, and a little bit not.”

“Careful the spell you cast, not just on children. Sometimes the spell may last past what you can see and turn against you.”

“Agony” by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen:

“I Know Things Now” by Lilla Crawford:

“There are Giants in the Sky” by Daniel Huttlestone:

“No One is Alone” by Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Lilla Crawford, and Daniel Huttlestone:

Released: 2014
Prod: Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, Marc Platt, Callum McDougal
Dir: Rob Marshall
Writer: James Lapine
Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Joanna Riding, Frances de la Tour, Richard Glover, Simon Russell Beale
Time: 124 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015