BLACK MASS (2015)

September 19, 2015

black mass Greetings again from the darkness. Movie goers tend to fall into one of two groups when it comes to Johnny Depp – big fans or denigrators. Whichever side of the line you fall, there are few actors who can claim such a diverse career of on screen characters ranging from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape; from Donnie Brasco to Captain Jack Sparrow; from Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd; and from John Dillinger to Tonto. Depp now turns his talents towards one of the most unsympathetic real life characters imaginable … South Boston’s infamous crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) proves yet again that he is an actor’s director, rather than a visual technician or story addict. In this adaptation of the book from “Boston Globe” reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Cooper has Depp and Joel Edgerton as his two leads, and an incredibly deep supporting cast that provide the look and feel for this period piece dramatizing the crime and corruption during Bulger’s reign.

When one thinks of the memorable kingpins of crime/gangster movies, those that come to mind include Michael Corleone (The Godfather movies), Tony Montana (Scarface), Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas), and Frank Costello (The Departed). The Costello character was supposedly partially inspired by Bulger. What made each of these characters fascinating to watch was the insight we were given into the psychological make-up of each and the inner-workings of their organization.  And that’s the disappointment of Cooper’s film.

For the Whitey Bulger story, there are two distinct directions to explore: the building of Bulger’s criminal empire, or the motivation of the FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton) as he juggled his job and relationship with Bulger. Unfortunately, the approach here is to show a hand full of cold-blooded murders to prove Bulger’s management style, and a few FBI meetings that show the obvious uncertainty within the agency. Rather than a muddled mash-up, a more interesting movie would have chosen a path and dug in deeply.

Despite the story issues, it is fun to watch how Depp and Edgerton tackle their roles. Under heavy make-up (wrinkles, receding hairline, hillbilly teeth, and crazy contact lenses), Depp becomes the intimidating force of Whitey Bulger. Just as impressive is Edgerton as Agent Connolly, as we witness the Southie neighborhood boys all grown up, but still playing cops and robbers … and it remains difficult to tell who the good guys from the bad. Edgerton’s cockiness and strutting capture the ego and ambition necessary for a federal agent to bend so many rules. In fact, despite the vastly different approaches, it’s not entirely clear which of these two fellows possesses the greatest ambition.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother who became a State Senator. We get very few scenes featuring the brothers, and in fact, Cumberbath’s best scenes are instead shared with Edgerton. It’s difficult not to chuckle at their first meeting in a restaurant as we watch a Brit and Aussie talk it out with south Boston accents. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott play Edgerton’s fellow FBI agents, while Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane (especially good) and W Earl Brown make terrific Bulger crew members. Peter Sarsgaard leaves quite the impression as a doped-up associate, while Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson and Juno Temple provide the film’s minimal female presence. Corey Stoll storms onto the screen as a Federal Prosecutor who is not amused by the relationship between Connolly and Bulger, but this movie belongs to Depp and Edgerton.

The concern is that any viewer not already familiar with the Whitey Bulger story may find the story not overly interesting, despite the terrific performances. Fortunately, this viewer was mesmerized by last year’s exceptional documentary entitled Whitey: United States of America v James J Bulger … a must see for anyone who wants full details into the Bulger reign of crime and terror, as well as his 20 years on the lam.

watch the trailer:

 

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A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014)

September 18, 2014

tombstones Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the annual off-season gift from Liam Neeson. Seemingly every year, he provides us with a February or September release that requires his particular set of tough guy skills. This time, he plays Matthew Scudder – of the popular Lawrence Block crime novel series (17 books).

Director Scott Frank (The Lookout) works to create a 1970’s feel, although the film opens up as a flashback to 1991, and quickly fast forwards to 1999 NYC. There are no shortage of clichés here, yet nothing is over the top; and the bleak, somber, usually rainy setting establishes the tone that fits with “unlicensed” private detective Scudder’s preferred method of living and detecting.

Of course, Scudder is a recovering alcoholic and former cop, with a tragic, careless incident on his record and conscience. The film is so ever-bleak, that the moments of humor … though often awkward and out of place … are quite welcome. The only shining light of innocence comes courtesy of a sharp homeless kid named TJ, played by Brian “Astro” Bradley. TJ is a Philip Marlowe wannabe, and quickly assumes the role of Scudder’s partner/intern/IT Department.

Bad guys are everywhere. Even the serial killers (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) target the family members of criminals, so as to minimize the involvement of the proper authorities. As an improper authority, we can’t ask for better than Liam Neeson. He works for “favors”, not a paycheck. It should also be noted that this time, he is more likely to outwit the bad guys, than kick their butts.

Other support work comes courtesy of Dan Stephens (“Downton Abbey“), Boyd Holbrook, and creepy cemetery groundskeeper (is there another type?) Olafur Darri Olafsson, who creates yet another memorable character with limited screen time (see “True Detective“).

Mr. Neeson gets plenty of telephone action, which plays right into the strength of Taken, and it’s pretty amazing how much WALKING he does throughout the story. He looks great walking in his duster, but it seems a bicycle would be more efficient … though admittedly, much less intimidating. As a whole, though the movie is probably a bit familiar, it’s the little details and the powerful Liam Neeson that makes it a welcome late summer release.

**NOTE: the character of Matthew Scudder previously appeared on screen in the 1986 Hal Ashby film 8 Million Ways to Die, and was played by Jeff Bridges.

watch the trailer:

 

 


END OF WATCH (2012)

September 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hands down, this is the best cop movie in quite awhile. Not only that, it’s about street cops, not flashy detectives wearing $600 suits. This is no good cop/bad cop dance. These aren’t rebellious, power hungry cops run amok flashing their badges. Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Pena) are simply dedicated cops who are committed to serving the mission and surviving another day.

This film works for two reasons: the performances of Gyllenhaal and Pena, and the amazing writing and directing from David Ayer. Mr. Ayer is best known as the writer of Training Day, but also wrote Dark Blue and S.W.A.T, and directed Street Kings. He grew up in south central Los Angeles, and clearly has a talent for bringing real lifecop action to the big screen.

 Taylor and Pena are long time partners who have familiarity and banter down to a science. These are guys who become brothers based on spending every day together and trusting the other with their lives. These two scoff at the department mandate to write more traffic tickets, and instead find themselves smack dab in the middle of a Mexican drug cartel. That’s not a good place for two street cops and they soon wind up on the wrong list of some really bad people.

We see shootouts, car chases, chases on foot, rescues, traffic stops, house searches and just about anything else that these heroes are subjected to on a daily basis … just trying to maintain some sense of civility on their beat. No matter how frustrated you get with your job, put yourself in their “comfortable footwear” and imagine rolling up on “Big Evil”, who wants nothing more than to make you suffer.

 There is a really interesting thing going on with video cameras. Taylor is filming his daily activities for a class he is taking, while this group of bad guys is also seen filming their nightly crimes against humanity. Also, the supporting cast doesn’t play a huge role, but David Harbour, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick are all solid. The exception is Cody Horn who is way out of her element, and quite a distraction.

Pena and Gyllenhaal are a joy to watch and strike the necessary bond required for this movie to work. We never once doubt that these guys are brothers and fully trust worthy. Good guys doing a tough job in a bad part of the world. This is a gritty, realistic film that, at times, has a documentary look and feel to it. More of this, please.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t want to miss the best cop movie in years

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of a Buddy Flick is The Other Guys

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mf2K9GzgiF0