HOSTILES (2017)

January 2, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker is influenced by one of the all-time classics, that filmmaker best deliver a movie that not only stands up to inevitable comparisons, but also one that has its own identity, playing as more than a copy. Writer/director Scott Cooper (from a manuscript by the late Oscar winner Donald E Stewart) succeeds on both counts even as he tips his Stetson to John Ford’s western classic THE SEARCHERS.

If you are familiar with Mr. Cooper’s CRAZY HEART and OUT OF THE FURNACE, then you know his style is never hurried, and to expect minimal dialogue. You might think of him as the anti-Aaron Sorkin. Cooper’s characters tend to only say what must be said, and prefer to communicate through subtle gestures and actions that define their character. In this latest, he re-teams with Oscar winner Christian Bale, who plays the quietly simmering Captain Blocker. It’s 1892, and the legendary Army officer/soldier/guide is ordered to escort a Cheyenne Chief and his family through dangerous and unchartered New Mexico territory, so that the Chief may die in peace in his native Valley of the Bears, Montana. During a career of brutal warfare against the Native Americans, Captain Blocker has developed a deep-seeded hatred, and only accepts the assignment after his pension is threatened.

The opening sequence immediately immerses us in the constant danger faced during this era. Rosamund Pike watches as her homesteading family is brutally slaughtered by Comanche warriors. She survives only by escaping into the woods, although it’s a bit of stretch to believe that this homemaker marm could outwit the Comanches. Circumstances find Ms. Pike’s traumatized character (the actress’s go-to wide-eyed look) joining and complicating Captain Blocker’s convoy.

Wes Studi plays Chief Yellow Hawk, and the film’s only weakness is in his not having a more substantive role, as we are teased a couple of times with nuanced exchanges between he and Bales’ Blocker. The stellar supporting cast includes Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Timothy Chalamet, Adam Beach, Peter Mullan, and Scott Wilson. Ben Foster also appears as an Army soldier accused of murder … another addition to the convoy, as he is to be escorted to prison.

The somber film follows this traveling party as they move slowly and methodically across the open plains and wilderness. There are no moments of levity, as death and danger are constantly hovering. No real reason for optimism exists, and surviving the day is the only goal. Despite the appearance of little happening, there is much going on here for the characters and in commentary on the times. At its core, the story is about Blocker’s reclamation of his soul and humanity; although redemption may not be possible as he recalls Julius Caesar and getting used to killing, but not to losing men.

Political correctness is avoided in many scenes, though the message is clear that the hatred between the Native Americans and the mostly Anglo settlers and soldiers stems from the unethical seizure of land by violent force. Amends are not possible even with a change of heart. It’s in these moments where we desire a more in-depth look at the various native factions.

Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi works with some amazing vistas, landscapes and rock formations. He deftly balances the breathtaking beauty of the land with the intimacy of the mission. There is a relentless undercurrent of simmering emotion throughout the film, much of which comes courtesy of Christian Bale. Sporting a mustache to rival Poirot, Bale is remarkably adept at silently expressing disgust, rage, resolve and resignation. His groans and grunts convey as much as soliloquies for many actors. While he feels remorse and seeks redemption, we are left with the not-especially-upbeat message that we are what we are.

watch the trailer:

 

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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:

 


OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

December 15, 2013

furnace1 Greetings again from the darkness. Who in the world thought this would be the right time to release this film? Between holiday shopping and the new release schedule chock full of Oscar bait, dropping this hard-edged little film into theatres was box office suicide. And what a shame that is because there is definitely an audience for this exceedingly well acted snapshot of 2008 Rust Belt misery (has quite the holiday ring to it, eh?).

furnace3 The steel mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania was once thriving, but is now on life support … just like the father of Rodney and Russell Baze. Casey Affleck plays Rodney, the brother who viewed enlisting in the Army as his way out of Braddock. When we meet him, he is about to leave for his 4th tour in the Iraq war. Russell (Christian Bale) is the more grounded, trying to do right brother. Russell dutifully works in the mill while trying to make a life with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana).

Since life never hands folks in these towns a break, Russell ends up in prison, Rodney’s fourth tour leaves him scarred physically and emotionally, the dad dies, the girlfriend bolts, and the sleazy drug and crime world congregate right on top of the brothers’ heads. Rodney goes deeper into the ugly world of bare-knuckle fighting in an attempt to pay off his gambling debt to a local crime head played by Willem Dafoe (in yet another reptilian role). If you think cockfighting furnace2is merciless, the bare-knuckle fights held in backwoods Appalachian Mountains make that look like child’s play … and no tamales! The film is at its best when the nastiest of all these characters is on screen. Woody Harrelson plays Harlan DeGroat (great character name!), the soulless crime and drug lord of the area, who also runs (and fixes) these brutal fights. Harrelson is at his most menacing here, and even has Dafoe’s character a bit jumpy. Harlan DeGroat has no redeeming values, and admits to having “a problem with everybody”.

The story itself is quite predictable, but Bale, Affleck and Harrelson keep us glued to the screen. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Dafoe have moments, but mostly their characters are underwritten here. Sam Shepard adds blue collar royalty as the uncle of the Baze boys. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) re-wrote Brad Ingelsby’s script, and it suffers from leaving us wanting more in regards to background and makeup of these characters. Still, the strong performances and the excellent score from Dickon Hinchliffe, keep us engaged and make this grimy, hopeless world something we can’t turn away from.

**NOTE: for a prime example of why so many of us consider Christian Bale one of the finest actors working today, check out the way he reacts to his release from prison … breathing fresh air for the first time, nervous energy that goes with freedom, pure joy in seeing his brother.

SEE THIS MOVIE: if you are looking for a movie that absolutely should not be viewed over the holidays, but you get a kick out of hillbilly evil

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the family is looking for a light-hearted, feel good flick for group viewing after a day of feasting on the Christmas beast and opening presents.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClzRVlMhU2E


CRAZY HEART (2009)

January 3, 2010

 (12-28-09) Greetings again from the darkness. The broken down country singer finding redemption could be one of the biggest cliché’s in life and the movies. Somehow first time writer/director Scott Cooper and the great Jeff Bridges make it seem authentic, raw and touching.

Much of their success is in the amazingly subtle performance of Jeff Bridges. Heck, I believe I have the early stages of emphysema just from watching the film! Bridges’ skill has always been that he melts into his role. You don’t even believe he is acting – he is just that good. Here, he descends into the role of Bad Blake. Alcoholic, chain-smoking, nearly dead to the world.

Supporting work from Maggie Gyllenhaal is fine, though a bit unbelievable and Robert DuVall (also listed as a producer) plays Blake’s only real friend who offers him a bit of support when needed. This recalls DuVall’s excellent turn many years ago in Tender Mercies.

What sets this one apart is the realistic and raw performance of Bridges. The man is not afraid to put it on the screen. He does a good job with the singing and is certainly believable onstage. His protégé is played by Colin Farrell and their interacting is a bit awkward, as one would expect .. Farrell’s character has gone on to superstardom, while trying not to forget his mentor.

This one is being compared to The Wrestler, but I don’t feel the need to do so. It stands on it’s own and certainly Mr. Bridges should be a contender for the Oscar he has earned on more than one occasion. T Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton wrote the music, including the excellent “The Weary Kind”, which should gather some Oscar love.