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:

 


WILD (2014)

December 14, 2014

 

Wild Greetings again from the darkness. The best movies expertly provide a visual representation of quality writing. However, the film medium is somewhat limited, and especially struggles, in displaying the complexities of human introspection … something the best writers are able to capture with words on a page. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyer’s Club) and writer Nick Hornby (An Education, High Fidelity) are simply unable to capture the guts of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” – despite the likely Oscar nominated performance of Reese Witherspoon.

It’s quite likely, given the steady stream of rave reviews, that my lack of connection with the film is firmly planted in a small minority of movie goers and film critics. On the bright side, it’s a real pleasure to see Reese Witherspoon follow-up her no frills supporting role in Mud with a strong portrayal of uber-flawed Cheryl.

The story picks up with Cheryl getting ready for her 1100 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 1995. Her lack of trail experience is obvious from the unwrapped, shiny new contents of her “monster” backpack. While walking alone with her thoughts, memories are triggered by such things as a song, a horse, and even a phrase. It’s through these flashbacks that we learn the reasons for Cheryl’s trek towards self-discovery. The illness and death of her beloved mother, a childhood marred by an abusive father, her own crumbled marriage brought on by her promiscuity (“I cheated on him a lot”), and her attempts to dull the pain through heroin abuse, have led Cheryl to the trail head of re-discovering her true self.

Cheryl’s mother is played by Laura Dern (a terrific performance) and while her inspiration is obvious, there is one especially poignant scene that takes place in the kitchen … Bobbi tells Cheryl that she fully understands their plight, and refuses to let that define her life. That powerful scene is negated by the awkward and unexplained relationship Cheryl has with her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski), the underdeveloped best friend support shown from an intriguing Gaby Hoffmann, and the voice mail connection with her brother (Keene McRae). More of these key people and fewer flashbacks might have allowed us to better relate to Cheryl as a person, rather than someone who hasn’t dealt well with a few life obstacles.

The familiar guitar strumming of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” is heard throughout, as are numerous literary quotes that Cheryl used to leave her mark in the trail journals. There are, of course, similarities here to other films such as Into The Wild, 127 Hours, and Eat Pray Love. Also present is the element of a solitary woman in the wilderness … every male presence is greeted with anxiety from Cheryl, especially in contrast to the warm greeting she offers another female hiker.

The biggest missing link for me was Cheryl’s apparent epiphany. We witness a couple of emotional breakdowns along the trail, plus big time blisters, damaged toenails, rain and snow, and nature’s beauty. What’s not explained is her personal growth and self-discovery – the moment when Cheryl put the past behind and went “above her nerve”.  While her desire and efforts are commendable, the real story would be her inner thoughts … those conversations going on inside her brain (and in the book) that led to a conclusion of which we aren’t privy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a likely Oscar performance from Reese Witherspoon (including frequent use of the F word)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a damaged toenail makes you nauseous

watch the trailer: