A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Black Mass” 9.19.15

In what in my opinion was the first release to start the 2016 Oscar season, which begins at the start of the fall and lasts through February, was this film from director Scott Cooper (2009’s “Crazy Heart” and 2013’s “Out of the Furnace”) who seemed like a wise choice to adapt the feature film true story of the city of Boston’s most notorious and long running crime boss, James “Whitey” Bulger, whose ascent to power from a small time crook in the mid-seventies to the godfather of the Irish Mob who wrecked havoc on the city of Boston for the next 15 years that followed came with much enthusiasm and anticipation on my part. For one, the crime genre is one in which I love, a genre of which I admittedly seek out just about every good-looking film to come out of it. Then there was the casting of Johnny Depp, an actor of whom I admire but to be honest that I have been terribly disappointed with in terms of the kinds of pictures he’s attached himself in recent years. In fact, I’ve been so displeased with his movie choices that he’s another one of those actors of whom I spoke of in a recent review that I had almost become “blacklisted” because of the trajectory in which his career has taken since ever since well, he played John Dillinger in the 2009 Michael Mann crime film – “Public Enemies” (a film in which I personally really liked but which had its fair share of detractors, mostly because it was shot on digital). So for me it was the first Johnny Depp release that I had been excited about in almost 6 years. That and the word from the Toronto Film Festival, where it premiered just a few short weeks ago, was that Depp underwent a full transformation to play the infamous Bulger. Sporting half a head of hair, wrinkles, caps on his teeth, and crystal blue contact lenses. But even more than just playing a character that looked like the real Bulger, underneath it was word that his performance was incredible. And much talk had been building up about him earning his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor since his turn 8 years ago as Sweeney Todd in Tim Burton’s – “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007). So I was excited about the prospect of a return to form, at least in terms of genre, since the days of “Donnie Brasco” (1997), “Blow” (2001), and the aforementioned “Public Enemies” (2009).

The story doesn’t take it’s time in jumping us right into the world of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Who we’re first introduced to after an opening taped confession by one of his right hand man’s (the new to me and rather impressive Jesse Plemons) testimony to the FBI. Which I thought was an interesting way to start the film, towards the end of his reign. Him being one of Bulger’s most respected wise-guys and showing his open testimony with the FBI. We then jump back in time to 1975, where we meet Bulger (played by Depp), an up-and-coming wise guy who is just starting to make his presence felt in the city of Boston, specifically in the South Boston section of the city. We learn rather quickly in a scene involving both him and the character played by Plemons, recently beat to a pulp by one of the members of the biggest rivals of the Whitey Hill Gang (a moniker the city and FBI would coin him and his cronies with), the Italian Mob; the Angiulo’s, and in one of the first act’s payback scenes we soon realize you better not double cross Bulger, or any other members of his gang for that matter. Following this, we’re introduced to a plethora of different characters, most of whom are integral to Bulger’s real life persona. The key three players being Bulger himself, his brother Billy, a prominent Massachusetts state senator (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), and their childhood friend, John, now a head supervisor in the FBI (played by the always reliable Joel Edgerton who just wrote, directed, and starred in this summer’s “The Gift”). Bulger also has a wife at home, as well as a son and mother of whom he cares for deeply. As he begins to make his mark on the city and ascends to power, he links up with his childhood friend now turned FBI agent John, who enlists Bulger to be an FBI informant in order to take down his rival gang, the Italian Mob family Angiulo. This sequeways into the second act of the film, where Bulger pretty much is handed the keys to the castle since he is now protected by the law, to wreak havoc on the city of Boston by whatever means necessary. And becomes a kingpin in racketeering, drugs, and committing countless murders. Director Cooper seamlessly shows this transition rather nicely as the psychopathic Bulger, begins to carry out all of his own “duties” on his own. After all, why wouldn’t Bulger? He’s both a made man and even more importantly a man protected by the FBI.

This was a film that had me thinking intently following in both my movie group’s post-meetup discussion and well into the rest of the evening. Let me start by pointing out what I liked about the film. First off, was the totally immersive and trans-formative performance by Depp, which is really hard to explain in words and is something you should see for yourself. At no point throughout the film did I feel like I was watching Johnny Depp. Which contradicted Jack Nicholson’s version of Bulger in Martin Scorsese’s grossly overrated crime film “The Departed” (2006), whose performance I felt like fell on the side of self parody and who in my opinion was terribly miscast. Depp plays the character to a T even underneath all of the makeup. It’s an astonishing piece of method acting. Depp nails all of the sociopathic mannerisms (or shall I say “Bulgerisms”) and makes the character so convincing, that each time he’s on screen you fear for what he’s going to do next. Never mind the piercing cold stares he gives through those crystal clear blue contacts that literally makes it seem like he’s looking through everyone he runs into. It’s a bravura performance and one that just might land him an Oscar nomination. Though it might wind up being “too cold” for the Academy. I also liked how it defied my expectations and was nothing like the fast-paced, hyper-kenetic Scorcese gangster films of the same genre, but permeated a sense of stillness and tranquility throughout (as I shared with my group – at one point I whispered to one of its members sitting next to me – “why is this film so quiet”? Only to hear Depp utter the same words mere moments later in the film, but said with a few more profanities thrown in). I think this is a testament to Cooper’s handle of his treatment of the material, making it feel almost clinical and procedural, so when the violence does erupt in several key scenes, it packs such a wallop, that really all it can do is send a shiver down your spine. This more restrained approach was one of the film’s greatest strong points outside of the acting. It boasts a great cast with the aforementioned Edgerton and a lot of familiar faces in small parts, like the aforementioned Cumberbatch (who has very little actual screen time), Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, and who was maybe the biggest surprise, the incredibly talented Peter Sarsgaard, who plays a small but important role contextually speaking.

Well, even despite the film’s strong points there were several other areas of the film in which I had some pretty significant criticisms of. For one, it’s overly long and felt unnecessarily stretched out especially within its final act or the film’s last third. Even at 122 minutes, it felt like about 20-25 minutes could have been trimmed off of it and it still would have been equally to if not just as effective. I also had a difficult time in how it treated some of the film’s characters. Both Bulger’s and Edgerton’s wives are introduced as integral parts to the story only to be dropped completely halfway through (one of my movie member’s called this an “implication”). Why some may agree, In this sense they; along with many of the other film’s many other characters, felt underdeveloped with a lack of follow through on behalf of the writing team. Then there was the film’s weakest link, in that it felt like it didn’t know how to end itself. And does so rather abruptly and anticlimactically. Even despite many of its strong components, when all is said and done, it wound up feeling like something that was all a little bit too familiar like something we’ve seen done a dozen times before – a slightly above average, run-of-the-mill crime-drama biopic, saved mostly by its scene-stealing, can’t look away possible awards contender performance by Depp. On top of that, its treatment is topical and really never digs deeper than below the surface. While I can recommend seeing it; mainly just for Depp’s performance, in hindsight; at least for me, it’s the kind of film I wished I would have waited to see in second run theaters.

[a strong B-]

Black Mass – w/Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch

Saturday, Sep 19, 2015, 3:30 PM

Regal Fox Tower 10
846 Sw Park Ave Portland, OR

10 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Synopsis: The true story of one of America’s most violent and infamous gangsters, Whitey Bulger. Johnny Depp stars as Bulger, who was the brother of a state senator and was eventually convinced to wear a wire for the FBI to bring down the Italian mafia in Boston after they invaded his territory. Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”, “Out Of The Furnace”) di…

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Review – ‘Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger’ 10.18.14

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

In what was probably my second most anticipated documentary of the year behind “Life Itself”. Joe Berlinger’s (“Paradise Lost” Trilogy) “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Burgler” tells the story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious South Boston crime boss who Martin Scorcese based Jack Nicholson’s character off of in his film “The Departed”. Brought to us by CNN films, a brand new subsidiary of CNN that focuses primarily on documentary features, and who has released both last year’s excellent and haunting “Blackfish” and this year’s “Life Itself” (currently at my #1 spot for both best documentary and best film of the year). They seem to be at the current forefront of financing specific documentaries so that they can be released to a wider audience. And so far, I can say I am very impressed with the types of documentaries that they’re producing. But even more reason why I was excited because this was by documentarian Joe Berlinger, the director of such acclaimed films as his superb 1992 documentary “Brother’s Keeper”, which focused on a the trial of a semi-illiterate farmer, the 1996, 2000, and 2011 “Paradise Lost” Trilogy, about the unfortunate long and drawn out trial of the West Memphis 3. Which mind you are three of some of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Then 2004’s probing look at the band Metallica in “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”, and finally 2009’s intense examination of the South American oil trade “Crude”. Berlinger is right up there with the caliber of documentary filmmakers like Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”), Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), Errol Morris (“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”), James Marsh (“Man on Wire”), and Ken Burns (“The Central Park 5”). All documentary filmmakers who are at the top of their game and whose documentaries almost never fail to disappoint.

The film starts off by introducing us to several South Boston residents, most of whom were either eye witnesses or victims of families who were terrorized by “Whitey” (aka James Burgler otherwise known as “The Irish Godfather”) who reigned and was king of the organized crime world in the United States for almost 25 years going back to the mid seventies and staying in power until the late nineties, which at that point he went on the lam for 13 years until his capture in 2011. Whitey was the boss of the infamous Walter Hill gang, a band of Boston wiseguys who were completely and utterly ruthless, menacing, and terrorizing in equal respects, and who also were responsible for dozens of murders. Whitey’s ring grew so big that by the late nineties to early aughts he landed a #2 spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted. Second to that of only Osama Bin Laden. But here’s the kicker – he had also been an FBI informant for years. Whitey was let free to run wild and become the head of the most notorious gang the United States has ever seen. All while under the knowing eye of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Only to be informed by the same organization he helped out to essentially flee, then land on their list of Most Wanted, until his capture in 2011. Where at the age of 83 he would go on to be tried for 19 murders. The documentary focuses on Whitey’s rise, his reign of terror, his relationship with the FBI, wiseguys, informants, trial lawyers, eye witnesses, and families of victims; mostly in and around the Boston area. And asks the central question – how could a Mob boss who headed a gang that was so ruthless possibly have also worked for the United States government?

There is a little something for everyone in this documentary. Being in that I have always been fascinated by the Mob. Like most guys I know who were at a young age. I was always interested in people like Al Capone and John Gotti. That and I loved films like Frances Ford Coppola’s exemplary “Godfather” Trilogy (1972, 1974, and 1990), Brian DePalma’s 1987 film “The Untouchables”, and what still might be arguably the best film made about the Mob – Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” (1990). Anybody with even the faintest interest in any of the above people or films will most likely find this documentary worthwhile. It’s filled with informative interviews from members of the Boston community who were in some way involved with Whitey, be it by association with the Mob or by ways of being a victim of them. It also contains some great archival footage, voice recordings, and eye witness testimonies. Furthermore it’s a compelling and thought provoking look at both his rise and fall as well as the deep, multi-layered levels of government corruption. Particularly by that of the FBI. The amount of protection this guy received from one of our supposed to be most trusted government organizations is appalling. Lastly, I thought it did a fairly good comprehensive job at depicting Whitey’s run from his rise to his fall, as well as the court proceedings that took place when he eventually was captured in 2011. The only couple of criticisms I had were at times it felt like an overload of information that I personally had a hard time following. Similar to when I watch Asian films about crime families. Just the sheer amount of people involved from all aspects, while important to depict, can often times be overwhelming and can wind up confusing the viewer. Which at a few points happened to me here. It also felt slightly one-sided, in that most all of the testimony you see or hear from people in the film are from people who are against Whitey and want to see him put in jail. Which is totally understandable. I just thought to myself there had to still be some Whitey supporters that they could have interviewed to go along with it which would have made it seem a bit more balanced. Those two criticisms aside, this is a well thought out, comprehensive, thought provoking depiction of one of the most notorious crime bosses in United States history and his own
government who protected him.

Grade: B