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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A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Love & Mercy” 9.2.15

The second film in two nights in a row that I decided to catch in the theater, was one that I knew little to next to nothing about other than that it was supposedly an autobiographical account of the life, work, and career of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Anybody who read my recent “The Gift” review, may have caught that the reason why I decided on seeing that film on the night that I did, was because another film was sold out. Well, that just happened to be this film. And not only was it sold out, there was a line around the block about 30 minutes or so before to see it when my friend and I arrived. Sometimes, as was the case with this one, certain films fall under my radar. And every so often, I’ll happen to be made aware of them simply because I see so many movies. And going along with that, I’m constantly aware of what other people are seeing. Now I don’t mean this in the commercial sense, as all I would have to do is look at weekend box office reports come Monday morning to see what the majority of people are seeing. What I mean is, especially when it comes to films that open in second run theaters such as this one did, I keep my eye out specifically for more indie-oriented films that stay running for multiple weeks. For the most part, what this means mainly is that they are doing exceptionally well with audiences. So, after being turned away from this film this past Saturday night, which admittedly very rarely happens, I made it a point to catch it at my first opportunity on an off night during the week.

The story itself is somewhat of a parallel one. In that it focuses on its main character, the legendary Beach Boys musician Brian Wilson, but depicts his life in two separate eras. The 1960’s era twenty-something Wilson (played by Paul Dano, who was just recently reminded of his talent as an actor having just seen “There Will Be Blood” (2007) ) and the middle-aged late fourty-something Wilson (played by John Cusack). The film opens in the latter of the two eras, with Cusack’s Wilson sitting in a Cadillac at a car dealership, where he meets his middle life love interest played by Elizabeth Banks. It becomes apparent straight from the get go that there’s something just slightly off about the older Wilson. But even so, Banks’ character takes a liking to him, mostly because of his celebrity (at first anyway). This is much to the chagrin of the older Wilson’s doctor/”caretaker” (played by Paul Giamatti). You see Giamatti’s got his hand and control in literally everything that the older Wilson does – to his inevitable purchase of the car, to the medications he takes, to where he goes and what he does, who he dates, even down to what he eats. As Cusack’s older Wilson is obviously haunted by some sort of mental illness that we’re unsure of. Then we flashback to the earlier days of Dano’s version of Wilson. A co-member of the one of the most successful bands in America at the time, the Beach Boys, and we get to see Wilson in his heyday – the multi-talented singer, songwriter, and composer, who it becomes clear is the brains and genius behind the group. We are given several glimpses into the creative processes in which Wilson penned some of the most better known, popular songs in the Beach Boys catalog. Though along with this process of his rise of becoming one of the most talented, better known musicians of his time, he is faced with adversity all around, most notably by his disapproving father – one of those “nothing is ever good enough” guys, his difficulties with the other members of the group, as well as the psychosis that seems to be developing as he gets more famous and more detached to what some may consider to be reality. The rest of the film then jumps both forward and back in time, with the two subplots involving the older Cusack’s Wilson’s love affair with Banks’ character, along with Dano’s Wilson’s mental dismantling as he tries to maintain his sanity and continue on with the group he made famous.

This wound up being a brilliant film that really dived into and gave you unprecedented access into the mind of one of the industry’s most talented artists in music history. Let me start with the performances – both Paul Dano and John Cusack are astounding in their respective roles as the early and middle-aged Wilson. And in my opinion, are so good and so convincing that they both deserve some awards attention come the end of the year. It’s Dano’s best performance since 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” and Cusack’s best role since 2000’s “High Fidelity”. Paul Giamatti is almost equally as good, although in a much smaller supporting role. He’s a detestable, lecherous character much like Wilson’s father, both whose main agendas seem to be to manipulate the “supposed” mental illness of Wilson (the film makes the argument that his illness was perpetuated by external circumstances) with the sole purpose of profiteering off of genius. Then come the technical components of the film – from the brilliant costume design and “look” from frequent Wes Anderson DP (director of photography) Robert Yeomen that captures the pastiche look of the 1960’s with the utmost authenticity. The script by Oren Moverman (the Oscar nominated “The Messenger” (2009)) is also top-notch and always seems to be trying to stay as true and genuine as possible to the real Wilson story. Then there’s the original music by Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross (“The Social Network” (2010)) which plays as somewhat of an “underscore”, though undoubtedly well done, for the best scenes of the film. In which we’re given a fly on the wall access to the in-the-moment live creative process that would ultimately produce some of the Beach Boys greatest hits (which should please fans of both film and music aficionado’s alike) and had me sitting back with a big smile on my face as I tapped my feet to these songs that are forever etched in our memories. The film’s pacing goes along at a breathtaking speed, as the story engages and totally immerses the viewer into the world of Wilson and his many trials and tribulations he faces along his own life’s way. It’s a great testament to one of the most talented, yet mentally damaged artists in music history, that left both me and the rest of the audience glued to our seats, as the ending credits rolled and we are given the linear notes into Wilson’s rebirth, now in late adulthood, following the success of his most successful work as a solo artist – 2004’s “Smile” complete with a live performance of “Love & Mercy” sung by the real Wilson himself. And not one person stood up until the song was over even though the credits continued to roll. This is among the better of the films I’ve seen this year, and while although it’s not perfect, it’s sure to be universally likable and is done with the utmost sincerity and respect for the artist in which it depicts. A top 10 contender and one that should easily place a spot on my Honorable Mentions list come the end of this year, catch this film if you can, as I can assure you you won’t be disappointed.

[B+]

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “The Gift” 8.29.15

Mega Sized Movie Poster Image for The Gift

My friend and I happened to decide on this film, after we showed up at another, only to find out that it was sold out. Initially I was reluctant – as even despite of seeing its many fine cumulative scores on the movie websites I frequent, it just looked like something that all seemed just a little bit too familiar like something I’d seen before. That, and while I really like 2 out of its 3 main leads in both Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”, “The Town) and Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdom”, “Warrior”, “Zero Dark Thirty) who also wrote, starred in, who made his directorial debut with his film here. It’s also Edgerton’s second writing credit, as he also co-wrote 2014’s “The Rover” collaboratively with his “Animal Kingdom” director – David Michod. Though outside of this, and probably my major reason for my reluctance to wanting to see it, was the casting of Jason Bateman. An actor most known for his work in comedy (and mostly bad comedies might I add) and who I really couldn’t possibly envision playing a serious role such as the one it looked like he played in this. This idea of my not wanting to see a film because it has a specific actor or actors is somewhat of a new thing for me (at least in the past few years). Bateman is among that list of actors alongside Vince Vaughn (who in my humble opinion was terribly miscast in season 2 of this year’s “True Detective”).There are a slew of other actors like Bateman and Vaughn, who have made a string of so many bad films, that I develop what I call my own form of “blacklisting”, in that I don’t even have to hear anything about a certain film if I know it stars one of these actors of which I am referring to. That said, this looked to fit into a genre of which I personally can attest to really liking – the psychological, thriller, mystery one. And given Edgerton’s already proven gifts of being a proficient actor and writer. I was able to overlook the fact that it starred Bateman and walked into it with a clean slate, not really knowing anything about it other than it was Edgerton’s directorial debut and the 3 main leads who starred in it. That, and I read one blurb that described it as this year’s “Gone Girl” (2014) so I was intrigued.

“The Gift” centers around a young married couple named Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who at the start of the film, are relocating back to California from Illinois because of a huge promotion that Simon has received. This said town in California is also very close to where Simon grew up before him and his wife moved to Illinois several years back. After some setting up of the story, mainly the introduction of the married couple and their characters. Simon has a chance encounter with a former acquaintance from his former school days, the slightly off-kilter Gordo (played by Edgerton). Edgerton seems incredibly happy to reconnect with Simon and starts showing up unexpectedly, always bearing gifts. To Simon, he feels threatened by this. Whereas his wife, Robyn, while admitting it is slightly strange, likes to think a bit more highly in people and views Gordo’s gifts as just good faith gestures and simply nothing more than that. So when the gifts start piling in more and more and certain valuables of theirs go missing, Simon becomes more and more increasingly threatened. And somewhat to the dismay of his wife, let’s Gordo know explicitly that he is no longer welcome at their house. This sets off the wheels in motion for the rest of the film, as secrets are exposed and lies covered up, and as Simon and Robyn distance themselves further and further from one another as certain truths are brought into light. We as an audience learn that there are layers and layers of lies and deceit that unfold as we try to figure out who’s responsible for all of it.

The film wound up being a highly rewarding experience even given that my expectations of it were admittedly slightly below average going into it. It took me by quite a surprise in several different areas. It’s a fine example of a of the “stalker” family drama genre. Drawing comparisons, at least to me, to the 1990 film “Pacific Heights” that starred Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, and Matthew Modine. Another film about an unsuspecting couple who deals with a rather unruly tenant who is willing to go to any lengths or cost to expose the truth. Bateman does a serviceable enough job as the husband, and doesn’t necessarily add or detract (which I thought he would) from the film. As does Rebecca Hall as his wife, an actress who, at least in my opinion, always brings her A game to whatever project she involves herself in. But the real credit here is due to writer, actor, and director Joel Edgerton, who in his directorial debut, handles a rather complex and intricate script with a deft hand and a sense of confidence in his cat and mouse setup. The thing I personally would like to highlight about the film, which I personally feel like only the best ones do, particularly of films of this genre, plays with audience expectations and keeps them second guessing throughout almost the entire duration of the film. Just when I thought I had the film figured out within its first act, the film defied everything I thought it was going to be about, and proves to be a smart and refreshing psychological suspense thriller, with a creepy and dark tone throughout like last year’s aforementioned “Gone Girl”. Where we as a viewer (and I will say we because the rest of the theater patrons seemed to have a similar response – at least from the vocalizations I could hear from those seated around me) are stretched out like a rubber band and left on the edge of our seats trying to figure out the many of its plots intricacies. Even given that it got a wide release (probably because of the casting of Bateman), it still felt entirely indie, and none of it (and I mean none) played to audience expectations like so many other films do. It takes a lot of work on behalf of the viewer to constantly disassemble and reassemble its many different changes and shifts in plot developments. Which I personally thought was its greatest strength. And despite it becoming slightly confounding towards the end, it’s something that I think I would and could recommend to just about anyone.

[strong B]