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 – “The Tribe” 8.19.15

Plemya Movie Poster

As many of you might already know, including my movie meetup and discussion group whom I now see movies with weekly. I have what some may call somewhat of a unique approach to how I pick and choose what films I see. It’s really a rather simple one from my perspective that starts by following press on all of the major festivals that take place throughout the year. Festivals like Cannes (you can pretty much guarantee that if a movie premieres and is well received at Cannes, I will be seeing it later that year or whenever it gets released in the US), New York, Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, and Venice I keep on my radar all year, and then from that point I devise a list of whatever was well received at such and such festival. And that pretty much sums up how my list gets generated. Now there are some exceptions, like films from directors that I admire who choose not to premiere their films at any of the major festivals. Whic applies but is uncharacteristic and is somewhat of a rarity. But even more importantly, this “method” or “approach” to picking films opens up many doors to some of the more lesser known titles that do well at their festival premieres, but unfortunately just don’t seem marketable to a wide audience (and some might say aren’t meant to be). A lot of these are foreign. And each year there’s a pretty substantial list of about 15-20 foreign films that I flag that were well received at some of these festivals, many of them garnering nominations in several categories, and others who wind up winning. Those seem to be the ones I take a closer look at and almost always will add them to my list of movies to see whenever they wind being released here in the States.

Such was the case with “The Tribe”. A film that first caught my attention when it won multiple awards (3 out of the 4 it was nominated for) at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Second, and what struck me most, was that it had what appeared to be a rather unique concept – which was (and I quote) – “a movie that unfolds through the non-verbal acting and sign language from a cast of deaf, non-professional actors—with no need for subtitles or voiceover—resulting in a unique, never-before-experienced cinematic event that engages the audience on a new sensory level.” At first I thought to myself – “wait a minute…so basically a contemporary take on the “silent film”?. So while it certainly piqued my interest I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. Then I kept reading one good thing after another after another about it and decided to myself that there must be something here of value. Knowing little to next to nothing about it other than the 3 awards it picked up at Cannes, the film’s highly original concept, and seeing the kind of trailer that I love but are rare nowadays in that it told you little to next to nothing about it, I jumped at the opportunity to see it during its 1-night/1 show limited engagement here in Portland.

“The Tribe” was nothing like I had ever seen before. It was a total immersive experience into the world of the all deaf characters that inhabited the film. It also totally went against any expectations or preconceived notions that I had going into it. What worked for me here on almost every level is the filmmaker’s ability to engage the audience and keep them on the edge of their seats throughout its entire 2+ hour duration. A mighty difficult task to do taking into account that it revolves around a group or “tribe” (i.e. a gang) of deaf Ukrainian boys in a boarding school (if you even want to even call it a “school” – those who see it will know what I mean) that spend little to no time in class (why would you if there’s nobody there to tell you to?). You see, to expand on the story much further would give away some key spoilers that could potentially ruin it for those who plan to see it. But what I will say is that in this this particular school its boys and girls operate and function in the furthest possible realm of anything you could imagine of what we deem as a proper school. Which forced and challenged the audience to guess what it really all revolved around. It’s a stunning achievement given the many shapes and forms the story takes on as it unfolds, and it brings you deeper and deeper into something you just might not thought possible. The cinematography is beautiful, with long tracking shots and very few edits that really allow the viewer unprecedented access into the proceedings. It’s somewhat of a “deaf crime film” that was incredibly intense; never mind highly controversial, with its highly explicit sex scenes and unspeakable acts of violence in its final act that I almost had to look away from (really). In trying to keep this short as again to not give away any spoilers, “The Tribe” wound up being the most truly unique experiences I’ve had at the theater so far this year, and I walked away from it speechless. It’s a master work of foreign cinema, and it should easily earn a spot on my list of the best films at year’s end.

[B+]

Cannes Favorite – The Tribe – Limited Engagement 1 Show Only – Hollywood Theatre

Wednesday, Aug 19, 2015, 7:30 PM

Hollywood Theatre
4122 NE Sandy Blvd Portland, OR

6 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Winner of multiple 2014 Cannes Film Festival Awards, THE TRIBE is an undeniably original and intense feature debut set in the insular world of a Ukrainian high school for the deaf. The movie unfolds through the non-verbal acting and sign language from a cast of deaf, non-professional actors—with no need for subtitles or voiceover—resulting in a uni…

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Review: “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” 2.1.15

This was a film that I had been following throughout the festival circuit as it had opened to mostly positive reviews at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013. Shown as a 2-part film at that festival with the same title but differentiating each part by “Him” and “Her” it wound up popping up at last year’s Cannes Film Festival put together as one film – “Them”, for reasons I can only speculate on but can imagine the Weinsteins felt a 2-part film would be much more difficult to market and turn off audiences by the daunting task for watching (for further proof see Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant “Che” which was shown in 2 parts but was virtually unseen as it clocked in at just about 4 and a half hours). So here we have the 2 films packaged together in one part that I almost considered seeing in their original 2 parts, but decided to forego the idea and see the version that was released this year on DVD. I wanted to see this film for 2 major reasons, both of them having to do with the fact that I knew little to next to nothing about it other than I thought I had read a Stephen King book by the same name years back and without having researched it though it might be an adaptation of it. That and I really really like Jessica Chastain, who won me over in a number of recent films like “The Tree of Life (2011), “Take Shelter” (2011), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), and last year’s “Interstellar” (I’m also really looking forward to seeing her in the recently released “A Most Violent Year”). She almost never seems to disappoint and is one of the best actresses currently working in the film industry working today. I’m also a fan of James McAvoy. Liking his career trajectory and his choices of films he’s made with movies like “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), “Atonement” (2007), “Trance” (2013″), as well as his TV work in the original BBC version of the show “Shameless” (2004-2013). So not knowing much about it added to the fact that I really admire the 2 leads, was the real reason that led me to want to see it.

The film starts out by introducing us to its 2 leads – a woman named Eleanor Rigby (Chastain) and her husband Conor (McAvoy). The two appear to be madly in love which is seemingly quite apparent from the start. However, soon after, we find Eleanor jumping off a bridge and plummet to what we think is her demise. Though she lives the fatal accident, and returns home to her family, who don’t seem to know how to act or what to do or say since their daughter has just attempted to take her own life. Her father (played by the always excellent William Hurt) encourages her to go back to school to get her mind off of things and gets her back into a program she once dropped out of (for reasons that is uncovered as the story unravels) with the help of a professor (“Doubt’s” Viola Davis). Meanwhile James McAvoy’s character Conor, who runs a restaurant that’s a sinking ship, too goes home to his wealthy but distant father and receives little to next to no compassion other than a place to stay. He does seek solace in his best friend, the chef at his restaurant (Bill Hader, who I loved in last year’s “The Skeleton Twins”), but even he can’t seem to be capable of giving the help Conor seems to so desperately need. Conor begins to track down his ex-wife Eleanor as he appears to want nothing more than to have a conversation with her. Though Eleanor is completely shut off from both him and her family, but finds a bit of sympathy in Viola Davis’ college professor. The film then rears its head and gives us a bit more back story into what event ultimately led to the couple’s decimated marriage. Which is when we as the viewer are entered into a heart-rendering story about grief, loss, and the devastating effects it can have when people are confronted with it.

I wound up being slightly mixed about the film but thought it had more pros than it did cons. First off, it totally went against my expectations of being a mystery, suspense, or horror story and winds up a more conventional and straight ahead drama. Throughout it I couldn’t help but think about other films that I’ve seen that deal with similar themes like death, loss, the grieving process, and failed marriages like Todd Field’s “In The Bedroom” (2001 – one of my top 25 favorite films of all time) as well as 2 other films from 2010 – John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” and Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine. All of which came to mind while watching it. The acting here, as one would expect from both of these two brilliant young actors, is top-notch. Chastain once again puts on a performance that’s a sight to see beaten down by her loss. McAvoy was also almost equally as good as her grieving ex-husband who has his fair share of demons. I also really liked its ruminations on grieving and how everybody deals with it differently, which is a credit to the writing team. Where it fell a bit short with me was its sometimes slow pacing in which it’s a bit confusing as to why Chastain’s character Eleanor or her ex-husband are in grief and mourning until about halfway through, when I personally thought the revelation could have come much sooner and been just as effective. It also felt a bit too familiar as the majority of us have probably seen this same subject depicted and explored before like in the films I mentioned above. Lastly, the ending felt a bit anti-climatic, that left me thinking what the overall message was that the writer and director wanted me to take from it other than grief and the coping of a loss can be incredible difficult. That being said, the two performances, at least to me, were both good enough and the story though a bit trite, was engaging enough that I’d consider it at least a worthwhile watch. Even if the end result leaves a little bit left to be desired.

[B-]