Black Mass


You don't want to get on Jimmy Bulger's bad side.

You don’t want to get on Jimmy Bulger’s bad side.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp, Juno Temple, Mark Mahoney, Brad Carter, Scott Anderson, Lonnie Farmer, Mary Klug, Bill Haims, Erica McDermott. Directed by Scott Cooper

There are certain people that you meet who are corruptors. Any contact with them sends you spiraling down a rabbit hole of bad choices which once taken build upon each other until you are hopelessly lost in it. One day you wake up and realize that you are as corrupt as that which you associated with, without meaning to be.

In the 70s and 80s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) – who incidentally hated that nickname and saying it to his face was a good way to get on his bad side, a place you surely didn’t want to be – was the kingpin of crime in Boston. Something of a folk hero in South Boston where he grew up and where most of the Winter Hill Gang, the crew which he ran, were from, he was known to be less flashy than other criminal bosses but no less vicious, although he could be kind and supportive to those in his neighborhood that he felt merited it, as well as faultlessly loyal to family and friends.

One of those friends was John Connolly (Edgerton) who went into the other side of the law as an FBI agent. A rising star in the Bureau, he was brought to Boston to take down Jerry Angiulo (Haims) and his organization which at the time was the undisputed criminal leaders of North Boston and who were making inroads into Southie which was Bulger territory. The two would form an alliance that in exchange for information about the Angiulo family, Connolly would essentially protect his childhood friend and allow him free reign in Boston, which would come back to haunt him.

In addition, Jimmy’s brother Billy (Cumberbatch) was a state senator and the most powerful politician in Boston at the time. While Jimmy took great care not to involve Billy in his affairs, Billy would later suffer by association to his notorious brother and be forced out of politics.

Jimmy would run roughshod over Boston for more than a decade until an incorruptible Federal Prosecutor, Jimmy’s own hubris and Connolly’s own lies and misinformation would lead to Jimmy going on the run for 16 years until he was eventually captured in 2011 (he has strongly denied that he was ever a government informant, incidentally).

Scott Cooper, most notable for his Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart, has elicited the most powerful performance Depp has given in years and one of his best ever. Barely recognizable in a protruding forehead prosthetic, receding white-blonde hairline and rotting teeth, Depp inhabits his role like it’s a comfortable apartment. Early in the film, he shows a compassionate Bulger – devoted son and fatherĀ  and loyal friend – but as the film goes on, a vicious and paranoid streak begins to emerge as Bulger, prone to violence, begins to lose control. It’s a riveting performance, not unlike that of Al Pacino in the original Godfather although not quite to that level of accomplishment. Nonetheless, it’s wonderful to see an actor who has been on a bit of a cold streak of late return to form and deliver the kind of performance we know he’s capable of. Hopefully this will mean that Depp will have some really good roles in his near future.

The supporting cast is extremely accomplished. Best of the bunch is Edgerton who is blossoming into an extraordinary actor and building on his performance here and in The Gift is poised to ascend to Hollywood’s A-list. His John Connolly is a Southie street kid who has matured into a federal agent, but whose misguided loyalties and tragic misfire on crime fighting strategy brings the character to an inevitable fall. Cumberbatch, who has parlayed an ability to spot roles that grow his career into stardom, has little to do but when he gets the opportunity to shine makes the most of it. Plemons, Cochrane and Brown as Bulger associates Kevin Weeks, Steve Flemmi and John Martorano respectively are also outstanding as are Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll and David Harbour as lawmen Charles McGuire, Fred Wyshak and John Morris respectively.

While the movie mainly takes place in the late 70s and early to mid 80s, Cooper doesn’t club you over the head with the era recreation. There is a timeless feel to Southie and it is in many ways much the same now as it was then. Cooper wisely chooses not to mess with that by throwing tons of bell-bottoms, mutton chops and floofy hair. Sure, there are period automobiles and signage as well as home furnishings but it is all rather low-key. Boston itself is given a kind of wintry patina that makes you feel a little bit on the cold side throughout, even when some of the action takes place on beautiful spring and summer days.

While I don’t think this is quite as good as some of the gangster epics of Scorsese and Coppola, it nevertheless merits consideration as a memorable addition to the elite films of the genre, which I think it will be considered as when years go by. Depp will have a good deal of stiff competition this year but his performance here will have to merit at least some Best Actor consideration for next year’s Oscars. It may lack quality women’s roles and might feel a little bit on the long side, but it is the best crime drama you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Depp’s best performance in years. Likely to become an essential gangster movie in years to come.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a bit too long and a little too masculine.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of bloody violence, quite a bit of profanity, some sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the scenes depicting murders in the movie were filmed in the same locations where the actual murders took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cold Nights, Hot Salsa

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Wild


Reese Witherspoon thinks she's found a place without paparazzi but she's keeping an eye out anyway.

Reese Witherspoon thinks she’s found a place without paparazzi but she’s keeping an eye out anyway.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffman, Keene McRae, Brian van Holt, Cliff De Young, Mo McRae, Will Cuddy, Leigh Parker, Nick Eversman, Ray Mist, Randy Schulman, Cathryn de Prume, Kurt Conroyd, Ted De Chatelet, Jeffee Newman, Art Alexakis, Beth Hall. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Sometimes life throws things at us that we just can’t bear. We make bad choices because of it, go down paths we were never meant to explore and find ourselves lost. Few people can find their way back from these deviations from course.

Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) is a young 26-year-old woman starting an 1,100-mile hike on the rugged but beautiful Pacific Crest Trail which starts at the Mexican border and ends at the Canadian. She only plans on going from the southern terminus into Ashland, Oregon but it’s still a daunting prospect, considering she has virtually no experience whatsoever with long distance hiking.

Cheryl has had some tough times of late. Her mom (Dern) passed away suddenly of cancer. She descended into heroin addiction and unprotected sex with multiple partners. Her marriage to Paul (Sadoski) has ended in divorce. Her life was a mess and she knew it. She felt that she needed to clear all the toxins out of her system by “walking it out” as her mother would have put it. So she decided that, having seen a book on the trail in her local bookstore in Minnesota that this would be her best way to get herself out of the world for a little while, get herself right and move on with her life.

The way isn’t without challenges. Her first day only nets her five miles in a harsh desert climate – at that rate it would take her 220 days to finish her hike – or about 130 more than she thought. She has difficulty setting up her tent – it takes her hours. Then she figures out that she has purchased the wrong fuel for her cookstove, meaning that she’ll have to eat her dehydrated meals as a cold mush. Not particularly appealing. She’s also managed to get boots that are too tight and are causing some major issues.

There are other pitfalls as well, many of them human – men who want to get into her pants, by flattery or by force. She feels incredibly lonely and there is little to do but think about what got her there in the first place. With a bulldog-like persistence and a toughness that would surprise anyone who thought this petite blonde had any in her, she adapts and overcomes, winning over admirers on the trail – but the question is will this be enough to change her life?

Vallee, whose last film (Dallas Buyers Club) won Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, might just repeat that feat here. Witherspoon with already one statuette to her credit for Walk the Line is absolutely wonderful here, eschewing Hollywood glamour for the realism of trail life and the tawdry existence that preceded it. She is in nearly every scene, often alone, This is her film to carry and carry it she does, imbuing Cheryl with vulnerability which eventually becomes an inner toughness.

Dern also turns in an award-worthy performance as the optimistic mom who has enough inner strength to raise two children alone after leaving an abusive alcoholic husband. She is reinventing herself when her life takes a tragic turn but for the most part she remains a breath of fresh air throughout, trying to soldier on despite having almost no money. She is representative of a million single moms out there, although I would have to say that I don’t think many would have the sort of life philosophy that Bobbi (Cheryl’s mom) had.

Vallee tells the story mainly through a sequence of flashbacks which take many different forms. Some are mere flashes, only lasting a second or two while others are fully formed scenes that play in Cheryl’s mind. Others are things her mind is on concurrent to the events of her hike, happening silently. Cheryl narrates from her journal and leaves messages at way stations, quoting diverse authors and poets. She becomes something of a celebrity on the trail, being one of the few women hiking alone and certainly the only one hiking alone on as much of it as she is.

The cinematography by Yves Belanger is breathtaking, but then again he has quite the canvas to work with. The music is simple and non-treacly, often using popular songs by artists like Paul Simon and the Hollies to pull the story along. Nick Hornsby’s script is smart and well-reasoned for the most part but one of the main objections I have to the movie is the lack of connection from A to B to C. We know that Cheryl sinks into a morass of alcohol, heroin and unprotected sex after her mom passes away but we don’t see how that happens; one moment she’s caring for her mom, the next she’s finding out she passed away, the next she’s sitting in a bar trolling for men and the next she’s shooting up. We see the descent in bits and pieces, like a book with pages missing. The ascent is much more drawn out.

While this isn’t the best film to come out in 2014, it has some of the best performances in it. Witherspoon alone is reason enough to catch this movie in theaters while it’s still out there – the scenery is also best seen on a big screen. Definitely one that should be on your must-see list this season.

REASONS TO GO: A searing performance by Witherspoon, nearly certain to get an Oscar nomination if not the win and Dern may well join her. Gorgeous cinematography. Incredible story.
REASONS TO STAY: Never really get a sense of why Cheryl moves from one mindset to another.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content, a fair amount of nudity, some drug use and a good deal of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Cheryl Strayed appears in the film as the woman driving the truck who drops off Reese Witherspoon at the beginning of the film. Also, the daughter of Cheryl Strayed plays Cheryl as a little girl in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tracks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies