Skip to main content

What's he done? Everything!

Black Mass
(2015)

(SPOILERS) It’s telling that Black Mass has received more attention for Johnny Depp’s (latest) physical transformation than its actual content. Those peepers! That (lack of) hair! Scott Cooper translates the long-gestating (it has been suggested it took this amount of time to get the movie made because those involved were afraid of potential repercussions if they painted their then-fugitive protagonist in a less than flattering light), so-bizarre-it-must-be-true story of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger to the big screen, but does so with insistent lack of flair, edge or intensity. Bulger, the odd scene aside, ends up a passenger in his own vehicle, and as a result the cock-eyed activities of the FBI garner the lion’s share of the interest.


Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent John Connolly is in thrall to Whitey Bulger, hero worshipping the man who once showed him a kindness as a kid and offering a deal whereby he will protect the hoodlum if he helps bring down Italian crime family the Angiulo Brothers. That Bulger yields next to nothing (it appears Connolly lifts transcripts of other informants and edits them as Whitey’s words), and continually gets away with it is less baffling than the manner in which Connolly, an egoist and idiot fuelled by his own disproportionate sense of self-worth, flagrantly defends his co-Bostonite, defers blame, blusters and barracks, delivers informants to Bulger for summary execution, and then finds himself promoted for it. Particularly since Edgerton portrays Connolly as the kind of blundering oaf who wouldn’t look out of place in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!


But despite this tonally off-kilter approach (it wouldn’t have taken much, and it might possibly have been to the picture’s benefit, to push Black Mass all the way into the realm of black comedy; at least it would have been ingrained with a stronger sense of identity), the FBI inter-dealings are fascinating, with Connolly swaggering around, swearing at his bosses and making grandiose claims and gestures, while his colleague John Morris (David Harbour, who has established himself as one of the go-to supporting actors at the moment) is swept along, fretting over his own complicity. Kevin Bacon channels his best Alec Baldwin as increasingly incensed overseer Charles McGuire, who finds his hands tied due to the ongoing Italian mob prosecution. It isn’t until Corey Stoll’s no nonsense Fred Wyshak assumes oversight that Connolly’s little games starts to unravel.


And they’re little games that guarantee the ascendency of Bulger in place of those the FBI chooses to chase down. The peculiar thing here, although perhaps not so peculiar as both Cooper’s Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace had serious narrative shortcomings, is how little impact Bulger and his activities make. Depp is ostensibly delivering another freak show act, by way of a Jack Nicholson impression (appropriate, since Nicholson essentially played Bulger in The Departed), but despite the intensity of his contacts and generally bizarre demeanour, he’s mostly absent.


There’s one great, two-part scene where his character comes alive, and it isn’t too surprising that this should be courtesy of the FBI plotline. Bulger attends Connolly’s for dinner, along with Morris and right-hand man Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). He then proceeds to menace Morris across the kitchen table regarding his willingness to give away a secret family recipe. This comprised one of the early trailers for the movie, and sold me the picture as a riveting must-see. 


Bulger follows up by threatening Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson, note perfect as ever), who loathes everything about him, in her bedroom. It’s the closest we get to a taste of just how crazy, disturbing and all-round psychotic Bulger is. Particularly as the picture has earlier made a great show of downplaying the aspects in favour of instructing us on how loving a father and beloved by the neighbourhood he is.


There are numerous accounts of Bulger’s capacity for violence, but they’re mostly absent from the picture. Cooper seems disinterested in making us flinch, which adds to the sense that the movie Bulger may be a bad man, but he isn’t that bad. The violence and menace are perfunctory, offhand and lacking in impact. The violence isn’t affecting; it carries no potency or power to disturb, either because Cooper doesn’t care to make it so or because he’s unable to. Nothing about Bulger has the resonance of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, say, and while that character may be an unreachable touchstone, it’s an easy one to fall into referencing; Black Mass is so undifferentiated from its genre mates, with its hardboiled voiceovers and time shifts, it can’t help invoke gangster classics while highlighting its inferiority to them.


And on that subject, as well-furrowed as the FBI side is, Bulger’s activities are so loosely documented as to be incoherent. When the IRA narrative arrives it’s the sort of cheesy thing we expect from lazy Oirish-American movies; we’ve had no inkling of Bulger’s deep connection with his homeland hitherto. There’s an offhandness generally that means little passes notice, be it his using his mother’s house as a slay ground or shooting crazy Brian Halloran (Peter Saarsgaard) in a car park.


The supporting cast is well-chosen and mostly very good, from Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons to Dakota Johnson as Whitey’s wife, to W Earl Brown as hit man John Martorano. Benedict Cumberbatch brings the baggage of being Benedict Cumberbatch to senator brother Billy Bulger (another so-crazy-it-must-be-true aspect of the story), and can’t overcome it even, or perhaps especially, when he’s making his mother scrambled eggs on toast.


One wonders what kind of problems Cooper encountered in the editing suite, since a probably fairly significant on-the-lam sequence has been excised (Sienna Miller doesn’t feature at all as Bulger’s girlfriend) and many of the whys and whats of Bulger’s hits are too oblique to really penetrate.


Both Jim Sheridan and Barry Levinson were attached to direct at the various points and, even with the latter’s rough time of late, I think both would have delivered something more effective than what we have here (Levinson made Bugsy, don’t forget). Like De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, Black Mass ends up as a missed opportunity, meaning the story is sure to be revisited sooner rather than later. Perhaps it will end up as the miniseries initially mooted when the Weinsteins were attached. As for its awards prospects, I can’t see Depp getting nominated, not for one scene. It’s about as likely as a nod for Mordecai.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?

All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s fairly routine to find that films lavished with awards ceremony attention really aren’t all that. So many factors go into lining them up, including studio politics, publicity and fashion, that the true gems are often left out in the cold. On some occasions all the attention is thoroughly deserved, however. All the President’s Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture Oscar; an uplifting crowd-pleaser beat an unrepentantly low key, densely plotted and talky political thriller. But Alan J. Pakula’s film had already won the major victory; it turned a literate, uncompromising account of a resolutely unsexy and over-exposed news story into a huge hit. And even more, it commanded the respect of its potentially fiercest (and if roused most venomous) critics; journalists themselves. All the President’s Men is a masterpiece and with every passing year it looks more and more like a paean to a bygone age, one where the freedom of the press was assumed rather than a…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

The head is missing... and... he's the wrong age.

Twin Peaks 3.7: There’s a body all right.
First things first: my suggestion that everyone’s favourite diminutive hitman, Ike “The Spike” Stadtler, had been hired by the Mitchum brothers was clearly erroneous in the extreme, although the logistics of how evil Coop had the contingency plan in place to off Lorraine and Dougie-Coop remains a little unclear right now. As is how he was banged up with the apparent foresight to have on hand ready blackmail tools to ensure the warden would get him out (and why did he wait so long about it, if he could do it off the bat?)


Launching right in with no preamble seems appropriate for his episode, since its chock-a-block with exposition and (linear) progression, almost an icy blast of what settles for reality in Twin Peaks after most of what has gone before this season, the odd arm-tree aside. Which might please James Dyer, who in the latest Empire “The Debate”, took the antagonistic stance to the show coming back and dismissed it as “gibbering nonsen…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re the Compliance Officer. It’s your call.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
(SPOILERS) The mealy-mouthed title speaks volumes about the uncertainty with which Tom Clancy’s best-known character has been rebooted. Paramount has a franchise that has made a lot of money, based on a deeply conservative, bookish CIA analyst (well, he starts out that way). How do you reconfigure him for a 21st century world (even though he already has been, back in 2003) where everything he stands for is pretty much a dirty word? The answer, it seems, is to go for an all-purpose sub-James Bond plan to bring American to its knees, with Ryan as a fresh (-ish) recruit (you know, like Casino Royale!) and surprising handiness in a fight. Yes, Jack is still a smart guy (and also now, a bit, -alec), adept at, well, analysing, but to survive in the modern franchise sewer he needs to be more than that. He needs to kick arse. And wear a hoodie. This confusion, inability to coax a series into being what it’s supposed to be, might explain the sour response to its …

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Oh look, there’s Colonel Mortimer, riding down the street on a dinosaur!

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
(SPOILERS) There’s no getting round the dinosaur skeleton in the room here: yellow face. From the illustrious writer-director team who brought us Mary Poppins, no less. Disney’s cheerfully racist family movie belongs to a bygone era, but appreciating its merits doesn’t necessarily requires one to subscribe to the Bernard Manning school of ethnic sensitivity.

I’m not going to defend the choice, but, if you can get past that, and that may well be a big if, particularly Bernard Bresslaw’s Fan Choy (if anything’s an unwelcome reminder of the Carry Ons lesser qualities, it’s Bresslaw and Joan Sims) there’s much to enjoy. For starters, there’s two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ustinov (as mastermind Hnup Wan), funny in whatever he does (and the only Poirot worth his salt), eternally berating his insubordinate subordinate Clive Revill (as Quon).

This is a movie where, even though its crude cultural stereotyping is writ large, the dialogue frequen…

You may not wanna wake up tomorrow, but the day after that might just be great.

Blood Father (2016)
(SPOILERS) There are points during Blood Father where it feels like Mel is publically and directly addressing his troubled personal life. Through ultra-violence. I’m not really sure if that’s a good idea or not, but the movie itself is finely-crafted slice of B-hokum, a picture that knows its particular sandpit and how to play most effectively in it.

Sometimes the more you look, the less you see.

Snowden (2016)
(SPOILERS) There are a fair few Oliver Stone movies I haven’t much cared for (Natural Born Killers, U-Turn, Alexander for starters), and only W., post millennium, stands out as even trying something, if in a largely inconspicuous and irrelevant way, but I don’t think I’ve been as bored by one as I have by Snowden. Say what you like about Citizenfour – a largely superficial puff piece heralded as a vanguard of investigative journalism that somehow managed to yield a Best Documentary Feature Oscar for its lack of pains – but it stuck to the point, and didn’t waste the viewer’s time. Stone’s movie is so vapid and cliché-ridden in its portrayal of Edward Snowden, you might almost conclude the director was purposefully fictionalising his subject in order to preserve his status as a conspiracy nut (read: everything about Snowden is a fiction).