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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

This popularity of yours. Is there a trick to it?

The Two Popes (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes joke, in which he dropped The Two Popes onto a list of the year’s films about paedophiles, rather preceded the picture’s Oscar prospects (three nominations), but also rather encapsulated the conversation currently synonymous with the forever tainted Roman Catholic church; it’s the first thing anyone thinks of. And let’s face it, Jonathan Pryce’s unamused response to the gag could have been similarly reserved for the fate of his respected but neglected film. More people will have heard Ricky’s joke than will surely ever see the movie. Which, aside from a couple of solid lead performances, probably isn’t such an omission.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.