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

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

We’re looking into a possible pattern of nationwide anti-Catholic hate crimes.

Vampires aka John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter limps less-than-boldly onward, his desiccated cadaver no longer attentive to the filmic basics of quality, taste, discernment, rhyme or reason. Apparently, he made his pre-penultimate picture to see if his enthusiasm for the process truly had drained away, and he only went and discovered he really enjoyed himself. It doesn’t show. Vampires is as flat, lifeless, shoddily shot, framed and edited as the majority of his ’90s output, only with a repellent veneer of macho bombast spread on top to boot.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe I’m a heel who hates guys who hate heels.

Crimewave (1985) (SPOILERS) A movie’s makers’ disowning it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing of worth therein, just that they don’t find anything of worth in it. Or the whole process of making it too painful to contemplate. Sam Raimi’s had a few of those, experiencing traumas with Darkman a few years after Crimewave . But I, blissfully unaware of such issues, was bowled over by it when I caught it a few years after its release (I’d hazard it was BBC2’s American Wave 2 season in 1988). This was my first Sam Raimi movie, and I was instantly a fan of whoever it was managed to translate the energy and visual acumen of a cartoon to the realm of live action. The picture is not without its problems – and at least some of them directly correspond to why it’s so rueful for Raimi – but that initial flair I recognised still lifts it.

I admit it. I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation.

Videodrome (1983) (SPOILERS) I’m one of those who thinks Cronenberg’s version of Total Recall would have been much more satisfying than the one we got (which is pretty good, but flawed; I’m referring to the Arnie movie, of course, not the Farrell). The counter is that Videodrome makes a Cronenberg Philip K Dick adaptation largely redundant. It makes his later Existenz largely redundant too. Videodrome remains a strikingly potent achievement, taking the directors thematic obsessions to the next level, one as fixated on warping the mind as the body. Like many Cronenbergs, it isn’t quite there, but it exerts a hold on the viewer not dissimilar to the one slowly entwining its protagonist Max Renn (James Woods).

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.