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

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

A ship is the finest nursery in the world.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) (SPOILERS) An odd one, this, as if Disney were remaking The Swiss Family Robinson for adults. One might perhaps have imagined the Mouse House producing it during their “Dark Disney” phase. But even then, toned down. After all, kids kidnapped by pirates sounds like an evergreen premise for boy’s own adventuring (more girl’s own here). The reality of Alexander Mackendrick’s film is decidedly antithetical to that; there’s a lingering feeling, despite A High Wind in Jamaica ’s pirates largely observing their distance, that things could turn rather nasty (and indeed, if Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel  had been followed to the letter, they would have more explicitly). 

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

Duffy. That old tangerine hipster.

Duffy (1968) (SPOILERS) It’s appropriate that James Coburn’s title character is repeatedly referred to as an old hipster in Robert Parrish’s movie, as that seemed to be precisely the niche Coburn was carving out for himself in the mid to late 60s, no sooner had Our Man Flint made him a star. He could be found partaking in jaundiced commentary on sexual liberation in Candy, falling headlong into counter culture in The President’s Analyst , and leading it in Duffy . He might have been two decades older than its primary adherents, but he was, to repeat an oft-used phrase here, very groovy. If only Duffy were too.

Just wait. They’ll start listing side effects like the credits at the end of a movie.

Contagion  (2011) (SPOILERS) The plandemic saw Contagion ’s stock soar, which isn’t something that happens too often to a Steven Soderbergh movie. His ostensibly liberal outlook has hitherto found him on the side of the little people (class action suits) and interrogating the drugs trade while scrupulously avoiding institutional connivance (unless it’s Mexican institutional connivance). More recently, The Laundromat ’s Panama Papers puff piece fell fall flat on its face in attempting broad, knowing satire (in some respects, this is curious, as The Informant! is one of Soderbergh’s better-judged films, perhaps because it makes no bones about its maker’s indifference towards its characters). There’s no dilution involved with Contagion , however. It amounts to a bare-faced propaganda piece, serving to emphasise that the indie-minded director is Hollywood establishment through and through. This is a picture that can comfortably sit alongside any given Tinseltown handwringing over the Wa