Tuesday, October 6, 2015


Sicario is a War on Drugs thriller with lean focus and expansive dismay. It finds terrifying situations and moral uncertainty in every scenario. Cartel violence is bleeding in the drug trade, causing chaos in Mexico and tension in border towns. But does that justify a swaggering ends-justify-the-means form of policing? This movie is drained of any semblance of triumphalism, so thoroughly unsettled by violence and corruption that it can’t even begin to think its way to a happy ending. We start with a taskforce led by a driven agent (Emily Blunt) investigating a kidnapping, slamming into a drug house in suburban Phoenix and finding walls lined with dead bodies, and a potentially fatal surprise in the shed out back. Soon the agent is pulled into a secret mission to take down a drug lord across the border. It seems like a good idea, but soon she questions her colleagues’ motives and tactics as the body count grows. They’re hunting people who do bad things, but must they do bad to do so?

That’s not an uncommon theme in crime fiction, blurring the lines between cop and criminal, painting in grey strokes. But what is uncommon here is the bottomless detached despair behind the slick surfaces and excitements. Blunt quickly finds herself marginalized, used as bureaucratic cover, or tasked with watching for deadly complications as the men leap forward ready to kill anyone suspicious. The leaders of the mission are a gruff flip-flop wearing Texan (Josh Brolin), who is determined to strike at the cartel within Mexico, saying his job is to “dramatically overreact,” and a reserved mystery man (Benicio Del Toro) who quietly refuses to tell his newest colleague where he comes from or what his goals are in any detail. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay slowly develops the group dynamic as Blunt is brought along without being brought in. She’s there to help them, but they don’t seem to value her. She’s just another competent armed body to throw at the problem.

The camera follows steadily as this small group of law enforcement professionals hunt down leads through torture, intimidation, and deception, then attack selected targets in sudden, painful violence that’s over in quick splatter and rapid-fire flashes. But even in the downtime, a droning dread keeps suspense sickly simmering underneath. Director Denis Villeneuve is good at that, his missing-children thriller Prisoners and doppelganger head-scratcher Enemy making heavy existential draining disturbance out of concepts that are plenty unsettling to begin with. Sicario is his best film yet, taking a tense simmering score and patient camera slowly pushing and fading to create a world where danger can come from anywhere, where it’s not only difficult to decide what to do about bad guys, but it’s impossible to know who has your back and who hopes to use you as bait. It’s an old bromide to say two wrongs don’t make a right. This movie finds lines already crossed by tactics in motion before we, or Blunt, joins.

Forces on both sides of the conflict have gone from potential good intentions to chaotic bad outcomes, to a wrong, a wrong, a wrong. Getting right side up again is fraught. The film’s visual strategy is to literalize the blurry divisions between lawful actions and illegal intentions, between outsiders and in-groups, by creating dividing lines in many shots. We see light and shadow, glass-walled offices and long border fences, walls and cells, windows, balconies, curtains, and conference tables. Anything where people can find themselves physically or symbolically separated from others or from the outside world is casually deployed to create a sense of disjunction, of being stuck apart on two sides of any given issue. In one casually striking moment, Blunt is in a parking lot near a highway off-ramp, framed so the “WRONG WAY” signs are visible behind her. It’s hard to know what’s right, when the boundaries in every moment are so clear and yet so easily thoughtlessly crossed.

A thriller and a mystery, Sicario is serious crime pulp, grimly satisfied to follow process and arrive at what it thinks are harsh truths about cycles of violence and the inscrutable differences between legal killings (state sanctioned, or at least overlooked) and illegal ones. (“Sicario” means “hitman,” opening text informs.) There’s a responsible weight as violence is shot for impact, but not for thrills, choosing instead to linger on drips of blood or mutilated bodies instead of the moment of visceral excitement. At one point Blunt stands on a Texas rooftop, looking across the border to see flashes of distant Mexican firefights. “You like fireworks?” an officer asks. It’s a movie that doesn’t deny the allure of the action, and yet can’t be entirely satisfied by its trauma. After a long gut-wrenching sequence set in claustrophobic tunnels and in eerie green night vision, the climactic killings take place just off screen, dramatic and matter-of-fact, the frame’s focus on a hitman’s dispassionate glare.

Villeneuve’s consistent overwhelming sense of dread gives the violence and threats, and attendant paranoia, a feeling of a sickness spreading, infecting all who go near it. The characters who care about the ethics of the situations grow only more rattled. The ones who feel righteous about their actions grow only harder, more distant. Both move together through a tactile movie, the great cinematographer Roger Deakins capturing sharp images with vivid details (dust motes, dried blood, bruises, gouges, bullet holes, bandages), and with stately establishing shots like something out of The Shining’s opening finding police caravans snaking to their destinations or a plane’s shadow slowly lurking across desert canyons. In its specificity it creates a picture raw and cold, finding its leads in increasingly suspenseful and surprising encounters. But it is not cold out of heartlessness. It is a film of frightening clinical despair, with only worry and tension, and no clear moral answers.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Robinson Crusoe on Mars: THE MARTIAN

Remember the great scene in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 where, desperate to find a way to save stranded astronauts in a failing spaceship, NASA engineers are presented with a box of spare parts and told to figure out how those fit together as a makeshift solution? The Martian is that scene for over two hours. In its opening sequence the first astronauts on Mars evacuate the planet during a sandstorm that knocks one of their crewmates off the medical signals and into the deadly dusty darkness. They think he’s dead and leave him behind, where he wakes up alone and afraid with a desolate lifeless planet all to himself. He has to find a way to make 60 days worth of supplies last up to four years, the time it could take to get someone back to pick him up. And that’s only if he can make contact with Earth sooner rather than later.

It’s a surprisingly absorbing experience to watch one man think his way through complicated story problems. Sure, it’s the sort of mystery that’s impossible to think through faster than the characters on screen. But there’s a certain convincing popcorn logic to the whole string of science thought experiments presented for our Robinson Crusoe on Mars in a relatively hard sci-fi premise. No alien twists or sudden water-filled oasis on the horizon, he can only stay in the pressurized makeshift lab or wander out with his spacesuit to scavenge whatever mechanical bits he can to make his unexpected extended stay survivable. Though it wouldn’t be hard to root for anyone’s survival in that situation, it helps that he’s played by Matt Damon, a likable enough presence on screen, equivalent to stranding peak James Stewart or Tom Hanks. He’s corn-fed Americana aw-shucks smart, putting one foot in front of the other.

We watch as he tries to power his life support systems, grow crops, and phone home. Back on Earth his NASA colleagues (Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Sean Bean, Donald Glover) quickly notice movement in satellite photos and start working on ways to get in touch, and get him back. In between are his traveling crewmates (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie), unaware the man they’re mourning is alive and might be calling on them to help, too. All those actors are great, believable in their competence and drive, with great timing delivering complicated dialogue. It’s one of those big Hollywood ensembles where the characters are the sum total of their job descriptions (their titles pop up on screen at each intro) and the recognizable faces are meant to fill in the unspoken rest. No one has time for backstory, personal problems, or emotional appeals. There’s not even a token villain. It’s all can-do cooperation and high-stakes business.

I’m sure the armchair rocket scientists in the crowd could still quibble with the results, but at least the filmmakers have a nuts and bolts commitment to showing their work. The characters walk through each new option or development with lots of technobabble patter and math lab/science center jargon, talking through variables, calculations, and equations, triangulating timetables and press releases while weighing the needs of the many with the needs of the few. This could be dull, especially in the relentless exposition and talky narration cutting down on potential poetry of space flight and lonely unearthly vistas of red-tinted desert. But what makes it work is the crisp tick tock editing, cutting for suspense and propulsion between people crowding around computers and white boards and the lonely plight of the one man they’re mobilizing brainpower to save.

Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) has adapted Andy Weir’s book into a screenplay balancing determined problem solving, often clever and surprising, with a mild but charming wit cutting through the heavy material. It’s not glib banter. It’s the light needling and gallows humor of serious smart people who are good at their jobs, but feeling the pressure. It plays into director Ridley Scott’s interest in world building, process, data displays, and men on missions, allowing him to turn this Cast Away meets Gravity by way of Randall Munroe's What If? into something his own, an easily tense space survival story, even if the end is not once in doubt. The Martian has some visual overlap with his Alien/Prometheus world in cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s unfussy 3D views of production designer Arthur Max’s functional worn-down tech and austere sand-swept Mars terrain. But Scott also has relaxed fun with it, making amusing tension out of, say, Damon struggling to duct tape a depressurizing suit shut, or finding room for a fun disco soundtrack. It’s an efficient and entertaining workmanlike brainteaser of a movie.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Man on Wire: THE WALK

The Walk opens on a question: Why? It tells the true story of Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker who, in 1974, decided to string his high-wire between the towers of the newly built World Trade Center in New York City. The question is a natural response, and a reasonable place to start. Why risk death on a dangerous and illegal act of daredevil theatrics over 100 stories above the ground? To Petit, who fancies himself an artist, a death-defying poet of motion, it is do or do not. There is no why. It’s quickly apparent that neither the man nor the film can adequately articulate a response that’ll explain. They both leave it to the sheer beauty and wonder conjured up by the act itself to feel out an answer. He’s a dreamer who simply wants to surprise the world with something amazing, a fleeting moment of transcendence, because he believes he can. Why? No. Why not?

Think of the film as one sparkling feat of ingenious three-dimensional spectacle paying homage to another. Director Robert Zemeckis has made a career out of pushing special effects out on the high-wire of believability. He’s made time traveling characters doubling back on themselves (the Back to the Futures), cartoons interacting with real actors (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), grotesque slapstick maiming (Death Becomes Her), manipulated historical footage (Forrest Gump, Contact), scarily vivid plane crashes (Cast Away, Flight), and uncannily fluid motion capture worlds (The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol). Taking full advantage of what movies can do, he’s a master technician interested in telling classically developed narratives in popcorn cinema at the edge of what’s possible. So of course he’s committed to bringing to life the story of a man who saw the impossible and stepped out on the wire anyway.

Starting with a sharp close-up of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s grinning face – it arcs out of the 3D frame with topographical specificity like Herzog’s cave paintings – The Walk’s first shot pulls back until we see he’s perched on the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Behind him glowing computer sunshine gleams off a perfect shiny CGI New York City skyline. It’s vintage in look and theatrical in presentation, utterly and perfectly unreal. Playing Petit gives Gordon-Levitt a chance to be larger than life, leaning into ebullient ringleader’s bravado. He plays a man who’s always putting on a show. How else could he convince not only himself, but a small group of accomplices as well, to plot a stunt that never stops looking insane to outside eyes? With an acrobat’s posture and a showman’s energy, he breaks the fourth wall, jauntily narrating his story like he’s telling a tall tale. Well, it’s certainly tall, and would definitely be hard to believe if it weren’t already proficiently chronicled in James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man on Wire.

We watch as fluid, sparkling CGI and Dariusz Wolski’s gliding camera animate broad nostalgically filtered scenes of Petit’s early life. As a boy, a family of tightrope walkers performing in a circus near his small town fascinated him. He strung up some rope between two trees in his backyard and slowly learned to keep his balance. (It’s a fine allegory for any kid who knew early passion for an art.) Once grown, he trained with an expert (Ben Kingsley) before heading to Paris where he scraped by with money made from impromptu sidewalk shows. Eventually, he’s crossing small ponds, then the two peaks of the Notre Dame cathedral. But it’s seeing New York’s twin towers in a magazine that really ignites his imagination.

For most of its runtime after the introduction to Petit’s origins, the film – scripted by Zemeckis with Christopher Browne – is a thin, light, and functional heist movie, where all the reconnaissance, team-building, and scheming has a benign, maybe even noble, goal. The only thing they’re out to steal is a moment of bystanders’ attention, a moment to look up in awe at what one determined daredevil is capable of. He recruits his girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon) to travel to New York with him. Two friends (Clément Sibony and César Domboy) join them, willing to help sneak the wire between the tops of the towers. Along the way they find some Americans (Steve Valentine, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, and Benedict Samuel) who are willing to get involved in this daring scheme. There’s a simple pleasure in process during the planning stages as a brisk montage flows from Petit’s imagination out into the tricky real world of elevators, foreman, and security guards.

Often treading close to surface-level corniness – music booms and the camera swirls with sentimental reverence, while the ensemble trades likable banter – the movie is completely intertwined with Petit’s exuberant self-confidence. It builds in anticipation. How could a recreation of this impossible act possibly make the build-up pay off? There’s double-edged suspense, wondering if Petit will fall, and if the movie will. Then he steps off the edge of a tower onto a wire strung across the 200-foot gap 1,350 feet in the air. That’s a long way down. It’s terrifying and beautiful, intense feelings mixed in one transcendent breathless sequence. Zemeckis floats across the expanse with Gordon-Levitt in some of the most brilliantly realized heights I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. It’s worth the wait. Both the film and the stunt that inspired it are examples of people putting faith in the power of their skill and planning to pull off impressive amazement.

When Gordon-Levitt first stands at the very corner of the roof, wind blowing his hair as he wavers, holding his precarious balance, the effect is shockingly peaceful in its intensity. The movie climaxes with this dizzying, lovely sequence, as overwhelmingly tense and lovely as it should be to sell the majesty of the moment. It’s moving to see the characters nervous and astonished as Petit slowly maneuvers across the open air with no safety precaution to catch him. That’s also what provokes a tangibly physiological response. I’ve never been as lightheaded with vertigo while sitting in a theater—palms sweating, teeth clenching, stomach fluttering. Not since Scorsese’s Hugo has a big studio production used 3D so well. Here it captures not only the scale of the stunt, and the danger below, but the strangely serene unreality of a truly remarkable moment. The effects are a perfectly realized essence, not photorealist, but beyond, convincing and strikingly vivid in depth and scope.

And yet it’s not only a thrill of technical accomplishment. It’s stirring to see a dream realized. It’s a simple story told with complex visuals conjuring convincing and transporting awe, inviting an audience to contemplate what a small group of dedicated human beings are capable of, great creation, but also great danger. 9/11 resonances are deftly sidestepped, but are difficult to avoid entirely. Though they remain unspoken, it’s hard not to feel the tower’s extratextual modern absence elevating the final moments as Petit leaves us with his wistful pride in his old memories, and the skyline slowly fades to black. Zemeckis has skillfully returned us to a time when the towers were riskily made magic, Petit daring us to watch and gasp.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Monster Cash (Grab): HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2

Hotel Transylvania 2 is the sort of movie that’ll satisfy some in the audience some of the time, but will satisfy no one all the time. It’s one of those cheerlessly and mercenarily divided family films where the jokes for parents and the jokes for their kids are completely separate. We get a joke about a butt, then a throwaway gag referencing childproofing. We get a joke about new parents needing alone time, then a joke about a zombie falling off a cliff. It’s broad in both cases, reaching for easy jokes and lazily winding its way down a set of obvious stereotypes. In its cartoony way it at least proves it’s willing to pander to everyone equally. But when I see Genndy Tartakovsky’s name in the credits, and think back to the great cartoons he’s been involved with – Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars – it’s hard not to wish this monster mash was more. This movie somehow doesn’t allow him the room to show off his visual pop, expressive action imagery, and effective all-ages plotting. It is dull, repetitive, and infantilizing.

It’s all too slack and aimless, the talented computer animators at Sony Animation finding nothing new to say in a world already fairly exhausted of potential last time. It picks up where the first Hotel Transylvania ended, with the cute vampire girl (Selena Gomez) having fallen in love with a dopey human boy (Andy Samberg) while her protective father (Adam Sandler) grew to be okay with it. Except he’s still harboring anti-human sentiments that doesn’t go away during the opening wedding, or through a few time jumps that bring him a grandson (Asher Blinkoff). See, the little kid with his big doe eyes and curly red hair is just too human for his grandpa’s (vam-pa’s) liking. Why, if the kid doesn’t sprout his fangs by his fifth birthday, he might be totally human. The vampa would be sad not to have his vampire genes passed on, but worse the kid might have to go live in the human world instead of a soft slapstick monster hotel. What’s a grandpa to do?

The screenplay by Sandler and Robert Smigel uses the monster/human tension to stage a too-cutesy metaphor for prejudice of all kinds. The boy’s parents will be okay letting their son be whoever he was born to be, but grandpa’s slow on the uptake. He conspires to sneak the kid out on a road trip with Frankenstein (Kevin James), The Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), The Invisible Man (David Spade), The Wolfman (Steve Buscemi), and a gelatinous green blob. They go through the countryside showing the boy how much fun it is to be a monster, but because they’re all buffoons they actually show how irresponsible and soft they’ve become. A stop at a vampire camp is a weird crotchety skewering of overprotective parenting. Are we supposed to be on the monsters’ side when they scoff at sweet campfire songs and roll their eyes at a condemned tower the campers aren’t allowed to play on? Seems fine to me. Later, after the monsters collapse said tower and set the camp on fire, the counselor accuses them of child endangerment. Uh. Yeah.

All of this is in service of an obvious message to respect others’ differences and accept people’s identities no matter what. They were born this way. It’s a nice moral, and I guess there’s enough zipping around and potty humor to hold kids’ attention. But it’s both too adult and too childish, unable to find a good middle ground between limp slapstick shenanigans, loose sight gags, loud pop music, mild riffs on monster iconography, and what the MPAA might call “thematic material.” By the time Mel Brooks shows up as great vampa Vlad, wheezing in his recognizable exaggerated old man voice (which has only grown more authentic as the years pass) it’s clearly a movie haphazardly aiming at too many demographics to work. It’s just an uninspired attempt to milk more cash out of a hit. How else to explain the prominently displayed Sony brand cell phones the characters use? It’s not every day you see an animated movie with product placement.

Human Resource: THE INTERN

A cozy comedy of human connection with just enough drama to give its sweet conclusion some weight, The Intern is a mostly charming fantasy of intergenerational cooperation. The story follows a lonely retired boomer businessman (Robert De Niro) who is looking for a way to stay busy after the death of his wife. He finds a flyer for a local tech startup looking for senior citizen interns, a gimmicky outreach idea. They want people with experience (and, no doubt, pensions making lack of salary less of an issue) to help the growing online clothing retailer make ends meet. Of course the old guy gets the position, where he finds himself working closely with the company’s busy founder (Anne Hathaway). You might guess that the rest of the film shows that a 70-year-old and a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings can learn from each other, become friends, and all end up slightly happier for it. You’d be right.

Pleasant and comfortable, the movie is soft, fuzzy, and warm—the cinematic equivalent of a fancy comfy sweater fresh from an expensive dryer. It happily goes for surprisingly few cheap shots about the generation gap. De Niro wears a suit every day while his younger colleagues go fairly casual. But there’s no stumbling bumbling how-do-you-work-this-thing shtick. Hathaway is an ambitious techie small business owner juggling devices (and a marriage) while looking to grow her brand. But there’s no kids-these-days digital curmudgeon muttering. It’s not a story about a classy old guy helping a frazzled young lady build a better business. Nor is it a story about an out-of-touch grandpa doddering his way to hip style. Instead, the film in its quiet way asserts that all people are basically the same, friendships are important, and goofy grown children (De Niro’s desk is surrounded by young dopey dudes) and dapper old folks alike can bond over shared values. It’s sweet.

Undeniably sentimental, it’s nonetheless refreshing to see a big studio comedy deal in such small stakes. Hathaway and De Niro have warm sympathetic chemistry basically free of mansplaining, and never once tips over into icky romance. In fact, it’s a light movie about relationships that doesn’t feel an obligation to hit any romantic beats, slipping a few glimpses into subplots simply for extra flavoring. The bulk of the story follows the leads through the ups and downs of daily office life, going to meetings, talking to suppliers, debating strategy, or retrieving a errant nasty email (a stretch). The growing company has its problems, though not so many they can’t have a good masseuse (Rene Russo) on staff as an age-appropriate flirtation for De Niro. The movie is not really interested in the nuts and bolts of business anyway, using its setting as reason for little comic beats (mostly amusing, but occasionally too broad) on the way to its intended and effective gooey center.

Slowly but surely the leads open up to one another. It’s a rare story: an older man and younger woman who become completely platonic friends, admire one another, and provide much-needed support. De Niro meets his boss’s family (stay-at-home dad Anders Holm and adorable little daughter JoJo Kushner) and soon becomes a helpful assistant on that front as well. At work, he encourages an ensemble of young colleagues (Christina Scherer, Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, Adam DeVine) to have more confidence. It’s a movie with a high-gloss sheen and a brightly photographed sunny disposition. Even when the plot gears turn up some potential melodrama in the final third, things remain bouncy and optimistic. Sure, these people have obstacles to deal with. But they’re so agreeable and capable it’s never much in doubt. You’d be excused for thinking every office of young’uns could use a magic grandpa figure.

Written and directed by Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give, The Parent Trap), an expert in exactly this sort of comfort food cinema, it has her typical beautifully appointed upper-middle-class interiors. Sets – vast open offices, handsome brownstones, and fine hotel rooms – are decorated like a two-page spread in an interior decorator’s portfolio. Characters’ clothes could just as easily be ready for upscale catalogue photo shoots. Every prop – Apple products, Stella Artois, a vintage briefcase – is photographed like it’ll be the basis of a new lifestyle newsletter. It’s all part of the fluffy good feelings, an aspirational setting for an aspirational story that finds a working mom and a retired man finding comfortable friendship, gets young guys a classy role model, and arrives at a cheerfully optimistic conclusion that’s so low-key and deeply sweet I didn’t mind I found myself wondering if this company (or any of the relationships involved) will last. It’s uncomplicated, but so committed to its twinkly feel-good conclusions that it makes sure it has leads so likable you need them to be happy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Something to Talk About: THE PRIMARY INSTINCT

Stephen Tobolowsky, a recognizable character actor with over 200 credits to his name, looks into the camera and explains the hierarchy of Hollywood casting. If your character gets a first name and a last name, you’re a big deal. Supporting performances are for people who get a profession and one name, a first name for comedies (like, Professor Bob), last name for dramas (say, Doctor Jenkins). Then there are the people with just a profession, or worse, just a profession and a number (Janitor 3, for example). They, Tobolowsky tells us, are mostly just there to eat craft services. But there’s no shame in his view. Everyone has a role. Later, he’ll describe getting cast just a few years back as “Buttcrack Plumber,” shaking his head in grinning disbelief. He’s just happy he gets to earn a living telling stories in any way he can.

The man whose most memorable role is probably dweeby annoyance Ned in the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day, but who has been just about everything a hey-that-guy! could be over the course of his many decades in showbiz, knows what he’s talking about. He has a remarkable ability look back on his life with clarity and humor, telling good-natured anecdotes with warm avuncular charm. Having done that for several years in a podcast (The Tobolowsky Files) and a book (The Dangerous Animals Club), he now brings it to a feature film. The Primary Instinct is a filmed live event for his podcast, a one-man show shot and edited like a cable stand-up special. Directed by podcaster and debut filmmaker David Chen, this simple documentary sits back and lets Tobolowsky take center stage.

The filmmaking is restrained, never distracting from the man of the hour. Present in nearly every frame of the film, playing himself is his biggest role to date. He effortlessly holds attention. Charmingly self-effacing, he shapes each tale with the skill of a born entertainer. He humbly walks a spare stage, spinning yarns about his childhood, his parents, his wife, his kids, and his craft, flowing effortlessly from one point to the next. He wraps the monologue’s various episodes around one central question: Why do we tell stories? He confesses up front to a lack of an answer. Over the course of the next hour or so he conversationally tells the audiences stories from his life that are often amusing and sometimes touching,

Among the many moments he shares, we hear about his first pang of boyish love, a surprise encounter with a famous football team, the birth of his son, difficulties with ailing parents, and a refreshingly angst-free reminiscence about a time he found himself contemplating a vial of cocaine in his bathroom on the night his mother first came to California for a visit.  He remembers one of his mother’s favorite phrases, recalling how she’d always tell him, “self-preservation is the primary instinct.” By the sweet conclusion in which he movingly draws a common thread between the varied experiences he’s recounted, it’s clear he thinks storytelling is just as vital and universal a need. He’s found his answer.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Bad Fellas: BLACK MASS

Black Mass is a true crime gangster picture that doesn’t have a perspective or opinion on the events it recounts. It is content to grimly reenact backroom power plays and violent hits without caring too much about what it meant to the people involved, let alone using the proceedings as windows into their psyches. Set in Boston during the reign of crime kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger, a man who muscled out the Italian mob to become the city’s main source of organized crime, the screenplay makes clear the ties of neighborhood loyalty. This allowed Bulger to enter a mutually beneficial relationship with an FBI agent who once was a schoolyard chum, feeding information about his rivals while receiving a blind eye to his own criminal enterprises. This, along with a senator for a brother, allowed him to remain untouched for decades.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (Get on Up) start in 1975 and work their way to 1995, following Bulger from humble nastiness to king of crime before it all unravels for him. Perhaps assuming the target audience has seen some gangster stories play out before, the film is not particularly interested in the how or what of its characters’ schemes, and is never clear about the nature of his income. Instead, it features tight close-ups and slow zooms highlighting small shifts in negotiations and power plays. The recurring moments are either intimately creepy – Bulger staring down another person with intimidating intensity until they give him what he wants – or violent, with killings telegraphed beyond the point of surprise arriving with nonetheless brutal force. What are we to make of these murders? Only that they’re senseless, I suppose.

A large ensemble of reliable talents slurring through a variety of phony Boston accents keep things watchable and reasonably interesting on a moment by moment basis. Joel Edgerton is a slimy FBI agent too close to Bulger, protecting him from his law enforcement colleagues (Kevin Bacon, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll) and their suspicions they’re not getting appropriately valuable intel for all the damage caused. Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, and W. Earl Brown are Whitey’s flunkies, who do a lot of the beating and killing, and drop in and out of the narrative. Benedict Cumberbatch is Bulger’s brother, affectionate but precious about keeping his office out of crime. And in this masculine environment of jockeying for power and speaking in deep whispers, a trio of female roles (for Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, and Juno Temple) exists to provide people who think this whole thing is dangerous but have no way of stopping it.

The proceedings are the sort of surface seriousness that coasts on the appearance of heavy subject matter without actually engaging with the thematic content that could exist under the surface. Cooper’s too interested in directing the logistics of the large ensemble, making sure everyone’s posing in the correct period detail and mushing their Rs into appropriate vaguely Bostonian sounds. The potentially fascinating story of corruption and crime is told through solid craft, Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography finely textured, David Rosenbaum’s editing steadily accumulating mild dread at the story’s most dramatic moments of threat. But there’s never a sense of what all the blood and backstabbing really means for the people involved beyond the simple facts of the case, and no foothold for either a formless “that’s life” truthiness or rigorous moralizing. It goes straight up the middle, ending up nowhere.

The mystery at the center remains the man himself, a presence and an instigator throughout the narrative who somehow remains stubbornly out of focus. How did he first rise to power? What made him the top Irish mobster? What did he think about what he did? We don’t know from this film. Here he seems to emerge fully formed from the shadows. Played by Johnny Depp at his least communicative and yet somehow as, if not more, affected than his Mortdecai or Mad Hatter, his countenance is entombed in artifice. Dead ice blue eyes pop against sickly pale skin, his face remolded out of makeup effects into something that’s always off-putting and unnatural. His Bulger is spooky, moving stiffly, holding his posture rigid, always frowning. He lurks in dark corners, most creepy when he stands hidden in an empty church nook, or when he interrupts a woman reading The Exorcist to calmly, threateningly run his hand along her face and neck.

Presenting the facts in a style synthesized and hollowed out from an amalgamation of every gangster picture that came before is one thing. But to plunk a performance like Depp’s in the middle of it – so artificial, so designed, so immediately signaling evil – is strange. It’s an interesting approach, more Karloff than DeNiro, more Michael Myers than Brando. He doesn’t seem like a real person. He looks like he should’ve been featured in Famous Monsters of Filmland fifty years ago. It makes impossible the notion we should take this seriously as a look into the face of real evil that men do. Besides, the movie’s too unfocused to even activate the Nosferatu qualities of Depp’s work. It’s a case of a project with a script, a director, and a lead performance working at cross purposes. It’s too shallow to be a weighty exploration of crime and punishment, too restrained to be pulpy fun, and too unwilling to follow an eccentric lead into a more overtly nightmarish direction. It’s competent enough to work scene by scene, but adds up to a missed opportunity all around.
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