Review of “Black Mass”

James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a violent mobster that runs most of the crime in South Boston. His brother William (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a state senator with no connection to his brother’s criminal doings. FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up with the Bulger brothers in the same low income project. Whitey even saved Connolly when he was getting beat up by a gang of neighborhood boys. Now stationed in the Boston office, Connolly believes he can use Whitey as an informant to get valuable information about the Angiulo Brothers, a powerful crime family with ties to the mafia. Connolly approaches William hoping he will talk to Whitey on his behalf. Initially reluctant, William does mention Connolly to Whitey. When they meet, Whitey is resistant to the idea of helping the FBI but figures he can use them to take out his rivals in the Italian mob. Connolly promises Whitey his gang will have a wide berth with the FBI as long as they aren’t involved with drugs and don’t kill anyone. Whitey provides the location of the Angiulo Brothers headquarters and the FBI plants listening devices to gather intelligence. Whitey then uses what is essentially protection from the FBI to expand his operations and fill the vacuum left by the dismantling of the Italian mob. As time goes by Connolly’s boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and his assistant Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott) notice much of the information attributed to Bulger is actually copied from reports given by other informants. Connolly, who never had any real control over Bulger, is actually giving the mobster information that is leading to the deaths of any FBI informant that gives the agency dirt on Bulger. Connolly’s life is spinning out of control and both Bulger and the FBI are putting pressure on him to deliver results.

Real life crime dramas, or those that feel like real life, have a special place in my heart. Watching the events of “The Godfather” or “GoodFellas” play out, getting to know the characters, seeing them enter into a life of crime believing it to be easily manageable and then finding out it is all consuming and the toll it takes on their relationships and sanity is, if done well, absolutely fascinating. Based on the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Johnny Depp stars in “Black Mass” as James “Whitey” Bulger, the eye of the hurricane, the center of calm surrounded by chaos and destruction. While Bulger doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty from time to time, he leaves most of the death dealing to his associates. Bulger maintains an air of control and absolute knowledge, instilling fear in his underlings by making those he suspects of disloyalty disappear from the face of the Earth. Bulger is never to be questioned, teased, threatened or shown disrespect under threat of death. Depp is consumed by the visage of Bulger, displacing any resemblance to Capt. Jack Sparrow and Charlie Mortdecai and Tonto and Willy Wonka. This is not a man to be trifled with. This is evil with thinning hair and scary blue eyes. This may be the best character work in Depp’s career and he may be up for an Oscar.

“Black Mass” lives and dies on Depp’s performance and the film has plenty of health to spare. The rest of the cast also pumps life into the rest of the characters. Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and, in smaller roles, Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane and others flesh out parts with quality acting work despite limited screen time. The one scene Depp has with Connolly’s wife, played by Nicholson, could have been considered a bit of throw away business; however, the tension and implied threat by Bulger towards his FBI handler’s wife is so thick and menacing, it sticks out as a highlight of a film filled with memorable scenes.

Not all the best parts involve violence and threats of violence. Depp’s Bulger is a doting father in his own way. He has a son with Lindsey Cyr played by Dakota Johnson. He gives the boy some godfatherly advice about handling a situation privately. After all, if no one sees you do something, it didn’t happen. Bulger’s gentleness extends to his neighbors in South Boston, helping an elderly woman get her groceries inside her home and telling his thugs to make sure she has everything she needs. He also has a playful relationship with his mother, letting her win a few hands of Gin while sweetly teasing her about cheating. These moments of normalcy provide sharp contrast and welcome relief from the violence that permeates Bulger’s business dealings.

The entire film is a fascinating look at how sometimes law enforcement enters uneasy alliances with criminals. While Bulger did give the FBI some information that helped bust up the local Mafia, the film says he used his relationship with his former neighbor and now FBI agent to better his own criminal business. The story of how law enforcers and law breakers can make the line between them disappear is certainly troubling but it also creates a myriad of emotional conflicts and ethical compromises that “Black Mass” uses to turn the good guys into questionable characters and the bad guys into borderline heroes. While the story is fairly simple and easy to follow it weaves a complicated tapestry of loyalty and lawlessness and how one can lead to the other.

“Black Mass” is rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use. There are numerous on-screen killings including strangulation, multiple gunshot wounds to the body and head shots as well as a couple of bloody on-screen beatings. There is one slang reference to oral sex as well as a slur calling someone a homosexual. There is a brief scene of a character snorting cocaine. Foul language is common throughout the film.

Johnny Depp had been a on a bit of a losing streak recently with less than successful films such as “The Lone Ranger,” “Transcendence,” and “Mortdecai” all losing money (and in the case of “The Lone Ranger,” a great deal of money). While he can always depend on the next installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” films, due in 2017, to do well at the box office, Depp probably also needs a film that is a critical success to maintain his status as one of the most in demand actors in the world. “Black Mass” should be the critical darling that allows him to maintain his popularity among film executives. Its relatively low production budget of $53 million probably means a film that will turn a profit after worldwide distribution. This is all good news for Depp; but it also works out well for moviegoers since “Black Mass” is a riveting experience best seen on a big screen. And unlike most other releases at the local multiplex it’s a film you will think about after leaving the theatre.

“Black Mass” gets five stars out of five.

This week, hungry natives, friendly bloodsuckers and an older than average intern desire your attention at theatres; I’ll see and review at least one of them.

The Green Inferno—

Hotel Transylvania 2—

The Intern—

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Review of “Mortdecai”

Lord Charles Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is an art dealer who doesn’t mind bending the rules and dealing with the underbelly of the fine art trade. Married to the lovely Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), Mortdecai is eight-million British pounds in debt with back taxes and must find a big payday within a few days. Meanwhile, a painting by Goya is being cleaned by a restorer when she is killed by an international terrorist named Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky) who steals the painting. As he escapes, he is struck by a baseball bat and knocked unconscious. The painting is then stolen from Strago. Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor) of MI-5 approaches Mortdecai about helping find the painting. He is reluctant but agrees in exchange for a fee. Aiding Mortdecai in his investigation is his manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) who also serves as his bodyguard. Several leads are followed that put Mortdecai and Jock in peril as Strago is still looking for the painting as well as a Russian mobster named Romanov (Ulrich Thomsen). As they are running around the world, Johanna is using Martland’s affection for her to get information and conducting her own investigation. She talks with an elderly former British army officer who tells her the painting in question has a secret Swiss bank account number on the back. The account belongs to a high ranking Nazi official and could contain hundreds of millions of dollars. Mortdecai figures out the painting is actually a lost Goya that has been the stuff of art world legend for years. It is hidden under what can be seen on the surface and is only visible using UV light. Adding to the stress of the situation, Mortdecai has grown a mustache that Johanna hates. Every time she kisses him it makes her gag and he gags in sympathetic response. Between the debt, the gallivanting around the world, the threat of violence from several quarters and the mustache, the marriage of the Mortdecai’s is approaching collapse.

Just before I saw “Mortdecai” I checked its score on Rotten Tomatoes. At that time it had a 12% rotten rating. There are very few positive reviews of the film and those that are mildly positive have several reservations about the movie. Naturally, I entered the theatre prepared to have an awful time and then write a scathing review. As I exited, I wondered what all the vitriol was about. While it isn’t a spectacular success it isn’t the monumental pile of crap you might expect with such a low score. The real question is: What’s up with Johnny Depp’s career choices lately?

“Mortdecai” is a mess story wise. It jumps from location to location and introduces characters that then disappear for big chunks of time only to show up again for a few seconds then once again disappear. The movie is stuffed with characters and it makes it nearly impossible to keep up with who is who. Some streamlining of the story would have helped a great deal, allowing the plot some time to breathe and give us more time with the main players. As it is now, watching “Mortdecai” is akin to trying to read a book while jumping on a pogo stick. I think the script writers wanted to complicate the story to give it more of a feeling of a farce. Sadly, they lack the skills to juggle that many storylines simultaneously and the narrative suffers for it. While I have no evidence to support it, this movie has the feel of one that was being rewritten on the fly.

I can’t fault the cast for this as they are doing the best they can with what they are given. Depp once again buries himself into a character with a distinctive feature—his mustache. Depp excels in finding a hook into a character and coming to life once that makeup is applied. Mortdecai’s nervous tics, his grunts and groans of frustration, his air of superiority all probably started with the mustache. If the movie has a surprise performance, it is from Paul Bettany. Bettany often shines with comedic gold at various times in the film. His much put upon manservant is tolerant of all his master’s foibles, weaknesses, cowardice and poor skills with weapons that frequently get Jock injured in some way. Bettany drops in one liners and snide comments from time to time offering a glimpse into their relationship. Gwyneth Paltrow shows she can be funny in “Mortdecai.” The running gag about gagging is handled with skill by both her and Depp. Her conversations with Mortdecai, showing she is in charge in the relationship, often have a decent laugh embedded in the dialog. Paltrow’s performance is more about style than substance with her aristocratic air and decent British accent adding a layer of elegance that plays well against Depp’s mustachioed man-child.

The rest of the cast doesn’t come off nearly as well with Jeff Goldblum, Olivia Munn and Ewan McGregor all wasted in minor roles that are under written and under-utilized. McGregor gets the most screen time of the secondary players. His character is there mostly to move the plot along at certain times. Inspector Martland is also something of a metaphorical punching bag for Mortdecai as Martland was in love with Johanna in college and he thinks there may still be a chance of a relationship. Mortdecai likes rubbing his marriage to Johanna in his face while Johanna doesn’t mind using his puppy love as a way to get information. McGregor deserves a better character than this.

“Mortdecai” is rated R for sexual material and some language. The sexual material is mostly of the comic variety with no nudity. Foul language is scattered.

While “Mortdecai” has a decent number of laughs it doesn’t have enough given the goofiness of the story. The movie wants to be a farce in the style of the Pink Panther films (the ones with Peter Sellars, not Steve Martin) and the 1972 film “What’s Up, Doc?” with Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. It falls well short of the mark and would need a major retooling to approach those classics. Sadly, the movie is both a critical and financial flop, the third of Depp’s recent films to tank (following “The Lone Ranger” and “Transcendence”). The question of if this string of failures will hurt Depp’s career has been asked recently. Depp probably isn’t taking jobs because he needs the money but because he likes the project. He’s recently finished shooting a new film with Kevin Smith called “Yoga Hosers” and appeared in Smith’s last movie “Tusk.” Depp was the best thing about “Tusk” and will likely be the best thing about “Yoga Hosers.” Knowing Smith’s movies cost less to make than Depp’s usual salary tells me he takes on jobs that appeal to him. So, do three major flops in a row mean Depp’s career as a leading man is in trouble? I don’t think so. If he works on what he likes it won’t matter if they make a ton of money or not, and “Mortdecai” will not make anywhere near its $60-million budget. If you just love Johnny Depp and can’t imagine not seeing his film in the theatre then by all means go see it. If you think you can wait, watch it on Netflix or on DVD.

“Mortdecai” gets three stars out of five and that’s probably a bit generous.

Maybe the next movie I see will be better. I’ve got four to choose from.

Black or White—


The Loft—

Project Almanac—

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Review of “Into the Woods”

The fairytale characters of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), her handsome Prince (Chris Pine), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), his mother (Tracey Ullman), their cow and a beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), Rapunzel (MacKensie Mauzy) and her Prince (Billy Magnussen) are all connected to the childless couple of the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) and the witch (Meryl Streep). Each is looking for their “happily ever after” but does that end the story?

Based on the Broadway play of the same name, “Into the Woods” is a star studded film made with the cooperation of writer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. His witty use of language is on full display in the songs that fill the movie, informing the audience far better than standard dialog could. While the movie musical is a fairly rare event, “Into the Woods” is a worthy addition to the list.

Meryl Streep is perhaps the main reason to see “Into the Woods” in a theater instead of waiting for it to arrive On Demand. Her performance is big, wild and thoroughly entertaining. The film really comes to life when she pops on the screen. Her wild hair tinged with blue and grey is similar to the whirlwind in which she disappears. While comical, the witch is the heavy of the story, setting it in motion years before when she put a curse on the Baker’s father. Now, she gives the Baker and his wife an opportunity to lift the curse and allow them to become parents by gathering items from each of the fairytale characters mentioned above. Her plan is devious because it will also restore her youthful beauty once the curse is lifted. Her urgency as the time ticks down for the Baker and his wife to find all the items belies this fact. Streep, who showed off her singing ability in “Mamma Mia,” easily handles the big, theatrical musical numbers. Her talents truly seem to know no bounds as she also wrings her part for all the emotional strength it has as she deals with Rapunzel who believes the witch is her mother. If it was up to me, Streep would be nominated for yet another Oscar.

James Corden and Emily Blunt are both terrific as the Baker and his wife. The little spats they have as they run into problems gathering all the items sound almost real as each gets on the other’s nerves. Corden and Blunt have a very comfortable chemistry together, like they’ve been in each other’s lives a long time. They are also able to convey to the audience that these two people really love each other. It’s a sweet relationship that takes a bit of a dark turn late in the film. This change in tone was unexpected (as I was unfamiliar with the source material) and really caused me to sit up and pay attention. I don’t want to give away too much but it sets one of them back on their heels and causes that character to question how they will continue in his/her life. It’s a turn that kept the story interesting for me at a point when it could have started to become dull and predictable.

If the film has any issues it’s with the Rapunzel section of the story. It doesn’t feel fully realized like in adapting the musical for the screen part of the story was left out that would have made it make more sense. According to the movie’s Wiki page, there was a major plot point that was changed because studio executives didn’t think it would go over well with audiences. Perhaps this revision was so vast it lessened the impact and value of her story. I’d have to see the stage version to know for sure but her story feels unfinished.

This is a minor quibble when looking at the film as a whole. All the cast from the primary leads right down to the actress who plays a giant that we barely see is excellent in their roles. Anna Kendrick plays the conflicted Cinderella who isn’t sure a life in the castle with the terminally confident Prince, played by Chris Pine, is what she really wants. While all the characters she encounters question why she doubts her life with the Prince would be amazing, she is steadfast in her reservations. Chris Pine’s performance as the supremely self-assured Prince reminded me at times of a certain actor as he strutted and preened on screen. I couldn’t help but think Pine reminded me of William Shatner, the first actor to play James T. Kirk, captain of the Enterprise on Star Trek. Pine has taken over the role in the rebooted film franchise and the two couldn’t be more different in look and style; however, Pine seems to be mimicking, consciously or subconsciously, the speech patterns and acting style of Shatner. While this took me out of the story for a few seconds, I just accepted it as his interpretation of the Prince. Little Red Riding Hood is a precocious child played by Lilla Crawford who is both confident and inexperienced which puts her in danger when she encounters Johnny Depp’s Wolf. The dynamic between Red and the Wolf strays uncomfortably close to a creepy pedophilia vibe. Again, according to the movie’s Wiki page, that aspect of the characters interaction was actually toned down from the staged version. I can’t imagine it getting much creepier and still being something an audience would accept. Perhaps the distance between the audience watching the stage play and the intimacy of a camera up close to those same characters in a movie lessens how uncomfortable those viewing the scene would feel. While I understood the Wolf was referring to consuming Red and her grandmother, it still made my skin crawl a little. Despite this, Depp is entertaining as the Wolf as he both sweet-talks and threatens Red. Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard all make the most of their limited screen time and make the supporting characters as entertaining as any other.

“Into the Woods” is rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material and fantasy action and peril. The concept of a childless couple, the abandonment of a father, the stealing of a child and the death of parents might confuse or upset the very youngest viewers. The suggestive material is just a couple kissing in the woods. The fantasy action and peril is very mild. Even the deaths of characters are handled off screen.

While many find the movie musical to be somewhat off-putting, “Into the Woods” actually benefits from having the characters burst into song at the drop of a hat. The fantastical setting, characters and situations are best handled and explained in a song. The talented cast and often witty wordplay of the lyrics makes this an experience even anti-musical people should enjoy unless they’ve had a curse placed on their heart by an evil witch.

“Into the Woods” gets five stars.

I also watched the troublemaking satire “The Interview” starring James Franco and Seth Rogen. While I understand the North Koreans are a prickly bunch, I can’t see why they would put up a stink over such a silly film. While Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg have stuffed the movie with a huge number of jokes and humorous situations, the film is eventually overcome by its own lightness. The concept is pretty ridiculous as well with the CIA giving the job of killing Kim Jung-un to a talk show host and his producer. Exhibiting their incompetence from the outset, there’s no way the plan would have continued past the preliminary stages. Of course, one must ignore common sense when dealing with a film like “The Interview.” It doesn’t waste any time or energy on logical thinking in either the story or the acting.

“The Interview” gets two and a half stars out of five.

January usually is a dumping ground for movies the studio has no faith in being either a commercial or critical success. That makes the first month of the year a perfect time to catch up with the movies that are making awards season waves. Several have just opened in Knoxville, TN and I’ll see about reviewing as many as I can before the trophies are handed out.

Big Eyes—



The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death—

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