Sunday, October 4, 2015

Black Mass

** out of ****

By all accounts, Whitey Bulger was a ruthless murderous gangster - and according to the F.B.I., he was an informant in a partnership that proved to be a disastrous decision on their part. In the new film, Black Mass, Bulger is portrayed as a sinister looking man, played by an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp under some very heavy makeup.

In reality, Bulger was a pretty normal looking man, capable of charming some and terrifying others. Johnny Depp may disappear into an interesting performance here, but not a truly effective one. Scott Cooper’s movie doesn’t give Depp or many other characters in the film much room to grow. Too much of it is wasted on sensationalizing Bulger’s violent crimes fulfilling the standard tropes found in gangster pictures.

Bulger has been the inspiration for fictional characters in the past. Jack Nicholson, despite a lame New England accent, played a memorably satanic Boston crime lord in The Departed and Jason Isaacs played the manipulative criminal brother to a Rhode Island politician in Showtime’s Brotherhood. Both characters were more emotionally believable incarnations of this man when they weren’t officially playing him.

I've always felt that the reason why biopics have so much trouble, is because they are indebted to facts, which can restrict the creative process from allowing the characters and atmosphere to come to life. The careful undertaking of conjecture often leaves things lifeless, even though gross embellishments are inevitable. Great historical movies are usually full of crap, but if they find a sense of direction, they work.

At the very beginning of Black Mass, we're mislead into thinking that Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) will be the audiences surrogate by introducing us to Bulger through his eyes and then cutting to years later as he provides testimony. The movie loses track of him shortly after. Later we're shown other partners of Bulger's doing the same through Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi and W. Earl Brown as John Martorano. It's a formula that feels borrowed from other movies but has very little purpose here.

Another false start involves Bulger's relationship with his Senator brother Billy, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and their Mother, played by Mary Klug. The lack of focus through all of these characters, seems like an example of the bad influence that good television has on otherwise good movies. I had the same problem with Straight Outta' Compton

Thankfully, the movie eventually finds its focus through Bulger's partnership with childhood acquaintance John Connolly, who has risen through the ranks of the F.B.I. and wants to fight the Italian mob, by working with the small-time Irish American thugs. The choice to fight fire with fire, seems very questionable, but what makes Connolly choose this route is never fully explained. Did he really think it was the best approach, was he abusing his power to sway the crackdown away from his old stomping ground, or was he fulfilling a buried desire to be a gangster?

It simply gets annoying when he's being bothered with obvious questions by his superior (Kevin Bacon) about his dealings where his rationalizations are so transparent, that I feel we are owed a better explanation for this historical blunder on the F.B.I.'s part.

Black Mass is watchable, but far from remarkable. It demonizes someone who demands no demonization while making its way down a checklist crime movie standards, like overcast skies, celluloid grittiness, a Rota-inspired score, and people swearing at one another in northeaster accents ('cuz it's fun). Maybe that's your kind of thing. If that's the case, knock yourself out.


***1/2 out of ****

Everest is a traditional big-budget disaster movie that has something special: It does just about everything right. It has the guts to invest its audience in the vulnerability of its characters and share their love of the stunning environment that will eventually turn on them. It may be about people, but more of it is about one of the world’s most amazing places. This movie was way better than I was expecting. Through its great cast enduring a high-altitude location shoot in Nepal, it manages to create believable characters without needlessly indulging their backstories.

Jason Clarke plays a mountaineer who leads commercial expeditions to the world’s highest peak. Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Naoko Mori, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly and Elizabeth Debiki are among the large supporting cast representing people who were on the mountain during a day in May 1996 when a devastating snowstorm came through, taking many lives –only shortly after the climbers had reached the mountain’s peak.

This is a film based on a true story that finds purpose. It tells a horrifying story without ever losing sight of the awe and majesty of such a gorgeous place, justifying why it lures people to their doom. It is an emotional film through many factors, but the strongest of them all may be the gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli.

I am sure that Everest is full of conjecture and misrepresentations, but it's redeeming to see a film that has a sense of geography amidst all the chaos that ensues, through steady cinematography, reasonable CGI, and well-paced editing. This is like the description of a big budget movie from the mid-nineties, but I reflect on those years as being some of the best when it comes to the refinement of big spectacle filmmaking aided by the new digital tools of that time.

I must say that my expectations for this film were low considering that its director, Balthasar Kormakur didn't have a resume that interested me but I will certainly remember his name for future films.

The film's only real mistake is its unnecessarily clunky epilogue, which missed an opportunity to end gracefully. Sadly, the harmless choice to shoehorn in the standard issue photographs of the real people that inspired the film's characters feels like an interruption to pains the film went through to make it atmosphere real. But the mood is really ruined when it cuts to credits and instantly brings a suit of the more upbeat music from earlier in the film, interrupting the slow mournful -yet hypnotic music that preceded it. Nothing's perfect, I guess.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Visit

** out of ****

Through some critics and audiences, M. Night Shyamalan is seeing what I would call an unearned comeback through The Visit, which is his latest film after a long string of idiotic thrillers that had lost him a lot of respect. I’ve never seen a director’s career like his. His early films (mainly The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable) were so absolutely strong that I would have never anticipated such aimless fantasy (Lady in the Water) or such inept direction of human behavior (The Happening) from the same director in later films.

For a director whose career has been a needless letdown, the choice to delve into found-footage filmmaking is an obviously terrible idea since that entire subgenre has been almost as disappointing as Shyamalan. This trendy and inexpensive approach to making a movie seems rather desperate on his part, but it also seems to be paying off for him at the moment.

The Visit is about a couple of kids (Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge) sent to meet their grandparents for the first time. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) is eager to go on a cruise with her new boyfriend and after reconnecting with her parents via social media, she has decided to send her children on a train to stay with them in rural Pennsylvania.

The “found footage” perspective is provided by the older sister, who is an aspiring filmmaker bringing along cameras to document their visit. After meeting the old couple (The amazing Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan) at the train station, they’re taken out to a remote home where despite a welcoming impression, are provided a questionable curfew as well as boundary rules. When these rules are defied, the kids witness their grandparents displaying some very odd behavior, which is rationalized as senility.

This movie has three obvious problems: 1. The setup of a loving mother sending her own children to stay with their grandparents, from whom she ran away a decade ago, isn’t the typical first step for making amends with one’s kin. 2. The behavior exhibited by the old couple very early in the film would be enough to send any child running to the next closest farm house, even if it could be legitimized as dementia. 3. The documentarian ambition of the older sister to continue filming every terror she encounters defies any relatable sense of self-preservation.

With the suspension of disbelief ready to implode during most parts of the movie, there’s almost no involvement to be felt, but I will not deny the movie has a few big scares. A lot of situations, no matter how ridiculous are well staged and the actors all do great work.

There’s a major argument among some critics that this movie is a very dark comedy. The movie rests on an arc of sincerity that makes it impossible for me to see it as such. I see the humor in the insanity of its campy scares tapping into buried repulsion some audience members may feel about the elderly, but I found it to be in bad taste.

I take no issues with horror movies that aim for smutty politically incorrect concepts, as long as they commit to an R-rating so the movie may wink at its adult audience. This movie, however, is PG-13, which essentially invites the whole family to join in on the “old people are nasty” scares and I find that somewhat morally repugnant. Having the younger brother be a wannabe rapper as comic relief, so that he can do bad raps about the creepy old folks, is maybe as cringe-worthy as the R-rated gross-out moments that infiltrate the conclusion to the movie.

Shyamalan may have our temporary attention with this film’s weirdness, but this is not a return to form; it’s a product of weak storytelling with no concern for plausibility and continues to his abandonment of rich aesthetics and deep passion for well-constructed suspense - which he practically mastered once upon a time. My only hope is that a little positive encouragement from this movie’s success may inspire him to make good movies again.    

Mistress America

***1/2 out of ****

Only months after the release of the very funny While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach already has another film - this time returning for another collaboration with his girlfriend, actress/writer Greta Gerwig, with whom he made Frances Ha.”

I feel as though Baumbach is entering a stage where he’s aiming for a broader audience and I like this. His celebrated early films like The Squid and the Whale earned him acclaim, but they were so steeped in the world of problems faced by upper-class academics, that they could be a little alienating.

His older films also had an atmosphere of bitter realism, but Mistress America, like his last movie, seems to exist somewhere between the unflattering realistic details and dry humor often seen in indie films; and the absurd scenarios usually found in big budget comedies.

If there’s one conventional trope Gerwig and Baumbach thankfully dodge in this middle area, it is the warm-hearted manipulative score that gets applied to so many comedies. The two clearly have an affinity for eighties-style synth-pop music, which helps to enliven this film.

The story follows an aspiring writer, named Tracy (Lola Kirke), beginning her freshman year at a New York’s Barnard University and having a tough time finding a place among the students. She finds brief romantic interest in a fellow writing student (Matthew Shear), who then strangely starts dating someone else, just as they start becoming close. Out of loneliness, Tracy, whose mother is engaged, chooses to meet her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig), who resides in Manhattan.

Upon their meet in Times Square the film picks up the manic pace of the ADHD socialite that is Brooke. Tracy’s fascination with Brooke is rather instant even if it’s obvious what a mess she is. When Brooke is around, her dialogue is rapid and often lacks any sense of direction, as she often says things like, “I wasn’t brought up that way,” to justify her objection to anything - whether the reasoning makes sense or not. Tracy acquires valuable writing material as words constantly spill from the mouth of this silly thirty-year-old.

The entire time I watched the movie, I found myself wondering if Baumbach might have improved the film by using a brighter aesthetic than his trademark dim and de-saturated look. Somehow, it’s easier to accept dialogue that’s more fun than realistic, if the look of the movie feels a little removed from reality as well.

The movie’s fun spirit climaxes at a strange point when all the characters find themselves in a large house for a long duration of the film, which takes the tone of an absurd one-act farce. It’s an amusing section, but it also feels like a movie (or play) of its own.

The cast is great. Kirke (who may possess one of the prettiest sad-looking faces I’ve ever seen) made a great impression last year, as a sleazy Ozarks thief in Gone Girl. Her beautiful straight-faced screen presence is a wonderful contrast to Gerwig’s wide-eyed obnoxiously cute shtick.

Overall, Mistress America is a fun, dialogue-heavy comedy that suffers a little from minor structural and stylistic flaws. I recommend it because it represents a lot of value that seems to be deteriorating from most comedy movies, whether they’re independent or mainstream.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

**1/2 out of ****

Somehow, I always seem to forget that Guy Ritchie films have value. He continues to be a style-over-substance director, but quite often, his style is very winning. I recall going to see his version of Sherlock Holmes dreading the very idea of it being turned into an action film. Somehow, he managed to pull it off -if not perfectly. The story was just good enough and the actors seemed to be energized by the power of their screen presence in those costumes. Such is the case with his cinematic take on the classic 60s spy TV series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. -a show I've never seen. I suppose if I've seen enough James Bond movies, I've fulfilled a decent prerequisite.

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are both great looking guys possessing charm while Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki are a collective tease. I don't have much more to say. Their character's don't require much description aside from superficial observations.

This is a sharp-looking tongue-in-cheek movie with plenty of special effects but doesn't spare us some authentic exotic locations -all wonderfully lit. It's worth watching when killing time after dinner on a holiday.