REVIEW: Black Mass

15 09 2015

A movie like “Black Mass” is essentially the cinematic calendar whispering, “Winter is coming.”  It’s a gentle reminder that we are inching ever closer to a glut of prestige dramas filling screens across the country but that the best is still yet to come.  (Of course, if you read this in 2016, the last paragraph probably means nothing.)

Director Scott Cooper’s film works fine as a tiding over of sorts.  Most 2015 films so far that have provided this level of drama were low budget indies, and anything with this amount of violent bloodshed must have been a giant franchise flick.  “Black Mass,” made from a well-structured script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, boasts a thrilling experience packaged in some remarkable production values.  It all just feels so Scorsese lite.

And for the most part, that made for an entirely satisfactory evening at the movies.  I got a film that was perfectly good.  It just never approached greatness.

The marketing of “Black Mass” makes the film look like The Johnny Depp Show, and to a certain extent, it is.  Anyone who slithers around a film with such amphibian-like eyes and a Donald Trump combover just naturally draws attention, even when not playing a notorious gangster like James “Whitey” Bulger.  But, at heart, Bulger is just a boy from South Boston (“Southie”) trying to rule its biggest business – organized crime – by any means necessary.

That involves cutting a strange deal with a former childhood acquaintance, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).  According to Connolly, Southie is the only place where kids go from playing cops and robbers in the schoolyards to playing it on the streets, and he gets into Bulger’s racket just like some sort of game.  As a part of their deal, Bulger goes on the Bureau’s books as an informant yet essentially gets carte blanche to take out his competition.

Depp might get the more ostensibly interesting character to play, and he certainly plays up just how intimidating and downright creepy a figure Bulger truly was.  But its Edgerton who steals the show, essentially playing a Beantown rendition of Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso from “American Hustle.”  Connolly is the inside man who gets played like a harp by a key asset meant to bring him professional glory.  What motivates him to continue helping Bulger even when the jig seems up proves the heaviest and most complex part of “Black Mass,” and it certainly kept weighing on me after the film ended.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Into the Woods

17 12 2014

The last time a Stephen Sondheim musical received a screen adaptation, Tim Burton and company decided to completely obliterate what made the stage show of “Sweeney Todd” special in order to make the story cinematic.  So when Disney announced they would be making a filmic version of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” all signs pointed to them turning the revisionist fairy-tale musical into something akin to their hit TV show “Once Upon a Time.”  In other words, it could be a Marvel-style converging universe for Grimm’s Brothers tales.

Somehow, against the odds, “Into the Woods” maintains its integrity.  Disney does not force a pop-friendly ditty into the fabric of Sondheim’s notoriously tricky melodies and tough rhythms.  The soundtrack, likely to the pleasure of parents everywhere, boasts no “Frozen“-style tunes that demand playing on repeat.  These songs are better, or at least more purposeful – they tell a powerful story.

Sondheim’s music explores not just the wishes, dreams, and desires that come with the fairy tales.  The lyrics also deliberate the often neglected flip side of these: decisions, responsibility, and consequences.  “Into the Woods” head-fakes its first happily ever after in order deliver an extended post-script, daring to ask whether characters like Cinderella actually made the best decision for themselves.

Rob Marshall, thankfully channeling more of his masterful work on “Chicago” than his dreadful job on “Nine,” orchestrates this massive ensemble reevaluating their respective outcomes with a remarkable economy.  Everyone gets their moment, both in song and dialogue, to express their introspection.  Even with a few numbers truncated or cut altogether, “Into the Woods” still gets its message across with a great balance of obvious telling for the children and subtle hinting for the adults.

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REVIEW: Transcendence

8 11 2014

As Christopher Nolan’s director of photography, Wally Pfister has lensed some of the most iconic images of recent cinematic history.  Be it the field of lightbulbs in “The Prestige,” the stairwell in “Inception,” or practically any image in “The Dark Knight,” he certainly knows how to captivate with the visual language of film.

Transcendence” finds Pfister behind the camera calling the shots, not merely setting them up, for the first time.  While no ultimate judgment should be rendered on a filmmaker after just one feature, Pfister might not want to give up his day job as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer just yet.  His debut is a start-to-finish mess, mostly because of its almost incoherently assembled script.

The film begins rather simply and intelligibly with Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster, a scientist attempting to create a fully sentient computer, getting assassinated by a radical anti-technology group R.I.F.T.  But once he dies and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer, “Transcendence” shatters into fragments.  Only Caster’s wife (Rebecca Hall) stays loyal; meanwhile, the rest of the supporting cast spreads out into multiple subplots that divide attention and diminish effectiveness.

Caster’s research companion Max (Paul Bettany) defects to join R.I.F.T. under the leadership of Bree (Kate Mara).  The G-men of the FBI (Cillian Murpy, Morgan Freeman) are also making moves of their own to stop the supercomputer.  Meanwhile, Caster’s digital brain grows stronger by the minute … so be very afraid, because technology is scary!

Pfister is not even able to translate this technophobia into any memorable images to at least portray visually what the story is unable to communicate narratively.  He begins “Transcendence” with a shot of broken cell phones lying around, practically begging to be considered a zeitgeist film.  But of all the sentiments Pfister invokes, not one of them comes even remotely close to resembling the film’s titular sensation.  He certainly knows how to make noise, but hopefully in his next film, Pfister will actually have something interesting to say.  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Tusk

25 09 2014

TuskI see so many movies that it’s easy to slip in to the comfortable delusion that I’m an unflappable moviegoer.  Nothing can scare me (save a cheap jump-out), nothing can shock me … you get how the fallacy operates.

Then I went to see “Tusk,” and I got an unfortunate reminder that I can still stare agape at the screen.  This came at the same time as remembering that there are certain sights I cannot unsee.  Here, that sight was Justin Long enveloped in a walrus suit made of human flesh.  (Because his ’70s porno mustache wasn’t frightening enough.)

Not that it was any more disgusting or scary than anything else I’d seen before.  I mainly sat in stunned, stupefied silence that someone had this idea and felt compelled to bring it to life for a paying audience.  I just wish there were some way to withdraw the $7.75 admission charge from financing, and thus implicitly encouraging, Kevin Smith’s bizarre and puerile stoner fantasies.

It was more than just the nasty walrus at its center that ticked me off about “Tusk,” though.  The entire enterprise seems ill-advised for a feature-length film.  Its beginning concept, the unsuspecting person stumbling into a den of horror and depravity, has been done by everything from “Psycho” to “Misery.”  Smith’s crazy of choice is Michael Parks’ Howard Howe, a Canadian backwoods-dweller intent on finding a man who he can transmute into the walrus, Mr. Tusk, with whom he fell in love with decades prior.

Smith’s take finds nothing new in the previously trodden territory, and the odd narrative structure and bloated length compound the imbecility of his specific story.  “Tusk” is the kind of idea that might make for a provocative YouTube video, but it lacks the depth and intrigue to sustain its 100 minute duration.  Even Johnny Depp, who shows up about an hour into the film in a baffling supporting role, cannot enliven the dead organism.

“Tusk” is all superfluous blubber with no meat.  Smith means to startle, but without providing any good cause for doing so, all he can do is elicit groans.  D1star





REVIEW: Dark Shadows

2 10 2012

I’ve been critical of Tim Burton’s artistic choices over the past decade or so, taking material already marked with an inexorable aesthetic and cultural stamp to put a slight Burton refinishing on the top.  With the exception of “Big Fish” (and “Corpse Bride,” I guess – but that movie was just atrocious), the last 15 years have been one big long commercial for a peculiar visionary, a selling out and a selling of the soul.

I’m not even a big fan of “Edward Scissorhands” or “Ed Wood,” Burton’s two most acclaimed movies that are renowned mainly for their originality and peculiar personality.  So calling “Dark Shadows” a return to form isn’t exactly the phrase I’m looking for, because it still falls into the typical Burton pitfalls.  But it’s a flash of vintage Burton, a film with winning personality and a sharp sense of macabre humor.

That’s largely due to the fact that he draws a fantastic performance out of his choice surrogate, Johnny Depp, whose been acting in a bit of a fog for the past decade.  He’s not the first superstar who’s fallen victim to becoming a great imitator of himself, and he certainly won’t be the last.  Save perhaps Sweeney Todd, we’ve been seeing 50 shades of Jack Sparrow for movie after movie, and that’s really selling Depp short.  His delivery is deliciously deadpan, his period acting totally self-assured in “Dark Shadows,” and that alone makes for a surprising amount of fun.

Depp’s baroque sensibilities as Barnabas Collins, a wealthy heir in the early United States turned immortal vampire, are uproarious when juxtaposed with the 1970s in which he reawakens.  Burton’s version of the decade, a gloriously campy nostalgic pop song, is a fantastic character in and of itself.  It serves as a marvelous foil to Barnabas, unaware of just how different the times have become (and how at times they can be eerily similar).

The script does Depp and the decade a disservice by being clunky, unfocused, and a bit too dragged out.  It inundates us with an ensemble – including the siren who bit Barnabas turned business rival of the Collins family (Eva Green), an austere matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer), a moody daughter (the ubiquitous Chloe Moretz), and of course Helena Bonham Carter as … um, Helena Bonham Carter – that are never quite sure of how they fit into the story.  That’s particularly true of the governess Victoria Winters (newcomer Bella Heathcote), who begins the film as a lynchpin of the plot only to disappear for nearly the entire movie.  (But don’t worry, she’s back for the climax!)

I would not go as far as to call the screenplay a mere stringing together of events that holds the funny moments together, but those moments are what make the movie memorable and entertaining.  Burton has still yet to make a truly great movie in my estimation, but the man sure can direct some riotous scenes.  B





REVIEW: Rango

13 07 2011

It’s very hard to serve two audiences at once, especially when those audiences are kids and adults.  At every animated movie, there have to be some parents to drive the children and pay the ridiculously extravagant ticket prices (or go to Blockbuster, Redbox, or foot the Netflix bill).  It’s always prudent for animators to make the movie an enjoyable experience for both so everyone wants to give it a second watch.  However, very few can do this with success; I’d say only Pixar and the people behind “Shrek” have really nailed it.

Rango” is an example of how this strategy can go south quickly.  It’s a little too out there for the youngsters and a little too dumbed down for the oldies.  At the age of 18, I fall somewhere between these two crowds, thus I felt it was a half-hearted attempt to squeeze me from both sides of my maturity.  Rather than this moving me like it did in “Toy Story 3,” it just made me feel ambivalent and a tad frustrated.  However, my frustration paled in comparison to my ten-year-old brother and his pal that I took, neither of whom seemed to understand the movie’s humor or plot.

While I sure like the idea of fusing together an existential identity crisis with Greek tragedy complete with a chorus of owls and classic westerns (although I could have done without the animated rodents), it doesn’t play out all that well on screen.  Especially not for the kids, who have most likely never seen either of the two genres.  For adults who have seen both, it feels campy and watered-down to the point of minimum satisfaction.  While it boasts some nice animation and a fair amount of good laughs, “Rango” can’t solve its own identity crisis of which crowd to pander primarily to – a problem which should have been sorted out long before it hit theaters.  Oh, and there’s also the matter of Johnny Depp’s frustratingly neurotic chameleon that needs to scurry back into Woody Allen’s therapist’s office.  B- / 





REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

24 05 2011

Perhaps a more accurate surname for the latest installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” would have been In Familiar Waters.  Despite numerous changes to signal a distinctly different volume in the saga than the original trilogy, “On Stranger Tides” feels just like more of what we’ve seen the series do – and then overdo.  In fact, I found myself wondering if I’ve seen the movie before, and deja vu in a movie theater is never good.

Suggested by the novel “On Stranger Tides” (a phrase taken straight from the credits, which is something I’ve never seen before), the plot unfolds just as the previous three did.  A mystical and mythical booty awaits, this time the Fountain of Youth, coveted by the British, the Spanish, and – you guessed it – Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp reprising his iconic role).  Their journeys are fraught with just enough peril and tumult to endure two and a half hours on the screen.

Most of the movie just feels like a $250 million (yes, that was the actual pricetag) straight-to-DVD sequel for the series that managed to net its big star for a hefty paycheck.  Slight scene changes give the movie a new look but not a new feel.  Director Rob Marshall, who directed the film adaptation of “Chicago” with an almost prophetic foresight, settles for his best imitation of Gore Verbinski and doesn’t put his own mark on the movie.

No Keira Knightley?  No problem, just replace the British beauty with the sassy Spanish starlet Penelope Cruz and get essentially the same romantic foil for Captain Jack.  No Orlando Bloom?  Just add in Sam Claffin, a British missionary that will make girls swoon – oh, and don’t forget that gratuitous shirtless scene!  Geoffrey Rush’s storyline has gotten kind of boring?  Refashion him as a sell-out to the crown and give him a peg leg!

Thankfully, the saving grace of the movie is Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, the reason that the series became such a hit in the first place.  The movie gives him a lot more humor to chew on, and Depp definitely seems a lot more into his character this go-round.  He doesn’t recede into a bad imitation of himself but rather animates Jack with spunk and teeth.  However, as much fun as he is to watch, neither Depp nor the movie earn their bloated running time, which makes 150 minutes often seem interminable.

So by all means, if you like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series enough to watch Disney churn out a third sequel purely for commerce, then this will be fun summer entertainment.  But if you crave something unique, or dare I say, original to justify expending your time and paying for ridiculously puffed-up ticket prices, perhaps you should stay at home and wait until some critic calls a movie “as original as Inception.”  C+ /