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

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 23, 2015)

23 07 2015

WhiteyIn light of the recent spate of thinkpieces written without having seen the movie in discussion, I do not wish to continue this shameful trend by discussing the (at the time of publishing) unseen “Black Mass.” But, based on information released to the public, I think I can safely make two assumptions.

1. The film’s protagonist is notorious Boston criminal Whitey Bulger. Whether Scott Cooper decides to portray him as a hero, a villain, or an antihero, Johnny Depp’s character will be front and center, which will likely have the effect of encouraging the audience to see the events through his eyes.

2. The film presumes as fact the assertion that Whitey Bulger was an FBI informant.  It’s even listed in the one sentence logline on IMDb.

This constitutes a basis for great cinema, and I do look forward to reading the reviews out of Venice for Scott Cooper’s film (and then likely seeing it myself).  But great cinema does not always align with reality.  For that, thank goodness we have documentarians like Joe Berlinger willing to interrogate the established narrative.

He calls into question a key assumption about Whitey Bulger – namely, that he served as an informant for the FBI.  Sure, he was likely in leagues with federal agents like John Connolly.  But was his involvement officially sanctioned by the government, or merely part of a larger cover-up within the government to hide their implicit sanctioning of Whitey’s rampant murders?

That’s the key question in “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.”  Though it might sound like the basis of a conspiracy theory documentary found in the dark corners of YouTube, Berlinger’s thought-provoking piece is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  At the very least, he urges a look at the case with a critical eye that takes nothing for granted.  The film lays out the facts about a ruthless mob boss who knew how to play his cards right with every major party at the table, so we should discount no explanation.

Plus, Berlinger’s documentary focuses its attention on the people we should think about when we think about gangster stories.  “Whitey” scarcely ever shows its titular crime lord and never reenacts his horrible deeds.  Berlinger instead places a great deal of emphasis on the collateral damage taken by Whitey – the victims he claimed and the loved ones left behind.  These people deserve an explanation because they deserve justice.  Maybe “Whitey” cannot provide that definitive answer, but it’s at least a good start.