Black Mass

If you’ve seen the ads on TV, in print and on the web for Black Mass, you’ve seen Johnny Depp’s latest look. When he appears on the movie screen, with his blue/green eyes, thinning hair and bad front tooth, even if you’ve seen the ads, it’s still a stunning transformation.

Depp gives a mighty performance as James “Whitey” Bulger, a real-life notorious Boston criminal who committed numerous murders, many in a particularly violent manner, along with lesser felonies. For Depp, the role redeems him after several recent misfires. Award nominations will be forthcoming.

But Black Mass is more than just Depp. Director Scott Cooper deftly relates a complex narrative in two hours. The brooding soundtrack by Tom Holkenborg (AKA Junkie XL) complements perfectly the dark story and its gloomy look. The tight script is by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth from the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill.

(Side note: Is it always cloudy in Boston? Based on this film, Mystic River, The Departed, The Town and others, it seems that the city is constantly under overcast skies.)

The story is told in flashbacks, framed by investigator interviews with Bulger lieutenants Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons). In 1975, Bulger is a small-time hood. Soon, he forms an “alliance” with FBI agent and fellow “Southie” John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). They trade information. The deal helps the FBI take down Mafia interests in Boston, but also opens up those crime areas to Bulger and his cohorts.

The cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Billy Bulger, an elected official who somehow escapes being directly connected to his brother’s treachery. Dakota (Fifty Shades of Gray) Johnson plays Bulger’s girlfriend Lindsey, who is mother of Whitey Bulger’s son. The FBI crew includes Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and David Harbour. Corey Stoll is a take charge U.S. attorney who is baffled by the FBI’s coddling of Bulger.

Black Mass has already generated controversy in Boston. Family members of those killed by Bulger are upset that the movie shows his humanity. This week, Depp said of the character: “There’s a man who loves. There’s a man who cries. There’s a lot to the man.” (Yes, and John Wayne Gacy gave great clown shows for the kids.)

Just as there are many sides to Whitey Bulger, there are many aspects of Black Mass beyond its central character. Depp is excellent. So is the rest of the movie.

Now You See Me

Now You See Me presents illusion on a grand scale. Not only the outsize magic tricks, but the characters and the plot points, too, are not always what they seem to be. The result is a vastly entertaining movie.

At the movie’s start, four magicians are introduced in brief vignettes: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher) and Jack (Dave Franco). After demonstrating their talents, each gets a mysterious card inviting them to a meeting that results in their forming a team.

The Four Horsemen, as they call themselves, begin with a true WTF? illusion in which they rob a bank in Paris from their Las Vegas stage. Hard to explain the depth of the illusion here, but it’s a mind-blower. (The audience volunteer for this trick looks, on first glance, to be a very big star in a cameo. Whoa! But, no, it’s not actually Robert Downey Junior, just a guy who looks a bit like him.)

When the Paris bank finds that their Euros have gone poof, FBI agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma (Mélanie Laurent) question the four, but release them. Also entering the story is Thaddeus Bradley (played by Morgan Freeman), a former magician who has made a career debunking and exposing other magicians’ tricks via a line of successful videos. Michael Caine appears as the Four Horsemen’s manager/advisor/benefactor.

As the fast-moving storyline progresses, the main question to be answered is who assembled these four and what is this person’s motivation? Following a trick/stunt in New Orleans that includes the apparent criminal theft of more money, our gang of four retreats to New York. As authorities close in, they run. Magician Jack is pursued in an exciting chase through Manhattan traffic that results in a fiery crash on the 59th Street Bridge. Jack’s apparent demise leaves no one feelin’ groovy.

After the Four Horsemen’s penultimate bit of business atop an NYC rooftop, all is explained and the elaborate, tangled web is unraveled.

With some films, you might hope to get to know the characters better, but with Now You See Me, it’s the plot that keeps the wheels turning. Mere surface awareness of the film’s individuals turns out to be for the best, I believe. Because, as Eisenberg’s character Daniel says at the movie’s beginning, “The closer you look, the less you see.”

(Rated PG-13.)