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.

Get On Up

 

The number one reason to see Get On Up is to witness the performance of Chadwick Boseman. He’s fantastic—singing, dancing and acting.

The story of singer James Brown (Boseman) is cleverly told out of sequence by director Tate Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Episodes depict performances as well as Brown’s dealings with family, fellow musicians and strangers.

James Brown’s dysfunctional upbringing led him to unsavory behaviors as an adult. That rough childhood also gave him the will to be his own man, not dependent on others.

The musical performances in locales from Vietnam to Paris to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to the set of the movie Ski Party to a Cincinnati recording studio are uniformly excellent and fun to watch. If Boseman really did all those dance moves, he proved himself to be just as athletic here than as he was in last year’s 42 biopic where he starred as baseball great Jackie Robinson.

Brown and mom Susie (Viola Davis) had a troubled relationship. His abandonment issues resurface in a tearful reunion. Brown was abusive to his wife Dee Dee (Jill Scott, who makes a strong impression in her minimal screen time) but she hung in with him. Brown’s up and down relationship with musician Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) is resolved in the movie’s final half hour.

Unlike many black characters from all eras in modern movies, in Get On Up, James Brown has an authentic Southern black dialect. Hats off to the filmmaker for making that choice. Boseman nails the memorable rasp in JB’s voice.

Get On Up could use a bit of tightening up. But despite its just-a-bit-too-long run time, the film reveals much about a man who was a genuine pop icon. And whether you are/were a James Brown fan or not, Boseman’s performance will impress you.