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.

The Gift

Creepy and suspenseful, The Gift is filled with people and actions that are not what they always appear to be. As secrets are revealed, outcomes remain in question.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are a married couple who have just moved to Los Angeles from Chicago. For Simon, it’s a return to his former stomping grounds. They encounter one of Simon’s old high school classmates, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), while shopping. Gordo begins dropping off a series of gifts at the couple’s front door.

Simon is dubious about Gordo’s aggressive gifting but Robyn is welcoming. The couple invites Gordo over for dinner. Gordo drops by during the daytime when Simon is at work. Robyn invites him in for tea. When Gordo invites them to his place for dinner and steps out for a moment, Simon teases Robyn about her supposed attraction to Gordo (and his to her).

As some of the couple’s past difficulties are revealed and their relationship with Gordo stumbles, tension builds. Robyn jogs, she reaches out to neighbors, she works from home, she attempts normalcy, but there’s an underlying unease.

One source of unease is the couple’s ongoing difficulty having a baby. When Robyn becomes pregnant, there’s relief. But more revelations and troubles lurk nearby.

An uncredited character in The Gift is Simon and Robyn’s hillside home where most of the film’s scenes take place. It’s a cool mid-century modern house, with lots of glass and great views. Despite the home’s appeal, it’s not the ideal abode for a woman who has Robyn’s concerns.

Joel Edgerton not only stars as the creepy Gordo, he also wrote and directed The Gift. He was crafted a movie that works, keeping the anxiety at a low simmer with occasional crescendos of distress. Like Shrek says about ogres and onions, The Gift has layers, as do its characters.

Because you won’t just dismiss it, but will talk about it later, this film is (to use the old radio spot cliché) The Gift that keeps on giving.

Exodus: God And Kings

 

Exodus: Gods and Kings is an epic film. It is epic like the epics of old from David Lean and C.B. DeMille. And like modern day epics from James Cameron and, well, Ridley Scott (director of E:GAK). Which is to say, Exodus Gods and Kings is big, bold and ambitious.

The settings and the vistas are magnificent. In the old days, an epic’s trailer would mention “a cast of thousands.” In modern filmmaking, thousands of humans are not actually required to be on hand, but the shots of huge slave villages and giant projects (such as the Pyramids) provide a realistic looking depiction of what life may have been like way back in the B.C. day.

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Moses learns of his true lineage and, after several years away from the center of Hebrew servitude to the Egyptians, returns to set his people free.

Moses goes into the mountains to talk to God. The Burning Bush is there, but the voice of God is represented by a young child (Issac Andrews) whose messages to Moses are sometimes delivered rather sternly. The kid does a great job.

How to convince pharaoh Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) to free the slaves? How about a series of plagues? 3-D embellishes the horror of the plagues, which range from locusts to flies to frogs to boils on skins. The final plague, death of a family’s firstborn, does the trick.

The exodus of the Jews climaxes with their pause at the shore of the Red Sea. Bale’s Moses and Scott do the trick of ensuring safe passage a bit differently from Charlton Heston’s Moses and DeMille.

Bale is excellent as Moses, strong but not overbearing. Edgerton seems a bit uncomfortable as Ramesses. The Egyptian style which has men encircling their eyes in eye shadow makes him look feminine, which I don’t think is the intended effect.

Also in the film’s cast are Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver and John Turturro.

Exodus: Gods and Kings runs 2:23 from the opening Fox logo to director Ridley Scott’s touching dedication of the movie to his brother Tony Scott, also a film director, who committed suicide in 2012.

If you like epic films and if you like Christian Bale, don’t miss it. But I can’t designate E:GAK a “must-see” film. (You may have many opportunities to see this film down the road as it could well become a TV classic for religious holiday viewing, just like The Ten Commandments was for many a decade.)

The Great Gatsby

Director Baz Luhrman’s version of The Great Gatsby is, above all, great storytelling. Yes, it has moments of sensory overload, but Luhrman and his cast also slow things down to let us get to know the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story of life in the early 1920’s, aka the Jazz Age.

With some characters, motivations are obvious. With others, the character’s needs and wants are more gradually revealed. One person leaving a Gatsby screening observed that the casting of the key players was almost perfect.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in a performance that’s among his best, plays the title role and keeps Gatsby initially mysterious. Tobey Maguire is also a standout as Nick Carraway, the narrator of the book and movie, a callow Midwesterner who is awestruck by what he experiences in New York. Cary Mulligan captures Daisy Buchanan’s grace and charm, as well as some of her less savory qualities. Another impressive player is Joel Edgerton as the impetuous Tom Buchanan, who reveals all of his character’s anger and resentments. In a small role, Isla Fisher shines as Myrtle Wilson.

Trailers for Gatsby and Luhrman’s reputation for bombast may have set the bar high for those anticipating a loud and splashy, over-the-top production. Indeed, a couple of the parties at Gatsby’s mansion are mind-blowers. And the fireworks scene, accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, is jaw-droppingly spectacular.

Luhrman loves the fast fly-in shots and so do I. (They’re like zoom-ins, but the feeling is of the camera’s moving.) His bookending the film with the black and white vintage look titles is clever, but not quite as clever as the titles sequences seen two months ago for Oz the Great and Powerful.

Those who hold Fitzgerald’s novel in high esteem will appreciate the filmmaker’s respect for Fitzgerald’s text. Those who rolled their eyes upon hearing that the movie would use contemporary music in its soundtrack will find that most of the selections work in harmony with the film’s events. Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful is particularly memorable.

The Great Gatsby is a classic novel, one that’s taught at schools and colleges. Transferring such a tale to film is not easy. Painting a portrait of the characters that’s true to the printed work and including major plot elements requires a variety of skills. Those skills are evident here, particularly in the time management of the story.

My only qualms: I thought Gatsby’s home was substantially grander in the movie than I’d imagined from the book. Also, I pictured Gatsby to have a more weathered, rugged appearance than does DiCaprio, who looks fit and healthy.

It’s notable that The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13. Hats off to Luhrman for making a great movie without a single f-word. (High school English teachers, feel free to send your students to see The Great Gatsby without fear of getting yelled at by the school board.)

The Great Gatsby is solid, with few flaws. Enjoy the story, the characters, the settings, the cars, the wardrobes. Don’t miss it, old sport!

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

This movie is too sweet. No, really, it’s TOO sweet.

It’s a fantasy about a childless couple who get—for a while—this sweet little kid named Timothy. Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton (who may remind you of Conan O’Brien just a bit) are the couple. CJ Adams plays Timothy.

After giving up in their effort to conceive, they drink a lot of wine and write down on small pieces of paper what their fantasy kid would be like. This is an odd thing to do, under the circumstances, but that’s the movies for ya! They take the papers, put ‘em in a box and bury the box in the yard. Also odd behavior.

After a violent storm, Timothy magically appears. Here’s the problem with this fantasy: everything else in the movie is perfectly normal. It’s hard—for one of us, at least—to buy into the fantasy when nothing else in the movie is particularly fantastical.

Timothy’s presence in their lives for a few months demonstrates to the couple the joys and pains of parenthood. And moves them so much that, in fact—actually in fantasy, the story is told in flashbacks while the couple are at an adoption agency.

TOLOTG is basically a Hallmark Channel movie with better actors and production values. It’s rated PG and is okay for all but the very young. I’ve seen tweets suggesting you bring tissues. If you cry easily, that might be a good idea. Yes, the ending is sweet. Just a bit too sweet for me.