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.

Into The Woods

 

Into The Woods is a pure delight. The performances are fun and funny. And what a cast!

Wonderful Stephen Sondheim songs bring together characters from favorite fairy tales. (The script is by James Lapine.) The songs have clever lyrics that you can understand. The songs have those Sondheim melodies that don’t always go where you expect them to go.

Into The Woods is directed by Rob Marshall who hit it out of the park with his Oscar-nominated direction of Chicago in 2002. (His 2009 film version of the musical Nine was more like a bloop single.)

The story begins with The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who want a baby. The witch (Meryl Streep) says she will lift her curse on the baker’s family if the couple accomplish three specific tasks. They must go into the woods to get things done.

The large cast of characters also includes Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), The Wolf (Johnny Depp), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Cinderella’s Stepmother (Christine Baranski), The Prince (Chris Pine), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Jack’s mother (Tracy Ullman), The Giant (Francis La Tour), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and more.

The story that weaves all these characters together is ingenious. Though these are children’s stories, the movie is made for adults. Disney toned down some of the more grownup content from the stage version of Into The Woods to make the film more family friendly. Yes, you can take your kids—it’s rated PG—but younger children are likely to become fatigued.

The film’s strongest performances come from Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and (surprise) Chris Pine. On the down side, the movie seems longer than it is. Run time is 2 hours, 4 minutes. Resolving multiple story lines takes a while. The pace of the film, just perfect at the start, seems to bog down a bit in the end.

But there are joys aplenty in Into The Woods. If you like musicals, you need to experience and enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tusk

 

Tusk is an odd amusement. This is NOT a movie for everyone.

The story comes from a podcast featuring writer/director Kevin Smith and fellow podcaster Scott Mosier. Their brainstorm evolved into a tale about a man who is held hostage and turned into a walrus. When the film’s first trailer was released this summer, no hints were given that the film might be funny.

Tusk is funny. It’s also (at various points) weird, clever, dumb, frightening, gross, off-putting and lovable. But, as noted, this is not a movie for everyone.

Wallace (Justin Long) and Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) are L.A.-based podcasters who talk about a kid in Manitoba who injured himself severely with a sword. Video of the injury goes viral. Wallace goes to Canada to interview the kid, but finds that he is dead.

Wallace finds a curious note on the wall of a Winnipeg men’s room and, wanting some good audio for his podcast, heads out to find the note’s writer, Howard Howe (Michael Parks). Howe shares his story of being rescued at sea by a walrus. Wallace is drugged and awakens to discover just how disturbed Howe is.

Wallace manages to leave voicemails for his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and Teddy. They go to Canada to find and rescue Wallace. Along the way, they encounter an investigator named Guy LaPointe (Johnny Depp in an uncredited role) who provides a few of the film’s comedic highlights.

Tusk has some silly jokes about American/Canadian culture. (A convenience store is named “Eh-2-Zed.”) Stick around during credits for an audio clip of the podcast that spawned this bit of wackiness.

Kevin Smith is known for taking risks in his moviemaking. His Dogma is one I watch any time I flip by it. Tusk is strange enough that it’s likely to be embraced as genius by certain of Smith’s devotees. It is entertaining enough for me—I appreciate this film’s strangeness—but, as noted above, Tusk is not for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transcendence

Transcendence is a mess. When producers pay Johnny Depp $20M (+ a percentage), as has been reported, one expects a significantly better product.

Will Caster (Depp) is a computer geek working in the world of Artificial Intelligence. He is shot by anti-tech activists who oppose his mission. He survives the wound, but the bullet is coated with materials that lead to his gradual demise.

His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max (Paul Bettany), who work alongside him, transfer his intellect to computer drives. When Will communicates via computer screen following his death, the plot begins to unfold.

Sadly, the story is weak and poorly told. None of the characters in the film, including Will, are worth caring about. Transcendence lasts just over 2 hours but seems much longer.

For all the philosophical questions about the ascent of technology the film purports to raise, the framing of those issues is muted by a lack of basic film making skill. Yes, it has many cool images and some nice effects but they’re not sufficient to make the film compelling.

The name Johnny Depp will sell enough tickets to justify his huge paycheck. The name Christopher Nolan as a producer may attract fans of Inception and Memento into movie houses. The fact that rookie director Wally Pfister has worked as Nolan’s cinematographer may also lure fans to the box office. But Transcendence is not a good movie.

For the past 20 years, any Johnny Depp movie was, for me, a movie I wanted to see—just because his onscreen work has been consistently entertaining. Even films like The Tourist and The Rum Diary were made worthwhile by his presence. Now, after last year’s Lone Ranger and this new release, a Depp film is no longer a “must see” for me.

Transcendence is not the worst movie of 2014. But it is the most disappointing so far.

 

 

Dark Shadows

It’s simple: if you are a Depp fan, you must see “Dark Shadows.”

“Dark Shadows” is not Tim Burton’s best film. It has flaws. But it has Johnny Depp in a meaty role as the vampire Barnabas Collins. Depp is the reason to see the movie.

Another good is Eva Green as the witch Angelique. She looks great and she has fun with the role.

The two share a lovemaking scene that’s a classic. It’s not particularly sexy, but the way they literally bounce off the walls is ridiculously outrageous. At the end of their tryst, the room looks more like the site of a violent brawl than that of a hookup.

The story is set in 1972. After spending over two centuries underground in a casket, Barnabas is dug up by a construction crew. As he encounters modern life, he experiences some amusing culture shock.

We, the audience, get to enjoy our time travel backward 40 years to the cars and culture of ’72. “Deliverance” and “Superfly” are on movie marquees; the Carpenters sing “Top of the World” on a TV show. (One notable anachronism: Lyrics are recited from Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” which did not come along until 1973. And the Raspberries 1972 hit “Go All the Way,” which played over the closing credits, was not the original hit version—shameful!)

Since Barnabas spurned Angelique’s romantic overtures in the 1700’s, she turned him into a vampire and sent him to his 200+ year dirt nap. When he comes alive again in ’72, she’s still around and still desiring Barnabas.

Another reason to see the movie is the amazing 15-year-old Chloe Grace Maretz as the daughter of the ’72 era matriarch of the Collins clan. This young woman (best known for “Hugo,” “Kick-Ass” and “30 Rock”) sparkles on the big and small screens. With the right role, she could be an Oscar winner by age 21.

Add in Alice Cooper performing “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” and you have another hook to lure you in.

“Dark Shadows” is uneven and may fall short of some expectations/anticipations. But I like Depp, even in his less-than-awesome movies, and he’s fun to watch here.