Film Review: Black Mass (dir by Scott Cooper)


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You know how sometimes you watch a movie and you’re happy because you know it’s a good movie but, at the same time, you end up feeling slightly disappointed because, as good as it may be, it never quite becomes the great movie that you were hoping for?

That was kind of my reaction to Black Mass.

Black Mass tells the true story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the gangster who controlled the Boston underworld from the late 70s to the mid-90s.  Bulger was both famous and feared for his ruthless brutality and his willingness to murder just about anyone.  Bulger was also famous for being the brother of Billy Bulger, a powerful Democratic politician.  When it appeared that Whitey was finally on the verge of being indicted, he vanished into thin air and, for 2 decades, remained missing until he was finally captured in Florida.  Whitey Bulger is now serving two life sentences.

Black Mass is a solid gangster film.  We watch as Whitey (Johnny Depp) takes over Boston and essentially murders anyone who gets on his nerves.  Helping Whitey out is a local FBI Agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up in South Boston with the Bulger brothers.  While Connolly originally only appears to be using Whitey as an informant to help take down the Italian mob, it quickly becomes obvious that Connolly envies the power and influence of both Whitey and Billy (played by Benedict Cumberbatch).  Soon, Connolly has become something of a Bulger groupie and is protecting Whitey from prosecution and even leaking him the names of anyone who attempts to inform on Bulger’s crime.

Indeed, the film’s best scenes are the ones in which it is shown how the FBI’s determination to take down the Mafia allowed the far more violent Bulger to move into their place.  Bulger was a criminal who worked for and was protected by the U.S. government and, as such, his story serves as a metaphor for a lot of what is currently messed up about America.  While I appreciated the time that Black Mass devoted to exploring Whitey’s relationship with the FBI, I do wish it had spent more time exploring his relationship with his brother, Billy.  The film places most of the blame for Whitey’s reign of terror on the FBI but it defies common sense not to assume that Whitey was also protected by his well-connected, politically powerful brother.

Black Mass contains all of the usual gangster film tropes.  There are sudden and violent executions.  There are drug addicted criminals who turn out to be less than trustworthy.  (Poor Peter Sarsgaard.)  There’s the usual talk of honor and respect.  Beefy men with pockmarked faces stand in the shadows and shout random insults at each other until someone finally snaps.  And, of course, we get the countless scenes where Bulger’s demeanor goes from friendly to threatening and we’re left wondering if he’s going to smile or if he’s going to kill someone.  It may all be a little bit familiar but director Scott Cooper handles it all well and keeps things watchable.

In this 122-minute film, there are exactly two scenes in which Whitey is in any way sympathetic.  In one scene, he breaks down after the death of his son and, in the other, he deals with the death of his mother.  These are the only two scenes in which Whitey shows any hint of humanity.  Otherwise, Bulger is presented as being almost pure evil.  He’s no Michael Corleone, trying to go straight and making excuses for the family business.  Nor does he possess the enjoyable flamboyance of Scareface‘s Tony Montana or The Departed‘s Frank Costello.  Instead, he’s a pure sociopath and  the film’s most effective shots are the ones that focus on Whitey’s expressionless gaze.  They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul and one only has to look into Bulger’s to see that they are windows without a view.

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Johnny Depp deserves all the credit in the world for making Whitey into a compelling character.  Wisely, Depp underplays Whitey’s most threatening scenes.  He rarely raises his voice and the only time he loses control of his emotions is when he’s confronted with something — like the death of his son — that even he can’t change.  Otherwise, Depp plays Whitey as always being in control.  (It’s mentioned, at one point, that Whitey was the subject of 50 LSD experiments while serving time in prison and Depp plays Whitey as if he’s always staring at something that nobody else can see.)  It’s his confidence that makes Whitey Bulger an interesting character.  You may not like him but you can’t look away because you know that he’s literally capable of anything.  Ever since the trailer for Black Mass was first released, Depp has been at the center of awards speculation.  Having seen the film, I can say that the Oscar talk is more than deserved.  He’s even better than people like me thought he would be.

Depp is so good that he overshadows the rest of the cast.  There’s a lot of good actors in this film, including Kevin Bacon, James Russo, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Jesse Plemons, and Rory Cochrane.  But few of them get as much of a chance to make an impression as Johnny Depp.  Much as Whitey dominated Boston, Depp dominates this film.  Joel Edgerton has several great moments as the not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is Connolly but even he is thoroughly overshadowed by Depp’s performance.  (That said, I did appreciate the fact that Edgerton’s too-eager-to-please Connolly came across like he might be a cousin to The Gift‘s Gordo the Weirdo.)

As I said at the beginning of this review, Black Mass is good but it was never quite as great as I was hoping it would be.  There’s a few too many scenes where you get the feeling that Scott Cooper woke up the day of shooting and said, “Let’s Scorsese the shit out of this scene.”  As a result, Black Mass sometimes struggles to escape from the shadow cast by Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, American Gangster, and the countless other mob films that have been released over the past few decades.  Black Mass is well-made and will forever be remembered for Johnny Depp’s amazing lead performance but it never quite reaches the status of a classic.

Finally, on a personal note, I did enjoy the fact that Black Mass dealt with the Irish mob.  I’m a little bit torn in my loyalties because I’m Irish-Italian but, if I ever had to pick a mob to which to serve as a cheerleader, I would go Irish Mafia all the way!

Sláinte!

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That’s Blaxploitaion 3: Pam Grier in FOXY BROWN (AIP 1974)


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Foxy Brown is one bad-ass chick, and FOXY BROWN is one bad-ass movie! Action queen Pam Grier plays Foxy, who’s out to get the bad guys that killed her boyfriend Mike (Terry Carter), an undercover narc. Mike has had plastic surgery to disguise himself from the mob, but Foxy’s weasely brother Linc (Antonio Fargas, Huggy Bear of TV’s STARSKY & HUTCH) owes the villians twenty grand for a coke deal, so he drops a dime on Mike. The mob guns Mike down and Foxy is out for revenge!

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The gang is run by Miss Katherine and her man, Steve Elias. Foxy, as ‘Misty Cotton’, infiltrates their set-up. The dastardly duo run a ‘modeling agency’ as a front, using hookers to ‘persuade’ judges, politicians, and other authorities for protection for their dope racket. Foxy goes on an assignment with another hooker named Claudia (Juanita Brown) to seduce a judge, but the pair end up humiliating him instead! Foxy and  Claudia end up getting…

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Film Review: Monster High (1989, dir. Rudy Poe)


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Since I want to watch and review all those animated movies that have come out in the last 5 years or so called Monster High, I thought I needed to watch this. Dear God, I hope they have nothing to do with each other. So let’s talk about this Monster High that is totally not supposed to resemble Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) in anyway.

It begins by giving us a warning:

“WARNING
Some scenes may be considered objectionable by sensitive viewers, dead people and farm animals. On the other hand, if you like that sort of thing…”

I’ve sat through Salo, among other things, so I wouldn’t say I’m a sensitive viewer. I’m dead inside, but I don’t think that counts. I’m definitely not a farm animal even though I guess I can be milked. That’s the kind of jokes to expect in this movie. It’s 80’s lowbrow shlock. So what’s next movie?

“Picture in your mind the farthest point in the universe. Our story begins just a couple of blocks past that.”

This is a lot of build up for a movie that’s just a series of bad jokes with monsters in a high school. Now we are introduced to a guy with the longest name and title I think I have ever seen in a movie.

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He notices that for some reason the destruction of Earth has been postponed. Apparently, Mr. Armageddon is to blame. So the Monster In Charge orders a report on the last 24 hrs of Mr. Armageddon’s existence. Why? I can only guess because they thought the movie wasn’t annoying enough without one, so we need a narrator. The Monster In Charge puts a CD that looks like a GameCube disc into his computer and starts to watch the video report. We meet Dume and Glume who have stolen the “ultimate weapon”. Unfortunately, they don’t get far. The box drops on and kills a dog (Shicksah Anne Spear) in front of a high school.

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And yes, that is the actual name of the dog in real life. I love when a movie credits something that isn’t human so it ends up in IMDb as an actor. The dog is just continuing in the fine tradition of it’s predecessor’s such as the chicken named Friendly in Supercock (1975).

The doomsday weapon turns out to be a basketball. This happens at exactly the same time when Mr. Armageddon is woken up by his alarm clock. Oh, and if you think that means there is going to be a 25 minute long sequence where the kids play basketball with Mr. Armageddon and some monsters for the fate of the world, then you’re sadly correct.

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Yeah, that clock is probably the only actual funny thing in the movie. So, of course Mr. Armageddon comes to the school and puts Dume and Glume on ice. Then he goes over to a statue and turns it into a “horny rubber monster”. Think that’s the only condom joke in this movie? Of course not!

Now the mayhem begins. Mr. Armageddon has some weird priorities in who he kills. First he offs one of the Cheerleaders/Pep Club members, which makes sense for a horror movie. But before he gets to the second one, he finds Todd Uppington Smythe AKA Dickhead to his friends and uses a “Can O’ Condom” on him.

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But he gets it off and I guess he’s the one who becomes a zombie as a result? I’m not sure. Then another cheerleader dies. Well, now Mr. Armageddon needs to get some allies. Oh, and Dume and Glume woke up during this time. He makes a mummy come alive. He creates a monster with a computer monitor for a head. He starts growing a killer weed. And since it’s random in the movie, there’s this guy who keeps appearing to wake up from a nightmare, but it’s just reality again.

Need another low brow joke? Now we are informed by our useless narrator that Dume and Glume’s ineptness can be illustrated by the fact that they were once a “third-rate song-and-dance act.” Let’s hear those lyrics!

“You got your penis and your prostate and your ovaries.
You got your fimbriae and your scrotum sac.
And if your hymen is gone it ain’t coming back.”

Truly the Lennon and McCartney of their world. Wait, why am I describing this garbage? Here’s the highlights.

The monster that comes out of a guy's shoe after that's all that is left of him.

The monster that comes out of a guy’s shoe after that’s all that is left of him.

The advanced sex ed classroom. No joke, that's what they call it.

The advanced sex ed classroom. No joke, that’s what they call it.

Because this was 1989. Do I have to spell out what this is from?

Because this was 1989. Do I have to spell out what this is from?

When you do weed. A literal giant weed will come and drag you away.

When you do weed. A literal giant weed will come and drag you away.

Now the surviving kids strike a deal with Mr. Armageddon to play a game of basketball to postpone the destruction of Earth by 1,000 years. Yeah, it’s as dumb as you think it is.

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Pretty sad looking team, huh? Not as sad as their cheering section.

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Mr. Armageddon is winning the game because his computer player is an excellent shot. So the kids figure out a way to reprogram him. To do that, they need to fight a zombie. Once that’s done, the humans win the game. Oh, but only after a scene of the winning shot where the ball dances around the rim. This must go on for a minute and a half or more. it’s really stupid.

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Then Mr. Armageddon and the monsters are sent away. That’s it! That’s really it. It’s basically a poor man’s version of Class of Nuke ‘Em High. A bevy of sex jokes with some actual bare breasts. Poor attempts to make fun of movie cliches. In particular, making fun of horror movies. I like a good piece of 80’s garbage as much as the next person, but this is just lousy. I can’t recommend it.

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