Movie Review: BLACK MASS (2015)

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Asking for a modern day GOODFELLAS would be far too unfair a demand to place on any film, but the very least an audience should expect from BLACK MASS, the hotly anticipated new film about the infamous gangster Whitey Bulger, is an experience laced with energy, insight and pizzazz. Sadly, the film is sorely lacking in all these respects.

The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth bears considerable blame for these deficiencies. Much like Whitey: The United States vs. James J. Bulger, last year’s lukewarm documentary on the same subject, there’s little offered in BLACK MASS that you couldn’t glean from a Wikipedia entry; that is to say, the narrative fails to infuse any human details or empathetic depths into the plot points which have already been widely reported upon. For instance, what drove Whitey’s ambitions – a thirst for sadism, a calling, a desire to rule, the intoxication of being feared and respected? We’re not given a single clue. This should be an important point in the narrative, because the second lead character (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is Whitey’s brother Billy, a figure who attempted to take his life in another direction as a politician and lawyer. The film seems to want to paint a contrast between the two of them, but we’re given no sense of how their paths veered in opposite directions or how they feel about the occupations of the other. As a result, these contrasts remain only surface deep. The entire film is surface both in its lack of fleshed out characterizations or a lived-in environment (the Boston of the film should serve as another defining character of the piece, but it remains largely undistinctive). The film completely bypasses what Scorsese so masterfully demonstrated in his gangster oeuvre – that God is in the details. Outside of a few repetitive and unimaginatively staged murders, we don’t even witness any part of Whitey’s criminal operation; in fact, we’re surprised to learn 90 minutes into the picture when we hear second-hand that he serves up drugs to 12-year old kids in the neighborhood.

Scott Cooper’s solemn direction eradicates the film of all personality. This proves especially burdensome on the actors. The sledgehammer cast in BLACK MASS would be any director’s dream, but each of them are denied an opportunity to play more than a single monotonous note. This is a particularly pitiful plight for Johnny Depp, an actor who’s usually renowned or mocked for infusing his roles with too much personality. You can tell he’s going for something unique in his striking physical representation of Whitey Bulger, but his imagination seems stilted when it comes to filling the interior of the character. This is not entirely his fault – as the screenplay allows him practically no foundation and minimal motivation – but his failure to fully embrace more playful or savage colors feels conspicuous nonetheless. Perhaps the greatest disservice to Depp occurs in the centerpiece scene (the one that marks the opening of the film’s trailer) where Whitey tauntingly toys with an FBI agent at the dinner table. This scene feels like a very pale imitation of Joe Pesci’s most cherished moment in GOODFELLAS (“How am I funny? Funny how?”), and you feel embarrassed that Depp’s been put in a position to mimic such a classic sequence. Luckily, Depp achieves just the right level of slithery menace in the very next scene (the best moment in the film) as he threateningly caresses Julianne Nicholson.

BLACK MASS is a polished and handsome production brought off in a respectful, classical style. But this kind of material demands at least a whiff of disrespectability. The film’s pace is lumbering at best, and outside of Peter Sarsgaard’s manic supporting performance, it lacks the adrenalized propulsions that drive the best films in the gangster genre. People exiting the theater could be heard commenting on how they felt it was a great film; I suspect that they recognized the surface of Oscar striving quality and mistook it as nourishment. But don’t they realize that movies exist to entertain, enlighten and remind us what it means to be human (especially if those humans are figures we wouldn’t normally be prone to identifying with)? BLACK MASS offers none of these qualities. It merely presents a series of events in chronological order, but can’t seem bothered to understand or dramatize the emotional dimensions behind those events. There’s no there there. C-

Movie Review: RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015)

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RICKI AND THE FLASH is by turns free-spirited and traditional, precious and acerbic, melancholy and crowd-pleasing. In other words, it’s what you would expect from a Jonathan Demme and Diablo Cody collaboration. What ties it all together, and ultimately makes it work, is the film’s commitment to protecting and reflecting the humanity of its characters.

Meryl Streep plays a rocker who left her husband, daughter and two sons many years ago to pursue her dream of a life as a professional musician. Tempers flair when she’s finally reunited with her family at the behest of her ex-husband (Kevin Kline), and it is impendent upon her to mend bridges just strong enough so she can be allowed to cross back into their lives.

The film sets up a string of sitcom-ready possibilities, but Diablo Cody’s (JUNO) script outsmarts them at each turn. Take, for instance, the role of Kline’s new wife played by Audra McDonald, a character that could have been portrayed as a spiteful and rightfully entitled stepmother (after all, she spent her life raising the kids as Ricki went off to live her dream without them). In her communications with Ricki, McDonald infuses the role with a not-giving-an-inch strength, but unravels reserves of compassion and accommodation as well.

What’s most remarkable about the movie is the complete empathy you’re allowed to feel for each character; you sense the family’s awkwardness around the rebellious stranger Ricki, but you experience Ricki’s awkwardness at sensing their awkwardness, too. Demme’s approach allows for layers of hair-turn emotional perceptions.

The performances are appealing across the board, including the one provided by Mamie Gummer, the real-life daughter of Streep who portrays the tormented daughter here. Each of the performances – particularly the one crafted by Gummer – could have fallen into the trap of non-stop shrillness in their expressions of anger towards Ricki, but they wisely provide more interesting variations of tone. As for Streep, she has a great handle on her character from moment to moment, though her musical numbers in the film may feel a bit studied (with the exception of an intimate solo musical moment in a living room which plays as one of the revealing moments in the film). With a lifetime of remarkably diverse roles under her belt, it’s difficult to pin Meryl Streep as a “type”. Ricki and The Flash further mystifies this effort. GRADE: B

Movie Review: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION

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I appreciate the theory behind choosing different directors for each new entry in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE film franchise. It carries the promise of a fresh take every time out. De Palma was the ideal filmmaker for this inaugural experiment; his freedom of visual expression found great partnership with the physical daring of star Tom Cruise. The second installment is the weakest of the bunch, but still harbors John Woo’s dove-infested slow-motion trademarks. JJ Abrams delivered a competent but largely undistinguished third chapter before Brad Bird surprisingly took the franchise to new heights of visceral excitement and truly jaw-dropping set pieces – the likes of which haven’t been seen in American action cinema in some time.

The new film – subtitled Rogue Nation – doesn’t achieve the same super-charged gut punch of its immediate predecessor, but it realizes an appealing tone that nevertheless sets it apart. Under Christopher McQuarrie’s assured direction, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE becomes a pleasing exercise in nostalgia. He brings out the undertones which have flavored the series from the beginning; sweeping globe-trotting spectacle in the vein of the Hitchcockian spy thriller. Just take a look at the film’s most stunning sequence – a two-way assassination attempt at a Vienna opera house – where the imaginative staging and grand locale immediately take you back to the elegance of The Man Who Knew Too Much. As the story deepens, we travel from Vienna to (where else?) Casablanca. Even the customary mission assignment (“Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”) is delivered on classic throwback vinyl.

This approach feels respectful of the traditions which came before it, and true to the nature of the franchise. As a result, the film doesn’t bombard or exhaust you; in fact, it all feels rather subdued despite its four showpiece action sequences. But nothing in it exhilarates as much as the Dubai skyscraper climb in GHOST PROTOCOL. Still, its obvious affection for the espionage thrillers of yesteryear serves as a nice change of pace in these times when action films are marred by headache-inducing chaos and the tedious cloudiness of CGI. ROGUE NATION may not find anything new in the old, but it’s a refreshing homage, and that’s good enough. Grade: B

Movie Review: JENNY’S WEDDING (2015)

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There’s never been a better time to release a film like JENNY’S WEDDING, a new drama starring Katherine Heigl and Tom Wilkinson. Arriving on the heels of the Supreme Court marriage equality ruling, the film deals with the familial fallout when a much doted-upon daughter (Heigl) comes out as a lesbian who wants to marry her long-time secret love. The revelation comes as a complete shock to her mother (Linda Emond) and father (Wilkinson), as well as her gossip-mongering sister played by Grace Gummer (Meryl’s Streep’s real-life daughter).

JENNY’S WEDDING is a film you may find yourself rooting for, but that goodwill is only earned by quality and conviction of the performers. Unfortunately, the offensively amateurish plotting and direction sabotage them at nearly every turn.

First, the writing. Both parents are portrayed with a single-minded obsession from the first frame: “why can’t our daughter find a man?” They discuss nothing else. Any other thought or subject of conversation they may have concerning their daughter wouldn’t propel the central plot, so why bother including it? Still, that’s nothing compared to the perils that befall Gummer, who is afflicted by a ridiculously written role full of grade school metaphors. Heigl and her bride-to-be (Alexis Biedel) seem cosmetically right as a couple, but the screenplay fails to distinguish their relationship to any degree so there’s not an ounce of chemistry allowed between them.

The film is shot in a workmanlike fashion; it’s in no way expressive, but at least it isn’t intrusive. The same cannot be said of the film’s use of music. Anytime a performer reaches a moment of truthfulness and genuine emotional connection, a pop song emerges to spell out the context of exactly what you’re seeing. (Immediately following a beautifully played moment, when Heigl stands up to her mother and asserts her true identity for the first time in her life, the music begins to blare with lyrics which inform us that she’s her own woman now. YES, WE GET IT. WE JUST READ IT IN THE ACTOR’S FACE!) This isn’t just directorial incompetence; it’s treasonous to both the actors and the audience. This same musical obscenity marred the otherwise insightful and moving comedy/drama HOPE SPRINGS with Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep. It’s a disturbing trend because it’s lazy, and it conditions an audience to be lazy, too.

There should be a special Oscar for actors who rise so valiantly above hackneyed material. Wilkinson and Emond would be the chief nominees here. They’re largely successful in finding authenticity where none exists on the written page. Heigl also vindicates her role as well as can be expected; she’s an appealing performer who’s given a bad rap for past on-set antics. She isn’t Shakesperean in her abilities, but she’s up for the challenge of realizing depth in shallow waters.

JENNY’S WEDDING releases this weekend in theaters and On Demand services. GRADE: C

Movie Review: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

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Rare is the summer action blockbuster that stands by its R rating, and doesn’t castrate itself in the service of its youngest audiences. Rarer still is such a movie with the punch and kick of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, the fourth installment of director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic saga. It’s been 30 years since Miller played in the Mad Max sandbox, and it’s clear from frame one that he hasn’t missed a step. But he has gained a few, as evidenced by a simply stated heartbeat that largely eluded its otherwise accomplished predecessors.

The raves you’ve read this week from the nation’s critics are right on the money. Nearly every aspect of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – from the crisply clay sooted photography to the pulsating soundscapes to the breakneck but beautifully clean editing – is a stunner. Miller’s work here is like the very best of Spielberg’s set pieces, but it’s Spielberg unhinged. Balletic, nearly hallucinatory action fills every corner of the frame, yet you can easily follow every beat, movement and spacial relationship. It’s not spliced to Hell and back to cover up flaws in the execution (like something you’d see in the Jason Bourne films), because the vast majority of the action is performed practically and is actually unfolding before your eyes. The movie is intensely alive with the love of detailed flourishes both grandiose and minuscule. From its costumes to its stunts to its character design, the screen hasn’t burned with this much euphoria of invention in some time.

What’s missing from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD? Mad Max himself. Tom Hardy takes over the mantle of the title character from Mel Gibson, and it’s difficult to imagine a more ideal replacement. But even though Hardy is featured in a majority of the film’s scenes, it’s initially startling that he seems to take a backseat for most of its two-hour running time. Then you realize that this potential flaw has been committed by design. The character of Mad Max, and his placement in the film’s title, is actually a MacGuffin of sorts. The real star player in the film is Charlize Theron, who provides the film its subtle and unexpected emotional resonance. Women aren’t relegated to background players in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Quite literally and without obvious grandstanding, the mission of the film lies in securing their empowerment in a genre which typically enslaves them.

A word of warning concerning the potential downfalls of the film’s presentation. Make sure you see it in a theater that has great sound, and seek out the 2D version, especially if your theater typically displays 3D product in fuzzy focus and low light levels. A beautifully executed spectacle like this deserves the perfect conditions in which to work its sensual magic. A

Movie Review: ALOHA (2015)

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One day in a couple of years – maybe when his next movie comes out – Cameron Crowe will explain what went wrong with ALOHA. It’ll probably be a more engrossing story than the one that ended up on the screen. I’m a HUGE fan of Crowe’s films (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, We Bought a Zoo). When his movies work, they’re unique and welcomed entries in an otherwise depressing movie climate; honestly humanistic, and free of cynicism without venturing into the maudlin.

ALOHA is being released amidst a swarm of horrible buzz, set up in part by Sony chief Amy Pascal’s damning leaked emails blasting early rough cuts of the film. The movie has a lot of power in its corner – mainly a wildly romantic locale, and a wonderfully captivating cast led by the hottest stars working today in Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone and audience favorite Bill Murray. I’m sure every one of them was thrilled to be in a Cameron Crowe movie. And I’m sure they were all painfully aware that they were in the wrong Cameron Crowe movie.

Something went terribly awry somewhere. Is it possible that these talents only signed up for the film because they wanted to work with Crowe, and yet they knew the script didn’t work? Did they think they could fix it as they went along? Did Crowe suffer some kind of crisis in the middle of shooting and lose his feeling for the material? Did the studio meddle a bit too much in the process? Did the earlier cuts present a better version of the film than the one we’ve been given?

As it stands, everything in ALOHA feels too vague; the story, the characters, the conflicts. It’s a movie set on auto pilot. Very little in it is earrned, so when those “you had me at hello” moments come, they feel too strained because the movie has failed to invest its audience with any level of goodwill or empathy.

It must be said, though, that the final minute of the film soars with a really lovely authenticity of emotion (literally, the final minute). And it all hinges upon the most incredible moment of performance I’ve seen this year (by a teenage female supporting character). If you do go see it, do it for that one beautiful shining moment, and for the challenge of deciphering what went wrong with the 96 minutes that come before it. D+

Movie Review: SAN ANDREAS (2015)

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The kind of big, dumb summer movie where you can predict every line of dialogue a mile away (I did this so many times that gullible audience members probably thought I was Kreskin). The kind of mass-appeal entertainment where things blow up and crumble real good. The kind of movie where The Rock plays an impossibly heroic everyman with the sensitive soul of a saint. The kind of movie that ends with a huge American flag unfurling over a completely flattened major city. I loved it. B

Movie Review: ENTOURAGE (2015)

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If you were a fan of the HBO series ENTOURAGE, then you’ll probably be satisfied with more of the same in the upcoming feature film. Just like in the series itself, most of the cameos in the film are obvious and strained, the humor sophomoric and perverted, and Jeremy Piven provides the only real jolt of life blood and energy in the entire enterprise. Surprisingly, the concept they’ve developed for the film holds up and carries a viewer’s attention over its 100 minute running time (especially surprising considering that the show itself was feather light at under 30 minutes per episode). It’s a fun diversion that you’re unlikely to remember much about once you leave the theater. It’s as shallow as the industry it lampoons, and just as shamelessly appealing. C+

My Top Ten Favorite Martin Scorsese Films (narrative):

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My Top Ten Favorite Martin Scorsese Films (narrative):

1. Taxi Driver
2. Casino
3. Goodfellas
4. New York Stories
5. Cape Fear
6. The Age of Innocence
7. Mean Streets
8. The Last Temptation of Christ
9. The Aviator
10. The Wolf of Wall Street

Runners-up: After Hours, The King of Comedy

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