Review: Depp’s ‘Black Mass’ of excellence

18 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Black Mass’ review: Johnny Depp is chilling as real-life gangster.

The film looks at Bulger’s reign as the boss of the Irish-American underworld and the connections he forged with the FBI which used him as a paid informer in order to crack down on the rival Italian-American mafia. “I approached James Bulger as a human being who … was multifaceted and did have a side to him that was … human, loving and all that,” Depp said at a news conference. There’s been much talk about , mostly surrounding Johnny Depp, his incredible transformation into Boston drug lord James “Whitey” Bulger and how this film could potentially get him a nod at the Oscars for Best Actor.

Propelled by a raw and primal performance by Johnny Depp, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass will have you barricading your doors and hiding under the bed after seeing this corrosive gangster film. Hounded by a string of critical and financial failures, his box-office clout has been severely diminished, though he’s remained popular despite the films he’s chosen and the roles he’s played. But does the film itself—which centers on Bulger’s reign over the Boston drug world and his decades-long alliance with the FBI—live up to the hype that surrounds Depp? “Johnny Depp finally gets back down to some serious business in Black Mass,” he writes. “Long-time Depp fans who might have lately given up hope of his doing something interesting anytime soon will especially appreciate his dive into the deep end here to personify genuine perfidy in the guise of legendary hoodlum James ‘White’ Bulger.” He adds, “Depp’s instinct for observing, underlying and keeping things in, then letting it all out when required, pays big dividends… With that in mind, he seems a surprising choice to play the mobster James “Whitey” Bulger in Scott Cooper’s new biopic “Black Mass.” But Depp doubters should be wary. “Black Mass” is a strong, assured film, and Depp’s turn as Bulger is one of the best pieces of work in his long, eccentric career.

Bulger, of course, is the infamous Boston gangster who spent a dozen years on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and almost two decades on the lam, before being arrested in 2011 in Santa Monica. And it feels like such a shallow presentation of its subject that it doesn’t even provide a comprehensive detailing of its events, thus making it useless as an instrument for educational cheating. The film, directed with exceptional flair and elegant concision by Scott Cooper, even comes from Warner Bros., the studio that specialized in psychopathic monsters played by such stars as James Cagney and Edward G. Cooper’s movie, adapted from the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, wisely assumes the audience knows this already, and begins at the end, as Bulger’s cronies give him up in exchange for reduced sentences.

Black Mass is a massive disappointment.” “There’s a scene in the film (one of its best, actually) where Whitey has dinner with [Kevin] Connolly and one of his fellow feds, and gets the agent to reveal his family’s secret steak sauce recipe with such ease that it’s clear he can’t be trusted,” he writes. “Depp plays the scene to the hilt, purring with menace, grinning that dead-toothed grin until you almost can’t take it anymore.” However, he notes that it’s all too familiar to him: “He plays the audience like Toscanini. This one is an acting tour-de-force for Depp, though when the Academy comes to notify him of his Oscar nomination, they’ll have to remember he looks nothing like the man onscreen. Whitey, at that point, was long gone, leaving behind him a trail of crime, destruction and bodies, as well as the tarnished political career of his brother, Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch), all of which he had created with the help of none other than the FBI. But when it’s over, you can’t help thinking that, as great as it is, it’s basically Joe Pesci’s ‘Funny how?’ scene from Goodfellas,” he writes. “That’s Black Mass in a nut shell.

Much of the production is based on fact, with not one but two monsters—the other being a corrupt FBI agent played by Joel Edgerton—dominating a horror show crossed with a morality tale. Britain’s Benedict Cumberbatch has colonized yet another accent to play Billy Bulger, a Massachusetts senator and Whitey’s brother. (He sounds like a Kennedy with a head cold.) The other player you need to know off the top is Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, an FBI agent and Whitey’s handler. Robinson.” “Scott Cooper’s is a big, brash, horribly watchable gangster picture taken from an extraordinary true story and conceived on familiar generic lines,” he writes. “Cooper and his screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth have something substantial to add to the genre: making the point that gangsters do not arise from nowhere like comic-strip supervillains. Going against the advice of his boss (Kevin Bacon) and his colleagues (Adam Scott and David Harbour), Connolly gets closer and closer to his childhood chum, never seeing that Whitey is essentially a spider, spinning a web of viciousness and vindictiveness. They are the symptoms of political corruption, parasites created by agencies of the state, and by weak, credulous law enforcement officials who are content to sub-contract policing to the bad guys.” “[The script] includes some satisfyingly nasty twinges and shocks,” he adds. “[And] Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton both give richly absorbing performances of preening macho self-regard and self-delusion.” “Johnny Depp leads an impressive ensemble cast in this well-made story about not only Whitey Bulger,” he writes. “Depp’s Whitey Bulger is not his typical flamboyant performance, but instead a thoughtful character study of a frightening stone killer completely devoid of conscience.”

He honestly seems to believe he’s helping his community, when in fact he’s the chief enabler of Whitey’s reign of violence. “I’m not interested in cleaning up Southie,” John says. “I love this place.” A lesser actor would like have choked on the irony. Connolly grew up with Bulger and Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a straight arrow who’s his brother’s complete opposite and a Massachusetts state senator.

You see here — while looking into Depp’s glassy shark eyes and his character’s utter lack of compassion — how Bulger could have been on America’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for years after he went into hiding in 1994. It’s Connolly who sees a chance for self-advancement in forging an alliance with Bulger against Boston’s Italian-American miscreants on behalf of an FBI that has long been fixated on the Cosa Nostra.

Essentially, he’s shooting more for Coppola than Scorsese, more for “The Godfather II” than “The Departed,” and the end result is somewhere in between. Still, after his debut, “Crazy Heart,” which earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar, and the thriller “Out of the Furnace,” Cooper continues to grow as a filmmaker. Sure, there’s savage, unsavory violence, and no shortage of people who get shot in the head, but the movie has a sense of guttural grandeur to it, a seamy look at three men who came from nothing and rose as high as they dared before crashing to the ground. The dinner scene is instructive because Whitey, when not killing people with bare hands (or with guns, or through arranging others to do it), could be semi-charming.

An inevitable question is how “Black Mass” compares with “The Departed.” That excellent film, released in 2006 and directed by Martin Scorsese, covered some of the same ground through an ingenious adaptation of an intricate and purely fictional Hong Kong crime thriller, “Infernal Affairs,” that had nothing to do with Bulger or his Boston haunts. He instructs his child in the finer points of getting away with punching someone – “If nobody sees it, didn’t happen” – and at one point stops to chat with an elderly neighbour, who solicitously inquires: “When did you get outta Alcatraz?” The Boston accents are uniformly good. Edgerton excels at detailing the dread eating at Connolly; the dread also infects his ethical wife, Marianne (a superb Julianne Nicholson), whose quiet scene with Depp instills more terror than a hail of bullets. The first man on the screen is Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), testifying in front of the FBI. “Before we staht,” he wants them to know, “I am not a raht.” Rat was a dangerous title to be tarred with, and Whitey (the real Whitey) long denied any work as an FBI informant.

And though Jack Nicholson gave a marvelous performance as a fictional version of Whitey Bulger, it was a quintessential Nicholson performance, while Johnny Depp’s work here feels genuinely new. In many ways, though, that doesn’t matter so much, because the rest of the film, including Edgerton’s impressive turn, pales in comparison to Depp. The actor plays Bulger as nothing less than a psychopath, a remorseless, arrogant predator whose humanity seems to ebb from him over the passage of time.

Depp, though, is not same old sleepwalking star who has foundered in bad films lately (“Transcendence,” “Dark Shadows,” “Lone Ranger,” “Mortdecai” … let’s stop there). It’s a dark and chilling performance, and Depp commands every scene he’s in, his piercing eyes boring into whomever he’s speaking with, entirely aware of his ability to switch from charming and terrifying in a heartbeat. Manipulative, strategic and absolutely monstrous, Depp’s Whitey is a worst nightmare, so high-functioning that his extraordinarily violent tendencies can only be recognized to those closest to him.

And where is it written that the bad guy must calmly accept an apology from an underling, declare all to be forgiven, and then – POW! – pop the guy a second later? It’s a completely transformative performance, and a strong comeback for Depp, who has been mired in movies like “Mortdecai” and “Transcendence” in recent years. “Black Mass” may not be quite on par with the epic gangster films of the past, but Depp’s performance is one for the ages. Hers is a superb performance in a film overstuffed with them; others are given by Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Juno Temple and Peter Sarsgaard, and by Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Billy Bulger, who was, in his day, the most influential politician in Massachusetts. (The cinematographer was Masanobu Takayanagi.) And returning to the theme of co-monstrosity, there’s the formidable presence of Agent Connolly, Whitey Bulger’s partner in crime. But you forgive the zigs, zags, evasions and subplots for the hardcore power of Depp’s performance and the film’s portrait of moral rot on both sides of the law.

You could say he sees himself as he is today, dressed in a silky long-sleeve loungewear top with a scarf circling his neck, like right out of the Hollywood handbook for dapper flamboyants. Or as what he has most recently become, a television-land megastar, for how convincingly he plays super-badass hip-hop-record mogul Lucious Lyon on Fox’s Empire, this year’s most unexpected hit show. Or even as certain others see him, including some ex-wives, as a man given to outbursts of stunning violence and domestic abuse, allegations of which are, in part, what led him to take the Empire role in the first place. “Since they see me as a bad guy,” he says his thinking went, “I’m gonna play a bad guy.” “Today, for me, has been about searching out who I am,” he says. “We’ve got all these different faces that want to come out — there’s at least four just in this moment, with a possible expansion to 432 — but which one do you let out?

Cooper directs with an unerring instinct for intimacy and a flawless sense of proportion, whether in the big moments or the small ones; every performance is measured without seeming to be calculated. Christian Bale’s Russell Baze works those of a mill in a Pennsylvania town where they’re still making steel, though not for much longer; heavy industry has been moving to Asia. You love him, because the only person that’s gonna be there no matter what happens in your life is that little motherfucker.” Howard has never forgotten those words, and they’ve helped him through some pretty desperate moments.

At one time, he was going to be a big movie star, having built his reputation on films like Crash (2005) and Hustle & Flow (2005) and his bank account with movies like Iron Man (2008), for which he was paid $3.5 million, more than any other member of the cast, including star Robert Downey Jr. He soon found himself reduced to $40,000 a movie. “When all that stuff went down about me, you’re not in any bargaining position,” he says. “You’re shunned.

He wrote forward and backward, with both his right and left hands, sometimes using symbols he made up that look foreign, if not alien, to keep his ideas secret until they could be patented. They bear a similarity to building blocks but the shapes are infinitely more complex, in two dimensions and three, tied together by copper wire or held in place by magnets.

He loves them just as much as he loves himself and his infant son, Qirin, who is sleeping nearby and will one day inherit U.S. patent 20150079872 A1 (“Systems and methods for enhanced building-block applications”), among others. Taking a seat not far from Qirin, he says, “Anything you do against yourself is an attack against the people you care about.” (Later on, he will admit to “sneaking a cigarette here and there.”) Pak is here, too, tending to the child. There’s nothing worse than being a broke movie star.” “The suburbs,” Howard says, “as soon as they free up my money.” He goes on, “It’s always been a hard road for me. A few weeks later, it comes out that he and Pak had separated in mid-2014, with her filing for divorce earlier this year, citing “irreconcilable differences,” and a month from now, their divorce will be final.

All of this, in varying degrees, from the moment he first got noticed in 1999’s The Best Man, after having already spent nearly a dec-ade breaking into Hollywood. In brief, as an actor, he’s a lulu — and not difficult at all, if you ask him. “Well,” he says, “I was difficult, but only because I would not conform. Then the movie comes out, I get all these accolades, and now the producers are like, ‘Oh, you made the movie.’ But now they’ve set it up that Terrence is difficult, and so that has followed me.” When show creator Lee Daniels first started casting Empire, he had Wesley Snipes in mind for Lucious. Because Lucious has a very base understanding of life — kill or be killed — I keep him down at a very low frequency.” It’s all about money, sex, power and, of course, family.

It was one of network television’s top-five scripted shows last season, starting off its 12-episode run with 10 million viewers and finishing up with 21 million. As for Howard’s success as Lucious, he’s playing it cool. “I’m just trying to pay my bills,” he says. “I’m looking forward to this show running its course. If I make a decent amount of money from it, I’ll retire.” He seems to be wanting a simpler life, the kind you find in Winnetka, one free of the temptations of Hollywood. “The problem with this business,” he says, “you lose yourself.” Another problem Howard has is his temper. He’s said to have knocked at least two of his women around, most recently ex-wife Michelle Ghent, who after a 2013 trip to Costa Rica with Howard was photographed with a black eye.

That time in 2001 when he was arrested for slugging his first wife (who he married in 1989, divorced in 2003 remarried in 2005, and divorced again in 2007), which led to a guilty plea for disorderly conduct? The crime made national news and became known as the “Santa Line Slaying.” “I was standing next to my father, watching,” Howard says. “Then stuff happened so quickly — blood was on the coats, on our jackets — and then my dad’s on a table and then my dad is gone to prison.” Leaning into the softness of the sofa, he continues, “My daddy taught me, ‘Never take the vertebrae out of your back or the bass out of your throat.

Tesla!” He shakes his head at the miracle of it all, his eyes opening wide, a smile beginning to trace itself, like he’s expecting applause or an award. And that he is about to change the world. “This is the last century that our children will ever have been taught that one times one is one,” he says. “They won’t have to grow up in ignorance.

Never, never. “And then every minute that he has free, it’s to do this.” She gestures at some of Howard’s thingamajigs, tilting her head questioningly. “I help him, cutting, drawing and putting things together. In their ghetto Cleveland neighborhood, Tyrone Howard was known as No Nation, for his mixed-race look, and Terrence was called High Yellow, for the color of his skin.

Raised to turn the other cheek, he would not fight back, until an uncle saw him get a severe beat-down at the age of 13 and taught him how to box, Rocky-style. After that, he was good to go. “I was the pretty boy, so people didn’t think I could defend myself, but it didn’t end up being a good day for them.” He first took an interest in sex in grade school. “In the ghetto, things happen a lot quicker,” he says. He says he cut the wires off his dad’s electric razor, attached one end to the fuse box in the basement and pressed the other to his skin. “I did that every day for five months and then I felt the slightest little twitch inside,” he says.

He had a job at Pan Am as a reservation agent, which allowed him to fly to L.A. for auditions on the cheap, where he could hand out a résumé that was full of sham acting distinctions. By and large, it’s been a trip out of poverty that seems pretty outlandish, but whether it’s apocryphal or just the way he explains himself to himself or all true, it’s exactly how he says it happened, for better or for worse. But Howard says he told them he’d take a $1 million pay cut if they auditioned Downey and hired him. (Marvel Studios disputes Howard’s version of Downey’s hiring and the alleged salary cut, saying Howard played no part in getting Downey the job.) “Robert was so thankful and dadadadada,” says Howard. Come time to make Iron Man 2, however, the producers went to Howard’s agent, told him they were cutting Howard’s part down and wanted a salary reduction. It’s just my nature.” Then again, it’s also in his nature to say things like, “I don’t talk about my ex-wife because I don’t talk about negative things,” and later on to call out to Pak, “Hey, honey, where’s the blackmail CD?” Pak rummages around and comes up with it.

It starts off with her calling him “a fucking twat.” She then goes on a rampage, threatening to sell tabloids some “fucking shitty tapes” of him having phone sex and dancing naked if he doesn’t give her the money she says she is due and barking, “You’re a fucking sociopath. I’m so sick of the shit that you’ve put me through.” It goes on for almost 13 endless, weird, brain-frying minutes, with Howard keeping his cool throughout, both on the recording and in the present moment.

It’s what has allowed Howard to go to court and ask that their 2012 divorce settlement — it gives Ghent a big part of his Empire salary — be dismissed, which in mid-August a judge will do, finding that Howard was “coerced” into the settlement. He once said about himself, “The sooner people declare me insane, the sooner I’ll be free.” So has he ever been to a shrink? “Back in the Nineties or something.

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