Black Mass reviews

Mister Tee
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Re: Black Mass reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Sat Sep 26, 2015 12:20 am

I'm not much in disagreement with BJ, but everyone has certain genres that go down easier for them than others, and crime-centered movies are mine. Add to that my expectations being suitably downgraded by reviews like BJ's, and I found the film fairly easy to take. The mob milieu may be familiar, but the particulars of the Bulger story (brother State Senator/childhood friend FBI man) were unusual/can-you-believe-this? enough to mostly keep me engaged.

However...I think, stylistically, the film definitely lives in the shadow of Goodfellas, starting with the frequent voice-over, and peaking in a scene so obviously modeled on Joe Pesci's "You think I'm funny?" that I can't believe they're as brazen about stealing it as they are.

The Joel Edgerton supporting actor talk seems mostly to flow from the fact that he's the virtual co-lead of the movie -- in fact, I think you can argue he has a far stronger arc to his character than Depp does. This is definitely Depp's most serious work in many a moon, and, while he doesn't hugely stand out, he's at least on a par with, say Steve Carrell last year, and, as BJ says, could snare a nomination, particularly if the best actor category doesn't fill in more robustly. The rest of the cast is generally solid.

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Re: Black Mass reviews

Postby Kellens101 » Sat Sep 19, 2015 5:23 pm

This movie may not be an original or profound piece of work, but just that small list of names you mentioned makes me see it just for them: Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Adam Scott, Kevin Bacon, Joel Edgerton, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll. Looks like a great ensemble. I think very highly of all of those actors. Dakota Johnson not so much....

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Re: Black Mass reviews

Postby The Original BJ » Sat Sep 19, 2015 4:02 pm

Sabin wrote:Thoughts on Depp as a Best Actor nominee?

I think it depends on how the year plays out, and how well the movie does at the box office. It's not that dominant a role -- the character himself is fairly soft-spoken, and the film focuses more on the ensemble as a whole rather than its star. I certainly don't think this is a win-level acting showcase.

But, if it's a Best Actor year like 2007, where there just weren't that many options, I could see a Viggo Mortensen/Eastern Promises-style nod, especially if people feel like it's nice to have Johnny Depp the Actor back.

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Re: Black Mass reviews

Postby Sabin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 3:41 pm

Thoughts on Depp as a Best Actor nominee?
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver

The Original BJ
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Re: Black Mass reviews

Postby The Original BJ » Sat Sep 19, 2015 3:31 pm

Watching Black Mass, my main thought was, none of this is bad, and there are a lot of good actors here -- to give credit where it's due, this is the most grounded Johnny Depp has been in a long time, and I'm way more interested in seeing him take roles like this than the cartoon characters he's gotten lost in lately. And Cumberbatch, Edgerton, Bacon, Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, etc. all provide solid support, with the key actresses (Julianne Nicholson and Dakota Johnson) each delivering strong moments as well.

But I'm sort of getting to the point in my moviegoing where, no matter how solidly mounted something might be, no matter how many good actors might be on screen, if I feel like the movie just has nothing new to say, it's hard for me to feel like it was worth my time. And for me, Black Mass was basically just "been-there-done-that," a totally routine mobsters vs. law enforcement movie that didn't provide any fresh thematic insight to material I feel like I've seen countless times. That Variety review called the movie the anti-Departed, and that seems accurate to me, though I'd use that phrase more pejoratively -- if you removed the inventive narrative, the sense of humor, and the directorial flash of The Departed (i.e. all the things that made it notable), you'd end up with something like Black Mass.

All of this is to say, when my parents ask me what movie for grownups they should see that won't insult their intelligence, I'd tell them they'd be perfectly safe at Black Mass. But I just didn't find any of this to be special enough in concept or execution for me to get remotely excited.

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Black Mass reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Fri Sep 04, 2015 4:23 pm

Scott Foundas
Chief Film Critic @foundasonfilm

The icy blue eyes of notorious Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger stare out from the screen in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” like the gaze of some confident jungle predator calmly lying in wait, holding his ground until the moment he moves in for the kill. And that same coolly calculated composure extends to every aspect of how the actor playing Bulger embodies the role, or rather disappears into it. But if Johnny Depp’s mesmerizing performance — a bracing return to form for the star after a series of critical and commercial misfires — is the chief selling point of “Black Mass,” there is much else to recommend this sober, sprawling, deeply engrossing evocation of Bulger’s South Boston fiefdom and his complex relationship with the FBI agent John Connolly, played with equally impressive skill by Joel Edgerton. Something of an anti-“The Departed” (which was partly inspired by the Bulger case), the movie has an intentionally muted, ’70s-style look and feel that may limit its appeal to the date-night multiplex crowd, but quality-starved adult moviegoers should flock to one of the fall’s first serious, awards-caliber attractions.

Based on the exhaustively researched book of the same name by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill (who make cameo appearances in the film), “Black Mass” passed through the hands of several directors (including Jim Sheridan and Barry Levinson) on its way to the screen, and nearly fell apart entirely in 2013 when Depp briefly quit the picture over a reported salary dispute. But the project found the right steward in Cooper, who showed a sure hand with actors on his prior “Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace,” and who here challenges Depp to give the kind of less-is-more performance the actor has scarcely been asked to deliver in the post-“Pirates of the Caribbean” era. And Depp more than rises to the occasion, doing career-best work as a man who might easily have been played for ghoulish caricature (a la Jack Nicholson in “The Departed”), but instead emerges as a complex, undeniably charismatic figure who draws other criminals and lawmen alike into his cult of sociopathic personality.

Indeed, it takes a few moments to fully recognize Depp — transformed by latex, contacts and dramatically receding whitish-blond hair — in the film’s opening scenes, set in 1975, just as Bulger was beginning his ascent as the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, a loose confederacy of Irish- and Italian-American hoods vying for control of the South Boston streets against the mob-connected Angiulo brothers. Bulger’s turf war coincides with the homecoming of Connolly, who has established himself as a rising Bureau star on assignment in San Francisco and New York, and who has returned to Boston with the explicit task of taking down the Angiulos and their associates. To do this, he conceives of the plan that will ultimately lead to his undoing: recruiting his childhood friend, Bulger, to supply the Bureau with intel about his rivals in exchange for de facto immunity for his own dirty dealings. In Connolly’s logic, Bulger won’t be a “rat” per se, but rather will enter into an “alliance,” a quid pro quo of sorts that will also help him to rid himself of the competition. (Bulger, for his part, would later deny ever having served as an informant, claiming he paid the FBI for information and not the other way around.)

“Black Mass” hinges on this increasingly compromising pas de deux, and Edgerton (sporting a flawless Boston accent) is superb at showing how the ambitious but straight-laced Connolly is ever more seduced by the decadent gangster lifestyle, his professional ethics muddied by the clan loyalty and street justice that, in some corners of Boston, are more sacred than the Constitution. But working from a script credited to Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (other hands are also said to have been involved), Cooper enlarges the frame to give us a full-bodied portrait of both men’s worlds — in some ways diametrically opposed, in others oddly similar. Each has his own crew — the fellow thugs Bulger keeps close, and sometimes turns against in hair-trigger fashion (including the very good Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane as right-hand men Kevin Weeks and Steve Flemmi); the fellow agents (played by the likes of Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott) whom Connolly manipulates in an elaborate shell game designed to deflect attention from Bulger and himself. And though Connolly is the ostensible family man, with a concerned wife (Julianne Nicholson) who sees him changing in ways he doesn’t realize, we also experience an oddly tender side of Bulger himself — a devoted son to his elderly mother, loving sibling to his state-senator brother, Billy (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch), and a protective father who indoctrinates his young son in the ways of the streets (“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen”).

The script compresses the potentially unwieldy narrative into three major acts, the second set in 1981 (when Bulger makes an ultimately ill-fated play to corner the Jai Alai gambling market in Florida), and the third in 1985, when the Bulger-Connolly alliance has so successfully eliminated Whitey’s competitors that the agent can no longer shield the Winter Hill Gang from the wrath of a dogged federal prosecutor (Corey Stoll). And at each step, Cooper stages taut, riveting setpieces that feel destined for the genre canon, including an unforgettable dinner scene (already revealed at some length in the film’s first trailer) in which Bulger turns a seemingly innocuous discussion of a “secret” family recipe into a blistering attack on the loyalty of Connolly’s supervisor, John Morris (David Harbour). The insidious cackle Bulger unleashes at the end of that rant is about the closest “Black Mass” ever comes to the grisly gallows humor that has become the lingua franca of the gangster movie in the post-“GoodFellas” era, but mostly Depp and Cooper play things in a more understated key.

Depp hasn’t been this tamped down in a movie since he played second fiddle to Al Pacino in “Donnie Brasco”; even his Oscar-nominated J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland” seems a whirl of outsized tics and mannerisms by comparison. Even great actors (Nicholson and Pacino being among the perfect test cases) can fall back on indulgences and bad habits when they feel they’re giving the audience what it wants to see. But Depp is fully restored here to the daring, inspired performer of his early Tim Burton collaborations and “Dead Man,” knowing he is so deep inside the role that, whatever he does, we will come to him. The violence in “Black Mass,” when it comes, is swift and brutal, but nothing here is more startling than a single, sudden dart of Bulger’s eyes across a room.

Working with a top-flight craft team that includes production designer Stefania Cella (“The Great Beauty”) and costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone (“Foxcatcher”), Cooper bathes the film in a look that feels unfailingly true to the period without ever verging on kitsch; it’s a movie that isn’t just taking place in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but seems to have been made then. That feeling is further enhanced by the hard-edged elegance of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s 35mm widescreen lensing (which strongly recalls Gordon Willis’ work on “Klute” and the “Godfather” movies). In a complete about-face from his adrenaline-pumping “Mad Max: Fury Road” soundtrack, Dutch composer/producer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) supplies an elegiac orchestral score that perfectly complements the film’s desperate, wintry mood.

Screen Daily
by Lee Marshall

Black Mass turns Aviator shades and a receding hairline into one hell of a scary combo. But Johnny Depp’s broodingly psychotic turn as convicted Boston crime lord James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is not the only tasty thing about Scott Cooper’s tale of the unholy alliance between a South Boston Irish mobster and the FBI. An Irish-American Goodfellas shot in locations made familiar by TV series The Wire? Sure, but in the end, despite getting lost around its midpoint in the wilderness that so often besets multi-decade true crime stories, Black Mass shakes off such comparisons to become its own made man.

Based on the book of the same name by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, whose breaking of the story features briefly at the end of the film, Black Mass will help to relaunch Depp’s leaky career boat after a series of clunkers, including Transcendence and Mortdecai. But his assured performance – only occasionally disturbed by something a little too Frankenstein-ish about that prosthetic forehead and ­wig – is aided and abetted by a series of other strong acting turns, not least that of Joel Edgerton as the crime king’s fellow ‘Southie’ resident and FBI contact. A stylishly dark package, in which Masanobu Takayanagi’s moody photography and Tom Holkenborg’s tense musical soundscapes stand out, will help to grease the slipway when Black Mass is released worldwide on 18 September, soon after its Venice out-of-competition debut.

Framing the action are a series of interrogation-room testimonies by men who turn out to be accomplices of the crime lord at the centre of the story: James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp), who when we pick up the action years earlier, in 1975, is a small-time mobster whose Winter Hill gang works various old-school rackets in Boston’s working-class, predominantly Irish Southside. It’s a world of clapboard houses in terraced rows and smoky, low-lit drinking dens, and it’s dominated by family bonds and the keen sense of loyalty to a community that unites ‘Southies’ as diverse as the borderline-psychotic Whitey, his suave, savvy younger brother Billy (Cumberbatch) – a Senator who served for a record 18 years as President of the Massachusetts Senate – and their mutual friend John Connolly (Edgerton), a street kid who is now a local FBI agent.

The neat thing about a script that is cleverer than its episodic structure at first suggests is the way it plays with the dynamics between these three men throughout the course of the film. At first the sheer menacing presence of Whitey, the way he alternately charms, cajoles and threatens his enemies as well as nervous lieutenants like Kevin (Plemons) and Flemmi (Cochrane) – both, incidentally, outstanding in these smaller roles – suggests that Black Mass is essentially a picaresque crime biopic in the Scarface mould.

But as the film proceeds, and Connolly proposes an ‘alliance’ with Whitey in exchange for information that will help to take down Boston’s Italian mafia – a far more powerful crime syndicate at this juncture – it becomes clear that this is as much Edgerton’s film as Depp’s, and that the kernel of the story is not so much that of a crime boss’s rise and fall as a morally weak cop’s sneaking admiration of the man he’s supposed to be investigating, and misplaced faith in childhood loyalties.

With a lot less screen time, Cumberbatch’s character acts as an ambiguous, Machiavellian presence in the background, never allowing himself to be stained by association, yet in his own smooth way as manipulative as his big brother.

Sprawling US crime stories often get bogged down in Florida for some reason, and Black Mass is no exception, with a baggy 1980s segment set against the background of the Sunshine State’s Jai Alai betting scams rescued mostly by Peter Sarsgaard’s rich turn as a small-time local underworld figure. But in its final third, Black Mass gets its mojo back, especially in two tense consecutive scenes, one featuring Whitey’s murder of an airhead prostitute who may or may not have grassed to the police, the next set during an uneasy dinner party in Connolly’s house.

It’s no coincidence that both of these sequences feature violence to women – the first brutally physical, the second oozing threat – who are bit players in this male world; mothers, wives or hookers. Of the female characters, Dakota Johnson’s Lindsey – Whitey’s young wife – gets the most screen time, before she disappears from the scene, but even she is only of use to Whitey as the carer and nurturer of the little man he hopes to raise in his image.

Boston is an eloquent backdrop, its waterside wasteland used as a burial ground for mob victims, its cute clapperboard houses employed as handy locations for horrific murders, its tobacco-stained bars with their murky lighting enforcing an alcohol-fuelled male camaraderie whose misguided sense of honour and loyalty provide the dramatic motor of this film about the dark side of American community values.

Hollywood Reporter
by Todd McCarthy
The Bottom Line

Depp shines in a solid gangster biopic.

After too many Caribbean vacations, Johnny Depp finally gets back down to some serious business in Black Mass, a major league real-life gangster film loaded with ripely presented murders, beatings, betrayals and vengeance-takings, all backed up by a deep-secret arrangement between Boston's top-dog criminal and the FBI. Even if director Scott Cooper's jump into big-time studio filmmaking feels familiar and derivative in some respects, he has taken care to borrow only from the best, and a top-notch cast socks over the many dramatic opportunities. Box-office prospects look potent.

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 "Whitey" Bulger, the crime kingpin of South Boston from the 1970s until 1994, when he was forced to go on the lam for what ended up being 16 years. For a dozen of them he was second only to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

What gave him such status provides the substance of this continually absorbing melodrama, one that scarcely glamorizes Bulger's complete allegiance to a life of crime. Bulger, to this day, denies that he was a rat for the Feds, the worst thing you could be in his world; to him it was an "alliance" to rid Boston of the Italian mafia.

You can detect Depp behind the elaborate makeup job — the thinning, blondish, brushed back hair, the blue eyes, the rotten teeth. He may be better-looking than the real Bulger, but not by much. He's far from the biggest guy in the room, but he's plenty tough and has a Bloodhound's sense of smell for anyone who might be thinking of crossing him. He grew up in the slums of Southie and has known most of his cronies since playground days.

In a nod to Citizen Kane, the script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth is structured around interview testimony given by some of Bulger's longtime henchmen after their arrest and their boss' disappearance. Their comments are revealing but not conflicting: Their boss was the thug of thugs, the baddest ass in Boston, a man who finally, in his 80s, was sentenced to two life terms plus five years after having been charged with murder (19 cases), extortion, racketeering, narcotics peddling and money laundering.

Early scenes neatly establish the tough-guy ways of Bulger, recently sprung from nearly a decade in federal prison, including Alcatraz, and his underlings in the bars and cars of Southie. An escalation of war with the Angiulo family in North Boston seems inevitable, but Bulger's Winter Hill Gang isn't the only organization that wants to bring the Italians down: The FBI can't get anything on them, so the bureau's John Morris (David Harbour) and an agent who's known Bulger since boyhood times in the neighborhood, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), eventually persuade Bulger that it's in his interest, as well as theirs, to secretly team up against their mutual enemy.

This works out brilliantly, especially for Bulger, who now not only has Boston to himself by enjoys virtual carte blanche as far as the Feds are concerned; he can extort or kill essentially anyone he wants and knows he can get away with it. Turning a blind eye toward this as best he can is Bulger's upstanding brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), who happens to be Massachusetts' most powerful state senator.

The one thing Bulger can't control relates to his only child, a six-year-old boy who dies from an allergic reaction to an injection. He breaks down and argues with his wife (Dakota Johnson), after which we never see her again; maybe we don't want to know what happened to her.

Where killings are concerned, sometimes Bulger does them himself, while on other occasions he lets one of his beefy goons handle them; Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, Jesse Plemons and Scott Anderson are plenty convincing as his inner-circle boys. Cooper, who previously directed Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace after working as an actor, times and stages the violence for sharp visceral impact and street realism, avoiding operatic extremes as well as trendy fast cutting and ridiculous forms of physicality.

But especially in regard to some key interior dramatic sequences, Cooper would seem to have given the Godfather films some very close re-viewings, as his typical approach is much like Coppola's, starting with carefully composed and sometimes lengthily held master shots that are followed by unusually tight and sustained close-ups, which make the actors look really good.

The performers return the favor with very strong, sometimes riveting work — and all with pretty passable Beantown accents. As Bulger's childhood crony who went straight only to make his bed with Bulger and then had to sleep in it, Edgerton is outstanding, painting a vibrant picture of an ambitious hustler who thinks he can talk his way into and out of anything but whose anxieties begin to show like cracks in melting ice. Peter Sarsgaard has some memorable moments as a drug-addled businessman who has the misfortune of ending up on Bulger's bad side; Harbour, Adam Scott and Kevin Bacon seethingly express, as federal agents, the FBI's growing frustration with the situation; Corey Stoll comes on strong as a federal prosecutor determined to nail Bulger, while Cumberbatch must go the other way to elegantly portray the distinguished brother who escaped the slums, had nine kids, served as longtime Massachusetts Senate president and then as president of the University of Massachusetts.

In short, they all offer very strong support for Depp, who takes control of the proceedings from the outset and never yields it, except for when he disappears for a while in the second half. He's as charismatic as his character must be, fully convincing and frightening as his Bulger toys with friends and enemies alike to keep them guessing, hides his true intentions and dishes out punishment at an alarming rate. Depp's instinct for observing, underlaying and keeping things in, then letting it all out when required, pays big dividends here in a performance far more convincing than his previous big gangster role, John Dillinger in Michael Mann's Public Enemies; it's unexpected, very welcome at this point in his career and one of his best.

The Boston locations are numerous and evocative, and production values are strong to to bottom, notably Masanobu Takayanagi's cinematography, Stefania Cella's production design and Kasia Walicka-Maimone's costumes.

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