You don’t truly appreciate something until it’s gone. Or until you’ve sat through a really bad rip-off of it.
It’s not that I didn’t value Martin Scorsese movies before. But now that I’ve seen someone totally try to copy them, I see that maybe he is kind of a genius and that it’s a little harder than it looks to make movies that good. Or maybe Black Mass was just that bad. Either way, so much for Johnny Depp’s career revitalization. Where’s Tim Burton when you need him.
Black Mass could’ve been so much better. It’s based on the true story of mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, the small-time hood-turned-crime-boss, who—with the FBI’s assistance, apparently—ruled South Boston with an iron (and bloody) fist during the mid-1980s. The FBI ostensibly used Bulger as an informant to gather intel on a rival crime family, but, as it turned out, Bulger had the upper hand, and played both sides of the law to suit his needs, leveraging his relationship with the FBI agent in charge, a childhood buddy from the neighborhood. Did we mention that Bulger also had a brother who happened to be the most powerful state senator in Massachusetts? A tangled web, indeed. Too bad a better script and film couldn’t come to fruition from this sordid true life tale that seemed tailor-made for the screen (Gangsters! Crooked cops! Possibly crooked politicians! Drugs and murder! A famous outlaw who got away! Ripped from the headlines true story! It’s all here!) But no, we get this, a movie that plays like someone was looking at a list of scenes they wanted to shoot—a rundown of the key moments and incidents that needs to be played out—and then they were shot with no imagination and then cut together with even less emotional weight. The only emotional consistency at all comes from Johnny Depp’s performance, as he plays Bulger with a steely passion and curious energy—it was the only thing that kept me from walking out.
There is nothing remotely imaginative, inventive or original about Black Mass, however. Director Scott Cooper, who’s first movie, Crazy Heart, was an intimate character piece, chose to go much bigger here and lost character and intimacy completely. This movie suffers from some sort of desire to be something else—it feels like it’s copying everything from Scorsese’s The Departed to, well, Scorsese’s Goodfellas (and every other mob movie and TV show ever made, for that matter). In the end, it’s just one big mob movie cliché—everything is telegraphed, been-there-done-that. And this story should have been riveting, fascinating, even fun to watch. But screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth instead give us a ham-fisted, dull, uninteresting, cliché-laden Mobster Movie-of –the-Week, complete with cringe-worthy token female performances that are worse than insulting, they are downright offensive.
But, let’s be honest, we all came to see Johnny Depp. Without him in this movie, it just might be a movie of the week (even though this subject deserves to be more and deserves better treatment in a better movie), so let’s address the fake nose in the room. How is Depp’s performance as Whitey Bulger? Is this the career comeback he so needs and deserves? Well, yes and no. This movie is terrible, so that won’t help. But the bad things about the movie, honestly, aren’t totally Depp’s fault. He checks Jack Sparrow at the door and doesn’t overact too much or chew too much scenery (although you can tell the director really wanted him to), which is greatly appreciated, and it certainly isn’t his fault that there is absolutely no way to NOT be completely distracted every second he is on screen by the fake blue contact lenses he wears (if it’s so important that the character have blue eyes, then hire an actor with blue eyes!! It couldn’t have made the movie any worse….those dead eyes are a big part of what kills the movie…seriously. Who approved those? Did they think we wouldn’t notice?) and he really does make the most of what he can, being buried under all the prosthetics and makeup. But, unfortunately, no matter how valiantly he tries, he just can’t save this movie. And, sadly for him—and his career—he is intrinsically linked to every second of this gnarly mess. As is the horrible Joel Edgerton, who plays FBI Agent John Connolly. Edgerton is so bad, there were moments when I longed for the dead-eyed stare of Depp’s fake contacts to come back on screen. And then there were the moments when I wondered what the heck Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s brother, was doing there. Benedict Cumberbatch, really? I know he’s good, but this was some of the worst casting I’ve ever seen.
Everything about this movie felt wrong. For a movie with such a powerful story to tell, it fell far short of effectively telling it. The cinematography was unimaginative, the dialogue was trite, the heavy-handed score was way over-the-top, and every scene just felt like it was there just to get to the next one. If you want to see a Scorsese mob movie, take the time to actually see a Scorsese mob movie, not a cheap, lazy and unimaginative copy of one. The master deserves better. And, frankly, so does Johnny Depp.
Could this be the year of the female superhero? I mean, the best movie of the year so far, Mad Max: Fury Road, featured Imperator Furiosa, the baddest chick seen on film in a long time, played by Charlize Theron to maximum effect. And, still to come this year are some more movies featuring powerful and soaring stories and performances by women that will, no doubt, dominate headlines, critics’ adoration, award-season buzz and, if we’re lucky, box office success. Coming in October are Suffragette (opening 10/23), starring Carey Mulligan, the true story of the fight for the women’s right to vote, Sicario (opening October 2), starring Emily Blunt, about an FBI agent fighting the drug war at the border, and Freeheld (opening 10/2), starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, the true story of a lesbian New Jersey police officer who fights to have her pension benefits transferred to her domestic partner when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. And then, of course, there will be Jennifer Lawrence and Daisy Ridley, who will be masters of the world in November and December in the final installment of the Hunger Games franchise (Lawrence) and the re-awakening of the Star Wars behemoth (Ridley), respectively. Yes, there are no lack of powerful roles for women so far this year and still to come, and this is an exciting thing, and yet we haven’t even mentioned the baddest, boldest and most kickass woman that has been on screen this year. Forget Katniss, forget Furiosa. If you want a real superhero, meet…Grandma.
click here to keep reading Grandma »
I wish I could tell you more about the new indie movie Diary of a Teenage Girl, but, to be honest, my eyes glazed over about 2/3 of the way through, so I am not a good one to analyze the depth and meaning of the piece. You’ll need to talk to someone who is a little more tolerant of movies as impressed with themselves as this one obviously is, someone who enjoys self-indulgent, in-your-face, stream-of-consciousness, rambling navel gazing as much as this one is. Me? I prefer movies that offer up things like plot, story, character development and some sort of entertainment value.
If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m not a big fan of Diary of a Teenage Girl.
It’s too bad, too, because I am always rooting for movie debuts of female writer/directors to be successes. Diary of a Teenage Girl is the debut film for writer/director Marielle Heller, and it’s based on the book by Phoebe Gloeckner. Starring newcomer Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard, it tells the story of a teenage girl in San Francisco in the 70’s and her various sexual escapades. Whether it’s a coming-of-age tale, a sexual-awakening story, or a graphic novel come to life, whatever it is intended to be, it ends up a complete mess, as I ended up caring as much about Skarsgard’s sideburns as I did the main character’s emotional well-being. Diary of a Teenage Girl should be lauded for its bravado and its attempts at honesty and realistic depiction of the emotional life of a teenage girl, but this is the kind of story best left in the pages of a book, where inner dialogue can run with the color and lack of focus that imagination and emotion thrive on. The movie lost me when I realized we weren’t going on any real journey, we were just going to go round and round. For me, that’s not deep—it’s just boring.
“Zeitgeist” is a popular word that gets thrown around by movie reviewers and bloggers when talking about movies that feature hot-button or current event topics. The Social Network was a “zeitgeist” movie. It reflected who we were as a society, remember that?
Well, it’s time to look a little deeper than Facebook.
Movies in recent years have been reflecting more than our technological advancements. They have been reflecting, quietly and potently, without our even really noticing, the number-one cultural and social chasm in America: racism. If we are to be really honest, racism, in all its many forms, is, has been and continues to be the real zeitgeist in this country—it reflects who we have been and who we are as a country and as a society and represents the #1 social issue that needs to be addressed that we have continually had trouble addressing. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Zimmerman to Black Lives Matter, it is still very much a part of our everyday lives, and, whether you have really noticed or not, Hollywood has not been ignoring it. Some of the best movies of the past few years have dealt, implicitly or explicitly, with racism: Selma, 12 Years a Slave, The Help, Lincoln, Django Unchained, and, currently airing on HBO, the critically-acclaimed mini-series Show Me A Hero, starring Oscar Isaac, which tells the true story about the battle to build court-appointed low-income housing in Yonkers in the 1980s. I’m watching this and I had no idea this even happened. There are so many stories like this that need to be told, and still so many more.
Which is why, for both biographical, historical and cultural purposes, which is nothing to say of artistic, the new film Straight Outta Compton is not only important, but timely.
And damn if it isn’t really good too.
click here to keep reading Straight Outta Compton »
These days, it seems all of our lives are lived on some sort of media, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or good old-fashioned photos and video. When it comes to the lives of celebrities, you can add the mountain of unwelcome paparazzi footage and photos to any personal photos and videos there may be and you wonder how anyone has any privacy at all anymore. Which is why it’s not surprising to have not one but two incredibly revealing documentaries just this year about two of our most famous musicians who died young (both at age 27) be made up nearly entirely of found footage, a combination of personal and public videos and photographs. It not only creates a uniquely intimate portrait of the person, but a revealing picture of our times.
A couple of months ago, I saw the disturbing but fascinating Brett Morgen documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and last night I saw Asif Kapadia’s Amy, a revealing if slanted documentary of the life of British jazz/pop singer Amy Winehouse. Both Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse were musicians with incredible talents who skyrocketed to fame, were reluctant celebrities and seemed to escape their sudden fame by diving into addiction. Both died way too young at age 27, Cobain of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and Winehouse from alcohol abuse and bulimia. While Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck was a much more fantastical documentary than usual, animating Cobain’s diaries and drawings to speculate his state of mind, Amy is a much more straightforward film, using stock footage and photographs, combined with voiceover narration from those in her inner circle, to tell the all-too-short life story of a troubled artist whose music the world fell in love with.
click here to keep reading Amy »
I so wanted to love Trainwreck, the new movie from director Judd Apatow, written by and starring Amy Schumer. I wanted to love it because I love Schumer and everything she does, from her standup to her brilliant Comedy Central television sketch show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” which has been the glorious discovery of the year for me. Her style, her comedy, her show, everything about her professional persona is addictively awesome: she’s revealing, raunchy, self-deprecating and real, but without any bitterness or nastiness we’ve come to expect from raunchy female comics. There’s something about Amy Schumer’s comedy that’s open, honest and raw yet also charming. Disarming, even. Imagine a cross between Chelsea Handler and Ellen DeGeneres, with just a hint of Joan Rivers—set in a trashy strip club—and you’ve got Amy Schumer.
Which is why it was easy for Judd Apatow, Hollywood’s comedy Kingmaker (or Queenmaker, as the case may be) to see the potential in Schumer to be Hollywood’s next female comedy superstar. After all, he did it for Lena Dunham on television (Apatow executive produces “Girls” for HBO), and Melissa McCarthy in movies (he produced Bridesmaids)—almost anything he touches turns to gold. Only Judd Apatow could have convinced a major Hollywood studio (Universal) to let a first-time screenwriter and standup comic who’s never been in a movie before to write and star in their own movie—a woman, no less! This isn’t Bridget Jones’s Diary, which was based on a best-selling book, or Sex and the City, which had a successful TV series behind it, or even Bridesmaids, which at least had Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in it. Trainwreck is a romantic comedy—a raunchy comedy at that—starring someone nobody knows opposite a guy not many more people know. How did it get made? Because Judd Apatow believed in Amy Schumer.
That’s gutsy. And rare.
Which is why I SO wanted to love it.
click here to keep reading Trainwreck »
What can you really say about Minions? Anyone who saw the animated hit Despicable Me or its far lesser sequel, Despicable Me 2, knew that these little yellow, nonsensical pill-shaped charmers were the stars of the show and that Universal would find a way to give them a money-maker—I mean movie—of their own. The Minions are a marketers dream come true—instantly recognizable, appealing to all ages (especially children, the most passionate of consumers), and, because they literally speak a made-up language, the movie can play in any country using the original voiceover artists, which, I imagine, will help it considerably overseas. In this day and age, when box office numbers are relying more and more on foreign numbers for their profit margins, that is huge.
So, obviously, from a business standpoint, Minions was a no-brainer. From an audience standpoint, it seemed like a no-brainer as well. I mean, I had the choice last night to see Minions or Amy, the highly-touted and well-reviewed documentary about the life of the late singer Amy Winehouse, and I went with the adventures of the mindless little yellow creatures. I of course will see Amy soon, but, last night, I was in the mood to giggle and be amused because, I will admit, I find those silly little animated runts totally adorable.
I know, I’m a sucker.
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Pixar movies have always been about unique points of view. Whether it’s toys (Toy Story and its sequels), monsters who live under the bed (Monsters, Inc.), a lost clownfish (Finding Nemo), an ant (A Bug’s Life), a solitary robot in the future (WALL-E), or so many others, the animation studio’s unique gift is to present stories from unusual point of views in such endearing, charming, funny and touching ways that we end up relating and caring about these characters as if they are a part of us, or even as if they are us. The artists at Pixar’s real talent is understanding the universality of human compassion and emotion, and it doesn’t matter what form or setting of the story, as long as it speaks to the heart.
Which is why only Pixar could have made Inside Out. It is such a thoroughly imaginative and high-concept, yet accessible and heart-warming film, it truly belongs in the Pixar catalog, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s one of my favorites from the studio. While it truly is the smartest and has the best concept of all Pixar’s movies, it has the weakest story, so, if you like high concept and are satisfied to spend an hour and a half being dazzled with ideas and truly magnificent follow-through of high-concept, philosophical jokes that you wonder how kids will ever get, Inside Out is a real wonder to behold. But I was left wishing there could have been a better plot from start to finish to bolster the superb foundation.
click here to keep reading Inside Out »
Summer Movie Season is usually a double-edged sword. I never know whether to be excited about the slickly-produced (read: expensive) escapist fare meant to entertain us or begrudge the assembly-line brainless noise designed to extract the largest sums from our wallets in the shortest amounts of time. Half of it is insulting to our intelligence (ok, more than half), but the studios actually save their biggest bottom-line salvos for the summer, which means that sometimes we, the audience, get the biggest bang for our buck and, once in a while, summer will deliver an experience or two in the movie theatre unlike anything or anywhere else—and that’s what keeps us coming back. Thanks a lot, Jaws.
Of course, last night, during the previews for the feature presentation of Mad Max: Fury Road, the first big summer movie of the year that I am seeing (I skipped Avengers: Age of Ultron—see first paragraph’s “brainless noise” assumption), I was disappointingly reminded of what summer movies have become these days. Two previews in particular were examples of the dumbing-and-numbing-down of the current action movie genre: Ant-Man and San Andreas. Well, whaddya know…a superhero movie and a disaster movie. How original. At the end of the San Andreas trailer, the audience I was in was actually laughing. Not a good reaction for a disaster movie about a giant earthquake that destroys Los Angeles. Maybe it hits too close to home. Or maybe—we’ve just had enough.
Which is why Mad Max: Fury Road is just the post-apocalyptic nightmare action movie to kick Hollywood and audiences out of their superhero/disaster movie coma and remind us that summer can be about spectacle, action, escapism, fantasy, special effects, fun AND creativity and originality. It’s been a long time since we could say that.
click here to keep reading Mad Max: Fury Road »
It certainly is nothing new in Hollywood movies, especially science fiction, to anticipate and/or fictionalize a future world without humans. The question of how we get there and what that future would look like—and, more specifically, what the human replacement beings would look like—has filled many a movie, since movies began to capture our imagination.
The latest movie about artificial intelligence, or AI, from writer-director Alex Garland, is called Ex Machina, and it treads much of the same philosophical ground as we’ve seen before, but in a more specific, concise, personal and haunting way.
The premise starts out like a classic horror movie set-up: a computer programmer at the world’s largest internet search engine wins a contest to spend a week with the company’s CEO, a genius recluse who lives alone in a mountain estate in the middle of nowhere, where he does mysterious research. After the programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is dropped off by helicopter in the middle of a field, with instructions to “follow the river,” you get the feeling something is odd, but then he comes across this gorgeous house and finally meets CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who explains the need for the security is due to the ultra-sensitive research he’s been doing for the past few years. Nathan explains that he has brought Caleb there because he is on the verge of something monumental and he believes Caleb is the perfect person to bring in to test the viability of his project. The project? A fully interactive AI named Ava, who is able to react, respond and even emote. Nathan claims this is the most advanced AI ever created and could change the world and he needs Caleb to help test his hypothesis.
So, there’s the premise: two men, one possibly crazy, possibly a genius, the other possibly a genius, possibly very gullible, are alone a million miles from nowhere with possibly a sentient robot, possibly friendly, possibly not. Nope, nothing could go wrong there.
click here to keep reading Ex Machina »