Movie Review: “Black Mass” (Scott Cooper, USA 2015)

In 2011, when James “Whitey” Bulger was arrested, tried, and sentenced, I was in law school. As a result, I didn’t pay very close attention to the story. I remember Tony Kornheiser talking about it a few times but mostly just saying, “Wow–this is incredible! And now he’s so old! He looks like me!” and the like. But all I remember is that he had been on the run for a long time after having been a mobster and government informant. It’s possible that I heard more, but I find it strange to believe that I forgot what a bizarre story his was. He spent two decades growing his criminal empire in Boston while the FBI blocked all investigation of his activities because he was supposedly an informant of theirs, even though he apparently was essentially providing no information. His handler was falsifying information to make Bulger appear more important than he was in order to advance his own career while allowing Bulger to take over the city.

According to the film, the handler, John Connolly, doesn’t appear to have been on Bulger’s payroll or to have been placed in the FBI in order to execute this plan. So, the fundamental question that occurs to me is, “Why the hell did he protect Bulger like this?” This film, while it is supposedly about Bulger’s career, essentially attempts to answer that question. The answer that it gives is that Connolly, Bulger, and all of the other main players in this enterprise were children playing at a game of advancement and “success.” They never grew into men, remaining at heart kids on a playground even as they beat and murdered rivals and broke every law on the books. Continue reading

Movie Review: “Get On Up” (Tate Taylor, USA/UK 2014)

Musician biopics are all the same movie: Person with troubled childhood seeks refuge in music and discovers rare talent, becoming very successful. Then, the person sows the seeds of his/her own downfall with a mixture of drugs, sex, and ego, and loses everything that once made them great. Then, there is a final begging for grace and we fade out to their greatest musical achievement. They’re great fodder for Oscars, because the actors get to mimic someone who has been seen by the entire audience before and the Academy has shown a very, very strong preference for that type of mimicry over more traditional acting. They also come with a built-in audience that wouldn’t always go to films: the musician’s fans.

Those films are often fun to watch, but not often good films. To me, Great Balls of Fire! (Jim McBride, USA 1989) has always been the quintessential musician biopic, and it’s a pretty awful film. But Jerry Lee Lewis set the blueprint for rock musicians in the latter half of the 20th century, his music is awesome, and he is the source of some of the greatest anecdotes in rock history. (Seriously, setting fire to the piano and saying, “Follow that!” because he wasn’t closing is an incredible story.)

When Get on Up was released, I assumed it was exactly that same film. I took it to be a film being made in order to get Chadwick Boseman the Oscar he nearly got for 42 (Brian Helgeland, USA 2013). However, in reality, the film is something else: it’s a disaster. It’s a mess that doesn’t even meet the standards expected of that sort of film.

One reason that same musician biopic keeps getting made is that there is such a nice, simple, understandable dramatic structure to the story. It has three clear acts that have a clear sense of cause and effect and an obvious source of dramatic power. Get on Up doesn’t really change the plot (though drugs only make a very brief appearance), but it does change up the narrative, cutting that plot up into a series of vignettes, shaking them up, and then pasting them together with no real reason. And then to help us keep straight where we are, Taylor inserts silly little vignette titles based on Brown’s self-appointed nicknames with the year next to them. It’s a heavy-handed device being used to clear up confusion that can be caused by the awful mess of the narrative.

And of course that mess of a narrative is more difficult to forgive because Taylor and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth have constructed a film with no unifying point. If there is a point to the film, it’s that James Brown was a great singer, which is really a terrible point to spend nearly 2.5 hours making. As a result, there’s nothing to focus on but that awful mess of a narrative.

However, what got this film attention was the acting, especially Chadwick Boseman. And the performances were almost universally good. Boseman didn’t really have the opportunity to show much, as he was mostly relegated to impersonating Brown’s stage persona, but he did an excellent job with what he was given. Quietly, Nelsan Ellis was excellent in a supporting role as the always-overlooked Bobby Byrd, and his part was considerably more challenging and nuanced than Boseman’s. He had to show conflicting emotions of love and respect for Brown as well as hatred for his selfish ridiculousness non-stop, and they were easy to read on his face in scene after scene. He didn’t have much else to do, but that was more than most had. Dan Aykroyd was the other standout, but not in a good way. His character is largely used as comic relief and so Aykroyd plays him as something of a Jewish music mogul stereotype, but he seems so clipped out of some sort of comic book that he’s distracting. His mugging for laughs and consistently unnatural performance may have made sense had he broken the fourth wall on occasion like Brown did, but he did not and so instead he just came across as a silly failed attempt at comic relief.

Taylor and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt created a single look for the entire film that only really deviates for a few stage scenes where the lighting becomes more dramatic simply because of the setting. They could have used visual cues to make the bizarre narrative structure easier to follow, but they didn’t, and that’s a shame. The film overall really doesn’t look any better than a typical made-for-television movie and has no strong sense of itself being anything unique or different. It shows a lack of imagination.

Overall, there just isn’t much redeeming about this film. It doesn’t look great, the plot is okay but is ruined by a bizarre narrative structure, and I’ll admit that I felt like I heard the same song for the entire running time of the film. It felt as much as anything like Taylor tried to make a few dramatic scenes and several music videos and then stitch them together rather than making anything cohesive, and some excellent performances were not enough to save it.

Movie Review: “12 Years a Slave” (Steve McQueen, USA/UK 2013)

Sometimes, I diagnose films with what I call “Holocaust* Movie Syndrome,” which means that they are being judged on the basis of the importance and power of their subject rather than their own merit. I call it “Holocaust Movie Syndrome” because holocaust movies are often given this treatment, receiving universal, almost unthinking praise simply for being holocaust movies. The treatment works in the opposite direction as well, with “silly” movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, USA/UK/Canada/Japan 2010) dismissed as “fluff” in spite of having obvious quality. It does not mean anything in particular about the film, which may indeed deserve the praise anyway (for example, The Pianist [Roman Polanski, France/Poland/Germany/UK 2002] was a clear case of Holocaust Movie Syndrome, but was in any event a remarkable film that deserved that praise), but it means that much of the critical reception is rather shallow and cannot be given the weight that critical opinion usually carries.

12 Years a Slave was a clear case of Holocaust Movie Syndrome, being praised mostly on the basis of its depiction of an important and emotionally powerful subject. That meant that, in spite of the immense praise it is receiving as the likely Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, I went in to this film with little idea of what to expect. In the end, it ended up a good film, if not one that deserves quite the praise being heaped on it.

The film’s tale is the powerful, riveting true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man in 1841 New York who is kidnapped into slavery in the south and spends 12 years as a slave before being able to return to his family and freedom. It’s interesting and packs an emotional wallop, and director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley use the strength of the story and its characters to maximum effect.

The one problem is that the film’s greatest strength—the story—also becomes a weakness as McQueen is unable to stay focused on a single point throughout. Much of the film fits a central point about the miraculous-yet-dangerous ability of humans to hide within themselves to avoid facing what is wrong around them or even within themselves. For a film that does an awful lot right, that’s not the biggest flaw in the world, but it is enough to keep the film from being a masterpiece, or even being as good as Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA/France 2013) or Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, USA 2013) were in its year.

McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt advance their central point with a number of interesting visual elements. Brutalities of various types—murders, beatings, etc.—are consistently happening on or just off the edge of the screen, out of focus, or in darkness that hides just how brutal they are, as the in focus characters do their best to ignore them. Those techniques make it all the more powerful when we finally do see the brutality full-force, first when Solomon himself is strung up but survives and then when he is forced to whip a fellow slave himself. They also use changes in coloring and lighting to their best effects, enhancing the terror of Solomon’s discovery that he is trapped in some bizarre sort of prison cell with low-key lighting and enhancing the relative freedom that Solomon feels in Judge Turner’s cane fields with bright, saturated colors. It’s a well-made film visually.

Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a cast that is rather uneven, but he leads it with an excellent performance. Like with Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, he plays a character who generally does not wear his emotions on his sleeve and so is often limited in what he can show, though he does everything they ask perfectly well. And then, he has a few scenes where he gets to (relatively) chew the scenery, like his tearful explanation of his situation to Bass and his reunion with his family, and he is absolutely fantastic in every one of them. It’s a great performance, and one that is really marked by his restraint. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and Benedict Cumberbatch are excellent in small roles, seeming completely natural and showing a remarkable amount of depth for what little screen time they have. However, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o are both relatively weak in their roles, sometimes coming across as though they are trying to hard or just as generally appearing unnatural.

The other role that deserves note is Brad Pitt’s performance as Bass. While he does not have much to do and does not really stand out in a good or bad way in his role, I found it rather silly to cast him in that part, immediately turning that character into a white knight who is bound to save Solomon. We’ve seen him betrayed again and again, to the point that we would be just as suspicious of Bass as he would be, but once we see that he’s Brad Pitt, we know he’s not going to sell Solomon down the river or fail. It’s nice that Pitt wanted to be in the film to lend it some star power (though since he was a producer, he already could have done that) and certainly his performance is not a problem, but I think it was a mistake to cast him in this way.

Hans Zimmer produced an excellent score that uses Solomon’s facility with a violin to full effect and perfectly enhanced every emotion the film sought to elicit. It wasn’t one of the more attention-grabbing scores one could ever hear, but it did exactly what you want of a film score.

Overall, 12 Years a Slave is a very good film that has one major flaw that keeps it from really being a masterpiece. Luckily, it does everything else about as well as you can ask, and that’s what keeps it worth watching. Further, it is of course an emotionally powerful journey that will punch you in the gut, and I’m not sure that the commoditization and dehumanization of people involved in slavery has ever been captured more strongly.

 

*The “holocaust” being referred to throughout is the Nazi-led holocaust from World War II. I am simply calling these films “holocaust” movies for the sake of brevity, and certainly do not mean to imply that other holocausts have not occurred, as indeed they have.