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

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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: “Edge of Tomorrow” (Doug Liman, USA/Australia 2014)

I think a lot about the basis of the critic’s job. A critic’s job is to find the director’s purpose and judge how well the director succeeded in achieving that goal. Many would say that putting any value judgments on whether that goal was worth achieving is beyond the purview of a critic and while I can understand the logic of that position, I also reject it. Films by their very nature have a limited range of things they can do–they can make a single point. They cannot fully flesh out characters or build deep plots–they have to use characters and plots to make points, and they have to do it quickly. When a film does not understand that, I think it’s right to criticize it. I think it’s fair to punt on making judgments about whether a film’s point is “right” or not, because that question is so unrelated to whether the film achieved its goal.

A number of films I have watched this year were films I criticized for “not trying,” by which I mean that they did not have a point but rather were just the end results of massive marketing campaigns to get, as my favorite undergraduate film professor used to bluntly put it, “asses in the seats.” Edge of Tomorrow, a film with two major stars, a big budget, and more than its share of special effects was a film that clearly had the potential to fall into that category. And it did fall into that trap–it was a film without a point. However, it did a much better job of failing than, say, Neil Burger’s last film. I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re going to make a pointless film, this is how to do it.

The plot is not terribly complicated, in spit of involving time travel: During a future war with an alien invasion force, a soldier accidentally gains the aliens’ generally-unknown power to restart “the day” (It actually appears to be more than a day, but that’s the way they say it.) and live it over again until his death. He of course finds a hot, badass female soldier who helps him try to use this power to win the war and along the way he falls in love with her. It’s not terribly complicated and it’s even rather conventional. The film is rife with references to other time-travel films and has more similarities to Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, USA 1993) than could be explained from simple plot similarity, which suggests that Liman and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth were well aware of their own conventionality. It’s not an outright comedy, but the references and self-awareness give the film a lightness that makes its conventions easier to forgive than with a more self-serious film. Also, for all its conventionality, the film has more than its share of good laughs–they’re not too telegraphed or unoriginal to work, which is a surprise for a film that is otherwise so lacking in originality or surprise.

Dion Beebe and Limon follow much the same path visually–it’s conventional and doesn’t stand out at all, but it never embarrasses itself. Yeah, there’s a lot of CGI, but the CGI is mostly used to create creatures that are supposed to look unrealistic, a gambit that allows the silly cartoons not to look quite so silly. It’s the same type of rather washed-out blue-heavy color palette that we see in most futuristic and “science-y” movies, and it doesn’t do much that draws attention to what it’s doing. The reason those conventions exist is because they work at least somewhat well, so following them is not the worst thing in the world.

The only person who really gets a chance to act is Tom Cruise, and he really shines in this performance. I often think that we’ve been somewhat cheated out of a good actor by the fact that Cruise has been a star for his entire career and so has never had to use the considerable talent he brings to the table, but this film was a good example of what he can do when he wants to–the look of fear on his face when he’s told he’s being sent to the front and the way he sells his feeling of being out of place as he walks into the barracks are moments that alone show you that he can act, and he does much the same throughout the film. However, oddly, Emily Blunt gets the star entrance–we hear about her legend and see her picture several times before she finally shows up, and then we see her only in silhouette a few times and then only her sword (Yes, a sword) at first. She doesn’t really get anything to do in the film, essentially playing a cold, collected soldier with no real depth, so her acting really isn’t noticeable. She seems to have an oddly inconsistent accent (odd because Blunt is actually English and the film is set in England and what little we know about her would suggest she is English, and yet she seems to be affecting an American accent most of the time), but it’s not a huge deal.

Overall, this is a simplistic, pointless film–but at least it’s a simplistic, pointless film that does what it wants to do well. It’s fun to watch, the performances and visuals are good enough, and it has some good, intentional laughs. That’s more than can be said for some films, and enough to make it worth watching once if it sounds like it would interest you at all.

Notes

  • The Omega looked just enough like the Nestene Consciousness that it was all I could think of.
  • When Rita walks out with her sword in hand, she looks like she walked in from Final Fantasy XIII. I can’t be the only one who had that thought.
  • Science Hill, Kentucky is actually smaller than where I grew up. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a specific city with a population smaller than where I grew up mentioned in a film before.
  • 3D is still a scam–there was nothing at all gained by it.