“Black Mass”

Well, I guess all I can say about “Black Mass” is it’s good to see Johnny Depp actually acting again… Nah, I have more to say than that!

“Black Mass” is director Scott Cooper’s (“Crazy Heart” (2009), “Out of the Furnace” (2013)) third film, and it’s a standard true crime tale of James “Whitey” Bulger. Bulger was the most notorious gangster in South Boston who used his status as an informant to not only take down a rival faction, but to get away with his myriad of crimes.

Depp plays Bulger in his hundredth makeup-fueled role, but unlike the last six movies he’s been in, Depp is acting here! Depp disappears into his role as Bulger and is terrifying, funny, and charismatic. He also leads an all-star supporting cast of solid performances.

Joel Edgerton continues to prove his talent as Bulger’s corrupt FBI agent friend, John Connolly. Connolly is currently serving a 40-year sentence for being Bulger’s accomplice and in this movie, Edgerton portrays Connolly as a man full of regret for his actions. We also get some solid work from Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”), and Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation”) as suspicious Connolly’s FBI colleagues, Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s politician brother, and the underrated Peter Sarsgaard as an unhinged business associate of Bulger’s.

Sadly, a reviving performance from Depp and this cast isn’t enough to make up for a flawed script. The problem with a lot of true crime stories such as “Black Mass” or last year’s “Foxcatcher” (sorry, I found it boring) is that they focus on a fascinating criminal, but show us the least interesting part of the story. I didn’t want to know about Connolly’s struggles covering his own ass; I wanted to know more about Bulger’s struggles covering his!

The first half of the film is strong and we see Bulger as a dangerous and respected criminal who’s levelheaded about his own crimes. By the end of the first hour, we see what drove him overboard. At the second hour, “Black Mass” transitions into a standard police drama. We could have learned more about Bulger’s estranged relationship with his brother, but instead were stuck watching Connolly protect his job and marriage.

We’ll likely see Depp walk into the upcoming award season, but he’s ultimately the most redeemable quality of an otherwise generic and uneven film.

Grade: C+

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Top 5 Summer Movies of 2015

I’ll keep this very brief, but here are my picks for the top 5 summer movies of this year.

5) Jurassic World – I know a lot of people disagree with me here, but it’s two hours of nostalgia at its finest. Funny and suspenseful, Jurassic World keeps me invested as a fan of the Jurassic Park franchise.

4) Trainwreck – I’ll ask this – why hadn’t I heard of Amy Schumer before seeing Trainwreck?! She’s fucking brilliant!

3) Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – Tom Cruise hangs on the side of a plane, nearly drowns, crashes a car, and chases bad guys in a high speed motorcycle chase in the best installment of the franchise.

2) Inside Out – You know you found a special animated film that depicts the highs and lows of growing up while paying tribute to abstract art and disaster movies.

1) Mad Max: Fury Road – It’s the action movie no one expected to like then went back to see it three more times! Why? Because it’s a groundbreaking, beautiful, and thrilling spectacle.

Where’s my worst? Well, it’s no competition with “Fant4stic”, ladies and gents!

“Cop Car”

Would you steal a presumably abandoned cop car filled with loaded guns? What if you knew it belonged to a mustached, morally ambiguous sheriff? “Cop Car” is a clear warning to not mess with cop cars.

“Cop Car” is Jon Watts’s (our new “Spider-Man” reboot director) second film and opens with two friends, Travis and Harrison, wondering in a field and cursing loudly. We learn through dialogue that they’re running away from home and they come across an abandoned cop car. In an extreme case of “boys will be boys”, these naive kids take the car for a joy ride, crossing paths with a dangerous mustached sheriff (the great Kevin Bacon) in the process.

The main appeal for “Cop Car” is Bacon’s menacing and darkly funny performance as Sheriff Kretzler. He’s a unique villain because he thinks he’s smarter than he is. Kretlzer is lucky due to his law enforcement background and much younger adversaries.

Harrison (Hays Welford) and Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) are perhaps two of the most realistic child characters portrayed in film since “Stand By Me” (1986). In fact, they have a darkly funny moment involving an arsenal guns that’s very reminiscent of a particular gun scene in “Stand By Me”. As much as I liked these young knuckleheads, I wondered why are they running away?

I often had questions in the last ten minutes of “Cop Car”. The main one though, who was the villain? It definitely didn’t feel like the sheriff after a while.

SPOILER ALERT

We’re introduced to an unnamed bruised man (Shea Wigham) halfway through the movie who becomes a greater danger to the boys than Kretzler. They find this man in the trunk and we’re then uncertain of who the true villain is in the film’s climax. This is because we never learn about Kretzler’s background story or his shady side business.

“Cop Car” is a good coming-of-age thriller, but it could have easily been better without the over-reliance on ambiguity, especially with its maddeningly open conclusion.

Grade: B

“The Gift”

What makes Joel Edgerton’s (“Warrior” (2011)) directorial debut so admirable is his subtle development and revelation of horrific secrets. It’s also the film with this year’s most polarizing ending.

Edgerton writes, directs, and co-stars in “The Gift” as Gordo, A seemingly friendly loner who runs into an old acquaintance named Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall), and offers his friendship. He sends them a bottle of wine, some goldfish, and window cleaner, but Simon is immediately unnerved and tells Gordo to leave them alone. He regrets it when Gordo subtly makes his life a living hell while Robyn starts to question her husband as a person.

“The Gift” is a twisted tale of revenge and karma that defies all the stalker thriller’s cliches and audiences’ expectations. It remains distinct from other thrillers because the focus isn’t on the creeper’s agenda, but on seeing Simon and Robyn’s true colors. Gordo is merely an instigator in tearing apart Simon and Robyn’s marriage. The more harm Gordo does, the more we learn how morally corrupt Simon is and how unhappy Robyn is.

Hall and Bateman carry “The Gift” and add some emotional punches to this movie. Hall is very believable as the fragile and troubled Robyn while Bateman disappears into his role as Simon, a corporate sociopath. Through shots of their facial expressions and their realistic delivery, I completely bought into their troubled relationship.

SPOILER ALERT (Seriously, this will ruin the movie if you haven’t seen it).

Edgerton is very restrained and unsettling as Gordo. While his vengeful actions are satisfying at first, I found his video involving Robyn was an insult to injury for Simon and plain disgusting; especially if you believe Gordo did what he implied (though, I personally don’t)!

Putting the uncharacteristically ending aside, “The Gift” is an otherwise brilliant mumblecore thriller featuring Bateman and Hall’s best work. They’re the stars here and seeing the story primarily from Robyn’s perspective is a breath of fresh air.

Grade: N/A

“True Detective” – Season 2

DISCLAIMER – I mainly review movies, but I make an exception for mini-series such as “True Detective” since they’re essentially longer movies.

I wish I could say “True Detective” was as brilliant this year as last year. If you guys haven’t seen season one, it featured Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Southern detectives investigating a ritualistic murder in the backwoods of Louisiana. It was unpredictable, artistic, innovative, and featured the best work from both Harrelson and McConaughey.

This season trades in mythical Louisiana swamps and backwoods for an industrial and deteriorating city outside Los Angeles. Colin Farrell is the corrupt alcoholic detective, Ray Velcoro, Rachel MacAdams is the debauched Sheriff’s Department investigator, Ani Bezzerides, and Taylor Kitsch is the traumatized ex-soldier Highway Patrolman, Paul Woodraugh. They’re assembled together to investigate the murder of a businessman linked to European gangsters and a reformed criminal-turned-businessman named Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn).

Each of the detectives are in the case for different reasons. Ray is pressured by his more crooked superiors and Frank (Ray is Frank’s enforcer) to solve the murder and cover up his department’s involvement, Ani is put in charge due to rank, and Paul is enlisted to avoid a scandal involving a young actress. Trust issues ensue among the four characters as they uncover shady business deals, a mob-hosted sex party, and the truth behind a rare bag of diamonds.

Let’s start with the positives of “True Detective” this season – Rachel MacAdams delivers a raw and badass performance, Taylor Kitsch proves he’s one of the most dedicated actors of his generation, and the soundtrack packs a deeper narrative.

Singer Lera Lynn wrote and performed several songs for this season and each song tells us something about the characters and the world they’re in. T-Bone Burnett returns as head composer with a synthesizer-heavy score that emphasizes the Neo-Noir style.

This season also features some of the craziest and bloody gunfights I’ve seen in any TV show or movie, including one in episode 4 that’s strongly reminiscent of Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995). However, this is where criticisms come in. The shootouts escalate out of nowhere and seem like Pizzolatto’s trying to outdo season 1’s craziest moments.

Let’s talk Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn here – they’re both clearly trying to deliver this season and both actors have some solid moments this season, but they’re both given the show’s worst dialogue that’s on par with “Star Wars: Episode I” level of quality. “Don’t do anything out of hunger, even eat.” –Vince Vaughn as Frank.

“Twelve years old my ass… fuck you.” –Colin Farrell as Ray.

Yeah, I’m just as flabbergasted as you are. The show also suffers from several genre cliches, pacing issues, and uncertainties with direction. The pacing and direction is likely attributed to the show having several different directors this season, as opposed to last (Cary Fukanaga directed all of season one).

The cliches are all painful and overdone with Ray as the cop who’s embraced corruption (like Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey in “LA Confidential (1997)) and Ani portrayed as a sexually troubled cop with a dysfunctional family (this has been seen with too many female detective characters to name).

SPOILER ALERT – It was no shock that these two would somehow fall for each other abruptly by the end.

MORE SPOILERS

The way Pizzolatto portrays women and homosexuals is tasteless and amateur here. Ani and her sister are both kinky due to a traumatic encounter in their childhood? Paul is a closeted homosexual with an incestuous mother? Frank’s wife does nothing but act concern for him? This all looks like Pizzolatto read half a page of a human sexuality textbook and wrote his few notes into the script.

The biggest disappointment though is the ending. The revelation of the killer isn’t epic or shocking, but rather anti-climactic and quickly resolved before turning back to the corruption story. I wanted to know more about the killer, dammit!

I mean, I’m all for trying something new with anthologies, but execution matters. This just wasn’t well executed as it could have been.

Grade: C

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

Tom Cruise is a maniac. Does he have a death wish when he swims under water for several minutes with no oxygen tank? Is he trying to gain attention by hanging on the side of a flying cargo plane? All I know is I respect the crap out of him for his commitment to his work; especially in the “Mission: Impossible” movies.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is the fifth installment in the “M:I” franchise and has Cruise returning as Ethan Hunt, alongside Jeremy Renner’s Brandt, Simon Pegg’s Benji, and Ving Rhames’s Luther. The plot is fairly similar to the first and fourth installments since Hunt and his team are evading officials while tracking down a terrorist organization known as The Syndicate.

I’m a big fan of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise and grew up watching these movies. I watched “Mission: Impossible” (1996) several times when I was a kid, “Mission: Impossible 2” (2000) is a stupid-yet-enjoyable sequel, “Mission: Impossible III” (2006) is the best revenge spy thriller since “License to Kill” (1989), and “Ghost Protocol” (2011) is a brilliant spectacle piece that had audiences taking Tom Cruise seriously again. Cruise once again proves in “Rogue Nation” why he’s one of the best action stars of all time.

Cruise keeps us on the edge of our seats between his aerobics, stunt driving, fight sequences, and his motorcycle chase. We all know about that now iconic plane stunt from the trailers, but the best part is, that’s not even the BEST action sequence! I won’t tell you what is because it’s too hard to choose!

The film is also suspenseful without action sequences and at times feels like the first “M:I” movie as characters betray each other, and bypass high-tech security systems. Remember that scene in this year’s spy tribute “Kingsman” where Colin Firth and Samuel L Jackson discuss spy movies? Where Firth says the old spy movies had sillier far-fetched plots while the newer ones are more serious? “Rogue Nation” is equally measured in silliness and intensity.

We also get dramatic scene-stealing work from Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson is the strongest female character we’ve gotten in this series as a femme-fatale rogue operative, and Sean Harris (one of the dummies who gets killed in the cave scene in “Prometheus” (2012)) plays a subtle and menacing villain.

I recommend everyone should see “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” if they like action-packed sequels that nearly outdo their predecessors.

Grade: A

“Ant-Man”

I wish the brilliant Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead” (2004) and “Hot Fuzz” (2007)) stuck around to direct his version of “Ant-Man”. Given that Simon Pegg and Joss Whedon both called Wright’s screenplay one of the best Marvel scripts they ever read, I wonder what that version would have been like, compared to the final product.

Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, an ex-con who finds himself in a predicament when he steals a suit that can shrink the person wearing it into the size of an ant. He’s then approached by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas returning to form) to use that suit to, “break into a place and steal some shit,” though Scott wants to go straight. But this heist is for the greater good and Scott is an expendable choice, much to Hank’s daughter Hope’s (Evangeline Lilly) chagrin.

The best moments in “Ant-Man” are the comedic moments. This movie is perhaps the funniest movie Marvel’s produced to date (yes, funnier than “Guardians of the Galaxy”). Rudd delivers a charming performance packed with deadpan delivery. The best performances in “Ant-Man” go to Michael Pena (“End of Watch” (2012), “Shooter” (2007)) as Scott’s crime partner and Douglas. Pena is brilliant comedic relief while Douglas brings fierce attitude and sharp humor to Pym.

The action sequences get a tad redundant after a while, as Ant-Man shrinks, punches, shrinks again, and punches again, but there are some amazing ones involving an enlarged Thomas train and a fight inside a briefcase thrown out a helicopter. These wacky and innovative sequences must have been Wright’s!

And this is where “Ant-Man” is flawed; there are four credited screenwriters here. We have Wright, Rudd, Joe Cornish (2011’s awesome “Attack the Block”), and Adam McKay (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004)). Wright and Cornish wrote the original script while McKay and Rudd heavily rewrote it before production.

Wright and Cornish’s genius shows in certain action sequences and comedic moments (particularly Pena’s narration scenes). However, it seems the script relies a lot on the superhero origin formula and heist movie cliches. How many times do we need to see a heist movie with the, “We can’t do this! Yes we can,” banter? Makes me believe these moments were McKay and Rudd’s.

Look, I’m not saying “Ant-Man” is a bad movie. I enjoyed it overall and would recommend it. It’s just not Marvel’s best and the rewrites in this movie are clearly visible. Maybe Rudd and McKay will grow as they work on “Ant-Man 2”.

Grade: B