Black Mass – Scott Cooper (2015)

Black Mass should have been titled Grey Slab – the movie descends like a winter migraine and sits on you until, final credits rolling, you escape from the theater into (hopefully) a brighter reality. Nominally the story of how Whitey Bulger made use of FBI chumps to further his criminal career, the film is, aside from the Boston accents, about as generic and bland a mobster film as you could imagine. Yes, we are in sub, sub, sub Goodfellas territory here (I am not stuttering, unlike our dearly departed Spider). There are plenty of slow motion wiseguys walking sequences. There’s the requisite attempt, also anemic as can be, to marry period pop to the scenes of wiseguys walking. There are the wiseguys themselves, so bloated and misshapen they look like beefsteaks shot full of Botox, their cheeks stuffed so full of cotton balls that even Don Corleone would, embarrassed, shoo them away, refusing to extend his hand in friendship. And the proceedings themselves are rote, predictable, and downright tedious. Like the Brutalist architecture of lovely downtown ’70s Boston that plays such a large part in the scenery of the film, this script was not written, I do believe, but simply marked up on a page in large chunks of brown, gunmetal, and worn, pockmarked slate. “Honor,” “loyalty,” and other such terms are dropped almost as frequently, and meaninglessly, as the f-bombs, and the more coherent exchanges reach high points like “Remember the old neighborhood Jimmy?” “Yeah.” “Those were the days when loyalty meant something.” “Fucking right.” How such a deeply dull derivative attracted the talents of Misters Depp, Cumberbatch, et al. remains a mystery. For Depp, I can see the appeal, I suppose, in that it allows him to play against type, or, at least, to try out big screen psychopathy for the first time. Looking like Gollum who has been sampling too much Spice (not the bodega variety, but the finer Arrakeen stuff), but unfortunately unable to fold time, he contents himself with folding his hands around the throats of hookers and housewives, all while enfolding pathetic FBI dupe John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) into his tasteless souffle of prurience. Overall, he does a credible job of disappearing into the part, such as it is. Cumberbatch, as Whitey’s younger brother, the “most powerful politician in the state” (eat that, Gov), does a good job with the accent, and with acting smug and powerful, although why we care is a mystery. Really, though, the best acting resides with the supporting players, often strutting their moment on the stage simply so we can revel in the snuffing out. Peter Sarsgaard, as pitiful jai-alai hanger on and sometime psycho Brian Halloran, and Juno Temple, as a young prostie done in by her association with step-dad meatwad Steve (Rory Cochrane – yuck), all but steal the show. (Which is, admittedly, not hard given the competition). And┬áKevin Bacon, looking, unlike the rest of the cast, lean and free of lumps, at least seems to have eaten his Wheaties and has some energy about him. What else? Well, there is the cinematography, again derivative and dull. Autumn and winter in Boston, awash in hideous ’70s fashions (that is, drapes and flares of brown, black, and, you guessed it, grey non-breathable fibers) and more Chevy Novas than you can shake a pimp cane at need not be uninterestingly shot, need it? Sadly, though, Black Mass follows many similar generic crap-outs in using very shallow depth of field for all but the widest shots, meaning that we are often looking at close-ups of hideous men with a thousand (or, rather, three or four) points of light floating behind them. Perhaps the cinematographer is in hiding, if not from the Mob, then from his guild, and so shot everything with a telephoto from across the street? The score, by the recently ubiquitous Junkie XL, who did a fine job for Mad Max: Fury Road, in keeping with the aesthetic, delivers more lead, the music a lulling, lugubrious nonentity. Okay, let’s get this wrapped up. Is there not any point of light here, you ask (aside from the unfocused floating variety already discussed)? Well, not really. What little interest exists in the film lies in the relationship of Whitey to the FBI, and the desire to see Connolly, who is very weaselly indeed, get his (which he does). Otherwise, this is one of those movies that, within five minutes of the (also lackluster) opening credits, you wish were already over. Take two Excedrin, spend the rest of the day lying in curtained, twilight repose, and sleep off the hangover.

One star out of five

Wild Tales – Damian Szifron (2015)

Ah, a refreshingly easy review to write. Why is that? Because Wild Tales is a miserable, horrible film, and enumerating its failings should be fairly easy. Nominally, this is a dark comedy, and one would think that having Almodovar as one of its producers would guarantee some quality, not to say some levity. Oh well. Like many film comedies of yore, this is an anthology. There are six tales in all, but sadly most of them are not short, and, stupidly on the part of the director, they decrease in interest, and increase in bitterness and bile, as the film unfolds. The set starts off in a fairly strong, if not terribly funny, manner – a group of air travelers happen to discover, by chance, that they are all personally familiar with one Pasternak, a failed musician who is also the pilot of the airplane they are traveling on. He has gathered all of them together on this flight with free tickets, only to nosedive the plane into his childhood home, killing all aboard and his parents for good measure. (The shot of the plane nose-diving into the backyard ends in a freeze-frame of the parents flinching and turning away from the oncoming impact, at which point the title credits roll). If you don’t find such a scenario particularly funny, I don’t blame you; like much of this film, there is potential in the concept, but the execution is quite lacking. The title sequence consists of a series of images of wildlife, all looking distinctly human and stately, and we already get what there is to get – the human animal is the most savage, degenerate, and “wild” of all. The following two segments are both the shortest and the most visually imaginative, and what humor there is comes primarily from this fact. In the second story, a waitress has revenge taken for her on a mobster who destroyed her family. In the third, the strongest by my lights, an incident of road rage leads to a confrontation between drivers, one urban and one rural, that escalates to an ultra-violently absurd fight to the death. The matter of fact way that the violence escalates in these two tales is partly what makes them succeed as far as they do; the sketchiness of the characters is also a boon, as we can view them as commentaries on humanity in general, types rather than specific people. If the rest of the film had stuck to such a structure, and kept the stories within the 15-20 minute mark, perhaps it would have been palatable.

The temporal bulk of the film, though, is held in the last three tales, which revel in man’s cynicism while also being unimaginative, unbelievable, and pointlessly elaborated in the extreme. The third story is a kind of Falling Down parody, in which a demolitions engineer becomes the last righteous man, slowly disillusioned with the State, and hence Society, as his car continually gets towed. He eventually resorts to violence to get his revenge, blowing up his car and half the cars in the impound lot, by way of protest. While this lands him in prison, somehow it also makes him a hero not only to his countrymen, but to his estranged family as well. In the fourth story, the most unappealing, a rich young man accidentally hits and kills a pregnant woman while driving drunk; he returns home, and his father manages to convince the loyal groundskeeper to take the fall, in exchange for a large sum of money. The bulk of the story involves the various included parties (the rich man’s lawyer, the state prosecutor, and the groundskeeper) all wrangling for larger bites of this poisoned apple, in a supposed commentary on the pervasiveness of corruption and the abilities of the rich to avoid comeuppance (tell us something we don’t know). After half an hour of painfully drawn out, unfunny haggling, all parties emerge satisfied, and, in an ending that makes O. Henry look like Henry James, the groundskeeper, while being led to the waiting police car, gets brained to death by the dead woman’s hammer-wielding husband. (By this point, no one in the audience had laughed for a good 45 minutes, and several people gasped or groaned). Finally, as a nice little cherry on top, we have a story cataloging the horrors of matrimony between two newlyweds at their wedding reception. Wifey discovers that her new husband has been cheating, so she causes a major scene, then absconds to the roof of the building, where she is counseled by a “kindhearted” and “wise” chef, who she then proceeds to screw atop an air conditioning unit. When found by her husband, who promptly vomits, she is returned to the reception, only to proceed to (surprise, surprise) wreak violence on her husband’s fling, sending the party into a degenerative tailspin. In what is supposed to redeem the segment, and the film, I suppose, this emotional and physical bloodletting is the spark that reconnects husband and wife, who, aroused by all this unconventional honesty, go at it in the middle of the reception hall, as the remaining guests flee in horror. The problem with this film is that there is no nuance and no humanity to any of these characters – this works fine when they are mere sketches or types, but once the director uses them as conduits to “say” something, it becomes obvious he has no ideas except that humans are venal, petty, and consistently so. His few attempts at social commentary, as with the reversal at the end of story three, fall flat, as the narrative moves are unbelievable and contrived in the extreme while also being, once we know the gambit, completely predictable. It would be bad enough if this filmmaker were simply telling us what we already know, but the fact is, we don’t believe him for a second, and by trying to make his characters more “real,” deeper and fully fleshed, he actually undercuts his efforts, making the film incredibly grim and unsavory while increasing the pointlessness. As a clutch of conceptual set pieces, the film might have had promise, as we can imagine how similar scenarios might have worked in the hands of Bunuel or Almodovar. Those directors, though, actually love people, in all their venality, and relish the absurdity with which the human animal pursues its bagatelles as if they were grand endeavors. Szifron has a viable first spark of a scenario, and then not a clue of how to develop it into something that actually reveals truth, being instead rather content to simply smack his lips at the tastiness of his bland cliches. One gets the feeling that he is the only one laughing at these tales from the dark side; sadly for him, the scenario of such a self-satisfied director gleefully and blindly reveling in such stupidity would more likely be the subject of parody by the likes of a Bunuel than these sad, sordid, sour little nothings.

One star out of five