BLACK MASS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Brutal Violence, Language throughout, some Sexual References and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Scott Cooper

Written by: Jez Butterworth & Mark Mallouk

(based on the book BLACK MASS by Dick Lehr & Gerard O’Neill)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott & Juno Temple

Going into this year, there have been a handful of films that I’ve been ecstatically excited to watch. BLACK MASS is one of these films. This biopic crime-drama about Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger certainly had an interesting real-life story to adapt. Of all the gangsters in U.S. history, Whitey Bulger is among the most notorious. Having now seen the film, I feel that it’s almost perfect and might have benefitted from a longer running time. BLACK MASS sports stellar performances from an ensemble cast, a sense of rising tension and should satisfy most fans of crime cinema.

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Kicking off in the 1970’s, Whitey Bulger is a violent gangster running a small-time operation in Boston. FBI agent John Connolly, Bulger’s childhood friend, has returned to his hometown. Connolly is interested in cleaning up the city, particularly the mob, and turns a reluctant Whitey into an informant. However, this plan backfires in a horrifying way as Whitey uses his newfound status to take down rival gangs and rise to the top as a vicious crime lord. While fellow agents are breathing down Connolly’s neck, Bulger is running rampant with crimes that range from drugs to extortion to murder. This movie jumps throughout notable years in Bulger and Connolly’s dark relationship.

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BLACK MASS is told in a faux docudrama style, which intersperses clips of various interviews from Whitey’s former associates. Though this style could potentially wreck suspense in lesser hands, I felt it worked extremely well here as Bulger’s crimes span across 30 years. Obviously, not every little detail could be included, but screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk knew which points to hit. I really liked how this film didn’t glorify gangster lifestyle too. Whereas GOODFELLAS sets up its true story in a way where you might become enamored by the benefits in a life of crime, BLACK MASS revels in the dark, ugly underbelly hiding underneath that skin-deep glitz. The violence here is particularly disturbing and grisly, even for a gangster film, as I felt myself wincing during some of the execution scenes. Seeing as this movie focuses on a mob boss who happened to be an informant for a couple of shady FBI agents, we also see the gripping storyline of corruption progressing in the FBI offices.

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Johnny Depp is absolutely amazing as Whitey Bulger. Make-up transformation aside, he disappears into the role of this psychopathic gangster. People who knew the real Whitey Bulger apparently made trips to the set and said that Depp captured how the man walked, talked, and carried himself with frightening accuracy. I don’t doubt it. He’s terrifying in that he seems like a rabid dog who’s always waiting to pounce on whoever might rub him the wrong way. Joel Edgerton (who was fantastic in THE GIFT) also disappears into the slimy scumbag that is John Connolly. You get the sense that Connolly came to the city with a sense of purpose and then all of his morals and ethics were wiped away when he reunited with Bulger. The supporting cast is fantastic as well and each performer stands out for various reasons. Benedict Cumberbatch adopts a convincing Boston accent as Bulger’s senator brother. Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll star as FBI agents looking to bring down Bulger, while David Harbour stars as a too-far-gone agent. Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons are Bulger’s intimidating associates. Meanwhile, Dakota Johnson (as Bulger’s wife), Peter Sarsgaard (as a cokehead hitman) and Juno Temple (as a prostitute) don’t receive a ton of screen time, but all receive memorable scenes. Every performance is stellar.

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Director Scott Cooper (OUT OF THE FURNACE) constructs a rising sense of tension as the story goes from bad to worse over the course of each passing year. This movie jumps between Bulger’s crimes and Connolly’s deceptions in a way that feels slightly procedural, but engrossing nonetheless. Interactions between the characters (including a dinner scene that’s so tense that you could hear a pin drop in the theater) feel genuine. With all this praise, my only problem with BLACK MASS comes in a somewhat rushed ending. I felt that the final minutes (complete with title cards revealing the fates of each character) were somewhat anti-climactic. I wonder if part of that comes from squeezing what might have been a 2 hour 30 minute potential masterpiece into a mere 2 hours (counting credits). It’s a slightly underwhelming spot in an overall great film.

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If you’re a fan of crime cinema (especially films based on real cases), then BLACK MASS should more than satisfy. The movie moves between Bulger’s and Connolly’s storylines nicely, while jumping through the former’s most notorious crimes and the latter’s downward spiral into corruption. This movie has a ton of scenes that I simply cannot get out of my head and doesn’t shy away from grisly details (all for the better). Depp’s performance is possibly a career best as he disappears into Bulger’s skin. Though the last minutes might feel rushed, I pretty much loved BLACK MASS for 95% of the movie. Highly recommended!

Grade: A

THE GIFT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Joel Edgerton

Written by: Joel Edgerton

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Tim Griffin, Allison Tolman & Beau Knapp

Trailers can make bad movies look great and great movies look bad. Such is the world of marketing. When I saw the trailer for THE GIFT, I figured that it might be a fun little thriller, but nothing particularly special. It was Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut and though he’s demonstrated great skill in front of the camera, there were questions as to how his transition to making movies might fare. Color me shocked. Though it may resemble any generic thriller from the early 90’s, THE GIFT has something deeper, scarier, and far more profound running beneath its deceptively simple surface.

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Simon and Robyn have just moved into an upscale Los Angeles house. Simon is a workaholic yuppie sort of guy, while Robyn is a much more kind and depressed individual who’s coping with a recent failed pregnancy. It seems like fate has something special in store for them when Simon bumps into former classmate Gordon. The two hit it off with an awkward, but polite conversation. The next day, the couple find that Gordon has left a present on their doorstep. The thing is that neither of them gave him their address. Gordon becomes a socially awkward friend towards Simon and Robyn, bestowing constant gifts onto them. It gets to a point where Simon decides to cut off the friendship and things get ugly. That’s all I’ll say about this thriller’s plot, because I don’t want to give away any of the nasty surprises that lie in store.

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THE GIFT seems to purposely start off like a standard (but enjoyable) thriller. It’s much akin to something you’d see in the early 90’s (e.g. MALICE, HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, PACIFIC HEIGHTS, etc.). The suspenseful sense of fun lulls the viewer into a state where they think that the whole plot can be predicted in advance. It’s even complete with a couple of (effective) jump scares. Around the halfway mark is where THE GIFT begins to show that its seemingly generic set-up was actually a façade for something far scarier and more intelligent. The screenplay goes into areas you wouldn’t expect it to and approaches these plot points (and twists) with a refreshing maturity. Triple-threat Joel Edgerton (director, writer and actor) decides to take a less-is-more approach, showing only enough to tip-off the audience and never diving into over-the-top violence or exploitation.

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The cast is primarily made up of three characters. Jason Bateman is usually typecast in comedies, but proves to be great in his out-of-the-ordinary dramatic role. Simon appears fairly cut-and-dried in the beginning and then layers begin to peel away as the film goes on. Rebecca Hall’s performance and character is no different. She starts as a nervous and vulnerable wife and then evolves into the moral compass of the piece. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton stars as Gordon and knows exactly how to play the character. Though he’s socially awkward, Gordon seems like a nice guy at the start. Much like the other two character, major plot points reveal what kind of person he truly is. You’ll find yourself questioning loyalties and whose side you’re on as the running time moves forward. It’s debatable as to who is the hero or villain of this film…or if there are even such things in this grimly realistic shocker.

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What should especially be applauded about Edgerton’s debut thriller is that it treats its audience with respect. While other cheap movies of this ilk might waste time spelling everything out for the viewer or throwing in last-minute clichés to tie everything up with an unneeded bow (ala the final scenes of FATAL ATTRACTION), THE GIFT doesn’t assume that you’re dumb. In this way, the script manages to stay one step ahead of you at all times. Even if you can correctly predict some twists, you’ll be shocked by other revelations. It’s all executed with classy suspense and a wonderfully diabolical ending. I guarantee that the final moments of this movie will linger in your mind and generate interesting conversations on the ride home from the theater.

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THE GIFT seemed destined to be yet another generic thriller, but somehow defies all odds and resembles a modern-day Hitchcock film. This is more intelligent, thought-provoking and well-written than most of the thrillers that come out these days. It’s also one of the year’s biggest surprises and one of my favorite movies of 2015 thus far. Indeed, this film is an unexpected GIFT that’s meant to be cherished as much as it’s meant to make your skin crawl.

Grade: A+

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence including Battle Sequences and Intense Images

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine & Steven Zaillian

Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver & Maria Valverde

EXODUS sounds like a surefire winner in concept. You’ve got acclaimed director Ridley Scott at the helm, the biblical epic tale of Moses with Christian Bale as the lead, and first-rate special effects to bring this well-known story to life. While the finished film of EXODUS does have all three of these things, one must consider that Ridley Scott has his fair share of misfires, as does Christian Bale, and effects only count for so much in a film that runs over two hours long. EXODUS has good qualities, but an equal amount of missteps. This all results in a biblical epic that isn’t so much epic as it is middle-of-the-road.

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Unlike every other Moses story that I’ve seen, EXODUS begins with Moses as an adult. He and Ramses have been brought up by Pharaoh Seti. The two are like brothers in arms, but only Ramses can ascend to the throne as Moses is adopted. While Ramses becomes egocentric and focuses on military matters, Moses takes an interest in persecuted Hebrew slaves. It is here that Moses discovers that his true origin lies among them. When this revelation is brought to light, Ramses banishes Moses. Everyone with a semi-basic knowledge of the bible and its stories should be able to predict what happens next. Moses is commanded by God to free his enslaved people from the Egyptians, but Ramses is reluctant to allow that. Thus a battle between heaven and earth rages.

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One neat approach that Ridley Scott adds into his Moses storyline is that Moses was originally an Egyptian General under Seti. This means that there’s an introductory battle sequence that isn’t half bad. Actually, Ridley Scott seems to get away with a strong amount of violence for a PG-13. The source material being from the bible probably didn’t hurt matters at all and might be why Scott was able to pile the bodies so high. Family drama surrounding Moses and Ramses is also included and as is Moses coming to terms with his identity out in the wilderness. These events felt like they took up far too much of the film before the exciting stuff happens later on. The issue of length doesn’t necessarily disappear either, because the ending runs 10 minutes longer than it should have (including a sappy epilogue). For a movie revolving around plagues and revolution, EXODUS is surprisingly dull.

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The big name cast might lead you to believe that there’s some form of redemption in the performances, but that’s also not the case. Christian Bale isn’t given much to do as Moses. He mainly walks around, growls at his enemies and occasionally yells. In essence, his performance almost seemed like he was channeling Batman through Moses (and there’s bound to be an online skit made about that, if there isn’t one already floating around). Other side characters are wasted in underused talented performers. John Turturro has a couple of scenes as Seti, but Sigourney Weaver is damn near mute as his wife until a single scene where she spouts out three lines of dialogue. Ben Kingsley seems to play a big part at the beginning, but is forgotten for the latter half of the film. The same fate befalls Aaron Paul as a sidekick of sorts for Moses. In fact, the only fleshed out character would fall onto that of Ramses. He’s the bad guy, but Joel Edgerton does everything he can to own the performance. Ramses is the only convincing character of the bunch.

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As far as biblical events coming to life through impressive effects go, there is one major pitfall in that area too. It’s hard to screw up the plagues and those are the best part of the entire film. I especially like how Ridley Scott pulled off the water into blood and death of the first-born sequences. The parting of the Red Sea didn’t exactly sell me in its introduction, but I liked the execution of that overall. The only problem, and it’s a big one, is the portrayal of God. Sometimes, not showing anything is better than showing too much. Giving Moses visions with a voice over would have sufficed, but the four(!) screenwriters opt to have Moses talking to God in the form of a little boy. This approach might not have been as painful if the child actor was only seen once in the beginning of Moses’s quest, but he’s a key player in the proceedings. We see him all through the movie after his introduction, including a cheesy moment in the overlong epilogue. God as a bad child actor was akin to the rock monsters in NOAH (which is a far better biblical epic than this film).

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, Christian Bale, 2014. TM and Copyright ©Twentieth Century Fox Film

On a spectacle level, EXODUS looks good. The plagues and parting of the Red Sea are pulled off nicely, but the portrayal of God is just plain silly. Every performance is bland with the exception of Joel Edgerton as Ramses. The story gets too bogged down in family drama that slows the first hour to a crawl before actually getting into the most interesting parts of this Bible story. There are definitely positive things in EXODUS, but the rest of the film is mediocre and boring. For a would-be epic, EXODUS is pretty forgettable. You’re better off watching THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or PRINCE OF EGYPT instead.

Grade: C

STAR WARS Episode II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sustained Sequences of Sci-Fi Action/Violence

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Directed by: George Lucas

Written by: George Lucas & Jonathan Hales

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Temuera Morrison, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Daniel Logan, Leeanna Walsman, Silas Carson, Rose Byrne, Pernilla August & Joel Edgerton

ATTACK OF THE CLONES is better than PHANTOM MENACE. This second prequel rides that level of quality, but never manages to become a completely “good” experience. Actually, the film still holds the position of the second worst STAR WARS movie. In this case, that’s okay and not bad. When everyone saw the title of this film and promotional art featuring familiar looking clone soldiers, we all knew what coming. Obviously, this was the origin story of the Storm Troopers. While that doesn’t really seem to be the most exciting aspect that a STAR WARS film could focus on, Episode II is entertaining.

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A decade has passed since Episode I. The Dark Side is quietly rising among the Galactic Republic. Padme has shifted political power from Queen to Senator. Despite being at a lower level of government, an assassination attempt is made on her life. This botched assassination sends Obi-Wan Kenobi and young Anakin Skywalker on a mission to figure out the identity of the culprit and the reason why someone would want Padme dead. Obi-Wan discovers a secret army of clones being built on a missing planet and tangles with bounty hunter Jango Fett, all while Anakin breaks Jedi code in a relationship with Padme. This all leads to an intense battle brimming with more sinister intentions beneath the surface.

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Though clone armies aren’t exactly the first image that springs to mind in the STAR WARS legacy, it’s certainly a lot more interesting than a mere taxation and blockade seen in PHANTOM MENACE. This second prequel opens doors for more interesting baddies, intergalactic conspiracies, and lots of well-constructed action scenes. Nice additions include the origin of Boba Fett (a personal favorite from the original trilogy). However, there’s a big hitch in the casting of Hayden Christensen. A lot of people have already taken their jabs at his wooden delivery (even though the stilted romantic dialogue is not much to work with). The best of these might be in CLERKS II, when a customer refers to him as “Mannequin Skywalker’s shitty acting is ruining saga.” Though he’s flat in most areas and comes off like a whiny brat in others, there are a couple of quiet convincing moments. These brief bits show little transformations in his attitude and personality that will eventually turn him into the masked villain that we all know and love. The love between Anakin and Padme is just plain silly in execution though. It’s almost like a Nicholas Sparks movie snuck into a STAR WARS film. The plot line feels that drastically out-of-place.

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As far as visuals, massive improvement is seen throughout. Other worlds that were brought to life in PHANTOM MENACE (one of the few redeemable aspects of that film) are fleshed out even further in Episode II. Some diehard fans might miss the gritty look, but I dug the crisp feeling of creative planets that were mainly brought to the screen through computer effects and green screen (in the same fashion that SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW and SIN CITY would use later on). There’s also more development given to certain characters this time around, though the Padme and Anakin romance needed some serious re-writes. Ewan McGregor is far better as an older, wiser Obi-Wan. However, C-3PO becomes a Jar-Jar Binks-esque character in the final third. He’s literally throwing out an annoying pun every few minutes (sometimes, spewing multiple in a matter of seconds) and they all fall flat. Cool looking grasshopper-like aliens become as useless as battle droids to the Jedi though as they’re weak opponents.

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Despite the flaws, ATTACK OF THE CLONES sports a lot of awesome scenes. One being a mid-air pursuit through the night skies of a city. Another is an intense chase scene through a meteor field against a ship that happens to use sonic blasts as weapons. Finally, there’s the finale that takes up almost a third of the film in a good way that never once bored me. It’s moving from set piece to set piece, including a fantastic gladiator stadium housing three vicious beasts eager to slice, stomp and devour our protagonists. Count Dooku also lends to a far more compelling light saber duel, in which we finally get to see Yoda in action, than the underdeveloped (badass looking) Darth Maul from the first prequel. This feels more like a STAR WARS film than PHANTOM MENACE ever did. It never reaches anything close to the feeling of the original trilogy, but I still enjoy it on its own merits.

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Watching Episodes I-II back-to-back for the first time in a decade, I can safely say that ATTACK OF THE CLONES is a massive improvement over PHANTOM MENACE. It’s not up to the quality of the original films. The film remains the second worst entry, but CLONES isn’t a bad flick. This is far more entertaining, exciting and full of better action scenes than the 1999 disappointment. There’s something to be said for significantly lowered expectations, but I think Episode II is actually an enjoyable flick (with some big problems).

Grade: B-

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