Cinema review: Black Mass sees Johnny Depp's best performance in years
Reviewed this week are Black Mass, Bridge of Spies, The Good Dinosaur and Christmas with the Coopers.
Black Mass, which, with the upcoming and excellent Spotlight, is the second film this year to be based on Boston Globe reporters’ work, took a while to come to fruition. Directors, including Jim Sheridan, were rumoured to have been attached before Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) brought it to conclusion, delivering another ‘based on real events’ film that tells a complex story well. And at its heart is Johnny Depp’s best performance for years.
In 1975, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) returns to his native Boston, charged with breaking the criminal power of the Angiulio brothers. He convinces his bosses (Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, David Harbour) to enlist local thug James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp) as an informant in return for immunity.
The arrangement works well for Bulger and Connolly but by act two, in 1981, it has shifted the power bases within their similar if entirely opposite worlds, macho worlds where loyalty is everything and power shifts are all-important. In act three, in 1985, there’s a new prosecutor in town (Corey Stoll) and he wants answers.
Heading up a great cast, Depp, physically transformedwith receding hair and light, reptilian eyes, plays Bulger as creepy, terrifying and charming. He loves his mammy, his son and his very respectable brother (Benedict Cumberbatch). There are lots of slacks andcigarette smoke and, shot in 35mm, it feels atmospheric. Comparisons to Goodfellas are not unreasonable but it is a different film and it’s great to see Depp on top acting form.
Bridge of Spies
"Inspired by true events" can mean a variety of things and in Bridge of Spies, two stories featuring one man, the first is told with greater adherence to the truth than the second. But in Steven Spielberg's capable hands, the Coen brothers' rewrite of Matt Charman's original story works really well.
In the first story, set in 1957 at the height of the Cold War, insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (a quietly show-stealing Mark Rylance). It's a task that Donovan knows will win him no fans, as America is in the grip of paranoia, but he believes that everyone deserves a fair trial.
He soon discovers, however, that not even official America feels the same. Although it proves a thankless task, some years later, following the capture of an American pilot (Austin Stowell) in the Soviet Union, Donovan is again called upon by the government, this time to negotiate the swap of prisoners.
Spielberg shot the film on celluloid rather than digital, much of it is foggy and feels very forties noir. Donovan is a great character, all Atticus Finch honour, but pleasantly rail-roading when he wants something and Hanks does it well. Donovan and Abel, who is depicted to modern audiences more sympathetically than he would have been at the time, form two solid moral pillars around which the film revolves.
There are some rather scary parallels to modern times, the mass hysteria, the demonisation of cultures, the treatment of prisoners. Bridge of Spies is unmistakeably Spielberg at his best. Two complex stories, well told, often funny and with broad appeal.
The Good Dinosaur
What would have happened if the asteroid had missed earth and dinosaurs were not wiped out? Writer Meg LeFauve, who most recently brought us super hit Inside Out, posits that had they survived, dinosaurs would have moved on to farming. And so we meet Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) Apatosaurus and their three children, Buck, Libby and afraid-of-his-shadow Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Every dino must earn the right to make their mark, something that but Arlo struggles to do so. In a bid to improve his chances, Arlo is charged with capturing the tiny feral human corn rustler who is depleting their supplies but things go awry and there’s a Lion King moment.
Events proceed until Arlo finds himself lost in the
wilderness with only the tiny feral corn-rustliing human for company. Arlo blames him for all his misfortune but the boy he names Spot (Jack Bright) proves kind and useful and they strike up a friendship and embark on an adventure.
Whilst some of Pixar’s films have been about creating new worlds and ideas, others have been content to rework old ideas and it is this category into which The Good Dinosaur falls.
However, rather than boy and his beast, it’s beast and his boy and the dynamic works. At no point does the film attempt to compete with its forerunner Inside Out and that’s a wise move. This is a sweet story of friendship and facing your fears, beautifully animated in detail that shows every little facial expression and not in 3D. There are nice wordless scenes which will resonate for children who might have communication issues, strange trippy scenes when they eat rotting fruit and a slightly bizarre move into western territory, when they meet up with
buffalo-herding T-Rexes, whose leader is voiced by none other than Sam Elliot.
At over an hour and-a-half, it might prove a little long for very small children. My six-year-old reviewer got a little shifty towards the end but the four-year-old remained entranced and shed a tear at the appropriate moment. The Good Dinosaur is not a classic, but it is sweet.
Christmas with the Coopers
This year's big festive film gathers together an impressive cast, with an interesting if predictable premise, but ends up being as much of a turkey as the one on the table.
The Coopers, Charlotte and Sam (Diane Keaton and John Goodman) are nearing the end of their 40-year marriage and as a final gesture they want to gather their extended family, not realising that it has fractured on other levels too.
Son Hank (Ed Helms) is not only going through a messy divorce, but he has also, without telling anyone, lost his job.
Daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) is so convinced that her parents consider her a failure that she chooses to hang out in an airport bar to put off meeting her family.
There, she meets a soldier (Jake Lacy) and although polar opposites - she is studiously left-wing and anti-establishment, he is a creationist Republican - they agree to pretend to be a couple.
Meanwhile, Charlotte's bitter sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) is getting busted (Anthony Mackie) for shoplifting and their father Bucky (Alan Arkin) is shattered to learn that his favourite waitress, lost soul Ruby (Amanda Seyfried) is leaving town.
All of this is narrated by Rags the dog (Steve Martin.)
Jessie Nelson directs a dramedy by Steven Rogers in which there are good ideas like the silver divorce, attraction between political opposites and the past events that so shape the present. But these ideas flounder in the clumsy attempts to contrive emotion, rather than evoke it. There are funny moments and it will appeal to some but what really grated for me is how flawed the female characters all are, until they're set right by the men. A film that was intended to be feel-good, was actually a bit feel-sick.
Opens Dec 8
Sunday Indo Living