Tag Archives: Biography

“DEEPWATER HORIZON” Review (✫✫✫✫)


Unexpected emergencies. Unexpected heroes.

The first thing that surprised me about Deepwater Horizon was realizing that it was rated PG-13. The violence in this movie is graphic and vivid, with its source material translating so well to the big screen that I question how different it really is from its actual events. Through every explosion, every flame set ablaze, every bone that is crushed, and every life that is taken, this is a film that seeks to honor its real-life subjects by showing us exactly what they went through. It is not for the average viewer, and it is definitely not for children. I would say younger than 17 is pushing it. 

In this adaptation of the 2010 BP oil spill directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor), Deepwater Horizon follows the oil-drilling crew in their final hours before the notable disaster. Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, who has a family waiting for him at home. Gina Rodriguez plays Andrea, who has her boyfriend and a broken mustang back at shore. Kurt Russell is the hardened captain of the crew Jimmy Harrell. Dylan O’Brien plays Caleb, an oil driller who’s just trying to do his best job on-site. And then there’s John Malkovich, who plays the asshole that got everyone into this mess. 

The standout element of this picture, by far, is Berg’s treatment on this delicate topic. You might remember that I wasn’t very fond of his last film Lone Survivor, which I found to be too generic and predictable to do its source material justice. Here though, there’s nothing generic or predictable, not even in the opening shots. During an early breakfast conversation between Mike and his daughter, she innocently described to him her classroom speech about his job, explaining how her daddy “fights the dinosaurs” underneath the earth. While serving as sweet softener dialogue between these characters, it also doubles as exposition about his job, how he does it, what they do on a day-to-day basis, and what perils come with the occupation.

As she’s speaking, the coke she’s using to demonstrate suddenly bursts and floods the whole table. I’m thinking what would have happened if that coke was a few thousand feet bigger and was carrying oil instead of soda. 

This much is how Berg improves upon his technique from Lone Survivor to Deepwater Horizon. In Lone Survivor, our heroes were thrown into grisly escapades of war violence, with nothing building up beforehand to help us connect with these characters. Here, Berg connects us to the crewmembers’ humanity before ominously foreshadowing to their dreary fate. These are not normal movie characters. These are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters, all of whom are real people outside of the movie theater. They all have someone waiting for them at home, wrecked and nervous for their safety and survival. For the most part in war movies, our heroes more or less made the conscious decision to go fight for their country, regardless of who was waiting for them at home.

Deepwater Horizon’s heroes are different. None of these characters made the conscious decision to plant themselves square in the middle of danger. Nobody in the film was expecting the disaster to occur when it did or with how greatly it devastated them. This is a disaster picture first and foremost, and you’re frantically navigating the action with the film’s survivors as they look for a way past the spewing oil, the collapsing metal frames, the wild fires, and the empty sea gallows looming beneath them. This is a movie that completely understands what the real-life crewmembers were up against, and they bring you every detail of that disaster with nerve-wrecking alertness and urgency.

I have no qualms for this movie. At least, nothing that I can fairly hold against it. If you wanted to be picky, I suppose you could say that the editing was choppy and sometimes made the action hard to follow. But when you see the events unfold on screen, when the metal frames tip over and the rig catches on fire, you’re very quick to forgive the film for its tightly-edited action. After all, Deepwater’s residents barely had any time to process everything themselves. Why should we?

This is a masterful picture, guided delicately through its facts and events with its survivors and victims in mind. In its simplest state, Deepwater Horizon is a unique and riveting action film that perfectly captures the details of its real-life disaster. Through a more complex scope, it is a celebration of life, a commemoration for bravery, and a quiet mourning for the lives lost. 

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“SNOWDEN” Review (✫✫✫)


The persecution of the American dream. 

Before you will have read this review, the government will have read it first. That is a fact that each of us must face and understand, although we shouldn’t necessarily accept it, even though many will tell us that we should. It’s been three years since Edward Snowden has leaked classified information about the NSA spying on its own citizens, and they still haven’t apologized or confronted the issue up front. To me that is an admission of guilt, and the movie Snowden is their sentencing.

Taking place years before the NSA leak, Snowden, portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is an American just wanting to do his best to support his country. He’s worked in numerous jobs with the government before, including the Special Forces and C.I.A. But when Snowden is employed by the NSA, he makes a devastating discovery: the government is surveilling all of its citizens, everywhere, 24/7.

How bad is it? Imagine Uncle Sam looking over your shoulder every second of every day, and you’ve got a pretty accurate idea of the government’s hold on you. Your phone. Your iPad. Your MAC computer. Even if any of these things are off, their cameras and audio software can still pick up everything you’re saying or doing. And that’s not to mention the NSA’s access to your internet, social media, emails, private messages, and video chats, along with every other surveillance tool at their disposal.

This is where the film finds its emotional core, caught square in the middle of political paranoia, distrust, and dread. Our hero is caught in that same place as well, navigating the morality and technicality of this reality trapped, like a mouse running lost through a maze. The end result feels exactly how it sounds: thrilling, revealing, and disturbing.

I’m going to get your biggest concern right out of the way. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is absolutely mesmerizing as Edward Snowden. Like the best method performances, Gordon-Levitt focuses on the slight mannerisms and habits of the real-life figure and mimics them to near exact precision. This is an actor who has taken on a variety of roles in action films, including Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Looper. There is no indication in the film that this is the same actor minus appearances. He embodies everything he needs to about Snowden: his social awkwardness, his physicality, his stammering, his idle movements. Everything that he did made me feel like he was a second Edward Snowden. My only complaint is that his voice is a little low-pitched compared to Snowden’s, but for an otherwise flawless performance, this is one flaw I’m willing to forgive.

The screenplay is also very well composed, giving vital insight into this man’s perspective that perhaps we didn’t know how to feel about before. Writer/director Oliver Stone isn’t unfamiliar with controversial subject matter. From confronting the U.S.’s treatment of veterans in Born on the Fourth of July, to conspiracy theories in JFK, to violent escapades in Natural Born Killers, Stone is experienced with telling a wide variety of stories and how they affect modern society. Snowden seems like a perfect fit for him. Stone confronts the facts headfirst, not shying away from any of the details, no matter how disturbing they may be to us. The resulting message does everything a film is supposed to do: it thrills us while at the same time informing us.

All the same though, there were some moments that just did not work with this picture. I’m talking about scenes and elements that sharply collided with the movie’s tone and took you out of the experience rather than further immersing you. The first thing I’m going to mention is the score by Craig Armstrong, which is an unusual thing to mention because in a movie about Edward Snowden, you would think your first complaint wouldn’t be about the music. In one early scene during Snowden’s special forces days, the score was so soupy and melodramatic you would think they were trying to emulate Saving Private Ryan. Kinda off-tone for a movie about government surveillance and whistleblowers, don’t you think? His score does eventually come back to the sharp rhythms and ominous tones that are appropriate for a subject like this, but even then, the soupy melodies repeat two or three more times in the picture. The inconsistencies in this score take us out of the moment of tension that we’re supposed to be feeling and throws us into a state of perplexity, as if we’re not sure what sort of movie we’re supposed to be watching here.

But then in other scenes of the movie, you can’t fairly place blame on the music. Some scenes were just plain directed badly. In the omnipotent climax of the film, the highlight moment of the picture, the one where Snowden commits the act that we all know he’s inevitably heading towards, he finishes doing what he does, then he… smiles? His life has just been ruined, he’s now officially going to be hunted by the government as a fugitive, he has to run away from his home, his family, his friends, everything he has ever known to live in a country all by himself. And in this moment of self-sacrifice and legal martyrdom, he chooses to smile with the sun brightly illuminating his face, his hair blowing carefree in the wind? That’s not on-the-nose, cheesy, silly, and plain corny in any way, Stone. There’s no way to excuse a scene like that. It demanded a reshoot.

I fully believe everything I saw in Snowden. I don’t doubt a single frame in it. I believe it is real and it scares me. That’s a good thing though, because its supposed to scare you. The things you’re watching are things that have happened to you, and you should not be okay with them. You may not know the full story, but this is your opportunity to know.

Snowden may be the most important film you see this year, even if it isn’t necessarily the most well made.

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“13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Hell in half a day.

Here are the facts. On Sept. 11, 2012, the same day as another infamous tragedy, a U.S. compound in Benghazi was attacked. Four Americans were murdered that day, one of them being ambassador Chris Stevens. The rest of the on-site personnel fought for their lives for over 13 nightmarish hours against an enemy as cruel as they were relentless. This much is indisputable.

In the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, there were accusers from all sides looking for someone to blame. The Republicans blamed the Democrats for being ignorant to the threat in the middle east. The Democrats wrote off the Republican’s criticisms as embellishing the truth. In their accusations against the other party, both forgot about the party that mattered the most: the American survivors. They didn’t care about left-wing or right-wing democracy. They cared about one more gasp of breath, the next plane that was flying out, how soon they could see their families again, maybe even hearing their voices one last time. You can talk politics about the situation all you want, but you cannot deny the 13 hours when someone’s family members were stuck in that hellhole.

I myself do not care about two party politics. They distract from the larger issues at hand, such as the growing anti-American sentiment in the middle east or getting our own citizens back home to us. Michael Bay apparently shares my emotions as he brings us 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, an exhilarating and heart-racing look at the soldiers fighting on the front lines, not the politicians making speeches from behind them.

In this adaptation of the real-life tragedy, 13 Hours follows the Global Response Staff (GRS), a team of ex-military operatives assigned to protect a U.S. compound based in Libya. Keep in mind, this is not an official embassy. Technically speaking, the U.S. isn’t even supposed to be in Libya. But legalities haven’t stopped the U.S. from operating outside the law before, and it’s not very likely to start now.

There are six men assigned to the GRS task force. One of them is Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a father of three with another one on the way. The rest of the team members aren’t so different from Jack. In one pivotal scene before the aforementioned events take place, all of the soldiers are on phones and videochats, talking to their wives, sons, and daughters back home, all whom are eagerly waiting to see each of them again. In this very important moment, we see these soldiers not as killers, but as human beings.

And of course, you already know what happens from there.

The best thing about this movie by far is the action. That’s so unusual for me to say, because most of the time, the action is the most overused part of any movie. Here though, the firefights are so exemplary, chaotic and explosive all at once, throwing our heroes through nearly impossible stakes that keep building as the movie goes on. The one thing Michael Bay is excellent at directing is action, and the firefights get so intense and on-edge that you question if our heroes can make it out multiple times.

But that’s not all Michael Bay does well here. Surprisingly, he exercises excellent restraint in slower-paced moments as well. In one early scene, Jack and fellow team member Tyrone Woods (James Dale) are at a standstill with a Libyan militia. I think I counted eight men training their guns against the two of them in their car. Woods tells them that a drone is flying over, and if anything happens to them, it’ll launch an airstrike against him and his men. After a narrow escape, Jack asks if they really had a drone on this assignment. Woods scoffs. “What do you think?”

I didn’t notice any obvious political motives from the film. I don’t care about them if they are in there. As a film critic, I’m not looking for those. What I am looking for is emotion, pacing, timing, things that help build the mood of the scene and help further implicate the ideas the movie is expressing. The best movies combine entertainment with relevance, and 13 Hours does that stunningly well. Think of a movie blending the paranoia of Zero Dark Thirty with the violence and grit from Black Hawk Down, and you get 13 Hours.

I’ve been very critical of Michael Bay in the past, and I think rightfully so. His Transformers movies have long plagued Hollywood with its stupid writing and absent-minded, overblown action sequences, while Pain and Gain was as offensive to its real-life subjects as it was to its movie theater attendants. With 13 Hours, however, Michael Bay finds himself in the zone, expressing his own style while at the same time spreading awareness on real-life issues. Thank God for those six men that found themselves fighting for their lives in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. Without them, those 13 hours could have gone a lot worse.

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“THE CONJURING” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Be afraid of what you can’t see.

The Conjuring is a revelation in horror cinema: a genuinely creepy and disturbing movie, infesting every nerve of your body with consistent tension, anxiety, and unease. In a long failing genre that mistakes horror for sick images and macabre violence, at last we find a movie that gets it. True horror does not come from the gruesome things we see on the screen: it comes from the things that we don’t see, the things that we suspect are hiding in dark corners, quietly leaning over our shoulders.

The fact that The Conjuring is based on two real-life paranormal investigators, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) makes the film’s events all the more unnerving to watch, and it makes you question how much of it is fiction. In the film, the Warrens are investigating the Perrons, a family that recently moved out to a house in Rhode Island where they think they will be able to peacefully raise their five children. It doesn’t even take a day for unexplainable occurrences to start happening in the house. The clocks always stop at exactly 3:07 in the morning. Picture frames fall to the floor all at once. Strange clapping can be heard in the house every now and then. And after a while, the Perron’s youngest daughter Christine (Joey King) persists that she sees a malevolent spirit late at night. The Warrens commit to the case to find out what is causing the occurrences and help the family before it is too late.

The Conjuring reaffirms an idea I’ve believed in for a long time now: ghosts by themselves are not scary. Neither are poltergeists, demons, monsters, psychotic murderers, serial killers, or supernatural entities. None of these things are scary on their own. What makes them truly scary is the environment around them, the sounds of feet shuffling, the crunching of leaves as they are being stepped on, the chairs creaking, the wind blowing out of nowhere, the chill running down your spine that you can’t explain where it came from. True fear comes from knowing that the threat is near, and yet, not being able to see or sense them.

Director James Wan plays on the senses brilliantly in The Conjuring. He doesn’t evoke sensationalism. He evokes moods, tones, feelings, paranoia, confusion, hopelessness, distrust, and dread. Because he relies on these things instead of the usually cheap jump scares, the picture lasts longer and leaves a heavier impact on you than most other horror pictures do.

Compare one of this film’s creepier antagonists, a small ceramic Annabelle doll, to most of today’s horror icons, such as Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers. Maybe once they were scary, but nowadays they’re just big, brainless buffoons that groan at their victims, swinging sharp objects around, their brutish bodies invulnerable to every hazard imaginable. That’s not scary, that’s overkill. How are you supposed to get invested into a story where its main threats are indestructible? How are you supposed to be surprised or shocked when you can see them lumbering 50 miles away? In the Friday the 13th and Halloween movies, you don’t go to get scared: you go to watch teenagers get hacked to death, with no suspense or investment to supplement their bloody deaths.

Annabelle, however, is a different story. She’s not scary because of one specific instance: she’s scary because she represents something much larger than herself, which is the obvious risks of the Warrens’ career choice. In one moment, the Warren’s professional life crosses over into their personal life, and the threat that entities like Annabelle poses to the Warrens is truly frightening. It made me really think, if this story were true, and malicious spirits like Annabelle are really out there, what defense would we have against them? What would we do if our families were haunted by them? We would be truly helpless, just like one of Annabelle’s victims.

Some might argue that the pace is too slow or deliberate in this picture. I guess I would agree with you, if James Wan hadn’t made Insidious before this, which truly was a slow, deliberate picture that didn’t have half of the thrills as The Conjuring does. Most horror pictures take their genre for granted, thinking that they will be successful just by following conventions. Not The Conjuring. It cherishes its horror, lingers on it, and smartly builds up to unexpected moments, surprising you in the most profound of ways. Like a poltergeist, The Conjuring possesses you, and no incantation can lift the spell it has on you.

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“THE REVENANT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The broken spirit, revived. 

The Revenant is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and I never want to see it again.

The film tells the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an 1820’s frontiersman who got mauled by a bear, watched his son get murdered, was left for dead by his friends, and crawled 200 miles to society, seeking revenge against those who betrayed him. His story is not fictional. Author Michael Punke captured the true accounts of Glass’s life in the novel of the same name, which serves as the primary basis for this film.

At hearing about the film, you would never have guessed that this is a true story. Watching the film does little to suspend your disbelief, but as it continues on, you catch yourself slowly conforming to the film’s convictions, believing it more and more as it builds to its emotionally binding and captivating climax. Director Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, who won an Oscar last year for directing Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, has made a film so vivid, eerie, and compelling that it could, and indeed does, pass itself off as reality.

Look at the huge risks Inarritu takes as a filmmaker. In Birdman, he took a great risk by filming in multiple long takes, editing them together to give off the illusion that Birdman was all filmed in one shot. Here, Inarritu takes another risk by shooting everything in natural light, using the sun to naturally fill the space that Inarritu captures on camera. The result allows us to experience The Revenant’s environments as they are, rather than being artificially constructed for the film’s sake.

Beyond its practical filming and staging, Inarritu is equally ambitious in his overarching vision for the film. To pick one word to describe The Revenant is impossible. It’s beautiful. Disturbing. Shocking. Heartbreaking. Violent. Gritty. Emotional. Meaningful. Spiritual. The scope of Inarritu’s filmmaking is simply incredible, peering into this man’s loneliness, desperation, paranoia, and drive as he struggles not only to survive, but to live beyond his son’s death.

Oh, this is a wonderfully shot film. In wide angles, cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski captures the sheer scope and vastness of his environments, capturing both the beauty and danger of nature around Glass. In tight shots, he perfectly encapsulates Glass’s struggle against life, nature, and himself as he fights to keep on living. DiCaprio lends just as much to Glass’ turmoil as Lubeski does. At times he doesn’t speak, but simply reacts to the environment around him, and his grief and angst is so believable that you buy his struggle not as a character or an actor, but as a real person.

All of these elements build to embody a perfect film. Yes. A perfect film. Why then, do I say that I never want to see it again? Because it captures its vision so perfectly that the filmmaking aspect no longer seems like an illusion. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie: it feels like you’re watching life. You feel Glass’ nerves as he freezes in the cold, struggling breaths in between his slit throat and his stitches. You feel the pain stab through Glass as the bear’s claws tear into his flesh, literally ripping apart his fragile body as the blood replaces his decaying skin. And you feel Glass’ wrath and his pain, his internal torture where he knows that he will never be the same man again. The film is so convincing in its art that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. That’s what I mean when I say that I can’t see it again.

The film never tells us that it’s based on a true story in the opening and closing credits, and it doesn’t need to. We are already convinced of this through experiencing pure film.

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“SPOTLIGHT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

“Shine a light, and let the whole world see.”

In the Boston Globe story on the 1990 Church abuse scandal, the Spotlight team reported that there were over 130 sexual assault victims from just one Catholic priest. In the film Spotlight, we eventually learn that over 80 Boston priests were sexual predators, and were being continuously circulated from parish to parish. If those numbers are consistent, how many victims of sexual assault does that spell out for Boston? My math came down to over 10,000.

I don’t know if that’s accurate because I haven’t dug much further into the Boston Globe’s reporting, but I don’t think that matters. What matters is that Spotlight made me think of those victims. It made me think about the people that you don’t normally think about, the problems that you don’t think exist, and the secrets that you don’t think are being hidden behind prayers and confession booths. Like any great piece of reporting, Spotlight brings importance, urgency, and truth that needs to be known about. If Spotlight isn’t the best film of the year, it is definitely the most important.

The Spotlight team consists of lead editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Matt Carol (Brian d’Arcy James), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). The team is specifically reserved for investigative reporting, previously breaking stories on transit mismanagement and political corruption in Massachusetts. At the time when they were given this assignment, it was not as a follow-up to a news story, but to a column written and published by one of the Globe’s staffers.

At first, no one really thought much of the project. When originally pitched, it had to do with the Catholic church finding out that one priest had sexually assaulted children in six different churches, and did nothing about it. But when the team kept digging, they found out that it was bigger than they anticipated. Much bigger.

While watching Spotlight, I was thrusted upon an early memory of one of my first major news assignments. It was a story called “Seconds Away,” and it was about a university alumna who was just seconds from crossing the finish line before it blew up during the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. The story wasn’t that she survived. It was that she went back the following year to finish crossing the line that she never did.

While getting ready for our interview, I was excited, nervous, and petrified all at once. This was a woman who had survived a near-death experience. She had faced something few other people have had to face, myself included. I didn’t know how to approach it. Was she comfortable with me talking to her? Would I be insensitive by asking serious questions? Would I be disrespectful by asking what was going through her mind? What would that say of me as a person, by asking her to relive something traumatic that she already went through?

The reporters and editors behind Spotlight face these same questions and concerns of morality every day they step into the office. Yet, they handled this difficult subject in the same way that the movie does: with grace and respect.

The greatest thing that can be said about Spotlight is its transparency: in how its characters charge towards this groundbreaking story and the emotions and conflicts they experience while doing their jobs. Writer-director Tom McCarthy, who was raised Catholic, juggles this behind-the-scenes story with real people’s traumas and emotions in mind. The result is a portrait that is genuine, astounding, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking all at once.

Take the interview scenes as a demonstration of this. During the film’s first scenes, Spotlight reporters sit down with a few sex abuse survivors, their brokenness and vulnerability made evident on the spot. The interesting thing you’ll find in between these intercut scenes is that it’s not Rachel McAdam’s mannerisms we’re noticing. It’s not Mark Ruffalo’s reactions or face of shock we’re noticing. It’s the supporting actors playing these victims, whom I can’t even identify off of the film’s cast list. Every detail of them is absorbing and introspective.

We notice the gay man in a coffee shop as he twiddles his thumbs nervously on his coffee cup. We notice the skinny drug addict sweating, entering the room cautiously, seeing scars up his arms from when he injected himself with heroin. We notice that while their testimonies are overwhelmingly tragic, they talk about it casually and on a whim; like it’s a scar that has already been healed, but will never go away. We listen to their silence as they quietly relive their traumas, the quivering in their voice as they slowly speak, the tears building up in their eyes as they come to once again realize what they are. I find that so compelling, that one of the best things in this film are the actors that I can’t even name.

The rest of the film is like that: finding value in the areas that you can’t exactly point out, but you know they are there. For instance, who’s the main protagonist? You could argue Rezendes, because he has the most visible reaction from working on this story. In reality though, this story is impacting the entire Spotlight team and more. It impacts everyone, in ways that nobody realizes until it walks right up to their doorstep.

This movie takes time and dedication to build up its story and collect the necessary information, just like Spotlight’s reporters do. In doing that, this is undeniably a slow film, but the pace doesn’t matter as much as the payoff. Spotlight deserves to be sought out. It is one of those rare films that not only makes us better viewers, but also better human beings.

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“BLACK MASS” Review (✫✫✫)

Fear him. Fear Whitey Bulger.

I would not recommend to any of my friends that they watch Black Mass. It’s not for everyone. In fact, I would argue that it’s not for most. It’s violent, twisted, bleak, convoluted, and has little sense of purpose other than to show us the dark depths of human depravity. In that regard, it is not a worthwhile moviegoing experience. But man, is Johnny Depp’s performance mesmerizing.

In Black Mass, Johnny Depp portrays Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious gangster who ruled the south streets of Boston for nearly 30 years. When he was finally captured by the FBI in 2011, he faced a 33-count indictment, including multiple counts of extortion, money laundering, selling drugs, corrupting law enforcement, and committing 19 murders. That number surprises me. After watching the movie, it almost seems low.

How was Bulger able to get away with all of this for almost three decades? Simple. He had help. When his childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) was hired by the FBI, Connolly believed he and Bulger could help each other out. As an employed FBI informant, Bulger could provide information to Connolly on rival gangs so the FBI could clean house for Bulger. Meanwhile, Connolly could provide protection for Bulger’s operations as a result of him being an informant. They both end up agreeing to each others terms and Bulger officially enlists himself as an FBI informant.

While watching this movie, I was wondering where I had heard this story before about an FBI informant using the bureau to protect himself from his own criminal operations. Then I remembered Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime film The Departed, which involved Jack Nicholson’s character also using the FBI to his own purposes. I came to find out that his character was actually largely based around Whitey Bulger’s circumstances. The only difference is that The Departed is somewhat watered down compared to the actual accounts.

Yes, I just wrote that. The Departed is watered down compared to Black Mass. What is the world coming to when Martin Scorsese looks tame?

Black Mass is a sickening, deplorable film, one that outlines one man’s lifetime of crime in disturbing detail. Yet, the film is reasonably sickening because it isn’t actively advocating for Bulger. Indeed, in most of the film, he seems more like the movie’s villain rather than its hero.

So who is the main protagonist then? The movie doesn’t have one. It’s unusual, but it works for this sort of film. This isn’t a story we’re watching, but a report: an account on real-life events that is driven to inform on every detail as accurately as possible. The writers of the original novel, Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, served as consultants on the film, working specifically with director Scott Cooper on what did or didn’t happen based on their experiences.

It is reasonable to say they’re credible sources. Lehr and O’Neill have written numerous books on Boston crime, and Bulger was a key figure in all of their research. Their reporting was thorough and in-depth. They’ve met John Connolly on numerous occasions. Next to the gangsters that have lived alongside Bulger, these two would be the next best accountants on him and his life.

Bringing them on as consultants was wise of Cooper, and his attention to their details brings authenticity to the picture. In one of the most disturbing scenes of the film, Bulger is choking a hooker to death inside of a house. Cooper paused filming this scene because Lehr and O’Neill said one of the gangster that was present in the original events was not present on the set. The fact that Cooper paused filming for such a small detail impresses me. The fact that Bulger wipes his feet, shrugs, and says he’s taking a nap so non-chalantly after killing her disturbs me on how true this is.

Depp is another story altogether. He is completely and utterly eerie as Bulger, perfect in capturing the character’s details and relentless in portraying his acts of violence and cruelty. It’s not just that Depp gives a convincing performance: I literally can’t see any indication that Depp is even in the movie. His being is erased into Bulger’s existence, in his cold, steady stare and his fixed, stoic posture. He’s disturbing in the slurred, snaky voice he speaks in, and how he so casually inflicts pain and death as if he were the Grim Reaper himself. Depp is the highlight of the film, with his portrayal of Bulger evoking memory of Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs or Jack Torrence from The Shining. His performance isn’t just the best of the year: it’s a challenger for the best of the decade. It’s that momentous and memorable.

If I were reviewing Depp’s performance alone, he would be given four stars, because the truth is his performance is perfect. However, I am not reviewing one actor’s performance. I’m reviewing the movie, and the truth is the movie is sloppy. The camerawork by Masanobu Takayangi is smooth and steady, but everything else in the film is lopsided and rocky. The editing by David Rosenbloom is scattered and choppy. The chronology of events is non-linear and hard to follow. And the screenwriters of the film Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk skip an important part of Bulger’s story, which is his upbringing. It doesn’t have to be a flashback either; just simply explaining where the character came from and why he acts the way he does would have sufficed. We’re given clues throughout the movie, but no answers. We are asked to fill in the holes as the movie skips over important questions and just goes to Bulger’s tirades of violence.

Why is the movie called Black Mass? In the 19th Century, a Black Mass was secretly held by a Roman Catholic Church for Satan worship and in mockery of the Christian faith. A Black Mass is a crooked sermon concealing evil intentions. I believe a black mass was made when the FBI enlisted one of history’s most notorious gangsters as an informant. A black mass is also made when we enter the movie theater. The devil’s name is the same in both cases: Whitey Bulger.

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“STEVE JOBS” Review (✫✫✫)

Creator. Entrepreneur. Father.

Steve Jobs is defined by three years of his life: 1984, 1988 and 1998.

The movie, Steve Jobs, covers these years of his life. So will this review.

1984

Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is on edge. The Macintosh is malfunctioning. He is told by his technicians that the computer won’t say “Hello” to him. It’s 40 minutes before the product launches. His ex-girlfriend is waiting in the other room with her daughter, who Jobs insists isn’t his, wondering why they are both living on welfare while he is making millions. He paces back and forth in between his professional and personal problems. He tells his technician to fix it and walks off stage.

Fassbender is mesmerizing as Jobs. He’s ecstatic, energetic, passionate. He’s tense, egotistical, confrontational. He’s at peace when thinking about how many people’s lives this new computer will impact. He’s angry at people who come up to him, trying to stop him from completing his mission. His expression shows that they’ll fail. He’s too determined to let his ambitions die.

The filming in this sequence is enclosed, personal. It uses tracking shots to follow Jobs as he paces back and forth, looking at TIME Magazines, drinking his sparkling water, his mind racing with everything that needs to get done. The reel itself has a texture to it that I couldn’t quite point out until it hit me: this sequence is shot on celluloid film, reminiscent of the decade that it’s reflecting. A great choice of stylistic direction from Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), but just like the time period we’re in, we know that it won’t last long.

Jobs handles his personal issues. The technical issues are resolved. He steps out onto the stage and introduces the Apple Macintosh.

1988

The Macintosh underperformed in sales. Jobs is let go by Apple, the company that he helped start. He feels betrayed by his closest friends, alone in his struggle for significance.

He meets a few of his former colleagues who want to wish him well. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) starts acting friendly to him, but then confronts him on not giving him enough credit on the launch of the Macintosh. He asks him what he does.

“I play the orchestra, and you’re a good musician,” Jobs says. “You sit right there and you’re the best in your row.”

The scene switches to another where Jobs is confronting a former confidant. The editing is off, choppy. It’s cross-cutting between this scene and a flashback so rapidly it’s hard to keep track of the two conversations. I don’t know what Boyle was trying to do here. Maybe he thought he was adding tension to the scene. I thought he was adding confusion.

Jobs visits his daughter in the next room, who is skipping class to come and see him. She’s in middle school. He tells her she needs to go to school before she rushes up to him and hugs his legs.

“I want to live with you, daddy,” she whispers to him.

She and her mother leave. Jobs is shaken. He steps out onto the stage.

1998

This is it: the launch that has come to define both Apple and Jobs for years to come. This is the most important act of the film, and the one I will talk less about for the sake of spoilers.

Jobs looks different. He looks older. His hair is whiter. He’s sporting the iconic glasses and turtleneck that most people recognize Jobs in. Fassbender is no longer just acting like Steve Jobs. He has become Steve Jobs.

The framing of shots is similar to the beginning. It tracks Jobs while he walks from one place to another. He’s more sure of himself in relationship to Apple, less sure of himself in relationship to his daughter. Boyle captures the panic on his face, the fear recognizing his failings as a person and as a father.

It’s nearing the end of the film, and I realize the thing that I love most about the movie is its screenplay. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin captures both the genius and fragility of Jobs, the sharpness in his words and the intimacy of his emotions. This is a good change of pace for Sorkin. From a filmography of lightning-quick, witty characters and dialogue from A Few Good Men to The Social Network, this is his most emotive work yet. It makes you feel more than it makes you think.

I exit the theater. I call my dad on my iPhone and tell him I love him. Steve Jobs too realizes that the greatest thing he ever made wasn’t an Apple product. It was his daughter.

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“STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The biography of the boyz in the hood. 

Perception is reality.

That’s a motto my newsroom lives and dies by. That’s also a truth that the boys from Straight Outta Compton live and die by. The only difference between us is that we experience it figuratively: they experience it literally.

We witness this early in Straight Outta Compton; as early as the first scene, in fact. Eric Wright, a.k.a. Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) confronts his cousins, who hasn’t paid him yet for the dope that he sold them a few weeks ago. Suddenly, like an Earthquake striking a town, the police ram into the house and start raiding it, arresting any African-American they can find in there. E slips out of the window and onto the roof just in time. He’s survived. For now.

We switch to a less tense scene. Andre Young, a.k.a. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is sitting on his bedroom floor, listening to classic funk and R&B records on his record player. Dre isn’t like the others in the streets. He doesn’t want to sling dope or be in a gang. He just wants to produce beats and music: a mozart to his suburbs.

His mother Verna (Lisa Renee Pitts), however, isn’t so enthused about his career path. He has a family and a daughter to care for, and he isn’t going to do it sitting on the floor listening to a record player, DJ’ing for a club at night. Dre, however, has his mind set. His future doesn’t lie in cleaning toilets and taking fast food orders. It lies in a DJ mixer and a pair of headphones. Dre knows what he needs to do.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Compton, O’Shea Jackson, a.k.a. Ice Cube (played by his own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is sitting on a bus waiting to go to school. He sees the white kids in another school yard, all dressed in nice clothes, all with newly-bought school supplies and slick cars. Meanwhile, Cube sits in his creaky bus seat, looking at his clothes he probably wore yesterday, and his worn pencil and notepad, which is the only school supplies he has.

He takes his pencil and notepad and starts writing.

These three men, alongside Lorenzo Patterson, a.k.a. MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and Antoine Carraby, a.k.a. DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) make up the notorious hip-hop group N.W.A. The last two words stand for “With Attitude.” You can imagine what the letter “N” stands for.

Here is a film that, by any standards, is morally despicable. I go on and on in some of my reviews how movies are either incredibly violent, shamelessly sexual, or blatantly vulgar. This movie is all of those things and more. F-words fly out of their mouths like bullets in an uzi. Nude and scantily-clad women flock to these rappers in herds. In some scenes, they engage in sexual intercourse with many attendants watching, all with drugs and alcohol present. Police and gang violence is also present in the film, with crips, bloods, and officers shoving, punching, shooting, assaulting, and harassing each other in very violent, confrontational fashions.

Do not be fooled. This is not an easy film to watch, and if you don’t have a strong moral compass, you will get lost in the violent, sexual, promiscuous, profane, and blatantly explicit content you will find in this motion picture. If you hate hip-hop, you will hate Straight Outta Compton.

That being said, Straight Outta Compton is one of the most compelling films I’ve seen so far this year. The movie is more than the problems it poses. In fact, I’m happy that the film shows the content that it does in the film. It shows the destructive lifestyle these people experience, both on and off the streets, and they confront very real issues that hits them hard at home and at heart. The most significant issue that the movie covers is, of course, police violence. In one of my favorite scenes from the film, one of the police officers that was harassing these young men was not white, but black. My jaw dropped as he continued to berate these men as they were walking away: “Listen to your master!” he said, referring to their white manager.

What I love most about this movie, though, is that it isn’t biased. It isn’t pro-police or anti-police or pro-gangs or anti-gangs. It shows the ugliness of every side of Compton, whether it exists on a badge or on a bandana. Police cruelty is an obvious focus of the film, because it’s a recurring theme in hip-hop and rap culture. I was pleasantly surprised, though, to find at how much the film delved into hood culture and how damaging it is to these young men’s lives. The biggest instances of cruelty came from record producer Suge Knight, portrayed here by R. Marcus Taylor, whose business tactics include physical intimidation, humiliation, fear, confrontation, and violence. If the movie is anything to go by on how the real events transpired, Suge is a monster. He is painted as nothing less than the Godfather of suffering in this movie.

The parallels this movie draws on is ingenious, and director F. Gary Gray is exemplary in realizing the African-American struggle in a poverty-stricken neighborhood and in their aspiration to escape from it. Jackson does very well in portraying his father, and demonstrates the same snarl and attitude with such accuracy that it made me laugh at how similar he looked to his father. Hawkins is passionate and driven in portraying Dre, and while he physically looks smaller than the real-life Dr. Dre, his performance and his versatility in emotion more than makes up for lacking in physical similarities.

The greatest performance, however, comes from Jason Mitchell. In hindsight, he is the character with the most problems. He’s egotistical, he objectifies women, he betrays his friends, he resorts to violence, and he flourishes in the most destructive lifestyle as he bathes himself in a plethora of drugs, alcohol, and sex. In comparison to his N.W.A. companions, he is the most flawed character. But with his flaws comes his emotions to those flaws, his own moments of self-reflection that makes him think back at his decisions, his career, and the life that he’s trapped in. E goes through many emotions in this film, from fear, to anger, to happiness, to sadness, to heartbreak, and Mitchell portrays all of those emotions perfectly. If he doesn’t deserve the Academy Award for best supporting actor, he definitely deserves a nomination.

But at the heart of this movie is the struggle, the struggle that these five young men go through together, apart, individually, and inseparably. Their struggle being not having enough money. Their struggle being having too much money. Their struggle of not having a place in the world, and their struggle of what to do after establishing their place in the world. Like hip-hop, this movie will stir some major controversy for its content and for what messages it sends to its younger viewers. But it’s important to understand that this movie doesn’t set out to prove who is right and wrong. This movie sets out to show a reality. This movie sets out to show their reality.

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“AMERICAN SNIPER” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

And hero, husband, and father.

Chris Kyle was an American sniper. Serving four tours in Iraq, with 160 confirmed kills and approximately 95 more unconfirmed, Kyle earned the title of being called the most lethal sniper in American history. More than being a soldier, though, he’s a father, a husband, and a friend. He was killed in 2013 at age 38. He was shot by a soldier suffering from PTSD that he was trying to help.

We know all these details going into Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. We already know how it ends, we just don’t know everything leading up to it. Eastwood understands this, and uses it to his advantage as his film not only gives an honorable tribute to one of America’s most committed soldiers, but also foreshadows to a sad fate that we already know is coming. Gee, thanks a lot Clint. I didn’t even bring my tissues.

The film opens on the same startling scene that the book does: with Kyle looking down the scope of his sniper rifle at an Iraqi mother and her child, both of whom were aiming to suicide bomb a battalion of soldiers on the street. Eastwood sets up the tension of the scene perfectly here, with Kyle’s sweaty, darting eyes surveying the scene and desperately trying to see any way out of the tormenting choice he has to make. He soon dreadfully realizes there is no way out: it’s either the mother and her child, or the 15 soldiers and the suffering of their families back at home.

Think about being given that situation, about how devastating the experience must be and how haunting it must be to the person who has to make it. Now imagine having to make that same choice day, after day, after day, with your numbers climbing up until you’ve reached over 250 kills.

That’s the life of a soldier that Kyle has lived.

Kyle is portrayed in the film by Bradley Cooper, and both Cooper and Eastwood do a wonderful job representing Kyle here. They show that before he was a soldier, he was a citizen, an American with strong ideals and opinions and unafraid to show them or fight for them. Before he was shipped out and went on tour, they showed how normal Kyle was.

They showed that before he was a soldier, he was a man.

After having to make those difficult decisions day after day, how do you think that affects a man? In interviews, the real-life Kyle has said that he would not take back a single shot because every one that he took was to defend his brothers in uniform. I believe him when he says that, but I don’t believe that it didn’t leave an impact on him. Some soldiers suffer PTSD from killing just one man. How do you think more than 200 may have impacted Kyle?

Both Eastwood and Cooper do a great job humanizing Kyle here, and show that he’s more than the record kills he’s garnered. They show that Kyle is a man of coarse humor and blunt honesty, a man with a thick Texan accent and ideals, a man who tries to show that he’s strong and dependable, but who deep down is hurting and alone. The film is intimate in the ways that it shows Kyle, both in the chaos of battle and in the quietness of being home.

Cooper especially does a skillful job in portraying the iconic war hero. He expresses trauma and subtlety with the character so masterfully that the only differences I can tell between him and Kyle are minor facial features.

This movie has stirred controversy as of late for being “pro-war,” and for glorifying a man who was essentially labeled a murderer. I’m convinced these same people haven’t seen the same movie I saw, because the movie I watched unabashedly looks at the miseries of war and how the deaths Kyle could and couldn’t prevent affected him. The movie does suffer some slight pacing issues (not to mention the infamous “fake baby” seen in one of the shots), but when Eastwood resurrects a war hero to show the man behind the legacy, how can you look at this movie’s scope and not feel something for all of the physical and moral sacrifices Kyle had to give for his home? When the trumpet plays proudly over the solemnity in the end credits, you know that Eastwood represented a warrior in heart and a human in spirit.

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