Tag Archives: FBI

“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.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“AMERICAN HUSTLE” Review (✫✫✫)

FBI trying to hustle politicians by hustling con artists.

“We’re always conning other people,” says a slurred, yet sure voice in the background. “It’s in our nature. We even con ourselves.” These words are coming from the mouth that belongs to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con artist who quickly learned what it meant to grow up and survive in a harsh economy. Irving is the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to interact with out in public. He is grossly out of shape, he smells of old hairspray and cologne, his crafty eyes hide behind a dark pair of shades, and his diet consists of nothing but beer, fast food and cigars. From an outward appearance, Irving doesn’t really make a good impression. But man, can that guy talk a good game.

After rushing through Irving’s very brief childhood, we are quickly introduced to Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a woman in her mid-thirties whose beauty is both ageless and captivating. Despite his nauseating physical appearance, Sydney almost instantly falls in love with Irving, and Irving falls in love with her too. So much so that he discloses his illegal business with her, asking her to become a part of him scamming other people out of their hard-earned cash and checks.

That’s all I’m going to get into as far as the plot synopsis goes. Believe me, I haven’t even gotten to the surface of it. There’s an FBI agent trying to catch them named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), there’s a New Jersey mayor played by Jeremy Renner somewhere in the mix, Irving has a son and a wife he’s committed to named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). There’s even a mobster somewhere in this movie where an actor makes a cameo appearance, but I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing who it is (hint hint: He’s got some bad ideas in his head).

Point being: this is a smart movie. It’s funny, original, intelligent, and thoughtful, an observant portrait that looks at the moral and financial struggles of these characters and what impact their actions have on the people in their lives. Part of this, no doubt, is because of the cast’s mastery at delivery. Part of it is also because its writer-director is equally as funny, original, intelligent, and thoughtful as the story is. David O’Russell, who was nominated for best directing and writing Oscars for the past few years now (For Silver Linings Playbook last year and The Fighter in 2010), returns yet again with the same wit, charm, and complexion that made his previous films both unique and entertaining.

The dialogue is authentic, almost like it pops off of the pages of the screenplay just as much as it does in the movie. How though? This is, after all, a work of fiction, right? Wrong. The plot is just is like Irving’s deceptions: they’re only half fake. The movie is based on the real-life ASCAM sting operations of the late 1970’s, in which the FBI arrested over 31 individuals of congress and 7 were convicted of bribery and conspiracy. That sort of realism translates brilliantly to the screen, and makes the conversations characters share feel so personal. Make no mistake, fellow reader: this is, in every definition, a heist picture, because everyone is all after something and are willing to manipulate everyone in order to get to it first.

The cast is unforgettable. So much so that I can’t even pick a favorite among them. Bale is as talented as ever in this movie, a brilliant and dedicated method actor who has immersed himself so much into a role that its hard to imagine that at one point he was Patrick Bateman or Bruce Wayne. Lawrence and Adams are excellent female leads, and are great at expressing how conflicted Irving feels towards the both of them as lovers. Renner is great as the New Jersey mayor, a loving and kind-hearted man, father, and husband who just wants the best for everybody, but ends up making the wrong decisions in trying to do so. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be Bradley Cooper, only because he is so passionate and wacky that he could have been redone as a cartoon character. Like I said though, I can’t pick one. This cast is so talented and skilled in their roles that to pick one performance over another would be considered a sin. They are just as responsible for bringing this story to life as David O’Russell is.

This movie has all of the elements of being Oscar-worthy material: a great story, dialogue, characters, direction, and a great cast that fills these figures with vibrant energy and personality. The only real problem with this movie is the setup, and that’s unfortunate because that’s one of the most important parts of any movie.

Let me provide an example: when I first watched Goodfellas, what absorbed me into that picture was the first 15 minutes, a little italian boy learning about the mafia as a child, and the first narration we hear being “Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” Another one? In the opening scene of There Will Be Blood, we see a touching yet tragic portrait of a man seeing one of his workers die in an oil deposit, leaving behind an infant who can’t even speak, and Daniel Plainview deciding, against his better judgement, to adopt him as his own. Do I even need to mention Up?

All of those pictures started off with a bang because they gave us a perspective into the character’s history before getting into the meat of the story. Not that there needs to be a “How-to” guide for making opening sequences, but American Hustle literally flashes Irving’s childhood for about a minute before throwing us into the plot. I’m all for “show-don’t-tell” stories where they’re all situational, strictly limited to being set in their own present (Such as The King’s Speech or Black Hawk Down), but this one felt too much like being thrown into cold water when you can’t even swim.

Despite my views, I know critics already have their opinions established on this movie. They’re going to say its a masterpiece. That it is masterfully written and acted (which it is) and that it is going going to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards (which it will be as well). What critics won’t realize is the movie itself might be a con, making people believe that it is better than it actually is.

Well, if it is a scam, and David O’Russell is the con artist, then all I’m going to say is that he did a damn good job at it.

Post-script: For you irresponsible parents that are considering taking your teenagers to see this movie, don’t. The MPAA rated this movie R for “pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.” The violence is very brief and honestly not a large problem. The sexual content, however, is profuse because of Irving’s two sexual partners, and the movie has no shame for showing us any of it. I noticed over 100 F-words.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements