The Departed

Black Mass

For some reason, organized crime lends itself well to cinematic storytelling. Classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas come to mind, their appeal lying in the allure of pulling back the veil to expose a world that we’d never otherwise see. Black Mass fits squarely within the genre, recounting the exploits of notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. While not without its shortcomings, I found Black Mass compelling, due in large part to a superb performance from Johnny Depp (Mortdecai, Transcendence), one of the most versatile actors of our time.

The film begins in the early 1970s, introducing us to Bulger, a low-level hood navigating the streets of South Boston. Bulger is in clear command of his small group of associates, engendering respect within the community. Loyalty is an essential attribute for any foot soldier, and Bulger inspires such devotion in the brutal, insular enclave known as “Southie.” Bulger operated brazenly, largely because he struck a deal with the FBI to inform on his rivals, shrewdly keeping the Feds at bay while eliminating his competition. From Bulger’s perspective this was not “snitching,” because he wasn’t ratting on any close friends, only his enemies – the Italian Mafia in Boston.

I noticed that the film never really delved into a depiction of Bulger’s criminal enterprise; it only mentioned that he was involved in drugs, vending machines, rackets, etc. Filmmaker Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) never shows us Bulger’s operation, and we are told about rather than shown his ascent up the criminal ladder. Joel Edgerton (The Gift) co-stars as FBI agent John Connolly, a childhood friend to Bulger whose loyalty gave Bulger carte blanche in Southie. Connolly essentially acts as Bulger’s eyes and ears in the Bureau, giving him unparalleled sway in South Boston.

I’ve seen some criticism of Depp’s performance, and find it baffling that anyone would find fault with that particular aspect of the film. He was menacing, exuding a chilling presence that emanated from every scene and steely stare. This is the Johnny Depp that I like, not the quirky weirdo from Pirates of the Caribbean or Charlie And the Chocolate Factory. I thought he gave Bulger complexity, and I didn’t think his performance was one-note. I contrasted his depravity with the humanity Bulger showed in relation to his son and mother, which were moments of compassion and sensitivity. However, make no mistake: Bulger was a monster. He would devour anyone, and when he told one character that he’d eat him – I believed it. A few memorable scenes solidified this sentiment, particularly one involving Bulger and Connolly’s wife Marianne. Depp nailed it, and this scene captured both Bulger’s psychosis and Connolly’s weak complicity to perfection.

While watching Black Mass, I couldn’t help but be reminded of 2006’s The Departed, which was loosely based on Bulger. If you’ve seen that film, it may be helpful to think of Depp/Bulger as Jack Nicholson and Edgerton/Connolly as Matt Damon’s character, at least initially. Of course The Departed is a superior film, but I digress. Black Mass’ cast was stellar, and having the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Kevin Bacon (Cop Car) in ancillary roles only bolstered the overall weight of the film. I’m a fan of the genre, so I noticed an homage (or rip-off) of the classic scene from Goodfellas when Joe Pesci yanks Ray Liotta’s chain when a joke goes awry. I don’t know if this was intentional or accidental, but it reminded me that although Black Mass is a solid addition to the genre, it isn’t replacing any of our favorites. Depp can flourish in these types of roles (evidenced here as well as in earlier works like Blow and Donnie Brasco) and should take on the task more often. While some aspects of the film could’ve been improved upon from a storytelling perspective, the principals (Depp and Edgerton) really delivered. Grade: A-

The Wolf of Wall Street

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”  There are few among us whose lives embody the words of famed journalist Hunter S. Thompson, but some people come close.  Jordan Belfort was such an individual, setting Wall Street ablaze in the early 90s like a real life Gordon Gekko on crack.  No, really.  On crack.

Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby) began humbly, learning the ropes as a rookie stockbroker at a modest Wall Street firm under the tutelage of senior broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McCounaghey, Dallas Buyers Club).  Hanna’s words of advice would form the blueprint for Belfort’s lifestyle, with Hanna advising him on everything from drug usage to a schedule for self-pleasuring.  Belfort did well for himself, a natural salesman gifted with a silver tongue.  That gift of gab would serve him well after his first brokerage house folded and he found himself selling penny stocks in a Podunk “firm” off the beaten Wall Street path.  It’s a huge step down at first glance, but Belfort quickly realizes an untapped gold mine.

Soon, Belfort was suckering pitiful souls out of their investment in a pump and dump scheme that left him with eyes on even bigger sights.  He recruited a handful of buddies back home, various hustlers in their own right.  With a trusted core in place, he opened his own firm called Stratton Oakmont, applying all that he’d learned to much bigger fish.  Dealing exclusively with wealthy investors, their profits increased even more and they were making money hand over fist.  Raucous office parties including hookers and cocaine were not uncommon, and capitalist hedonism ruled the day.

The film chronicles Belfort’s meteoric rise and subsequent fall from the precipice of a lifestyle filled with sex, drugs and a never-ending supply of money and women.  Scorsese effectively pulled back the curtain, exposing a lifestyle that few of us will ever witness.  Belfort’s indifference about the lives he ruined took a backseat to his zealous pursuit of the almighty dollar.  It was a familiar motif, with greed serving as faceless antagonist.  Eventually Belfort will burn out, and if the law doesn’t get him, the drugs will.

DiCaprio’s character was abhorrent, but there was a devil-may-care affability that I found likable – at least initially.  If you like to root for the bad guys in movies, it’s one of many reasons you’ll love this film.  DiCaprio has the astounding ability to immerse himself in a role so deeply that I don’t even see him anymore.  He was Jordan Belfort.  Although Belfort’s professional judgment was morally bereft, DiCaprio showed the duality of the character through the loyalty of his personal relationships – particularly his friendships.  Enter Jonah Hill (This Is The End) as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s neighbor who observes his lifestyle and wants in.   Hill is really a gifted comedic actor, evincing versatility with a perfect balance of humor and levity.  From Superbad to Moneyball, his range is impressive and was on full display here.

Belfort’s story was the inspiration behind 2000’s Boiler Room, and comparisons to that movie and others of its ilk such as Wall Street are nearly inevitable.  Where Wolf surpasses its predecessors is in its deft storytelling, courtesy of Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) and Belfort’s source material.  Furthermore, Martin Scorsese hasn’t missed a beat as a filmmaker.  The same man that brought us seminal classics Goodfellas and Casino nearly 20 years ago is just as adept behind the camera now as he was back then.  In fact, The Wolf of Wall Street reminded me of Goodfellas in many ways, from the immediate narration of its protagonist to the hallmark Scorsese score.

The film was unquestionably a vehicle for DiCaprio’s talents, but the supporting performances were nearly as strong, with impressive turns from the aforementioned Hill and Margot Robbie (Pan Am), who smoldered as Belfort’s mistress turned second wife Naomi.  I initially resisted the prevailing notion that DiCaprio was one of the preeminent actors of our generation, but I’m beginning to agree.  His resume tells no lies, and this performance ranks right up there with the likes of his turn in The Departed, although he did not receive an Oscar nomination for that role.  He’ll certainly receive one here, and he couldn’t be more deserving.  He and Scorsese are every bit the tandem that Scorsese and DeNiro once were, and this pairing might be their best.  Grade: A.

This post first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

2 Guns

What do movies and sports have in common?  Match-ups.  It’s all about the match-ups baby.  Some cinematic pairings just get us excited, like the prospect of Mark Wahlberg (Pain & Gain) and Denzel Washington (Flight).  Washington is a living legend, and Wahlberg has cemented his place in modern cinema with critically acclaimed turns in films such as The Fighter and The Departed, for which he received Oscar nominations.  The action comedy is on the rise lately, and 2 Guns tantalized moviegoers with the rare opportunity to see Washington bring levity to a performance.  Unfortunately, even charismatic leading men can’t save a goofy script.

Washington and Wahlberg are Bobby Trench and Michael Stigman (Stig), respectively.  When we meet the pair, they are hatching a plot to rob a small bank to swindle a drug lord named Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos) out of his holdings.  They each have distinct reasons for wanting to pull this caper, but each is keeping the real reason a secret.  At first blush we think these two are criminals, after all who else would be robbing a bank?  In actuality they are both “undercover” in their own way, with Bobby being a DEA agent and Stig having firsthand experience with naval intelligence, despite the appearance of being a career criminal.

As each plays fast and loose with the law, the viewer is left wondering if our protagonists are corrupt or just deep undercover.  Bobby tries to convince fellow agent Deb (Paula Patton, Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol) that the robbery will serve as a way to nab Papi, while Stig is beholden to corrupt superior officers (James Marsden, Straw Dogs) within the Navy.  Their plan goes awry when they find out Papi’s bank vault yields a much larger heist than expected.  Not only do they need to ascertain the origin of the surplus money, they must ward off several factions who will stop at nothing to retrieve it.  Complicating matters is the fact that Bobby and Stig can’t really trust each other after having lied about their true identities.

I’ll start with the positive.  Washington and Wahlberg have tons of chemistry and good comedic timing.  I don’t have an issue with their performances at all; my issue is with the source material.  The storyline was simply foolish and muddled, and much of the characters behavior was far-fetched.  The screenplay marks the big screen debut for writer Blake Masters, who has previously worked in television.  Maybe his next effort will be more successful, although 2 Guns appears poised to have a solid opening weekend.  Nevertheless, it takes more than two talented leading men to make a successful movie, even if the pairing looks like a “slam dunk.”  Even a dynamic duo like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro aren’t a sure-fire success if the script is wanting (see Righteous Kill).  If those two legends can team up for a dud, no tandem is above reproach.  The rest of the cast did little to bolster the movie, and it will not be remembered as a summer standout.  I’m not saying it was horrible, just very mediocre – in spite of its two stars.  Grade: C

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission

 

Pain & Gain

The trailer for Pain & Gain looked like my kind of movie, just the type of exciting, cool flick that cinephiles can expect this time of year as we gear up for the action-packed summer blockbusters.  I’m a fan of Mark Wahlberg, who is no stranger to playing the badass antihero (see The Departed and Contraband), and I liked the premise.  It promised to tell the true-life tale of an ambitious young bodybuilder who went from rags to riches, breaking a few laws along the way.   I was entertained at various times throughout the movie, but by the time the credits rolled I had an underwhelmed feeling.

Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a convicted murderer who took the lives of two innocent people in 1995 during a botched robbery.  The movie opens by introducing us to Lugo, an ambitious meathead with a voracious appetite for his version of the American Dream.  Lugo was inspired by the fictional exploits of the likes of Tony Montana and Michael Corleone, and (stupidly) aspired to be like them.  One would think that Scarface in particular would be a cautionary tale, considering that he ended up laying dead in a fountain looking like a piece of Swiss cheese – but don’t tell that to Daniel Lugo.

Lugo worked at a Florida gym, where he perfected his body and his designs on untold riches.  Accompanying him was friend Adrian (Anthony Mackie, Gangster Squad), a fellow bodybuilder with similar ambitions of greatness.  Eventually Lugo hatches a plan to kidnap and extort Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, Hemingway & Gellhorn), a wealthy client for whom he acts as personal trainer.  Kershaw has several assets that Lugo can liquidate if he compels Victor to turn them over.  Daniel and Adrian recruit a third man for their plot, a convict named Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) who has served time in federal prison.  Doyle is a humorously devout Christian who found Jesus in jail.  Perversely ironic, he has no problem jibing his Christian ideals with a criminal lifestyle.  Once the three stooges have the plan in motion, they bungle their way through, eventually getting their hands on millions of dollars.  Eventually things begin to go south with Kershaw and the gang decides they need to do another job.  Their greed eventually gets the best of them, leading them to the robbery and murder of a wealthy couple that belonged to their gym.

The movie began to lose me about a third of the way through, when I couldn’t tell if it was taking itself seriously or not.  There were several implausible scenes, including one where Kershaw seems to be invincible.  I did research after the fact, and it turns out that these farfetched things actually happened.  I can’t fault director Michael Bay (Transformers) for telling it like it is, but I can fault him for the way he chose to depict these real-life events.  The three principal characters were portrayed as funny and likeable, and so I liked them.  But by the time the movie concludes, the viewer realizes that these funny guys did a horrible thing.  Because they were depicted so comically initially, I’m not sure that the severity of their actions adequately resonated with viewers.  I enjoyed the laughs, and Wahlberg was his usual cool, badass self – but I was left with too many conflicting elements, from an emotional perspective.  I don’t attribute this to any particular depth of storytelling, but rather to a muddled approach by director Michael Bay.

Grade: C+

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.