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West Side Story (2021)

Steven Spielberg, now approaching seventy-five years of age, has experienced such rarefied success as a film director that the man can do whatever he wants. It just so happens he wanted to tackle his first big screen musical, something he’s a little late on considering peers like Martin Scorsese (1977’s New York, New York) and Francis Ford Coppola (1982’s One from the Heart) beat him to the musical punch early. The question isn’t why direct a musical at this stage of his glorious career, it’s why direct a remake of 1961’s Best Picture-winning West Side Story? We already have a perfectly good and revered movie version, and there are other musicals that haven’t even gotten their first big shining moment on the silver screen, so why go back to this particular show a second time?

Once again, we’re following the two New York City street gangs, the Jets, who are made up of Italian and Irish white kids, and the Sharks, made up of Puerto Ricans. Tony (Ansel Elgort) is trying to reform his ways after spending a year in prison for gang violence. The Jets are pleading with him to get back involved, to push back against the Sharks encroaching on their territory. He meets Maria (Rachel Ziegler) at a dance and the two fall instantly in love. The problem is that Maria is Puerto Rican, her brother is the leader of the Sharks, and this relationship would be forbidden and dangerous. Tony and Maria plan to run away together and escape the conflicts of this tragic turf war.

I’ll risk musical theater heresy and admit outright that Spielberg’s West Side Story actually improves on the much-hallowed 1961 original in several ways. The most immediate and obvious is that we have Hispanic actors playing Hispanic characters. No regrettable brown face including the actual Hispanic actors this time (it’s just humiliating to watch Rita Moreno, in her Oscar-winning role, have to be darkened up to be “more Puerto Rican”). That’s a pretty good improvement already, though it’s not unexpected; 1961 was also the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released with its notorious Mickey Rooney performance in jaw-dropping yellow face. Granted, jaw-dropping today, not so back then. 1961 was still only a few years removed from John Wayne taping his eyelids back to portray Genghis Khan. This was the unfortunate norm.

Another immediate improvement is the visual dynamism of 60 years of technical filmmaking advancement. I recently re-watched the 1961 original, a film I haven’t watched since probably the 1990s as a teenager, and it’s a relatively good movie but it’s also a good movie of its time, and by that I mean there are limitations to the presentation. One of the most appealing aspects of movie musicals is how they expand upon our humdrum reality, the splashes of color and synchronicity and bold imagination. I’m not saying the movie musicals of the 1960s were particularly lacking, as there are many classics and favorites, but because of filmmaking practicalities and predilections, movies could only go so far at the time. With 60 years of technological advancements, today’s movie musicals, when under the right guidance, can expand the world of song-and-dance fantasy like few of the past. You need only compare the showstopper “America” in both films, the dancing high-point of either film. The original is on a rooftop for its entire duration. The new version is all over the city block, finally culminating on a crossroads and bringing the denizens of the town out in girl power empowerment. It’s such a high-energy and celebratory sequence and the scale and variance really make it feel so much more joyous and exciting. The choreography is also an improvement. Again, not a slight against the 1961 original, but in the ensuing 60 years we’ve also advanced in the technical precision and creativity of dancers. The 2021 West Side Story is impressive top to bottom with the dancing of all the performers, and with Spielberg as director, he wants you to best appreciate their talents while also making the movie as visually dynamic as he can.

Spielberg proves an absolute natural at helming a big movie musical. Nothing against Robert Wise, the 1961 director who helmed plenty of influential Hollywood titles like The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still, I Want to Live, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He was also the editor on Citizen Kane. The man clearly knew how to tell a big screen story across multiple genres. It’s not a shame to say his visual prowess doesn’t quite stack up to a Steven Spielberg, who just happens to be one of the most popular and versatile filmmakers of all time. Spielberg’s camera is much more active than the original movie, and he’s consistently bringing us into the scene, having characters duck in and out of frame, and circling around, always interacting with the world. It makes the movie much more visually immersive and exciting, enlivening an already lively number like the dance hall rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks where each side crowds the edges. The movie operates on a high level of visual pleasure because Spielberg knows exactly how to play to the strengths of the musical genre. Spielberg incorporates the location in each setting and has fun visual flourishes, clearly having given great thought how to visualize every line in each song. The opening of “America” involves women placing clothes on a line, and as the clothes move, it reveals our newest chorus member giving voice to the continuing song. The way the camera moves through the neighborhood to note the encroachment of gentrification. The way he frames the faces of our young lovers. The way he uses shadows as menace. The way he makes every space feel like it’s perfectly utilized for the best shots and edits. Now that Spielberg has proven so adept at handling musicals, somebody please give this man another for our collective benefit.

The top actors are not the leads but two very mesmerizing supporting players. Ariana DeBose, previously seen as one of the ensemble members in 2020’s Hamilton, is pure dynamite as Anita. She explodes with verve and personality and attitude and vibrant life, and the camera loves every second she’s on screen. She gets the bigger emotional arc than Maria. She gets the jubilant song, the aforementioned “America,” and gets her crushing moments of heartache as well. DeBose is phenomenal, and likewise so is Mike Faist (Panic) as the leader of the Jets. Like Anita, this character is brimming with anger and attitude and the movie does a much better job than the 1961 film of presenting him with a point of view that can develop some empathy. Faist is lanky yet so smooth in his movements, and he gets more dancing than just about anyone. He’s balletic in his dancing while still upholding his spiky attitude. Both of these actors are so self-assured in their roles, so vulnerable behind the surface, and so accomplished with their dancing and singing that one wishes the movie would devote more time to both of them.

As for our leads, Ziegler and Elgort (Baby Driver) are good but unexceptional as our naifs in love. Ziegler can sing beautifully and definitely has a natural innocence to her appearance. Her eyes are so large and glassy that she reminded me of an animated character at points. Elgort is solid in his singing but I can’t help but feel that he’s been lapped by his co-stars. There is a comic relief musical number, “Gee Officer Krupke,” where the various Jets have fun imitating the nay-saying adults who hastily cast judgement upon these juvenile delinquents. It’s a silly number about guys goofing around and could easily be the first on the chopping block to be cut for time. However, over the course of this fun diversion, I realized that person-to-person in the Jets crew, the same guys that just appeared as background players to fill out a scene previously, how good every person is, and how much more time I wish they had gotten than Elgort. Part of this is that the romance aspect of West Side Story has always been the weakest part of the show. It’s based upon Romeo and Juliet and tied to those tragic plot events, but when both Maria and Tony are ready to run away and marry one another after a single night, and especially after the fateful rumble where Maria is so astonishingly quick to forgiveness (and horniess), the romance plays so incredulously. As a result, the two lovers are essential to the story but also the most boring characters too.

I think the adaptation by Spielberg screenwriting stalwart Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln) has smartly updated plenty of political elements, amplifying racial tensions but looking at it over a broader scope. Giving Tony a mentor figure in an older woman who runs her drug store shop, played by Moreno, is a great choice, especially as she represents a medium between the two sides as she is Puerto Rican but her deceased husband was white. It’s smart to have someone from the community and so wise to try and impart lessons to Tony, especially as he wants to change for the better. One update from Kushner didn’t quite jibe for me and felt like token-ism. The youngest member of the Jets, a prepubescent pipsqueak, has been replaced with a trans man fighting for membership. I understand the basic character arc is the same, the outsider trying to be accepted by the group, but the consideration of trans acceptance in the 1960s wasn’t exactly enlightening. The other Jets tease and question the gender identity of the trans man, but this perspective never feels well integrated into the play’s prejudicial world. I suppose more could have been done like having the Sharks harass this character, belittling them over their identity, and then the Jets feeling like one of their own had been attacked and in that they would finally be accepted. Except this inclusion would be around the degradation and potential assault of a trans person, which itself is not the best reason to include a trans character if you’re just setting them up for trauma. I don’t know. This character could have easily been removed if this was all there was.

One other aspect I found cumbersome was the creative decision to not include English subtitles during the Spanish-speaking portions of the movie. I cannot understand the artistic rationale for this at all. Sure, Spanish-speaking viewers will be fine, and I could piece enough together with context clues and my rudimentary understanding of like 75 Spanish words, but what are we accomplishing here? It just feels alienating, and it inadvertently likens the viewing experience to what the Jets are going through, feeling like they cannot fully understand their new neighbors. I doubt that Spielberg and company wanted to reinforce the perspective of xenophobia, but purposely removing a key portion of your movie from the majority audience in the U.S. seems so strange to me. If it was just scant conversations or moments, I’d excuse it, but the untitled Spanish accounts for like ten percent of the whole movie. Imagine watching any foreign movie without the subtitles on screen. How much meaning are you able to devise on your own?

West Side Story 2021 is a good time for fans of musical theater and a testament that just because something is old and beloved doesn’t mean it can’t even be improved upon with the right people and goals. Both movies are about the same length, 150 minutes, which seems the de facto standard for movies this holiday season, and you’d have a good time with either. I think the updated version adds more visual creativity, impressive choreography, and remodeled racial and political considerations to make it land better for modern audiences. It might not have been needed but I’m glad all the same we now have two West Side Story movie musicals to cheerfully tap along to.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark, and if you’re not a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark. It’s a prequel set in the early 1970s, decades before an adult Tony Soprano was ruling his turf in New Jersey and going to therapy to deal with his rising panic attacks. The Sopranos was an era-defining, ground-breaking show for HBO and creator David Chase would captivate and infuriate audiences in equal measure, mixing shocking violence, twisted comedy, strange side steps, pessimistic psychoanalysis, and stubborn subversive storytelling to its very end with a polarizing finale that still elicits debate to this day (count me in the Tony-is-dead camp). It would be too much to expect a return to that world to pack in all the entertainment and enrichment of a peak TV series, but I was at least hoping that Chase’s return to his mobster magnum opus would present an engaging story that would add further insight or intrigue into the series and its characters. After two hours, I’m left shrugging like Silvio Dante and about as clueless as Paulie Walnuts.

As personal background, I watched all seven seasons of The Sopranos and eagerly anticipated its finale in 2007. I was one of those people that even questioned whether my cable had somehow gone out as the series suddenly shifted to a black screen without further warning. I enjoyed the show though I haven’t watched it since it originally concluded over ten years ago. It would be a worthy series to re-watch in our binge era, but I think I would keep my initial interpretation of the show and its self-loathing patriarch, Tony. I think over the course of 8 years Chase intended to demystify the perverse allure of organized crime and the glamor of Hollywood myth-making. I think he subversively took a familiar setup, a family man trying to fight for respect from his family and his Family, and knew many people would find themselves rooting for Tony Soprano and his underdog status and his potential redemption through therapy and self-analysis. Except, Chase’s point, is that these bad men are not complicated, they’re not geniuses, and they’re not capable of real empathy. Tony’s near-death experience and inevitable return to his old ways was proof of that. Chase created a vehicle where people sided with the anti-hero lead and he systematically provided more and more evidence that this man was cruel, impulsive, selfish, and incapable of redemption, and every episode, especially in that final season, pushed the viewer to ask, “How much longer can you look the other way? How many more excuses can you give?” It was Chase taking the appeal of mob movies and anti-heroes and testing viewer loyalty, making people question the appeal of these kinds of stories about these kinds of men. That’s my reading.

As a prequel, The Many Saints of Newark might appeal to the most diehard fans of The Sopranos who just want to have two hours more in this world, seeing these characters again one more time. Perhaps fans will thrill to see James Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini, play teenage Tony Soprano. Perhaps they’ll thrill to see Tony’s mother at a younger age but recognize some of her self-pitying and antagonistic quirks that would define her as an elderly woman. Perhaps they’ll thrill to watch Christopher Moltisanti’s father, Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), as Tony’s uncle, the man he said from the series who was so influential to him. In essence, this story, written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, is about how Tony got to be on his doomed path of crime. The fact that Tony is merely a supporting character in this tale is not a grievous structural fault. However, the fact that Dickie is such an uninteresting lead character in such an uninteresting and glum story is a significant fault.

The Sopranos was dark and frustrating too, though your emotional investment was grander, but it was rarely boring. The majority of my time with Newark was spent stooped and patiently waiting for something meaningful to happen. There were bloody murders and gunfights and love affairs, but I kept waiting for it to seem like it mattered to the overall bigger picture. Very little in this movie ever felt important, because the movie doesn’t invest in its own characters and its own story on their own terms, it merely coasts off the attached appeal of the TV show it’s meant to link up to and coasts off the good will of its audience. If you removed the names of the characters, thus denying its creative inheritance, then I doubt even the most ardent fans of mob movies would find that much to appreciate here. If this wasn’t a Sopranos movie, it wouldn’t have gotten this platform and attention, and that seems less a reason to run with an underdeveloped story with a dull protagonist stumbling through mundane mob cliches.

If Dickie is meant to be so influential, I don’t understand the appeal. I guess he’s slightly more emotionally stable than Tony’s father, played by Jon Bernthal, but that’s not saying much. Dickie violently confronts his father, “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), over his abuse of his young new bride from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), to defend her. That’s good? But when Dickie takes up an affair with the same woman, his stepmom, he proves just as depressingly violent. That’s bad. The problem is that Dickie is not a complex character to hang a movie upon. I thought there was going to be a slow temptation to begin an affair with his new stepmom, but that happens far too early, which places her as simply the “goomah” on the side he retreats to for sexual gratification and empty promises of building a life. She goes right from being a potentially interesting character, a woman with agency and danger, to another mob movie cliché, the arm candy waiting on her bad man to patronize her. Dickie says that his wife has had trouble conceiving, so I thought maybe this new stepmom would be revealed to be Christopher’s actual birth mother. That’s why she was here in this story. Nope, yet again this possibility is dismissed early. The Many Saints of Newark frustratingly takes every tedious story detour it can when presented.

The movie is set primarily in the late 60s and early 70s in Newark, barely tackling the riots of 1967 to use them as a cover for a storytelling choice for Dickie. The entire subplot featuring the struggles of the African American community feel tacked on to this movie, as if Chase is responding to criticisms that his series wasn’t diverse enough. The rise of Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) as a gangster is given such little significance. He begins as an employee of Dickie’s and then becomes a rival, but this complicated relationship isn’t played like it’s complicated. Every time Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) appeared I kept hoping that finally the movie was going to give him something to dig into, to really explore this perspective in a meaningful way. The rivalry between Harold and Dickie doesn’t even feel significant because both of these men are criminally underwritten. The Newark riots are played so incidentally and without consequence. Why begin to explore racial unrest and police brutality if you’re just going to ignore it after twenty minutes of movie?

As a movie, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. As a Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. I had some mild amusement and intrigue with moments like Corey Stoll going full force in his impression of a young Uncle Junior, with Vera Farmiga chewing the scenery as Tony’s mother, and the impeccable resemblance of Gandolfini to his late father. I enjoyed the weirdness of Liotta playing twin brothers. I enjoyed the period appropriate production values and music choices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to a vital experience that lends better understanding and insight into the Sopranos universe. Again, some fans may just be happy enough to exist in this universe for two more hours, to soak up even the most superfluous of details (I know I would be for my TV show favorites). That’s fine, but for me, what’s on screen barely resembles the daring and complex characterization of the series. Maybe a movie was always set up to fall short but this one falls short even as a mediocre mob movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

First Man (2018)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.

What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.

Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.

I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.

As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.

First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.

Nate;s Grade: B-

Black Mass (2015)

MV5BNzg0ODI3NDQxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzgzNDA0NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_For decades, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) was the most feared man in Boston. After being released from Alcatraz, he returned home to his Massachusetts roots and consolidated power with an iorn grip. He and his cronies ruled Boston’s criminal underworld and were given protection from none other than the FBI. Thanks to agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood pal of Bulger’s, his crimes were given an implicit blessing (as long as he didn’t go too far) as he served as an FBI informant. In reality he was just ratting out his competition and abusing his power. This charade lasted for decades until Bulger went on the run, not being caught until 2011.

Black Mass really suffers from its two core characters, Bulger and Connolly, who are just not that interesting, which is a great surprise for a true-story about corruption and murder. Crime drama have an allure to them and this is accentuated by their colorful and usually larger-than-life figures that we watch commit all those terrible yet cinematic acts of vicious violence. Being the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s crime lord in The Departed, you’d assume that the real-life Bulger would have a menace and personality that fills up the big screen, leaving you asking for more. Shockingly, he doesn’t. He’s a mean guy and he has his moments of severe intimidation, but he’s also practically a 1990s action movie villain with a sneer and one-dimensional sense of posturing. He doesn’t come across as a character but more as a boogeyman. We see him help some old ladies in the neighborhood, but you never get a sense he has any care or loyalty for his old stomping grounds, especially as he pumps drugs into the impoverished community. We don’t get any sense about how his mind works or what motivates Bulger beyond unchecked greed. We don’t get a sense of any discernable personality. We don’t have any scene that feels tailored toward the character (even though I assume many are based on true events); instead, Bulger feels unmoored and generally unimportant to Black Mass because he could be replaced by any standard movie tough guy. How in the world has a movie about notorious criminal Whitey Bulger found a way to make him this boring?

fallmovies16f-black-massThen there are the underdeveloped supporting characters of Connolly and Bulger’s brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). The guy responsible for Bulger’s misdeeds getting the green light should be a far more important person in this story but he’s mostly portrayed as a stooge. He wants to look out for Bulger but despite one “you’ve changed” speech from his beleaguered wife, you don’t truly get any sense that Connolly has changed. You don’t get a sense of his moral dilemma or even his desperation as new leadership in the FBI starts to see through his poor obfuscations. He’s a stooge from the beginning and we feel nothing when his self-serving alliance comes to an unceremonious end. There is even less when it comes to Billy, a character that seems to pretend his brother is a different person. Billy works as a state senator. His political position must have supplied more inherent drama than what they movie affords. Black Mass is doomed when its three central characters are this dull.

Another problem is that the movie makes Bulger too protected for too long to the point it becomes comical. The script follows a routine where an associate of Bulger’s knows too much or is going to confess to the police, and within usually the next scene that character is easily dispatched, sometimes in broad daylight and with scores of witnesses. There are several recognizable actors who must have filmed for a weekend. I understand Connolly was protecting his meal ticket here with the Bureau, but Bulger is so brazen that we as an audience need more justification for how Connolly could cover for so long. It feels like Bulger has free reign and that extends into the screenplay as well. Without a stronger sense of opposition, or at least watching Bulger rise through the mob ranks, we’re left with a collection of scenes of the status quo being repeatedly reconfirmed.

I’ve figured out the way to revise Black Mass and make it far more entertaining. As stated above, Bulger is just too much a one-note boogeyman to deserve the screen time he’s given, and his onscreen dominance hampers what should be the movie’s true focus, Agent Connolly. Here is where the movie’s focal point should be because this is the transformation of a person. Bulger is the same from start to finish, only shifting in degrees of power, but it’s Connolly who goes on the moral descent. His is the more interesting journey, as he tries to use his childhood connections to get ahead in the FBI, but he consistently has to make compromise after compromise, and after awhile he’s gone too deep. Now he has to worry about being caught or being too expendable to Bulger. This character arc, given its proper due, would make for a terrific thriller that’s also churning with an intense moral ambiguity of a man trying to justify the choices he has made to stay ahead. It’s a more tragic hero sort of focus but one that has far more potential to illuminate the inner anxiety and psychological torment of the human heart rather than constantly going back to Buger to watch him whack another person. It’s far more interesting to watch a man sink into the mire he has knowingly constructed, and that’s why the narrative needed to shift its focus to Connolly to really succeed.

black-mass-depp-1280jpg-32cad0_1280wDepp (Pirates of the Caribbean) takes a few steps back from his more eccentric oddballs to portray the unnerving ferocity of Bulger, and he’s quite good at playing a human being again, though Bulger strains the definition of human. He underplays several scenes and his eyes burrow into you with such animosity that it might make you shudder. He’s a thoroughly convincing cold-blooded killer, though I wonder if part of my praise is grading Depp on a curve since Bulger is so unlike his recent parts. Regardless, Depp is the most enjoyable aspect of Black Mass and a reconfirmation that he can be a peerless actor when he sinks his teeth into a role rather than a series of tics. He also handles the Boston accent far better than his peers. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Edgerton (The Gift) are more than capable actors but oh boy do both flounder with their speaking voices. They are greatly miscast as two native Massachusetts sons.

If you’re a fan of crime thrillers steeped in true-life details of heinous men (it’s typically men) committing heinous acts, even you will likely be underwhelmed or marginally disappointed by Black Mass. There just isn’t enough going on here besides a series of bad events that don’t feel like they properly escalate, complicate, or alter our characters until the film’s very end when the plot requires it. The screenplay has propped up Bulger by his rep, told Depp to crank up his considerable glower, and called it a day. It’s a Boston mob story that needed more intensive attention to its characters to survive. Black Mass is a crime story that dissolves into its stock period details and genre trappings, becoming a good-looking but ultimately meaningless window into a hidden world.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Woody Allen hasn’t been this light-footed in a long time. Midnight in Paris is an effervescently charming film that flirts with overt sentimentality. But before you think Allen goes all gooey, the fatalist in him pulls back for some wisdom about the folly of nostalgia. Allen’s nebbish stand-in this time is Owen Wilson, assuredly better looking but on the same neurotic wavelength of his director. Wilson is a disgruntled Hollywood screenwriter visiting the City of Lights with his shrewish fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her upper-class parents. One night a mysterious taxicab picks him up shortly after midnight. Wilson is transported back in time to his favorite era, 1920s Paris. He gets to rub elbows with literary and artistic giants, like Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and others. He even falls for a lovely lady (Marion Cotillard) from that time period who served as a muse for several artists. Midnight in Paris is a far more enjoyable experience if you have a modicum of education in the humanities. Identifying the artists of old, albeit exaggerated cartoon versions of themselves, is part of the fun, fantasizing about interacting with the greats. But Allen is also playful with his storytelling, and for a while Midnight in Paris becomes a highly refined cross-time romance (think The Lake House written by Tom Stoppard). Midnight in Paris has been catching on with audiences, becoming Allen’s biggest hit in 25 years, and it’s easy to see why. It’s whimsical while being literate and romantic without being corny.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Number 23 (2007)

“Nobody likes you when you’re 23.”
-“What’s My Age Again?” by Blink 182

I know math scores have been systematically dropping with America’s youth, but have we gotten to the point where numbers themselves are scary? The Number 23 is a thriller built around the spookiness of a digit greater than 22 but a little less than 24. Does anyone have nightmares about walking down an empty hall only to have the number 23 pounce from the shadows and scream, “Boo?”

Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is a dogcatcher that gets bit on the job. This event causes him to be late for a scheduled birthday rendezvous with his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen). She wanders into a local bookshop and picks up a worn, self-published book called The Number 23 as a present for her hubby. The book seems to be littered with private details from Walter’s life and he’s left dumbfounded. The main character is haunted by the number 23, which seems to be everywhere and nowhere. Walter starts to see the number dominate his life and fears that he too will fall victim to its control. Walter is also worried that his life will start mimicking that of the book, including the part where he goes psycho and kills his loved ones.

The film spends the majority of its time on two obsessions: the book and the number 23. Now, the number conspiracy is just ludicrous and silly, and it contorts and strains to prove its message. In the flick, someone will scream about some important date in, say, 1940, and then go theorize that it has eerie significance because 19+4+0 equals, tada, 23. But why not 1+9+4+0, or 19+40, or even 1+940? Because then it doesn’t work. Sometimes you take the date, sometimes you add up the numbers in the month, sometimes you need to add up the numbers in the month and the year, sometimes you add and then multiply and then divide numbers (like the contrived manner of making the word “pink” part of this theory); the point is that it’s all arbitrary and worthless. You could go through the same convoluted dance with any number. The same effect happens with cold readings where a “psychic” will spout some vague declaration (“I feel like someone with an ‘R’ in their name died in the last five years”) and rely on the sucker, in this case the audience, to imbue it with some personal meaning (“Oh my God, there was a guy on my street named Rick that died four years ago!”). And all of this relies on the assumption of accurate record keeping for time.

Being haunted by a reappearing number is just dumb, but reading a mysterious book that depicts your own life and predicts you will become a murderer, now that’s interesting. I wish The Number 23 had spent more time with this idea instead of the numerical nonsense. I wanted more questions and contemplation about a book that knows all instead of a number that people bend over backwards to locate in their daily lives. And yet, even this storyline needed a metaphysical jolt. The conclusion follows the most boring, tame, and predictable route that can be best explained. The second half of The Number 23 needed to be more Stephen King and less James Patterson. The psychological aspects of this conundrum are barely explored before the movie seems to lose interest even with its own brand of hokum. Debut screenwriter Fernley Phillips takes the path of least resistance to the finish line.

There are some leaps in logic and character motivation throughout. The Number 23 has a strange moral reminder, namely that of a dog that saw something bad and has convinced its doggy self to do something about it, which means spontaneously appearing all over town like a nagging ghost. It is just another plot point that goes too far and breaks credibility, especially since The Number 23 wants to be remotely plausible. Another example is a murder victim who berates her would-be killer while he holds a knife to her throat. She says, among other things, that he’s a freak, she never loved him, and then the final dagger is aimed straight at some long-suffering daddy issues. I doubt anyone picks “knife to throat” as the time to unload their personal grievances. The dialogue also suffers from being so serious to the point of hilarity: “Is 23 a blessing or a curse?” What? Huh?

Director Joel Schumacher (Phonebooth) seems to be having a fun time getting his hands dirty with the material. He can get carried away, and sometimes he uses a sledgehammer when he should have used a slight tap to establish mood. Still, this is one film that you cannot blame the oft-reviled director for ruining. He attempts to goose up this psychological thriller with some persuasive visuals, but all the tricks can’t hide the fact that The Number 23 needs a lot more bite to come across as edgy. It’s too plodding to be disturbing; it’s mostly dank.

Carrey seems an ill choice for this material. Dark brooding doesn’t come natural for America’s foremost manic funnyman; he has some dramatic skills, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a spot-on Andy Kaufman are proof of that, but this isn’t drama, it’s serviceable, gussied-up trash and Carrey doesn’t have the reservoir to show us the dark depths of the human soul. It is somewhat comforting to see Madsen getting more roles since her 2004 Oscar nomination, but she seems to be parlaying that nom into a permanent slot as “wife to lead.” She at least gets to vamp it up in the story within a story as a raven-haired femme fatale.

Even with the preposterous killer number thing, this is a movie with remarkable guilty pleasure potential upside. It’s equal parts interesting and frustrating, and builds a good head of steam before totally unraveling in the last act. The Number 23 is a psychological thriller that just needed better focus with its own obsessions.

Nate’s Grade: C

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