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September 20, 2015

Black Mass


Johnny Depp was never really on my radar of great actors until he put on the gold teeth and somewhat affected swagger of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Oh, I had seen him in films like Donnie Brasco and Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands.  However, I never really appreciated him as my kind of actor until he disappeared into the role of Captain Jack.  A role that truly made him an icon.  Then Depp began to make choices, mostly prompted by his friend and frequent collaborator Tim Burton, that turned his unique ability to disappear into a role a bit of a criticized trope.  Odd because the more he did what we kind of wish all of our actors would do, disappear into a role, the more we criticized.  Whether that be Dark Shadows, Alice In Wonderland, Mortdecai, The Lone Ranger, or Into The Woods.  It has been a somewhat unfair appraisal of Depp because it is obvious in hindsight that those films as a whole are the main problem.  The common denominator of those films and criticized Depp performances are also that they are light hearted tales.  People who still championed Depp hoped for him to do what he does best in more serious films.  The totally unremarkable Transcendence was not light hearted, but the film seemed to neuter every bit of personality or nuance Depp has.  Depp’s career seemed to be in critical limbo.  Fortunately for Depp, the film Black Mass has come along to not only break him out of that limbo but remind us how talented of an actor Depp is when put in the proper project.
Black Mass is the not-so-thorough true story of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and how his shady alliance with members of the FBI made him one of the most powerful criminals in the country.  If you have seen The Departed before going into this film, you will realize coming out how much director Martin Scorsese and actor Jack Nicholson borrowed from this infamous gangster’s life.  Since the backstory of Nicholson’s Frank Costello took kind of a backseat to Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon’s characters, I was delighted to hear that a film about the real Whitey Bulger was coming out and would hopefully fill in all those gaps.  Regrettably, As you can tell from the “not-so-thorough” descriptor in my opening sentence, Black Mass does not really flesh out Whitey as much as I or most would like.  Black Mass feels more like a collection of scattered moments, very well shot and well performed moments, that serve to drive the point home as to how scummy and terrifying Whitey Bulger was.  
What Black Mass lacks in specificity, it makes up for in its performances.  Johnny Depp certainly is the standout.  A performance that is worth the price of admission and worthy of Oscar consideration.  Thankfully, Depp is not alone.  Joel Edgerton, who is having a pretty good year with his earlier sleeper hit The Gift, matches Depp’s seductively slimey performance with an entertainingly sad and humanized one of his own.  Where Matt Damon’s character Colin Sullivan comes off as more a comically wormy character in The Departed, Edgerton’s version of a corrupt and desperate law enforcement official under Bulger’s thumb comes off as more real and relatable.  Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Whitey’s brother Billy, impressed me since I was a little wary of how he would fit into this film and how well his Boston accent would hold up.  Cumberbatch nails every scene he is in, which left me wanting more insight into him, given how compelling a story it is to be the legitimate brother to a illegitimate gangster.  But the big names aren’t the only ones who shine.  Rory Cochrane, Corey Stoll, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple and even Dakota Johnson are compelling in their limited amount of time in the film.  
Whether it be Out Of The Furnace, Crazy Heart, or Black Mass, Scott Cooper seems to be making a career of helming films where the performances are stellar but the films themselves end up being only so-so.  It shows that as a director, Cooper knows how to get the best out of his actors, especially Johnny Depp.  He just needs a bit more polish and terms of telling a complete story in my opinion.  He knows how to create the tense and UNEASY atmosphere Black Mass needs.  I just hoped for a more indepth look at the man Depp creepily embodies.  Cook up your steaks, don’t give away the family secret, don’t put your wet fingers in the peanuts, don’t tell Whitey Bulger that you’re coming down with something, watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.   
April 1, 2014

Sizzling Bacon


Sizzling Bacon – Hypnotizing

There are many days where I think to myself, “I have 20 minutes of excess time; what should I do with myself?”  Well, today was my lucky day.  Deciding to log into Netflix for a moment I noticed on the homepage….”Sizzling Bacon.”  Hmmmm, I figured, “why not” and strapped myself in for 20 minutes of the most hypnotizing bacon cooking in recent memory.

*Of course, and before I get into this “review” this is Netflix April Fool’s prank, so stay with me on this one*

So, “Sizzling Bacon,” how do I explain this one.  As per Netflix “Sizzling Bacon” is “The boundaries of TV and time go up in smoke with this tasteful, “Memento”-style puzzle that takes the viewer out of the fire and into the frying pan.” You had me at “Memento.”

Wathcing “Bacon” was quite the experience.  Normally at home I’m only able to cook bacon from beginning to end.  In 20 minutes I was able to experience how bacon should really be cook; from end to beginning in a sexy cast iron skillet.  Like I said, hypnotizing.

Hopefully this is a turn for Netflix, who I’m sure is trying to corner to backwards food cooking demographic that it so desperately needs in order to rule the world. If “Sizzling Bacon” is any indication, I don’t think there is anyway to stop them now.  What’s next; “Smoking Sausage,” “Baking Bananas” “Broiling Bratwurst” “Grilling Steaks.” One can only hope….

January 22, 2013

Simplistic TV Holiday Hangover: The Following, Series Premier

The Following – Literate

FOX takes chances, and that’s what I like about them, and that includes their sister channel, FX, which has been putting out quality TV for over a decade.  Another thing I like is Kevin Bacon, not just because he is awesome, but he also takes chances, yet, doesn’t get enough work.  Back when I was in middle school I really loved Edgar Allan Poe.  He wrote about murder and betrayal, and just his life intrigued me; dead at 40, penniless, and this work is still some of the most respected in all of literature.  Take everything I like, shake it up, dump it out, and you have “The Following” a literate modern Gothic thriller with potential.

Two things about “The Following,” 1) The show relies heavily on the works of Poe, from “The Black Cat” to “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  If you aren’t a Poe fan, or are lacking in Poe-knowledge, you might feel a little lost throughout the first episode.  2) The show isn’t as gory as you might think.  There has been a lot of talk about an excessive amount of violence in a post-Newtown world, but to be honest, most of the excessive violence happens after the fact and only the aftermath is shown.  That’s not to say, however, the show isn’t violent, but any show where a women shoves an ice pick into her face you might have to say Parental Discretion Advised.

“The Following” follows Ryan Hardy, an ex-FBI agent with a history with Joe Carroll, a professor-turned-serial killer who murdered 14 college students before his capture by Hardy.  In typical fashion to the genre, Hardy is left with a scar caused by Carroll that continues to haunt him, which turns out to be a clever nod to “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  Hardy has become an alcoholic since the incarceration of Carroll and once his former quarry escapes in the opening sequence of the episode, Hardy finds himself drawn back into the dark work of Carroll and his obsession with Edgar Allan Poe.  James Purefoy, who you might remember as Marc Antony in HBO’s “Rome,” stars as Carroll, who does his best Hannibal Lecter impersonation with relatively decent results.  He even keeps his British accent, which I appreciate.  We don’t get to see enough British serial killers on TV for crying out loud.

The show moves in a reasonably predictable manner until the end where the show’s first cliffhanger kicks in. What does Carroll have in store for Hardy?  Will Hardy’s demon’s finally catch up to him, if they haven’t already?  What is Carroll’s master plan?  What happens in the Sorority House?  Being that “The Following” already has an order of 13 more episodes gives me faith that we’ll get to see the characters evolve and the story progress with the dynamic between Hardy and Carroll given the spotlight.

Aside from the cast, the fact that Kevin Williamson has his fingerprints all over this show gives me hope that FOX will give it a solid chance.  Williamson has proven to write good genre pieces such as the first three “Scream” films and “The Faculty,” and he’s got a good track record of making money for networks. (see “The Vampire Dairies” and “Dawson’s Creek”)  “The Following” is a combination of “The Hannibal Lecter” films (Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal), “Criminal Minds” and the works of Matthew Pearl, namely “The Poe Shadow.”  It has all the right pieces in place, but will audiences be literate enough to give it a fair shot?  Hey, FOX is counting on it, this will hopefully be the show that replaces “Fringe” as it’s number one drama.

Fun Fact:  Edgar Allan Poe was a native of Baltimore, MD, which is also home to the Baltimore Ravens, who are named after a work published  by Poe in 1845.  “Nevermore!”   

December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays: Premium Rush


When it comes to Simplistic Reviews, I’m the elder statesman of the site.  My co-reviewers possess an amazingly vast knowledge of film and television stretching back to kingdom come.  I have the slim benefit and sometimes curse of having been alive when some of these older films and shows came out.  Sometimes it gives me perspective.  Most times, as my younger sister would say, it just makes me old.  Premium Rush reminds of a time in the early 80s before Xbox and cell phones and Netflix.  A time where you were the happiest son of a bitch alive if you had a nice BMX bike with the pegs or, God willing, a go-cart.  Where films like Rad, Quicksilver or BMX Bandits, starring an adolescent Nicole Kidman by the way, could capture your imagination like the Avengers does for kids now.  Those three films were SILLY, but you’d watch them a million times on cable and try to pull off the sick tricks they do in it with your friends.  Premium Rush is a film made in the wrong decade.  Made in the wrong century for that matter.  I thought about how my brain would have melted out of my head if had I saw it at seven years old.  Now, it just seems SILLY

What is the biggest flaw of Premium Rush?  The plot essentially makes sense, but can be easily unraveled if you start pulling at it.  That’s forgivable.  The main thing that makes Premium Rush feel SILLY is whenever it tries to introduce serious stakes.  This is a movie about a bike messenger alluding a dirty cop in New York City.  I have a hard time being moved in a film where anyone does a wheelie through Central Park or bunny hops over police cars.  Premium Rush has the benefit of being a 90 minute chase sequence.  However, it short circuits itself by attempting to be poignant.  Take a tip from Sly and the Expendables.  Know what you are.

I’ve made mention that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a soon to be Hollywood leading man.  His work in Looper and 50/50 is brilliant, he was a standout in Inception, and he ostensibly is the glue for The Dark Knight Rises.  You’d think with a film this…well…basic, he’d phone in his performance.  But he doesn’t.  I think Gordon-Levitt, much like his character in Premium Rush, only knows one speed.  All the way.  He does the best with what he has to work with for the character of Wilee.  However, most of the good stuff goes to his antagonist Detective Bobby Monday, played by Michael Shannon.  If there is any reason to see Premium Rush that I could point to, it would be Michael Shannon’s performance.   Monday is very reminiscent, but not better than Gary Oldman’s Detective Stansfield in Leon: The Professional.  Wow, that’s second time I’ve mentioned Leon: The Professional in as many reviews.  It does give me the opportunity the link THIS again.  Shannon is batshit crazy in Premium Rush.  I can only imagine how dark the character could have gotten if the film wasn’t burdened with a PG-13 rating.  Shannon still remains my primary hope to make Man Of Steel awesome.

Visually, Premium Rush is like watching an editor’s orgasm.  Well, that may be a little too graphic.  I mean, it isn’t as bad as Ang Lee’s Hulk or ANY Tony Scott film.  However, the Run Lola Run-like editing is frenetic, though somewhat appropriate for the material.  It turns bike accidents into a video game, which is apropos to the overall feel of the movie.  You have got to give writer/director David Koepp credit for having the balls to make an action thriller about a bike messenger.  Koepp has worked with some of the greats in Hollywood.  However, the directorial style that I think rubbed off on him the most was that of Sam Raimi.  Koepp’s framing, his camera movements, his mixing of comedic visuals during tense moments is all very Raimi. 

Premium Rush is a SILLY, yet, harmless film with a good performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a great one from Michael Shannon.  As a whole, it would have been a great concept for an ongoing webseries.  For a film, however, it is as substantive as cotton candy.  Hop on…yank off the brakes…ride like hell…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.  

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