Scott Cooper

September 20, 2015

Black Mass

UNEASY

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.   
December 22, 2013

Out Of The Furnace

PERFORMANCES

Perhaps it is because I’m a black man born and raised in a city environment that the world of the country gangster interests me so much.  Their world is an entirely different world than the one I’m used to, and it’s just a short ways up the highway.  I watched The Dukes Of Hazzard religiously as a kid…before I realized that them Duke boys were driving ’round with a big “Go F%*k Yourself Black People” flag on their car.  It is no secret that Justified is my favorite show on television. (SCREW YOU GOLDEN GLOBE COMMITTEE)  Even Roadhouse tickles the hell out of me.  Especially the absurdity of that final scene.  So, Out Of The Furnace seemed like a film set directly in my entertainment wheelhouse.  Unfortunately, the film has an overly simple and predictable plot that merely serves as a platform for its real asset.  The thoroughly stellar PERFORMANCES.

Out Of The Furnace comes from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper.  Crazy Heart also ended up being a film with an unremarkable plot but extremely remarkable and Oscar winning PERFORMANCES.  Furnace is about the chaos that happens after two brothers get mixed up with a psychotic mountain man gangster.  That’s it.  Okay, there are some other secondary facets to the story.  This includes a regretable accident, an awkward love triangle, and a combat veteran’s hardship.  However, hardly anything happens that you will not see coming or have not seen before.  Because the premise is this simple and familiar, the moments that connect the important plot elements feels like overly long and extraneous padding.  You could easily cut forty minutes from this barely two hour film and still not miss a thing.  A very unfortunate problem, seeing as those padded moments have some of the film’s better acted scenes.  This makes me think they were kept in, not because the story needed it, but because of how good the actors were in it.  You never want to have a film where great PERFORMANCES are playing defense with your story.

Scott Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi are real artists when it comes to framing and light.  I think Cooper could make a terrific western if he wanted to.  The western genre is centered on confrontation, tension and the anticipation of violence.  That is maybe what he was trying to do here.  A modern day western.  If that is the case then the pacing of the film makes sense.  However, there are still some elements that don’t serve the build up of confrontation.  Though, Cooper should be credited for once again getting what he got from his actors in this film.

People still forget how great of an actor Christian Bale is.  Even after his recent Oscar win for The Fighter.  In The Fighter, Bale played a larger than life character that required his usual body transformation.  It was a character that gave him many things to do and many things to play with.  His character Russell Baze is precisely the opposite of Dicky Ward.  Russell is more subdued and still.  Most of Bale’s PERFORMANCE is internalized.  And yet, the PERFORMANCE is tremendous.  A scene with him and Zoe Saldana on a bridge is probably some of the finest acting you’ll see this year.  Yeah, Zoe Saldana is in this.  She isn’t in it for a long time, but long enough to give a strong PERFORMANCE.  Bale’s brother Rodney is played by the Affleck brother who can act.   (You’re an awesome director Ben, but Casey can act circles around you)  Again, the dynamic between the two brothers is nothing new.  However, Casey and Bale elevate the relationship in every scene they share.  You would never think Casey could display an intensity that rivals the always intense Bale, but he does.  And speaking of intense, the real standout of this movie is Woody Harrelson.  From the first scene, you know that Harrelson is going to steal this film.  He is tough, funny, and scary as hell.  He is such a great character, I wish there was a little more time dedicated to him.  His inevitable showdown with Bale struck me as a bit anticlimactic.   Cooper might have meant to keep his character Harlan Degroat (What a great name) simple and vague.  However, I would have appreciated a little more time with the character and see the behind the scenes of how he ran his organization.

I’ve focused on the main stars, which really short changes the fine work done by the supporting cast.  From Forest Whitaker, to Willam Dafoe, to Sam Shepard.  Every actor brought their A game.  Sadly, the story surrounding them is simply just a B-.  Grab your rifle…and your boxing tape…don’t let Woody Harrelson serve you a hotdog…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

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