Monday, September 28, 2015

Black Mass

Everything about Black Mass suggests its desire to take a place among the great crime movies. The slow, studied pace, the carefully thought out framing, the period detail, and the use of well-known actors in small roles are all evidence that director Scott Cooper thinks the story of Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) is something Very Important indeed. Bulger was the gangster who cut a violent swath through South Boston (“Southie”) for two decades; he ordered from the full menu of criminal enterprise from dealing drugs to running numbers, and he had no hesitation about violence with rivals or traitors. Black Mass focuses on the way Southie native and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, having a good 2015 with this and The Gift) recruited Bulger as an “informant.” It isn’t giving much away to reveal that Bulger used his relationship with the Bureau as a pass to expand and intensify his criminal activity.

The story that Black Mass is telling contains within it the film’s biggest problem. The screenplay (by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) points out that Bulger and his “Winter Hill” gang were relatively small-time before Connolly came along, and that Bulger used the FBI as a means of pushing the Mafia out of Boston in order to expand his domain. The problem is, that’s all there is to Bulger’s story until it all came crashing down. Johnny Depp succeeds in making Bulger scary, but he doesn’t quite succeed in making him a person because there isn’t one on the page. There isn’t anything tragic about Whitey Bulger, only a dedication to using crime to make his life. The film stops to introduce Bulger’s wife (Dakota Johnson, whose character walks out of the story) and young son, but Bulger’s vulnerability is gone in the time it takes Depp to raise an eyebrow or turn his head. As the details of Bulger’s activities pile up - there’s an interlude involving jai alai and a miscast Peter Sarsgaard- it becomes harder to see Bulger as anything other than the villain in his own story.

The other strand of Black Mass involves Connolly’s machinations within the FBI to advance his own career and (later) protect Bulger and his state senator brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) from scrutiny. Both Connolly’s wife (Julianne Nicholson, the one female given something to do) and partner (David Harbour, very good) become afraid of Bulger, and his superiors (Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott) chafe at how slowly Bulger provides intelligence. Why does Connolly choose Bulger over the Bureau? Connolly grew up with the Bulger Brothers and the script suggests that neighborhood loyalty trumped his allegiance to uphold the law. (I actually wouldn’t have minded a prologue with the characters as children. ) Joel Edgerton skillfully plays a man trapped by circumstances even as his life falls apart, but again there’s something missing here. Connolly’s loyalty to the Bulgers becomes too dogged by half, and his fate should carry more weight than it does. Black Mass is vivid and engaging thanks to  Scott Cooper’s eye and to its large and lively cast - W. Earl Brown, Jesse Plemons, and especially Rory Cochrane all add quite a bit as Bulger’s crew - but Bulger was so purely about self-aggrandizement that we won’t think of him the way we think of Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. After fleeing Boston in 1995, Whitey Bulger was on the run until being arrested in California in 2011. What did he do all those years? That’s a movie I would watch.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


It is mildly surprising that Grandma hasn’t drawn approbation from the same voices that called Mad Max : Fury Road part of a feminist conspiracy. The way that writer/director Paul Weitz’s script treats abortion as an unwelcome but necessary event in the life of many women is welcome for its lack of hand-wringing or clichéd rhetoric. The right to terminate a pregnancy is treated as just that, a right, and it’s that choice that brings high-schooler Sage (Julia Garner) to the doorstep of her grandmother Elle (Lily Tomlin) one morning. Sage is pregnant by a disinterested boyfriend (Nat Wolff) and needs money to pay for an abortion. She’s afraid of her high-powered mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden, who enters late in a role that’s a hair too obvious) and thinks Elle is her best chance for help. Her appointment is in 9 hours.

Grandma is an assertion of not only of a woman’s right to reproductive choice, but also to her own irascibility. Elle, a lesbian poet first seen breaking up with a younger girlfriend (Judy Greer), is still mourning the death of her longtime partner and not inclined to live up to anyone’s expectations. We don’t hear much about Elle as a parent, but Harden and Garner play their roles with an edge that suggests temper runs in the family. The day that Elle and Sage sped together is a tour through Elle’s past, and the encounters with a café owner (the late Elizabeth Pena) and a tattoo artist (Laverne Cox) reveal Elle as a friend by turns loyal and combative. Elle is, as the Grandma poster says, Tomlin’s best role since Nashville, and it’s a case of perfect casting. The biting wit of Elle feels perfectly tailored to Tomlin’s personality, but Tomlin keeps a reserve of emotion bubbling underneath that suggests that while Elle has plenty of memories she doesn’t have many regrets. (Grandma is not a film that traffics in sentiment.) Most surprising is Elle’s encounter with her ex-husband Karl, played by Sam Elliott in a searing cameo. Karl is a man still in love, and his reaction to Elle’s request for help points up the fact that choices made in the moment can have deep resonance in the future. This is an excellent performance by Sam Elliott, and one that points to a career that might have been.

Grandma isn’t a message movie it’s a human movie. Weitz ends with a reconciliation, but he offers little resolution. The final shot of Elle serves both as valentine to the character and a perfect summation of Lily Tomlin’s career. This story of complicated women might just be one of the most needed films of the year.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Alex of Venice

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is very good in this drama, a well-shot film that suffers from a lack of dramatic stakes. Winstead is Alex, a an environmental lawyer working out of a Venice, California storefront (for an uncredited Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose life seems as career oriented and driven as that of any Manhattan defense attorney. Alex's husband George (Chris Messina, who also directed) is tired of playing the house husband, and after George takes off to fulfill vague artistic ambitions Alex must juggle career, her 10-year old son (Skylar Gaertner), and her live-in, pothead father Roger (Don Johnson, good as a man fighting off his own decline).

With this much plot in play the movie could go anywhere, but Messina (working from a script whose authors include Katie Nehra, who plays Alex's sister) is content to let Alex of Venice be a shambling story of a woman coming back into herself. The potential issues raised by Alex's attraction to the man (Derek Luke) her firm is opposing in court are never explored, and much time is spent on Roger's casting in a local production of The Cherry Orchard. Roger is a once-famous TV actor humbled by being cast as the old servant Firs, and the reason he has such trouble remembering his lines is developed too late to add more than symbolic value to the story.

Thank goodness for Winstead, who gets to show flashes of anger, sadness, and sexuality too often denied her. This is Winstead's best role since Smashed and further indication that she is a seriously undervalued asset. Alex of Venice is a fine calling card for what she'll do next.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Mistress America

It is a pleasure to watch writer/director Noah Baumbach work with such confidence in Mistress America, a warm, funny, and brisk variation on themes explored in this spring's very good While We're Young. If Mistress America appears the slighter film of the two at first, stay with it. Baumbach, who co-wrote with leading lady Greta Gerwig, trusts both his cast and his own skill enough to let the heart of the film emerge late amid some spot-on character acting by an ensemble of unfamiliar faces.Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a college freshman new to Manhattan who's having a hard time making friends. Scenes of classes and hall mates and an awkward connection to fellow freshman Tony (Matthew Shear) trip by until salvation arrives in the form of Brooke (Gerwig), the 30-ish daughter of the man Tracy's mother (Kathryn Erbe) is going to marry. Greta Gerwig is already a star in the way that the band Dirty Projectors (who make a brief appearance here) are; that is to say that one seeks out a Gerwig performance for something left-of-center in a very specific way. Gerwig's collaborations with Noah Baumbach have shown a wider audience that she's also a very good actress, and as Brooke she is committed to a kind of brazen mania that - most of the time - hides the bruised heart underneath. It is a remarkable performance.

Tracy is smitten with her older almost-sister, but she is also canny enough to use Brooke as the model for a short story that may gain Tracy admission to a snobby campus literary society. Tracy's narration is the text of this story, a work that from what we hear sounds stylish but immature. Tracy doesn't get how self-aware Brooke is underneath the talk of starting restaurants and creating apps. When Brooke is approached by a high school classmate who harbors an old grievance she apologizes to the woman's former self but not to the adult, because she can't understand how someone could lick old wounds when the search for one's true purpose is still very much in progress. Brooke's quest for financing to start a restaurant called "Mom's" leads to a long, knockabout sequence at the Connecticut home of an ex-boyfriend named Dylan (Michael Chernus) who has the cash to bail Brooke out. Along for the ride are Tracy, Tony, and Tony's hilariously possessive girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas-Jones), who isn't above using Tracy's story for her own ends. Dylan turns out to be an insecure mess, still thinking about his college radio show but given bluster by money. Dylan's childless wife Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) puts up a hard outer shell, but she also hosts a book club whose members are all pregnant. Brooke receives a phone call during this sequence that provides Gerwig's best acting moment of the film; listen to the way she responds when her father tells her that "Home is a bus ride away."

The only character in Mistress America who isn't facing uncomfortable truths (until she is) is Tracy, whom Lola Kirke plays with a confidence that we always understand is almost totally misplaced. (Tracy is one of those freshman shocked to receive a "B".) Everyone here is on the hustle to claim their own identity- the mere act of living in New York demands it - and Baumbach and Gerwig honor the search while also wringing out many, many laughs. There is a spiky kind of energy in play here that Baumbach hasn't shown before; it's further indication both that Baumbach is still learning what he's capable of and that Greta Gerwig came along at exactly the right time.