99 Homes

Posted in Uncategorized on October 12, 2015 by Mark Hobin

99 Homes photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s always a treat when a thespian has the opportunity to really act. Andrew Garfield hit the big time with a supporting part in The Social Network back in 2010. The attention he drew got him the lead in The Amazing Spider-Man reboot as well as its sequel two years later. I didn’t care for those movies. They were little more than CGI fests and they did nothing to show off the talent he displayed in his earlier work. Now he’s back to his indie roots with this well made production about the housing market crash of 2008. I suppose the same could also be said of Michael Shannon. He starred as the main villain in 2013’s Man of Steel. The difference is that the Superman picture was sort of an exception to the sheer number of indie films (Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter, Mud) he normally does.

99 Homes is a social issue drama concerning Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his family when the bank must foreclose on his home. The blue collar single dad, his young son (Noah Lomax), and his mom (Laura Dern), are suddenly without a place to live. The setting is Orlando in the wake of the 2008 subprime-mortgage crisis. Real estate developer Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) is in charge of the eviction. He takes advantage of these foreclosures by swooping in and buying up these homes at a profit. He is an opportunist who is insensitive to, even critical of, their plight. “Dennis, you borrowed $60,000 and didn’t’t pay it back — ain’t that stealing?” he chides.

Michael Shannon clearly has the juiciest role. As a hissable villan, he gives the individual life, relishing in his personality where compassion is a weakness. His “greed is good” ethos would make him a good buddy of Gordon Gecko in Wall Street. “Don’t get emotional about real estate, ” he warns. They’re boxes. Big boxes, small boxes. What matters is how many you’ve got.” Indeed he tosses off words of wisdom that deserve to be oft-quoted lines. He’s the proverbial person you love to hate. But is he truly the villan or is the system itself? The temperament of Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash isn’t as extreme, but his construction worker has the most compelling character arc. His sweet, gentle demeanor is engaging for the opposite reason. But his decency has a price. As his desperation increases, he caves to darker impulses to provide for his family.

Together Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield provide a captivating study of personalities that interact over an ethical and moral divide. This harrowing chapter of recent history mines socio-political themes for genuine human drama. Director Ramin Bahrani co-wrote the script with Amir Naderi from a story by Bahareh Azimi. The director rachets up the tension and takes what could have been a dry subject into a powerful narrative. Things get intense and watching people lose their homes can be pretty uncomfortable to watch. There’s a surprising amount of suspense in the simplistic but well acted character examination. Unfortunately the ending lacks the punch of the rest of the film.  While it entertains, it also informs, giving us a window into how reckless monetary policies contributed to the the financial recession of 2007–09. Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon portray the human and often painful side of what happens when the economy fails. 99 Homes is the intimate side to an epic saga.


The Walk

Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama with tags on October 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Walk photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe tale was famously told onscreen once before in James Marsh’s Man on Wire, an Oscar winner in 2009 for Best Documentary Feature. On the early morning of August 7, 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He completed the death-defying stunt 1,350-feet above the ground, making 8 passes on the wire for 45 minutes. The story behind this unauthorized feat was a carefully planned exploit that he referred to as “le coup”.

At first glance, Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) might appear to be an odd fit for this fairly introspective little dramatic piece. But upon closer inspection, the concept doesn’t seem like such a random subject for the director. This is the saga of a dreamer, and as such, it feels like a labor of love for the wildly successful auteur who helmed Forrest Gump. The cinematic valentine comes across as both an ode to the idealistic spirit of Philippe Petit as well as a tribute to the memory of those impressive buildings that once towered above New York City.

A large part of the picture is merely setup to his celebrated act. The planning and organization of the caper is presented with all the anticipation of a heist. Robert Zemeckis frames the movie with charismatic actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the similarly charming Petit speaking right into the camera while atop of the torch in the Statue of Liberty. Petit narrates his chronicle. That’s a whimsical touch. I suppose Zemeckis makes all of the prelude as interesting as possible, but it’s not unlike someone clearing their throat before giving an oratory address.

Zemeckis surrounds Gordon-Levitt with a colorful cast of accomplices. These include a photographer portrayed by Clément Sibony and a math whiz played by César Domboy. There’s also James Badge Dale as an American who speaks French, Steve Valentine as an American admirer with a WTC office, and Charlotte LeBon as a fellow French street performer/love interest. Ben Schwartz and Benedict Samuel are the final two conspirators. To be honest I couldn’t tell you what purpose they serve. Oh and there’s Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, a circus performer who inspires Petit in his native France.

Like the recent Everest prior to this, The Walk debuted exclusively in 448 IMAX 3D theaters a week before its wide release. What could have been a gimmick becomes a fundamental component of the moviegoing phenomenon. This may sound like hyperbole, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that utilized 3D and IMAX more perfectly than this one. The spectacle is nothing less than revelatory. I’m not saying the first half is expendable, but compared to the spectacular climax, it pales in comparison to the realism of the tightrope performance. You actually suffer the dizzying vertigo first-hand.  The experience truly illustrates the danger of Petit’s achievement. This will scare the heck out of you. The technology elevates the sensation into something unforgettable.


Goodnight Mommy

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on October 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Goodnight Mommy photo starrating-4stars.jpgCreepy twins? Check. Domineering mother? Check. Frightening masks? Hissing cockroaches? A newly acquired pet? A priest? A cemetery? Cornfields? Plot twist? All present and accounted for. Goodnight Mommy contains some timeworn horror movie tropes, but instead of relying on clichés, it elevates the formula. The sampling synthesizes these elements into something entirely new and surprisingly innovative. Horror, arthouse cinema or psychological thriller, it’s all of these and more. I dare say within its framework, I faced a small handful of the most uniquely disquieting images I have ever seen. You can’t unsee these things. The concepts are creatively unsettling.

Goodnight Mommy is the first narrative feature from filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Ever since it had its world premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie has built up a solid reputation of positive buzz. In September it was even submitted as Austria’s 2015 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film.  Flashback: fellow countryman Michael Haneke’s Amor won the award for Austria back in 2012. Interestingly Goodnight Mommy actually recalls the chilly isolation of Michael Haneke’s work, particularly with his Funny Games. Even the similar setting, a gorgeous estate by the lake, is incongruously tranquil for a horror flick.

The writer-director team of Franz and Fiala take the sacred bond that exists between a mother and her children and shatters it to pieces. In their deconstruction, the chronicle plays out slowly, but at the climax, the dysfunction reaches a boiling point. Elias and Lukas are nine-year-old twin boys enjoying the summer in a modernist lake house made of steel and glass. Things seem fairly idyllic until mother shows up. Father is not in the picture. Mother’s appearance is obscured, her face wrapped in bandages, apparently the result of some facial surgery. She is a television presenter so perhaps the procedures were cosmetic. Regardless, her presence now vexes the children. She regresses into more irritable and oppressive, almost malicious, behavior. Is this woman their mother or is she an impostor? The boys have their doubts. What follows is an exploration of identity and trust.

To give any more plot details would be to spoil the delight of discovery. Oh and believe me, this spine-chiller has a few shocking developments. The drama travels down a twisty path that grows ever more grotesque. The descent is so gradual that for most of the duration I was completely on board. The eerie trip mostly relies on psychological horror. If the directors make an error, it’s that they ultimately show more than they should. The flirtation with gore is enough. By the end, the plunge into Grand Guignol crosses the line. Only once, okay maybe twice. The impropriety betrays the dominant milieu of the picture.

In this genre, what often separates the wheat from the chaff is the visual lexicon, that is – the discernible style of the director which is then boldly captured by the cinematographer. Here they artfully flaunt a narrative that manifests anxiety. The dread is palpable. The fact that the ambiguous story is created without much clarification intensifies the air of disorientation. Granted there are a lot of red herrings that purposefully mislead the viewer in ways that don’t always play fair. I still have no idea what that pizza delivery was about. But in a production such as this, the misdirection only heightens the unease. The script skillfully undermines the strength of the familial bonds we hold dear. I won’t soon forget the experience. I just have one nagging question: Why are the Red Cross volunteers in Austria so aggressive?


The Martian

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on October 4, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Martian photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Martian is the latest movie in a tradition that looks at space travel with a serious eye. I’m talking about recent favs Gravity and Interstellar. The comparisons to Interstellar are especially pertinent. Aside from the astronaut subject matter, both also feature Matt Damon being stranded on a planet (this time as a good guy), and each highlight Jessica Chastain as one of the featured players. While the corresponding actors link this closer to Interstellar, the human marooned-in-space tale is much more aligned with Gravity.

Matt Damon stars as a proficient botanist left behind on Mars when his squad flees a dangerous storm. You want comedy? You’re in luck, because there’s a lot of it. It’s a tribute to Drew Goddard’s adaptation, that a narrative can still find humor in the the face of very grim circumstances. Are you taking notes Christopher Nolan? This is Director Ridley Scott’s most celebrated film since American Gangster in 2007. It’s also his funniest loosest space epic yet. Alien and Prometheus were downright dour. The hilarity lightens the mood. Gravity was somber. Ditto Interstellar. The Martian, by comparison, is a laugh riot.

The Martian is a much more audience friendly film. Surviving against all odds is the clear through line. This is a feel-good production that promotes the triumph of the human will. But its accessibility goes deeper than that. For one thing, we’ve surrounded Matt Damon with a stellar cast of characters so he’s not required to shoulder the entire narrative alone in the same way that Sandra Bullock needed to with Gravity. Or, if we really want to be accurate, like the modern day Robinson Crusoe of Tom Hanks in Castaway. Granted, that wasn’t about space, but the thematic analogy is particularly apt. In addition to Chastain, Damon is joined by Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie as his Ares 3 crew. They certainly don’t act like brainy scientists. They crack wise like they’re on a sitcom. Actor Michael Peña has elevated this archetype to an art form. Meanwhile Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong and Sean Bean are part of ground control on earth. Though much more business-like, they have their lighthearted moments too. Donald Glover, you’re wanted on set.

The picture is rooted in science. As in Andy Weir’s novel on which this is based, we have heaps of technical jargon. The words are creatively tossed out like grenades. In a story with a rather straightforward plot, they help create an intellectual mood. Star astronaut Matt Damon talks to himself, and by extension the audience, constantly. He’s fond of explaining what he’s currently doing, and what he’s going to do. He keeps meticulous video logs as well. I suppose these expository conversations are necessary so we can understand what’s going on. It’s just that the spoon-fed information reminds us that we’re watching a movie and not eavesdropping on the way these things would play actually play out organically in real life. The chronicle often shifts back to earth and the drama playing out down there as well. We are privy to the minute details and bureaucratic loopholes that would come into play once NASA discovered their man was still alive.

The Martian is an unabashed crowd pleaser. Once Matt Damon realizes he’s been abandoned by his flight crew, he remains a spirited protagonist. He plows ahead with a plucky abandon determined to make a go of the hand he has been dealt. “I’m going to have to science the sh- – out of this” is his oft repeated quote. He relies on a combination of duct tape and disco. Ok so that’s not all, but the cheesy music ditties give the drama an air of ridiculousness. They even inform the story. From Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around” to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” – what the timeworn selections lack in originality, they make up for in listenability. Try not and smile as he transports a radioactive isotope while grooving to Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”. I’d be rolling my eyes if it weren’t so gosh darn funny. “Bring Him Home” is the tagline on the poster. That’s the objective and everyone gets involved – from China, who must declassify their own space program, to a science geek at NASA who comes up with a solution. The latter, who uses a stapler to dumb down his explanation for his superiors, is amusing for his condescending tone. The whole world is captivated by Mark Watney’s predicament. The Martian is simplistic in plot, but elaborate in experience. Breezy Hollywood hokum makes you feel good to be human. Sunny optimism never felt so cerebral.


Pawn Sacrifice

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on October 1, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Pawn Sacrifice photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s easy to see how a chess match between American Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) became the ultimate Cold War showdown amongst two superpowers. Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union was the defending champion. The Soviet Chess School had long held a monopoly on the game at the highest level and Spassky was the latest in an uninterrupted chain beginning in 1948. The political rivalry separating the Soviet Union from the United States laid the foundation for a clash of mental dexterity that played out in a chess tournament on the world stage. It fascinated America and ignited a widespread chess fever at a height that has never been duplicated since.

Pawn Sacrifice is a handsomely mounted period piece – a fastidiously rendered production with shifting cinematography styles. Director Edward Zwick combines archival footage with shots made to look like the real thing. He uses cinematic tricks like digitally inserting Tobey Maguire into The Dick Cavett Show, as well as using real news reports from the era. When Fischer goes AWOL at the championship, a dozen different news anchors question Bobby’s whereabouts. These filmmaking techniques are showy but they’re never quite as satisfying as good old fashioned conversation between two people. Zwick has assembled an impressive supporting cast including Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard and Robin Weigert as his attorney, his coach, and his mom respectively. Liev Schreiber speaks Russian as Boris Spassky, though his performance is mostly emotive. Each extracts a component of Fischer’s intense intellect.

Ah but Bobby Fischer was one of those marvels tinged with madness. I’d fault the “tortured genius” narrative for endorsing a biopic cliché if it weren’t actually true. Pawn Sacrifice is undoubtedly a skillfully constructed docudrama. However for those hungry for a movie about chess and the intricacies of the game, they will be disappointed. This is a chronicle detailing paranoia, with chess as a backdrop. The filmmakers are more concerned with Fischer’s fragile psychological state than his brilliant mind. The child prodigy that became the youngest international grand master at the age of 15 is merely subtext. Many of the chess matches are kept off screen. Tobey Maguire plays Jewish Brooklyn born Bobby Fischer as a man haunted by demons. He’s a seething ball of neurosis. He tears apart his hotel rooms searching for wiretaps. He complains that his food has been poisoned. The script doesn’t explicitly say chess made him crazy, although the association seems to be that chess exacerbated his mental illness. Why chess became his obsession, and not another pursuit, remains unclear.

Pawn Sacrifice presents Bobby Fischer as a most unlikeable individual. He suffers from moods that fly into a rage at the drop of a hat. He avows the Soviets have been cheating by throwing games to create draws. His devotion to the Worldwide Church of God and its radio evangelism is presented as peculiar. He is anti-Semitic, even though he himself is Jewish. When Fischer finally gets to Reykjavik for the World Chess Championship, he makes everyone wait, taking the stage at the very last possible minute for his first game. Then forfeits the second game by not turning up at all. His prima donna behavior escalates with one outlandish demand after another. He complains that the audience and the TV video cameras are too noisy, refusing to continue unless the tournament is moved from a public hall to a private room. Save for a few coughs, the room appears quiet to us. When Fischer threatens to quit, Henry Kissinger calls to offer words of encouragement. The organizers relent anyway, giving into his demands. This doesn’t endear Bobby to us. Certainly it isn’t necessary to like the central character in order to appreciate a film. Yet we should feel something for this man. The movie entertains in parts but while showing how Bobby Fischer could be a jerk, it neglects to present his humanity. I was captivated during much of Pawn Sacrifice. I wanted to know more about this boy genius, particularly in his early life. It wasn’t until the climax that finally I realized that, after getting to know fellow American Bobby Fischer, I found myself rooting for Boris Spassky.



Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama, History, Sports with tags on September 28, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Everest photo starrating-4stars.jpgLace up your boots, strap on your pack, and let’s hit the trails. Everest concerns an ill-fated climbing expedition in 1996 to summit the world’s tallest mountain. The account mainly focuses on a crew in the Himalayas headed by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a guide for Adventure Consultants.

Everest has an extended cast of famous names. Most don’t get more than a few lines of dialogue, but nevertheless their familiar presence aids in our affinity for their characters. Rob’s clients include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a seasoned hiker, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a former mailman pursuing his dream, and climbing veteran Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has scaled 6 of the 7 summits. Only Everest remains for her. Another excursion is led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), the chief guide for Mountain Madness. These tourist treks highlight the commercialization of Everest, which is an underlying theme. Initially they happen to each meet at the base camp first, in preparation for their attempt to reach the apex. The two caravans communicate with Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), who manages the base camp compound. Everest is loosely inspired by the book Into Thin Air by Outside magazine journalist Jon Krakauer. He’s portrayed here by Michael Kelly.

Icelandic born director Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband, 2 Guns) ups the ante over his previous American films and produces something far more ambitious. Granted this isn’t intellectually deep or technically rich. Narratively it’s fairly straightforward. However there is grace in trusting that the genuine drama of the true story will captivate the viewer….and it does. Green screen technology is used sparingly. Everest was shot on location at Everest base camp. The Dolomite mountains in northern Italy stands in for higher elevations. At times, the chronicle has such a visceral quality, it almost feels like documentary. It does a nice job in depicting the physiological effects of the climb. At higher altitudes even breathing becomes a task because the percentage of oxygen in the air is lower. The conditions force the team to acclimate to the low atmospheric pressure first before continuing.

Everest is a rather simple tale about a quest that ended in tragedy. It’s an old fashioned rip roaring adventure ideally suited to the big screen. Early theater engagements were shown exclusively in IMAX 3D. The attributes of those formats serve this subject well. The visual splendor is beautifully conveyed. Sweeping vistas and aerial photography convey a sense of grandeur. One dizzy overhead shot above a high suspension bridge triggers feelings of acrophobia. This is a saga where nature is the enemy. A grueling storm, frostbite, blindless and the wind all threaten the safety of our courageous explorers. I am neither an experienced mountaineer nor was I present on the actual expedition. Therefore I am not here to vouch for the authenticity of facts of the sport or what really happened. What I am is a film critic, and I can say that Everest absolutely delivers thrilling entertainment.



Posted in Action, Crime, Drama with tags on September 26, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Sicario photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgWelcome to Juarez, a Mexican city along the U.S. border just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Juarez is a battleground for drug cartels and one of the most violent places in the world. This is the setting for director Denis Villeneuve’s latest production which details an ever escalating war on drugs.

Sicario relies on a trio of solid performances. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, a naive FBI agent enlisted to aid in the capture of a dangerous drug lord. She runs a kidnap rescue team, but soon her talents will be pushed far beyond what she normally does. Right from the beginning, Sicario opens with a nightmarish find. Hidden within the plasterboard walls of a harmless looking home are dozens of corpses sealed in plastic bags. It’s a prelude to the vicious methods of the criminal organizations they wish to stop. Josh Brolin is the task force official in charge of the clandestine U.S. operation. Is he DEA? CIA? Something else? His affiliations aren’t clear as is the mysterious “consultant” they hire played by Benicio Del Toro. This the film’s most juicy role and he clearly relishes the part. Kate Macer is by the book. The rest of this crew, seemingly less so.

If there’s an MVP, it’s Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Once again working with Villeneuve (Prisoners), he extracts the art out of a grim drama. There are comprehensive aerial shots of the desert, a stunning night-vision raid, emotive close-ups in a climatic dinner scene. A convoy stopped to a standstill in a traffic jam at the U.S.-Mexico border is a heart-pounding set piece. Car chases are so cliche. Headless figures hung as a warning from an overpass, is a chilling image that lingers long after the picture is over. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s spare music with it’s punchy tones, is rather effective as well.  This is the same guy responsible for the lush orchestrations of The Theory of Everything. Talk about contrasts. It’s more sound design than melody, but the score mines a truly suspenseful feeling.

Sicario is an experience. An air of hopelessness permeates the atmosphere. This isn’t a detailed investigation. It’s a bleak mood piece that gives the viewer a you-are-there perspective. Director Villeneuve showcases the corrupt measures utilized to combat drug trafficking. Sicario is slang for “hitman” in Mexico and the simple title fits. The drama is minimalist, both in the articulated tale as well as style. As Emily Blunt plunges deeper into this sinister world, she registers confusion and uncertainty. To be honest, I wish the script had allowed her to be a bit more shrewd. Although we the audience can easily identify with her bewilderment. Who is this top secret U.S. Agency that she’s working for now? What has she gotten herself into exactly? And is there even a solution to the horrors of the illegal drug trade? So much ambiguity. We don’t get many answers, but such is life I suppose.


The Second Mother

Posted in Drama with tags on September 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Second Mother photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Second Mother is the story of Val (Regina Casé), a maid who works in São Paulo. She has been the live-in housekeeper/nanny for the same family for over a decade. They are father (Lourenço Mutarelli), mother (Karine Teles) and son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas).  Val has a daughter herself named Jessica (Camila Márdila), whom she hasn’t seen in 13 years. Left in the care of relatives back in their small village in Pernambuco, Val has been sending money all these years so her daughter can have a better life and education. Then one day, Jessica decides to come stay in São Paulo in order to take a university admissions exam. Living with Mom and her bosses creates problems.

The Second Mother is essentially a movie about relationships. Writer/director Anna Muylaert is particularly focused on the idea of motherhood. The Brazilian film was originally titled: Que Horas Ela Volta? which literally translates as “What time will she return?”  It’s a chronicle of this woman Val.  The affinity between the wealthy employer’s son who adores her is contradicted by her biological daughter Jessica who holds a grudge.  Their psychological divide is emphasized.  Val is a very humble woman who understands her “place”. Her newly arrived daughter however, does not. Sleeping arrangements, the swimming pool, and even some choice ice cream, all become a bone of contention. Jessica’s forceful, almost arrogant conduct sparks a mixed reaction from the various members of the household. They have always treated their housekeeper with respect, but unspoken class distinctions are brought to the fore as a result of Jessica’s behavior.

At the heart of The Second Mother is a warm, humorous, gently nuanced performance from Regina Casé, a veteran actress of the Brazilian stage and TV. Her daughter’s contemptuous attitude arises out of Jessica’s refusal to accept the social class disparity that separates her mother from her supervisors. Val’s exasperated protestations are amusing, but also quite reasonable. You sympathize with Val. There is a resilience and dignity to her within her deferential demeanor. Her strained relationship with her own daughter is contrasted with the beloved esteem to which her employers’ son, regards her.  And why shouldn’t he? Val raised him from a toddler to adolescence, while her biological offspring is but a stranger to her. Ironically Fabinho’s connection with his own mother is more distant. This slight, at times inconsequential drama, ambles along at a leisurely pace through a series of circumstances that underlie hierarchical social categories in South American life. The examination culminates more with a whimper than a bang, but the journey to get there is fairly interesting nonetheless.


Black Mass

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama on September 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Black Mass photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBlack Mass is the true story of Whitey Bulger, an organized crime boss of the Boston Irish mob faction known as the Winter Hill Gang. Indicted for 19 murders and sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus five years for his offenses on November 14, 2013, he is currently incarcerated. Prior to this, starting in 1975, Bulger served as an FBI informant. He reported on the inner workings of his rivals, the Italian American Patriarca crime family. In exchange, the bureau turned a blind eye to murder. His organization and their illegal doings went unchecked for years. Once Bulger’s relationship with the FBI was finally exposed by the local media, he went into hiding on December 23, 1994. For 12 of the 16 years he was on the lam, Bulger was #2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list, behind only Osama bin Laden.

The infamous Whitey Bulger has been the stuff of legend in popular culture. In 2006 actor Jack Nicholson portrayed Frank Costello, an individual loosely based on Bulger, in The Departed. The reference is especially apropos because Black Mass frequently calls Martin Scorsese to mind. Not just the Best Picture winner, but Goodfellas as well. Watch Johnny Depp rebuke an FBI agent for too readily revealing his “secret” family recipe for a marinade. The intensity with which he takes him to task for a seemingly honest remark, evokes Joe Pesci’s iconic “How am I funny?” scene in Goodfellas.

Black Mass is a well acted character piece. Joel Edgerton is important as John Connolly, the FBI agent who strikes up an alliance with Bulger, abetted by their childhood friendship. Also Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s more respectable brother who chose the political world instead. Billy Bulger was President of the Massachusetts Senate for 18 years. Also of note is is Julianne Nicholson as the wife of John Connolly, who wants nothing to do with her husband’s schemes, and Corey Stoll as no-nonsense prosecutor Fred Wyshak. The latter two take nothing parts and turn them into the kind of roles that justify Oscar campaigns.

The only one that comes up a bit short is its star. I’ll admit, this is the most captivating Johnny Depp has been since Finding Neverland. He’s engaging and fully committed to the portrayal. Bulger is a frightening figure, as mean as they come. He’ll choke a friend’s stepdaughter with his bare hands if he thinks she might know too much. Regrettably his performance must still rely on an elaborate Tim Burton-style makeup job to “age” Depp into the role. The thinning blonde hair, brushed back to reveal a bald scalp, the rotten teeth, the ghostly, icy blue eyes aided by contacts. His pale, angular appearance makes him somewhat unrecognizable, but the transformation is distracting. It’s exaggerated, unnatural. He preys upon the innocent like a seething vampire. I remember back in 2012, critics were comparing Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows to Nosferatu. Well it’s happening all over again.

Black Mass is a solid, well-structured crime drama. The production is handsomely mounted. The cinematography is well photographed. The account doesn’t hold back from what a horrible man Bulger truly was. He puts a bullet in the head of a contrite friend in mid apology. It’s got brutal events carefully detailed in a fascinating true life tale of corruption. So what’s the problem? It’s a well presented series of facts, but it’s not much more. The studied approach requires passion. The film’s deliberate pace is so stately, it’s almost lethargic. In short, it lacks momentum and depth. It’s entertaining enough, a gripping character study bolstered by a supporting cast of earnest performances. However Black Mass won’t join the ranks of the greatest crime dramas. Along the way it often recalls them, but it pales in comparison.


Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Posted in Documentary on September 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine photo starrating-4stars.jpgRemember when Steve Jobs swindled Steve Wozniak out of 90% of his share of payment for work they did on Atari’s ‘Breakout’ game?

How about when he denied his own daughter claiming in court documents that he was infertile so fathering a child was impossible for him?

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine will undoubtedly be a wake up call to anyone who readily consumes his fastidiously cultivated public persona. If you worshiped the man as this beatific deity before, then you’re in for a rude awakening. This informational account doesn’t deny the fact he was an esteemed man and a genius, by the way. In fact it firmly cements his brilliance and furthers his immortality. But it’s also a study in contrasts. How a highly regarded man who invented things beloved by millions, did some undeniably horrible things.

The Apple corporation has always maintained a carefully fabricated public image. “Think Different” was a slogan Apple promoted beginning in 1997. They were David going against the indomitable Goliath that was IBM. Apple’s iconic 1984 ad that introduced the “free thinking” Macintosh computer to a legion of mindless zombies held in captive thought by a “Big Brother” like presence. Much lauded American documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) makes a strong case that Apple ultimately became Goliath. From illegal “no-poaching” agreements with other Silicon Valley companies to FoxConn, the Chinese factory where iPhones are assembled to SEC charges over the back-dating of stock options to a raid on Gizmodo editor Jason Chen’s home – distressing stories pile up one by one. The abuses are many.

I suppose what one takes away from Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine depends a lot on what you already know about the man. The documentary opens as an investigation that questions the cult of Steve Jobs. If you worship the man now, then you’re not likely to change your opinion even when confronted with some pretty heinous truths. The chronicle even acknowledges this fact. The church of Apple with Steve Jobs as its god, is like a religion for some. He was unrelenting in his quest to create devices that didn’t just reflect you, there WERE you. Director Alex Gibney presents a a meticulously researched film. He assembles some fascinating interviews with early colleagues and friends. These include Steve Wozniak, Daniel Kottke, Bob Belleville, Andy Grignon and Chrisann Brennan. Each one individually provides an intimate albeit partial view. However these as well as many others put together provide a more complete and compelling window into the true nature of the man. Indeed he changed the world for the better. But he left a lot of causalities in his wake.



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