Johnny Depp gives a frightening, transformative performance in “Black Mass,” a fascinating look at the rise of real-life Irish-American mobster James “Whitey” Bulger in South Boston. Concentrating on a 20-year period of Bulger’s life beginning in 1975, director Scott Cooper’s period thriller may not be as polished as Martin Scorsese’s sprawling gangster thriller “Goodfellas,” but there’s no question “Black Mass” is easily one best movies of the year to date.
“Black Mass” concentrates on the complicated “alliance” of Bulger and FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who offers the man who he grew on with and admired an opportunity to provide information to the agency to bring down Italian mafia in New England. But while the FBI was deconstructing Bulger’s rivals, the mobster ran his operation unabated and built a criminal empire of his own in brutal fashion.
Depp, like he has many times before, becomes his character. Fitted with piercing blue contacts, Depp is menacing with his piercing stare, giving one of his most frightening and fascinating performances to date. Edgerton is also brilliant as Connolly, as is Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger, Whitey’s influential state Senator brother. The great thing is, Cooper and Depp allow for several other performers to deliver the goods, including Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s skeptical FBI boss; Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks, a pivotal member of Bulger’s Winter Hill gang; and Corey Stoll as assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak – the man who confronted Connolly and began an arduous 25-year operation to apprehend Bulger.
“Everest” (PG-13) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin skillfully guide us on one of the most compelling action adventure movies of the year with “Everest,” a dramatic re-telling of a tragic Mount Everest expedition in 1996. Even though the tragedy – which involved two climbing parties – has been well documented, it’s completely engrossing from the get-go, as expeditions led by Rob Hall (Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal) are doomed by a brutal blizzard that hits Everest just as the climbers hit the summit. Keira Knightley also gives a heartbreaking performance as Hall’s pregnant wife, Jan Hall, who struggles to keep in touch with her husband in the face of doom. While Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s visuals in the film are thrilling, they never trump the human emotion of the characters in their hours of desperation.
Unless you have a high tolerance for forced comedy, “Mortdecai,” sadly, will leave you mortified.
Starring the usually great Johnny Depp in the title role, “Mortdecai” is the latest misstep in a very disastrous couple of years on the big-screen for Depp, starting with the box-office train wreck “The Lone Ranger.” Worse yet, “Transcendence” was savaged by critics last fall even though it’s not nearly as bad as everybody says it is, and the notices he earned for his brief appearance in the holiday-time musical “Into the Woods” mostly included the word “creepy.”
A crime caper that follows Charlie Mortdecai (Depp), a debonair yet shady international art dealer on the trail of a valuable Goya painting that purportedly contains the code to hidden Nazi loot, “Mortdecai” no doubt is stocked with the right talent to make the film work, but the execution of the material is dreadful. Clearly the film aspires to be a “Pink Panther”-like comedy, but unlike those Blake Edwards-directed Peter Sellers classics, “Mortdecai” isn’t the least bit funny.
Trapped squarely in the middle of this mess is Depp.Trying his best with a boisterous “chap-chap cheerio” accent and exaggerated physical mannerisms, Depp, unfortunately, rarely musters enough humor to bring smiles to his audience, let alone laughter, and director David Koepp’s stand-by slapstick humor merely elicits groans instead of guffaws.
As much as his attempts at humor hit the wall, Depp — who is still one of my favorite actors — should be given credit for putting on a brave face throughout the film. On the other hand, Gwyneth Paltrow, who stars as Mortdecai’s wife, is barely tolerable with her half-hearted British accent, and an over-played gag about her husband’s handlebar mustache is run into the ground throughout the film.
For what it’s worth, “Mortdecai” does have a few bright spots: Paul Bettany is admirable as Mortdecai’s oafish bodyguard, while Ewan McGregor is likable as a lovelorn British MI-5 agent whose been crushing for years on Mortdecai’s wife. Olivia Munn – who is billed as one of the leads (it’s mystifying all the roles this one-note actress is landing), instead surfaces in a small supporting role that’s about as wooden a performance as it gets.
Despite a disappointing turnout this time, Depp will no doubt be back — and his turn as crime boss Whitey Bulger at the end of 2015 can’t come soon enough.
Reviewed in brief
“Still Alice” (PG-13) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Best Actress Oscar nominee Julianne Moore delivers a career performance in the title role in “Still Alice,” an emotionally charged, heartbreaking family drama about a linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 50.
While “Still Alice” covers all stages of the disease from Alice’s point-of-view, it also is powerful in the way it shows the effects Alzheimer’s has on her family — from her husband (a terrific Alec Baldwin) and his desperation to get his wife the best treatment possible; to their three children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parish and Kristen Stewart), who all may possibly inherit the degenerative disease at some point in their lives.
While the outcome is inevitable, “Still Alice” is still very much a life-affirming film in the way it raises awareness of the disease, and the reminder it brings to live our very unpredictable lives to the fullest.
“Cake” (R) 2 stars (out of four)
Jennifer Aniston’s career takes a dramatic turn in “Cake,” an oddly-titled, offbeat drama that’s only on the radar because of awards notices for Aniston’s makeup-less role.
Aniston stars as Claire Bennett, a dowdy divorcee whose chronic pain and mental and physical scars from a tragic accident has left her bedridden and bitter. She has a low tolerance for people and those who come into contact with her have little tolerance for her, until she befriends Roy Collins (Sam Worthington), the widow of Nina (Anna Kendrick), a fellow chronic pain sufferer who committed suicide.
“Cake” is interesting at first in the way it keeps at arm’s length the source of Claire’s sorrow, but as the plot begins to unfold, the more predictable the story gets. The tone is also strange for a film that tackles such a tragic theme, especially when the ghost of Kendrick’s character shows up time and again to talk with Claire.
While Aniston should be lauded for exploring a dramatic role after so many so-so comedies, her turn in “Cake” is still one of the most over-rated performances of the year. For those crying out “snub” for Aniston after she missed out on the Oscar nomination last week, be happy she was as fortunate to earn a Screen Actors Guild nod for the role. She’s good in the film, but not great. At best, it’s a solid first step into more serious territory should she continue to travel in that direction.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.
Tim reviews the techno-thriller “Transcendence” on KARE 11 TV (NBC) in Minneapolis. See the review of the film, starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall and Morgan Freeman, below, as well as a review of the horror spoof “A Haunted House 2” (print version on BringMeTheNews.com).
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More: Radio review of “Transcendence” on WOC 1420 Radio below:
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers