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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Black Mass



"Did he take you trick or treating?" asks the frightened, suspicious Marianne Connolly (Julianne Nicholson) of her husband, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). She, like the audience, is trying to suss out just exactly what lies behind the unwavering, destructive loyalty her husband has to one James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp), John's friend since childhood, personal hero, and the most notorious crimelord in South Boston. When we first meet Whitey in director Scott Cooper's stately, arresting Black Mass, he admonishes one of his lieutenants for repeatedly sticking his "fat, filthy fingers" in the shared peanut bowl at their local dive bar. We think for a moment maybe Whitey Bulger's not such a bad guy, a criminal with a moral code, perhaps. Soon, we meet John Connolly, newly minted and seemingly heroic FBI agent with big plans to take down the Italian mafia in Boston's North End. It doesn't take Black Mass long to violently blow both those preconceptions out of the water. Whitey and Connolly are two corrupt sides of the same coin, and their unholy "alliance" would sink the city of Boston into a real-life mire of murder and crime in the 1970s and 1980s, the aftershocks of which still makes headlines today.

By the admission of his own people, who were arrested and plea bargained to turn state's evidence against Whitey, James Bulger was a small time player who served 9 years in Alcatraz and ran the Winter Hill Gang in South Boston. "Suddenly, he was a kingpin." Black Mass details how Whitey's rapid rise to power occurred when he was approached by his boyhood friend Connolly to be an informant to the FBI. "I ain't no rat," Whitey declares. (He would later be at pains to justify to his people how what he did wasn't being a rat when the truth ended up as a front page expose in the Boston Globe.) But Whitey had a plan, enabled by Connolly, who promised him non-interference from the FBI as long as he provided the intel they needed to bring down the Cosa Nostra. The one condition: Whitey can't kill anybody. This was simply too much to ask and Bulger had no intention and was incapable of adhering to this request. Whitey's intel was valuable but came peacemeal, while his true activities -- consolidating his personal power over the rackets in Boston -- were covered up by Connolly. Meanwhile, Whitey was killing whomever he saw as a threat, be it rival gangsters, businessmen opposed to his interests in World Jai-Alai in Miami, snitches who betrayed him, or even teenage prostitutes. Whitey was a brazen executioner; killing his enemies in broad daylight and with his bare hands. Caught in the middle of this quagmire between his criminal brother and his corrupt federal agent friend was Whitey's brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), then the State Senator for Massachusetts.

Johnny Depp, whose ghostly white contact lenses and balding visage make him resemble the ancient vampiric look of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker's Dracula, delivers a mesmerizing performance of pure malevolence. Depp plays Whitey as a remorseless psychopath in Black Mass, perhaps too stripped of recognizable humanity, especially in the second half of the movie after the deaths of his beloved mother and young son. Edgerton's Connolly devolves into a comical, transparent farce of a lawman as his fellow FBI agents played by Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott grow suspicious of his connection to Whitey and the new federal prosecutor (Corey Stoll) makes it his mission to bring down Bulger, and Connolly along with him. Eschewing the operatic crescedos of Martin Scorsese's similar The Departed a decade ago, the equally star-studded Black Mass unspools its lurid tale of crime with somber intent, though both films share the almost gleeful impact of sudden gory violence. In the end, we know the good guys ultimately won, and James "Whitey" Bulger, on the run for 12 years as an FBI Most Wanted fugitive, was captured in Santa Monica, returned to Boston, and is now serving two consecutive life sentences. Connolly, arrested and imprisoned for his part in the scandal, refused to testify against Whitey. Truer BFFs there never were.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Jupiter Ascending



"I am never complaining about the DMV again!"

Jupiter Ascending is the sci-fi action epic for everyone who thought all the yammering about trade tariffs and bureaucracy was the best part of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Writer-directors The Wachowskis introduce us to their magnum opus - a universe where a bunch of intergalactic weirdos actually own all the planets in existence and Earth in particular is contested by one particular royal family of weirdos, the Abrasax. On Earth, Mila Kunis is born to an unfortunate family of Russian house cleaners living in Chicago. Kunis' name in the movie is Jupiter Jones, and Jupiter Ascending won't let us forget it for not only is the movie titled Jupiter Ascending but every character in the first half of the movie starts all their dialogue addressing her with "Jupiter..." Jupiter scrubs toilets for a living and naturally hates her life, until a bunch of aliens start attacking her, she's saved by a "gene spliced" half-human/half-wolf former space cop played by Channing Tatum (look at his pointy little ears!), and she learns she's the reincarnation of the mother of the Abrasax and thus she is the legal owner of much of the galaxy, including Earth. But only if she can get the proper legal forms and deeds of entitlements filed.  

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would play such silliness for wry laughs but Jupiter Ascending treats it all with deadly seriousness, except for its best sequence, which would delight Hermes Conrad of Futurama: Jupiter is taken to the sprawling intergalactic central bureaucracy to full out multiple tax credit forms and jump though endless legal hoops to claim her Entitlement as a member of the Abrasax Royal Family, and thus become the legal owner of Earth. Earth is important, Jupiter is horrified to learn, because it's the key world worth "harvesting": human beings are kidnapped, killed, and turned into a special liquid that lets the rest of the beings in the universe live for thousands of years. Jupiter meets her freaky relatives, her uppity "daughter" Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), her scheming youngest "son" Titus (Douglas Booth), who tries to marry her for her title and so he can murder her and claim it, and her eldest, evilest and freakiest, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), a preening space peacock gnawing at all of the green screen scenery. Not since The Fifth Element has a sci-fi blockbuster presented us with such opulent space madness. Jupiter and the audience find themselves reeling from the endless bureaucratic and political intrigue she finds herself embroiled in. Plus every alien not "related" to her in the second half of the movie calls Jupiter "Your Majesty." No wonder she would rather spend the entire movie throwing herself at Tatum, the loyal space dog-man she has fallen in love with. 

When no one is talking about Entitlements, the Code and Conduct Guide, and filing grievances with the Royal Ways and Means Commission, Jupiter Ascending throws in a ton of loud, perfunctory action sequences, with space ships engaged in dog fights over the skies of Chicago, Tatum using his gravity boots to skate through myriad explosions, and no less than two cliffhangers involving Jupiter's finger touching the Abrasax version of an iPad and thus transferring her royal title to one of her evil "sons." We're introduced to numerous strange and exotic alien races whose names and purposes you won't remember. Sean Bean is even along for the ride as Tatum's former boss, who naturally betrays him and then teams up with him again to save the endlessly-in-peril Jupiter. It says something about the rather crappy universe the Wachowskis have dreamed up that Jupiter would rather happily go back to her life of scrubbing crap with a toilet brush and dating Tatum on the side than take her place ruling her part of the Galaxy. Mila Kunis is the first and probably only owner of the planet Earth ever who spends her days scrubbing its toilets and likes it. If there's a lesson to be learned from Jupiter Ascending, it's be nice to your house cleaners: you never know which one of them holds the Deed of Entitlement which makes them the legal owner of Earth. So tip well.