Saturday, March 5, 2016

Movie Reviews: Black Mass, Fatal Instinct

Black Mass
directed by Scott Cooper
This is a horror film masquerading as a gangster movie. I don't mean that it does so because of the explicit violence. Compared to some Tarantino and maybe even Scorsese films this movie is not all that explicit. Of course that said I am likely a little inured to cinematic mayhem so maybe you should take that last statement with several grains of salt. When I compare this to a horror film I mean that Johnny Depp, portraying pitiless South Boston Irish-American gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, does masterful work depicting the soulless cold black hole of a human being that Bulger was during his days of dominion over Boston. Bulger is less a human being than a ghoul. He's something almost unnatural. Depp's Bulger kills at will from cold calculation. He inspires others to kill, often out of pure fear. If nothing else Depp's version of Bulger will put you in mind of Nosferatu. His Bulger is all bulging forehead, bad teeth, stringy hair and arctic blue eyes. He's a predator of other humans. His gravelly voice commands, insults and frightens. Bulger is rarely kind to anyone other than his aged mother, sickly son, brother and less occasionally his wife. Everyone else he regards as someone to be ignored, used or consumed. When Bulger loses two people close to him he sheds all but a thin veneer of humanity. 

There's little milk of human kindness  flowing through Bulger's veins. It's difficult to overstate how thoroughly Depp inhabited or rather devoured this role. His tour de force as the irascible and nocturnal Bulger is a testament to how good of an actor Depp can be given the right material. Depp's acting is the best thing about this film.  He should have won more awards for this. His acting is enough to see this movie even if you aren't too crazy about the subject matter. Often times a powerful performance like this runs the risk of an actor overplaying his hand and going over the top (Pacino in Scarface) . That didn't happen here. Depp provides the best performance by far but everyone else also does a pretty good job. It's an ensemble cast. I was somewhat familiar with this story. 

Believe it or not Black Mass tones down Bulger's real life violence and brutality. If you want to know more there are a number of books which delve into Bulger's activities, including the book which gives this film its title. The movie was shot on location in and around Boston for greater authenticity. It shows all the small winding streets, cobblestones, grocery stores, bars and pool halls that make that town what it is. I think that if you are familiar with that area you will enjoy seeing it so lovingly depicted here.

The movie has a slight Goodfellas vibe with its "back in the day" motif. But where the gangsters in Goodfellas were all fire-quick to anger and heedless of tomorrow- Bulger is ice. He's a very cold deliberate man. He has a plan. Pray that his plan doesn't involve you. Effectively most of the film is a flashback to the days when Bulger and his crews ran their South Boston hood with maximum efficiency and brutality. The only checks on their power are the local FBI (which is clueless) and the local Mafia family, overseen by Jerry Angiulo (Bill Haims). The local FBI views the Mafia as more powerful and worthier of taking down than Whitey's organization. One FBI agent, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up with Whitey Bulger and Whitey's brother William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) the Massachusetts State Senate President. Connolly thinks that taking down the Mafia not only will get him and the FBI more positive press it also will have the more important benefit of earning him promotions and an increased budget.

With this in mind Connolly approaches Whitey with a proposition. Whitey will become an informant and share information only about the Mafia. Connolly portrays this less as Whitey becoming a rat (Whitey hates rats!) and more as two organizations working to take down a less savory group. There's a strong undercurrent of Irish ethnic and neighborhood solidarity. Connolly has no interest in arresting or convicting fellow sons of the Emerald Isle. After some negative run-ins with the Mafia Whitey warms to the idea of cooperating with the FBI. However it's an open question as to who really corrupted whom. Whitey very rarely gives useful or actionable information, something that starts to make Connolly's peers and supervisors (Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll) jealous and suspicious. 

I really liked Stoll's work here as a U.S attorney who is frustrated by Connolly's lackadaisical work ethic.  Stoll's character immediately mistrusts Connolly's ties to Whitey. Cumberbatch also does yeoman work as the intelligent brother who may or may not know everything his dangerous sibling does and may or may not exercise political influence on Whitey's behalf. Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons, who you might remember as "Meth Damon" from Breaking Bad), Johnny Martorano (W. Earl Brown) and Steve "The Rifleman" Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) are the vile and violent enforcers of Bulger's will. 

Connolly's hero worship of Whitey and resulting descent into depravity are noticed and vainly fought against by his strong-willed wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) who has her own (non-violent but very frightening) encounter with Whitey in a place she never expected to find him. Some of the accents were over the top. I don't think very many of the actors were actually from the Boston area so depending on how familiar you are with Boston accents you may or may not find the speech patterns believable. 

Fatal Instinct
directed by Carl Reiner
This older (1993!) film is a parody of a bunch of different movies from the late eighties and early nineties, including but not limited to Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, Cape Fear, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Two Moon Junction, Sleeping with the Enemy and almost by definition any film starring B movie busty bombshells Shannon Tweed and Shannon Whirry. It also throws a few zingers at older classic movies like Double Indemnity. I enjoyed this movie. Fatal Instinct sends up all those old erotic thrillers and throws in a very strong helping of Three Stooges slapstick, including the infamous Moe Howard eyepoke. Say what you want about Moe but did anyone ever deliver a better poke in the eye? I think not. Anyhow if you have ever watched any of those eighties/nineties films you know that they often had ridiculous melodramatic plots, one or more femme fatales with secret pasts, syrupy intrusive saxophone or string music and a healthy helping of steamy sex and violence. 

Fatal Instinct sticks to all of the conventions of these films and by doing so make it clear as to just how silly all of these things are.  Obviously everything is exaggerated for comic effect. The film has its tongue placed very firmly in cheek by casting actress Sherilynn Fenn, who at the time was better known (1) for dating Prince and Johnny Depp, (2) her sexy work in Two Moon Junction and (3) tying a cherry stem with her tongue in Twin Peaks. Here, she's the chaste good girl. Watching this film today is a testament to how age catches up with everyone. I also wondered how the actors managed to keep a straight face with some of their lines, physical humor and sight gags. Carl Reiner also directed The Jerk. So that should give you an idea of the sort of comedy on display in this film. Actors routinely break the Fourth Wall without recognizing it. When suddenly someone realizes that he's listening to cheesy trumpet music instead of the genre's usual cheesy saxophone music he angrily opens the closet door to find trumpet player Doc Severinsen who explains that saxophonist Clarence Clemons had to take the night off so Doc is substituting. In other situations characters change the music playing to more accurately accompany the on-screen action or their mood.

Ned Ravine (Armand Assante) is a genially chauvinistic man who works both sides of the law. He's both a police officer and a lawyer. Usually he defends many of the people he arrests. He has a fierce dedication to the individual rights of the defendant and to the strong arm of the law. With most people this sort of cognitive dissonance would cause some psychological problems but Ned is not most people. It's his world. You're just living in it. As mentioned Ned thinks he knows all about the XX group of humanity and won't hear anything different, especially not from his shy demure secretary Laura (Fenn) who rather obviously is both smarter than Ned and has a crush on him.  Ned may be a sharp dresser but quick on the uptake he's not. He is also blind to the fact that his attractive wife Lana (Kate Nelligan) has lost interest in him. She's much more interested in playing house with their stubbornly dim auto mechanic Frank (Christopher MacDonald). 

Ned has a very peculiar life insurance policy with a triple indemnity which has attracted Lana's attention. One reason Ned doesn't notice his wife's ominous side glances is because he's started a passionate affair with the sexy mystery woman Lola Cain (Sean Young). I had forgotten Young was that tall. She could have this song playing every time she's on screen. Cain has her own reasons for taking up with Ned, which only become apparent later. Hovering in the background is Max Shady (James Remar), an ex-con who bears a deadly grudge after Ravine arrested him and lost the ensuing trial. Speaking of trials this movie has a surreal Alice in Wonderland court battle which has to be seen to be believed. All I'll say about it is that famed announcer Bob Uecker does trial play-by-play. 

This is a silly silly silly film that will hopefully relax you and leave a smile on your face. If you don't at least occasionally appreciate broad humor then this film might leave you cold. There aren't any social messages or hidden lessons in this film. It's just trying to make you laugh. Tony Randall, Eartha Kitt and John Witherspoon have small roles. There's one last thing to mention. Although this is a parody, if your sense of humor is vestigial this film can also be enjoyed as a slightly offbeat thriller. The director and actors may have humor on their mind but they also seem to really love the films they're referencing. There is no contempt here. The three female leads have plenty to do. Assante mostly plays it straight but as his character points out "[He] doesn't look as dumb as he is".

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