Review: Black Mass

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DIR: Scott Cooper  WRI: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth • PRO: John Lesher, Scott Cooper, Patrick McCormick, Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson • DOP: Masanobu Takayanagi • ED: David Rosenbloom • MUS: Junkie XL • CAST: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane

 

Black Mass tells the story of real-life Irish-American gangster and FBI informant James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. This has been one of the most anticipated films of the year and while it has its good moments it also turns out to be one of the year’s biggest let downs.

The film’s heavily inspired by Martin Scorsese. From the way it’s shot, to the material covered you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching one of his films. But unfortunately it doesn’t come close to touching Goodfellas or Casino.

Johnny Depp takes the lead as Bulger, who with the help of an old friend in the FBI went on to rule the Boston underworld avoiding investigation and prosecution even in the wake of the vicious crimes he committed.

And Depp plays a psychopath very well which this film, to its detriment, never misses an opportunity to show. Instead of really delving into Bulger’s character and showing his rise and fall, Black Mass features scene after scene of him doing crazy things without any real need to.

It’s a gangster film about a man who committed many, many murders. Yes, you have to show that he’s a psychopath but his entire storyline seems to be sacrificed for shots of him doing crazy things. And because of this the film never really gets going and we miss out on other things that could have been explored.

Probably the more interesting character in the film is the FBI agent who helped Bulger avoid investigation and prosecution for many years. John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton (Warrior, Exodus), grew up on the same streets as Bulger and wasn’t really corrupted by money but instead by a little brother like affection and admiration that he held for the gangster. It’s a unique take on how a law enforcement agent ends up corrupted and Edgerton’s portrayal of Connolly as a sycophantic, suck-up to Bulger is compelling.

He is obsessed with protecting him even when his marriage falls apart and it’s clear other law enforcement agencies are onto him. Both he and Bulger are from South Boston, a place that values loyalty above all else, and even as an FBI agent Connolly somehow can’t stop being loyal to the big guy from the old neighbourhood.

The performances are all pretty solid. Depp underwent a significant transformation and his haunting, cold blue eyes in the film make him look subhuman. Another strong performance is from Jesse Plemons (TV’s Fargo) who plays an associate of Bulger, Kevin Weeks.

The film seems to cover a hundred things but can’t choose a centre to focus on. It begins storylines and asks questions that it neither really finishes nor answers. A prime example of this is Whitey’s relationship with his brother.

While Whitey was strangling and shooting his way to the top of Boston’s underworld, his brother Billy rose to become the most powerful politician in the city. Played by another star actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, the film doesn’t delve deep into the brothers’ relationship. When the biggest gangster and the biggest politician in a city are brothers, it’s bound to cause tension, right? But the two have only a handful of scenes together which aren’t very meaningful.

Instead of telling the story of Whitey Bulger Black Mass feels more like a greatest ‘hits’ compilation of the gangster. It goes through scene after scene of what he did, who he shot and what he stole. And because of this the plot never gets time to develop properly and at the end of the film you can’t help but feel unsatisfied.

Colm Quinn

15A
122 minutes (See IFCO for details)

Black Mass is released 27th November 2015

Black Mass – Official Website

 

 

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The Imitation Game

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DIR: Morten Tyldum WRI: Graham Moore PRO: Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwarzman DOP: Óscar Faura ED: William Goldenberg DES: Maria Djurkovic MUS: Alexandre Desplat CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Charles Dance

 

A handsomely mounted, solidly entertaining biopic, The Imitation Game, gives a partially fictionalised account of the life of English mathematician and logician Alan Turing, who helped crack the Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II, and later died by his own hand after being forced to undergo chemical castration to “cure” his homosexuality.

 

While Michael Apted’s Enigma (2001) attempted the awkward task of making action heroes and romantic leads of Bletchley boffins, The Imitation Game takes a more level-headed approach to the subject.  Morten Tyldum’s assured direction offers a carefully calibrated mixture of suspense and cosiness (echoed in Alexandre Desplat’s tense but oddly quaint score), sculpting the film around Benedict Cumberbatch’s central performance as Turing.  Unlike his turn as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate (2013), which never rose above meticulous impersonation, Cumberbatch makes Turing a rounded creation, balancing intellectual assurance and social discomfort, even when saddled with some rather on-the-nose dialogue.  Mark Strong makes an impression as a shady MI6 agent, but Cumberbatch’s real foil here is Keira Knightley, playing Turing’s fellow cryptanalyst, and one-time fiancée, Joan Clarke.  Knightley has a tremendously appealing presence, and she gives Clarke an effervescence that tempers the script’s tendency to reduce her to a mere emblem of the condition of being a woman in a “man’s world”.

 

The film was written by an American, Graham Moore, and it shows.  Moore has a firm grasp of scriptwriting formulae, but is on less sure footing conjuring a sense of place and time.  The characters’ eagerness to disclose their emotions to one another, usually through aphorism, feels neither particularly British nor particularly of the period, and a handful of nagging anachronisms and Americanisms (in particular, the persistent use of the word “smart” to mean intelligent, as distinct from quick-witted) would surely have snagged on the finely tuned sensitivities of Bletchley Park’s Oxbridge-schooled code-breakers.  More disconcerting than these minor quibbles is the script’s suggestion that Turing’s code-breaking machine was developed to fill the void left by a deceased childhood beloved.  It’s not only commendable, but essential, that Turing’s sexuality be part of this narrative, but that doesn’t imply that it should be made to “account” for his particular genius – a move that risks trivialising his achievement and romanticising his persecution.  Reducing the invention of the digital computer to a compensation for love lost makes for an affecting back-story, but rather undercuts the magnitude of Turing’s contribution to our age.

 

Still, while one doesn’t have to be Alan Turing to find the script’s plays on pattern and code a little obvious, The Imitation Game remains engrossing for its full two-hour running time.  Sturdy craftsmanship, strong performances, and a perennially fascinating subject make it one of the more appealing pieces of awards-bait to emerge thus far this season.

 

David Turpin

 

12A (See IFCO for details)

114 minutes

The Imitation Game is released 14th November 2014

The Imitation Game – Official Website

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5CjKEFb-sM

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Cinema Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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DIR: Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Dan Hennah • MUS: Howard Shore • CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch

The second of the three Hobbit films actually begins with a scene which takes place before the start of the previous film, possibly as some sort of joke at the expense of people who think these movies are already needlessly long. Regardless, we soon pick up where the last film ended with the Fellowship, the Company and the titular Hobbit on their adventure to the Lonely Mountain to fight a dragon. On this increasingly circuitous journey they stumble across numerous secondary characters and plotlines which latch on to them like lost children, one of which involves a shadowy, evil force growing in power…

Okay, let’s get the praise out of the way first so that we can move on to the rant because this film is going to receive near universal praise and rake in money no matter what anyone says. Part of me wishes that Jackson and his production team were only making the original trilogy now because, even though those films have aged reasonably well, these films only continue to get better and more impressive-looking with each instalment. The set designs and their believability are only matched by the simply superb CGI. Even with the best examples of CGI a slight disconnect between the real and the generated always remains. In this film (and to a lesser extent its predecessor) you really have to stare in wonder at the work that’s gone into the likes of Smaug (Cumberbatch). The only reason you really know it’s CGI is because there are (sadly) no dragons to put on film. I realise how trite this all sounds but after so many films in the last decade getting by on acceptable CGI, it’s truly a pleasure to be gobsmacked by what can be achieved with it all over again.

Speaking of Smaug, it would be remiss not to report that yes, Benedict Cumberbatch as a dragon is as wonderful in practice as it sounded on paper. He’s very reminiscent of Hopkins’ Lecter in his initial encounter with Bilbo (Freeman); dripping with menace but hiding it behind a polite yet powerful demeanour that’s almost mesmeric due to his careful, drawn-out enunciations. The rest of the cast are, as expected, almost all wonderful. Freeman continues to prove a stroke of genius casting, embodying a far more charismatic and innately humourous lead than Elijah Wood ever was. His comic timing but more importantly his use of physicality for comedic effect is a delight to watch. Ian McKellen gives it his all in a role where any other actor his age, playing a character like that would simply phone it in. The one glaring weak-link is the (pointlessly) returning of Orlando Bloom who still can’t emote to save his life and looks simply hilarious in action scenes where he’s clearly trying to come across as every bit the stoic, badass action hero that he very much is not. Bless.

Sadly, Bloom’s acting is only the tip of the iceberg. Honestly, I don’t think that I would in good conscience recommend this film to anyone but the most die-hard of Tolkien fans. The first film got a pass because it seemed (from the three titles of these movies at any rate) that Hobbit Pt. 1 would get the dull stuff out of the way leaving an entire second film for the Smaug portion of the plot (read: the only portion of the plot the more casual viewer is truly interested in) and yet here we are two films in and Smaug has had maybe fifteen minutes screen-time and an infuriating ‘to be continued’ right as the film is reaching what seems to be its action climax. To describe the film as slow and meandering is laughably inadequate but it’s forgivable (or at least tolerable) when you know it’s building toward something big and exciting. Pulling such a cheap, money-grabbing (better pay to see next year’s sequel, kids!) stunt after so very many, intolerable, unnecessary, and increasingly screen-time-cluttering scenes tips the scales right into ‘unforgivably boring’ territory. The end of this film would be akin to the first Hunger Games film being split in two and ending the first part right as Katniss entered the Games. Sure the die-hards will still enjoy all the talking and world-building but the large portion of the audience made up of less invested viewers who came to be entertained will be very angry and likely bored.

The prequel nature of these films also raises some issues. The side plot (one of the dozen or so that seems to be on-going at any given moment) involving Gandalf (McKellen) sees him investigating a mysterious enemy who goes conspicuously unnamed for most of the film but if you really can’t work out who it is, you’re just not trying. The problem is that these scenes are utterly devoid of any tension or peril because of who ‘the Enemy’ is and any danger Gandalf seems to be in by his hand is just more time-killing because we all know nothing of consequence can happen due to this being a prequel. Raising the question of why they even bothered to include (or at any rate, include so much of) these scenes. There is certainly a point in the last half an hour to forty minutes where there’s just so many simultaneous plotlines being followed that it descends into a Phantom Menace-style mess of trying to juggle all of them with equal screen-time when really there’s only one or two of any real importance or interest. Many of which are simply left hanging mid-scene to be picked up in next year’s sequel. And when the film does reach its final, infuriating shot we’re left with another thoroughly unsatisfying cinematic experience which, like the previous film, simply stops and fails to have an actual ending. It’s almost three hours of people running from things without any real beginning or ending.

For those already enamoured with Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth, this is just more of the same and will likely make for perfectly pleasant viewing. For everyone else there are certainly enjoyable aspects but they don’t remotely justify the overly-indulgent, unashamedly money-grabbing, dragging-out of a story that didn’t need it. For anyone still unsure if it’s worth seeing, watch it at your peril or rather the peril of your patience and your bladder.

(A brief note on the HFR issue. It seems to have been largely fixed from the last film. The ‘fast-forward’ effect is almost entirely absent though some of the faster moving action scenes have a habit of descending into a headache-inducing blur. The only major complaint is that it does its job too well in places and everything looks too real i.e. sets look like sets rather than locations and the whole enterprise ends up looking very televisual on occasion.)

Richard Drumm

12A (See IFCO for details)

161  mins

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is released on 13th December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Fifth Estate

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DIR: Bill Condon •  WRI: Josh Singer  • PRO: Steve Golin, Michael Sugar •  DOP: Tobias A. Schliessler • Ed: Virginia Katz  • MUS: Carter Burwell • CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Stanley Tucci

The Fifth Estate is a thriller trailing the rise of whistle blowing organization WikiLeaks and self-made media mogul Julian Assange. Assange is portrayed tenaciously by an ever invigorating Benedict Cumberbatch. While the material is ripe with political strife for a potentially sophisticated thriller dealing with the ethical debate between security and privacy this fails to be fully realized.

The film’s central character is Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played by Daniel Bruhel. Berg is the moral cornerstone of the film; he’s the somewhat credulous computer expert who befriends Assange and joins him in his quest for exposing the truth through WikiLeaks. The film presents Assange as Berg sees him. With Berg and Assanges partnership WikiLeaks blossoms into the international whistleblowing giant we now know. They expose multibillion banks engaged in fraud, government conspiracies and ignite global revolution and all seems hunky dory. However conflict arises between the two men when, as the stakes are raised and their notoriety increases, Berg begins to question the morality and ethics of exposing certain information. Berg feels that by not analysing the information properly they might be placing innocent individuals at risk. This reaches its climax when WikiLeaks releases thousands of top US security files including the “Collateral Murder” video. Shortly after this Berg and Assanges differences culminate in them parting ways for good.

The Fifth Estate undergoes the same pitfalls as so many true stories do, it endeavours to expose the truth and struggles in its effort to do so. There is nothing polarizing about the film’s point of view, this is a film with a very transparent agenda – it’s looking to permeate doubt and credibility in Julian Assange. This is affirmed by Assange being portrayed as an egocentric, anarchic, power hunger tyrant. While this might not be totally dismissible, it’s certainly not the entire truth, this angle is played up to its most extreme, engendering archetypal character clichés. Assange is made out to be quite childlike in his relationship with Berg, which again takes from the credibility and believability. This approach, while perhaps a little naïve, is brought to life by Cumberbatch’s powerful attuned performance, which is the film’s solitary redeeming feature. He gives Julian Assange a credible sense of menace and emotional complexity.

The film has a fantastic supporting cast in Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney, but they’re characters only service is to convey the American government’s stance, which leaves little elbow room for Tucci and Linney to develop the characters. These characters and their recurring presence seems the product of arbitrary, jaded screenwriting.  Ultimately, the film strives to be something it’s not, the fast-paced rhythmic editing and predominate pulsing beats of the electronic soundtrack are suggestive a slicker, cleverer film, which it simply isn’t. It’s like putting a Fiat engine in Porsche chassis – it looks cool but can’t do 0 to 60 in ten seconds. The shiny façade only seems to further diminish the film. Consequently, it’s difficult to feel concerned for the characters or engage in with the film, overall I found it quite underwhelming and doesn’t really rise above mediocrity.

The Fifth Estate certainly hasn’t left a lasting impression, and isn’t essential viewing unless of course for Cumberbatch’s performance, which really is the driving force of the film. Daniel Bruhel’s performance while not bad is far from the electric feats he’s displayed in the past. This is a film which could have been The Social Network meets All the Presidents Men. But ended up more like the very distant spurious cousin of the two. I have no doubt that Mr. Assange will join critics lambasting it for the self-riotous propaganda it is.

Michael Stephen Lee

15A (See IFCO for details)

127 mins
The Fifth Estate is released on 11th October 2013

The Fifth Estate – Official Website

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