Friday, September 18, 2015

Black Mass: A Film to Satisfy Your Mob-Movie Cravings

Let's face it: everyone is into mob movies. They're violent, dramatic, political, and they keep you on the edge of your seat. The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, Donnie Brasco, The Departed. All of them are totally incredible, multi-layered films.

While Black Mass doesn't quite measure up to the rest of these in terms of complexity, it's a wonderfully made movie that sustains a level of suspense and unease and, if nothing else, will satiate your craving for the old gangster flicks of yesteryear.

The plot follows Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger, a crime boss in Boston in the 1970s-80s. While the film spotlights him in particular, viewers are also witness to his henchmen and to a political alliance that went sour, involving a member of the FBI giving him immunity to do whatever he wanted in exchange for tips that were never provided.

And many illegal steaks.

While I'd be lying if I said this movie wasn't fascinating, don't go into the theater expecting to see another Goodfellas or Departed. The pace of Black Mass is steadier than most gangster movies, because instead of following a member of the gang, they're following the gang leader himself, and with this in mind, the movie turns into more of a character study of Bulger himself than of a full-fledged look at gangster life. Also visibly absent is the usual glamour of the mob lifestyle. While these guys are making tons of money, Bulger is only ever shown wearing jeans and a leather jacket with his signature aviator glasses, and each scene is set in seedy bars and old houses in Southy, with the occasional counterpart in Florida.

Doesn't exactly scream "millionare" does it?

But Black Mass doesn't concern itself with the glitz and glamour of the gangster lifestyle as provided to us by the movies that have come before it (with the exception of Donnie Brasco which is actually somewhat similar). It is not so much focused on the glamour of the lifestyle as much as it is focused on telling the story of Bulger himself, speculation on how he got to be so cold-blooded, the circumstances of his disappearance, etc.

Still, it's hard not to compare Black Mass with other mob movies when there are so many memorable ones. I wish that the story gave us a bit more of a perspective on all of the characters, rather than just focusing on Bulger. I'd love to hear Jimmy Bulger talk about how the things in his life affected the things he did, or hear more elaborate testimony from the people that worked for him, and how the things that he did affect them. But I think another thing that Black Mass tries to do is to remain loyal to the portrayal of Boston people, and if there's one thing that the movie makes very clear, it's that they are not big fans of telling whole truths and full stories.

7.5 outa 10.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Straight Outta Compton: A Refreshing Music Biopic

Maybe it's because they take place in the same-ish era, but that old tale of rags-to-riches is something that we've all seen from What's Love Got to Do With It to The Jacksons: An American Dream to Ray to Walk the Line. Not to say that these aren't great movies, but these unbelievable tales end up sounding increasingly redundant.

That in mind, it's no wonder that Straight Outta Compton is such an incredible breath of fresh air.

The movie follows the origins and breakup of NWA and its members (Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella) from their roots in gang-riddled Compton to their rise to fame. And it's insane.

The cool thing about Straight Outta Compton is its timeliness (not like our nation hasn't had race problems since forever, but especially with things like Ferguson coming to a head recently) and its refreshing time period. As someone who was born on the East Coast in '89, it's not like I knew a lot about NWA or that I heard a ton about the race riots in L.A. during the time that the movie takes place. But seeing the gang violence and the police reaction to it in the film creates a framework within which you can better understand the rap of NWA. The movie makes an excellent case for the art of these guys that commonly got written off as violent, and as encouraging violence. Ice Cube says at one point that their art describes what they've been through, and that their windows look out onto a different world than the typical American.

It's hard to divulge a ton of details about the plot, because their story takes a lot of turns, but the comprehensive picture that it gives you of the group and of each of the artists makes it a biopic worth watching.

Full disclosure: this movie will also make you hate cops. The amount of times that they get arrested for doing nothing makes their resultant song "Fuck the Police" make a lot more sense than it might objectively. And their raps in general are fucking incredible.

8 outa 10. All in all, it was an amazing biopic. Highly recommend.

The Visit: A Surprising Non-Failure from M. Night

Let's all face it: M. Night Shyamalan has become a bit of a joke in the past few years.

He had us on the fence with Lady in the Water, and for most people The Happening just..wasn't...very...good...

Sorry, bruh.

Those (like myself) who have been silently rooting for him to make a comeback though will be pleasantly surprised with his latest film: The Visit.

Shyamalan's obsession with minimalist titles aside, this movie is pretty fresh for ole M. Night. Taking a leap into the popular handheld camera style, The Visit makes a successful scare that Shyamalan hasn't been able to pull off for a few years.

The movie begins with a mother explaining that she had parted ways with her parents when she was a teenager. After they found her via social media, her kids pushed to spend a week with them in Masonville, PA. The kids are a girl, Becca, who's about 15 and obsessed with becoming a film director (a deviance from the regular mold of "found footage") and her brother, Tyler, who's about 10. While the visit starts off as a fun week with their refound grandparents, their behavior quickly begins to turn from eccentric to downright bizarre as each day goes by. While the kids are quick to explain away the situation to their mother as old people just being old people, they quickly need to rethink their excuse. What is up with these old folks and why are they acting so weird?


I read a really interesting piece about Shyamalan using this movie as a return to his roots and it shows. The plot is pretty straightforward, unlike his befuddling The Happening and Lady in the Water stories. There's no mysticism, no over-explained plot points, and no magic. It's just two really nice kids who are stuck in the middle of nowhere with two old people who are acting increasingly strange. And for some reason that creep factor maintains really well.

As an adult, it's rare to be in a situation where you can't just leave somewhere if weird stuff is happening. But this film does a great job of creating an uneasy sense of being trapped. This in mind, along with the kids' desire to reconcile their grandparents with their mom, makes their willingness to explain away their behavior understandable. Everyone knows a senior citizen that doesn't quite have all their marbles, and so it's easy to believe the kids in the beginning when they're shrugging off their grandparents' behavior as "a little weird" and nothing more. The fact that they're in the middle of nowhere helps this sense too - isolation doesn't exactly encourage normalcy. But the more the kids discover, the harder it is to deny that there is something seriously wrong with these two people - and that they have no way out.


There's also just something so fundamentally creepy about elderly people acting weird. Even the best of us can get a little alarmed when they shoot off with inexplicable behavior. I mean, jeez, I used to get weirded out when my grandma called me by the wrong name - I can't imagine some of the things that these two kids have to go through. Adding to that creep factor is the old adage that you should be respectful to the elderly. Maybe the kids' ultimate downfall is the fact that they're good, polite kids trying to spend quality time with their grandparents. This combo backfires big time.

And it wouldn't be a Shyamalan movie without a good ole-fashioned plot twist! If you keep your eyes open, you can see it coming early-on, but the surprise adds refreshing dimension to what could easily be another Paranormal Activity-esque yarn.

All in all, I was happy to see Shyamalan with a triumph for once. I've been rooting for him for years because of his original story-telling skills and his ability to make even scary movies kind of funny at times. He has a very good grasp on characterization and in this movie it plays pretty well. I do think there were a few things that he did stylistically that don't translate well to the handheld aesthetic, such as what I think was a bit of forced intimacy between the brother and sister. While it adds to their characters, I had a bit of a time believing that they'd open up like they do at some points, especially with a camera in their faces.

That aside, The Visit is an admirable horror movie effort from Shyamalan, and I'm honestly so pleased to have a reason to like him again that that makes the movie even better.

7 outa 10.