18 September 2015

Review: Black Mass



Watching Jack Nicholson in The Departed it would be easy to think "Wow, this guy can't be real" but that would be incorrect. Frank Costello was based in part on James "Whitey" Bulger, maybe the most notorious gangster in U.S. history. What viewers will also learn is the FBI and Bulger worked together for years before he was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) and Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) grew up together in South Boston, but years later Connolly, now a FBI Agent, makes a deal with the devil. More accurately, he tries to place a rabid dog on a leash.

Reporting to the FBI is a hard sell for Connolly because Bulger takes personal offense to playing informant. Bulger killed men for giving up much less, but Connolly manages to convince the crime boss a partnership would be mutually beneficial. Both men see this as an opportunity to rid Boston of the Italian mafia, but only one of them is honest about how this will all play out. Being an informant means giving up intel on occasion, yet it comes with no strings. Connolly--and by proxy the FBI--look the other way while Bulger deals and murders his way into mythic status. Meanwhile, Special Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) can’t explain why crime is still flourishing in Boston.

Black Mass spent several years in production while Depp and Edgerton both left the project, and now it has the unfair responsibility of being the movie that brings Depp back to relevance. Luckily the film shoulders that weight with ease. Yes, Depp is wearing another wig, but this isn't like his other Disney work. Depp layers Bulger with nuance, playing a man who would violently murder members of his organization for being rats when he himself reported to the FBI. Those contradictions would trip up a lot of actors, but Depp handles himself magnificently.

It would be easy for Depp to crank out every scene on 11, but there is a reserve present that couldn't be said for Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Take a dinner scene where Bulger needles a FBI agent for the secret family recipe. What seems like an innocuous slip on the part of the agent turns unbearably tense as Bulger questions just how easy he gives up information. Then Bulger punctuates the exchange with a chilling laugh. Too often films depicting criminals glorify the lifestyle, but if Black Mass is a testament to anything, it's what a sociopath Whitey Bulger was. That the FBI would team up with a maniac of that caliber to shut down the Mafia is an indictment not only of law enforcement, but the misguided native pride of Boston. A monster was unleashed on society only because Connolly was more comfortable with a crime syndicate run by white men.

The film presents a great deal of information, but everything is presented in a brisk fashion and aided by a stellar cast. Those who don't know anything about Whitey Bulger will be fine. Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) wisely surrounds Depp with the highly talented Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown and Kevin Bacon. As great as that cast is, sometimes Cooper focuses too much on his ensemble, leaving audiences wondering when Depp strikes next. A more present p.o.v. would definitely cement Black Mass as one of the defining crime films of the genre, but as it stands the film is a handsomely directed picture featuring a career resurgence for Johnny Depp.

04 September 2015

Review: The Man in the Machine


Real quick, does Alex Gibney ever take time off? Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Sinatra: All or Nothing At All both made their premieres this year, but Gibney still has one more documentary up his sleeve. The myth around Steve Jobs is known by everyone. He took a company that started out of his garage and turned it into a global powerhouse with products that people go into a frenzy over. No one would define themselves by their pager, so why does an iPod or iPhone so often serve as an extension of its users?

Steve Jobs' death in 2011 was met with a massive outpour of public grief, but the emotion on display didn't fit the man who passed. Jobs, for his outsized personality while he was promoting Apple, was fiercely private. Taking an approach inspired by Citizen Kane, Gibney starts his film at the mogul's passing, and works backwards through interviews and archival footage to get a sense of the man behind the smokescreen.

The film jumps around chronologically, tackling the early Apple years; NeXT; and the launches of the iPod, iPhone and iPad. It bears repeating that Jobs didn't personally design or engineer the famous items so closely associated with his name. The truth is that a lot of talented people surrounded Jobs, and he drove them to their limits. Apple is not represented in Gibney's film, but there is a good deal of interviews with those who worked with Jobs along with his friends and family, and the background information is revealing. The Steve Jobs who faced legal issues is certainly not the one we remember fondly.

Steve Jobs wasn't a perfect man, certainly, few are, but Gibney isn't interested in hagiography. At first The Man in the Machine gives the audience a lot of the personable Jobs that he presented himself as for years, then the darker side comes out. "Think different" was Jobs' method of creating a link between Apple and the noble ideals of icons like Martin Luther King Jr., and it worked really well. However, Apple didn't use "think different" to contribute to more moral business practices. The workers at Foxconn who make iPhones and iPods certainly don't have the luxury of using the products they spend all day building.

Gibney's documentary expands beyond Jobs--sometimes to its detriment--but the larger Silicon Valley scene that Jobs inspired, and the grime behind his technological benchmarks are integral to his legacy. Jobs was a master of branding: he created a narrative where customers bought not just a machine, but a reflection of themselves they could pour their identity into. The love story between Apple fanatics and their products is what Jobs is remembered for, but Gibney posits that we're all still buying into a myth. That Gibney himself can't explain why he owns an iPhone is cause for concern.

Gibney loses sight of Jobs in the wide scope of the documentary, but perhaps it is impossible to understand a man made up of so many contradictions. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine isn't a hit-job by any means, but it does encourage viewers to "think differently" about the man so widely revered.

03 September 2015

Win The Vampire Diaries and The Originals!


Take the "Are you Fit for Vampire Life?" quiz to find out if you have what it takes to be a creature of the night. Post your score in the comment section below and you could win the sixth season of The Vampire Diaries and The Originals (The Complete Second Season). Tweet using hashtags #TVD #TheOriginals, and be sure to mention @WordsbyCBiggs on Twitter. Contest ends on September 15th. U.S. residents only.


Each household is only eligible to win (1) The Vampire Diaries Season 6 or The Originals Season 2 chosen at random via blog reviews and giveaways. Only one entrant per mailing address per giveaway. If you have won the same prize on another blog, you will not be eligible to win it again. Winner is subject to eligibility verification.