Black Mass: Movie Man Jackson

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“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

Wise words from a notorious criminal. It’s the 1970’s, and the city of Boston, Massachusetts has become rife with criminal activity. Many gangs run the streets, like the Winter Hill Gang, led by Boston native James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), brother of state senator William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch).

As much as the FBI would love to shut down all criminal organizations in the area, sometimes a one-or-the-other choice has to be made. In a land of big wolves, the biggest is the Italian Mafia, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf. Knowing this, an old childhood friend of Bulger’s, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), approaches Bulger with a deal: Become an informant, giving intel of other local empires, in exchange for the bureau turning a relative blind eye to Whitey’s operation. Originally believed to be the lesser of all evils, the FBI soon finds that Bulger is the biggest one.

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Director Scott Cooper’s (Out of the Furnace) Black Mass asks one real question: Does it mean anything to take down the house if a stronger one is built on the side? The clear answer is no. Aside from that, though, Black Mass isn’t a new spin on biographies or gangster flicks. But, it is engrossing once it gets going, and benefits from a strong cast, spearheaded by a guy who the world has been begging of to sink his teeth into something other than a pirate, a vampire, or an art-dealing buffoon.

Yes, Johnny Depp, delivers here. Instead of the makeup and the accompanying appearances making, or in some cases, marring, his more recent roles, Depp’s appearance here, though still with makeup, is minimal enough to allow Depp the actor to shine through. His Bulger, make no mistake, is very evil, so if looking for a truly dynamic lead character, it may be best to look elsewhere. But, from the first scene Depp appears in, it never feels like he’s has to “warm up” to be evil; he’s ready from the jump. The performance is high quality throughout, featuring many scenes packed with tension as to just what Whitey will do. Sometimes he does something, and other times he doesn’t, but the unease and unpredictability are always present.

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It may be too early to say, but Depp should almost certainly in the nominee pool for Best Actor. His character’s counterpart of John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton, should almost certainly be in the nominee pool for Best Supporting Actor. Seeing Edgerton’s character devolve from an agent who wants to do the right thing by aligning with a lesser evil to bring down a bigger evil, to desperately trying to convince himself he’s still doing the right thing is equal parts fascinating, sad, and even funny at times.

The relationship between Connolly and Whitey is more brother-like than Whitey and his own brother, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a good but “I still see this actor/actress” performance. In defense of Benedict, he’s not really on screen enough to build any momentum. In smaller roles, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, and Peter Sarsgaard all fit nicely and contribute as key pieces all revolving around Whitey and John.

Filming around the same areas where so much of Bulger’s criminal empire occurred is a great (and probably necessary) choice that gives more authenticity to the movie. Cooper lends some solid camerawork to the story’s events, nothing spectacular as this is an intentionally drab visual palate, but technically sound it certainly is. It’s the story itself, however, that works well enough to get into, but, based on what appear to be a mostly true telling of events, doesn’t ascend to classic mobster and crime movies. As a whole, it just sort of lacks that emotional hold that similar movies in the genre possess.

Additionally, Black Mass suffers somewhat from a slow start as the result of an iffy effort to flesh out Bulger beyond being only a bad guy. It doesn’t truly get going until about 25-30 minutes in. And, while the events are told in a very straightforward manner, gaps exist and seem to be evidenced by fade-to-black timelime jumps that possibly could have given the movie opportunity to explore more relationships and key characters if additional runtime was given.

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The term Black Mass has a religious origin, literally defined as the darker inverse of the traditional Catholic mass, bordering on parody and obvious blasphemy. As for the film Black Mass, the story isn’t a parody, or treated glamorously, but brings, what feels like at to yours truly at least, a true-to-real-life history lesson presented on the silver screen of a guy who I only knew of through America’a Most Wanted.

Grade: B+

Photo credits go to liveforfilms.com, blogs.indiewire.com, and boston.cbslocal.com.

Follow the Movie Man @MovieManJackson

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Ant-Man: Movie Man Jackson

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 “I think our first move should be calling the Avengers.”

Occasionally, a small package can be a good thing. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has just finished serving some time in the San Quentin state penitentiary after doing a Robin Hood-esque hacking job of sorts, returning money that his previous company had more-or-less stolen from their customers. He desperately wants to make an honest living now, and see his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), more frequently.

Meanwhile, in the corporate world, a battle is being waged for an revolutionary piece of technology developed by physicist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). This powerful piece of tech grants the user the ability to shrink to the size of an insect while increasing their strength, making for a devastating weapon. Temporarily hanging in the possession of a shady company he once founded, Pym is willing to give a second chance to a man who desperately needs one. Dr. Pym recruits Lang to don the Ant-Man suit and take back the blueprint of what he created.

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With all of the development problems for a film allegedly in the works since the 1980’s, it is really a victory that Ant-Man, the latest in Marvel’s sizable cinematic universe, is not horrid. As the official end to Phase 2, this doesn’t end the period with a lot of momentum but does give the universe another (lesser) character to intersperse in future installments. From it’s cinematic brethren, it is different in the way it goes about carrying itself, which is good and bad for yours truly.

Ant-Man is a basic origins story, which isn’t all that different from any character’s first movie in Marvel. But this origin tale feels a little lifeless, honestly, especially in the first third in hitting all of the familiar notes of troubled character ultimately misunderstood, family problems, father figure, etc. As ho-hum as that is, what is admittedly cool about this superhero offering is that, it does feel like its own movie that exists separately from the MCU. Take away the few mentions of The Avengers and this could work as its own…work.

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Part of the reason why is because it takes itself so lightly and whimsical in tone, making Guardians of the Galaxy look heavy in comparison. The idea of a man decreasing in stature yet increasing in strength and controlling every variant of the ant colony is ridiculous, but director Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Yes Man), seems to know this. Ant-Man behaves just as much as a comedy as it does an action, if not more so. Where others in the universe try to inject humor to various and sometimes pathetically forced degrees, the humor in this fits the film better because it is already coming in at a fixed tone. This actually does help the action stand out more. CGI of course it is, but I’ll admit I enjoyed the small-scale battles being treated like humongous clashes , as well as the eye-catching underground ant sequences.

Still, this is a Marvel movie, and as such, it is sort of impossible not to think how this compares to what came before it. The biggest issue that may be had with this latest superhero is simply that it feels like it lacks importance. It is hard to see how more desire can be drummed up for another feature outing. Unlike Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, or the Guardians, Ant-Man feels destined to be a side character, though the credits point to at least one later standalone installment.

For the film’s tone, Paul Rudd is everything one could want in the titular role. He’s comedic but never too much of a joke to not be taken seriously when needed. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really get to lose himself in the role, which isn’t his fault. This is probably an unsubstantiated belief by yours truly (I’m not a comic-book nerd), but the Ant-Man character doesn’t feel like it has the requisite backstory like other characters in their own films do. Even those who don’t read comics know about the characters and in some cases personalities of guys like Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man, while the same can’t be said for Ant-Man. But that is probably the point, I suppose.

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The rest of the cast does mostly well enough to aid Rudd. Pure comic relief is provided by David Dastmalchian (Prisoners), T.I, and Michael Pena as Scott’s criminal friends, with the latter providing the most laughs everytime out. Evangeline Lilly really provides nothing that a hundred other women couldn’t provide as a love interest. I can’t remember the last time Michael Douglas was in something nationally released that was not targeted to an older crowd, so it is nice to see him playing perhaps the most intriguing character of the whole movie. Corey Stoll gets to be the hero’s opposition, and he is formidable even though he is essentially a guy doing being bad because the script calls for it. His performance is fine, but kind of overacted in spots as well.

Have to end with an obvious size pun, right? Ant-Man stands small when put next to most Marvel works, but it doesn’t get completely squashed either.

Grade: C+

Photo credits go to 411mania.com, screenrant.com, and cosmicbooknews.com.

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This Is Where I Leave You: Movie Man Jackson

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“You guys are idiots. But you’re my idiots.”

How do you get an oddball family to reconnect after years and years of not doing so? An unfortunate passing of their patriarch of course! This Is Where I Leave You begins with Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), an average and seemingly middle aged man with a solid career and healthy marriage. While coming come to celebrate his wife birthday, he stumbles upon a most unfortunate revelation: His wife is doing his boss, and has been doing so for a year.

His life now in shambles, Judd gets a call from his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) learning that their father has passed away. This of course forces the Altman family to come together for an impromptu reunion. The funeral was one thing, but as told by their mother (Jane Fonda), their father’s dying wish was for the family to spend one whole week under the same roof obeying the Jewish mourning tradition known as Shiva. In this one week the Altman clan’s already shaky-at-best bonds will be tested, but maybe just maybe some appreciation for each other will arise out of it.

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With a simple but relatable premise mixing comedy with family drama, This Is Where I Leave You sets up to be a solid piece of entertainment, bolstered by a very recognizable and accomplished cast of actors. Well, at least on paper that is. TIWILY (nice looking abbreviation), has its moments but also its fails, in turn making a movie that is pretty average and disappointing with the promise it possesses.

The movie’s screenplay is written by Jonathan Tropper, who also happened to write the novel that this is based on. With the continuity there, you would think that the script would carry over to the other medium without a hiccup. If only it were that easy. I have not read the book, but I kept on thinking when viewing that maybe some things were lost in translation from the pages to the big screen. Despite its simplistic presence, there is a lot going on here that gives the movie a bloated feeling with so many characters crossing paths and constantly coming in and out and back in again.

Comedy-wise, there are some good laughs to be had, and they generally come through the dialogue of the characters in this less-than-desirable situation. By that sense, it is written well and the characters sound like real people. Any film with Jason Bateman and Tina Fey in it is going to be planted in the comedy genre, but TIWILY has a great deal of drama and heavyness in it, and it is a little unclear as to what it really wants to be. In a nutshell, it is a dramedy but it shifts tonally so often and so quickly between scenes that it becomes a little difficult to buy into. Seriously, there are musical cues that give clear indication to the audience, almost as if the movie is telling us “OK, it’s time to stop chuckling and time to get serious.”

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With the cast assembled for this, what most are given to do from a character sense underwhelms. Really, only Bateman’s character gets fleshed out and explored, and not surprisingly, he gives a very effective performance. His character is one to sympathize with and get behind, and his growth throughout is evident. The same cannot be said for the rest, mainly because they just aren’t allowed to. They are saddled with template characters seen before in other places, be it the irresponsible and outspoken young buck of the family (Adam Driver), the uptight boring brother (Corey Stoll), or the politically incorrect and unabashed matriarch (Jane Fonda). It is to their credit along with the solid dialogue that they’re still able to generate laughs, but that doesn’t translate into investment to their characters. Even the growth of these characters (aside from Bateman’s) that the movie desperately wants you to buy into feels nonexistent.

As a direct result of the lack of inability to make the characters interesting, it is a bit of a stretch to buy everyone as a family. You end up seeing Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, and company as themselves. This in turn makes the film almost like an extended comedy skit suited for Saturday Night Live in certain places. Sure it is still fun to watch, but since TIWILY is rooted around a dysfunctional family unit, believing that this is a real family is crucial to the experience. It appears that even the actors themselves ham it up to prove that this is such a dysfunctional family. Not every movie has to be believable, but certain ones suffer more if the feeling is not present.

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With so much promise, it is a big downer to see This Is Where I Leave You as it is: A middling family-get-together-from-hell film that is inconsistent and more familiar to other stuff than desired. Evidence of what it could have been is strewn here and there just enough to not be completely down on the movie, but it will still most likely leave one in a “wishing more from it” state of mind.

Grade: C

Photo credits go to theyoungfolks.com, wallpaperseries.com, andwegotthiscovered.com.

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