Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Black Mass: Cops and Gangsters, Caught in a City's Undertow

Johnny Depp stars as Whitey Bulger in "Black Mass"
James Whitey Bulger was one of the most notorious mobsters in United States history. What, don't believe me? Just watch Black Mass, a movie that repeatedly and insistently trumpets Bulger's legendary place in American gangster lore at every shrill turn. It features no shortage of people, whether harried law enforcement agents or cowed criminal cohorts, braying about Bulger's illegal exploits and moral contemptibility. Yet the oddest thing about this adequately entertaining movie, which was directed in workmanlike fashion by Scott Cooper and features a dream-team cast, is that for all its vociferous proclamations, it reveals very little about who Bulger was, what he did, or how he eventually became one of the country's most wanted fugitives. Yes, he kills a few people over the course of the film, and he threatens a few others, and he certainly seems very mean. But to the extent that he ruled Boston's underworld for two decades as the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, well, you'll just have to take Black Mass at its word. It presents a litany of testimony swearing to Bulger's evil, but therein lies its flaw: It tells, but it does not show.

This does not mean that there is nothing to see. To begin with, there is the unforgettable sight of a blue-eyed Johnny Depp. Those eerie cerulean irises (the product of contact lenses), along with slicked-back pale-blond hair and prosthetically rotted teeth, combine to give 2009's sexiest man alive a truly frightening countenance. And while one might quibble with the subtlety of Depp's performance as Bulger—which is to say, there is none—it is impossible to deny the ferocious commitment he brings to the role. Often the target of critical ridicule for his unfettered flamboyance (which can, of course, yield spectacular results), he is all business here, those unblinking, alien blues teaming with a snarling Beantown monotone that befits Bulger's blunt, monolithic persona. He rarely raises his voice, but he is always threatening, whether he's coolly berating an underling or, in the film's most quietly terrifying scene, exerting his will over a colleague's wife. He is not someone you wish to cross.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Visit: Nice to Meet You, Grandma. Could You Put Down the Knife?

Grandma goes crazy in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Visit"
The Visit, a chintzy tale of low-budget horror, is the best movie M. Night Shyamalan has made in over a decade. This, of course, is hardly extravagant praise. But while Shyamalan, the cinematic-wunderkind-turned-critical-punching-bag, has helmed his share of recent misfires, those failings suffered less from a lack of artistic talent than a poor sense of scale. Certainly, his recent output—Lady in the Water, The Happening, After Earth—could charitably be deemed "not good", but all three of those films had their minor virtues, particularly their director's gift for nifty camerawork and provocative imagery. (Even the misbegotten Last Airbender had one good scene.) The problem was that Shyamalan didn't want these movies to be good; he wanted them to be great, to be revolutionary, to capture the zeitgeist. Sadly, his clumsy storytelling dashed those hopes, and when you added his ham-fisted dialogue into the mix, the laughable writing masked the visual artistry. Shyamalan's recent films didn't fall short of greatness so much as they fell off a cliff.

The Visit is not a great movie (not even close), but the key to its relative success is that it doesn't want to be great. This is a slender, modestly mounted fright flick—sometimes scary, sometimes funny, frequently ridiculous—and its lack of ambition frees it from the shackles of grandiosity. That in turn gives Shyamalan greater freedom to flex his filmmaking muscle, which he does with aplomb, repeatedly delivering memorable set pieces and exquisite framing. He's always been good at that stuff, but here he hasn't weighed himself down with a ponderous storyline, making this the first time he's ever seemed relaxed.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Queen of Earth: Woman on the Verge of a Total Collapse

Katherine Waterston and Elisabeth Moss are so-called friends in "Queen of Earth"
Queen of Earth, the fourth feature from writer-director Alex Ross Perry, is a razor blade wrapped in translucent silk. It takes place almost entirely in a single, idyllic location—a sun-dappled New York lake house—where two seemingly close friends are ostensibly lounging on vacation. But despite the beauty of its setting and the privilege of its characters (one is the daughter of a famous artist, the other an apparent heiress), this grim, unsettling picture is by no means soothing. It is, rather, a barbed psychological study of one woman's gradual descent into madness, and of another's pain and helplessness. It is the kind of film that asks far more questions than it answers, chief among them: Why do people remain friends? Do we ever really know one another? Do we even know ourselves? Most importantly: What the hell is going on in this movie?

The latter inquiry is probably best directed at Virginia (Katherine Waterston, the femme fatale from Inherent Vice), the relatively stable half of Queen of Earth's lakeside duo. She is the aforementioned heiress; her parents own the resplendent villa, a cozy slice of serenity tucked next to a placid lagoon and surrounded by multihued leaves. Virginia is a layabout—she's supposedly on holiday, but it's unclear exactly what she's taking holiday from—but she can at least credibly distinguish between fantasy and reality. The same cannot be said of Catherine (Elisabeth Moss, going for broke), Virginia's spasmodic companion who opens the film in a state of extreme agitation and only grows more disheveled from there. Catherine's face is the first thing we see in Queen of Earth, her blue eyes flashing anger as tears streak through her smudged black eyeliner. She's getting dumped by her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), and she isn't taking it well. In the first of many extended close-ups that define the film's intimate aesthetic (Perry cuts away only once), the camera watches nosily as Catherine sobs, seethes, and howls, eventually screaming "Go!" in a guttural rage. This woman, Moss makes inescapably clear, is badly damaged. She could really use a vacation.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Super-Spy Shuffle, with a Smile and a Wink

Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, and Henry Cavill are charming spies in "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
It is telling that the best scene in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Guy Ritchie's fun and frivolous update of a forgotten '60s spy show, involves a man quietly helping himself to a sandwich. That would be Napoleon Solo (Man of Steel's Henry Cavill), a crack thief-turned CIA agent who, during the scene in question, finds himself fleeing from angry German sentries after breaking into a heavily guarded warehouse. He begins the sequence—along with his grudging partner, KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (The Social Network's Armie Hammer)—attempting to outmaneuver 'ze Germans on a speedboat, but during the chaos, he gets thrown overboard. Any reasonable movie would keep the focus on Kuryakin, hurtling alongside him as he evades his pursuers through heroism and ingenuity. Instead, Ritchie stays with Solo as he calmly finds his way to a pickup truck, where he happily discovers a Little Red Riding Hood-like basket of goodies. As Solo uncorks a bottle of wine and carefully tucks in a bib, the boat chase featuring Kuryakin rages on in the background, orange flames silently erupting into the black night sky. Yet only after savoring a bite of his stolen sandwich, then emitting a weary sigh of annoyance, does Solo come to his partner's aid.

This is a very funny scene, but it's also illustrative of Ritchie's commitment to lightness as a mode of storytelling. To say he favors style over substance almost gives him too much credit. What really matters to him is buoyancy, which is why The Man from U.N.C.L.E. floats along in a state of perpetual ease and winking insouciance. Evoking a James Bond picture from the Roger Moore era (there is even a spectacularly cheesy double entendre), it is difficult to imagine a spy film less interested in generating danger or suspense. It's pointless, but at the same time, it persuasively suggests that having a point is overrated.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Z for Zachariah: A Garden of Eden in a Land of the Dead

Margot Robbie is the last woman on Earth in "Z for Zachariah"
The apocalypse has long fascinated filmmakers, and no wonder. From the black comedy of Dr. Strangelove to the commercial satire of Dawn of the Dead to the blunt-force survivalism of I Am Legend, the concept of the end of the world yields fertile cinematic soil for eager directors to till. But the marvel of Z for Zachariah, Craig Zobel's solemn and soulful third feature, is that it isn't really about the end of the world at all. Certainly, it recognizes the starkness of its reality, but it shows only the barest of interest in exploring the origins of its inciting event. (The sum total of its exposition occurs when a character muses, "Maybe something with the weather patterns.") Instead, Z for Zachariah uses the apocalypse as scaffolding to explore a genre that is far more cataclysmic: the domestic melodrama. Zobel doesn't care how civilization collapsed. He wants to know how hearts break.

Not that this lush and expressive film is remotely lacking in ghoulish imagery or toxic atmosphere. From its opening moments, which follow a hooded figure clad in Hazmat gear prowling through a barren landscape, Z for Zachariah silently communicates the calamity that has befallen the planet. That figure is Ann (Margot Robbie, an Australian giving her best shot at a Southern accent), the lone remaining denizen of this unhappy valley that's located somewhere in Southern Appalachia. Ann's hair initially appears lank and her face is caked with grime, but this isn't one of those cheesy uglification jobs, and her natural luminescence quickly shines through because, you know, Margot Robbie. One day, this solitary looker spies John Loomis (a terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor), a civil engineer wandering a dusty road in a comically oversized "safe suit". He futzes around with a Geiger counter and then, upon confirming that the air is uncontaminated, strips off his suit and lets out a bellow of euphoria, tears streaming down his face; with that, in less than 30 seconds and without uttering a single syllable, Ejiofor makes his character's agony and ecstasy known. Indeed, John is so excited by having finally found a safe environment that he stupidly wades into a nearby pond without first testing the water, which is, Ann frantically informs him, radioactive.