Movie Review: Black Mass

Johnny Depp is unrecognizable as James 'Whitey' Bulger in Black Mass.
Johnny Depp is unrecognizable as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass.

DISCLAIMER: Okay, I know I’m late in reviewing a lot of movies, including this one. I’m hoping to do some catching up in this time. So please bear with me.

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is a man of infamy. Black Mass is a movie that attempts to reveal what type of person Bulger was and how he was able to get away with what he did all this time.

It’s 1975. The streets of South Boston are ruled by James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and his Irish-American Winter Hill Gang with Stephen Flemmi as his right-hand man, Kevin Weeks as his rising rookie and Johnny Martorano as his merciless hitman. However it’s rivaled by the Angiullo brothers who have ties to the New England Mafia family.

In the middle of this, former FBI Agent John Connolly returns to Boston in hopes of stopping the Angiullo brothers and does the tricky task of trying to get Whitey’s help to do so. Besides Whitey and brother Billy Bulger, who’s the president of the Massachusetts State Senate, are childhood friends. At first, Whitey is reluctant to be an informant but agrees after one of his Winter Hill Gang members is gunned down.

No kidding having Whitey as an informant for an FBI agent is touchy stuff and it even causes suspicion from Connolly’s boss. However it becomes a case where Bulger is the one pulling Connolly’s strings as he uses Connolly’s ‘protection’ for covering his crimes. Whitey becomes more violent after his six year-old son dies of an allergic reaction to aspirin. He even gains more success in achieving FBI control in terms of trying to down the Angiullos. Connolly however becomes more attached to Whitey which interferes with his marriage.

However the bond between Bulger and Connolly reach a turning point as Whitey orders one of his men to kill two men associated with a scheme Whitey was to profit over. One man in whitey’s ring, Brian Halloran, comes across as untrustworthy and senses him to be a possible rat. Fearing for his life, Halloran goes to the FBI for help but to no avail. Connolly informs Whitey of Halloran’s sayings and Halloran is killed.

Bulger’s lust for blood and his own menacing behavior only grow over time and it leads to a downfall in his relationship with Connolly. Over time a new district attorney, Fred Wyshak, is hired in Boston. Despite Connolly’s attempt to befriend the ‘bulldog’ attorney, Wyshak refuses and attempts to have Bulger arrested. Eventually the secrets are unraveled thanks to the help of the Boston Globe which leads to the arrests of Connolly and Bulger’s three other men. Bulger however is successful in avoiding arrest of his own however he would be arrested in 2011 after 16 years ‘on the run.’

I’m sure what most people would be interested in seeing when they watch this film is yet another character played by Johnny Depp. The weird thing is about how unrecognizable he comes across with his balding hair and blue eyes. However I’m sure he was chosen because of how he could embody the character of Whitey with his criminal mentality and his personal demons both on the street and within himself. Mind you Whitey was quite the character in real life to give himself his own exile before ultimately being brought to justice only as he was in his 80’s. Some may find Johnny’s hair and make-up rather distracting but it doesn’t take away from the story.

This is a story of intrigue. Those who know the story of Whitey Bulger, or even those who only know the name but not the whole story, will take an interest in why Whitey carried this all out and why an FBI agent was willing to assist. No doubt the story is mainly about Whitey. However the story is about Connolly too. It makes one wonder why a childhood friend would be so loyal to the point he’d be willing to go against his job in order to help him out despite the fact he’s carrying out such hideous crimes. No doubt the theme of loyalty is very present in the film as it is a common fact that loyalty to family and friends is something valued greatly in Boston. The theme of loyalty comes to the point where we see a scene of Bulger on the run but not before thanking Billy just before he and the other men are sentenced.

The make-up of Depp as Bulger may get a lot of attention but the highlight of the film was his performance of a man who is smart but troubled and very easy to infuriate. Depp also did a good job of conveying Bulger’s growing anger and personal motives in his carrying out in the crime activities but he also did a good job in showcasing Whitey’s mind in why Bulger felt it was right in doing all these hideous crimes and why he needed his men to carry it out and an FBI to be ahead of the game. Even showing how the accidental death of his son would be the turning point in Bulger and his lust for control and vengeance adds to the story and the character. The film rested predominantly on the story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger but it was Depp’s ability to show Whitey the person that made the story work at its best.

Sure, Johnny Depp carried the film but the film did feature other good supporting performances as well like that of Joel Edgerton as Connolly whose loyalty is questioned, Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy. The performances of the wives caught in the middle–Erica McDermott as Mary Bulger and Julianne Nicholson as Marianne Connolly– added to the human element of the story and kept it from being your typical hard-story crime drama.

This actually Scott Cooper’s third film as a director. The former actor’s best film making feat up to now has been Crazy Heart about a faded country star on a comeback. I don’t know if it’s as good as Crazy Heart but this is a very good film done by Cooper and is definitely his commercial breakthrough. Writers Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk did a good job of keeping it from being your typical mob-leader story.

Black Mass isn’t simply about an infamous crime leader. It’s also about the codes of loyalty some people would do for their friends, even if it meant violating their duties as an FBI. Very insightful and full of intense moments.

Movie Review: The Assassin (刺客聶隱娘)

Qi Shu is The Assassin.
Qi Shu is The Assassin.

The Assassin is one movie from the VIFF I missed out on. It’s a shame because there’s a lot of buzz that it may be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign language Film category. I had the good fortune to see it being repeated just two weeks later.

Nie Yinniang is a female assassin from the Tang Dynasty of the 8th Century A.D. Yinniang has always been good at carrying out her duties as an assassin and is very loyal to the orders given by Jiaxin, a nun who has raised her since the age of ten.

However she faces a new task as Jiaxin orders her to kill corrupt government officials. However each time she is sent, she displays mercy. Even if she assaults them, she does not kill them. This especially infuriates Jiaxin and she gives her a final assignment to test her loyalty. She is sent to the Northern Chinese province of Weibo where she is ordered to kill Tian Ji’an: her cousin she has once been betrothed to. Even before she is sent on that mission, she had heard news that Tian’s wife was pregnant. The ending does come as one would expect but it comes off as fitting for the film.

There was a time when the film was labeled reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I’ll admit before I myself came to the movie, I also had the same hopes. It is in a lot of ways where one is taken back to the China of the past, the film has a mythic feel of its own and the film has a female fighter. However the film isn’t as much of an epic, it isn’t full of a big score nor does it have the big fights featured in Crouching Tiger. Some people also expecting the same action may be disappointed and find the film moves at too slow of a pace.

Now enough of what The Assassin isn’t. What it is is a very picturesque film that is a reminder of many mythological tales of the ancient past set in ancient China. Here it is a story where an assassin trained to kill is tested between what she is commanded to do and what she knows is right in her heart. Yes, she’s capable of carrying out her actions in surely an action-packed manner but her true rival is actually her conscience. Some people may become a bit impatient in waiting for the next fight scene but the fights are not the top focus. It’s the story and the perceived slowness is actually meant to remind us of the intensity of the situation.

This is a very good work from veteran Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. He is already an accomplished director in his own right with A City of Sadness winning the Golden Lion at the 1989 Venice Film Festival and five previous films being entered at Cannes Film Festivals of the past. This film won him the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Festival. It’s evident to see why as he makes careful decisions here both in directing and co-writing with three other writers on how to not just have the audience watch the story but also feel the feeling of the main protagonist. He did a very good job here.

Also adding to the quality of the story is Shu Qi. she is an accomplished actress back in Hong Kong and her experience is shown in her ability to make the character of Yinniang work for the story. Chang Chen also does a good job as the nun who seeks vengeance. The costuming and sets, both natural and constructed, fit the film beautifully and perfectly and give it the right setting for the story. Lim Giong didn’t have too much of a score in the film but it fit the film well.

I also chose to see The Assassin because it was a film with very good chances of earning and Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It had already earned nominations in that category for the Golden Satellite and Critics Choice awards. Less than two weeks ago, the Oscar shortlist of nine for that category was revealed and it did not make the cut. However don’t rule it out in terms of the categories of Production Design, Cinematography, Costuming and Make-Up.

The Assassin isn’t an epic as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is nor is it as action-packed as many would hope. Nevertheless it is a very good story and it is put together well. I’m impressed.