Emily Shawcross makes her Failed Critics debut to review new mystery thriller, It Comes At Night, a faithful ode to Greek tragedy. Warning: here be spoilers!
“And just fucking like that, I was one of them. And I was a big fucking deal.”
So yeah, I’ve been falling out of love with Johnny Depp pretty hard this last few years. Outside of a couple of… let’s say interesting turns in films like Rango and The Rum Diaries, his appearances on the big screen have been lacklustre at best and just plain awful at worst. I mean, what in the name of Jesus beaten left testicle was going on in Tusk? It’s all good that you’ve got more money than God and you can take your pick of projects, but why the hell would you pick The Lone Ranger?
But… But, but, but! I do love me a good crime drama, the closer to true life the better and with 2009’s Public Enemies and 1997’s Donnie Brasco, Depp stars in two of my favourites. Stupid recent roles aside, I had high expectations for Mr Depp’s turn as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass.
Directed by Scott Cooper – of Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace fame – and based on the biographical book of the same name, Black Mass is the true story of James Bulger, a small time crook that became the most powerful gangster in South Boston with the help of his gang, his politician brother and – to coin the subtitle of the book and the tagline on the film poster – his unholy alliance with the FBI.
Kicking off in 1975, we are told Whitey’s story from a police interview room as they question henchman Kevin Weeks, a doorman who impressed Bulger by standing his ground and taking a beating doing his job. Quickly becoming Bulger’s driver and playing the part of his muscle makes him the perfect guy to tell the story of the next twenty years to us, and the police. As Weeks spills the beans on Whitey’s past endeavours, we meet the man while he’s just a small time hoodlum working he way up to full blown gangster status; not far removed from a prison stint that included three years in Alcatraz, Bulger spends his days working his way through South Boston making sure everyone knows that he is the guys to be scared of. At the same time, James’ politician brother William is keeping himself busy protecting his sibling, keeping him safe from prying eyes and organising meetings with John Connelly, an FBI agent that really wants to be a dirty cop and sees the Bulger brothers as the best way to do that.
The twisting stories between gangster Whitey, politician brother Jimmy and terrible bad cop Connelly span nearly two decades. From the rise of his Winter Hill mob into organised crime and his rivalry with the Angiulo brothers of North Boston that eventually led to his conspiring with the FBI; to Bulger’s eventual fleeing Boston, the law, and his rivalries to stay alive and out of prison.
Black Mass is all about the performances. While the tale it’s weaving is great and Cooper’s direction and story telling style are amazing, it’s the stellar cast and superb acting from almost all of them that make this film stand out. First and foremost is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of local gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, his time on screen is almost flawless. Sure, his makeup is a little dodgy and he looks a bit like a 50 year old Draco Malfoy, but Depp is suitably evil in every scene he is in and has mastered the craft of the psycho eyes that make him just terrifying – one scene where he threatens a copper with “the last thing I’d do if I was planning to harm you, is fucking warn you about it” may be the scariest thing I see in a weekend that includes a Crimson Peak screening. It’s the role that has restored a little love and faith in Johnny Depp and may he pull performances like this one from here on in.
Depp’s support is almost perfect too. Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent John Connelly, the agent that comes dangerously close to being a bungling fool in the grand scheme of things but is just dying to be hot shit is great. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for Edgerton, but he does the simple role very, very well. Jesse Plemons – a guy I only know from the excellent Friday Night Lights – essentially plays two parts; Kevin Weeks the big time gangster’s muscle and Kevin Weeks the informant driving the narration forward for us and in both roles he shines. Quickly erasing the teenage football player image I had for him and making him a bit of a bad ass. Maybe the biggest mis-step in casting comes in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch. Now I have a lot of time for the Sherlock actor, but his casting as Whitey’s politician brother Billy seems like stunt casting at its worst. Not because he’s bad or because he’s used to sell the film, but just to say “we got Cumberbatch in our flick” and it really wasn’t necessary; he just doesn’t seem to fit the role that he’s been given. With appearances from Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson and Rory Cochrane all running in support, Black Mass has more than enough acting chops on screen to keep almost anyone entertained.
Overall, Black Mass is excellent. It’s an interesting slice of time from the crime stories of Boston and while it comes across a little like a true story version of The Departed mixed with a slightly unhealthy dose of wanting to be Goodfellas, it is an amazing way to spend a couple of hours. It pains me to say it, in a year that had Tom Hardy starring in a Kray twins film, but Black Mass may be the best crime film you can see this year.
In what is the last blockbuster of 2014, Exodus: Gods & Kings delivers an suitably enjoyable romp. However resident cynic Matt Lambourne proverbially pokes Ridley Scott’s latest sand and sandals epic full of holes.
By Matt Lambourne (@Matt_Lambourne)
Unfortunately Exodus missed the release deadline for the Failed Critics end of year awards for 2014, so by default it will be spared any embarrassment for it’s absence. In truth it probably wouldn’t have harmed the chances of the eventual top 10 anyways, that said the movie is deserved of some attention.
I must state in the interest of fairness that I am an admirer of the period of history that is the source material for the film, although not necessarily a big interest in the religious aspect. Being an atheist, there are aspects of the film that are malignant to my overall enjoyment of the film. OK, now that is out of the way we can get stuck into the bones & meat of Exodus: Gods and Kings.
The first thing that will strike you about this film is the outrageously beautiful set and costume design. If there was any question where the reported $140,000,000 budget for this movie went (with the exception of Christian Bale & Joel Edgerton‘s barber costs) then look no further than this, as this film looks as beautiful as it’s protagonists’ spray tans.
For the uninitiated, Exodus retells the story of the rising of Moses and his leadership of the Hebrews as they break free of 400 years of slavery under the hands of the Egyptian Pharaohs, but in overly dramatised Hollywood fashion. Bale & Edgerton are cast in the main roles of Moses and Ramsees respectively and in fairness do a decent job for the most part in convincing they are masters of this ancient world we are thrust into.
The Make-Up/Tan/Costume of Edgerton is particularly impressive, he looks absolutely superb and entirely in place as King of the Egyptian realm. The film follows a similar opening to that of Gladiator, in whereby you are introduced to this seemingly stable power triangle in the form of the current Pharaoh, Ramsees the successor and the overly favoured army General in Moses. In fact, its the same damn template to a tee and I doubt too many people who see this movie even on a casual viewing would fail to detect this obvious repeat of formula.
You can’t blame Ridley Scott, really. It worked so well with Gladiator that when he dared to change it up a little for ‘Kingdom of Heaven‘ it didn’t yield the best return or praise. Exodus wants to be Gladiator for the most part and delivers in scale and grandeur, however it doesn’t on 2 major components; character development and battle sequences.
Don’t get me wrong, the character arcs for Moses and Ramsees are decent enough. Moses gradually shifts from part of the Egyptian machine to reluctant leader of the Hebrews at just the right pace, whereas Ramsees’ plunge into Megalomania dictates the tempo for the entire story. However the other characters are entirely symbolic and add almost nothing to the quality of the movie, nor the story other than their obligatory inclusion to be consistent with the legend of the film’s subject matter.
This moves me along nicely to one of my biggest movie bugbears, pointless casting. There are several inclusions in this movie that are fairly high on the pay-grade that I either did not recognise or felt brought zero to the table in either performance or draw of their name to the target audience.
Firstly, lets start with Aaron Paul. His stock has fallen ever so slightly since finishing Breaking Bad and immediately jumping into a shitty intellectual property in the live-action Need for Speed but he still holds a little pull for a certain audience, but why on Earth is he in this? He is just about recognisable in his get-up as Joshua (another win for the make-up team) but he delivers no performance value in this at all, in fact he barely even speaks!
Ben Kingsley will sell himself out to just about anything that requires a remotely dark complexion and has become a caricature of his standout performance in Gandhi. His face just about adds some form of safety/trust as a tribal elder but again, no value overall and another big casting fee wasted. Then there are the ones I failed to recognise at all. Sigourney Weaver totally escaped my recognition despite being fairly prominent… I’ll give that one up for my own ignorance perhaps. The usually excellent John Tuturro is cast as Pharoah Seti, whilst doing nothing wrong in performance it just appears as one of those token favour castings… why would you squeeze in a heavyweight Jewish actor in a role as a Pharoah, someone that oppresses persons of your faith? Then there was the peculiar addition of Ewen Bremner (Yes, the Scottish Ewen Bremner) as one of Ramsees’ advisors.
The whole casting smacks of some sort of agenda. You have the most caucasian actors in the world playing all the juicy Egyptian/Hebrew roles (with the aid of heavy tanning I might add!) whilst they carefully selected performers with Arabic heritage for the few select roles that were of that ethnicity. This is the biggest issue with Exodus in general, it massively leans towards the Zionest slant of the story and appears to depict that everything good about Ancient Egypt came off the sweaty and bloodied backs of Hebrews.
I won’t even go into whether that is right or wrong historically, however it comes across as somewhat deliberate, to the extent that it may prevent the film getting any long-term praise for its technical merits in a similar fashion to Mel Gibson’s historical bludgeonings like The Patriot and The Passion. I can’t imagine the Arabic community at large being terribly ecstatic about the movie either, which then makes you wonder who the movie is really being made for? The general viewership won’t care for the underlaying message or the historical appeal, they just want to be entertained.
Ultimately this is where Exodus misses the mark. The marketing for the film implies (at least in my person interpretation) an epic battle at the centre of the conflict between Moses and Ramsee however it simply doesn’t exist. In fact the film’s main action sequence is over and done with rather quickly into proceedings. That leaves you waiting patiently for something that never really occurs and whilst you’re sitting back enjoying the Plague scenes (which are truly spectacular by the way) you’re still looking forward to the big climatic battle, which is sadly denied and audiences don’t enjoy feeling mislead about what they’re handing over money for.
The ending really doesn’t satisfy in any sense and I’m left to wonder how much better this could have been if a few tweaks had been made here and there. For me, this is a film for fans of ancient/religious history but isn’t quite good enough for the main stream. The critics will have quickly panned any slim Oscar chances for Exodus as far as Cinematic achievement goes, however I will give this massive kudos for the stunning costume, make-up and set design as previously mentioned… its here where the movie really excels and does have some legitimate chance of picking up some accolades during awards season.
In conclusion, go and see it and enjoy it as it is pretty good, but its far from a genre-classic like it’s director’s other attempts such as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven (directors cut only of course!)