Dark Days

Johnny Depp has been having his problems finding a hit recently. His last unabashed success was 2010’s Alice In Wonderland, but since then there’s been The Tourist, The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows, Transcendence, Mortdecai, the 4th Pirates of the Caribbean installment, and the major stink bomb The Lone Ranger. Even the recent Alice sequel landed with a thud after the original made over a billion at the box office. Sadly, the general malaise over Depp’s movies meant that people stayed away from his best performance since Finding Neverland (a personal favorite of mine). In this role he was the antithesis of the over-the-top strange characters he’s often played, and instead communicates the still menace of a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike. The movie is Black Mass, and the role is James “Whitey” Bulger.

Bulger was an Irish mobster from the south side of Boston who ruled the town from the 1970s into the 1990s. He got the nickname Whitey from his white-blond hair, though he hated it and preferred people call him Jim or Jimmy. Born in 1929 two months before the Stock Market Crash, Bulger was a handful for his parents, and his wild behavior included actually running away to join the circus when he was ten. In contrast, Bulger’s brother Billy excelled in school and grew up to become a politician, serving in both the state assembly and senate, and was later the President of the University of Massachusetts.

As a teenager Bulger joined a gang during WWII, leading to a reform school sentence when he was 14. After he got out, he joined the Air Force as a mechanic. Although his service record included several trips to the stockade for fighting, he managed to get an honorable discharge in 1952 after four years of service. He returned to Boston and his gang ties, and was incarcerated in federal prison for bank robbery. He served time in Alcatraz, Leavenworth, and other facilities. During that time he volunteered to be a human guinea pig for a medical trial run by the CIA that investigated the use of LSD.

By the 1970s when Black Mass begins, Bulger was firmly established in an Irish gang, but then events took an unexpected turn. A boy from the neighborhood, John Connolly, had become an FBI agent and was assigned to Boston. He recruited Bulger to help him smash the Patriarca crime family, the head of the Mafia in Boston. In exchange, the FBI protected him from investigations. This allowed Bulger to consolidate his power while using the FBI to eliminate his competition.

This may sound familiar if you saw Martin Scorsese’s movie The Departed. While the movie was an adaptation of a Hong Kong police thriller, Scorsese incorporated aspects of Boston crime history since the movie was set there. Jack Nicholson’s crime boss was (very) loosely based on Bulger.

But where Nicholson comes across as a dissipated slime ball, Depp’s performance is electric, and he communicates raw menace in the most casual of conversations. When they were filming Black Mass in Boston, on the same streets Bulger once ruled, locals saw Depp embodying the role and actually thought Bulger had returned. The menace also fits better with a man who was tied to 18 murders.

The movie was directed by Scott Cooper, who was an actor before he moved behind the camera as the writer and director of Crazy Heart, which earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar. He assembled a first-tier supporting cast that includes Joel Edgerton as Agent Connolly, Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy Bulger, and Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson in other roles.

While it doesn’t have the overall power of Scorsese’s movies based on true stories like Goodfellas and Casino, it’s a strong, well-told story of good intensions leading to corruption and destruction. I’d planned to see it in the theater last fall but it came and quickly left before I could make it there. It didn’t deserve that fate. The film’s recently come to HBO and it’s definitely worth a viewing.

Drawn to Animation

A couple of months ago, NBC Universal announced it was acquiring Dreamworks Animation. It’s a medium historically controlled by Disney, and Disney’s merger with Pixar ensured it’ll remain at the top for the foreseeable future. Dreamworks, though, had carved out a strong position of its own thanks to its franchises of Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, and How to Train Your Dragon. Universal already has its own animation division, Illumination Entertainment, and while the head of Dreamworks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, will remain with the company, the day-to-day running of the studio will be under the control of the head of Illumination, Chris Meledandri. Meledandri had been head of 20th Century Fox Animation, where Ice Age, Horton Hears a Who, and Alvin and the Chipmunks were made under his watch. He moved to Universal to run Illumination in 2007; its main hits have been the Despicable Me/Minions movies, though through over-exposure that series has pretty much run its course. Because of it, kids now don’t like yellow. Illumination needed to set off in a different direction, and the studio’s new film The Secret Life of Pets does that. However, it’s a direction that’s been explored before.

The movie focuses on Max (Louis C.K.) and his owner/soul mate Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max’s friends are the cat Chloe (Lake Bell), the friendly girl dog Gidget (Jenny Slate), the sarcastic dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Burress) and the pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan). However, Max’s world gets turned upside down with the arrival of Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a huge mop of brown hair who threatens Max’s relationship with Katie.

The conflict between the two ends up casting them adrift in the city where they run into a gang of discarded pets led by a magician’s former rabbit (Kevin Hart). Realizing Max is lost, Gidget mobilizes his friends and others, including a falcon name Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and an older dog named Pops (Dana Carvey).

The screenplay by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch, who’d worked together on the Minions movie, is at its best during the opening snippets that introduce the animals: Buddy using a mixer as a backscratcher, Chloe trying – unsuccessfully – to resist eating a cooked turkey, a poodle with a love of heavy metal music. (See the trailer below) After that the story loses energy and wit and becomes predictable. Tiberius and Pops bump the energy back up temporarily, but they’re brief respites.

When Max and Duke first enter the lair of the discarded pets, it may be a bit too intense for younger children, especially a sequence involving a huge snake. The scene ends with what seems to be a paean to the Roadrunner/Wyle E. Coyote cartoons, though without the comic timing of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. Later there’s a dream sequence in a hot dog factory that’s both bizarre and unnecessary.

The Secret Life of Pets tries to follow the path of another trilogy of films that looked at a secret life, though those movies involved toys. But Pets mistakes sentiment for real emotion. It will give you some “ah” moments, but it doesn’t go any deeper than that. Think of it as Toy Story lite.

Pets did knock Pixar’s Finding Dory out of the top spot in the box office, though it had been there for a couple of weeks and has already grossed over $400 million in the US so far. While Pets received a decent 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, Dory hit a stellar 95%. Based on Pets, I don’t think Disney/Pixar has any need to worry about Illumination/Dreamworks any time soon.

Life’s a Beach

Another movie I missed the first time around but streamed recently was Love & Mercy, the biopic of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Wilson was a musical genius as well as a very troubled man who was almost destroyed by misdiagnosed mental illness. The movie details his descent and eventual recovery in an unusual but effective way, by having two actors portray Wilson.

The first period roughly covers 1964 through 1966 when the Beach Boys rivaled the Beatles in popularity. The Beach Boys had actually come on the scene a couple of years before the Beatles with the California sound that they created and refined. They were close to a family act, made up of Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love, and high school friend Al Jardine. The Wilsons’ father Murry was their manager early on. However in ‘64 panic attacks and other problems led Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) to stop traveling with the group. While the others toured, Brian concentrated on writing, including creating the groups seminal album “Pet Sounds” as well as their biggest hit “Good Vibrations.”

In the mid-1980s, Brian (John Cusack) is under constant supervision by psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). When shopping for a car, Brian meets saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). He’s attracted to her, and she to him. However, as she draws close to him she learns how completely Landy controls Brian’s life. He’s diagnosed Brian as a paranoid schizophrenic and keeps him in a fog with prescription drugs. Melinda sees Landy as a threat to Brian’s life and is determined to save him, even if it means they’ll be separated.

The movie flips back and forth between the two periods. Director Bill Pohlad and screenwriter Owen Moverman (who reworked an earlier script by Michael A. Lerner) had also considered adding a middle act to cover the three years in the 1970s that Brian stayed in bed and ballooned to 300 lbs. They would have cast Philip Seymour Hoffman for that section, but they ended up covering the period briefly with Dano and Cusack.

Pohlad’s reputation is as a producer, having worked on Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild, Fair Game, 12 Years a Slave, and Wild, among other films. He’d only directed one other film 25 years earlier, his initial production credit Old Explorers. However, he does an excellent job in the director’s chair integrating the two facets of the story. He and Moverman have also done an incredible job with the accuracy of the story, even shooting scenes of the creation of Pet Sounds in the actual recording studio used for the album. (The scenes of Dano working with the musicians were improvised, though Dano listened to the tapes of the sessions and incorporated some lines that Brian Wilson actually said, including “You think we could get a horse in here?”)

Dano can be a very idiosyncratic actor, but as Brian he tones down those flourishes. It makes you feel the fragility of the character and understand when his world breaks apart. Although they didn’t collaborate at all on their performances, Cusack blends well with Dano, and having the two actors enhances the storytelling. As Landy, Giamatti is intense and scary. When he watched the film after it was completed, Wilson suffered a temporary disassociation and thought Giamatti actually was Lundy, which speaks to the veracity of his performance. The role of Melinda could have been one-dimensional, but Banks infuses it with a quiet strength and warmth.

The sound department for the film deserves special kudos, for sound becomes part of the plot. the dissonance within Brian’s brain is expressed in the film through heightened noise. A family dinner becomes excruciating for Brian as all the incidental background sounds are amplified. It’s like the music in his mind has turned on him and become a monster. It’s very effective.

During the credits, there’s footage of a recent performance by Brian Wilson of the song “Love & Mercy” that he wrote in the 80s, during the Landy years. (Landy had claimed co-writer status for all the work Wilson did at that time, though that was later corrected.) After watching the film, the song is a tender and poignant coda. So often the story of a musical genius ends as a tragedy. Love & Mercy shows how close Wilson came to that, but in the end it’s the story of resilience and survival.

Listing to the Right

(I’ve been catching up on some movies I missed when they were in the theaters. God bless streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix.)

I remember when I was young and first learned about the blacklistings of the 1940s and 1950s. Most think it was a byproduct of McCarthyism but that’s incorrect. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was in full swing well before Joe McCarthy came on the scene. He exploited it, but he did not create it. It seemed to me to be un-American by its very nature, to deny people gainful employment. But this was also the time of segregation, embedded anti-Semitism, and sickening paternalism, so in that light the blacklisting of people because of some imperfectly conceived threat is more understandable, though still not justifiable. And these are the days some hold up as “the good old days.” Sigh.

The blacklist affected thousands of people. Even decorated war veterans like Leo Penn, Sean Penn’s father, could have their patriotism questioned and be blacklisted simply by being sympathetic to unions. Most of those who suffered were regular people with regular jobs, but there were some well-known people who had the world crash down around them. The most famous on the list was Dalton Trumbo.

Trumbo was a talented screenwriter and script doctor in Hollywood. He’d also published novels, the most famous of which was “Johnny Got His Gun,” an anti-war novel set during WWI. (The book was reissued in the late 1960s and became a 1971 movie starring Timothy Bottoms, Donald Sutherland, and Jason Robards; Trumbo did the screenplay and directed the film). During WWII, when the Soviet Union was allied with the US and Great Britain, Trumbo became a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America.

Jay Roach’s 2015 film Trumbo picks up his story just after the war. At the time Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is working on a film with Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and living on a farm outside Los Angeles with his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and his three children. During a recent strike against the studio, Trumbo had supported the workers. That painted a proverbial target on his back, and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) was more than happy to shoot arrows at it.

Trumbo does an excellent job with telling the story both of how the blacklisting began as well as Trumbo’s fight to keep working in spite of it. In recreating the Hollywood of that time, several major actors and others involved in the film industry are portrayed. In some cases the actors don’t resemble the person, such as Stuhlbarg and David James Elliott as John Wayne, so they go more for the essence of the person rather than an impersonation. However, a couple of the actors are dead ringers for their characters and nail them, especially Australian actor Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas and German actor Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger.

Lane is spectacular as Cleo Trumbo, balancing her love of her husband with her exasperation with him. Later in the film Elle Fanning portrays Trumbo’s oldest daughter Nikki during her teenaged years. One of the best scenes in the film is when Trumbo realizes his daughter is exactly like him. Also deserving of plaudits are Louis C.K., who plays Trumbo’s best friend and fellow blacklist victim, and John Goodman as schlock producer Frank King.

The movie, though, belongs to Cranston whose Oscar-nominated performance is spot on. There’s archival footage of an interview with Trumbo that’s included during the credits, and it sounds just like Cranston’s performance. Trumbo is a character with sharp edges and plenty of problems, and Cranston communicates them with crystal clarity.

Director Jay Roach cut his teeth on comedies with the Austin Powers series and the first two Meet the Parents movies. In 2008 he shifted gears to more political fare with the HBO movie Recount, followed by Game Change with Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin and the theater-released The Campaign with Will Ferrill and Zach Galifianakis. While Trumbo has plenty of humor in it, there is more gravitas in the story as well.

The production design by Mark Ricker and the art direction by Lisa Marinaccio and Jesse Rosenthal beautifully captures the historical settings. They’re assisted by Jim Denault’s cinematography that matches the rich Technicolor look of films of that time. Roach also seamlessly blends in actual footage of the HUAC hearings with testimony from the likes of Robert Taylor and Ronald Reagan.

This was a time when the ship of state went dangerously out of balance and threatened to capsize. It provides a powerful lesson on how we need to hold onto the aspects of this country that have made it great, such as the rule of law, fairness, and the constitutional rights granted us to freedom of speech and due process. When we abrogate those because of short-term fears, it lessens the country.

Me After Watching

There have been some incredible movies about overcoming physical adversity. Two years ago Eddie Redmayne took home the Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Daniel Day Lewis did the same for his role as Christy Brown in 1989’s My Left Foot. In 1946, Sam Goldwyn cast soldier and double-amputee Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives, a powerful film on the difficulties of vets returning from the war. It won multiple Oscars, including Best Supporting for Russell. There’s also Born on the 4th of July, Coming Home, The Elephant Man, The Miracle Worker – all good movies. If you want romance thrown in, you can look at that ultimate weeper, 1957’s An Affair to Remember. Now there’s the new film Me Before You. This is the only time it gets mentioned in any proximity to those previous, excellent films.

The story revolves around the quirky Lou Clark (Emilia Clarke), a woman in her twenties who had thought of taking fashion design in university but put her plans on hold to help support her family. When she’s let go from her job at a bakery, things look desperate. Then she hears about a position as a companion to a quadriplegic. Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) is the only child of the richest family in Lou’s small English town – they own the local castle/tourist attraction. Will was once a hard-driving banker in London and extreme sports enthusiast, but a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed. His parents (Charles Dance, Jane McTeer) have the resources to care for him, including renovating part of their estate so he has his own flat. His mother hires Lou in spite of her having no experience because of the one thing she does have in abundance – joie de vive.

It’s interesting to see Clarke in a role so completely different from the Mother of Dragons on “Game of Thrones” and you do root for her in this film. She’s well matched with Claflin, who made a splash a Finnick in The Hunger Games series. Based on their performances it would be easy to like this movie, and I had had a positive response to it while watching the film. The film also features former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman as Lou’s sister Treena, and she makes the most of her small role.

But afterward the film leaves you with a bad aftertaste as the weaknesses of the story keep coming back into my mind. I might have blamed it on the translation of the original book to the screen, except the screenplay was done by the book’s author, Jojo Moyes. The story is about as antiseptic as possible. Lou doesn’t have to deal with any of the medical requirements beyond administering medicine. There’s a male nurse (Stephen Peacocke) to handle all the messy work, and none of it shows up on camera.

Worse, though, is the self-indulgence of the characters, especially Will. He’s had a charmed existence throughout his life, and even after the accident he has resources available that could allow him to create a new life even with his challenges. Instead he focuses on what he’s lost. In the scene where Lou first meets Will, he does a horrible impression of My Left Foot. It may have been seen by Moyes as a way to separate the two stories, but if anything it reminds the audience how much this film suffers in comparison to Day Lewis’s towering performance.

The novel the movie’s based on was published 4 years ago. What makes me sad is how many great movies have to struggle for years – decades, occasionally – to finally get made, yet this meringue gets to the local Cineplex almost before the printing presses finished spitting it out. They do say adversity helps build character. But then you have to have some character to start with.

Look Black in…Meh

Shane Black hit the jackpot with his first screenplay at age 22: 1987’s Lethal Weapon, which pretty much started the action movie genre. His next two screenplays were sold for record prices of $1.75 million (The Last Boy Scout) and $4 million (The Long Kiss Goodnight), but both of them were financial disappointments that short circuited his career. It was nine years before another of his scripts was produced, and this time he was in the director’s seat as well. While it wasn’t a financial success, it was a decent film starring Robert Downey Jr. when he was rebuilding his career. In 2013 he worked with Downey again on Iron Man 3 as both director and co-screenwriter.  Third movies in a series often bomb, but this was a solid effort that grossed $1.2 billion and returned Black to the bankable ranks. For his newest writing/directing gig, Black has jumped into his Way Back machine and taken a trip to 1970s Hollywood with The Nice Guys. It’s a so-so trip.

Once again Black’s done a buddy movie. Russell Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a muscle man who can be hired by anyone who has the money. A bully bothering you at school, you don’t like the guy dating your daughter? Healy will make them reconsider their ways. His current client is a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) who has hired him to make a couple of people following her back off.

One of the people tracking down Amelia is PI and single parent Holland March (Ryan Gosling). He’s not above stringing out an investigation to get more money out of a client, and when a nearly blind elderly woman hires him to find her niece he thinks he can make out well. The niece in question is a porn star who has died (spectacularly) during the opening scene of the film, but the client swears she saw the niece days after her supposed death. March has found that Amelia was at the porn star’s home around the time the aunt supposedly saw her niece. But then Healy shows up at Holland’s door to convince him to stop looking for Amelia. Part of the convincing is breaking Holland’s arm.

Then Healy runs into the two other men looking for Amelia and is lucky to get out of the encounter alive. Amelia has disappeared, so Healy decides to hire Holland to help him track down Amelia and protect her. The movie goes on a wild romp from there, throwing together environmental activists, porn moguls, corrupt political operatives, and a hit man who looks like John Boy on “The Waltons” (played by Matt Bomer).

The down side of The Nice Guys is that anyone who has watched the Lethal Weapon series or other buddy movies will feel this is a retread of earlier, better material. Part of the problem is with the big bad villain in the story. Like with the Bond films, if you don’t have a good villain you don’t have a good movie, and the villainous cabal behind the killings in this film just doesn’t work.

However, there are good aspects that come close to redeeming the film. Crowe and Gosling have a wonderful chemistry together, and the interplay between them sparkles. The best part of the film is Angourie Rice as Holly March, Holland’s daughter who’s wise beyond her years and has taken on the job of mothering her father, even to the point of chauffeuring him around. Bomer is effective as the killer John Boy, though you wish he’d had a larger part in the film. Kim Basinger has a role in the film as Amelia’s mother, who happens to be a federal prosecutor. For film fans who remember LA Confidential (a much superior exercise in Hollywood history) it’s fun to see her with Crowe again.

The Nice Guys isn’t as bad as The Last Boy Scout or The Long Kiss Goodnight, but it’s not as good as Lethal Weapon, or even Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. If you like this type of film, The Nice Guys will entertain, but it won’t stun.

Monstrous Stew, Right Size Serving

Money Monster wants to be a lot of things. Screenwriters Jim Kouf & Alan DiFore and Jamie Linden have thrown pieces of His Girl Friday, Wall Street, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and Meet John Doe into a stew to create a populist-fantasy-black-comedy-thriller. It could have been a gray, unappealing mush. It’s fortunate, though, to have Jodie Foster in the director’s chair. She keeps the movie racing along for its tight 98 minute running time so it’s only afterward that you wonder, “How the heck was that as entertaining as it was?”

It does help to have George Clooney and Julia Roberts as the main characters. Clooney plays Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer-style television investment guru who spices up the show with props, sound effects, and dancing girls. Roberts is Patty Fenn, his long-suffering producer who’s leaving to take a job at another network. In effect, they are Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, shooting their lines of banter at each other early on. The show’s about to begin with the main focus on an investment company headed by Walt Camby (Dominic West) that has lost millions of dollars overnight because of what Camby calls a glitch in the trading algorithm. Camby was to have been the guest on the show, but he’s been delayed on a flight from Switzerland so the company’s Chief Informational Officer, Diane Lester (Caltriona Balfe from “Outlander”), is subbing for him on a remote feed.

Soon after the show begins, Patty notices a deliveryman wandering around backstage. Then the man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken) takes Gates hostage at gunpoint and forces him to put on an explosive vest. Kyle had sunk $60,000 into Camby’s company based on Lee’s recommendation of the investment. Now it’s gone, and he doesn’t buy the story of it being a glitch in the algorithm. Pretty soon, neither does Lee.

The movie is in effect a juggling act as the story flips between Lee in the studio, Patty in the control room, Lester at the company office, and the police who secure and evacuate the building and prepare to take Kyle down. Foster uses the camera so you’re constantly seeing the scene from multiple angles. She also brings in the reactions of people watching the hostage drama play out on television screens across the city. For some it’s compelling while others are jaded and treat it like another episode of reality TV.

Clooney and Roberts have a well-established rapport. Even when she’s a voice in his ear during the show, you feel the connection between them. Brit O’Connell works a bit hard at his Brooklynese, but you do care about Kyle, who stands in for all those who’ve been hurt by Wall Street machinations. (If you want a moral for the story, it’s that greed isn’t good.)

There were two delightful surprises in the cast. I hadn’t seen any episodes of “Outlander” but it’s now on my to-be-watched list, based on Caltriona Balfe’s performance here. She’s one of those actors that the camera embraces – everything going on in her mind communicates on her face effortlessly. Much of the show, though, is stolen by Lenny the cameraman, played by Lenny Venito. Like many in this country, he concentrates on doing his job, but in the end he goes so much past that to become a part of the story.

Money Monster is contrived and has to use several quick leaps to get to its desired conclusion, including a deus ex machina of hackers finding hidden evidence within a matter of minutes. That’s become a hackney cliché that should be eliminated from all writing. The movie also suffers in comparison to The Big Short which laid out a real story of the financial industry’s cupidity with an even darker level of humor – and was one of the best movies of 2015. But it does mix in a few twists on the formula that make it fun. There are worse ways to spend 98 minutes.