2015: Part 10

Black Mass. Directed by Scott Cooper. In 1990, Johnny Depp made a film called Edward Scissorhands which obscured his “21 Jump Street” looks under extreme makeup, hair and costumes and, by extension, allowed Depp the freedom to perform in a purer way. The audience could see his abilities as an actor better than they could when he looked like a teen heartthrob, and the result was a classic that I consider one of the ten best films ever made. Twenty-five years later, in Black Mass, Depp covers himself up with aging makeup, distractingly blue-eyed contacts, rotting teeth and an exaggerated Boston accent, the combined effect of which leaves me hollow and indifferent. What happened?

Maybe my opinion is too clouded by the recent, nasty divorce proceedings going on between Depp and Amber Heard; maybe it’s just that I’m no longer impressed by Depp’s detached, possibly inebriated persona in every late-night interview I’ve seen him do for the last ten years. Whatever the reason is, while watching Black Mass I realized that I could not enjoy an iota of Johnny Depp’s performance. He snarls and shoots and occasionally strangles while playing gangster overlord James “Whitey” Bulger, but by the end I felt like so what? The only sympathetic characters in the film – Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s girlfriend, Julianne Nicholson as the fearful wife of an FBI agent who is also one of Bulger’s closest friends (Joel Edgerton), Juno Temple as a prostitute whose relationship with Bulger’s main right-hand man gets her in trouble – are either dropped from the film or meet with violence from Bulger and his cronies. I’m not saying that the film glorifies the bad guys, but the direction and screenplay bring nothing new to this depiction of sadistic criminality. I have seen the scenes in Black Mass many times in similar movies, and they were almost always done more successfully by other filmmakers.

The Boy Next Door. Directed by Rob Cohen. The Boy Next Door is one of those sexy-but-stupid thrillers that plays out exactly like you know it will if you’ve seen the trailer (or, really, even if you haven’t): an English teacher (Jennifer Lopez), recently separated from her husband (John Corbett, who in middle age now resembles John Heard) after he cheats on her with a co-worker, is surprised and pleased when a hunky young man (Ryan Guzman) moves in with his elderly uncle next door. Said young man proceeds to befriend Lopez’s nerdy teenage son (Ian Nelson), and also to charm J. Lo and flirt with her endlessly; when Corbett and Nelson go on a father-son camping trip and Lopez has a bad experience on a blind date, a night of drunken loneliness leads her to make the terrible mistake of allowing sweet, puppy-dog-ish Guzman to seduce her and have sex with her. Ah, but comes the dawn…

Lopez knows she has done a problematic thing. The issue isn’t Guzman’s age – the character is “almost twenty” (the actor was 26/27) – but rather the fact that he has just enrolled in Lopez’s English class (I don’t recall an explanation as to why he never finished high school), which means an unsettling conflict of interest. Naturally Guzman can’t take “no relationship” for an answer and he turns out to be an A-class psycho who stalks Lopez at home, at school and everywhere else, as well as turning teen son Nelson against Lopez and Corbett. (There’s also the issue of Lopez’s best friend, Kristin Chenoweth, who is the vice principal at the school – she senses right away that there’s something not quite right about Guzman, and of course she eventually pays the price for trying to help Lopez.) Long story short, there’s not much to recommend The Boy Next Door unless you’re incredibly bored and you have an hour and a half to waste, although the cinematography by David McFarland is occasionally quite striking and Ian Nelson, as Lopez and Corbett’s son, is a pretty good actor. He has a kind of young John Cusack quality to him, so perhaps he can capitalize on that someday.

The Intern. Directed by Nancy Meyers. Ah, yes, the typical Nancy Meyers quote-unquote “chick flick.” I must try not to say that too disparagingly (as a lady myself and therefore in the wished-for demographic), but there is something hopelessly discouraging in the idea that a blend of The Devil Wears Prada and Meyers’ own What Women Want (at least as far as the “woman trying to balance being the head of a company and having a love life” thing goes) would end up as anything other than sappy. Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway, professionals that they are, do their utmost to keep the proceedings entertaining as the title intern and his overworked boss respectively and, when called upon to do it, they are emotionally engaging too. What weakens the film, however, is all of the melodrama Hathaway experiences both in and out of the office. Frustrated by too much paperwork! Looking for a new CEO! Dealing with a cheating husband! The Intern throws a lot at us. If anything, the film is most worth seeing for the charms of Rene Russo as De Niro’s love interest – in her early 60s, she is still effortlessly sexy – and for Anders Holm, who holds his own in dramatic scenes as Hathaway’s husband (you know he’s doing Important Acting since he has dyed-brown hair, a beard and glasses – but in all seriousness, he’s good in the film). (Also: Adam DeVine, Holm’s co-star on “Workaholics,” is also in The Intern but they don’t share any scenes.) You can guess where The Intern is going to go by seeing the trailer, or maybe even just from looking at the poster: De Niro always knows what to say in order to be helpful; he is probably one of the most feminist male characters of his age that you’re likely to see in a movie any time soon; ultimately he guides Hathaway to becoming a better, stronger person. You may cry at some of the touching sentimentality in The Intern, but it’s doubtful that you’ll laugh at the predictable, cheesy comedy.

No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers. Directed by Elizabeth Marcus. I am of two minds regarding this documentary about Manic Street Preachers, the Welsh rock band I discovered five months ago and who have totally turned my world upside down with their brilliant music, lyrics, singing, glamour, politics, love of literature and so much more. Enjoying an hour and a half to absorb this fantastic band’s music and philosophy is divine, but the question is for whom the film is intended. If it was made primarily with fans in mind (viewers who, let’s face it, make up the majority of people who have seen/will see the film), then the film does not offer enough to appease superfans. (The most interesting bits – Nicky and Sean arguing about the longevity of music, James and music producer Dave Eringa having breakfast in an NYC diner – were left out of the finished film and appear as extras on the DVD.) If the film was made to introduce the Manics’ discography to prospective fans, then the film also falls short; director Elizabeth Marcus tries to make the film both a current (well, current at the time) look at the band recording their 2007 “comeback” album Send Away the Tigers and also a retrospective history of the band from 1986 to the present day. It is an impossible undertaking to attempt to chronicle every detail of the band’s oeuvre (so of course that doesn’t happen) and it feels like a failing on Marcus’s part that we see footage of the Manics being interviewed in the early 90s, yet there is no concert footage from between 1992 and 1994; we see the guys do “Stay Beautiful” in 1991, and the next chronological show clip is “A Design for Life” in 1996. This means that inexperienced viewers never see the band performing in their leopard-print Generation Terrorists get-ups (although we see the clothing in pieces of interviews), doing the more low-key thing in 1993 or performing in military regalia for The Holy Bible in 1994. The visuals are just as important as the sounds! And while it’s all well and good to see the trio doing “Motorcycle Emptiness,” “Sleepflower,” “Yes,” “Archives of Pain,” “Faster,” “Die in the Summertime,” and others circa 2006/2007, not hearing/seeing the songs from when they were originally made does a disservice to the film and to the band. It might be somewhat difficult for non-Manics fans to get a strong enough sense of why people get so obsessed with the band.

Oh, and how can you make a film about the Manics and not include one of their signature songs, “You Love Us”? I’m not sure I heard the phrase Everything Must Go uttered at all either, despite the time spent talking about “A Design for Life.” Strange.

Obviously it is fun, though, to spend 95 minutes in the presence of a band that has the power to change your life. It’s easy to see from the interviews with fans that the Manics have altered their lives permanently (and wonderfully). Watching Nicky jumping rope in a skirt, or playing with his dog Molly, or excitedly meeting Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, is lovely; seeing James cook omelets is a delight; Sean’s enjoyment of sniper rifles and his time spent at a shooting range is a little scary. I just wish that the film had either spent more time focusing on the making of Send Away the Tigers (wouldn’t it have been nice to see/hear the creation of the major hit “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”?) or else make a film concentrated more deeply on the band’s history. By trying to do both, the film unfortunately does not completely succeed.

P.S. When the DVD came in the mail, there was a thank-you note from director Elizabeth Marcus and producer/editor Kurt Engfehr. Very nice!

Suffragette. Directed by Sarah Gavron. A film so disappointing that I almost forgot that I watched it last week, Suffragette takes a fascinating topic and grinds it down into mediocrity with bland, dreary direction. The 1910s suffrage movement and the fight for women’s rights are topics that are still relevant today, but Sarah Gavron’s film dilutes its own potential impact by focusing its narrative on a composite character, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, a good performer as always), rather than on the real-life suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (played by Natalie Press in a supporting role). The melodramas of Maud’s family life take up quite a bit of the running time; while the issues of abuse at home and in the workplace are stories that should indeed have been told in the film, it might have been more effective if Abi Morgan’s screenplay was based on a real protagonist rather than a fictional one. That being said, Ben Whishaw did an excellent job at playing Carey Mulligan’s unsympathetic husband and I liked the performances by Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson and Anne-Marie Duff as well. Meryl Streep overacts embarrassingly, but her performance as leading activist Emmeline Pankhurst is merely a cameo. Watch Suffragette if you like anyone in the cast, but don’t expect an accurate history lesson.

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