Black Mass

September 19, 2015 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch
Directed by: Scott Cooper (“Out of the Furnace”)
Written by: Jez Butterworth (“Get on Up”) and Mark Mallouk (debut)

As fascinating as the true life story is of one James “Whitey” Bulger, a South Boston criminal-turned-FBI informant (see a better albeit still flawed retelling of it in Joe Berlinger’s documentary “Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger”), one might imagine the intense nature of the narrative pouring out of every scene in “Black Mass.” Alas, what audiences receive is a worthy attempt at a gangster movie that sort of dissolves from memory once you leave the theater. It’s a couple of steps up from Johnny Depp’s last crime biopic “Public Enemies,” where he plays pretty-boy John Dillinger, but still far from anything in the realm of greatness.

With that said, “Black Mass” isn’t a failure by any means. While it doesn’t entirely succeed in transforming Depp’s Bulger into evil incarnate, it is Depp’s vigor and commitment to the more terrifying traits Bulger possesses that keep the film from flat-lining halfway in. Let’s face it. As an A-list actor, Depp makes more bad choices in roles than most. Fault his ambition to try something totally different from anything he’s done before or fault a slew of underwritten scripts he’s been given, but Depp is the kind of actor that seems to be intrigued only by a character’s surface qualities. With a character as complex as Bulger, however, there is a lot more to explore even when the screenplay meanders into territory that never factors into who he is as a person.

Along with Depp, there are some other noteworthy performances, specifically from an underutilized Peter Sarsgaard and Julianne Nicholson. Basically, everyone not named Depp or Joel Edgerton is shortchanged, which is why any emotional connection between Bolger and other characters feels incomplete. It’s especially true with actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays William Bolger, Whitey’s brother and the President of the Massachusetts State Senate. Why screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk treat this relationship like a mere blip on the radar doesn’t make much sense.

Still, this is Depp’s movie and he has just enough material to do some interesting things with the character. It’s just unfortunate that no one else was given the same attention. If they had, “Black Mass” might’ve cut deeper.

Out of the Furnace

December 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck
Directed by: Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”)
Written by: Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) and Brad Ingelsby (“The Dynamiter”)

For a film that boasts a principal cast of five previous Oscar nominees, as well as a recently lauded writer/director, “Out of the Furnace” struggles to put the pieces together and proves that, as cliché as it sounds, the whole really isn’t always greater than the sum of its parts.

“Out of the Furnace” focuses on two brothers living out in the economically-suffering U.S. Rust Belt. Russell (Christian Bale) is a hard-working steel mill worker who is focused on his relationship and taking care of his family. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is a soldier who has spent time in Iraq and finds himself in a massive gambling debt. As Rodney looks to settle his debt through underground bare-knuckle fighting, he mysteriously disappears. With little help from the police, Russell sets out to take matters into his own hands.

The big draw of “Out of the Furnace” is its previously mentioned impressive cast of Bale and Affleck as well as Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker. As the main focus of the film, the best of the cast is Bale. His performance is strong, most notably in his scenes with Affleck as well as a couple of scenes with actress Zoe Saldana who plays his girlfriend. While Harrelson’s performance in itself is quite good, his villainous character is written somewhat hokey and over the top.

Since the narrative jumps around so frequently, many of the other cast members don’t really get a chance to shine in their roles. In fact, the lack of a narrative focus is one of the reasons that “Out of the Furnace” fails from a storytelling perspective. Not only is the plot wafer thin, but there are parallel narratives and thematic elements that don’t seem to ever sync up or fully connect. There are also plot points that happen throughout the film that seem important, but prove to be relatively and frustratingly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

Most of the first half of “Out of the Furnace” is spent waiting for the film to get going, which never truly happens. The film often feels stuck and by the end, incomplete. There are a few things to like: the cinematography is well done and there are a few scenes from world-class actors that are worth a watch. But as a complete work, “Out of the Furnace” lacks the finesse and construction of a well put together film.

Crazy Heart

January 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell
Directed by: Scott Cooper (debut)
Written by: Scott Cooper (debut)

Place an entire narrative on the shoulders of four-time Academy Award nominated actor Jeff Bridges (“The Last Picture Show”) and good things are bound to happen, especially if you ask him to sing, too.

Despite a fairly safe and conventional screenplay by first time director and writer Scott Cooper, the music drama “Crazy Heart” is Bridges’ closet shot to winning Oscar gold since earning his last nom for his supporting role in 2001’s “The Contender.”

While “Crazy Heart” is rich with familiar themes, Bridges doesn’t disappoint. He stars as “Bad” Blake, a down-on-his-luck country and western singer who finds himself in the twilight of his career fighting to stay a significant part of the music industry he helped build.

All the gigs Bad can book, however, are in small-town bowling alleys, run-down watering holes, and places where his fan base – although faithful – isn’t as significant as it once was during his glory days. Years of alcoholism have taken their toll on Bad, who is now flat broke. His agent want him to sit down and write new material, but Bad’s just not interested in writing songs for other performers anymore. This includes working with his former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a young and popular singer who epitomizes the new generation of country music.

Instead, Bad seems comfortable doing his touring across the Southwest in his 1978 Chevy suburban, staying at ratty motels and drinking the cheapest whiskey he can find. When Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Santa Fe reporter, asks for an interview during one of his tour stops in New Mexico, Bad agrees and is immediately stunned by how much he likes the young writer. Jean, too, is oddly drawn to the Merle Haggard-type star as he tries to sober up and kick-start his life and career.

Adapted from a novel of the same name by Thomas Cobb, “Crazy Heart” – as cliché as it sounds – actually feels like the cinematic version of a country song. All the ingredients are there from love to heartbreak to redemption and Cooper follows the recipe without burning the biscuits (Bad’s specialty in the kitchen). Sure, a few bites may be a bit dry, but Bridges is riding a gravy train.

As Bad, he gives an effortless performance as a man who wants a second chance to do something memorable with the talent he has. As we watch Bad fiddle with his guitar throughout the film (pieces of the Ryan Bingham/T-Bone Burnett-written “The Weary Kind” can be heard), it’s evident that there is something amazing waiting to be revealed before it’s all said and done.

Whether he’s on stage singing songs from the film’s exceptional soundtrack (“The Weary Kind” is Oscar bound) or holding a sweet conversation with Jean’s little boy, Bridges knows no bounds when providing us with his subtle and sensitive character. “Crazy Heart” is his latest dream role and we’re all singing his praises.

Scott Cooper – Crazy Heart

January 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Interviews

First-time director Scott Cooper stopped in San Antonio this week to promote his new film “Crazy Heart,” which stars four-time Academy Award nominated actor Jeff Briges as Bad Blake, a country western musician looking to kick-start his life and career.

During our interview, Cooper talked about his musical influences growing up, described what was going through his mind when he heard the song “The Weary Kind” for the first time, and even sang a bit of Marty Robbins’ song “El Paso” to pass the time.

“Crazy Heart” is your first film. You have no filmmaking background. You never went to film school. Honestly, how did you even know where to begin when you walk onto the set?

Well, my film school was watching great directors from the 1970s and watching these films without the sound. I would just watch how they would move the camera and the lens and how they would work with the actors and the framing. As an actor, which is what I primarily am, [“Crazy Heart”] is a very human story and I knew how to get those performances from the actors. Then you cast people with similar sensibilities and instincts and you try to tell a story as truthfully and honestly as you can. It’s always a process of discovery as most films or any type of artistic endeavor is.

Is the actual story the most important element of filmmaking to you?

Absolutely. Characterization and behavior over plot. I want the film to feel invisibility directed. [In “Crazy Heart”] I wanted you to feel like you were a fly on the wall. I wanted you to feel like you were in those motel rooms and in those bowling alleys and in the backseat of [Bad’s] ’78 Suburban truck.

Where did the confidence come from to be able to step into a job like this? I mean, Jeff Bridges has worked with directors like John Huston…

Peter Bogdanovich…

The Coen Brothers…

Francis Coppolla…

Terry Gilliam.

Well, the confidence came from knowing I could tell the story very clearly and humanly. Also, I had a patron saint in this project who is a very close friend, collaborator and mentor of mine, Robert Duvall. I’ve taken a page out of the Robert Duvall School of Acting and Directing on more than one occasion. To have him was also helpful. But he let me succeed or fail on my own terms. He was there if I needed him, but I felt fairly confident that I could tell the story.

You met Robert on the set of “God and Generals,” correct?

That’s right. We were both in that big Civil War epic. He liked my approach to the craft. We shared some likes in films and actors. Then I ended up getting married on his farm. We’ve now collaborated four times. When I was editing “Crazy Heart,” I was acting in a film with him called “Get Low” with Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. It comes out this year.

“Crazy Heart” has been compared, of course, to movies like “The Wrestler” and “Tender Mercies.” Are you OK with these comparisons or would you rather have the film stand on its own?

I had never seen “The Wrestler” when I made this movie, but anytime you are compared to [director] Darren Aronofsky or Bruce Beresford (director of “Tender Mercies”) or Horton Foote (screenwriter of “Tender Mercies”) that is the highest of compliments. We all take from other films.

I know you had your heart set on making a biopic on Merle Haggard until you found out you would have trouble getting the rights to his story. Did you go into “Crazy Heart” still thinking of it as a Merle Haggard-type film since you had this fictional character you could mold into what you wanted?

I always wanted to tell Merle’s life story because I grew up listening to his music – his outlaw sensibility. He’s a great singer/songwriter and a poet laureate who really wrote about his life experiences. When I couldn’t tell Merle’s story I turned to this out-of-print, obscure novel (“Crazy Heart”) and it allowed me to fictionalize Merle’s life along with Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver – all these great guys that had that outlaw sensibility. I realized I could do it in a way that was truthful and from my own experience and create a character that could stand alongside those guys.

How much of the character of Bad Blake is your creation? How much of it is Thomas Cobb (author of the novel “Crazy Heart”)?

It’s a combination of both. He gave me great and very rich source material. You have to take that blueprint and make it three dimensional, which I did. You infuse that with your experience of spending time with Merle or watching Billy Joe Shaver. You have to personalize it to make it real and searing.

Then, of course, you hand it over to Jeff and let him give something else to it.

That’s right. I think he and Robert Duvall are America’s two finest screen actors. When you surround yourself with geniuses, it makes your job a whole lot easier.

Country music is such a broad term when describing the genre. How would you describe the music in “Crazy Heart?”

It’s one part rooted in traditional country and western music and it’s one part rooted in Texas roadhouse and another in Mississippi Delta blues. It was important that I infused all of those. Then, T-Bone shaped it all for the movie. Even people who don’t like country music love the music in “Crazy Heart.” It all comes down to how truthful it is, how soulful it is. It’s all the same because it all comes from a very pure place.

I read that you are a big Ralph Stanley fan.

I grew up spending the night at Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass concerts. Ralph Stanley would buy all his automobiles from my family’s dealership. So, I really grew up with him. He’s a throwback. He’s an iconoclast. He’s a guy that no one could fill his boots. Every day we have Ralph Stanley is a good day.

Tell me about the first time you heard “The Weary Kind.”

I gave Ryan [Bingham] the script and he called me and said, “I’ve written a song. Meet me at T-Bone’s.” So, we went to T-Bone’s and I sat on his coffee table and [Ryan] pulled out his well-worn acoustic guitar and he started singing it. I said to myself, “I just heard a classic.” I could see T-Bone’s jaw slowly drop. We said, “That is the narrative thread of ‘Crazy Heart.’ That is the end-title song. That is the song he is writing.”

What do you have in your iPod?

I have Radiohead, Jay-Z, Ralph Stanley. You’re the first person to ask me this question. I have Mozart, the Shins. When I’m out here in Texas I have Marty Robbins and his song “El Paso.” (Singing) Out in the West Texas town of El Paso…

Ah, great song to sing while you’re visiting!

I sang that song in a duet with Laura Bush at the White House. I took the film “Broken Trail” to the White House and screened it for George W. and the First Lady.

What would your country and western name be if you were a country and western singer?

Oh, good question. I haven’t thought of that. I think you’ve stumped me.

T-Bone is hard to top.

It is. Maybe Road Dog.