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Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015)

Barring the gravitas lacing Depp’s portrayal of increasingly infamous James “Whitey” Bulger, Black Mass can’t quite shake its ostensible Triple A reenactment feel. Charting the blue-eyed psychopath’s swift rise to criminal superstardom in his native Boston, the film examines Bulger’s steadfastly procured infallibility among peers and rivals. With FBI agent and fellow Southie native John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to thank, creative bloodshed frequently punctuates a broadening warpath toward total domination of the criminal underworld.

If geographic authenticity means masking one’s native accent with another, Black Mass immediately tops the charts. With an affected overarching dialect so distracting it nearly becomes a detriment, the coinciding exchanges and native profanity carry less weight than they should despite the serviceable albeit objectively familiar engagement factor present. A gangster does gangster things as factual exposition details when, where and why, thus rendering dialectic hyperbole the least of the film’s worries.

Depp’s laudable turn as Bulger can’t quite stave off Black Mass‘ questionable romanticization of the character, of whom is awkwardly compassionate when he’s not compulsively violent. The film’s slick presentation of the greatest hits peppering his legacy is undeniably impressive though, even if the criminality timeline conceit is something we’ve seen employed throughout dozens of other true crime efforts. An embellished verbal exchange here, a key sequence there – Black Mass adheres to exaggerated biographical trappings in a manner unable to reinvigorate the formula it replicates.

Black Mass is at its best a meaty slice of awards-pandering banality. Its examination of the relationship between Bulger and Connolly that shaped the former’s legacy is agreeably involving, yet the film unavoidably falls victim to an air of total needlessness. During a time when Bulger himself is still relevant – and especially after 2006’s The Departed – anticipation was almost solely contingent upon Depp’s presumed resurgence. Black Mass’ parts are glaringly greater than their sum, of which is ostensibly an actor’s showcase in a grimy, era-specific wrapper.

August 2

My August ’15 in Review

It appears I’ve been unintentionally omitting classic films from my regular viewing schedule. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but if I had to speculate I’d say it’s because of how daunting the impending project seems. The sheer vastness of what I have yet to see is enough to regularly deter me from investing the time needed to dive in, however this promising fall season will hopefully parallel the likes of quality fare from decades past.

On a more relevant note, my August in retrospect was a home run. Upon playing catch-up with several titles I hadn’t had the chance to see during their limited theatrical runs – based on geographical proximity, mind you – I was especially pleased to add three of them to my top ten of the year thus far. You can check out how everything else stacks up via my recently updated list over at Letterboxd.


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Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015)

Set against a familiar post-apocalyptic backdrop, Z for Zachariah is an adaptation of the Robert C. O’Brien novel of the same name that focuses on one Ann (Margot Robbie) as her idyllic mountainside abode is happened upon by former research engineer John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), of whom is promptly stricken with radiation sickness. As Ann nurses John back to health, the bond that forms between them remains decidedly uncomplicated as they live their new lives codependent on each other’s company and support. When a third party enters the picture however, Ann and John’s day-to-day rhythm is upended as jealousy rears its ugly head.

Much like this year’s Maggie, Z for Zachariah is a decidedly plodding, moreover melancholic slice of genre fare that emphasizes human relationships over large-scale cataclysm. In remaining appealingly insular by way of world building, the narrative does its job to procure investment yet it begins to wane given a discernible lack of situational insight. While Ann and John become predictably fond of one another given their being sole survivors and members of the opposite sex, not much is offered in the realm of multifaceted conflict, thematic heft or even general intelligence.

Once Caleb (Chris Pine) arrives, the lone conflictual impetus going forward is a silly sort of “You snooze, you lose,” bit regarding Loomis’ decision to not consummate his and Ann’s relationship when the opportunity presented itself. The ensuing love triangle, although serviceable, remains frustratingly low-key and childish in scope as requisite sob stories are exchanged over meals and sexual tension builds in a foreseeable fashion. It’s a serviceable enough device but feels forced and inconsequential given its midpoint placement along an already mundane timeline.

It earns points for the strength of its central performances and existence as another decidedly small-scale slice of fallout cinema, however Z for Zachariah is little more than a pseudo-lyrical illustration of base-level conflict. I’m even inclined to say that the apocalypse itself is merely a hyperbolic means of emphasizing the flaccid aforementioned love triangle, what with no one and nothing present to stop any of these key players from getting precisely what they want. Although admirably realized and singular enough to separate it from the pack, Z for Zachariah doesn’t amount to much throughout what some may deem a mere melancholic slog.

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Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

Fresh off the heels of her father’s passing and debilitating breakup, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) deems it appropriate to retreat to best friend Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) lakeside abode for rehabilitative purposes. Remaining noticeably shaken upon parting from these prominent masculine figures, Catherine’s repressed feelings of resentment and a repeat uninvited guest threaten to unhinge her entirely. With bitter exchanges between her and Virginia yielding the opposite of diminishing returns, only time will tell when Catherine’s psyche shatters completely.

Last year’s Listen Up Philip unquestionably solidified Alex Ross Perry as a talent that unknowingly panders to nearly every nook of my cinematic tastes. Without getting into detail, the unveiling of Queen of Earth as a psychological thriller set against something comparably character-driven was an exciting initial tidbit. In admirably exploiting Perry’s penchant for wry wit and incisiveness, the finished product is a near perfect cross between the familiarly slow-burning and wildly subversive as an impeccable, aptly eerie aesthetic amplifies Catherine’s compelling downward spiral.

From the get-go, Moss’ general post-tragedy disposition remains effortless in its conveyance of grief and uncertainty. She exudes a manic, frequently uncomfortable energy telling of distress in a way that comes naturally to her, of which is appropriate and speaks volumes about the quality of her performance here. While not entirely likable, it’s hard to root against Catherine as a character given the corresponding intensity with which she’s portrayed as well as afflicted and unable to pry herself free from this psychological bear trap. She irrevocably stands in her own way, and frankly, Virginia’s sustained inability to console her best friend packs on the dread in a manner atypical of contemporary genre fare.

Whether or not you sympathize with Catherine’s plight, her disconcerting increase in mood swings yield some agreeably chilling results, the lot of which peaks with an excellent latter-act monologue that rivals some of the best scenes in any film I’ve seen this year. Queen of Earth thrives thanks to Perry’s corresponding penchant for dialogue, the unconventional subjects that speak it and steadfastness of scope, all of which are bolstered by a simplicity of premise that could yield literally any possible outcome. It thrives on atmosphere and uniqueness of concept, and I for one applaud Perry’s deft adherence to his obvious strengths as a filmmaker that’s intrinsically unable to conform to rote industry standards.

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Cop Car (Jon Watts, 2015)

In a fundamental sense, Cop Car more or less exemplifies contemporary independent filmmaking. Reminiscent of 2013’s Blue Ruin by way of modest scale yielding the utmost impact, soon-to-be Marvel upstart Jon Watts’ second directorial outing is a lean telling of two youngsters’ fateful joyride. In a manner one would expect, the runaway boys’ naive exuberance and general lack of worldly knowledge lead them down a road of seedy uncertainty paved by a shady smalltown sheriff (Kevin Bacon). As the plot thickens, our protagonists’ fate becomes increasingly uncertain when they’re forced to face the facts and hone up to their unfortunate misdeed.

It becomes apparent early on that Watts and co-writer Christopher D. Ford have aptly sidestepped the hurdles of budgetary restrictions via basal incisiveness and intelligence. Kids will be kids time and again, and Cop Car admirably takes the time to hammer across the gleefully unseasoned mentality of Travis and Harrison with a convincing recital of every known curse word in the former’s arsenal. From here a darkly comedic mean streak ensues, even when Bacon’s Sheriff Kretzer is shoving a lifeless body into a hole prior to the front-and-center fiasco.

As with comparably small-scale efforts, Cop Car largely succeeds thanks to a sense of situational awareness that covers all of it bases. Barring the intended authenticity of the youthful ignorance on display, moments involving the sheriff’s apparent desperation and subsequent actions are concise, convincing and engaging as such. Whether its a matter of avoiding recognition or merely stealing a car with the help of a shoelace, the script remains entirely resourceful in wringing the most out of itself.

Despite derailing itself with a decidedly dark string of conclusive happenings, Jon Watts’ sophomore directorial outing is one of considerable note in the realm of the increasingly rare indie genre effort. In wringing considerable engagement out of its blend of dreadful uncertainty and black humor, Cop Car isn’t so much a pinnacle of excellence as it is a competently realized slice of storytelling within an expanding cinematic niche. In a roundabout way, the film speaks to Watts’ resourcefulness as a burgeoning talent to behold and – if MCU fatigue hasn’t fully set in on your part as it has mine – it’ll be interesting to see what a monetary well of possibility will steer him toward creatively in his handling of Spider-Man.

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6 Years (Hannah Fidell, 2015)

Although there’s something inherently admirable about Hannah Fidell’s semi-improvisational approach, 6 Years still feels highly derivative despite intended emotional authenticity and resonance. The film’s title refers to length of Dan (Ben Rosenfield) and Mel’s (Taissa Farmiga) relationship that, while once a model of romantic excellence, begins to spiral downward as the two drift unceremoniously apart. As the two struggle to reconcile amid instances of violence, temptation and impending career paths as burgeoning adults, the harsh realities of the fateful impermanence of love become more and more oppressive as time passes.

I’ve been known to laud the empathetic qualities of the so-called anti-romantic drama. I find the appeal of said films (i.e. Blue Valentine, Like Crazy) to be a byproduct of commendable realism in a sea of conventionally-rendered romcoms, most of which end with the guy getting the girl or visa versa. This isn’t a surprise to those that share my affinity for the subgenre, however Hannah Fidell’s contribution is wrought with overblown contrivances that detract from some agreeably excellent chemistry between two strong performers.

As said interplay remains far-and-away 6 Years‘ primary strength, the script’s spotlighting of its core relationship as a dire life necessity is its ultimate downfall. On one side of the spectrum it’s easy to gravitate toward this steadfastness of approach for involvement’s sake, what with Dan and Mel’s questionable future as a couple being the primary narrative impetus, but the fact that these individuals have nothing but each other is an ostensible falsehood. These individuals in fact have a lot going for each other, and frankly, if they just stopped leaving each other half-drunk and alone at parties the film wouldn’t really have a conflictual leg to stand on.

From what I experienced, 6 Years is hard-hitting but manipulative throughout its familiarly structured illustration of fleeting long-term romance. Its two leads are more than game and exhibit some of the best chemistry present within the growing annals of the anti-romantic drama, however the proceedings suffer from repeated instances of contrived conflict that could be easily avoided. When nearly every blowup is a result of conscious over-imbibing, you can’t help but expect the worst as the narrative falls into a pattern of endearing sweetness abruptly soured by what happens next.

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The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, 2015)

Effortlessly alluring as a humanely authentic adaptation of the David Lipsky novel that inspired it, The End of the Tour shares with us the days-long interview Lipsky conducted with author David Foster Wallace during the titular twilight of his Infinite Jest promotional tour. Through continued conversation and the inevitable clashing of egos, the increasingly candid nature of the experience sheds light on the existential grappling Wallace often struggled to come to terms with throughout his career. Framed by the writer’s suicide in 2008, the film’s sensitive adherence to Wallace’s points of view help paint the portrait of a man that was never comfortable in the spotlight but rightfully famous on account of his singular and widely lauded body of work.

From a purely cinematic viewpoint, I don’t consider The End of the Tour to fit or surpass any standard of excellence. It’s ostensibly a dissection of the two individuals on display that flaunts Wallace’s astute existentialist ruminations as its strongest suit, pulling very few punches along the way. In the vein of his previous work, director Ponsoldt overcomes slightness of narrative with an adherence to authentic humanism and – given the tortured genius of his latest subject – finds added support in complexity of character and the layered incisiveness peppering its exchanges.

While not particularly dense, the conversations between Lipsky and Wallace are lengthy, thoughtful and comparably thought-provoking when they’re not coming to blows over their growing resentment of one another. Frequently touching upon Wallace’s professed loneliness and distaste for the cult of celebrity, The End of the Tour‘s sustained thematic oomph is agreeably engaging throughout his and Lipsky’s many tonally disparate exchanges. Although bittersweet and mostly melancholic given the writer’s suicide as an impetus for Lipsky’s reflection, the film manages to sidestep melodrama via a simply tasteful recreation of the source material.

With a deservedly praiseworthy performance from Segel aiding to excellently convey Wallace’s complex and tortured persona, The End of the Tour is easily one of the better character studies to come around in recent memory. In tastefully examining the author’s palpable vulnerability through a series of intelligent conversations, Ponsoldt’s latest thrives as a truly humanistic portrait of a writer in the throes of longstanding existential turmoil. Through chemistry and deft adherence to subjectivity and scope, The End of the Tour is an entirely affecting chronicle of a fascinating individual and the man who brought the intricacies of his personality to light through a bond formed and shared.

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Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, 2015)

While I’ve been able to successfully distance myself from superfluous behind-the-scenes nonsense, the production timeline for Fox’s latest attempt to reboot the Marvel staple was unfathomably spotty and downright laughable at times. With rumors running amok regarding writer/director Trank’s actual stamp on the film, sketchy last-minute re-shoots and an increasingly listless cast, this trainwreck seemed to epitomize everything unprofessional in the proverbial Hollywood machine that yielded the abortion of an end result we have before us. Yes, Fantastic Four is as bad as you’ve heard, and to be honest, its oppressive lack of quality does more than merely confirm suspicions.

I first aired my grievances about origins stories back when Man of Steel failed to reinvent the wheel that invariably kick-started the impending DC cinematic universe. The Fantastic Four – being just as long in the tooth as the Kryptonian himself – need not be subjected to the tragic re-imagining on display, no matter how earnest Trank was in his initial efforts to properly reboot the franchise. Everything laid out before us is mostly a lazy, subtly tweaked regurgitation of the team’s ill-acquired superpowers that exists in tandem with characterizations that run parallel to glaringly listless performances.

Even young Reed Richards, playing the typically misunderstood child prodigy, fails to sound interested in the pseudo-scientific nonsense he’s spouting off at regular intervals until VOILA! Comparably misunderstood teenage Reed (Miles Teller) and soft-spoken BFF Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) find salvation at a science fair of all places. Undying faith is bestowed upon Reed, drawn-out exposition ensues and inexcusable drunken dimension-hopping lands three-quarters (as in the gang’s NOT all here) of the team in hot water. Don’t worry, the Fantastic Fourth is still part of the picture, they’re just an unfortunate victim of stupidity-induced collateral damage.

For the squad’s inception a la booze-addled debauchery to even exist is insulting in its own right, however the proceedings exude an omnipresent dullness that irredeemably infects everything on display. Poor chemistry serves as an obvious detriment to the familial bond the four are famous for upholding, and the fact that all of the key players phone in their respective performances doesn’t help matters any. A discernible lack of clever or even marginally engaging dialogue and exchanges is even worse still, what with a palpable lack of general excitement failing to inject the slightest semblance of life into such a continuously floundering slog.

Words escape me as I consciously try to avoid malicious hyperbole, yet Fantastic Four deserves to be chided for how insultingly lackluster it is from start to finish. For Marvel to unceremoniously pull the comic from shelves adds the utmost insult to injury given the disaster we have before to us serving as the last rendition of the superheroes’ (now tarnished) legacy. Whether the planned sequel is or isn’t out of the question, the fact of the matter is – oppressive studio intervention aside – the powers-that-be need to do much more than merely reinvigorate this already spotty sect of the Fox-piloted Marvel canon. As a sloppy, unenthusiastic and entirely vapid trudge through the muck and mire that is all-encompassing cinematic lethargy, Fantastic Four is an especially poor excuse for a film of its type in an era of increasingly sink-or-swim uncertainty regarding the Marvel brand.