Saturday, October 3, 2015

Black Mass

Whitey Bulger's Boston criminal empire, alliance with the FBI, decades-long disappearance and dramatic arrest are tailor-made for Hollywood. Based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's book, Scott Cooper's Black Mass (2015) is disappointingly adequate. Despite an impressive Johnny Depp performance, the film's by-the-numbers gangster shtick fails to impress.

James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp) controls South Boston's Winter Hill Gang in the 1970s. He's contacted by John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), childhood friend-turned-FBI agent, who asks Bulger to inform on his Italian-American rivals. Whitey abuses his informant status, expanding his empire at his rivals' expense with Connolly shielding his actions. Eventually, Whitey's actions grow too violent even for his connections to protect him.

Filmgoers know Whitey Bulger as the inspiration for Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2007), a romanticization Black Mass avoids. Unlike Jack Nicholson's flamboyant faux-Bulger, this Whitey is a teetotaling family man with a thuggish streak. He murders rivals, strangles a prostitute (Juno Temple) and threatens Connolly's wife (Julianne Nicholson) to downplay sympathy. Writers Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk show Whitey devastated by his son's death, which humanizes the gangster without softening him. This is a nice touch in an otherwise formulaic film.

Based on a true story or not, Whitey's failure is Hollywood predictable. Like all movie gangsters he overreaches, not content with ruling Southie but attempting an empire. He's involved in a murky deal with a jai-alai league and ships arms to the Provisional IRA, which expose him to international scrutiny. His increased recklessness drives informers to the Feds; Cooper's most regrettable device is a flashback structure of Whitey's henchmen testifying against him. Whitey's decades on the lam could generate a film of its own, but Cooper gives it only an offhand epilogue.

What's really unsettling about Black Mass isn't the gangland violence but institutional failures that enable him. It only takes one crmid-level FBI agent to shield Bulger for decades, even after his information proves dubious. Connolly's more lucky than clever; when his boss (Kevin Bacon) turns against him, a wiretap nails Whitey's Italian rival. But the filmmakers never elucidate Connolly's muddled motives. Some scenes suggest an honest cop who can't see past misplaced loyalty, others an ambitious crook; Black Mass can't square the two.

Besides a commendable physical transformation, Johnny Depp channels an intensity he hasn't shown in decades. Steely, calculating and unpredictably violent, Depp's Bulger is an intimidating force without a shred of likeability. Joel Edgerton makes a good counterpart, selling Connolly's cockiness and misplaced loyalty.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays well against-type as Billy Bulger, a square State Senator who ignores his brother's criminality. Kevin Bacon and Corey Stoll get meaty character roles as Connolly's bosses; Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson scream and cower as token females. Juno Temple and Peter Sarsgaard have scene-stealing cameos as two of Whitey's victims.

Black Mass is a good story, adequately told. While Cooper avoids romanticizing Bulger, he also fails to make him truly compelling. The handful of clever touches only exacerbate the film's overall predictability.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


As my readers know, blogging's slowed to a trickle in 2015. More than anything else, some inner ailment - stress, depression, malaise, whatever - is afflicting me, affecting life both at work and home. So it's hard to find energy to write anything substantial. Heck, I haven't even watched more than a few movies in the past month.

I say this not to make my readers feel sorry for me, just to explain why this blog is no longer thriving. Hopefully something will come along soon to rejuvenate me. I've been commissioned to write a series of horror posts this month for PopOptiq, which will probably consume my creative juices.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Ugly American

"The only thing that is clear is that there's no clarity at all."
The Ugly American (1962) is an earnest but tin-eared drama. Director George Englund boils Eugene Burdick and William Lederer's critical novel into a position paper for Cold War liberalism. Marlon Brando's strong performance ballasts an otherwise crude, confused time capsule.

Harrison MacWhite (Marlon Brando) becomes Ambassador to the Asian nation of Sarkhan. Finding the country riven by political turmoil, he reaches out to opposition leader Deong (Eiji Okata), his old friend. But Deong's agitation for increasing independence leads MacWhite to brand him a Communist. This misunderstanding leads to a clash over Freedom Road, a construction project which becomes a symbol of American imperialism. Rejected by his erstwhile friend, Deong finds foreign Communists all too willing to help.

Shot partially in Thailand, The Ugly American is very much of its time. Kwen Sai (Kukrit Pamroj), Sarkhan's nepotistic, corrupt Prime Minister, evokes Ngo Dinh Diem, while MacWhite faces down rioters like Richard Nixon in Caracas. Having just escaped nuclear war over Cuba, America turned its attention to Vietnam, where Diem's regime tottered under domestic pressure; the CIA applied the death knell, necessitating military intervention. Like many a '60s liberal, Ugly American is queasily equivocal about projecting American power.

Englund and screenwriter Stewart Stern try to unravel Cold War complexities. When Deong attacks "Yankee imperialism," MacWhite decides he's a Communist and provokes a showdown. Deong is an earnest nationalist who criticizes American self-interest, but he's manipulated by real Communists. The real hero is Homer Atkins (Pat Hingle), a do-gooder engineer whose wife (Jocelyn Brando) runs a hospital. Their humanitarian efforts, not soldiers and propping up dictators, are the real way to win "hearts and minds."

When Ugly American's message isn't obvious, it's garbled. Kwen Sai goes from tin pot dictator to earnest reformer in a few scenes, while MacWhite's indiscretions are lost amidst a barrage of Communist atrocities. Despite its cynicism, American falls back on Red-baiting malapropisms. In an unintentionally hilarious scene, Deong joins a Commintern meeting with squirrelly Soviets, Mao-jacketed Chinese and local commies in a jungle tent! Strangely, there's no equivalent scene of MacWhite consulting corporation heads and CIA operatives.

Marlon Brando sells the drama through a strong performance. He's fairly restrained, mixing humor with eccentric touches like singing to a turtle. Yet Brando's friendly swagger gives way to stark forcefulness, making didactic debates about foreign policy almost interesting. Controlled, focused, and obviously invested in the message, Brando holds the film together.

While the American cast is undistinguished, the Asian stars offer some interest. Japanese star Eiji Okada (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) gets his only American role; despite his halting English, his anguished charisma makes a nice counterpoint to Brando. Kukrit Pamroj makes Kwen Sai a silky, ingratiating schemer too clever to be an American puppet. A politician himself, Pamroj later became Prime Minister of Thailand.

The Ugly American is an artifact of New Frontier idealism: America defeating Communism through good deals and friendly gestures. It's a nice fantasy that overlooks sordid reality; here, only the Reds conspire and undermine governments, Americans just make mistakes. American manages to be cynical and naïve, down to the chicken-scarfing loser watching MacWhite speak on television.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Life of Emile Zola

"Truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it."
Paul Muni had a remarkable string of films in the 1930s, mixing socially conscious dramas (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) with biopics (Juarez). He followed his Oscar-winning turn in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) with The Life of Emile Zola (1937), a Best Picture winner that holds up remarkable well.

Emile Zola (Paul Muni) rises from poverty to riches writing scandalous novels and critiquing French officials. By the 1890s he's middle-aged and comfortable in Paris, until events explode his complacency. When the French army convicts Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) of treason, Zola's importuned by Dreyfus's wife (Gale Sondergaard) to attest his innocence. Zola publishes the famous J'Accuse article, accusing the French government of miscarrying justice. This leads to a sensational libel charge, where institutional corruption's tried alongside Zola.

Despite its title, The Life of Emile Zola isn't a true biopic. William Dieterle and a trio of screenwriters move briskly through Zola's early years, freezing in an apartment with Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) and begging for cash. These scenes flesh out Zola's character in telling vignettes, from his encounter with a prostitute (Erin O'Brien-Moore) inspiring Nana, to The Downfall's satire of the Franco-Prussian War. These scenes contrast his investment in social justice with his growing complacency; he becomes a pot-bellied, bearded bourgeois unengaged in society.

After this economical background, Zola plunges into the Dreyfus Affair. Admittedly, Dieterle neuters the subject: anti-Semitism's reduced to a momentary shot of Dreyfus's dossier. In recent years, this elision has generated controversy. Some writers claim that Jack Warner, usually comfortable with social messages, felt skittish about spotlighting Jewish persecution. Others claim that fear of alienating Nazi Germany prompted this. If the latter seems improbable, consider that Fritz Lang's Man Hunt was nearly banned as a "hate film."

Nonetheless, Zola's angry speechmaking conveys the desired outrage. The French government railroads an innocent man to preserve their "honor"; they rig Zola's trial by silencing witnesses, excluding mention of Dreyfus and having agitators rouse violence. Despite his speechmaking, the Naturalist stands little chance against state machinery. Zola frames its hero as a Classic Hollywood Martyr, winning a moral victory by opposing the State. He loses in court but sways public opinion, leading to Dreyfus's exoneration.

Paul Muni isn't remembered as a great actor, yet one can't fault his chameleon-like performance here. Muni makes a brilliant transition between young artist and aged idealist, culminating in some show-stopping oratory. Joseph Schildkraut's emotionally-rent Dreyfuss outshines Jose Ferrer's stiff portrayal in I Accuse!, with a fraction of his screentime; Gale Sondergaard plays his luminous, devoted wife. Vladimir Sokoloff (The Magnificent Seven) steals the early scenes with wistful self-deprecation. Donald Crisp (Jezebel) gets a standout role as Zola's attorney.

In many ways, The Life of Emile Zola codified what's now termed "Oscar bait." An important subject rendered through historical allegory, featuring an A-list actor in an unrecognizable role. Even so, Zola's high-intensity drama and great acting mark it as a classic.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

I Accuse!

Critics and audiences dismissed I Accuse! (1958), director-star Jose Ferrer's rendering of the Dreyfus Affair. Comparisons to the Oscar-winning The Life of Emile Zola (1937) certainly didn't help. Ferrer's drama commendably reconstructs this epochal scandal, though it's never as compelling as William Dieterle's film.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Jose Ferrer) is a French intelligence officer circa 1894. He's respected for his work ethic and intelligence, but distrusted for his Judaism. When French officials learn someone's leaking intelligence to Germany, Dreyfus becomes the prime suspect. Dreyfus is convicted and imprisoned on Devil's Island, allowing real traitor Major Esterhazy (Anton Walbrook) to escape. Dreyfus's wife (Viveca Lindfors), brother (David Farrar) and journalist Emil Zola (Emlyn Willaims) lobby for retrial, backed by Dreyfus's patron Major Picquet (Leo Genn).

I Accuse! does an excellent job evoking late 19th Century France, still smarting from the Franco-Prussian War and riven by anti-Semitism. An Alsatian Jew, he's instantly suspected, with laudable traits becoming evidence against him. After all, who works overtime but a traitor? The cliquish officer corps resents Dreyfus's loner personality, unwilling to recognize anti-Semitism as its cause. Meanwhile Esterhazy marvels at his own luck: son of Hungarian aristocrats, his Catholicism places him above reproach.

Ferrer and screenwriter Gore Vidal brilliantly sketch the political fallout: long after Dreyfus's innocence becomes undeniable, General Mercier (Donald Wolfit) suppresses evidence and reassigns Major Picquet to Tunisia. The French public, easily roused to a froth by Jew-baiting ministers, turns against the government after Zola's inflammatory J'Accuse letter. Too embarrassed to back down, the French government arranges a sham trial to exonerate Esterhazy. National honor takes precedence, even if it means condemning an innocent man.

Despite this, I Accuse! doesn't catch fire. Vidal gets so involved sketching bureaucratic chicanery, he forgets to make Dreyfus compelling. Thus Ferrer gets little more to play than indignant rectitude. Aside from his emotional "degrading" scene, publicly stripped of sword and epaulets, he's more symbol than man. Nor does Viveca Lindfors register as anything more than loyal wife. An unfortunate shortcoming in a biopic, this forces Ferrer's supporting cast carry the load.

And what a cast! Anton Walbrook (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) plays beautifully against type, a silky villain relishing his good luck and selfishness. Sadly, this marked Walbrook's last film. Herbert Lom (The Ladykillers) stands out as an arrogant handwriting expert; Donald Wolfit (Lawrence of Arabia), a blustering general; Leo Genn, torn between duty and honor. Harry Andrews (The Charge of the Light Brigade)stands out as a turncoat colleague, while Felix Aylmer (Becket) plays Dreyfus's lawyer.

Minor roles go to George Coulouris, David Farrar, Laurence Naismith, Emlyn Williams, Michael Hordern, John Phillips and Charles Gray. If nothing else, I Accuse! is an amazing film for star spotters.

Long relegated to obscurity, I Accuse! is worthwhile. Perhaps '50s audiences couldn't find interest in a 19th Century French scandal, beyond vague parallels with McCarthyism. Despite its shortcomings, it's easier to appreciate today as a fine historical drama.