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Monday 5 December 2016

Film reviews: Black Mass, Bridge of Spies & The Good Dinosaur

Dull: Johnny Depp is Whitey Bolger in 'Black Mass'
Dull: Johnny Depp is Whitey Bolger in 'Black Mass'
Tom Hanks as lawyer James Donovan in Steven Spielberg's 'Bridge of Spies'

Johnny Depp is back on form in gangster thriller Black Mass and all the rest of the week's next releases

Black Mass

Crime/Drama. Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson. Director: Scott Cooper. Cert: 15A.

We’d just about given up on him, you know. Lest we forget, Johnny Depp used to be a proper actor; a genuine talent with an eye for a decent script.

These days, he’s more of a ‘performer’; a grossly overpaid jester, in fact, and a curious, costumed cog in the Walt Disney machine (more Pirates and Alice adventures are on the way — you’ve been warned). But man, is his star beginning to wane.

Transcendence tanked,

Mortdecai mortified and we’d bet that someone, somewhere, is still trying to make it to the end of The Lone Ranger. So, yeah, Depp flew too close to the sun. He’d lost his way — lost his cool, even. And then he said ‘yes’ to Black Mass. Smart bloke.

It’s based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s 2001 account of how Irish-American mob boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, of the Winter Hill Gang, became one of the most notorious gangsters in Boston history, whilst simultaneously working in cahoots with the FBI throughout the late 1970s. Black Mass finds Depp ditching his luscious locks and suave, moustachioed demeanour for something a little… grittier. Oilier. Scarier. Actually, Depp’s Whitey Bulger is a nasty piece of work; a frightening contradiction of a man who would die for his family and kill for his reputation.

Director Scott Cooper could have taken the Scorsese route, piling on the fizzy drama and worrying about the plot later (Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in The Departed was actually based on Bulger). Instead, Cooper sticks to the true story — stumbling narrative and all — which has just as many benefits as it does setbacks (there are no truly memorable showdowns here, but plenty of crime talk, if you’re cool with that).

Essentially, the story of how Bulger came to form his “unholy alliance” with the Feds (he was a reluctant informant, basically), this isn’t just a star vehicle for Depp. The man is every bit as good as the marketing campaign suggests, and it’s his finest role in years, but Joel Edgerton’s John Connolly will have you believe that this movie is all about him.

A childhood friend of Bulger’s who went on to become an FBI agent, orchestrating the alliance that gave Bulger protection from rival gangs and the power to expand his empire, Connolly forgets which side of the fence he’s on and, well, you can pretty much work out how that will end. What’s important is that Edgerton has brought his game — and a cracking accent, too.

A gripping portrayal of life at the top (and bottom) of Boston’s most famous crime syndicate, from family and allies (the death of Bulger’s infant son pushed him over the edge), to disloyalty and murder (things get very violent, obviously), Cooper’s film is engaging and tense, authentic and detailed.

True, there’s a bit too much detail, and a handful of the supporting players are left wandering aimlessly (Benedict Cumberbatch barely registers as Bulger’s politician brother, Billy), but we’re just happy to see an on-form Depp lose himself in a brilliant role. Even if he does look as though he might kick our head in at any minute. More of this, Johnny boy...

 

Bridge of Spies

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Historical drama. Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance. Director: Steven Spielberg. Cert: 12A

STEVEN Spielberg and Tom Hanks continue their long-running and largely rewarding partnership with this decent, if somewhat unremarkable, Cold War drama, based on the 1960 U-2 incident, in which the Americans negotiated a deal with the Russians to exchange a couple of captured spies. Our leading man plays US lawyer, James Donovan, the bloke who was given the unenviable task of not only defending a KGB spy (Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel), but later, sorting out the exchange (tough job, for sure).

A steady and sharp Hanks delivers, the cinematography is suitably epic, the Coen Brothers’ talky script gets us through and Spielberg piles on the patriotism. But the real star of the show is the excellent Rylance.

Watch out for that man’s name on Oscar night…

The Good Dinosaur

Animation/Adventure. Featuring the voices of Raymond Ochoa, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin and Frances McDormand. Director: Peter Sohn. Cert: PG.

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GOSH, the folks at Pixar are really spoiling us this year. After the success of the acclaimed Inside Out comes another ingenious animated gem in which the cleverest cartoon team in the world pose the age-old question of what might have happened had that gigantic space rock that killed the dinosaurs merely passed us by. The answer, according to Pixar, is every bit as imaginative and charming as you’d expect, what with those terrible lizards evolving to a state in which some of them actually become farmers and ranchers.

Basically, young Arlo (an Apatosaurus, FYI) is only just coming to terms with a family tragedy when a freak accident occurs, and the poor guy ends up miles from home with only a tiny cave boy companion to talk to. This being the same crowd that turned us to mush with the magnificent Up, it’s no surprise that the lads’ adventure into the unknown pushes all of the emotional buttons.

There’s a cowboy T Rex, a mentally unstable Styracosaurus, devious Pterodactyls and one hilarious scene in which Arlo and his buddy get high (bad berries, like).

Smart, funny and beautifully presented, The Good Dinosaur also hits us right in the feels. Remember that scene in The Land Before Time? Yeah, maybe bring a tissue…

Carol

Romantic Drama. Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler. Director: Todd Haynes. Cert: 15A.

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It’s the early 1950s, and Rooney Mara is Therese Belivet, a reserved department store worker in Manhattan, who’d be much happier taking photographs for a living than advising customers on what they should buy their kids for Christmas. That is, until she meets the enchanting Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Therese recommends a train set, the two exchange lingering looks and Carol parts with her cash. Done and dusted.

Only, Carol’s gone and left her gloves on the counter, and boy, did she leave a mark on young Therese. What begins as a simple case of a trusted employee returning a complete stranger’s hand warmers eventually blossoms into a tender and rather delicately-handled love affair in which both women side-step the more pressing issues in their lives (divorce, engagements, a move abroad) to embark on a road trip to Chicago.

Carol has already been with a woman, but Therese — unsure of her sexuality, and taking the first step towards a life she might actually enjoy — is entranced by the possibilities of a relationship with someone she genuinely cares for.

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, Carol is, at its heart, an amiable, slow-burning exploration of love between two women at a time when the very idea of being gay was enough to convince the powers-that-be that one wasn’t fit to mother a child (Carol risks losing her daughter in a custody battle and is required to see a doctor).

It’s a well-acted and reasonably well-directed (if a little grey around the edges) period drama in which Cate Blanchett turns in another exquisite performance (nobody does longing and heartache quite like Cate). The only problem — and it’s a big one — is that Carol is lacking somewhat in the chemistry department. There’s just no real spark between Mara and Blanchett. Individually, they are mesmerising; together, well, there’s something missing. Full marks for effort (and they really do try), but the pair’s romance is often as cold as the New York winter in which the film is largely set — and that’s just disappointing.

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