Tag Archives: peter sarsgaard

‘Black Mass’ Highlighted by Depp’s Chilling Work

Black_Mass_(film)_posterWelcome back, Johnny Depp. It has been a very, very long time.

“Black Mass” stars Depp as real-life mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, and chronicles his reign as the crime boss of Boston in the 70’s and 80’s, all while an undercover informant for the FBI. Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch are just two of the dozen big names that co-star as Scott Cooper directs.

They often say truth is stranger than fiction, and that is true with the Whitey Bulger story. A career criminal who tricked the FBI to arrest his enemies all while having a brother who is a state senator; Hollywood couldn’t come up with that on their own.

Like I said, it has been a while since we have seen Johnny Depp play a character we cared about in a movie that we liked. His last Oscar nomination was in 2008 for “Sweeney Todd,” and this year’s “Mortdecai” may have been the final straw, with many calling it the worst film and performance of his career. However ever since the first image of Depp as Bulger was released many have been hoping that “Black Mass” would be the shot of energy Depp’s career desperately needed, and thankfully (for both us and Depp) he turns in a near-career best performance.

Johnny Depp loves his makeup, that is no secret, and he disappears behind the wrinkles and black eyes of Whitey Bulger. Much like Jack Nicholson in “The Departed” (whose character was based off Bulger), Depp becomes more and more depraved and sadistic as the film goes on, and when the climax comes you are not sure what he is capable or willing to do.

The violence in “Black Mass” is like that of “Goodfellas”: bloody but swift. There are several well-crafted execution scenes however the most intense sequences are ones where Depp is just starring down someone from across a table not saying a word.

Speaking of “Goodfellas,” that leads me into the film’s flaws. It tries very hard to take from other gangster films, which more often than not makes us compare the film we’re watching to classic movies, and obviously it isn’t going to hold a candle to the greats. There is even a scene that tries to embody the same feel as the “funny how?” sequence from “Goodfellas,” and while it works in the moment, once it passes you realize it doesn’t hold the same weight as that Joe Pesci scene.

The payoff of the film also leaves more to be desired. The film goes from a guy getting taken out by Bulger and his crew in one scene to everything starting to get wrapped up in the next. In fact most of the film feels as if the filmmakers assume you know the Whitey Bulger story, and so it takes little time to introduce backstories, which makes us watch characters that feel more expendable than engaging (outside Depp and Joel Edgerton’s FBI agent).

Still, narrative flaws aside, there are several brilliant scenes sprinkled throughout “Black Mass,” and one in particular that may be remembered for a while. It is fantastically refreshing to see Depp return to a serious role, and I’m sure he will get some serious consideration come Oscar season. As a film, “Black Mass” is solid, but you’re going to see for Depp’s chilling performance, and it is what you will walk out remembering most.

Critics Rating: 7/10



‘Pawn Sacrifice’ an Unremarkable Biopic

Pawn_Sacrifice_PosterEventually I will be able to watch Tobey Maguire during a music montage and not instantly think of that horrible dance sequence from “Spider-Man 3.” One day…

“Pawn Sacrifice” stars Maguire as American chess champion Bobby Fischer, who takes on the Soviets, led by Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), in order to prove he is the best player in the world. Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg co-star as Edward Zwick directs.

I know what you’re thinking, “a movie set in the 1960s that is all about chess? How could that possibly be interesting?” And you’re kind of right; while “Pawn Sacrifice” does manage to be more engaging than one would imagine, it is never as interesting as I’m sure the filmmakers intended.

The biggest problem with the film is that the people who made it were clearly more invested into Bobby Fischer’s story than the average person will be. The film spends much of its time on Fischer’s deteriorating psyche, showing a man who at the height of the Cold War constantly was being spied on and targeted (or at least thought he was). However the film beats you over the head with the idea that Fischer is slowly unraveling. While this is partially the point, to make the audience feel the frustration that his colleagues do, it takes away from the actual chess matches.

It’s no secret that most people would not consider chess a sport, and the idea of watching people play may be the only thing more boring than actually playing it yourself. The film’s main setup is the 1972 Chess Championship between Fischer and Spassky, and there are several things working against it. First off, chess championships are whoever gets to 12 points first, wins. That means there are a minimum of 12 games to be played, really diluting the magnitude of a single match. The film treats the viewer as if they are an experienced player and know exactly what is going on, so when Fischer or Spassky makes a move and all the characters react in shock, the uninitiated (my guess, 90% of the audience) are left looking around wondering what just happened.

The climax of the film is Game 6 of the championship, which has no true defining feel or intensity from any other matches we see throughout the film. In the credits, it says that is considered “the greatest game of chess ever played,” and I would have never guessed that just by watching the film.

The film is not without its merits. Peter Sarsgaard is fantastic as William Lombardy, one of Fischer’s longtime coaches. He acts as both the comic relief and the eyes for the audience, groaning when Fischer requests yet another increase in pay, or explaining to others the importance of a move a player just did.

Maguire is more of a mixed bag. There are some scenes he completely dominates, showing the mental strain that being one of the best players in the world at such a young age puts on someone; however there are some scenes he overacts, like one where he yells at Spassky on a beach in a way that I just did not buy as realistic.

To chess fans, I’m sure “Pawn Sacrifice” is what “Miracle” is to hockey fans, but to the average filmgoer, there just isn’t enough here to warrant a viewing. Perhaps Maguire fans will get a kick, and those who enjoy period pieces like I do will be able to ooh and ah at some of the Cold War-era set pieces, but all others need not apply.

Critics Rating: 5/10