Movie Review: “Black Mass”

Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemmons, David Harbour, Kevin Bacon
Scott Cooper

There was a time when Johnny Depp could seemingly do no wrong, but in recent years, he’s mistaken that goodwill for the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants, and it hasn’t really worked out in his favor. Not counting cameos and animated voice work, it’s been a while since Depp delivered a genuinely good performance. (You’d have to go all the way back to 2009’s “Public Enemies,” in which he played another famous gangster, John Dillinger.) But the actor finally stops the rot with his turn as the menacing Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass,” and though it isn’t exactly Oscar worthy, it’s just nice to see him back doing what he does best: creating complex, memorable characters instead of broadly painted caricatures.

The movie opens in 1975 as small-time criminal Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) begins to make a name for himself in South Boston with the help of his Winter Hill Gang, including trusted right-hand man Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), hitman John Martorano (W. Earl Brown) and muscle Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemmons). When one of Whitey’s old childhood friends, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), returns to Boston to clean up the streets by bringing down the Italian mafia, he suggests that Whitey become his informant – a mutually beneficial business arrangement that would allow John to get rid of the mob and give Whitey free reign over the city. But as John struggles to cover up Whitey’s growing criminal empire, he unknowingly places himself in the FBI’s crosshairs when his superiors begin to question how Whitey continues to get away with murder, sometimes quite literally.

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Movie Review: “Mortdecai”

Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn, Jonny Pasvolsky
David Koepp

There’s no sugar-coating it: Johnny Depp is in a rut, and if he’s not careful, he could end up like Nicolas Cage really soon, because “Mortdecai” is bottom-of-the-barrel bad. Though the actor has earned criticism for his proclivity to play eccentric oddballs, he seems to be having a lot of fun here as the mustachioed title character. Unfortunately, he’s the only one, because this throwback to the goofy capers of the 1960s isn’t even remotely entertaining. In fact, it fails on just about every level, so committed to its ridiculous premise that it doesn’t bother to step back and recognize what an unholy mess it is. “Mortdecai” could have been the spiritual successor to Peter Sellers’ “Pink Panther” series, but it has more in common with Steve Martin’s terrible reboot.

Depp stars as Lord Charlie Mortdecai, a British art dealer who’s fallen on hard times. With his family’s estate in danger of bankruptcy, he agrees to help his old university friend, Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor) – who just so happens to be in love with Mortdecai’s wife, Joanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) – with a murder case that’s linked to the theft of a lost Goya painting… for a finder’s fee, of course. Aided by his loyal manservant/bodyguard, Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany), Mortdecai launches an investigation into the missing masterpiece, only to discover that it may contain the code to a Swiss bank account filled with Nazi gold. Everyone wants the fabled Goya for their own reasons, including an American billionaire (Jeff Goldblum), a Russian mobster (Ulrich Thomsen) and a freedom fighter (Jonny Pasvolsky) intent on using the money to fuel his rebellion, but first, Mortdecai must prove that it even exists.

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Movie Review: “Transcendence”

Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser
Wally Pfister

With Easter just around the corner, it’s probably no coincidence that just as the furor over “Noah,” a man who had visions from God, has died down, we are treated to Johnny Depp taking the futuristic steps in becoming a god in “Transcendence.” A cautionary tale about the evils of technology by way of artificial intelligence gets the visual treatment by acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister (“Inception,” the Dark Knight trilogy) in his directorial debut, but this is more than just a big budget version of “Siri Goes Wild.”

Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, the leading scientist in the field of Artificial Intelligence. He’s brilliant to the point of being a bit bored with the non-scientific world, not that his flock of geek groupies seems to mind. (Eat your heart out, Reed Richards). Keeping him tethered to people, places and things is his loving wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). She’s more than Will’s diplomatic arm candy, though. She’s arguably his intellectual equal.

While Will charges down the road towards creating sentient machines, his best friend and part-time conscience, Max (Paul Bettany), reminds him that just because you can play god doesn’t mean you should. Apparently, he’s not the only one who thinks society should pump the brakes on giving Cortina cyber synapses to work with. The anti-tech terrorist organization R.I.F.T (Revolutionary Independence from Technology) – led be Kate Mara’s Bree – subtly voices its opposition with a coordinated attack targeting the Casters’ former mentor, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), and killing his entire staff in the process. But Will isn’t spared when the group attempts to kill him as well, and they pull it off… somewhat.

After he’s poisoned by R.I.F.T. and given only days to live, Evelyn does the unthinkable and transfers Will’s mind into his living computer P.I.N.N. (You can’t have science without a couple good acronyms), the Physically Independent Neural Network. As Will tells a crowd before he’s shot, “Once online, a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology.” And he does just that, initially to the delight of his grieving wife Evelyn and the shock of his pal Max. Will is more than just a ghost in the machine, however, using his near-infinite knowledge to help change the world, effectively becoming a god. Yes, connecting to the internet can make you a god, but the Casters come to find that being a diety power couple comes at a price.

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Movie Review: “The Lone Ranger”

Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, James Badge Dale, Barry Pepper
Gore Verbinski

It’s no secret that the key to the success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies was Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, so you can understand why Disney would be so eager to build another potential franchise around the actor. They’ve even brought back director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio in an attempt to recapture the success of those films. As a result, some people might be tempted to describe “The Lone Ranger” as “Pirates of the Caribbean” meets the Wild West, and quite frankly, they wouldn’t be too far off. Disney’s big screen adaptation of the classic radio serial is like the “Pirates” movies in many ways, and unfortunately, that includes the bad along with the good.

The year is 1869 and the first transcontinental railroad is nearing completion. As Texas-born attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer) travels home from college, his train is attacked by a band of outlaws who have come to break their cannibalistic leader Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) out of custody. John joins his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) and the rest of the Texas Rangers to track him down, only to be ambushed by Cavendish in the desert and slaughtered like cattle. Left for dead, John is nursed back to life by a Comanche Indian named Tonto (Depp) – whose life he saved earlier on the train – at the behest of a white spirit horse. Both men want to bring Cavendish to justice for their own reasons, so they decide to team up, with John donning a mask to hide his identity. But on their quest to take down Cavendish and his men, the pair uncovers a larger plot involving railroad tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) that could spell trouble for the native tribes.

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10 Under-appreciated Roles from Johnny Depp

Unfortunately, the new “Dark Shadows” film is terrible, but Johnny Depp shines as usual.

And then, there but for the grace of God, is Johnny Depp, who commits to the role of Barnabas in a way that redefines Method acting. He had to know before they had finished shooting that “Dark Shadows” wasn’t working, but Depp refuses to give in to the material’s inherently campy nature and plays Barnabas bone-straight and dead serious from beginning to end.

It’s too bad Depp’s talents are wasted here, but there are plenty of old gems you can rent or stream to appreciate his talent. Several years ago we listed 10 under-appreciated roles from Depp. One of my favorites was “Blow.”

It would take a hell of a film to wrest away the title of “Best Use of Cocaine in a Motion Picture” from “Scarface.” Frankly, “Blow” – Ted Demme’s final directorial effort – isn’t that film. But while it may not offer any lines as instantly memorable as “say hello to my little friend,” it is a well-made drama that flows along nicely, finding Depp wearing a variety of wigs as he plays real-like cocaine smuggler George Jung over the course of several years and hairstyles. The supporting cast is also particularly strong, with Ray Liotta and Emma Griffiths portraying Jung’s parents, Penelope Cruz and Franka Potente as his love interests, and Ethan Suplee, Paul Reubens and Bobcat Goldthwait turning up as some of Jung’s associates (i.e., fellow dealers). What keeps the film from standing alongside its higher-profile coke-centric brethren, however, is that, as Jung, Depp comes across as pretty lethargic. Maybe that’s what the real Jung was actually like (given Depp’s tendency to lose himself in his roles, we’re willing to bet that it was), but the end result is a film with a character who manages to experience countless outrageous moments in his lifetime without coming across as all that exciting himself.

So don’t bother with “Dark Shadows.” Check out this list and rent a much better film.


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