bm posterBlack Mass has a big issue. It’s the celebrated face of lead actor Johnny Depp. The problem comes from Depp’s prolonged gimmick of using makeup as a pathway into his performances for both himself and the sake of audience appeal. His version of real-life Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger is ultimately no different from his versions of Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (and probably its upcoming sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass). All come across as makeup on a famous actor’s face.

Reportedly, Depp stayed in character as Bulger between takes. “By the end of filming I’d spent more time with Whitey Bulger than I’d spent with Johnny,” said co-star Joel Edgerton to “Entertainment Weekly.” While one should appreciate the dedication of the method approach to acting, this kind of reporting is one more bit of hype to a little understood acting style that is too often made mythic. It becomes less about the performance and more about the actor. As Depp tries to disappear into the role, his technique overshadows it.

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Depp is also the sum of what has come to be his seeming gimmick: flashy makeup that makes each role he plays a caricature. As Bulger, Depp uses blue contact lenses, a dead browned front tooth and harshly combed back thin, grey hair to look the part. While it works all right for the cartoonish movies of Tim Burton or the Pirates films, it can be problematic for a movie based on a real person who committed horrific acts. As a kind of caricature, it sanitizes the real crimes, including murder, committed by this man.

Black Mass is supposed to be a menacing depiction of a real-life psychopathic crime boss currently serving two life sentences plus five years at a maximum security prison. It was only a few years ago that the FBI finally caught up with Bulger, who had been lying low in California. Agents ambushed him in a Santa Monica apartment parking garage. This was only in 2011, and I remember when the news broke like it was yesterday. Now Hollywood has come with its adaptation and of course a peculiarly romantic account for his cruelty (he lost his only son at a young age and his mother died). This rationalization is practically spelled out before he commits one of his most heinous acts. It’s an odd step in character illustration that is supposed to illicit empathy while also showing what a psycho Bulger was.

BLACK MASS

Director Scott Cooper does a fine job stitching together an intriguing story of Boston corruption that allowed Bulger to thrive for as long as 20 years before he disappeared, becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives. Both Bulger’s younger brother, State Senator William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch adding one more layer of distraction with an accent that struggles to sound Bostonian) and his old playground mate now FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton). Despite its two-hour-plus running time, it covers a lot of ground without feeling like a montage or losing its momentum.

Ultimately, it’s just too difficult to forgive the glamorization of Bulger in this movie, a star vehicle that romanticizes a monster. The filmmakers attempts at presenting Bulger as a mean-spirited menace falls out of whack with his presentation as a victim of circumstance. To top it off, the authorities come across as inept until the film’s tidy epilogue (the appearance of a limply mustachioed Adam Scott as an FBI agent suspicious of Connolly’s connection to Bulger feels like an unintended joke). Supporting characters either simmer with bitterness, tremor in fear of Bulger or mindlessly follow Bulger. And then there’s the sentimental bit of pop psychology about his son and mom. Black Mass is ultimately a failure in all of its self-consciousness in making a rather horrific story a bit of Hollywood entertainment, not to mention a self-serious film reaching for awards and accolades I doubt it will snag.

Hans Morgenstern

Black Mass runs 122 minutes and is rated R (it’s violent). It opens in wide release this Friday, Sept. 17. All images are courtesy of Warner Bros., who hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

It was supposed to be an “Entertainment Weekly” exclusive premiere, and it even had an interview with Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, now it’s just an “error page.” Who knows why Arcade Fire’s new song, “Abraham’s Daughter,” written and recorded for the Hunger Games soundtrack was deleted from the Internet, but this is the Internet, people. Nothing can be deleted for good.

I found the mp3. Download it by clicking through here:

  Download mp3 of Abraham’s Daughter

The track is rather uneventful despite the hype (and, man, is the hype machine in high gear for everything Hunger Games). I doubt it will win over too many new fans. It’s a brooding little piece with string and hurdy-gurdy player Reginne Chassagne taking lead vocals. It seems to be all soft build-up to nothing … unless it serves as the prelude to the Kid Cudi song that follows it on the full soundtrack (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It certainly has the Arcade Fire style, but it sounds like filler. Devotees should love it just for the fact that it is now closing on two years since Arcade Fire released any new music since the Suburbs (Why Arcade Fire deserved that Grammy [February 14, 2011]).

Here are some comments from Butler on the song, which were part of EW’s now missing blog post:

On the theme of the song, he said, “Our whole approach was to get into the world and try to create something that serves the story and the film. There’s something in the story of Abraham and Isaac that I think resonates with the themes in the film, like sacrificing children. So we made a weird, alternate-universe version of that.”

On the writing of the song: “I tried to put myself in the headspace of how excited I’d be if this film was coming out when I was 15. I still remember hearing Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (for a Film)’ in [Baz Luhrmann’s] ‘Romeo + Juliet’ when I was that age.”

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)