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.)

FADING GIGOLO

During the Miami International Film Festival, I had an opportunity to sit down with actor/director John Turturro. I was told I had 12 minutes to discuss his new film, Fading Gigolo, with him. Somehow we lost track of time and carried on for double that time, but it was a great conversation, touching on specifics in both his filmmaking and his acting style, directing Woody Allen the actor, his vision to hire Vanessa Paradis, a model/singer/actress better known in France for all her talents and best known in the U.S. as Johnny Depp’s ex. We also touched on his memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who only recently passed, and who we did love so much here at Independent Ethos.

It was a long chat that had to be spread across two articles in the Miami New Times. This first one appeared in print in and was written as a feature story and touched on not only the movie but Allen and that controversy that hung a bit too close over the film’s premiere in Miami. It also features his comments on Hoffman. Read it by jumping through the Miami New Times logo below:

Miami New Times logoThere were many details left out of that piece for the sake of space, which one has to be very conscious of when writing for print. We spoke much more about Allen and how it was working with him, but we also spoke about Paradis’ talents and, on a more important scale, the presence of a film like Fading Gigolo in a major movie production industry more concerned with adapting YA stories and comic books. Where does a film about more complicated adult love fit into such an industry? We get into all that and more in the expanded Q&A I provided for Miami New Times’ art and culture blog Cultist. You can read that part of our chat by jumping through the Cultist logo below:

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Finally, there is what is left of our chat, which was no less compelling. Turturro was certainly gracious about his award, which he received at a packed concert hall in Downtown Miami a couple of months ago, at the 2014 Miami International Film Festival (A re-cap of a hectic half-attended, still impressive Miami International Film Festival 31). However, there’s something of a feeling of achieving a peak with such awards, and it can do things to your creativity and career … We start there, talk about color and film, shooting in 35mm (which Turturro has not given up on), and love stories for mature people. Here’s part three of our talk, exclusive to Independent Ethos:

Hans Morgenstern: So what was it like getting your big career achievement Award?

John Turturro: You know, I take those things with a grain of salt. People obviously like what you do. But I wouldn’t like to be doing it, because I’m not announcing my retirement. You know, I got one of those things when I first started out in Sundance. They gave me this Actor Piper-Heidseick Award. I think I was the first person to ever get one, and I was just starting out. It was like 1990 or 1991 or something like that. I remember I didn’t even have a proper suit jacket to wear. I guess because I do a variety of things, oh, look at this, look at that. I’m always appreciative, but I’m more appreciative of being able to do the things I want. That’s what I want to do. People can win an Academy Award, and it may not help them get another job. Things like that have happened many times, and my important thing is being able to do things I like to do. That’s it. That’s what I care about. I can’t sit and stare at the walls and say I got all these awards. It’s nice, but I don’t think about it too much.

They also showed your new movie, Fading Gigolo. One of the things I noticed about the film was the range of colors you used.

Oh, yeah, very carefully selected. We used the Saul Leiter photographs. He was a fashion photographer who did all these great street pictures and reflections in windows. Maybe they were staged, some of them. I’m not sure some of them weren’t, but they were like Kodachrome. There was a certain dye transfer that he did. Then I used the Italian painter, [Giorgio] Morandi, a still life painter, for a lot of the colors of Fiorvante’s apartment. So those were the two visual sources. Everything was selected very carefully, stripes that the Hasidic community used and the stripes that my character had, and even getting Woody in dark pants was a big thing. I told him, no khaki pants. I didn’t tell him, but I gently nudged him, and as you see, he’s got dark pants on, and that’s very unusual for Woody, and he even has a purple, kind of, colored corduroy hat. He’s even got a black jacket at some point, and he never dresses that way.

I even noticed the white of his hair more in this movie.

Well, he hasn’t really been in that many movies for a long time. Anyway, yeah, cause color is emotional, and the way it’s lit, we shot it on film. We didn’t shoot digital. We used 8 millimeter for the credits and it’s 35 millimeter, and [director of photography] Marco Pontecorvo, he’s great with the light. We used a lot of shadow, a lot of chiaroscuro.

Have you always shot in 35mm?

Only Passione I did with the Red [digital camera]. But this we tested, and we thought it was a lot softer on the women, and it’s a film about New York or any city that’s kind of changing and fading a little bit. I thought that would just be—it’s more voluptuous, soft.

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Well, fading is a key word to your film.

Yeah, of course.

So what motivated you to do this film about a man far along in his prime, let’s say? Because when you are dealing with Hollywood and this complex idea of love, it’s so much easier to focus on the youth.

Well, youth is part of life, but it’s not all of life, and sometimes you can see a film like Blue Is the Warmest Color, and it’s fantastic. The girl is unbelievable because you’re seeing someone budding. I thought her performance was brilliant, but most of the time you see it, and their reference is very young, and life goes on, and people start life again at 40. They get divorced. They lose someone. They never find the right person, and though, well, here’s a guy who’s in the middle of his life and lives in a room, and I know people like that, who are really comfortable with women, who likes women, but he never really commits, but he’s a guy who is very good, physically. I have friends that can fix their engines, they have a plumbing problem, they have an electrical problem, and it’s very attractive to be around a person like that, cause you’re like, wow. These people express themselves in that way, and they may not be ambitious, and I was thinking about that. So many people want to be famous instead of doing what they do. I think love and needing to be loved, to be touched, to connect, it’s a universal thing. It never ends. You’re livin’ by yourself, and you’re 70 years old, you know, loneliness can kill a person. So I thought that could be an interesting thing to explore. Obviously, you have to be in good enough shape to do it, and I thought when Woody makes the suggestion to me, the guy is resistant. I’m too old. I’m not a gorgeous looking guy, but he’s not insecure that way at all. He’s like, well, I know who I am.

And that helps with the ladies.

Yeah, that’s right. It could help a lot. Especially if you know how to listen and you know how to behave, you know how to pick up what’s going on in the moment.

Your character has a great name: Fiorvante. Where’s that from?

A lot of the names I took— my father was a builder— right out of his phone book. He’s no longer alive and Dan Bongo, I took right out of his phone book. He was a plasterer. Fiorvante, I think [his last name was] Boccio, he was a painter. I just took the names right out of it. Not all of the names, but those names I did. Virgil Howard was a name I took right out of a phone book. So sometimes you’re superstitious. You think, well, maybe if I take something from my parents, it’ll bring you good fortune. It’s a way of communicating with them or something.

Fading Gigolo opens Friday, May 2, in the Miami area at Coral Gables Art Cinema, Regal South Beach Stadium 18, and AMC Aventura 24. On opening night, at the 7 p.m. screening at the Coral Gables Art Cinema there will be a live video-link Q&A with Turturro. For screening dates in other cities, visit the film’s official website.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Any interest in a film based on the writings of late Hunter S. Thompson comes weighted by the unfilmable sense of the narrative Thompson concocted. How would a director capture a narrative that battled against the expectations of objective journalism by a writer fueled by drink, drugs and a borderline psychotic attitude toward— what he considered— the greedy hypocrites who have co-opted the American Dream for their own permit to mow down anyone and anything that stood in the way of their of insatiable fulfillment? Thompson showed no restraint, even peppering his writings with the hallucinations he suffered as a side-effect to his lifestyle. One of the most insane directors of the 20th century (Terry Gilliam) tried hard— maybe too hard— to realize Thompson’s writing with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… and failed. Now here comes the Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in Gilliam’s now cultish failure (it flopped hard at the box office), hand-picking director Bruce Robinson as the man with the vision (both screenwriter and helmer). Though, in theory, Robinson should have been the right fit as director and writer, the Rum Diary never even comes close to that director’s long-ago apex in cinema: the over-the-top characters of Withnail & I (1987) and the black, surreal humor of How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989).* Much less, does the Rum Diary, based on Thompson’s early novel, which would not see publication until long after the writer’s early years of achieving fame as a “Gonzo journalist,”  ever capture the spirit of Hunter’s swagger, except maybe in the writerly manner the characters in the newsroom at the “San Juan Star” talk. I knew going into this movie any attempt to make a film out of Thompson’s prose would be an exercise in futility (and, no, I have not forgotten the 1980 biopic Where the Buffalo Roam starring Bill Murray), but, as a fan of Thompson’s writing, I wanted to see it through.

The film opens with the hung over Paul Kemp (Depp), an aspiring writer waking up hung over from a night of binge drinking just before he heads for his first day on the job at the “San Juan Star” in 1960. Already the film establishes this man as the alter ego of Thompson, well known for having started his illustrious career at “Rolling Stone” with a two-part dispatch from Las Vegas that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1972, abusing drugs and alcohol (even ether) while running up a huge expense account for the magazine. What is less known about the author is that he tried to make it as a novelist by establishing himself at the actual “San Juan Star,” more than 10 years before his “RS” gig… which rejected him. While on the island, Thompson would write articles as a stringer on Caribbean affairs. In the meantime, he worked on two novels. The first has never been published and the second was the Rum Diary, a fictional account of a hero reporter out to undermine the development of the natural paradise that is Puerto Rico by US capitalist types who want to privatize beaches and push out the locals.

After an introduction to his hard-ass editor at the paper, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), the film maintains a leisurely pace, delighting in the language of these newspapermen who all seem to have the quirk of alcoholism hanging over them, yet still banter with the strength of well-heeled news writers. I would have been happy if the film stuck to the newsroom and bar as the only set pieces. Still some other drama must drive these men as dictated by the Hollywood formula, and for awhile it seems like they are going to do some good with their intentions. Despite Kemp signing a confidentiality agreement with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a developer seeking to exploit the writer for good press for his proposed beachfront hotel, Kemp turns against the businessman. Then there is the complication of Kemp’s affections for Sanderson’s fiance, Chenault (Amber Heard). Though Depp does a great job hunching over and drinking until he is nearly incomprehensible and obviously impaired in his decision-making, Chenault throws herself at him. Right. In the end, when mostly drunk heroes get together, nothing much cathartic happens, so an attempt for some grand revolution just becomes one over-long, drawn-joke that dulls any interest for these guys long before the final scene.

Though the resulting story on film is anti-climactic, Depp does his famed Thompson imitation well, down to the staccato mumblings of his words. The supporting news characters all prove themselves as the most interesting characters to watch, especially Giovanni Ribisi as the crime and religious affairs reporter Moberg, a man who seems a further gone drunk than Kemp and looks like the future Thompson. In fact, the film slows down during all the vignettes of traveling across the island, accompanied by bland, typical of-the-era-and-location music choices that last too long. Though I do love the island, having been born there, the film drags during many of its set pieces. That said, the period detail in the sets are amazing, down to the poster art decorating the run-down apartment of Sala (Michael Rispoli), the paper’s photographer. Being filmed in Puerto Rico certainly helped, but while filming there, the filmmakers should have known that that the coquí only come out at night to make their distinctive sound.

I think it is great that Depp had such affection for Thompson to produce such a film, and God bless all those who think they can do justice to a man with such a unique voice. But the man was about the written word. It was as much about the medium as it was the message, which happens to have been unabashedly clouded up by drug and alcohol abuse (if there is anything sadder than movies that pay tribute to Thompson it just might be the writers who abuse illicit substances to try and imitate his style). The man was inimitable. The recent documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, narrated by Depp, is probably the best Thompson celluloid tribute, as Thompson is right at the center of the action, in the flesh, down to his funeral where his ashes were shot into the sky for a fireworks display. A Gonzo funeral for a Gonzo guy.

The Rum Diary is Rated R and runs 110 min. It opens Friday, Oct. 28, at most theaters. I attended a preview screening hosted by the film’s PR company for the purposes of this review.

*In between there was the ho-hum serial killer thriller Jennifer 8 (1992) and nothing else until the Rum Diary.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)