Gold (***1/2) is a beautiful loser

Gold-2016-Movie-Poster

Gold – 2016

Director  Stephen Gaghan
Screenplay 
Patrick Massett, John Zinman
Starring 
Matthew McConaughey, Édgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson, Bruce Greenwood

The feeling in watching Matthew McConaughey working and sweating his way through every scene of Gold is that we are watching a story that feels like his own. The vision of Kenny Wells to the outside world is that of one who got away with something and struck it rich with an illusion. Inside his heart is true and he works as hard as anyone, even if he feels like he will never get credit for earning his fortune.  To anyone who has followed McConaughey since his first big role in A Time to Kill will find this story very familiar.

This is what draws me to his performance in what could be considered quite average fare. There is nothing wrong with this movie and it’s script. It definitely wasn’t considered at award time. McConaughey is at his very best, though from the moment he first takes the screen all the way through the end. He inhabits the screen like someone on his desperate last breaths, somehow sure that the legacy of his father (Nelson in a passing cameo) will be proved as legitimate through his own success.

As a down and out market prospector, Wells has a dream and quite literally hocks the last bit of gold his girlfriend has left to make it happen. The success does come, but it is not easy. Eventually bigger fish come in tor make their stamp and he sneaks past them like a dying man whistling past the graveyard.

The story is loosely based on the Bre-X mining scandal. For those who know what happened, there is still plenty to enjoy. Particularly good are Ramírez and Howard, as Wells partner and longtime girlfriend, respectively. I have never noticed as good a performance out of the latter. Indeed, this is the first time I have enjoyed seeing her on screen.

The story and performance of the day is McConaughey, though. If he’s been better, he’s never been as invested in a role so completely. He goes the full DeNiro here, making himself into a repulsive has been with a heart of gold.

The story plays like something that could have been made in another time, when more time and effort was poured into character and less into any sort of flash. This feels like the kind of film one produces when they’ve won the cache to spread their wings a little.

While it’s never dull, the story is steady and the scenery feels at once wearying and fresh. Gaghan has a deft touch with drama, but nothing here feels overbearing aside from the strain Wells gut puts on a pair of pants.

If you like McConaughey, then watch this film. If you are on the bubble and think he just may have gotten lucky, watch this film. Tell me if it doesn’t make you feel like he’s finally proved himself worthwhile.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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Black Mass (**) is not moving

BLACK-MASS

Black Mass – 2015

Director Scott Cooper
Screenplay Jez Butterworth, Mark Mallouk based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, W. Earl Brown

As someone who has seen Goodfellas somewhere close to 30 times, I don’t have to say how much I can appreciate crime drama at its best. It’s a difficult line to walk, deciding which real events and real people to leave out, what characters and events to meld together. One thing that cannot be left out is a compelling story driven by characters one can identify with and root for and against. For the Scorsese classic, we are drawn into the world through our tethering to the perfectly expressed thoughts of Henry Hill (Liotta), who lived by a code that was consistent, if not one the normal Schmo would find comfortable. This code is presented through a procession of scenes that build upon one another as the character grows within his environment. He doesn’t grow a conscience and decide he needs “out.” Furthest thing from it. He does what he has to in order to survive, and then lives with adjusted consequences.

Ever since that film, many mob stories have come and gone, most trying but failing to duplicate it’s success. Scorsese himself tried it again a few times, failing with Casino and even more spectacularly with The Wolf of Wall Street, but scoring an Oscar with the good, but not great The Departed. The last of which is one of the many recent Boston “Southie” mob tales that have come out of the real life that Whitey Bulger lived. It’s a shame, after The Departed, The Town, Mystic River, The Boondock Saints films and The Equalizer, we reach the point where we’re taking on Whitey in depth and the formula has run out of steam.

It’s easy to blame the glut of films that take place in that world, but it is more than this that contributes to the feeling of tired resignation one gets while watching a film that is technically telling Bulger’s story proficiently and uncompromisingly. There is technique in the buildup of scene after scene, but it is a tired one that does not try anything new. Someone messes up, they go for a car ride, they get whacked. Someone gets arrested, they talk (or don’t) they go for a car ride…you know.

By the time I am finished watching Johnny Depp in his strikingly blue eyed makeup for 2 hours of this, I don’t know anything more about Whitey Bulger than what I read in the paper, saw on the news or elicited from The Departed. Plenty of people tell us who Bulger is, and we see him do things all the time. We never really know why he does them, because he was a fully convicted, served and released member of the Alcatraz club by the time we first lay eyes on him. Everything he does afterword is strictly driven by opportunity.

Where one suspects the story is trying to go is the story of FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton). He is trying to play both sides and score points while allowing his lifelong friend to thrive. There is some real grist here for a story, and it would be a great film if they could have done anything close to a believable job. I have yet to see the film where I believed that Edgerton acted poorly until this one. Even Uncle Owen from the dreaded Star Wars prequels outshines here. His performance is laughably underwritten and almost qualifies as parody. It’s one thing when we see him interrogate a witness against Bulger. We then see him go right out in public to question Bulger. Next thing we see is the witness dying. Got it.

We then see Connolly attempt to go through the same ritual with his disbelieving co-workers not once but two more times on screen. As if we didn’t get the point.

Then there is the disintegrating relationship with Connolly and his wife. It has all of the motions of other films where the husband gets in too deep and the wife gets spooked, but absolutely nothing in the way of a convincing execution of these events. From the moment they have their little make-out session at the beginning of the film you can almost see him being locked out in one hour screen time.

The best performances in this film are with Bulger’s accomplices:

Weeks, as played by Plemons, is a vacant ship, just doing nothing but being faithful. He has no other connections than Bulger and although we never see why he turns on him, that is the fault of the script only. W. Earl Brown as Martorano is like an older and wiser version of Weeks. He is ruthless, but his strict adherence to code gives us plenty of understanding why he would rat on the increasingly erratic and unpredictable Bulger.

The best acting is Cochrane’s take on Flemmi, who has his heart wrenched out quite cinematically but does a great job keeping a stiff upper lip.

Johnny Depp looks primed and ready to roll in his performance of the titular Black Mass. He is a void that continuously sucks in those in orbit around him. It makes one wonder what he could have done with perhaps a half-hour more screen time, or some genuine exploration of his character. It’s not his fault we never get to see him before he is a convict.

The experience rings hollow, unfortunately, and all of his work will be sadly forgotten by the time the next Boston crime story surfaces.

After scoring an initial win with Crazy Heart, Cooper has shown himself to be a competent if not particularly driven director. He hits every note here with such a thud, it plays like some sort of climax. By the time the story reaches it’s end, it feels more like a long day’s work than an experience.

Hard to tell how much of this is due to the bland script, which Jim Sheridan wisely left his name off of. I haven’t particularly loved anything Butterworth has written, although Liman, Blunt and Cruise did make something nice out of Edge of Tomorrow. Oh, and it might have helped having McQuarrie around for that one too.

While I never seek out Johnny Depp, I don’t root against him either. It was sad thinking that this might be one of the rare opportunities he’ll ever get for some real credible acting. In all of the obvious energy he put into his performance, this film is adrift from the first moments.

(** out of *****)

Ant-Man (*****): It’s about damn time

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Ant-Man – 2015

Director Peyton Reed
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Anthony Mackie, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Michael Douglas, Abby Ryder Fortson, Martin Donovan
Screenplay Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Paul Rudd, Adam McKay

Edgar Wright made, Shaun of the Dead, one of the 5 funniest films I have ever seen. When I heard that he was going to create Ant-Man for Marvel, I was pretty happy. When I discovered that Paul Rudd was going to play the lead, Scott Lang, I thought this can’t get better. It did get better, Lilly and Stoll were going to be great additions.

Then Wright got into a creative row with Feige over the direction and left. Okay. Peyton Reed, he of Down with Love fame, joined, only when Adam McKay could be convinced to do no more than re-write the script a little. Okay. At this point, my enthusiasm tempered a little. The more I thought about it, the more I realised it probably wasn’t going to be all that good even with Wright in charge. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World had been the only film besides Shaun… that I really liked that much. The last 2 parts of the Cornetto Trilogy had failed to live up to the immense expectations of the classic first film. Even if Ant-Man was a passion project, if he left, it might have stunk all along.

Well, that was a mistaken impression. In fact, Ant-Man is anything but a stinker. It is the most fun I have had at the movies since Guardians of the Galaxy. It may even be better than that film. In its simple aspirations, it exceeds either one of the Avengers films, while building on the mythology more successfully than any film but Captain America: Winter Soldier. The story flows effortlessly within and without of the overall initiative. This story gives the Marvel Cinematic Universe the heft it needed after the evacuation of emotion that watchers experienced in the excellent but exhausting …Age of Ultron. This film gives life to the best series of films Hollywood has ever seen during the second of a seemingly endless possible number of phases.

The story starts with Hank Pym (Douglas), circa 1989, meeting with Howard Stark, Peggy Carter and the obviously sinister Mitchell Carson (Donovan) about the Pym Particle. Pym, fresh off the loss of his wife, Janet, is reeling and swears to retire the Particle, along with its benefits, for good. One of these, we find, is the original version of Ant-Man. Forward to present day, we find Scott Lang getting out of prison and moving in with his friend, Luis (Peña). After trying to go straight for his estranged daughter’s (Fortson) sake, he caves into pressure and takes the opportunity to break into Pym’s house and secure the contents of his safe.

Pym, meanwhile, is ahead of the game. He basically arranged for Lang to take the opportunity, so he could convince him to do a job for him and his daughter, Hope. The job: break into Pym Technologies and procure the secret project that Pym’s prodigal protegé, Darren Cross is on the verge of creating.

There is more to this, of course, but I will leave it for the viewer. What the Pym Particle and Cross’ corresponding project does should be obvious to those who can discern the title. There is so much more to this film, though. The world that is created just by going small and then big and then small again is remarkable and many-faceted. To the point which it’s almost a disappointment that they did not explore it more than they did.

They have a story to tell, though. And they nail it. The film works as a heist tale. It works as a coming of age story, a quest for redemption and especially as the journey of an Avenger. Every step of the way feels like the bounce in your feet just before the fastest mile in your life. And you don’t even feel tired when its done.

Every part of the cast works remarkably. Stoll’s Cross is the best villain Marvel has seen since Loki. Lilly is the most fully realized female character Marvel has had in a stable of good ones. Her performance is a delight and very strong in the best possible way. Hope authority is inherent in her character. Her strength couples with Lang’s humility to present a combination unique to superhero lore. Douglas’ performance as Pym is resonant and filled with historical context. Having him tied to late stage Howard Stark and Peggy Carter is a stroke of genius. Peña’s Luis steals almost every scene of which he is part.

This movie is Paul Rudd, through and through. It is the role he’s deserved after a career of being the best part of every film he’s made. He does not waste his moment in the spotlight, and the film is all the better for it. There is heft to the film, but with his performance, it doesn’t have to be an obnoxious weight. If he’s not as serious as Captain America, he is every bit as earnest. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe needs Rudd every bit as much as it needs Downey, Jr. or Pratt.

How much of the overall lightness of being in Ant-Man is attributable to the efforts of Reed, McKay and Wright, or even Feige has yet to be quantified. Even if it never is, I appreciate the difficulty involved in making such an exquisite product. If you don’t enjoy this movie, you really aren’t looking to be entertained.

(***** out of *****)