I didn’t have any specific theme for this installment of the “Shelf”-column, and I have been soo distracted by watching the first season of “Daredevil“(which is awesome, btw!) in this past week that my mind was not that focused. So what I decided to do instead is just to give a whole heap of mini-reviews of some titles I’ve been watching/revisiting on DVD/BR in the recent weeks. Let’s call this a little insight into my viewing preferences in a particular week.
So here goes….
BLACK MASS (2015)
The massive box office-success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean“-series and the Academy Award-nomination that Johnny Depp got from his performance as (Captain) Jack Sparrow were probably the worst thing that could ever happen to him. Because if one was already feeling a bit weary of his “quirky cartoon character“-schtick even before that, it’s not like he’s slowed down from doing that. Well – except in “Transcendence“, in which he slowed down so much that the audience fell asleep. In fact – the only cartoony performance of his in the last 10-odd years that’s been tolerable, was the one in “Rango“, where he really DID play an animated character. So the first glimpses we got from Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” felt very refreshing; would this be the type of performance we saw from Depp in crime-movies like “Donnie Brasco” and “Blow“? Would we get something noteworthy and – most importantly – understated once again?
“Black Mass“, based on a true story, tells of the famous Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, his rise to power via acting as an FBI informant to an old childhood friend and effectively eliminating all of his competition through the information he provides and how all of this resulted in the biggest embarrassment in FBI’s history and Bulger’s eventual escape and hiding from the law for nearly two decades.
“Black Mass” is so close to being a great movie that the fundamental flaw in its storytelling makes it that more frustrating. The acting is top notch by all – especially by Depp who practically oozes quiet menace as Bulger, the filmmaking is professional by all departments. The good in it sorta made me not see the problem with it at first – I only realized it after thinking about it a little bit. The problem is in the script; it focuses only on Bulger’s rise to power and ends up bcoming this continuous loop of “Bulger has problems with someone – he passes information to get that someone caught – Bulger gets mad and kills somebody – the bosses yell at the agent in charge – Bulger has problems with someone – he passes information…” and so on and so on. It becomes repetitious really quick. And when the shit finally goes down and we get to the really interesting part of Bulger’s story when he escapes and successfully hides from the law, the film just jumps years ahead to the moment of his capture and…ends. The story of the manhunt of Bulger and his amazing tricks at avoiding capture is only really told in a documentary that comes with the Blu-Ray. I’d call that a major cop-out on the screenwriter’s part. The movie is worth seeing for the acting alone though. It’s proof that Depp’s still got it – when he really wants to make the effort.
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951)
I’m a sucker for the old science fiction/disaster-movies from the 50/60’s – they have that sort of a naivete that’s really lacking in the modern CGI-extravaganzas that flood the multiplexes. One of the pioneers from that era was without a doubt the Hungarian-born George Pal, who produced such classics as “Destination Moon“(1950), “The War of the Worlds”(1953) and “The Time Machine“(1960). These films were the cutting edge at the time, all earning Academy Awards for Special Effects.
“When Worlds Collide” – based on a 1933 science fiction-novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer – tells a story of a group of people trying to build a space ark on which to escape Earth after some astronomers spot a rogue star on a direct collision course with it. The star has a planet circling it, which will pass Earth earlier and will cause massive earthquakes and tidal waves. The scientists’ plan is to launch the ark right after this event and land it on the planet, before the following star will hit and vaporize Earth.
This is the reason why it pays off to revisit some of these old classics at times: they didn’t focus on the “disaster porn” of wiping out all the known landmarks and cities of the world while cardboard archetypes spout science gobbledygook and escape from pyroclastic clouds with a Winnebago or a Cessna, people yelling cheesy one-liners or having heavy petting with animal crackers. These films focus on the PEOPLE, and the struggles they have to endure. Escaping the Earth and continuing our way of life on an unknown planet that may even not be inhabitable – that’s not something to be taken lightly. Sure, there are some of the cliches; like the cute dog taken on the ride and the obnoxious rich asshole who is willing to finance the project if he can pick the survivors, but all in all those do not feel as glued-on as they have since become in this genre. And the effects – models, pyrotechnics and matte paintings – may seem silly for today’s audience but I feel like they just add to the charm of these movies.
LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992)
Michael Mann has become so synonymous with urban, grey and steely crime dramas that it’s easy to forget he did do some other stuff as well. Like this adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel by the same name as well as the first filmed version from 1936. But it does share a common quality that pretty much ALL of Mann’s films have: a strong, masculine lead character who is absolutely the best at what he does. Hawkeye fits right there with Frank from “Thief“, Will Graham from “Manhunter“, Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley from “Heat” and others.
The film tells the tale of the three remaining members of the Mohican tribe; Uncas (Eric Schweig), his father Chingachgook (Russell Means), and his adopted half-white brother Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) who try to stay away from the ongoing war between the British colonialists and the French, but end up getting caught along as they save the daughters of a British Colonel from a war party of Huron tribe – who are in league with the French. The British are losing control of the region and the three must use all their skill to protect the women, one of whom Hawkeye has fallen in love for.
“Last of the Mohicans” has had a somewhat troubled history as far as home media is concerned. I first saw the film on a barebones Warner Bros. DVD – one of the first DVD’s printed, I think – and while I loved the film, the image quality was pretty abysmal. A few years later Mann put out his first “Director’s Expanded Edition” of the film. I never saw that one as it was a Region 1 exclusive relase, I believe. And I’ve read online that it had it’s own set of problems transfer-wise; apparently the image quality in the added material was of varying nature and it stood out from the body of the film. Third time’s the charm, I guess: in 2010 Mann released this Blu-Ray exclusive “Director’s Definitive Cut” and it looks fucking GORGEOUS. If I had to sum up my feeling of this film in a single sentence, I’d say that it looks like Mann put his cast and crew in a time machine and just transported them into the exact time period to film this. It’s a lush, colorful, romantic period adventure and there’s a part of me that actually wishes Mann would someday do something like this again. As far as the differences between the various cuts of the films; I really couldn’t say. Mann is something of a tinkerer in that aspect: he will change specific shots, add a few frames here, take a few frames off there, maybe remove a scene and replace a scene but it’s all pretty much changing the pace – save “Miami Vice“, his alternate versions almost never really differ from earlier cuts content-wise. It’s mostly cosmetic.