Criminal Minds: “Black Mass” Stumbles, “Sicario” Shines

From the mean streets of Southie to the sprawling Mexico-United States border.

Black Mass

Black Mass doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s a collection of cinematic vignettes about the rise of South Boston’s most notorious gangster, James “Whitey” Bulger, from the 1970s to the 1990s. Near the beginning of his rise, he started to work with FBI Agent John Connolly, in what could loosely be called a mutually beneficial relationship.

Unfortunately, Black Mass has major issues outside of its solid acting. There’s no identity here; it’s an homage to other gangster movies, with Goodfellas being a major one. Nothing feels new or original or particularly compelling and that’s Death Row for an oversaturated genre like this one.

So thank the good Lord that Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton are thoroughly immersed in their roles as Bulger and Connolly, respectively. Depp has significantly altered his appearance for many of his films and he takes that approach here as well; his entire face is an unsettling combination of Johnny Knoxville’s infamous grandpa character and the Green Goblin’s ghoulish visage. His eyes are unnaturally blue, piercing into his friends and foes alike with an icy, unrelenting gaze.

Yet his actual performance is understated. He has his moments – most notable when he’s discussing the ethics of bad behavior and getting caught with his son and when he’s grilling one of Connolly’s fellow FBI comrades who gives up a secret family recipe a little too easily for his liking – but Edgerton is the real bedrock of the movie, as he is in many of his projects, and his character’s story arc is just as interesting as Bulger’s.

Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch is Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother and someone who holds political office. Cumberbatch needs no aid to look bizarre – look me in the eyes and tell me he doesn’t look like a dead shark that’s been bloating on a beach in the stifling heat of an August summer day. To even conceive of the notion that Cumberbatch and Depp might be related in some manner is most absurd, although that very noticeable difference is the perfect analogy to describe Black Mass as a whole.

Black Mass embraces extreme differences, like beautiful cinematography with brutal killing and Bulger’s love for his boy versus his paranoia about everyone else. Too bad it doesn’t embrace itself. Instead, it tries to emulate movies we’ve already seen ad nauseum.

Sicario

Sicario is bleak, depressing, and gritty. But that’s what happens when you’re talking about drug trafficking and the ethically ambiguous ways our government might be willing to handle that chronic problem. You see things in this movie: decomposing bodies strategically placed behind drywall in a suburban Arizona home, the disturbing violence in Juarez, Mexico, like beheadings and disfigured bodies languidly dangling from bridges and roofs.

It’s serious business, although if we’re being honest, Sicario is an action movie from top to bottom. It also happens to be one of the year’s best movies and that’s because everything about it is exceptional.

Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro are revelations to observe, with Blunt embracing a role where she needs to show steely resolve and inner strength while also progressively losing control of her surroundings and any idea of what her objective truly is. Del Toro is typecast, perhaps, but he certainly runs with it and I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts to accumulate some serious hardware when awards seasons starts.

The action is precise – almost clinically so – and violent in the most balanced way. Visually Sicario is gorgeous, with violent sunsets streaked with blazing orange and melancholy blue and hovering landscape shots similar to what you see in True Detective that comfort you for not watching Everest instead.

You can tell a lot about a movie based on its soundtrack and in that regard, Sicario stands out once again. Composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, it is an eerie yet throbbing soundtrack that meshes well with the action and exposition too, even.

Sicario is what happens when you make a complete package and if someone gets a copy of that sick poster, hook this guy up ASAP.

The Fairly Odd Grandparents: M. Night Shyamalan Is Kinda Back with “The Visit”

The Visit isn’t perfect, but it isn’t The Happening either. And that’s good.

Make a couple of very good movies, fall into a rut, and watch all of America turn against you like your very existence is a crime against humanity. Make another movie with a substantially lower budget than your recent projects, defy low expectations, and suddenly America is explaining on your behalf why your rut wasn’t your fault.

That’s basically what’s happening to M. Night Shyamalan right now and it’s a reaction that might be entirely justifiable – I’m just not qualified to judge. See, I have to admit a dirty little secret, which is that I haven’t seen a fair amount of Shyamalan’s work. I haven’t seen Unbreakable, which is apparently one of his best films, but I also haven’t seen The Village, Lady in the Water, and any of his recent films other than After Earth (oh god).

In a sense, I suppose this gives me a unique position, in that I’m not truly tainted by his allegedly awful projects. Indeed, while The Happening and After Earth are still burned into my brain, so are all the frightening and eerie moments from Signs. And while I don’t remember a whole lot from The Sixth Sense, I do know it was quite good.

So call this what you will: I like to think of this review as something that will be maybe the most objective thing you’re going to read about Mr. Shymalan – especially in this day and age where his name is synonymous with flimsy movie twists and inexplicable moviemaking decisions.

Let’s get started already, for Shakira’s sake.

There were three cuts of The Visit prepared: one that was pure comedy, one that was pure horror, and one that mixed both. The version that saw theatrical release combines humor and horror and it’s debatable whether that was a good idea.

One could argue it’s perhaps the most realistic, because it makes sense that two teenagers would naturally be funny and lighthearted when they’re visiting their grandparents for the first time. And the balance between the humor – especially that of Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) – and the horror is done relatively well.

But I’ve heard gripes from some of my peers that The Visit would have worked better if it embraced the horror aspect, instead of giving us relief from the various creepy scenes scattered throughout the film. I can agree with that. In a way, The Visit is comparable to one of Shyamalan’s better works and one of my favorite creepy movies: Signs.

Both use humor, both are obviously quite frightening at times, and both utilize this overarching theme of family and this idea of a father’s impact on that family. But I would argue Signs is a superior film, even with the fallacy of aliens deathly allergic to water invading a planet covered with it., and even with the religious symbolism that was perhaps unnecessary.

Simply put: The Visit is too funny for its own good. Tyler is absolutely hilarious and if I ever have a son, I hope he turns out like this little stud muffin who raps, replaces curse words with celebrity names, and lays out the boom like Ronnie Lott or Steve Atwater. But all that humor dulls the knife that would be pretty sharp otherwise.

The grandparents are magnificently portrayed by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie and while I won’t spoil anything, they do a fine job at least covering the twist before it gets revealed near the end of the film. Dunagan in particular is a marvel to look at, as she goes from doting grandma to knife-wielding lunatic who runs around naked and asks people to climb inside the oven (for “cleaning” purposes).

The Visit is, at its core, a psychological thriller that tricks you into thinking it’s something else. That is where Shyamalan’s forte has always been and he does it very well in this movie. But again: the movie is just too funny and most of the creepy parts were covered pretty cohesively by the trailers.

That’s why Signs is a better film. The humor is almost nonexistent while the scary moments are borderline traumatizing. While The Visit has some disturbing moments, they’re mostly jump scares or things you’ve seen in other movies.

Also, this is technically a found footage film, only it’s supposed to be a documentary made by Tyler’s older sister, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), who is an aspiring filmmaker. There are moments when that fact is not applied in terms of continuity, and some sharp viewers have noted that as a problem.

All in all, The Visit is okay. It’s certainly not horrible and M. Night Shyamalan is a good enough director that there’s a sense of tension throughout that does get influenced by the humor for better or for worse. I think it’s a step in the right direction for Shyamalan and I hope his future projects follow a similar path.

The Enduring (and Endearing) Legacy of Paul Walker

Why we fell in love with Paul Walker and why we still miss him so much to this day.

With all due respect, I have to say I don’t generally care all that much when celebrities pass away. I’m not bragging about it, of course – I’m just saying there’s a distinct lack of an emotional connection to A-list bigwigs that prevents me from feeling anything at all, really, other than maybe shock, when their bright and creative minds go to a better place.

When my favorite author, Michael Crichton, passed away a few years back, I was definitely in shock, but I wasn’t crying or anything. I’ve never cried when someone famous died and I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with that.

That was my initial reaction when Paul Walker, who most people know as Brian from The Fast and the Furious franchise, passed away in a car accident. I don’t remember where I was when I heard the news and I don’t even remember what year it happened. That may sound cold, obviously, but I’m just trying to illustrate the point that at the time, he was just another Hollywood name who died tragically early under unfortunate circumstances.

Fast forward to late 2014 and early 2015 and things became very different. My buddy Kevin and I started to watch the movies one at a time over the course of several months and the timing was pretty damn exceptional – I think I saw Fast & Furious 6 a few weeks before Furious 7 came out.

Kevin had seen the movies before. I hadn’t. And that’s when I started to really like Paul Walker, or at least the character of Brian.

Because Furious 7 was going to be released soon, his costars like Ludacris and Michelle Rodriguez were busy promoting the movie. It’s no secret they were quite emotional because they were all thinking of Walker all the time. Vin Diesel in particular was notably inconsolable, as we all know, and there was a lot of talk about the idea of them being a family extended beyond just their film roles.

Ludacris especially was sharing a lot of sentimental photos and memories on social media, which he still does, and it was obvious Walker’s costars felt a very genuine type of pain that exceeded the typical condolences expressed by celebrities when one of their brethren dies (not that I’m taking anything away from those messages, of course).

There were also those ethically dubious videos on the internet showing guys like Tyrese Gibson visiting the crash site and just breaking down in absolute despair and horror. Obviously I’m not going to share those here because that would be in poor taste.

While Walker’s costars were noticeably suffering, millions of people were suffering immediately after the news of his death came out. After all, The Fast and the Furious franchise is one of Universal’s most lucrative film franchises, so a lot of people have seen at least one of the movies. But it was still unusual seeing so many people expressing their sadness over the death of someone they’d never met before and who wasn’t exactly considered a household name.

In that sense, I found myself in something of a unique position: I was able to watch Walker’s performances and growth as an actor for the very first time and it was after he had died. That’s also when things continued to get murky and surprising.

It we’re being brutally honest, Walker wasn’t a great actor or even a particularly good one. He was all charm, like what Tom Cruise could have been if he wasn’t so dedicated to committing to each role. That’s not a knock against Walker, of course, but it’s hard to argue against the idea of Brian O’Conner being the quintessentially perfect role for him.

Walker was a chill guy from California through and through with a sense of charismatic and youthful energy that allowed him to get away with saying stuff like this. Remember: Walker was over forty when he passed away, which surely shocked a lot of people – he looked incredibly young for his age.

As the franchise grew larger and larger, Walker found himself suddenly doing things like complex fight choreography against multiple guys with shanks. And that might have been surprising too, because the character of Brian hadn’t really shown much fighting ability in the earlier movies.

But just like Brian evolved, so did Walker; he had a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and was posthumously awarded a black belt. In many ways, the two individuals were the same person, and that was something that is still confirmed by his costars. Brian was loyal and funny and kind and athletic – so was Paul Walker. Both loved cars and racing.

Both were lovable guys and while his costars knew that about him in real life, people like you and me fell in love with the character. It just happened to line up perfectly and Paul Walker was every bit the cool dude that Brian was.

I’m sure he had his flaws, like all humans do, and it was Kevin who once again brought a dose of reality into my life a few days ago after we watched The Visit. He mentioned some kind of “scandal” from Walker’s past where he had allegedly been dating a girl many years younger than him.

It’s not something I wanted to hear because we all have this idea in our heads that he was some kind of angel sent from a different planet to entertain us with cheesy yet fun racing/action/heist films while being a very affable and funny and kind guy.

Another thing that has to be mentioned is the very true fact that most of us know him ONLY from The Fast and the Furious franchise. It we saw his other movies and he was a jerk in one or a villain in another, maybe our thoughts might be a little different. It’s like Adam Scott: if you only know him from Parks and Recreation, your opinion of him might be different than someone who’s seen his roles as a jackass in films like Step Brothers.

And yet, while I can’t say I’m a credible source, nor is the general public, I do think his costars are very credible. And when I read about Vin Diesel naming his daughter after Paul Walker, or when I have the misfortune of seeing Tyrese Gibson’s incredibly visceral and heartbreaking reaction at the crash site, I know Paul Walker was someone who may have not been perfect, but was damn close to it.

Sure, there are other factors at play here too. Walker definitely died much earlier than he should have and emotional appeal was never used as effectively as the tribute in Furious 7 as well as “See You Again” by Whiz Kalifa and Charlie Pluth.

I said before I never cried because a celebrity died?

I did burst into tears when I watched the tribute in the privacy of my home (I of course held it together in the movie theater because lots of girls were there) and I still tear up whenever I hear “See You Again,” which certain friends of mine like to tease me about.

But it felt like I had lost a friend and I think a lot of people felt the same way. For whatever reason, The Fast and the Furious family felt like they were our friends. And when Paul Walker died, a friend of ours died, even if we never knew him personally.

So yeah, I fucking cried. Am I ashamed?

Forget about it, cuh.

Hard Knocks: The Bizarre Dichotomy Between EA’s Madden Mobile and UFC Mobile

Both games are owned and controlled by EA, but you wouldn’t know it based on some key differences.

You might be jumping the gun if you’re already scoffing and saying, “Well one game is about guys kicking each other in the face and the other game is about guys trying to carry a ball up and down a field. That’s why they’re so different, dummy.”

That’s not what I mean. What I mean is UFC Mobile doesn’t have an energy/stamina bar, which pretty much every mobile game has. That means I can play an infinite number of times in a row without stopping, which also means I can make hundreds of thousands of coins per day if I really want to. On the other hand, Madden Mobile has a very stingy stamina bar, and certain Live Events (like Domination) can take half or a third of the damn bar away before you know it.

Even playing regular season games take away stamina, as does playing against your friends and peers in Head to Head gameplay. There’s been theories that because UFC Mobile is not a team-based game, there’s no reason to have stamina because there’s less building for you to do, whereas Madden Mobile is basically giving you a raw roster and giving you the challenge of upgrading every single position over the year. Part of the challenge is allegedly maintaining your stamina use for the best strategic purposes.

I don’t buy those theories.

If UFC Mobile wanted a stamina bar, it could certainly have it. And perhaps it should, because it actually makes this particular game more boring without it. Madden Mobile‘s experience isn’t entirely confined to playing actual football games, however, so even if we didn’t have stamina, it would still be fun because we’re still building our teams and checking out the Auction House for cool players.

So now we might want to talk about money, and the idea that EA is absolutely thirsty for it. Well Madden Mobile is set up so you don’t have to spend real money to succeed, but good luck acquiring certain players without real money. UFC Mobile most definitely requires no real money and I think you’re a fucking moron if you spend money on a game where you can just keep playing and playing to get the coins you need.

Also, one difference between the two games is that UFC Mobile‘s Live Events are one at a time and their rewards are very specific. There’s no random pack opening crap – if it says you’re getting a Limited Edition Bruce Lee, that’s exactly what you’re getting. Madden Mobile is very finicky of course, almost on a legendary level, with most Live Events being essentially worthless right from the beginning unless they actually guarantee something.

He's gonna regret throwing that punch.

He’s gonna regret throwing that punch.

I suppose football has a bigger audience than UFC, so it makes sense EA is stingier in the more popular game because that leads to more money. But it really is strange seeing the difference between the two games, especially after we just received TWO free Bruce Lees to gleefully destroy our opponents with. I mean, that’s unheard of. It would be like EA spontaneously deciding to give all Madden Mobile players a free 94 LaDainian Tomlinson. I mean, no fucking way they do that!

Told ya!

Told ya!

All of this means something. I’m just not sure what. It could be as simple as two different EA divisions working on the games, culminating in two different experiences. Maybe it does have to do with the massive difference in popularity between UFC and the NFL. I don’t know.

What I do know is that this new season of Madden Mobile is both refreshing and extremely frustrating. I like the new user interface and I’m enjoying the new animations, especially the ones caused by our new array of juke moves. I think the increased diversity in sets and Live Events is commendable, although I also believe EA has become even stingier when it comes to us unlocking the necessary pieces in those Live Events to use in certain sets.

Consider this: I’ve been playing since day one of the new game and we have Road to the Ring sets again this year. There are Live Events for those and they are generally pretty easy. Unfortunately, pulling the required rings for those sets is “random” which means there’s a good chance some rings are just going to be tougher to pull than others.

But the fucking bullshit I’m dealing with here is ridiculous. Most of my RTTR sets are almost complete and are missing one specific ring. Assuming I pull that ring on the next attempt I make on a RTTR Live Event, that’s a success rate of literally less than one percent. Yes, I’m saying I have over a hundred rings now, the majority of them are duplicates, and NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THEM IS THE LAST PIECE I NEED.

What the fuck, EA?

So we’ll see how this season goes, although from the looks of it right now, it’s the typically superficial changes EA likes to make every year. Anyway, here’s my current lineup.