Black Mass

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Black Mass is a film about impressions, though none but Depp’s “Whitey” Bulger are particularly good. I’m not just talking about the overall poor quality of the Boston accents in this film, particularly Cumberbatch, who despite his best effort, is unable to conceal his identity as a Brit for more than a few words at a time. Black Mass as a whole is a sleepy, overly self-serious impression of a Scorsese-style gangster flick, with neither the style nor substance it needs to tell the bizarre and fantastic story of Bulger’s dealings with the FBI. Instead, the film is a insipid slog through the events of Bulger’s life, and seems completely disinterested in making anything other than a regurgitation of the same material covered in other, better gangster films.

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At a conceptual level, Tusk sounds like it might fit snugly into the expansive subgenre of schlocky horror flicks that occasionally hit it big and garner a dedicated cult following, not unlike the relatively recent Sharknado, or the now infamous Troll 2. In practice, however, director Kevin Smith’s vision doesn’t quite make the memetic leap that might have otherwise catapulted it to “ironic pop-icon” status.

Smith, continuing to ride off the success his ultra low-budget comedy Clerks (1994), originally came up with the concept for Tusk during an episode of his personal podcast, and thought it might be a fun idea to see if he could stretch that spore of an idea into a feature length film. Also responsible for the writing and editing of the film, Tusk is nothing if not an auteur production. It’s strange, but under normal circumstances I might applaud auteurism like this, as it tends to ensure creativity and a rejection of the generic, committee-designed sludge that we see a lot of nowadays. In the case of Tusk though, I find my mind making unconscious connections to George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels, which, as we well know, is never a good situation to be in. As was the case with Lucas, it’s sometimes dangerous when individuals with such a massive degree of creative control are never told “no.”

The film stars Jake Long essentially playing himself, which I suppose he’s pretty good at, and Michael Parks, who’s been around for a good long while now, but whom most might recall from mainly cameo roles in assorted Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Kevin Smith movies. As in Smith’s 2011 pseudo-thriller Red State, Parks, for what it’s worth, really does know how to invoke his creepy, deranged side when he needs to. Tusk also features a cameo appearance by Johnny Depp, hamming it up as usual, as the eccentric, off-kilter ex cop Guy Lapointe; and yeah, it’s kind of an act that we’ve seen from Depp before, but that’s what he does now, I guess, and in retrospect I don’t know what I was thinking going into it and expecting anything else.

The fundamental problem with Tusk is that it’s trying desperately hard to be in on the joke; that is, the longer we spend in the the film’s universe, the more things begin to feel unreal and preposterous, but in a calculate, deliberate way. It’s almost as if the film is elbow-nudging the viewer every few minutes going “ha ha, oh man, isn’t this quirky? Aren’t you having fun?” If you refer back to those comparisons I drew earlier, you’ll notice that those films play their concept demonstrably straight and with a brazen lack of ironic eye rolling.

Tusk markets itself as a horror-comedy, but in a more practical sense, all notions of horror are kicked in the head by the end of the first act. Instead, the film focuses on the exploits of the protagonist’s two friends as they try to track him down after he seemingly disappears around Manitoba, Canada. Ostensibly, the film tries to establish some kind of race-against-time scenario, but upon finally tracking down their friend, there’s absolutely nothing for them to do when they get there, thus demolishing any sense of agency that the film had established.

Realistically, the rough horror framework of Tusk is just an excuse for Smith to hang the trappings of his trademark referential humor, which might have been a bit funny if Family Guy or any of its derivatives had never existed. That being said, I’m inclined to be a little generous to Tusk because of its admittedly original concept which continued to kick around in my mind after i left the theater, as opposed to being immediately forgotten. It’s not much of a tag line, but I can decidedly say this much: Tusk—It’s better than Atlas Shrugged!

Rating: 3 out of 5

Oz: The Great and Powerful Review

Have you ever wanted to be someone else? Have you ever been tired of your normal, everyday existence and instead yearned for a life of excitement? This question is especially poignant in regards to Oz because it lies at the heart of the protagonist’s struggle and also sums up the film’s own aims as well. Aspiring magician Oscar Diggs wants, above all else, to be a legendary performer, while the film itself wants to be Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland so badly that you can almost see the strain. Oz: The Great and Powerful bills itself as the first movie event of the year, yet in reality it’s nothing more than a fizzling disappointment.

Sam Raimi, who has earned a place in the hearts of generations of horror fans for his work on the iconic Evil Dead series as well as a host of other admirable accomplishments, directs this foray into calamity and frustration. James Franco as wannabe wizard Oscar Diggs strikes the wrong note with his slightly overblown and overacted performance which seems disingenuous in all the wrong circumstances. While it’s established that Diggs is nothing but a glorified conman who frequently hides behind a facade of grandeur, he never readjusts when he’s trying to be sincere which makes the tone come across as goofy in many cases. My suspicion is the Franco’s overacting is a compensation for having little to no visual cues when the scenes were shot, as a result of many of the set pieces and even characters being computer generated. In addition to Franco’s floundering, it seems as though the only reason that Mila Kunis was involved in this production at all was to see if Raimi could squeeze her into a pair of tight leather pants. Indeed, even though her performance wasn’t unwatchable, she seemed to have a lot of the problems that Franco did and there were many other, better choices for the role.

The question at the front of my mind after having seen Oz is this: If the vast majority of set pieces and characters are computer generated (not particularly well, I might add), why didn’t they just decide to animate the entire thing? Instead of the seamless interplay between real world and computer generated objects- a la Avatar (2009)- Oz ends up looking like a 2013 production of Space Jam and frankly, it’s extremely distracting. Computer generated characters move fluidly enough on their own, but when interacting with or even standing near actual people, they suddenly take on this unsettling, uncanny valley-esque range of motion. More surprising is the fact that a Walt Disney Studios film like this one has such shoddy animation, when Disney has consistently produced some of the best animated films around. On the other hand though, maybe we’re supposed to take all of this in through a filter of irony. Just as the original 1939 Oz looks charmingly dated by today’s standards, perhaps Raimi wants to make an artistic statement and come full circle by making his prequel look like complete ass. Yep, and maybe I will declared King of England.

I mentioned a moment ago that Oz bloodily rips off Alice In Wonderland, which in reality is no surprise with the involvement of art director Robert Stromberg, who leant his distinctive visual style to both Alice as well as Avatar. Stromberg’s imagination generally yields impressive outdoor expanses and lush vistas, and while they certainly return in abundance in Oz, their downfall seems to lie in their technical execution rather than their artistic realization. Likewise, Raimi actually wanted Johnny Depp to play the wizard. Allegedly, Depp was initially intrigued by the role, but as fate would have it, he was already busy working an another 2013 release, The Lone Ranger. If Depp had taken the role, they might as well have renamed the film to “Alice in Wonderland 2: We’re really phoning it in now.”

I think that a lot of what was wrong with this film stemmed from the fact that we all knew how it was going to end. I mean, we knew how it was going to end anyway- this is a Disney movie after all- but more than that, we know that the wizard has to save the day so that the events of The Wizard of Oz can occur. Sadly, the plot is so predictable and bland that there’s really not much to save it from stagnation. Though Oz was a miss, hopefully Raimi will be able to redeem himself soon as financier of the highly anticipated Evil Dead remake in early April.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5