Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Jude Law, Johnny Depp

Director: David Yates

Writer: J.K. Rowling


I don’t mind admitting that I was apprehensive about this film going in despite Harry Potter being such an integral part of my childhood and my having mostly enjoyed the first Fantastic Beasts. While the previous film could be quite clumsy in terms of plotting and world building, I thought Newt Scamander made for an appealing protagonist, there were a couple of fun action scenes and some neat visuals, and the movie also had one or two interesting ideas that I thought could lead to some great pay-offs in the sequel. In the couple of years leading up to this new title however, there were a couple of red flags that gave me pause. One was the studio’s decision to keep Johnny Depp in the film following the allegations of domestic abuse made by ex-wife Amber Heard. Another was the announcement that this next film would not address Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s romantic relationship in any direct way despite it being directly relevant to the story. While one could probably argue that such objections are more moral than they are qualitative and shouldn’t have any bearing on my thoughts on the film itself, I still felt that these announcements betrayed a certain wrongheadedness behind the decision making and also a conservative (some might say medieval) mindset in their approach. I braced myself for disappointment but still hoped that I might be surprised.

I was surprised all right. Not by the movie’s regressive politics and pathological aversion to risk and chance, nor by J.K. Rowling’s lethal case of the George Lucas syndrome. No, what really surprised me about The Crimes of Grindelwald was its staggering incompetence on almost every level. Penned once again by Rowling herself, somebody whom I know knows how storytelling works at its most basic level, and directed by David Yates, his sixth film in this franchise (at least two of which are very good), it astounds me how demonstrably, exceedingly, bafflingly, amateurishly, embarrassingly bad this movie that they’ve made together is. The plot is grossly overstuffed and all but incomprehensible, the characterisation is profoundly nonsensical except when it’s utterly non-existent, and even the basic filming and editing style is so enormously inept it would make a first-year film student ashamed. The opening scene for instance, in which Grindelwald (Depp) escapes from his captivity, is a rainy scene shot in such drab darkness with such sporadic abandon it’s impossible to be sure what’s actually happening at any given second. Crucial cinematic storytelling principles such as set-up and payoff, clarity in spatial relationships and geography and an understanding of the stakes and dangers present; these are all key components in crafting an action scene and Grindelwald’s escape fails on all counts. The colours are all so dark and grey that it’s never clear what’s happening within the space of the shot and they’re all cut together so haphazardly that all the moment manages to generate for the viewer is confusion rather than suspense and excitement.

This chaotic mismatch of indistinct moments is demonstrative of the larger story that the film is trying to tell. Things only go downhill as it soon becomes clear that the blurry opening scene was the first of many steps in the movie’s effort to completely undo the ending of its previous instalment. Thus Grindelwald is free once again after spending an unseen year in between the two titles incarcerated. Next, The Crimes of Grindelwald negates one of the more poignant scenes in the first film by revealing that Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) did not die but that he instead vanished and has now resurfaced in Paris. No explanation is given as far as I can remember, all we’re told is that his power as an Obscurus has grown and he’s gone searching for his true parentage. The Ministry of Magic wants to bring him in and so they turn to the grounded magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for his help. Newt refuses because he has no interest in taking sides in a wizarding war, especially if it involves working with his Auror brother Theseus (Callum Turner). Afterwards he is approached by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who persuades Newt that he needs to find Credence and keep him safe before either the Ministry or Grindelwald can get to him. Dumbledore can’t move against Grindelwald himself for vague, heteronormative reasons.

Things get complicated fast as we learn that Newt, the Ministry and Grindelwald are not the only ones searching for Credence. American Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), who is pissed of with Newt because of a romantic misunderstanding, is also hot on his trail as is a French-Senegalese wizard called Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who is on a quest to right a past wrong. Along for the ride is Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) who has pursued an illegal relationship with Muggle (or No-Maj if you prefer) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and wants to move someplace where they’ll be free to marry and live together. Jacob, incidentally, remembers all the events of the previous film, thereby undoing another affective moment. There’s also Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), Newt’s old flame and his brother’s fiancé, who is in search for some answers about her own past, and Nagini (Claudia Kim), Credence’s girlfriend cursed with an affliction through which she can transform into a snake. These characters all convolutedly end up in Paris where they spend about two-thirds of the movie trying to find each other and having rushed meetings before hurriedly departing in order to find someone somewhere else. All this is in anticipation of a meeting held by Grindelwald where they all come together to watch him deliver a fiery speech. This is one of those movies where too much is happening all at once, yet in the end little has actually happened.

Like with George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels, Rowling has fallen into the trap of creating a series of movies that exist not to tell a specific story, but to answer questions that in the grand scale of things don’t really matter. Even if you’re a Potterhead who loves the Wizarding World and wants nothing more than to keep on living in it, knowing that person X is related to person Y or that Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so is going to reappear in Harry Potter and the Something of the Something doesn’t mean anything if it adds nothing to the story. If you have a series of movies that are more interested in drawing connections with a story that we already know and love than it is in telling one of its own, you get a series where the stakes are completely absent since we know that Grindelwald will be defeated round about Movie 4 or 5 and that his legacy will not have had any lasting effect by the time we reach Harry, Ron and Hermione. It also means that we don’t get any meaningful character development since the priority is simply to introduce them as these moving pieces in a world and story we’re already supposed to care about. What makes The Crimes of Grindelwald so dull to watch is that you have about a dozen or so characters scrambling around like headless chickens without the one thing that they all desperately need: motivation.

If we look at Grindelwald himself, the character whose actions are the entire driving force of the film, what makes him such a weak villain isn’t just Depp’s sleepwalking performance; it’s that the movie never makes it clear to us who he is or what he want (even in the climatic speech in which he states who he is and what he wants). We know that he wants to create a world free of the stain of humanity (i.e. Muggles), yet offers no specific grievances, he merely alludes to the Second Great War that is to come with its concentration camps and atomic bombs. If Grindelwald has a specific goal or a plan through which to achieve it, it remains a mystery by the end of the film. Contrast that with Voldemort who had a clear goal: kill Harry Potter. We learn the reason much later in the story and by then it barely even matters anymore because the conflict has become so complex and personal. All that matters is that Harry is a character we like and know well; therefore we root for Voldemort to fail. Grindelwald’s ambitions pose no threat that matters to us on an emotional level because there is nothing personal about his conflict with any of the main characters save Dumbledore (which the movie is only willing to explore on the most insubstantially Platonic level). Even as a character in his own right, Grindelwald fails to impress as this magical dictatorial predecessor to the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and… another political figure with bleach white hair and fascist tendencies largely because of Depp, a formerly daring and charismatic actor who just can’t be bothered anymore.

Newt Scamander is still likeable enough as the Hufflepuff hero whose greatest power is not strength, intelligence or charisma but rather empathy and fulfils not the role of a warrior, officer or leader but that of a healer. He is however trapped in a series in which he is progressively losing reason and direction. His goal is to try and find Credence and keep him safe, yet there is nothing personal between himself and Credence or Grindelwald compelling him on this endeavour. Even if we were to say that Newt’s motivation is simply ‘he is a good person who wants to do the right thing’, there has to be something at stake for him personally in order for us to become invested in his success. If the case is that Newt feels for Credence, empathises with him, and wants to help him for his own sake, then that’s something the film has to show us and not take for granted. Again, if we were to compare him to Rowling’s previous hero, it’s made perfectly clear to us what Harry Potter’s goal is: to defeat the man who killed his parents. It’s simple, it’s understandable, and it’s personal. The only personal conflict Newt faces in this film is his romantic misadventure with Tina, who thinks he’s engaged to Leta because a gossip magazine printed the name of the wrong Scamander brother. While the first film did hint at some kind of spark between the couple, the idea that they were ever close enough to become an item comes out of nowhere and this silly, easily resolved misunderstanding lifted straight out of an 80s sitcom feels tiringly trite and distracting.

That’s not the worst of the movie’s many subplots though; that honour belongs to the red herring goose chase that takes up so much focus throughout the film, only to then amount to nothing. A tale of dark deeds, tragic regrets and mistaken identities, a large portion of the movie is dedicated towards solving a mystery at the heart of all this and it turns out two-thirds of the characters involved needn’t have bothered because not only did they get it wrong, the answers that they do learn don’t even matter to the film’s ending. Yet that doesn’t stop it from taking up several scenes complete with flashbacks and a final confrontation in which two or three characters stand up in succession to say “No, here’s what really happened”. The resolution is not only laughably stupid, it doesn’t even resolve anything in and of itself because it concerns characters we either don’t know or have never met whose fates we don’t care about because it ends up not having anything to do with what’s actually happening. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is and I cannot imagine why Rowling felt that this whole diversion was necessary to her story except as a means to get a certain number of characters into a room together near the end.

I suppose there were a couple of things I liked. Jude Law turned out to be a pretty good Dumbledore with his ability to add nuance and depth to even the thinnest of material (just look at The Young Pope if you need further proof) and he played that role with the dignity, wit and dash of mischief befitting a younger version of this familiar character (although a part of me is always going to wonder what Jared Harris might have done with the role). I don’t like the way the film handled Dumbledore, especially in light of the revelation made near the end about his inaction, but I can’t fault Law’s performance. There were also a couple of magical creatures that I liked such as the Kelpie, which is like a sea horse in a very literal sense, and the Zouwu, which looks like a cross between Falcor from Neverending Story and a Chinese dragon puppet. There’s also the Niffler for those who enjoy its treasure-stealing shenanigans. But weighing these pros against the many, many cons feels like praising The Revenge of the Sith for the visuals and Ewan McGregor’s performance; they don’t even begin to make up for the film’s flaws. I haven’t even touched on the deeply disturbing romance of Queenie and Jacob, the shameful character arcs inflicted on Leta and Nagini and other details that spoiler etiquette prevents me from discussing. Suffice it to say that The Crimes of Grindelwald is a shambolic mess of a film that exists only to capitalise on the Potter brand and has none of the magic that made it special in the first place.

Advertisements

Murder on the Orient Express

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Michael Green


Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Without those two names you don’t get the classic whodunit as we know it today. Christie’s work is now so iconic that you don’t even have to have read a single word of her writing to recognise the formula. There’s been a murder, everyone’s a suspect, a top detective is brought in to solve the crime and the audience sees if they can crack the case before the big reveal. It’s a formula that we’ve seen in movies time and time again from the classic Hollywood film noirs and Clair’s adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None to more recent examples like Clue and The Hateful Eight. Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the most famous single story Christie ever wrote and it has been adapted numerous times, most notably in 1974 with Albert Finney and in 2010 with David Suchet. This time it’s Branagh, sporting a hideous moustache, who steps into the shoes of Christie’s iconic detective in what he hoped would be a dynamic retelling of the classic mystery.

It is 1934 and we are introduced to world-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh and his ridiculous moustache) as he solves a case in Jerusalem. He must then immediately return to London for another case and is offered passage on the Orient Express by his good friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). Soon after the train departs Poirot receives an offer from the shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to protect him from harm for the three-day journey after receiving an anonymous threatening letter, an offer which Poirot declines. The next morning Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment and an avalanche stops the train in its tracks. A note is discovered connecting Ratchett’s murder to the infamous case of a murdered little girl in the USA and Poirot resolves to discover who among the other passengers killed him. His suspects include the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), the missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Count Rudolph (Segei Polunin) and Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), the butler Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), the widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), the deceased’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.).

For me the biggest reservation I had going into this film was Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. Not because I dislike Branagh as an actor (I don’t) or because of that inhuman abomination to both man and God that he calls a moustache, but because David Suchet embodied the famous detective so perfectly on the ITV series that all other incarnations of the character, including the Oscar-nominated Finney and the Bafta-nominated Ustinov, will forever be fighting for second place. Still Branagh puts on the gross eyesore that occupies his upper lip and he has a go at Christie’s most famous character, playing him as an inflexible control-freak who cannot tolerate imperfections in the world, whether they be the physical imperfections of two uneven boiled eggs or the moral imperfections of human beings. Branagh is a good enough actor that he is able to play the atrociously-moustached Poirot with the sufficient flash and gravitas while also scoring some laughs with his one-liners, but his decision to attribute Poirot’s meticulousness as obsessive-compulsive tendencies made for what I found to be a far less interesting character than the altogether more eloquently-moustached Suchet, whose perfectionism as Poirot came from a steadfast, unyielding belief in the absolute virtue of the law, God, and decency.

Still, Branagh the actor didn’t bother me as much as Branagh the director did. He makes a strong attempt to make the Christie mystery feel cinematic, which is an effort that I do admire but don’t think ultimately worked. When we see Poirot boarding the Orient Express in a single, sweeping tracking shot or when we witness the discovery of Ratchett’s body with a static overhead shot that leaves the corpse just out of frame, the style of these shots called so much attention to themselves that they struck me as self-indulgent flourishes rather than as creative cinematic storytelling techniques. It’s the same kind of self-indulgence that I imagine inspired Branagh to feature Poirot and his ghastly facial fur at centre stage throughout the whole film at the detriment of the all-star ensemble at his disposal. Some actors do manage to give out a great deal with the little they’re dealt, most notably Pfeiffer as the glamorous and wealthy widow in search of her next husband, but other characters, including those played by the enormously talented likes of Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi, simply do not get enough time to dance in their acting shoes. All are side-lined and are mainly there to sit and look astonished so the film can spend as much time as it can focusing on how incredibly impressive Poirot and his egregious display of horrendous facial hair are.

I saw the film with two friends who did not know the ending and, while the final twist did seem to take them by surprise, they left feeling overall underwhelmed. The movie just doesn’t have that edge-of-your-seat momentum that a great whodunit should have. The private interrogations that Poirot conducts with each of the passengers do not have that captivating sense of intrigue and feeling of inquisitiveness because Branagh is much more interested in showcasing the deductive brilliance of Poirot and his abominable whiskers than in fleshing out all these secretive characters and getting to the heart of the mystery. The movie is so desperate for tension that it resorts to a cheap, generic Hollywood chase scene along the exterior of the train. Even the big reveal fails to impress as it relies too much on style and not enough on substance, even going so far as to arrange all the characters into an impractical pose that evokes The Last Supper (I guess making Poirot Da Vinci because that’s how much of a genius he is). As with the later seasons of Sherlock, this is a case of an artist getting so carried away with showing everyone how brilliantly brilliant his brilliant character and brilliant style are that all else gets swept aside and the story suffers because of it. Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish but empty remake that did not need to be made. Also I didn’t like the moustache.

★★

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

Cast: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally

Director: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

Writer: Jeff Nathanson


In the fifth instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (somewhere out there Douglas Adams is laughing) there are two openings. One promises the return and salvation of a character from the previous films and the other introduces the latest villain in the franchise. By the time the title appeared, neither of these openings was able to inspire the slightest bit of curiosity or enthusiasm on my part. I was not at all interested in seeing the return of a character who had no business remaining a part of this franchise after the first film nor was I terribly excited to see yet another enormously talented actor put their talent to waste in this shipwreck of a movie series. The overblown plots, the ridiculous action, Johnny Depp’s silliness, these have all become staples of Pirates and all these opening scenes did was assure me that this movie would be more of the same.

Nine years after his last meeting with his cursed father Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), whom he has promised to free from by locating Poseidon’s Trident, Henry (Brenton Thwaites) is serving on a vessel that gets attacked by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead crew. Henry alone survives and, upon learning that he is searching for Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Salazar leaves him with a message for Jack: that death is coming. Over in Saint Martin Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) has been accused of witchcraft, due to her knowledge of astronomy and horology, and is sentenced to death. She escapes and gets mixed up in a bank robbery orchestrated by Jack and his crew. When the robbery proves a failure Jack is abandoned by his crew and, in a moment of despair, he surrenders his magic compass for a drink, unwittingly releasing Salazar from his confinement in the Devil’s Triangle. Henry arrives in Saint Martin and becomes entangled with both Jack and Carina, teaming up with them to search for the Trident. Hot on their trail is Salazar who seeks to find Jack Sparrow with the aid of his new prisoner, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).

There are several different plots been tackled all at once and the movie jumbles them to the point of incoherence. As always in this franchise there is a plot device the characters are all trying to reach, Poseidon’s Trident, which one would think might allow the film some focus. The plot however is completely lost in the tangled web of stories and sub-plots the movie wants to chuck in to try and convince us that there is a larger, more epic story being told. Henry of course must be the son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, since it’s apparently not enough for him to be his own character, so the film must allocate time towards the Turner family drama. Then there’s Carina and the mystery surrounding the diary she possesses which she received from a father she’s never met (because of course she hasn’t). Then there’s Captain Salazar and the history he shares with Jack Sparrow. Then there’s the matter of recovering the Black Pearl which is still trapped in a bottle from the last film. Then there are a series of obstacles along the way like Jack Sparrow’s death sentence and impromptu wedding which only exist to pad the runtime. That the movie lacks any kind of consistency or focus means that each and every aspect of this story, whether promising, unnecessary or just plain stupid, receives the equal amount of inattention and neglect.

The Pirates movies have always been silly and over the top, but in Curse of the Black Pearl it was fresh and toned down enough and coupled with enough entertaining characters and thrilling action to make for a great popcorn movie. While Dead Man’s Chest may mark the point where the movies got out of control, On Stranger Tides was when this series became unbearably boring. Even after the movies finally dispensed of its two least interesting characters, the continued adventures of Jack Sparrow carried a weary sense of ‘been there, done that’. This film feels the same. Johnny Depp’s performance has lost all of the wit and charm it once had and has been pitifully reduced to a 54-year-old man flailing his arms about and making weird expressions while slurring his words. The adventure meanwhile has lost all of its thrill and wonder as it repeats the same tired steps of having its main character stumble his way through a bunch of implausible and impossibly perilous situations with barely a scratch to show for it. It’s gotten old.

Much of this movie feels more like a blur to me (which, come to think of it, is probably how it felt to Jack Sparrow as well). The one element that felt to me like the movie was trying to do something different was with Carina’s arc as a smart, thinking woman in a backwards time. The idea of having this character whose affinity for science and astronomy makes her an outcast is one that makes Carina more than just a stand-in for Keira Knightley and one that I would have liked to see the movie develop some more. A shame then that her character also had to be used for a mysterious parentage sub-plot and as a subject for innuendoes and double entendres that wouldn’t even be worthy of a bawdy seaside postcard. I wasn’t very hopeful going in but I thought the movie might at least give me a fun memorable villain like Davy Jones to enjoy. Sadly, like Ian McShane before him, Javier Bardem is completely wasted and forgettable in his role. That’s Salazar’s Revenge in a nutshell really, a forgettable waste of time.

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: James Bobin

Writer: Linda Woolverton


Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of my favourite stories and I absolutely love the Disney cartoon to death. Although this story has been adapted to the big screen time and time again, the 1951 animation is one of the only true successes. Disney understood that it is the madness that makes Wonderland work and fully embraced it. Wonderland is a world of nonsense where logic and reason go to die. It is a world where up is down, black is white and wrong is right. The fun comes from watching the rational, level-headed Alice attempt to apply reason to her encounters only to get lost in the insanity of it all. This is something that the Disney cartoon appreciates but that the 2010 Tim Burton film does not. Here the ingenious surrealism of Carroll’s work takes a backseat to something altogether more boring and trite: prophecies, politics and civil war. The film didn’t work because it attempted to introduce logic and sense to a world where it didn’t belong and created a story that was illogical and nonsensical. Sadly the sequel makes the exact same mistake.

Three years after taking over her father’s role in his trading company, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) returns from China to find that she will lose her family home unless she agrees to sell her ship and stake in the company. Unable to cope with this ultimatum, Alice runs away and happens upon Absolem (Alan Rickman) who leads through a mirror back into Wonderland (I refuse to call this world by the name they use in these films). There the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the Tweedles (Matt Lucas), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and all her other friends inform her that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is in poor health due to the loss of his family in the Jabberwocky attack. Alice sets out to meet Father Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and persuade him save the Hatter’s family. After he turns her down Alice takes the Chronosphere and travels into the past herself to change history. Time however is hot on her heels and is intent on stopping her before she destroys the very fabric of the universe.

Everything that was wrong in the previous film is wrong in this one. The colours are a little brighter and there are occasional glimpses of a world that actually resembles the Wonderland from Carroll’s stories but nevertheless the core problems remain the same. There is no madness, no wonder and no magic in this movie. Wonderland is a world of nonsense inhabited by crazy and fantastic characters where strange and wonderful things happen; being in Wonderland should feel like being in a dream. Instead the film tries to bring you down to Earth with its stories of Alice’s struggles as an independent woman in the oppressive Victorian world and of the tragic histories of the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen. If there has ever been a franchise that should not be restrained by the confines of a plot, Alice in Wonderland is it. A plot by its very nature has to be logical, coherent and structured. Wonderland is none of those things. Ironically the film is also none of these things but for the wrong reasons!

The film introduces the concept of time travel which should have made for an incredible adventure by allowing Alice to explore an entirely new dimension of Wonderland’s insanity. But then we learn that there are rules that have to be followed because the past cannot be allowed to change and paradoxes cannot be allowed to happen or else the very fabric of the universe will be undone or something like that. To make matters worse the film decided to introduce even more logic into the universe by explaining why some of these characters became “mad” in the first place. I really wish this film had a face that I could slap because it infuriates me how they can take something so wonderful, fun and creative and produce such a bland, clichéd and joyless story. This very idea of the Mad Hatter having father issues or the feud between the Red and White Queens being caused by some terrible secret is just so galling to me as it stomps over everything that made the original stories fun. It isn’t imaginative, inventive or surreal; it’s just overdone and dull.

Wasikowska’s Alice continues to be disinterested in the world around her and the incidents she experiences. She turns in the same one-note performance that made her a bore in the first film even though the film wants her to be some kind of strong, spirited figure who defies 19th century norms. Putting aside that I’m not convinced a feminist message is warranted in a story that has no point, the character in this film does not earn this status in any meaningful way. Many of the side characters from the first film return in this latest instalment and, if you enjoyed any of them the first time around, I suppose you’ll like them fine here. For me the only one who even came close to resembling her literary counterpart, and by extension the only one I found to be at all enjoyable, was Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. Father Time is the biggest new character they introduce and he is actually quite interesting at first with his clockwork design and Werner Herzog accent. However there’s nothing about his personality that stands out because, just like the rest of the characters, it’s too grounded in logic and reason.

The kindest thing I can really say about this film is that it didn’t enrage me as much as the first film did. At least this time the drab, grey world of “Underland” (God, how I hate that name) has been replaced by actual colour. There was also the odd occasion when a character would actually do something that their character would do, that is something strange and nonsensical. Overall however this film was a bore and a displeasure to watch from beginning to end. It has next to nothing to do with the inspired, fantastical world that came from Carroll’s imagination and fails to conjure up anything even remotely interesting, fun or creative to take its place. It fails to capture that sense of imagination and wonder that is so crucial to making Wonderland the dream-like adventure that it should be. I believe that one of the most offensive things a film can possibly do is take a story that holds immeasurable promise and possibilities and then squanders it. This is why Alice Through the Looking Glass is such an offensive movie to me. The only reason this film even exists is to capitalise on the success of its equally infuriating predecessor. This film is unimaginative and lifeless and is entirely unworthy of the material it is based on.

Black Mass

Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson

Director: Scott Cooper

Writers: Jez Butterworth, Mark Mallouk


Black Mass marks the latest addition to the gangster genre that is such a staple of American cinema. This film is very much in the vein of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and The Departed (which was actually inspired by Whitey’s story) as it depicts a real-life gangster’s rise and downfall. There is something so utterly fascinating about these types of films that make them so compelling to watch. At the heart of them there is a Macbethian journey taking place. The main characters are always fatally flawed figures who scale the heights of wealth, prestige and power but inevitably become the architects of their own destruction. This is a journey that has been undertaken by a wealth of iconic film characters from Tom Powers to Tony Montana. Black Mass depicts this same story through the eyes of Whitey Bulger, the infamous mobster who became one of America’s most notorious criminals and then went on the run for 16 years.

In 1975 Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp), who holds a prominent position of power in the Boston crime scene, is approached by FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). Connolly, who is also a childhood friend of Whitey, requests him to become an informant for the FBI, a prospect that Whitey vehemently rejects until he realises the advantages to be gained with the FBI’s support and protection. Whitey, with the aid of his associates Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), begets a reign of violence and corruption as he consolidates his position as the most powerful mobster in Boston all the while exploiting his relationship with the FBI to serve his own ends. Whitey’s increasing irrationality soon causes endless trouble for the FBI as well as those closest to him, particularly his wife Lindsey Cyr (Dakota Johnson) and his political brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). The more Whitey’s power grows, the more unstable he gets and it isn’t long until he becomes a problem too big for the FBI to ignore.

This type of story is one that has been done before and it has been done better. It is to its credit a well-told story that highlights such themes as corruption and the loss of humanity as it depicts Whitey’s descent. The character is initially a caring, if otherwise troubled, man as the film starts off but that side of him gets lost as he experiences both the corruption of power and the pains of loss. However what I felt this film lacked was a sense of purpose. I never felt there was any real fluidity in the narrative or any profound character development that ventured beneath the surface. What I saw instead was a series of violent episodes from Whitey Bulger’s life cobbled together without any real direction or flow. I think this kind of narrative is typical of the problems that come with telling the story of a particular subject rather than using that subject to tell a story. The story never feels like it is speaking of anything deeper or larger than itself even though I feel like it is trying to. The film certainly isn’t badly written or badly directed, it just doesn’t have that artistry or meaning behind it that made films like Goodfellas classics.

Perhaps the film’s biggest strength is Johnny Depp who is taking a refreshing break from being a parody of himself. As Whitey Depp displays his chameleonic ability to completely inhabit characters and delivers the type of deranged, vicious performance that we always knew he was capable of. The makeup does a good job of hiding the actor behind the performance and allows Depp to utilise some truly grotesque and intimidating expressions befitting the character. The other members of the cast are serviceable in their roles but I’m struggling to think of anyone who really came into their own like Depp did. The film for the most part is well shot and does evoke a tense and unsettling atmosphere but to me it just didn’t feel like there was much happening beneath it all.

I think that Black Mass is a good enough film to watch but I don’t see it becoming a classic of its genre. It has the makings of a good film but lacks the visionary insight that can be found in the best of these films. After watching it I didn’t feel like I had really learned anything about Whitey as a person or that his story had brought anything new to the genre as a whole. I found aspects of the film to be interesting but was never captivated by the overall story nor was I wholly invested in the main character’s journey. I instead found it be a typically standard film that didn’t take any risks or offer anything that is distinguishable from what has come before. It is a worthy attempt on the filmmakers’ parts, but I feel it ultimately falls short of the kind of film that it’s trying to be.

★★★