Black Mass (2015)
Director: Scott Cooper
Boston has always been a more “closed” town than the other big east coast American cities. It’s always been a weird mix of provincialism and internationalism. And even within Boston, South Boston is a very different place from the other parts of the city. If you grew up in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s, and one side of your family was Irish immigrants in Boston, chances are just about 100% that you knew something about the Bulger family. And by this I mean Billy Bulger, at one time the most powerful politician in the state, and his older brother James “Whitey” Bulger.
But in those days, nobody really knew the dimensions of what was going on. Not really. There were rumors, just like there always is in small towns and communities. Everyone knew that Billy Bulger’s older brother “had some tough breaks” or seemed to be “mixed up in the rackets” as people delicately used to put it. Everybody knew not to ask too many questions. It just wasn’t done back then. The best way to live was to (1) keep the hell away from trouble when you spotted it coming around the corner; and (2) always keep your goddamn mouth shut.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when the Boston Globe began to publish incendiary articles about the two brothers, that the real extent of what was going was exposed. And by that time, James Bulger was a fugitive. Black Mass tells the dramatized story of James Bulger’s rule of Boston’s underworld in the 1970s and 1980s. It paints a picture of Bulger’s informants within the FBI, his relationships with his underlings, and his own sinister personality. Johnny Depp nails the role perfectly, and I was laughing as I saw him get just about everything right about this subject: the hair, the mannerisms, the accent, everything. He must have had fun preparing for this role.
Shot on location, Black Mass is evocative to anyone familiar with the city in that era. In fact, it was almost too accurate for comfort. Among the countless great scenes, there is one Joe Pesci moment that Depp plays to perfection: the dinner scene at John Connolly’s house where he asks John Morris the “secret recipe” for his steak marinade. (“Just saying?…just saying?…’just saying’ is what got me nine years at Leavenworth and Alcatraz.”)
I visited Boston last year after having been away for a very long time. It was a strange trip. The city had changed a hell of a lot since the 1980s. Foreign tourists (especially Chinese) were everywhere. Things were expensive as hell. When I walked from Cambridge down Mass Ave across the Charles River, I was shocked at how gentrified Central Square now was. In the 80s it was a shithole. Boston now is all about high-tech, big money, and all that comes with that. Houses in Somerville are selling for colossal sums of money. Even Filene’s Basement, where I had to spend interminable afternoons as a kid while my mother hunted in bins for deeply discounted clothing, was gone.
To be honest, I missed the old Boston of the 1970s and 1980s: the run-down feel, the gritty atmosphere, the clannishness. Even the North End now feels about as Italian as a D’Angelos sandwich store. Maybe it’s just as well that James Bulger has passed into history, along with the ghosts of his era.
Grizzly Man (2005)
Director: Werner Herzog
It is the mark of a great work of art that it can take the ordinary, the mundane, or the routine, and extract deep meanings from them. I would argue that this is Werner Herzog’s best documentary. He achieves a level of philosophic depth here that he has not equaled in any other film. Here he tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a troubled Californian who would fly to Alaska to spend his summers observing grizzly bears in the wild.
In his mind, Treadwell believed he was communing with nature; in reality, he was a deluded fool risking his life by cavorting with wild beasts. There is something unsettling about this film, and I think it has something to do with the fact that all of us have the potential for self-delusion with destructive consequences. One simply cannot idealize nature; and while nature contains unlimited beauty and harmony, it also an unfeeling battleground of sentient organisms, each one of which is competing for its own place in the sun. There is just as much evil there as good, and the healthy mind will strive to balance the tension between these two extremes. Treadwell was constitutionally incapable of doing this; he crossed that invisible boundary separating reason from chaos, and paid the ultimate price. One of the best case studies of human folly ever filmed.