Warner Brothers had a couple of year-end pictures that didn’t quite make the splash that was hoped for. Black Mass was meant to showcase Johnny Depp doing serious acting again, but it led to a tepid box office take and no Oscar heat (or nominations). Our Brand Is Crisis was a political comedy starring recent Oscar winner Sandra Bullock and it was DOA before it hit theaters. Viewed at home, both are better than expected, though not undeserving of their fates.
The Film: Black Mass
How is it?: Eh. Black Mass assembles a great cast for a story that doesn’t really go anywhere all that interesting. James “Whitey” Bulger (as played by Depp) was a real Boston criminal, who became famous because he also served as an informant to the FBI, but did so to further his career and was able to evade arrest for over fifteen years. As the film begins he’s approached by old neighborhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), and eventually agrees to cooperate with the feds when he sees he can use the government to remove Italian gangsters from the neighborhood. He keeps getting more and more powerful until other members of the FBI see what’s going on.
The cast of this movie is ridiculous: Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, and Juno Temple round out the bigger star turns, while great character actors like Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Julianne Nicholson, and W. Earl Brown, bring great life to their parts. And yet for all the talent involved, most of these actors appear to have been on set for a couple of days, and only a few get a couple good scenes (Plemons, so amazing on both Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad, is mostly notable for the weight he gained for the movie). Surprisingly, the best performance in the film may be by Cochrane, unrecognizable from his days as Slater in Dazed and Confused. At this point we know what great gangster films look like, as there are more than a handful, from White Heat to Goodfellas, and even Johnny Depp has made a pretty great gangster film before with Donnie Brasco. The good news is that Depp seems actually awake and engaged in this character. Removed from his Captain Jack Sparrow shtick, he does malice and authority well enough, but it’s not a great role as Bulger could be categorized as a lucky thug.
How’s the disc?: Solid actually. The film comes with a DVD and digital copy and the film is presented widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. It’s a slick presentation. Extras are three featurettes, but they are not without value. There’s “Johnny Depp: Becoming Whitey Bulger” (13 min.) and “Black Mass’: Deepest Cover, Darkest Crime” (23 min.) which get into the making of the film and – perhaps more importantly the work that went into turning Johnny Depp into Bulger. You get comments from director Scott Cooper, and much of the main cast, but the most interesting supplement is “The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger” (62 min.), which by its running time you can tell is not just a puff piece. This actually goes deep into the case, and I found it more engaging than the film proper.
The Film: Our Brand is Crisis
How is it?: Not as bad as its box office and reception would lead you to believe. Produced by George Clooney’s company, it’s obvious that the film has a political agenda as it’s about a political fixer who goes to a poor South American city to get a failing candidate elected and the consequences of that. But on the other hand it’s essentially a sports movie, with Sandra Bullock coaching the Bad News Bears as it were.
Bullock plays Jane, a former political consultant who is lulled out of hiding when she’s told she’d be working against her old nemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thorton). She works with Ben (Anthony Mackie), Nell (Ann Dowd), Buckley (Scoot McNairy) and LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan) to get former president Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) re-elected, but he was seen in the pocket of big business by the people and has been trailing badly. Jane has some moves and through gamesmanship makes him a real contender. The question becomes if it was worth it to succeed if the man you get elected is someone you don’t believe in. There’s enough of a great cast here to make things interesting, and director David Gordon Green is smart visually and has a great cast to work with. But the material is just okay, it’s never anything special, which makes it an interesting misfire.
How’s the disc?: Stripped down. There’s the movie, which is presented in widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. Shot digitally, it looks and sound great at home. There’s only one extra “Sandra Bullock: A Role Like No Other” (11 min.), which gets the cast and crew to talk about the movie and their leading lady. Fluff.