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Wherefore Art Thou, ‘Whitey?’

The following is a review originally published in Word and Film.

There was a time when James “Whitey” Bulger was merely a Boston legend. Though he ruled a Massachusetts crime syndicate for more than two decades, he really wasn’t nationally recognized until he landed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1994 and a sixteen-year manhunt was launched. (At one point, the award offered for information leading to his capture was second only to the award offered for Osama Bin Laden.) By 2011, when he was arrested in Santa Monica, where he’d practically been living in plain sight, the American imagination was officially hooked. A bona-fide Whitey cottage industry now exists: Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is loosely based upon the blue-eyed mobster; a biopic starring Johnny Depp is in the works; and a bevy of firsthand accounts and journalistic tracts have been published.

Part of why Whitey fascinates is his unique brand of sociopathy. With his combed-back pale hair, searing gaze, and apparent pleasure in his work (even in the world of organized crime he is considered vicious), he’s recognized as the most powerful American gangster of the last fifty years – despite the fact that he doesn’t conform to any stereotype of a mob boss. (For one thing, he’s emphatically un-Italian.) But Whitey also fascinates because his reign of terror prevailed, almost wholly unchecked, for so long that it seems apparent he was snug (with a bug) with federal law enforcement agencies. Joe Berlinger’s documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger takes a good, hard look at the corruption that likely surrounded his case. Continue Reading →

The Dickensian Dystopia of ‘Snowpiercer’

The following is a review originally published in Word and Film.

Snowpiercer is a fantastic dumb movie for smart people. Or maybe it’s just a fantastic smart movie for everybody. Either way, I’m in love; this is the first big-scale picture of the summer that deserves to put tons of bodies in movie theater seats. The irony is that it belongs to the two cinema genres already glutting multiplexes to the chagrin of many. It’s both an action pic and a comic book adaptation – albeit a Korean adaptation of Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette’s 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, which is basically a brainy cocktail of Speed and Brazil. On the rocks.

For seventeen years, Earth has been adrift in an Ice Age caused by a misguided effort to head off climate change. The only humans still alive are sealed off from the elements on the Snowpiercer, a perpetual motion-powered train that hurtles around the earth every 365 days. At the front dwell those who could afford to buy their seats; at the rear, the unwashed ragamuffins who secured their (most piteous of) positions through a lottery. The “haves” luxuriate in spas, nightclubs, and lush greenhouses, swilling sushi and champagne while their children are brainwashed by a Martha Stewart-on-crack schoolmarm (Alison Pill as you’ve never seen her). The “have-nots” languish in unlit shantytowns in which they are subject to terrible brutality (amputation being the standard punishment for insubordination), maw black gelatinous blocks fashioned from a nebulous animal protein, and are presided over by Mason (Tilda Swinton, sporting a dental prosthesis that’s practically four-dimensional), a Thatcher-esque bureaucrat who brandishes a polyester glove on an iron fist. Continue Reading →

The Meta Mea Culpa of ‘Venus in Fur’

The following is a review originally published in Word and Film. 

Handily, “Venus in Fur,” which is adapted from David Ives’ Tony Award-winning play, which in turn is adapted from Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, is about adaptation itself. As if that were not bald enough, it is also a two-person film about a woman and a man worrying over a script on a bare stage. Yet this is Roman Polanski’s finest work in decades. It hones in on elements of horror lurking in ordinary human dynamics with a lurid specificity that the director has not evinced since the drama of his personal life eclipsed his professional life more than thirty years ago.

True, “Venus” treads familiar terrain for Polanksi, who has not returned to the United States since he fled the country in 1977 after pleading guilty to charges of raping a thirteen-year-old girl. It stars Mathieu Amalric – who, with his puckish features and light dusting of facial hair, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Polish-French director himself – as writer-director Thomas auditioning Vanda, a floozy actress played by Polanski’s real-life wife Emmanuelle Seigner, for his play about a sadomasochistic relationship. But Polanski seems to be tackling this familiar terrain from a new angle: “Venus” is a superbly crafted meta-mea culpa, a strange new cinema genre that may not be for the faint of heart (don’t try this at home, kids!) but nonetheless transfixes us for its entire ninety-six minutes. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy