Archive for the ‘Benedict Cumberbach’ Category


20 Jan

1917 — directed by Sam Mendes. WWI drama. 119 minutes Color 2019.
The Story: Two British soldiers are given the mission to warn a distant battalion not to engage the Germans in battle because it is a trap.

1917 is the name of the story, but it might as well have been called 10am to 11:59am, Friday, August 8, 1917, for the film is presented as one single action lasting the duration of the picture.

This is not a stunt, because 1917 delivers to our unavoidable eyes the inescapable fact that no escape from war is possible, particularly not for the viewer. 1917 accomplishes this impression by passing the viewer by the hundred corpses of those soldiers who lie rotting about and by the cadavers of towns and farms and homes and trees and fields. And they present war’s inescapability by the temporary escape-thrill of a race to hand-deliver a message to warn the British to escape a German trap.

Their flight though enemy lines offers the illusion of escape because it is so frightening for us the audience and so frightening for the two participants. They pass through trenches of soldiers also trying to escape not war but the tedium of war and the postponed peril of war — by playing chess, reading, writing home, gabbing, drinking, and sleeping. We whizz past these soldiers in British trenches, as the two corporals whizz by them on their way out of the dirty maze of those trenches and up, into, and across the promise of death intervening between their headquarters and the British front line, where the duped battalion faces the German trap.

In the very pitch of excitement of their mission, we witness the last escape soldiers make from war as they are balked by a sergeant gone mad.

The physical appearance of the film is beautiful, the score is wonderful, as is Roger Deakins’ photography. The director has made one error. The two actors who must race to the rescue of the battalion are unknown to us as is everyone else shown, but, alas, two world-famous actors put in cameos at the start and finish. The officer who sets the message in motion is Colin Firth and the one who finally receives it is Benedict Cumberbach, and their presence is garish, as the movie suddenly reeks of the greenroom. But each scene is brief.

The two soldiers are perfectly played by George MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman. The barriers they face are inexhaustible, but each difficulty is written unconventionally such that our surprise fosters respect for the truth of the perverse at play in war.

The escape from death does not let up. We humans love war because — by killing so many of us humans — it wakes us to the sleeping fact that death does not let up.

1917 stands equal in rare excellence with the WWI films of Milestone’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Renoir’s Grand Illusion, and Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory. Whatever you do, a picture palace is where you must see it, which you must do whatever you do.


Black Mass

28 Sep

Black Mass – directed by Scott Cooper. Crime Drama. 122 minutes Color 2015.


The Story: A Boston racketeer becomes an FBI informant and The Godfather of Boston.


Johnny Depp is the inheritor of Brando’s mantle. I don’t mean the mantle that had “The Greatest Actor In The World” written on it that everybody in the world could see but him.

That mantle ruined Brando. No, I mean the mantle of all the parts Brando never played, through laziness, perversity, and ruin.

Depp made two movies with Brando, one of which Depp directed, The Brave in which Brando gave one of his most brilliantly conceived and terrifying characterizations. Brando kept contact with Depp; the long midnight calls for which Brando was known, yes, but also the fact that who else was there? Sean Penn, whom Brando also called? Penn didn’t have the range, and he was also lazy.

Brando’s mantle is not the parts that Brando never played: Coriolanus, Lear, Macbeth. No, Brando was a heavy actor; Depp is not. Depp must choose lighter fare to dine on. Depp is a miniaturist. Depp could play Iago, but never Othello. Both could do Restoration comedy, but Depp only has done it. His brilliant performance in Mordecai is a version of it. He keeps setting before us small masterpieces of technique. And Black Mass is one of them.

He wears a big makeup from the start, and it does not relent as the character ages and becomes more ruthless before our eyes. He plays a gang lord who achieves immunity from his crimes because he has enlisted himself as an informant to the FBI on the doings of gangs rival to him.

However, this betrays a code common to his community, his cohorts, and his Catholicism. You do not peach! Those you were raised with, in the Boston hood and boyhood, you remain loyal to through thick and thin, mainly thick. No murder, crime, betrayal, divorce, may clash with the code of this loyalty. You stand by this code as you would your family, your own dearest child. You sacrifice all higher ideals for this code. It is more to you than religion.

Now when the story of Black Mass appeared, I read it with fascination because it recorded the daring of this gang lord, James “Whitey” Bulger, his long career, his eluding arrest, and his eventual escape. Set against this story is the story of Bulger’s younger brother, William Bulger, who was a state senator and as honest as James was dishonest – but would not betray him, nor more would he benefit from Whitey’s crimes. The story is starling and daft. As journalism it is superb.

But as drama it looses force because the power that brings Bulger down is not the arrival of a new FBI chief in Boston as we are told, but the arising and resumption of a set of standards and codes older than loyalty codes. Those codes are the codes of human decency. They are more primordial than any code of loyalty, justice, or retribution. For Whitey is seen in time as the enemy of the survival of family itself. Whitey kills everyone slightly suspicious. And, as he does this, his cohorts stir and see that his loyalty code does not hold true. It is being used for assassination. Any of them might go next.

However, in the journalism on which Black Mass is based this older code of decency is not given play, and in the movie it is only hinted at. The women are the first to express it, but we lose track of them in impotence and focus. Eventually the men of his gang see his madness and arise loyal to that decency, and turn state’s evidence against Bulgur. But this is only done cinematically and slightly. There is no scene for it. There is no confrontation.

So in the end, the film disappoints. It is not high and noble ideals that brought Bulger down, but simple, primitive, human ones. But that’s not what we get. Instead, we get is journalism. What we need is a movie.

Whitey Bulger was never brought down. He slipped away and lived in hiding for years. In a way, his escape was from the very human values that did him in. But we never see this.

What we see is a superb production, beautifully acted by everyone. And Johnny Depp with nothing to play against.

Here he is, though, playing The Godfather, an Irish one. How different he is from Brando. And how right he is to tackle a role of this ferocity. Played, unlike Brando, without humor, without kindliness. But just as sane, just as determined. He is a businessman for our time. It is a chief work in Depp’s portfolio.


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Posted in Benedict Cumberbach, GANGSTER DRAMA, Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon


August: Osage County

19 Jan

August: Osage County – directed by John Wells. Family Drama. 121 minutes, Color, 2014.


The Story: A paterfamilias goes missing and the clan gathers, poisoned daggers out, lips drooling with vitriol.

Misty Upham, as the American Indian caregiver, is the only sane and decent woman within miles.

First, We have sister number one, Juliet Lewis, who in no movie is ever sane and who arrives in a condition of advanced delusion about honeymooning in Belize with her sleazy boyfriend, Dermot Mulroney. Then we have sister number two, Julia Roberts, who arrives in high, control-freak denunciation and a condition of covert separation from her husband played by Ewan McGregor. Then we have Margot Martindale, a battle-axe aunt castigating her feckless son and married for 38 years to Chris Cooper. And last but most, we have Sam Shepard’s wife, Meryl Streep as the Medusa of the family, dedicated to speaking the hideous truth, the whole hideous truth, and nothing but the hideous truth, and suffering from cancer of the mouth and extreme drug addiction, to boot.

To record all this here seeps mockery into one’s tone, since the dishes are piled with more food than one can swallow. The actors sink their jaws into it, though, and shake it all about. It is wonderful to see acting of this high order and imagination.

Indeed I sit back in wonder and amazement at the daring, skill, and inventiveness of the performers. Julia Roberts is filmed in close-ups that leave no leeway to age. And Meryl Streep is extraordinary as the Oklahoma materfamilias out to get every member at her dining table with the meanest mouth in the West. She plays a woman seared by age. She plays not an old woman. Rather, she plays a woman denounced by age, demoted by it, defeated by it, although her dying cries are ear shattering. The beastly mouth of old age indulges itself. The part is about already being old. She laughs it off; she lies. I have never seen Streep explore such a thing before.

The play itself is not about age but about the dubious proposition that if you had a terrible childhood passing it on makes you understandable and, indeed, excusable. You are awarded all this once an author writes you an exposition scene about how nasty your own mother was to you that time. No one breaks the chain, here. There is never a choice-point, every woman spits out the venom, as to the manner born, which they were, and perhaps the playwright does not have in his belief system that people can change. The venom is very well written venom. It is not venom in a Dixie cup. It is venom in a chalice.

The writer is less adept with those less verbally adept, the parts of McGregor’s and Robert’s daughter, and of the third sister and her boyfriend. These three are mute victim bystanders, the collaterally damaged. However, all three parts are weakly conceived and written. Moreover, Benedict Cumberbach misconstrues the boyfriend as somewhat simple-minded, which he is not. In any case, both characters would be better kept off-stage entirely. They would be more potent if they could not or would not appear on it at all. That writing error leads to a bad misplacement of dramatic energy in the Third Act.

But this is a cavil in a piece which we all must see, we who honor and love and enjoy acting for itself alone. On this level, August: Osage County can’t be beat. See it.


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