'Brooklyn' & 'Black Mass'

Saoirse Ronan at the recent opening of “Brooklyn” in Dublin. ROLLINGNEWS.IE

Reviews by Michael Gray

Eilis faces some big decisions

In a prolific career that has seen the still preposterously young Saoirse Ronan cast in 18 features since her 10TH birthday, the Bronx-born actress has played a vampire, an aristocratic false accuser, a teen assassin (twice), a murdered child, and a Stockholm Syndrome victim. In her latest film, "Brooklyn," the 21-year old finally plays an Irish colleen. Ronan's character in the film is Eilis Lacey, a country girl who lives in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, with her widowed mother (Jane Brennan) and older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott). Eilis works in a dead-end job at a grocery store owned by local harridan and malicious gossip Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan).

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A prim and proper girl and a dutiful daughter, Eilis has a little steely ambition beneath the civil surface that her quiet hometown cannot accommodate. To her employer’s chagrin and her mother’s grief, she hands in her notice and announces her intention to emigrate. With the help of a kindly Irish priest (an endearing Jim Broadbent), long resident in New York City, she sorts out digs and a job ahead of her departure, and sets sail across the Atlantic Ocean to begin a new life in the film’s titular borough.

Thus begins an emotional odyssey that finds her suffering greatly from loneliness and homesickness, while at the same time making determined strides to advance herself in her new life with college accountancy courses (she is the only girl in the class), and a more vibrant social life than she had in Wexford. She befriends slightly racier girls at her Brooklyn boarding house, and dreams of a grander romance than the dull charms of the brilliantined and blazered squares from the local rugby club who constitute her mother’s idea of a good catch.

The year is 1951. Before rock and roll, sock hops, and teen rebellion - before everything, really - so the highlight of an immigrant’s week back then was not that different from the equivalent in Enniscorthy: a Saturday night parish dance, with a showband playing familiar folk tunes. Nonetheless she encounters someone special on the dancefloor from outside her familiar Irish orbit - a sweet and charming Italian plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen) who strums her heartstrings in a way that makes her want to make permanent arrangements with him. But the sudden death of her beloved sister and a visit home to comfort her mother pull her emotions in the opposite direction. Add in the attentions of an earnest suitor, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleason), and the prospect of a bookkeeping job, and suddenly staying put in her home place seems a lot more appealing than she remembered it. Eilis soon has some big, heartrending decisions to make: Brooklyn, or Wexford? Tony, or Jim? Accountancy, or bookkeeping?

Spoiler alerts seem redundant when a film is based in a much-loved romantic bestseller, and most of the cinema audience will already know which road Eilis decides to take. In the original book of the same name, Wexford-born author Colm Tóíbín channels his inner Maeve Binchy to tell a melodramatic tale of love and loss, of joy and yearning, spun out on both sides of the Atlantic, keeping things lively en route with witty dialogue from the supporting characters at Eilis’s boarding house and at her workplace. The screenplay, ably adapted by Nick Hornby, maintains the stately pace and emotional highs of the original work, and director John Crowley skillfully stimulates the tear ducts to make a classic sarcasm-free tearjerker of the sort they just don’t make any more. Based around a pellucid central performance by Saoirse Ronan (Academy, take note) “Brooklyn” earns its lachrymal tsunami earnestly and honestly. “Brooklyn” will resonate with Irish audiences who will be moved to reflect on the emotional pangs and tribulations of their own parents, aunts and uncles (and indeed their own), arriving in a new and strange country to make a fresh start.

Stock up on tissues - the film opens at selected theaters tonight. [The review appeared in the Nov. 4, 2015, issue of the Irish Echo.]

Whitey must await classic treatment

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Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass.”[/caption]

A decade spent in lucrative lead roles involving piracy, confectionery, and mad millinery leaves Johnny Depp's artistic credibility in decline, in sharp contrast to his value at the box office. But Depp fans who recall his better work before the franchise sequels took off had high expectations of a return to form when the actor signed up for the lead role as Irish-American gangster James “Whitey” Bulger in "Black Mass," Scott Cooper's biopic of the infamous Boston criminal. Scourge of the South Boston neighborhood in which he grew up, Bulger's extortion and racketeering enterprises dominated this blue-collar Irish community and the city beyond for more than two decades, from the early 1970s until his sudden disappearance in 1994, when he went on the run to evade arrest by a new generation of FBI agents beyond his sphere of influence. He remained at large until he was spotted on a Santa Monica pier in California in 2011.

Bulger was also closely connected to the most powerful politician in the state of Massachusetts - his younger brother Billy was president of the state senate during Whitey's criminal heyday. Add to his resume the allegations that Whitey, ruthless punisher of neighborhood snitches on his home turf, was himself a long-time FBI informer, and a gunrunner for the IRA, and Johnny Depp has a fascinating vessel in which to pour himself for the lead role in "Black Mass", and maybe use it to restore his artistic capital.

Well, maybe not. Depp plays Whitey as the kind of guy who would have you murdered by a trusted associate for calling him Whitey instead of Jimmy, then personally kill that associate himself so that no loose ends are left lying around for the Feds to tie together. But Whitey and his cronies, despite their brutal dominance in Boston and elsewhere, never rise above such petty beefs in the movie version of Bulger's life. The bling and braggadocio that make screen gangsters so irresistible to cinema audiences, from Cagney's Cody Jarrett in "White Heat" to Pacino's Tony Montana in "Scarface", are absent in Scott Cooper's dull, workaday grind of extortion and murder.

Bulger was an ascetic leader who kept his emotions under control at all times, and when his henchmen were getting drunk and shooting their mouths off, Whitey was holding back, staying sober, and examining them for signs of potential betrayal. Unknown, and perhaps unknowable, to even those closest to him, the inscrutable Bulger presents Depp with a daunting challenge to bring to life as a fully-formed character. The actor goes in deep behind blue contact lenses, oversized sunglasses and a baldhead wig to personify the Bulger enigma, but he fails to re-emerge as anything more than a police sketch of a larger-than-life crime figure, ripped from the headlines of the Boston Globe. When the script calls for a little pathos - Whitey helping an old lady in Southie with her shopping, cheating at cards with his own mother, or bad-parenting his only child - Depp comes across as a stiff Jack Nicholson impersonator. The film's potential for high drama in confrontations between the Bulger brothers, positioned as they were on opposite sides of the Boston power game, never materializes, as Billy (played by an under-utilized Benedict Cumberbatch) does what anyone else would do in his situation - Teflon-coat himself to convince the press and the Feds that any association between himself and his hoodlum brother is a matter of coincident genetics. Thus, there is little or no screen time together for the two top-billed stars.

Jez Butterworth's plodding screenplay ticks the cliché boxes from the opening credits - the story is framed as a series of FBI testimonies by Bulger's ex-cronies, told in voice-over by Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and John Martorano (W Earl Brown), Bulger hitmen all, falling over each other to turn state's evidence against their old boss in return for lenient sentences. The film grimly follows their accounts of Bulger's ascent, as he works in cahoots with local FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Egerton) to bring down the Boston Italian mob, and wisely drops the story to roll epilogue notes and credits when he goes on the run - Whitey's 17 years in hiding make for better newspaper what-ifs, than stirring cinematic visuals. Kevin Bacon and Corey Stoll, playing senior FBI agents drafted in to clean up corruption in Massachusetts, bring welcome energy to rehydrate this dissected narrative, but can't save "Black Mass" from the greatest mob movie crime of all – incitement to boredom.

One can only hope for a better treatment if and when Beantown homeboys Ben Affleck and Matt Damon revive their dormant Bulger project, put on hold since the Depp version went into production. "Black Mass" is currently playing in five cinemas in the Metropolitan New York area.

[The review will appear in the Nov. 11, 2015, issue of the Irish Echo.]