Black Mass (wide release)
James “Whitey” Bulger, the gangster who controlled crime in South Boston from the 1970s to 1994, is the subject of Scott Cooper’s moody, engrossing study of corruption and violence on both sides of the law.
Johnny Depp, who finally returns to real acting after frittering away his talent on cartoonish stuff ever since he hit it big with “Pirates of the Caribbean,” gives a chilling performance as a man whose deceptively calm persona can suddenly erupt in threats and brutal violence.
The picture is not merely a biography of Bulger; it contrasts him with John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a member of the FBI and childhood pal of Whitey’s who now wants to partner up with him to bring down the Boston Mafia. Before long, Whitey is using the Feds to maintain his empire, while Connolly finds himself aiding the guy who is supposedly his informant.
“Black Mass” has a large, expert supporting cast, and it boasts a fine sense of period atmosphere while generating genuine suspense despite the audience knowing how it will end, but it is Depp who dominates with a turn that reminds us that he is one of the best actors working today.
Pawn Sacrifice (Angelika)
Tobey Maguire may not equal Depp as an actor, but he too gives a superb performance in Edward Zwick’s conventional but fascinating biographical film about Bobby Fischer, who became a national hero by famously winning the world chess championship in 1972 but then descended tragically into paranoia and delusion, ending up an expatriate pariah.
But the film is not concerned with the last three decades of Fischer’s unhappy life, which it treats in a few gritty newsreel excerpts and captions. Its focus is on his troubled childhood as a neglected prodigy and his rise to prominence as a tormented obsessive when he is used as a pawn by his two managers. One sees him as a unique talent who can take the art of chess to new levels, while the other hopes he will become the American superstar who defeats the Soviets at their own game, but both hesitate to get him psychological help out of fear that it might interfere with his play.
“Pawn Sacrifice” makes chess visually exciting, but one need not even know the names of the game pieces to appreciate its depiction of the Cold War gamesmanship in which the brilliant but unstable Fischer, compellingly portrayed by Maguire, was caught up.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (wide release)
The first installment of this dystopian futuristic fantasy, derived from a popular series of young-adult novels, was better than most other movies of the same sort, and the sequel maintains that standard. It is basically an old-fashioned boys’ adventure story told efficiently enough to make one anticipate the final chapter with something other than dread.
The picture is like a succession of genre episodes, beginning as a prison-break flick before turning successively into a mini-zombie movie, a survival story, a “Mad Max” clone about a bunch of mercenary scavengers and finally a war movie. It ends inconclusively, of course, with the promise of more teen heroics next year.
“The Scorch Trials” hardly breaks new ground, but it is a reasonably exciting tale, told with few of the special effects that so often overburden such fare.
Everest (wide release)
Visually this docudrama about an ill-fated attempt to climb the tallest mountain in the world — in which eight people died when a sudden storm hit — is an impressive achievement. Especially in the 3-D Imax format, the viewer feels as frigid and miserable as the folks trying to reach the summit.
Dramatically, however, it is much less successful. Too many characters, only sketchily drawn, prevent the sort of emotional engagement needed to their adventures viscerally moving.
While the images in “Everest” will probably enthrall you, the story it tells—which should be wrenching — may very well leave you cold.