Saturday, October 31, 2015


As is the case with other Oscar categories, Best Foreign Language Film is usually the domain of more established filmmakers. This year however, many of the most high profile submissions come from first timers. Indeed, from Cannes sensation "Son of Saul" to Venice winner "Theeb", one could easily see all five nominations going to debut features. Here’s a look at these promising films…

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, October 30, 2015


Yes, I know I already featured the "Brooklyn" trailer in last month's post, but this a special occasion. It's not often you get to see your review quoted on TV! Check out the new TV spot for "Brooklyn" below, and don't miss the film when it hits theaters on November 4th. It truly "invokes the spirit of the romance dramas of the Golden Age."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

INTERVIEW: Anna Muylaert and Regina Casé

Since its successful bow at Sundance earlier this year, "The Second Mother" has emerged as one of the year’s most beloved films by critics and audiences alike. Telling a female-centric story of class conflict within a São Paulo household, it represents a kind of drama filmmaking we need to see more often in Hollywood. It was therefore a pleasure for me to speak with the film’s award-winning director Anna Muylaert and lead actress Regina Casé during a recent phone interview. Below is an edited version of our chat, where we discussed the film, its themes and the excitement of its submission as Brazil’s Oscar entry.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, October 26, 2015


On the eve of his deployment to stabilize a volatile Belfast neighbourhood during the Northern Ireland conflict (aka The Troubles), a young British soldier named Gary Hook (played by Jack O'Connell) makes a promise to his younger brother. Reassuring him, he says "I'm not even leaving the country, so you've got nothing worry about". Little does Gary know of the nightmarish ordeal which will constitute the remainder of "71", the impressive debut feature from director Yann Demange.

Over the course of a single night, Gary will be separated from his squad and left to fend for himself in unsafe territory. Like an Irish version of the Gaza strip, the area is home to both warring factions - the Catholics and Protestants. Luckily, Gary initially finds himself in friendly Protestant company. But as he subsequently becomes abandoned and rescued several times over in these streets and homes, he'll soon realize that - contrary to his earlier belief - the most dangerous enemy is sometimes the wolf lurking right outside your door.

The striking domesticity of the conflict is one of the first things you notice in "71". Unlike some other wars throughout history, this one quite literally "hit people where they live", affecting personal liberties and religious freedom rather than higher level power struggles. And Demange takes this and runs with it, sending his protagonist on a obstacle-filled chase in the film's high stakes backyard games. He uses the setting as his playground, creating heartpounding thrills and tension in equal measure. And the result is a cinematic tour de force, with first-rate editing, sound design, cinematography, writing and direction.

And what a tremendous lead performance Jack O'Connell delivers too, crucial to the film's emotional resonance. He certainly looks the part, with a confident strut that convinces you of his capabilities. But although he's a quintessential action hero, his face betrays the vulnerable boy underneath, completely out of his depth as a fresh recruit. Such is the brilliance of his performance, which exudes raw, natural talent.

Indeed, "71" is a strong showcase for the abundant talent to be found in Britain's next generation of filmmakers (though French-born, Demange spent most of his life in the UK). It's even an interesting counterpoint to Paul Greengrass' own recreation of The Troubles in 2002's "Bloody Sunday". That film was a breakthrough critical and award-winning success for the director, and the rest is history. On the evidence provided here, Demange could very well follow that same upward trajectory. One of the best things about "71" is that it's a thriller that knows exactly when to slow down and catch its breath. And like a smart athlete, this approach to filmmaking and his career bodes well for Demange's bright - and hopefully long-lasting - future in the business.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

REVIEW: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

For one of the most unique films of the year, look no further than Roy Andersson’s "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence". Winner of the Golden Lion at the 2014 Venice International Film Festival, Andersson’s latest boldly eschews the usual conventions of cinematic language. As the final installment of his “Living trilogy” it is a fascinating – and sometimes confounding – exploration of the absurdity of human behavior and life itself.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, October 22, 2015

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Francophone Films

Parlez-vous français? If you’re a fan of the Foreign Language Oscar category, a mastery of the French language certainly wouldn’t hurt. Throughout the history of the award, Francophone cinema has been a dominant force, accounting for the majority of wins. With the likes of Maurice Cloche and René Clément claiming statues during the initial years of the prize (when it was just a special/honorary award), to Michael Haneke’s 2012 winner "Amour", French-language films have left an indelible mark on world cinema. And this year’s small but exciting crop of Francophone submissions reflects that global reach, including films from 3 separate continents representing an impressively diverse array of filmmakers and themes. Interestingly, the French submission was actually filmed in Turkish, showing how the definition of "French" cinema is constantly expanding.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


For this week's return of Hit me with your best shot, I was able to eliminate another Best Picture nominee blind spot with 1985's "A Room with a View". In truth, I thought I'd seen the film already, but I was happy to have misremembered "The Wings of the Dove" so that I could be introduced to yet another lovely Helen Bonham Carter costume drama. And once again, she doesn't disappoint.

But the most surprising delight for me wasn't her performance as Lucy , nor was it the sumptuous visuals or the winning dashes of humour. My favourite aspect of the film instead, was Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as Bonham-Carter's betrothed. Well-known for his brutish Daniel Plainview, his role here forced him to be a typical gentleman, and I loved every preening, posh second of it. He is the epitome of the stuffy Victorian ideal that lends the film its title and as such, I thought it would be fitting to focus on him for my best shot.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, October 19, 2015


As I write this, the latest trailer for "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" has just premiered to the glee of millions of fans around the world. This 7th installment of the popular space opera franchise will likely become this year's box office champ when all is said and done. But when we look back on 2015, the biggest story will more likely be Netflix's entrance into the big leagues of film production with the harrowing war drama "Beasts of No Nation".

Based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, "Beast of No Nation" tells the nightmarish story of a young African boy forced to fight in a civil war. His name is Agu (Abraham Attah), an innocent, typically carefree boy from a loving family. Agu lives in a small village which has been converted to a buffer zone, effectively an oasis from the violent civil war raging in the surrounding areas. But one day, his peaceful life is upended when the war arrives on his doorstep, after the fall of the presiding government makes way for military rule. During the chaos to come, Agu becomes irreparably separated from his family and escapes to the jungle. But soon, he is captured by another rebel group and forced to join their ranks as a child soldier. As Agu becomes privy to the horrors of war, he finds his youthful innocence slipping away by the second. Before long, he starts to feel like more of a beast than a human being.

As Agu goes through his descent into a version of hell, director Fukunaga plunges us into this nightmarish world alongside our diminutive protagonist. With an unflinching eye, forces our gaze towards the most unsavory images of inhumane violence and cruelty. And throughout, the film is surprisingly unsentimental too, maintaining a key focus on the aggressors rather than the victims.

But through the muck of war, Fukunaga impresses with some stunning directorial flourishes. Like an early long shot of the jungle which dwarfs Agu with its imposing vastness, or a later scene where the Commandant (Idris Elba) leads a march to ambush a village, an image that could almost pass for a parade with its kinetic energy. Indeed, even as you would want to look away, Fukunaga holds your attention with his impressive technique. In doing so, he lends visceral power to the simultaneous adrenaline rush and terror of war.

But even more insightful is Fukunaga's superb screenplay, which is worthy of dissecting and examination long after the lights go down. Touching on the many complex aspects of the psychology underpinning war and its relation to masculinity and Africanism - too deep to elaborate in a film review - he leaves nothing on the table. Most interestingly, the script emphasizes the irony of how rebellions are fortified by exploiting people's inherent deference to authority figures (so provocatively illuminated in 2012's "Compliance"). As such, the film paints a nuanced portrait of evil through its array of characters, particularly Agu and the Commandant. Representing the "followers" and "leaders" which fuel such incomprehensible brutality, Attah and Elba make a dynamic duo with some of the best naturalistic acting in spite of the challenging material. Attah's transition from abject fear to resigned self-assurance, and Elba's constantly vibrant presence are truly a sight to behold.

There are times when the relentless violence depicted in "Beasts of No Nation" takes on a numbing effect. At one point during my first viewing (yes, I've seen it twice already), my sister even turned to me and said "This isn't even making me sad. I'm just angry." And indeed, I nodded in agreement. But even if it's not the tearjerker you may have hope for, you would be hard-pressed to find a film that is this perceptive about the world we live in. While it may seem completely removed from our reality, it forces us to see ourselves in Agu and his experiences with loss, existentialism and our frightening capacity to cause harm to others. And ultimately, this is what makes "Beasts of No Nation" such a devastating, astonishing achievement.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Bridge of Spies

Is there any greater sign of awards season than a new historical drama from Steven Spielberg? Though he's perhaps better known by the public for his more contemporary - or futuristic - populist entertainments, it's his period pieces that have the greatest track record with the more "highbrow" Academy voters. His latest, "Bridge of Spies", looks backward to the Cold War era, joining forces with the Coen brothers for a film extolling the virtues of America and humanity at large. And like most of the "Oscar bait" packages delivered by these esteemed filmmakers, it's worthy of our consideration.

Based on the true story behind the 1960 U-2 incident, "Bridge of Spies" follows an insurance lawyer named James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) who unwittingly gets thrust into the middle of the Cold War. The film begins with Donovan being entrusted with the defense of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), in an effort to portray America as a place of fairness with regards to the law. But when Donovan takes his task seriously, he quickly becomes scorned as a traitor to the anti-communist cause. As an American pilot soon finds himself in a similar situation on Russian soil however, Donovan's unwavering empathy becomes crucial to negotiation efforts. And eventually, he is called up to spearhead a complicated POW exchange, which will take him from his quaint suburban life to a faraway land. With the US government unable to publicly acknowledge the mission, Donovan is promised no reward or recognition, aside from the satisfaction that he's doing the right thing.

If you've looked at my personal Top 50 films, you'll notice that "To Kill A Mockingbird" ranks near the top of my list (in addition to some other Spielberg titles littered throughout). As such, I'm naturally predisposed to appreciating a film like this, where one man's humanity shines through in an intolerant society. It can fall apart as schmaltz in the wrong hands, but when done well, it provides gratifying cinema. This is one such instance where the formula is configured correctly.

As I watched the film, I was reminded of a recent episode of the Fighting In The War Room podcast, where the hosts played a game based on Spielberg's filmography. Interestingly, it was based on his career as a producer, not a filmmaker. And in thinking of "Bridge of Spies", I realized that our idea of Spielberg as a filmmaker owes as much to his producing skills as it does his directorial style. Simply put, the strength of Spielberg's oeuvre can be attributed to not just his talent, but his ability to assemble some of the most gifted artists to work with him.

And indeed, "Bridge of Spies" turns out to be one of the most well-produced films of the year. When it comes to production values, there's hardly a film that can touch it. From the warmly lit cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, to the eloquent screenplay from the Matt Charman and the Coens, to the exquisite detail of the production design, everything is in place for classic filmmaking at its finest. As such, you can expect the film to be in the awards conversation for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Production Design.

And in the lead role, Tom Hanks captures the kindhearted demeanor of the Gregory Pecks and Jimmy Stewards of times gone by. But the standout is certainly Mark Rylance, whose wonderfully subtle performance will surely make him a contender for Best Supporting Actor. Perhaps even more so than Hanks, he best represents the film's tone and message.

Admittedly, "Bridge of Spies" is uncharacteristically quiet for Spielberg, lacking the usual emotional impact (John Williams' typically rousing compositions are sorely missed) of his best work. But like Rylance's pragmatic Rudolf, the restraint works for the story, taking an evenhanded approach to what could have easily been jingoistic propaganda. Ultimately, "Bridge of Spies" is a tribute to the unsung heroes on both sides of the war, the ones who you wouldn't even notice if they sat in front of you on your daily train commute. And in doing so with such refined artistry, it commands your respect.

Friday, October 16, 2015

REVIEW: Madame Courage

Back in early September, I fulfilled my dream of attending the Venice International Film Festival. Well...sort of. In truth, I took part in the festivities from the comfort of my own bedroom, as part of the festival's Sala Web initiative, allowing film fans worldwide to view a curated selection of titles from the official programme. This year, I opted for two films - Gabriel Mascaro's "Neon Bull" and Merzak Allouache's "Madame Courage". But while the former was a vibrant piece of world cinema, the latter unfortunately provided a strange situation where its synopsis felt more detailed than the story it actually told.

The plot summary that attracted me to the film reads as follows: "Omar, an unstable and lonely teenager, lives in a slum in the suburbs of Mostaganem, Algeria. He is addicted to a famous psychotropic, nicknamed “Madame Courage”: Artane tablets, very popular among young Algerians, for their euphoric effect of invincibility. Omar is an expert thief. One morning, he goes downtown to commit his usual crimes. His first prey is a young girl called Selma, walking with her friends, prominently wearing a gold necklace. As he commits his larceny, their eyes meet."

Sounds interesting, right? An addiction drama with romance, set against a distinct cultural backdrop. Sadly, the film barely delivers any of the intrigue it promises.

First of all, the film's protagonist is too much of a blank slate. Played unsurprisingly by a first timer (Adlane Djemil), the performance lacks the personality or charisma to justify the dubious premise of the romance. As a result, that aspect of the film remains wholly unconvincing throughout, which in all fairness, has as much to do with the script's deficiencies as it does with Djemil's performance.

As the synopsis explains, Omar commits the robbery in broad daylight quite early in the film. Portrayed as an aggressive, traumatic event, the film struggles to overcome the harrowing nature of this incident to make any sort of romantic connection between Omar and Selma believable. Instead, he comes across as a creepy stalker. In fact, the film makes you wonder whether Allouache is making a judgmental statement about the lifestyle or social class that Omar represents. At one point, he inexplicably gawks at Selma for hours, firmly stationed beside a garbage-ridden dumpster, like a rat in its element. And as if to confirm my assessment of the film's non-existent chemistry, Selma even confronts the persistent Omar during the final act to ask "What's wrong with you? What do you want?"

Fortunately, the film doesn't rely solely on this romance between the thief and his victim. But it even falls short on the more typical aspects of its plot. The effect of the titular drug is virtually indecipherable and the violent crime it frequently depicts is pointless and off-putting. And ultimately, this was the last straw that finally broke my interest in this hapless, unpleasant film.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


To say that Latin American cinema had a great year would be an understatement. Over the past year, films from the region have been the toast of the festival circuit, winning major awards at Berlin, Cannes, Sundance and Venice, just to name a few. And many of those films will be now be aiming for further glory at the Oscars, putting forward arguably the strongest crop of Latin American films ever submitted. It’s therefore entirely conceivable that Latin America could dominate the 9-film shortlist in December, thereby breaking the usual European domination of the category. Let’s take a look at these formidable contenders…

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, October 12, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Overnight

It didn't take me long to realize that "The Overnight" would be my latest Movie of the Week. With a cast featuring some of my personal faves Taylor Schilling, Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzmann, it was already off to a good start before the film even began. By the time the film's innocent dinner party gets its first obscene interruption (by a totally unexpected breast pump video) however, I knew it would become not just my top pick of the week, but one of my favourite comedies of the year.

Schilling and Scott play a married couple in the film, who have just moved to Los Angeles along with their young son RJ. Schilling's character Emily keeps herself busy with a full-time job, while Scott's Alex is essentially a stay-at-home dad. On the surface, the situation seems to work for them, but Alex starts to feel insecure about his lacking social life. But things are about to look up, when a father-son outing to the park offers up an opportunity for new friendships. Through RJ's new buddy Max, Alex and Emily are introduced to Max's parents Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) and Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), who extend a warm welcome and offer to host a dinner/playdate for everyone. But when the night finally comes, things start to get weird, as the boundaries between friends and lovers are increasingly blurred.

The hilarity that ensues is exactly the kind of humour that I love. Raunchy but purposeful, smart but relatable. "The Overnight" perfectly captures the excitement/anxiety/anticipation associated with meeting new people.

And writer-director Patrick Brice takes great care in writing interesting characters. On one side we have the free-spirited "French" attitudes of the hippie-intellectuals Charlotte and Kurt, and then one the other hand, we have the more prudish all-American couple that Alex and Emily represents. And the juxtaposition of their differing attitudes towards sex and relationships offer a fascinating discourse, allowing for all four actors to flourish. Scott brings his usual nerdy goofiness that plays perfectly into Alex's insecurities, Schilling delivers a gif-ready performance with every flabbergasted reaction to all the shenanigans, while Schwartzman and Godrèche are just the epitome of bohemian openness and all the spontaneity that entails.

But what makes "The Overnight" special is how it flips the script on what we'd expect from these personalities. As this overnight romp prances forward with increasing absurdity, it digs beneath its sex comedy trappings to make astute observations about marriage and the truths that can only be revealed behind closed doors. Indeed, it reminded me of a more mirthful take on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". And considering the prevalence of lowbrow jokes referring directly to breasts, buttholes and various genitalia, it speaks volumes that this comparison still feels so apt.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


No matter where you go in the world, there always seems to be some amount of corruption involved throughout all levels of society. In Jami Mahmood’s Moor, this corruption relates to Pakistan’s once prosperous railway system, which is now in decline. And in typical cinematic fashion, it’s a zealous expose, but it left me sadly wanting.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, October 10, 2015


Road trip movies have always been one of the most reliable formats for cinematic storytelling. Their defined narrative arcs fit nicely into the traditional three-act structure and provide ample opportunities for rich character study. In his latest directorial outing, Panos H. Koutras puts forth a compelling example of the unique allure of the road trip movie, with the compelling Greece-set drama "Xenia".

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The enduring appeal of The Three Stooges

Few comic characters can have cast such as spell over movie-going audiences as that of The Three Stooges. From their early origins in 1920s vaudeville, Mo, Larry and Curly have managed to entertain huge audiences through their perfectly-formulated blend of slapstick and wacky humour.

Interestingly, by following the Three Stooges' progress through various media forms, we can chart the way in which the world of modern entertainment has adapted to changing audience demands and expectations.

Monday, October 5, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

This week's top pick is one of the most curious releases of the year. Despite a highly successful Sundance premiere (including a standing ovation and a sweep of the top prizes), Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" was less enthusiastically received when it made its way to general theaters this summer. Opening to soft box office and strongly dividing the critics, it seemed many were apathetic towards its blatant "Sundance movie" cliches. But a closer at look this coming of age film revealed much to appreciate when I finally got around to it this week, making it one of my favourite films of 2015 thus far.

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is the story of 3 teenagers and their life-changing senior year of high school. It follows our protagonist named Greg (an awkward outcast), his best friend Earl (a loyal companion with whom he makes short films) and the titular dying girl named Rachel (who has been diagnosed with leukemia). The trio are merely acquaintances at school, until one day Greg's parents encourage him to befriend Rachel during her difficult time, much to his chagrin. Eventually however, what begins as a forced arrangement becomes an inseparable bond, as the trio learn from each over through friendship, filmmaking and their fears about their uncertain futures.

By now you know the drill. Despite its painstaking efforts to remind us that it isn't a typical teen romcom, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" follows many of the "coming of age" tropes that have become a mainstay of indie cinema. We meet Greg as a self-involved jerk and by the end of the film, he's changed for the better through his friendship with the sweet girl next door.

And Gomez-Rejon's is just as deliberately quirky as we've come to expect from the such films too. But whereas many were turned off by its selfish protagonist and garish filmmaking, I found its messiness endearing and authentic. Its erratic cinematography felt in line with Greg's state of confusion, having to deal with his cripplingly low self-esteem and the harsh reality of death that threatens his first experience with true affection. As such a creative mind too, the dynamic camera also captures the way he would see the world. And considering the fresh memory of the unusually eloquent Gus Waters in the popular teen cancer drama "The Fault in Our Stars", it was refreshing to see this character behave like most young men do - immature and unsure of themselves.

But most of all, I appreciated "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" for its sincerity. Indeed, I'm sure detractors and fans alike can agree that Olivia Cooke gives a tremendously sympathetic performance as Rachel. As Hollywood's latest import, she's a tremendous find and is totally convincing in her role. And while the typical coming of age sentimentality associated with her character's demise is as uncool as the film's male protagonist, its final message - that loved ones can still reveal themselves to you, even after death - is as touching as anything I've experienced this year.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

REVIEW: The Second Mother

There’s a great scene in writer-director Anna Muylaert’s insightful new film The Second Mother, where the long estranged daughter (Jessica, played by Camila Márdila) of our title character (Val, played by Regina Casé) meets the family that her mother has been caring for as their live-in housekeeper. As the aspiring universiy student explains her plans for higher education, the responses from the lady of the house (Bárbara, played by Karine Teles) reveal a subtle air of condescension, expressing surprise that this lowly maid’s daughter is applying to the highly competitive local university in her chosen field of architecture. Towards the end of this friendly interchange, Jessica expresses her belief that architecture is an instrument for social change. In the moment, the statement seems innocuous – to the characters and audience alike – but the ensuing class conflict to come reveals why this carefully crafted portrait of modern day Brazil is such an ideal film to represent the South American nation for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, October 3, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: The Martian

"The Martian", the latest space adventure from the man who gave us the seminal "Alien" franchise, can be summed up in one particular scene. In it, commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) of the Ares III mission discusses the rescue options for Mark Watney (Matt Damon), the crew member they mistakenly left behind on Mars. The most viable one will require great risk and extend their current assignment by a few more years, keeping them away from their loved ones for and the safety of home. From the immediate affirmative reaction from the crew however, she might as well have been saying "Call the sitter, honey. We're going to be out a little late." Indeed, despite the high stakes, this latest addition to the "lost in space" canon is a joyous testament to the power of human optimism and intelligence.

But let's back up a bit. At this turning point in the film, Watney had already been on Mars for many days (or "sols" as they are known on Mars), after a storm left him stranded and presumed dead by his crew. With an unfavorable atmosphere and limited resources, his situation was dire to say the least. But through perseverance and brain power - using his training in botany and other sciences - he managed to provide himself food, a habitable environment and establish communication with his people. In effect, creating life on Mars. Eventually, his efforts are detected by NASA, prompting a daring mission to bring him home.

It's been a good few years for the "space" genre, with the likes of "Gravity" and "Interstellar" taking us into the stratosphere exploring concepts both intimate and epic. And now with "The Martian", Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard have taken the best aspects of those films - emotional catharsis and intellectual discourse - and distilled them into another thoroughly entertaining film.

On paper, "The Martian" wouldn't immediately appear to be riveting cinema, focusing on pure science and problem-solving above sentimentality and spectacle. But the film fully engages its audience through strong writing and compelling lead performance. Indeed, the beauty of the script is how it takes complex scientific concepts and makes them accessible. Unlike more ambitious sci-fi films, the clarity of Goddard's writing never makes it feel like a daunting science lesson.

Indeed, "The Martian" is consistently exciting and cinematic, and its greatest spectacle is Matt Damon's shining one-man show at the heart of the larger ensemble. As the character keeps himself occupied and entertained to maintain his sanity and hope, it's amusing to watch Damon's transition from momentary despair to eventual triumph.

Ultimately, it's this triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds which makes "The Martian" so satisfying. While recent space epics have left us in fear of that vast unknown in the sky, "The Martian" makes space exploration cool again. It leaves you in awe of what we are capable of as human beings. We can use our wit to save ourselves, our fellow man, and in the case of Ridley Scott, to revive a floundering film career.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


In Hollywood, as in life, everyone loves a comeback story. When Scott Cooper's "Black Mass" released its first trailer, the comeback narrative for Johnny Depp already started writing itself. After years of hiding his talent behind odd "paycheck" caricatures, it appeared that the megastar had finally returned to a "serious" role. And now that the film has been released to the masses, I'm happy to report that Depp has thoroughly delivered on that promise.

"Black Mass" tells the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp), an Irish-American gangster who came to prominence in the 1970s. Starting out small-time with his Winter Hill Gang, he gradually took control over the criminal underworld of South Boston. Throughout his rise to power, he was abetted by a corrupt arrangement with the FBI, requiring him to provide information on the activities of the rival Angiulo Brothers. With the ambitious FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) leading the way, along with the willful ignorance of Whitey's influential brother - a local senator -, the Winter Hill Gang was able to unleash their reign of terror. But Whitey and John are playing with fire as mob informant and accomplice respectively, a fact that all but guarantees their demise.

The proceeding rise and fall narrative of Whitey and John is depicted with pulpy gusto by Cooper. With all the gratuitous violence and tense showdowns we've come to expect, "Black Mass" proves that the long-standing tropes of the gangster film still have the power to entertain. Recounted in the form of confessional flashbacks from the gang members, Cooper breezes through decades worth of action. As such, the film does suffer from its superficial - albeit thrilling - treatment of the material, giving the sense of an unduly condensed plot.

But what the film lacks in narrative depth, it makes up for in the superb performances of its star-studded cast. Despite being a formulaic gangster film, "Black Mass" surprises with how genuine each character feels. As the film's main star, Johnny Depp is especially impressive. He completely disappears into the role, acting through the extreme makeup to give a smart, grounded performance. Even when Whitey is at his most monstrous, Depp makes him feel like a real human being instead of a cartoonish villain. It's such a great reminder of his talent considering his recent career choices.

As John Connolly, Joel Edgerton matches Depp all the way too, proving his leading man chops with a performance that brims with confidence and attitude. Indeed, the performances are the reason to watch this film, with strong work coming from Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons and David Harbour as well. "Black Mass" may not bring anything knew to the table, but like the mercurial gangsters it portrays, these actors get the job done.