Première “Life” – Anton Corbijn

On a rainy Monday night – September 21st, 2015 – I took the train to Bozar in Brussels, for one simple reason: the premiere of Life. The screening of the long-expected 4th feature film by the Dutch director Anton Corbijn, who is also a photographer by profession, was attended by the great man himself, after which he enthusiastically answered all of our burning questions.

life3The film depicts the friendship between the iconic 50’s actor James Dean (Dane DeHaan, star ofChronicle and Kill Your Darlings) and the photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson, Twilight). With the title of the film Corbijn refers to the US magazine for which Dennis Stock took pictures as a freelance photographer. Stock wanted his pictures of Dean to be more personal and not like those of the ‘red carpet maggots’. Therefore, he followed Dean to New York, Indiana and back to LA. Keep in mind that this all took place in the short period between East of Eden and Rebel Without a Case, after which Dean died at the age of 24.

The film seems divided in two parts, the first of which follows Stock, a very hardworking photographer, who almost has to stalk the slack, rebellious and egocentric Dean. The second part of the film, in which the two go for a trip to visit Dean’s Quaker family in Fairmont, Indiana, shows Dean open up, enjoying the little things in life, such as reading to his little cousin. There is then a reversal, and it is Stock who seems the arrogant and unthankful one, who forgets to actually ‘live’. Nonetheless, both of them are so self-fulfilled to think that they do each other a favour, Dean by posing for Stock and Stock by publishing pictures of him.

life2As a Corbijn fan, I felt very much pleased with Life, but can’t deny that he made a serious mistake by casting Robert Pattinson as Dennis Stock. Just like in every other film he acts in, his physical appearance remains static, and his acting is not really convincing due to his eternal poker face. Dane DeHaan on the other hand surprised me by showing some of his best method-acting skills. DeHaan has that cool aura that turns him into Dean – only, theSLOW, whispering speech made me wonder at times whether the real James Dean was a drunk with a never-ending hangover.

Unlike with his 2007 production Control, a biopic about the deceased Ian Curtis, lead singer of 80’s-band Joy Division, Corbijn shot this film entirely in colour. He told the audience at the premiere that although he initially wanted to shoot the film in black and white like Control, he eventually opted for full colour, to show the contrast with Stock’s original black and white images. Also worth noting is the accuracy of Corbijn’s film, namely how he manages to come close to copying Stock’s original and epic pictures of James Dean – for example, the well-known shot taken in Times Square in New York.

lifeDid I already mention that Corbijn is a professional photographer? He is mostly known for his artist photography, such as for U2, Depeche Mode and Michael Stipe (R.E.M). This similarity caught my attention. Both photographers, Corbijn and Stock, have their own protégées and muses – a good motivation for Corbijn to tell the story of Dean’s relationship with Stock. By making Life, Corbijn wants to convince the audience how a photographer and his subject mutually inspire and construct one another. It is not plainly a biopic. And this is how he told it at the premiere in Bozar, the passion flowing from his enthusiastic smile.

One could also tell from the visual and aesthetic style of the film, that Corbijn is more than a filmmaker. Every shot simply looks like a perfect picture in a frame. Everything fits in, such as colours, composition and camera angle.

Life, simply, is a visual masterpiece. Enjoy the complexity of every shot, how it is built up in several layers yet seems so simple at the same time. The director’s passion for photography is clear, and for those who loved his former work, this film will be another pleasure to the eye.

 Check the trailer on YouTube.

Johnny Depp brings life to monotonous “Black Mass”

12246767_10153699059592591_411165353807225750_nPublished in The Spread

Black Mass might not be the exciting action-drama fans of gangster movies we’re looking for, but committed performances from Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton keep the film watchable.

bmScott Cooper’s 3rd feature film, after Crazy Heart (2009) and Out of the Furnace (2013), is the crime drama Black Mass. The film is based on the book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance between the FBI and the Irish Mob, written by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill and published in 2001.

Black Mass, though labelled an action/crime film, is mainly a dialogue-driven drama that tells the life story of one of South Boston’s most wanted gangsters from the 70’s onwards, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, and his FBI friend and ally John Connolly. He helps Connolly to solve federal crimes, and in return he stays free from all legal charges against him. That, of course, does not last, and the bulk of the film explores what happens when all this corruption comes out.

The main plot, then, is framed around the hearing of the accused gang members of Bulger’s gang, Winter Hill, and is told as a chronological story from the 70s up to the 00s, making Black Mass more of a biopic than the action film some might have expected. And to be honest, I’m not really a fan of the gangster biopic, but I’ve of course seen the classics. I could easily put Black Mass in the same category as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) or Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997). Unfortunately, this one misses the extra punch to live up to these classics.

Black Mass has a rather weak plot, lacks complexity, and never reaches a real climax. There’s nothing that makes the audience want to sit on the tips of our chairs. Overall, the film is really one long continuity of small things happening without much suspense, though the strength of the actors manages to push the story forward.

The cast deserve a huge shout-out. Bulger is played by Johnny Depp, whose most popular roles in the last decade have seen him typecast as the silly moron and anti-hero, as in the Pirates of the Caribbean series (2003-2011) or in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2011). In Black Mass, Depp seems to finally break the curse of these typical roles, and is almost unrecognizable covered under heaps of make-up, a wig, and blue contacts.

Depp performs Bulger as a mobster with equal capacity for both cruelty and humanity. Throughout the film he retains his cold-blooded poker face, which unfortunately almost turns caricatural near the end. Depp’s performance – and, for the most part, his transformation – is nonetheless outstanding, but in my opinion not as remarkable as his role of Donnie in Donnie Brasco.

The real standout of the cast, however, is Joel Edgerton, playing the opportunistic, corrupt FBI agent John Connolly. Edgerton’s acting is never overdone, and always realistic. Other popular faces are Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s prosecutor, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s younger brother and member of the Massachusetts Senate, William M. Bulger. And then there’s Dakota Johnson, who plays the role of Whitey Bulger’s ex-mistress and mother of his son. Unfortunately, it’s impossible now to watch her acting without thinking about 50 Shades of Grey.

Besides the acting, another thing that keeps on catching our attention is the comical – and rather cynical – dialogue. In one scene, Bulger is supposed to tell off his son Douglas (Luke Ryan) after he has punched a kid in class. But instead of being mad at his son, he gives him tips to do the beating properly next time, saying “if nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

And as is typical for a gangster movie, there’s also a lot of profanity: at one moment I started counting the “fuck(ing)s”, and although the amount couldn’t beat Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the number of curse words is still quite impressive. bm2

The work of DOP Masanobu Takayanagi, known for his work on Silver Linings Playbook, also makes the film worth watching; he deftly manages to switch between close-ups and panoramic shots whenever it fits the moment best, and he plays with light and contrast to make the Bostonian setting less grey and chilly.

Lovers of fast-paced mafia films and the action of the crime genre should stay far away from Black Mass, because its lack of suspense and lackluster plot will surely disappoint. But for everyone else, the witty dialogue, unrecognizable Johnny Depp and superb aesthetic quality make the film well worth a watch.