My colleague Nancy Tartaglione extensively covered the World Premieres at the Venice Film Festival of Spotlight and Black Mass, and both movies have been just as enthusiastically received here at Telluride in their North American debuts. And next week both head to the Toronto International Film Festival. No rest for the weary. In fact right after this afternoon’s screening of Black Mass, co-star Joel Edgerton headed straight for a nap. At the Academy’s early Saturday evening party director Scott Cooper told me he was exhausted but exhilarated by the reception in Venice. He and his colleagues have indeed been going hard with four screenings since they landed here yesterday.
Of course, besides the backbreaking schedule of traveling filmmakers from Italy to the Colorado Rockies to Canada, these supremely fine American films have Boston in common and both cover criminal acts, albeit of wildly different natures. I had seen Spotlight at the Open Road Screening Room in Los Angeles over a week ago, but just caught Warner Bros.’ Black Mass this afternoon at the Palm Theatre, where a packed house sat rapt as the story unfolded of James “Whitey” Bulger, a complex sociopathic gangster who was a holy terror but, believe it or not, also had a human side to him that the film depicts between his acts of violence. Cooper, who directed Jeff Bridges to a Best Actor Oscar for his first film Crazy Heart and drew a terrific performance from Christian Bale in Out Of The Furnace, offers his most assured work to date as the early reviews from Venice certainly indicated. Johnny Depp is almost unrecognizable as Bulger, and is scary as hell playing this don’t mess with me hardcore criminal who outsmarts the FBI, particularly agent John Connolly, when he agrees to be an informant. Australian actor and director Joel Edgerton plays Connolly and he could well be in contention for a Best Supporting Actor nomination in addition to an obvious Best Actor shot for Depp, back in strong form with this role.
Cooper says there is so much to the Bulger story you could “make an eight-hour Netflix miniseries about him.” He has only a couple of hours here, but the story is so deftly handled it reminded me of something Sidney Lumet might have done. My full video and print review will run Tuesday, but suffice it to say this September 18th release has the spirit of great crime movies, those of Lumet, Scorsese, Coppola and even those classic Warner Bros. gangster sagas of the 30s and 40s that starred the likes of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. And of course Warners, in more recent years, has released classics in the genre like Bonnie And Clyde, Goodfellas and the Oscar winning Best Picture, The Departed and so on.
Cooper was wary of taking on the genre as he initially was given the material by producer John Lesher (also here in Telluride and participating at the post-screening Q&A with Cooper and Edgerton). “I said to John, making this film, ‘I have great trepidation because many of my favorite films, and many of the best American films ever made live in the crime genre,’ ” said Cooper in his introduction to the screening. “I said, ‘The bar is so high that really you can only fail. The only way that I can direct this film is a couple of things and one is that I don’t romanticize or glorify Whitey Bulger, because he left a real emotional scar on many people in Boston and the city itself.’ But also I really had no interest in just making a film about criminals who just happen to be humans, but I want to make a film about humans who just happen to be criminals,” he added. I think he has succeeded, and I know Warners is looking at this movie as their big awards hope this season. That is why they have followed the same Fall Fest path they did for Best Picture winner Argo, and the winner of 7 Oscars, Gravity.
As for Open Road’s Spotlight, director Tom McCarthy has pulled off a masterful tale of the Catholic Church scandal in Boston, where the Boston Globe uncovered the sad truths of a massive case of molestation of young boys by parish priests in the city. It meticulously follows the dogged efforts of the paper’s investigative “Spotlight Team” as they slowly, and against a very powerful religious force, uncover the facts. This one has a superb ensemble including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Brian d’Arcy James and others in a film that truly embodies the word “ensemble.” There is no real lead in this, they all support one another just like the real Spotlight unit they portray. This is a textbook example of what the SAG Outstanding Cast award should be all about.
As for Oscars, the film, which was written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, could be a Best Picture player, the first for Open Road which I still think got robbed last year with the superbly creepy and great Nightcrawler. It is already being widely praised as the best newspaper movie since 1976’s All The President’s Men. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Keaton and Ruffalo both turn up as nominees in Supporting Actor, and possibly the only key female in the cast, Rachel McAdams, in Supporting Actress. Both Keaton and Ruffalo were nominees in other projects last year, so why not give these two Oscar-less actors another shot they so richly deserve here?
If you want to measure the success of a movie in Telluride, just check the buzz on the street. There is no question that since its debut early Saturday morning, Spotlight has been one of the most talked about films shown here, and in a very good way. Open Road opens it on November 6. Just a coincidence to have two Boston-set films dealing with very different and tawdry chapters in the city’s life? Maybe. Certainly what they depict doesn’t evoke the phrase “Boston Proud,” but the movies that have been made about these crimes should make Hollywood proud.