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Venice Film Festival Diary 2015: 'Black Mass' + 'Italian Gangsters' + 'Spotlight' + 'Equals'

Black Mass

Here comes Johnny, but stay away from Boston.

It was Johnny Depp time on the Lido today. Hordes of screaming fans descended to watch the veteran (I guess we should call him that now he’s in his 50s) star walk the red carpet for Black Mass, a gangster film touted as his return to form following a long barren run. It wasn’t just the chance to see whether he can revive a career long in the doldrums, at least in terms of decent films. The comb-over he wears for his role as Boston kingpin James ‘Whitey’ Bulger has drawn much comment. Alas, he chose not to arrive in character, instead looking disappointingly like the heartthrob he is.

The film itself is not quite the triumph I’d been led to expect, but it’s still a cut above much of his recent work. With piercing eyes and mean charm, he doesn’t actually have to do all that much over the course of a story that takes him from petty gangster to Boston’s crime king, mostly thanks to the ill-advised support of the FBI who want to use him against the Italian mafia.

A truck load of recognisable faces, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon and Dakota Johnson, all get a taste of the action, without space for any of them to develop out of off-the-shelf movie characters. No one really undergoes any change, no one learns anything and no one made me care a jot what happened to them. The end is much the same as the start for everyone involved – apart from those bumped off along the way. A perfectly watchable gangster flick, it doesn’t rise above simple popcorn fare. Fine for a couple of hours, but don’t expect this to be the heralded return to the top promised for Depp.

With gangsters on the mind, I stumbled out into the midday sun and immediately ducked back into the dark safety of the cinema for a screening of Italian Gangsters. A documentary, it tells the stories of an array of famous post-war Italian gangsters. The clue really is in the title. Their exploits are entertaining, far more so than the cheap TV style employed. Actors stand against a black background and narrate in character as the gangsters. Some do an ok job, some ham it up. Otherwise, all we get is film footage thrown in liberally to simulate the love affair between cinema and organised crime. It all feels like a late night TV crime expose, and looks it as well. It’s the kind of film where the title flashes up before being riddled with fake bullet holes. Yep, that says it all.


Boston also emerged as a theme for the day with Spotlight, Thomas McCarthy’s attempt to makes amends for The Cobbler, taking place in Beantown as well. It’s not organised crime under the spotlight (pardon the pun) though. McCarthy has turned the Boston Globe’s investigation of Catholic Church child sex abuse cover-ups into one hell of a film. Playing out as a procedural, the team of journalists including Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, dig deep with startling results. I’m a big fan of McCarthy’s, and am pleased to report this complex, layered film is up there with the best he’s managed. Keeping his intimate style, he adds an ambitious degree of scope. Best film of the festival? A little early to say, but it’ll be a contender.


Equals, on the other hand, will not. After facing a soaking to get to the screening courtesy of a sudden rainstorm, I had to put up with a tedious dystopian science-fiction romance from Drake Doremus, set in one of those uniform, colourless worlds that look like an Apple commercial. Why must the future consist purely of shiny surfaces, identical clothing and a distinct lack of emotion? There’s some waffle about a “disease” that sees emotions return, a fate punishable by death, and some weary romancing as Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart fall in love against all the odds. As they grew gradually more alive, I went the other direction. Thank God it ended eventually, and with it, day three.

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