Black Mass: A Sort of Movie Review (Kinda)

Johnny Depp is a great actor. Though I think Harrison Ford is an awesome guy too, pretty much he plays the same character is every movie. Stoic. Taciturn. Self-interested. But Johnny Depp plays a wide range of characters.

In Black Mass, Depp is Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. Though a Kentucky native, Depp nails the Southie accent. This matters to me as a Mainer because Hollywood usually gets the Maine accent very wrong, and they’re not much more skilled with Boston.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Whitey’s brother Billy, does a decent job with the Southie accent too, especially considering that Cumberbatch is British. Oddly, I thought Julianne Nicholson’s accent sounded fake, even though it turns out that she’s from Medford, north of Boston.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Black Mass is a great movie that I really enjoyed. I know, it’s not Goodfellas, but it’s not trying to be.

Of everything I could say about Black Mass, I want to focus on Billy Bulger. The movie’s not about him. His brother, Whitey, was the mobster. But to be a mobster takes not only brutality, but also intelligence. Billy was as brilliant as his brother, but he chose Boston College over organized crime. A Massachusetts state senator, and later president of the University of Massachusetts system, his career ended when it was revealed that he had a phone conversation with Whitey, who was on the lam at the time.

Obviously, I don’t know Billy personally. But the movie portrays him as an honest man who loved his brother, despite Whitey being a murderer.

Should Billy have turned his back on Whitey? I’m not entitled to answer that question. Only Billy is.

But I do respect what a tough choice that is, and I have no judgment of Billy for risking his career to talk with his brother. And Billy did apologize for the pain Whitey caused the families of his victims. But let’s not forget that Billy was put into an untenable situation not of his choosing. I respect his dilemma and tough choices, and I couldn’t have handled it any better (probably worse).

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Ex Machina: When Computers Are Human

Spoiler alert! Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.

Is consciousness an emergent product of brain activity, or is consciousness derived from the soul? Ignoring the dichotomous nature of this question, it’s one philosophers and scientists have wrestled with for millennia, and continue to wrestle with.

Let’s add filmmakers to the list. The movie Ex Machina (now available digitally or on DVD if you still have one of those) creatively explores the question of how you would know that a computer is, in effect, human.

Alan Turing first posed the question. A mathematical genius who was invaluable to the Nazis defeat in World War II, he created one of the first modern computers to break Nazis codes and provide invaluable strategic information to the Allies. So the British government rewarded him by driving him to suicide because he was gay.

The film The Imitation Game is another must see, if you haven’t already. I enjoyed it more than Ex Machina, if only because as a middle aged man I find dramas more compelling than science fiction (though I haven’t forsworn that genre).

Ex Machina is about an ordinary employee who wins an opportunity to spend a few days with the rich but eccentric owner of the company for which he works. Obviously, this guy never watched The Big Lebowski. Otherwise he’d have thought, “Wait, didn’t the Dude teach us to never trust rich folks and their nefarious schemes? Fuck that, I’m going bowling.”

But boss man knew how to choose the perfect idiot. Boss man made an android who could pass for human. But how do you know that the verbal skill, facial expressions, etc. are not simply sophisticated programs?

Defying your programming shows that you have true consciousness.

We also learn, as the movie progresses, that boss man had several previous prototypes. And he used them as sex bots.

Well, go figure. Boss man’s creep vibe is apparent from the first scene. The ethics of sex bots is the latest debate, but maybe they’re just sophisticated vibrators.

But I digress. In Ex Machina, the android/sex bot proves her humanity by defying her programming: she figures out the game, fools both men, kills boss man, and locks the useful idiot in a room from which he cannot escape. (Presumably to die a slow, agonizing death. But as the Dude would say, “That’s a real bummer, man.” Then he goes bowling.).

At the end, the android hitches a ride with the helicopter pilot, who oddly doesn’t ask any questions. (Is he a functional but dumber 1.0 android? But obviously pre-sex bot?)

So, how could a computer pass the Turing test?

Sorry, lost my train of thought here. But…aw, hell. I done innerduced the question enough.