I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
BLACK MASS | 122 min | R
Director: Scott Cooper
Writer: Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Rory Cochrane, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll and Kevin Bacon
There are many things to admire about director Scott Cooper, who directed Jeff Bridges to a 2009 Oscar-win for CRAZY HEART. He’s a filmmaker who knows how to effortlessly bring the best out of his actors and wonderfully capture a story’s atmosphere on screen. While his follow-up film, 2013’s OUT OF THE FURNACE, featured an impressive cast (including Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson), it was a rehashed story that only mildly satisfied. However, BLACK MASS shines the spotlight back on Cooper’s skilled hand, which also directs Johnny Depp to his most compelling and haunting performance in years.
This true story follows the most infamous violent criminal in the South Boston history books, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp). Brother of Senator Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), Whitey became an informant to help the FBI get various mobsters who also happen to be his rivals. So, while his old buddy and FBI agent, John Connolly (a terrific Joel Edgerton), protects him from the law, Whitey gets an all-access pass to do whatever he wants with no consequences, while also pushing his enemies out of the streets.
BLACK MASS‘ story may sound oddly familiar. You may even ask, “didn’t I see this with Jack Nicholson’s character in Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED?” Yes, that is true, because Nicholson’s character was based on Bulger’s true story. Now, I’m not saying BLACK MASS is better than THE DEPARTED – it’s not even close – but the truth behind this story makes this gangster pic all the more electric and gratifying. It even has a few (unintentional) nods to Scorsese’s work, most specifically GOODFELLAS, with Depp’s Ray Liotta-like voice and Joe Pesci’s “Funny, how?” scene– only this time it involves soy, garlic and steaks – a scene that should have Oscar voters salivating.
What ultimately makes this such a powerful film is Depp’s performance. With his seamless look, he really transforms himself into the ruthless psychopath that is Bulger. The story itself may be rather dense and some stars’ talent may be wasted (Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard and Adam Scott), but Cooper presents all the cards in this well-paced, well-composed and digestible crime drama, giving us a winning-hand.
BLACK MASS opens in participating theaters tonight starting at 7 p.m., and opens nationwide tomorrow.
COOTIES | 88 min | R
Director: Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
Writer: Leigh Whannell and Ian Brennan
Cast: Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad and Jorge Garcia
When a cafeteria food virus infects the children of an elementary school, and turns them into killer zombies, a group of eccentric teachers must band together to escape the bloody mayhem that awaits them at every corner.
With its comical turns from Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, and a scene-stealing Leigh Whannell (who also co-wrote the film), COOTIES takes a bite out of you and is deliciously infectious. Although its jokes may be a little predictable and its gore may be a tad unbearable, COOTIES knows exactly what it is and it runs with its ridiculousness. It provides audiences with a fun flesh chomp-a-thon.
Check out Cole Clay’s interview with directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS | 131 | PG-13
Director: Wes Ball
Writer: T.S. Nowlin
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson and Aidan Gillen
The first MAZE RUNNER film was a bit of a surprise, especially in this rain of YA dystopian novels turned movies. It was inevitably comparable to THE HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT, but it proved to have a little more kick in its step, and its sequel still has juice left in its boosters.
THE SCORCH TRIALS picks up right where MAZE RUNNER left off– the Gladers (Dylan O’Brien and Co.) now tackle a whole other animal: the open and “scorch” landscape with many more unbelievable obstacles.
Like the first film, we are much a part of the journey as the characters are. We learn things as they do and go along for the ride, even when stuff doesn’t logically make much sense. However, as far as YA adaptations go, THE MAZE RUNNER series is far more satisfying and engaging than most, especially this one, which keeps its story at full tilt and action thrilling.
MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS opens in participating theaters tonight starting at 8 p.m., and opens nationwide tomorrow.
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Julius Rosenwald. That’s OK. Aviva Kempner’s extraordinary documentary titled ROSENWALD is here to help.
Kempner’s dazzling film illuminates the man who was Rosenwald: someone who never finished high school, yet rose to become the President of Sears and joined forces with African American communities during the Jim Crow South to build over 5,300 schools during the early part of the 20th century.
Honestly, I only first heard about Rosenwald’s story after taking Yiddish and African American Literature classes in college, but even then, we only skimmed over the material– a saddening fact, as Rosenwald did such great things in his lifetime.
What may seem like your average PBS historical doc is far from the familiar ingredients attached to its genre. Kempner keeps things interesting and moving by giving us the exemplary taste of background, story and style. The interviewees’ stories are powerful and educational, leaving us inspired and much to take away.
Check out our interview with filmmaker Aviva Kempner
ROSENWALD opens in select theaters.
Dallas: Angelika Film Center in Dallas