Talking Movies

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: American Gangster

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

In 1970s America, narcotics agent Richie Roberts works to bring down the drug empire of Frank Lucas, who is smuggling pure heroin into the country in military coffins returning from the Vietnam.

The black Goodfellas this is not. Ridley Scott is hailed on this film’s posters as the director of Gladiator. He’s also the director of GI Jane, Kingdom of Heaven and A Good Year to name just three of his super-turkeys from the last decade. This film has his usual striking visual quality, it’s very murkily lit and NYC looks very grimy and cold indeed. But American Gangster lacks energy, the analogy with Goodfellas practically screamed at us by the end sequence only reminds us just how dazzling Scorsese’s frenetic direction of that film really was. Such lethargy renders this film grotesquely long, the sort of running time that makes you keenly aware of absurdities, like why are all the hookers cutting Frank’s drugs topless or naked? It’s eventually lamely explained but it seems part of a drive by Scott to get as much gratuitous female nudity in to the film as he can manage. Is this Good Luck Chuck?!

Denzel Washington is as bad as he’s been in Inside Man, Out of Time, and all the other dreck he churns out while retaining a baffling reputation as a great actor. Russell Crowe, in a role with surprisingly little screen time, fares slightly better but despite playing a character of great professional integrity and personal dishevelment he looks like an actor going through the motions rather than exploring the possibilities of the part.  Josh Brolin, so good as the crazed Dr Block in last week’s Planet Terror, is much more committed as repellent bent cop Detective Trupo. The amount of police corruption portrayed in this film is really quite depressing. Scott uses it, in an effort as misguided as John Boorman’s attempts with Martin Cahill in The General, to valorise Frank Lucas. A psychopathic killer who pays lip service to taking care of Harlem while getting the whole borough hooked on cheap, potent heroin? Either pick someone else to mythologise or get a better scriptwriter.

Oscar-winning writer Steven Zaillian (an award the trailer boasts about far too much) won for a film Aaron Sorkin did an uncredited dialogue polish on while his previous film for Scott was co-written with legendary playwright David Mamet. His directorial debut, last year’s All the King’s Men which he also wrote, abundantly proved that, along with his problems with writing memorable dialogue, Zaillian has no idea of pacing. This story is just not interesting enough to sustain its bloated length while characters/plot devices like Carla Gugino’s shrill wife (divorcing Crowe’s emotionally distant cop) never convince as real people. The trailer for Charlie Wilson’s War, written by Aaron Sorkin precedes American Gangster and painfully highlights the utter vacuity of Zaillian’s dialogue in a film which all concerned obviously believe to be epic and meaningful but which is nothing of the sort.

1/5

September 21, 2019

From the Archives: 3:10 to Yuma

Another ransacking of the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers director James Mangold’s first collaboration with Christian Bale just as their second revs its engines for release.

Notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) is separated from his gang and captured by Civil War veteran and struggling rancher Dan Evans (Bale) who then volunteers to put Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison for $200. As Evans fights off the attacks of Wade’s pursuing gang a strange kinship forms between the two men.

If you didn’t know that James Mangold was the writer/director responsible for Copland, Girl Interrupted, Identity and Walk the Line you should remember his name after 3:10 to Yuma, as by remaking a classic western he has delivered one of the best films of 2007. Mangold has always drawn terrific performances from his casts and it is vital to note the absolutely top notch characterisation, down to the tiniest supporting roles, that distinguishes this film. Every person who steps across the screen convinces as a character with a rich history of their own. This is a western that combines the gritty realistic action of the recent Brosnan/ Neeson vehicle Seraphim Falls with the deeply satisfying human drama of Walk the Line. The fraught relationship between drought-stricken rancher Daniel Evans and his resentful teenage son William (Logan Lerman) drives the film every bit as much as the relationship between Daniel Evans and Ben Wade.

The casting of Russell Crowe in the role originally played by Glenn Ford was always going to be interesting. Russell Crowe can’t do outright charm (see A Good Year) in the way that old-school leading men like Glenn Ford could. Ford’s villain was almost indistinguishable from his usual shtick when playing heroes which was contrasted ironically with Van Heflin’s unheroic rancher. Russell Crowe can add charm to noble heroes like General Maximus and Captain Jack Aubrey and here he adds charm to the principled villainy of Ben Wade. William Evans insists Wade won’t let his gang kill his captors “Cos you’re not all bad”, “Yes, I am” replies Wade. This Wade is tougher but his introduction (sketching a falcon while his men attack a stagecoach) proves he’s lying, he does have a soft side. The celebrated flirtatious conversation with a barmaid that leads to Wade being caught is truncated and Wade kills people in this version but Crowe makes us root for him enough to still complicate the straight good/evil division.

Christian Bale is given a peg-leg to assure us Batman ain’t no hero here but doesn’t need that prop, the hurt in his eyes at his son’s wounding remarks show us a man deeply aware of his unheroic status. Mangold’s film improves on the original with pace and suspense and also has some wonderful moments of humour. X-3’s Ben Foster as Wade’s psychotic lieutenant Charlie Prince is a terrifying presence who Mangold skilfully uses to create dread and heighten anxiety for Evans’ fate. The thus inevitable blood-soaked finale is a violent departure from the charming ending of the original but it is necessary and pushes the film close to mythic Sergio Leone territory.

5/5

May 2, 2013

Dead Man Down

Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, makes his American debut with a thriller starring Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace.

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Victor (Farrell) is a low-ranking criminal working alongside fellow foot-soldier and friend Darcy (Dominic Cooper) in the gang headed by Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), a sharp-suited villain who specialises in clearing buildings of tenants for the Mob. Hoyt is coming apart at the seams due to a three month barrage of cryptic notes, and surveillance photos with his eyes crossed out. And that’s before Paul, the trusted lieutenant he tasked with identifying the mystery stalker, turns up dead in the basement of Alphonse’s mansion. As Alphonse goes on the offensive Victor strikes up a low-key romance with his high-rise neighbour Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a beautician horribly scarred by a car accident who now shuns the world and lives with her mother Valentine (Isabelle Huppert). But embittered Beatrice may hold the key to solving the mystery of who is harassing Alphonse…

Dead Man Down’s best feature is its patient drip-feeding of surprising information in the first act. There is one truly extraordinary scene in which a victim is revealed to be a predator, and Terrence Howard’s villain on the make interestingly has something of Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday about him. Oplev defamiliarises NYC to an astonishing extent; making it a city of warehouses in deserted urban locales, docklands overgrown with green trees, and lush vegetation surrounding high-rise apartment blocks. There are a number of nail-biting sequences in the film as Darcy takes over Paul’s investigation and gets closer to the truth which got him killed, but somehow Oplev doesn’t milk the tension from them Fincher would, while his action sequences are staged efficiently rather than dazzlingly. Really this is TV’s Revenge, writ large, and not quite as attractively.

Fringe writer JH Wyman’s dialogue clunks almightily at times, not helped by Oplev shooting those scenes with lengthy pauses where the piano tinkles helpfully to suggest emotional epiphanies are being had by characters who don’t look like they’re even thinking. Oplev incredibly sabotages a scene where the voice of a dead girl says “Daddy got rid of all the monsters”, by showing us a board of photos of all the mobsters still to be killed. We got it, stop flourishing your Diploma from the Oliver Stone School of Subtlety. Wyman’s script has good intentions, but just when you’re thinking about quotes by Confucius and Gladiator on revenge the finale changes gears completely, almost as if a draft by Luc Besson of the Colombiana showstopper had got mixed up with the final pages of Dead Man Down, and profundity is banished.

You couldn’t say that Dead Man Down is a bad film, but you could only give it a very qualified thumbs-up because it so aggravatingly wastes its abundant potential.

2.5/5

March 15, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

There’s been an odd prevalence of live blogs surrounding this year’s “goddamn meat-parade” – as George C Scott so memorably described the Oscars. This blog did not do a live commentary on the Oscars for three reasons. Firstly, I rather like sleeping at night and think that many other people share this strange attitude. Secondly, I don’t believe that even Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie writing together could possibly write anything funny or insightful enough LIVE! to justify a live blog. Thirdly, the Oscars are (whisper it) (no in fact bellow it!) POINTLESS!

There are 5,777 voting members of the Academy. These individuals do not have a better idea of what makes a great film than any other 5,777 random individuals around the world. There was a reason that JFK told Ben Bradlee what he’d learned from the Bay of Pigs was this – “Don’t assume that because a man is in the army that he necessarily knows best about military strategy”. If you doubt that consider these three facts.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Alfred Hitchcock, director of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, was not truly exceptional enough in his field to win a Best Director Oscar.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, was.

The Academy nominated both Apocalypse Now and Kramer Vs Kramer for Best Picture of 1979 and thought that the film which would have most impact on popular culture, which pushed the boundaries of film-making, and which would endure and be fondly remembered was…Kramer Vs Kramer. I love the smell of dumbness in the Kodak.

According to the Academy the best 10 films of the Zeros were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker.

Not Memento, Moulin Rouge!, The Two Towers, Master & Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Good Night and Good Luck, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

Or Amores Perros, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rules of Attraction, X-2, Mean Girls, Brick, The Prestige, Zodiac, Hunger and Up in the Air.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that Christoph Waltz gave a great performance in Inglourious Basterds. We don’t need the Academy’s nominations to help us tell the difference between a good blockbuster with commercial clichés and a bad Oscar-baiter with its own set of equally rigid (but more idiotic because they’re ‘edgy’) clichés (Little Miss Sunshine, I’m looking at you). Maggie Mayhem tells Bliss in Whip It “Be your own hero”. Follow her advice, trust your own instincts…

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