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

July 13, 2013

Too Cool for Film School

There’s a certain attitude towards cinema which drives me to despair, which I’ve previously dubbed ‘too cool for film school’…

HIPSTER SKETCH

This peculiar mindset is one that would rather watch an obscure bad movie ironically than spend that same 2 hours watching a universally lauded good movie. So, instead of sitting down to watch Southern Comfort you’d instead waste your life suffering thru Streets of Fire. Instead of enjoying Scorsese at his best with Goodfellas you’d be tortured by Scorsese at his worst with New York, New York, supposedly so that you could spend your time laughing at its awfulness (except that it’s too awful to even sneer at, you just sigh; depressed and confused). Preferring to watch an obscure bad movie ironically than a universally lauded good movie I find inexplicable. It’s the same impulse that would en masse see a faculty meeting to decide a Victorian literature course begin with “We can all agree, no Dickens”, and a cheer.

Is it a hipster mindset? This is The End has a wonderful barb when Emma Watson accuses Jay Baruchel of being a hipster by asking him if he loathes films that are universally beloved. And that is certainly part of the thinking that prevailed when the Screen cinema in 2010 did a season of 1980s action movies, and left out Die Hard. Now Die Hard was an obvious choice, but that’s because it’s so obviously better than every other action film from that decade; especially Red Dawn, which was screened, presumably because it’s so bad it can be watched with impeccable irony. We seem to have reached belatedly in the cinema the position literature reached years ago where to be popular is in fact a mark against a work in critical esteem, unless it’s a critical intervention elevating low culture.

It’s a mindset of two halves. What is important is that, having eschewed what is popular, the people who are too cool for film school reveal their superiority of taste to the easily pleased and shallowly-informed rabble by unveiling an alternative which few people have either heard of and which may be offbeat or just plain awful. What’s truly terrifying is that it really doesn’t matter whether the film is either offbeat or just plain awful – the difference between good and bad, garbage and quality has been erased; it just needs to be something that few people have either heard of in order to get the kudos of really knowing your movies. It seems the advent of Netflix, and its padding of its catalogue with terrible old films they were able to scoop up, is only encouraging this viewing mindset.

Hollywood Babylon, Dublin’s Midnight Movie Film Club, is tonight once again hosting a Saturday night screening at 10:45pm at the Lighthouse cinema focusing on 1984. Their schedule is somewhat baffling. There’s good movies to be sure; Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom (September 14th), The Terminator (October 19th); but there are also questionable choices; Dune (August 17th), Revenge of the Nerds (July 13th); and then there’s the plain ghastly picks – Purple Rain, Streets of Fire (October 19th). What exactly is the purpose of choosing Purple Rain or Streets of Fire? Or even Dune or Revenge of the Nerds? There are better films from 1984… For a fun Saturday night why not pick Ghostbusters or Gremlins? For something more offbeat why not pick Luc Besson’s freewheeling debut Subway? Is it impossible to have fun without being ironic?

I’m not saying that if we want to watch movies from 1984 that we have to watch The Killing Fields, The Natural, and 1984 and nod our heads respectfully before turning to Broadway Danny Rose for some relief. I’m just saying we should exhaust the good movies that we all know are out there first before we all start scrabbling around to find justifiably forgotten bad movies to watch ironically.

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