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

December 4, 2013

Black Nativity

Langston Hughes, the Horace of Harlem, wrote Black Nativity as a play, and it’s turned into a sort of musical here with decidedly odd results.

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Moody Baltimore teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) faces eviction just before Christmas. His single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) in desperation sends him on a bus to New York City to stay with her estranged parents while she tries to raise $5,000 to save their home. Langston, however, no sooner arrives in NYC than he’s jailed for doing a good deed while black. He’s rescued from sparring with fellow prisoner Tyson (Tyrese Gibson) by the arrival of Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), who is more than a bit aggrieved to meet his grandson for the first time when bailing him out of lock-up. Arriving back to their imposing Harlem brownstone grandmother Aretha (Angela Bassett) is overwhelmed with joy by Langston’s arrival, but he is stunned at the wealth on display. Will he be tempted to appropriate some to bail out his mom?

Black Nativity is a sort of musical because, despite writer/director Kasi Lemmons co-writing a number of original songs, it’s as embarrassed at being a musical as 2002’s Chicago. People burst into song, and nobody notices, or (confusingly) some people notice and join them on backing vocals as everyone else continues about their business oblivious, until in the finale everybody notices – and joins in, like a deleted James Brown scene from The Blues Brothers. It’s hard to know what the intention was, initially it seems to be a hip-hop opera, then it reverts to traditional songs, before abandoning music to become a poor man’s riff on Gilmore Girls as Rory Langston gets to know his well-to-do grandparents and understand their estrangement from his single mother. Will he discover the truth about his father? Hard not to, it’s signposted in flashing neon….

There are some things that work amidst the derivativeness, clichés and confusion. Vondie Curtis-Hall is on fine form as a wise pawnbroker, and Romiti has a good scene as compassionate cop McDaniels. A hallucinatory sequence in which the agnostic Langston imagines the pregnant busking couple Jo-Jo (Luke James) and Maria (the distractingly pretty Grace Gibson) transforming into Joseph and Mary, with Mary J Blige becoming an angel and Nas the street prophet Isaiah is interesting. But still it doesn’t come close to the BBC’s barmy but effective ‘Passion to the sounds of Madchester’ from a few years back. Ultimately Rev. Cobbs, at his celebrated Black Nativity, addressing his Christian flock, yet referring to the Nativity story as happening just before the beginning of the ‘Common Era’ by which he means the Birth of Christ, sums up Black Nativity – wilfully perverse.

Despite Kasi Lemmons assembling a veritable A-list of black acting/music talent for her bold Langston Hughes reinvention, this film about a minister’s family must be reckoned a curate’s egg.

2/5

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