Saturday, November 17, 2007

American Gangster Cop

Late to the party here, but I thought I'd throw this out there: I would've liked American Gangster better had it been titled American Cop.

"I thought this was Denzel's movie! Where the hell did he go?"

Much to my surprise Denzel Washington (an actor I love) bored me as Frank Lucas, drug kingpin extraordinaire, while Russell Crowe kept me in the moment, his performance bristling with drive and conflict. This is a problem since the movie probably shouldn't be about Crowe's cop. Supporting characters like Josh Brolin's crooked Detective Trupo and Ruby Dee's Lucas matriarch are scene stealers but they don't have much competition. In scene after scene Denzel stares vacantly from his handsome movie star face telling me nothing about the character that isn't evident from scene one. It's a letdown after his electric Training Day performance and his lively star turn in last year's Inside Man. The material does insist that this performance be more muted (Frank doesn't like showing off) but did he have to remain so vaguely drawn as a character? You can be restrained and still reveal oodles. The examples are numerous... [name your favorite quiet unhistrionic but potent performance in the comments]

American Gangster is solidly made and easy to watch. But it lacks specificity and spark and a strong point of view. Ridley Scott is always a competent 'man behind the curtain' but he seems as personality-free as Denzel this time. When I exited I noticed that Blade Runner was playing in the very next theater. Now there's the auteur at work.

It's disappointing for a drama lover like me to realize that this is the only adult-oriented dramatic film that's catching on this year. It's #24 overall box office wise for 2007, the only true drama that's in the top 50 of the year (unless you want to count 3:10 to Yuma as a drama rather than as an action or a western --the rest of the year's 50 best performers are comedies, action flicks, thrillers and genre spectacles).

Hovering just outside of the top 50 are the dramas that are seen as mild successes or disappointments (depending on budget): The Brave One, Freedom Writers, Michael Clayton and Zodiac. Why weren't there sell out crowds for Zodiac? That's a superior procedural to Gangster... though it's less traditional in that audience friendly protagonist/antagonist way (never mind I just answered my own question), Michael Clayton has ardent fans but it's not truly "popular". Frustrating. American Gangster could learn a lot from that film. It's willing to dig deep into its conflicted character studies.

This is all a long way of saying that I will be disappointed if Oscar chooses a crime procedural for Best Picture and the title is American Gangster rather than Zodiac. I will be disappointed if Oscar chooses a star driven drama for Best Picture and it's Gangster, not Clayton. I gotta go. So much preparing for disappointment to do and so little time to do it in.


Anonymous said...

What are your top favorites film so far?

I'm currently drowning in the amount of testesterone there is in the movies this year.

I need a break!


my favorites as of one month ago all will be revealed in late December/early January when the FiLM BiTCH AWARDS begin.

theoriginalchrisaugust said...

Seems like lack luster dramas are often the go to when there's not an epic in the mix. Maybe the appearance of Attonement on the scene will quell their desire to settle in the drama area.

Oh, and the favorite quiet, understated performances are Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom) and Gabrielle Rose (The Sweet Hereafter). Both had roles that could have lent themselves to blind rages and tearfests, but both performers resisted to staggering effect.

Alison Flynn said...

I'm with you on American Gangster, Nathaniel. Russell Crowe stood out much more for me in this film. Denzel wasn't bad, but he just wasn't as sizzling as I expected.

And I'm so glad you mention Zodiac. One of the best films of the year and just starting to come back onto people's radar. It deserves a nomination over AG, but I'm not very confident that will happen. Maybe we'll be surprised. I would love to see at least a nod for Mark Ruffalo or Robert Downey Jr in supporting, but the male acting categories are so crowded it probably won't happen.

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

A favourite restrained lead performance of mine is Helen Mirren in The Queen. I know it's cliche, but it wasn't a bad performance at all. As restraint goes, it's at the top, though.

However, a true favourite of mine has to be the two leads in The Remains of the Day; Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. They were beyond great in those roles.

jimmy said...

if anyone lives in the dc area....wants some tix to screening of atonement in early december....i may be getting some. maybe we could do a post-starbucks chat. let me know if you're interested.


brooke -i almost mentioned Mirren in the actual piece. and REMAINS OF THE DAY is a perfect example of what I'm talking about

milo said...

I love your new siggie Nat. 4 beautilf actresses
(Note to Uma : get out of your chateau and ACT MORE OFTEN !!)

Anonymous said...

[name your favorite quiet unhistrionic but potent performance in the comments]

Clint Eastwood in his marvelous and Oscar-worthy Million Dollar Baby turn? They've given the Oscar to Foxx, come on!

Ok, maybe it's just my fanboy side (it's not, Clint deserved that Oscar), but I do love these kind of performances, and my favorite genres (Western, Crime Thrillers) are full of it.

What about a TOP FIVE?

Hors-concours: Al Pacino in The Godfather II

1 - Marlon Brando, One Eyed Jacks
2 - John Wayne, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
3 - Alain Delon, Le Samourai
4 - Charles Bronson, Once Upon a Time in The West
5 - Gene Hackman, The French Connection
6 - Gary Cooper, The Man From The West
7 - Clint Eastwood, The Outlaw Josey Wales
8 - Gregory Peck, The Big Country
9 - William Holden, The Wild Bunch
10 - Arthur Kennedy, The Man From Laramie

Not a thriller or a western, but the best quiet unhistrionic but potent performance is Gregory Peck's turn in To Kill a Mockinbird. NO matter how much I Love O'Toole's work in Lawrence of Arabia (one of my favorite movies), I hate when people see Peck's win as a travesty. It was not! He was the best, and his performance is beyond perfect! Genius.

- cal roth

Anonymous said...

I haven't mentioned a female performance. Let me praise Jodie Foster's knock out in The Silence of The Lambs.

- cal roth

Anonymous said...

That was supposed to be a top five. Whatever...

- cal roth

vinci said...

lack of adult-oriented presence in today's mainstream cinema says two things:
1) adults aren't going to the movies anymore
2) adults don't expect much

Anonymous said...

joan allen the ice storm.

JS said...

Glenn Close in House of the Spirits

Anonymous said...

I disagree violently. Denzel was easily the best thing about American Gangster. For me it's his second best performance (after Malcolm X). I would have been horribly disappointed in Denzel if he just basically did the whole scenery chomping Training Day schtick again. He underplayed brilliantlly, and it's a performance that's going to hold up big time. I saw it twice, and noticed different things Denzel was doing that I missed the first time (sign of a great, nuanced performance, imho). For example, he never said "My man" the same way twice. Some times he used the phrase as a term of endearment, others as an implied threat. But the inflections used by Denzel were always different. When he said with a laugh and a smile to Chiwitel Ejiofor that he wasn't his brother, he'd put a bullet in his head, you can see in Denzel's eyes that he's not really kidding. Denzel does his best acting in this film when he's not talking.

What he did in Training Day was easy by comparison. A lot of gesticulating, growling ect. Yes, it was "electric", but also dangerously close to cartoonish. Denzel doesn't get to coast on his charisma in American Gangster (which he does to an extent in Inside Man and even Training Day). He's basically playing a man who's totally empty on the inside. A guy with no soul, and he does it brilliantly. It's the first time I've seen Denzel play someone completely lacking in empathy. I don't think he loved his wife (she was good trophy material though). I'm not sure he even loved his family. But he tolerated them for image purposes. Denzel played Lucas as a quiet, superfcially sane psychopath, which is more disturbing and harder to play than your more obvious nutters. I thought his Lucas was almost a combination of Deniro's crook in Heat and Pacino's Michael Corleone in Godfather (Part 2).

Crowe was good, but Washington was bloody fascinating. It's the most interesting part and performance he's given in a long time.

Anonymous said...

i holding my hands together and praying that denzel does not get an undeserved nom for this as he was simply miscast,yes i know it is a hit and everything but he was so wrong for this.

Anonymous said...

glenn close the house of the spirits woeful film containing one of la streeps less interesting perfs but glenn wow!!! def a 93 supp nominee from me how about u nat,i love it when folk bring up forgotten gems like this perf.

JS said...

I mention the Glenn Close performance because I do believe her character meets her end because she practiced restraint....... to death. =)

Anonymous said...

I really think you badly missed the point of Denzel's performance. As with a lot of psychopaths, Washington's Frank Lucas doesn't have a real personality behind the facade. When Washington does those seemingly vacant stares, he's revealing an awful lot about Frank Lucas--that there's nothing inside. He's pretty much an empty shell of a man who feels nothing. Frank Lucas, as played by Washington, is an actor. Every move, every smile is calculated. You can see in Washington's performance that absolutely nothing Lucas does is spontaneous. The family man thing is all an act. The flashes of charm and charisma (like when he's trying to pick up Miss Puerto Rico) are all an act.

The very worst thing Denzel could have done was to amp up his considerable charisma to make Frank Lucas into Tony Montana part 2, which he could have done fairly easily. He wanted to show that Frank Lucas is pretty much a hollow sociopath, and I thought he played it beautifully.


I didn't miss the point of it, but i'm happy that others were able to enjoy it more. I know that it had to be muted for the reasons I cited... but even within the smaller register I couldn't find anything of interest. I'm glad it wasn't a Training Day retread... I was only mentioning that in terms of the quality of performance.

Anonymous said...

I am glad you like Zodiac nat, it's easily the top 3 films on my list this year (the two other being Away from Her and Ratatouille). I like American Gangsters, it's well made and well acted, but since i saw the tv series THE WIRE, it's like deja vu. The wire was better written with much more going on. Granted, it's a tv series so it can explore the characters a lot of more (the weak link being Dominic West, who is no competition to Rusell Crowe), but I still find it exhilarating television. People who haven't seen it, please please go rent it today!

Anonymous said...

"I'm Not there" is the best film of the year... Cate Blanchett gives the performance of the year... as well as Michelle Williams, JULIANNE MOORE ... Here is a cast to be seriously considered for the SAG ensemble AWARD..." Considering these words, I will cross my fingers to see Julianne Moore nominated for Best Supporting Actress.


Julianne will never get Oscar nominated for I'm Not There. Neither will anyone but Cate (who gets the showcase part). They won't even come close. Michelle has 3 scenes if I recall correctly (and all of them are entirely about the druggy/celebrity/fabulousness of Blanchett) and Julianne, only plays a talking head role.

that said: the SAG ensemble for acting is super easy to see happening.

Blanchett will be the only acting nominee but Charlotte Gainsborough, Heath Ledger and Christian Bale will have scattered fans here and there for their work.

steve said...

speaking of Julianne... how about her performance in Safe for muted yet powerful?

Anonymous said...

I liked American Gangster (yes, better than Clayton) a lot and I thought Denzel ( I enjoyed it better than his Training Day performance for me Alonzo was kind of over -the-top) was better than Crowe (athough he was fine, he was sometimes bland).Anyway I expect Ruby Dee to be in the running for Supporting Actress.

There are a lot of violent type of movies this year. AG, No Country, Eastern Promises, 3:10 to Yuma etc. Next year there will be an overload of period pieces.

Nathaniel, if there is a contest for Actresses ( next year) maybe you could have people pick 7 and drop two later on.

Anonymous said...

I'm hoping that Cate doesn't win for I'm Not There. I'm just not into her ( I know it's bad, but whatev).

My Predictions for Best Pic

Best Pic

No Country For Old Men
There Will Be Blood

Anonymous said...

You could see Crowe "acting" throughout the whole movie. I don't like watching actors where I can see the gears working. Everything from the inconsistent Jersey accent to the fact that he was blatantly miscast (Crowe as a, okay) made his character almost superfluous. The beaten down, but flawed cop with a heart of gold just seemed so cliche in the hands of Crowe. I'd have preferred an entire movie just about Frank Lucas.

I thought Denzel was pretty "meh" in Training Day, but he was magnificent in American Gangster. I'm actually pleasantly surprised at how well recieved his performance is, because work as subtle as he did tends to go unappreciated. Denzel is usually an expert showboater, and in pretty much every movie, he plays a a character with internal conflicts and a rich, emotional inner life. It's almost become expected of him. He was doing something new here. It was clearly a deliberate choice to play Lucas as someone lacking a real inner life. The character was just a completely frigid individual. Things like self-doubt, and inner turmoil and conscience don't apply to men like Frank Lucas. He had intellect and drive, but no emotional core.

Anyway, I thought he was great in the film. For some, it may take repeated viewings to appreciate the full skill of his performance. When I first watched Heat, I was kinda like "Robert DeNiro is boring in this". I preferred Al Pacino, cause he was much more lively, emotionally obvious, and in my mind, entertaining. Today I recognise that far from being boring Heat is the last piece of genius level acting DeNiro ever did, and Pacino was a big fat ham throught the whole film.

Anonymous said...

The adult drama that eveyone's slept on but shouldn't have is "Gone Baby Gone". That's a great film, and Ben Affleck showed that what he lacks in acting range he can make up for as being a competent director. I loved "American Gangster", so I'd be fine with it making it into BP. I thought that "Michael Clayton" was a tedious bore, so I definitely have my favs and also-rans. I wouldn't mind a bid for "Into the Wild" either, but that one's too far out there for mainstream Academy consumption beyond Hal Holbrook and maybe Sean Penn for directing or screenwriting.

Piper said...


Haven't seen American Gangster but your thoughts on it are what I feared - that it would be without spark. It would be epic but not have any personality.

This might be a renter, unless it shows up at the dollar theater.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of Denzel's at all. Everytime I watch him, I don't feel the chemistry. Everyone else I have ever come across loves him, so I'm pretty sure it's just me. Now if YOU think he's not even good in this movie, then I will be definitely take a pass on seeing it until it comes out on video.

Anonymous said...

"American Gangster"'s a great film. Go see it and judge for yourself before you let a bad review dissuade you from the entire experience.

Tejas said...

Call me optimistic Nat, but I do not think the bitterly disappointing future of an American Gangster win awaits. This movie has traction with the audience and may get more buzz the fantastically brilliant Zodiac. However, there are two words I can say that will stop the disappointment.

Coen Brothers.

Quite simply, No Country for Old Men is a modern masterpiece. It has critical ratings (go check RottenTomatoes, but specifically, go look and see how many critics are giving this 5 star ratings). These individuals make a substantial population of the buzz community. And right now, buzz is great (deservedly so) for No Country.

That being said, Atonement, There Will Be Blood, and Sweeny Todd all have a chance at producing something bigger than No Country. But I doubt it.

Sweeny Todd looks problematic to me on many levels. Musicals of late have not been generating the excitement that one would expect. Maybe that has to do with the realization of these musicals onto film, but I remember that hype was huge for Rent, Dreamgirls, and Hairspray. Nothing really materialized out it. Maybe Sweeny Todd will catch on, but I fear that it will become the Charlie and Chocolate Factory of this year. That is my guess. Early rumors suggest that There Will Be Blood may not have the spark that we all imagined. Being a PT Anderson film, along with a very despicable lead character, might make this film less accessible than we previously thought.

Thus, I believe the battle will come down to Atonement and No Country. Its pretty tough to call that one. Oscar likes directors with a great body of work that return back to their niche. Just look at Scorsese last year. I think the Coens have produced their most mature and lean work, and if there is any justice, this movie will be awarded in March.

Anonymous said...

[i]Maybe that has to do with the realization of these musicals onto film, but I remember that hype was huge for Rent, Dreamgirls, and Hairspray. Nothing really materialized out it.[/i]

"Rent" was just misguided on multiple fronts (Chris Columbus? Ugh.), but "Dreamgirls" still managed 8 Oscar nods and two wins, and not every film can say that despite a best picture nomination. "Hairspray" could still make an Oscar showing this year, and it had great reviews this year for a film of its kind (81 Metacritic, 93 RT, 98 COTC). Who knows what "Sweeney Todd" will be like or how it will be critically/commercially received, but there's no need to knock down other great musicals b/c of skepticism over this new one, which has its own problems to contend with (dark subject matter, untrained vocal leads, mucking up the source material, etc.).

Tejas said...

"no need to knock down other great musicals b/c of skepticism over this new one."

I am not knocking down the quality of the musicals per se, but rather, the public reaction to musicals as of late. Some musicals have been major disappointments (I thought Rent was a waste of time and I was not particularly moved by Dreamgirls, even though it boasted some fine performances). However, the point I am trying to get at is the overwhelming hype generated behind musicals of late, and their relatively muted effect amongst the public. Dreamgirls was an example of the current trend. This is completely my opinion, but I think that the last great musical released was Moulin Rouge. Man, is that going to stir up controversy.


I think Moulin Rouge! is the last "great" one too. But there aren't that many great films period. And Chicago was pretty damn good.

i'm not sure where you've got the notion that the public wasn't into Dreamgirls though? That finished in the year's top 20 films with over 100 million made. Not a flop.

Anonymous said...

There have been great musicals to surface post "Moulin Rouge!, and the "hype" for "Dreamgirls" was fully warranted in my book. Whatever.

Tejas said...

Financially, Dreamgirls was not a flop. Definitely. In fact, it did well to garner the awards it got. However, the buzz (some critics in July calling it a
"lock" for best picture) and the ultimate realization of the picture were unbelievably mismatched.

Again, Dreamgirls didn't do it for me. In fact, musicals are a VERY difficult thing to pull off in film. There is an electricity from the live performance that needs to be captured in the film, and I find that filmmakers who entry this territory have an uphill battle in translation. People will probably disagree with me here, but this is just a personal opinion.

Ian said...

Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story.