AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Pervasive Drug Content and Language, Nudity and Sexuality

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Steven Zaillian

(based on THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY by Mark Jacobson)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Lymari Nadal, KaDee Strickland, Ted Levine, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Clarence Williams III, T.I., Carla Gugino & Common

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a project that probably sounded brilliant on paper. This gangster epic was helmed by Ridley Scott, based on one of the most notorious African-American crime figures in US history, and sports a cast of A-list talent. The film even got a couple of Academy Award nominations (Art Direction and Supporting Actress) and was in a long production hell (at one point the project was scrapped entirely). Ambition set aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER plays very fast and loose with its fact-based source material. To be fair though, Frank Lucas seems to have embellish certain events on his own. AMERICAN GANGSTER is undeniably well shot and has good production values, but the script isn’t all that interesting and the running time feels long-winded (the director’s cut stretches almost 20 minutes longer too).

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The time is 1968 and the place is Harlem. Driver-turned-drug-dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is doing his best to take over illegal operations left by his recently deceased mob boss. Meanwhile, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) has made the difficult decision of turning in 1 million dollars of mob money, therefore making himself a pariah in the deeply corrupt police precinct. As Roberts engages in a fierce custody battle with his ex-wife, Frank Lucas begins running a hugely successful heroin racket (100% pure and from the jungles of Vietnam). These two men progress through their very different lives until fate sets their paths against one another…with bullets flying and a body count rising.

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I cannot fault AMERICAN GANGSTER on either of the performances from its two leads. As Lucas, Denzel Washington plays the gangster with a quiet dignity. He’s not simply a heartless monster, but also a family man who shares his wealth. However, the film doesn’t exactly glorify him as we see that he can shift from loving husband/caring son to cold-blooded killer in a matter of seconds. On the opposite side of the law is Russell Crowe as the honest cop with questionable morals at home. Even though he’s based on a real-life police officer, the character of Richie Roberts feels familiar and clichéd. We’ve seen this type of cop before in many other crime thrillers. I felt that Roberts was like a slightly toned down version of Popeye from THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

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As far as the supporting cast goes, the remaining big names are wasted in brief cameo-like roles. Ted Levine shows up as a bland fellow officer on Crowe’s special team. Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in the role of a rival drug dealer, while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common fall by the wayside as two of Frank’s forgettable relatives/partners in crime. Idris Elba makes a good impression as a rival gangster, but doesn’t receive much of a role in the grand scheme of things. The only supporting performance that I feel was undeniably strong belongs to Josh Brolin as a greasy-haired corrupt cop who serves as an antagonist towards both Washington’s Lucas and Crowe’s Roberts. It makes me wish that a lot of the other side characters (and family drama) had been excised in order to give Brolin more scenes as a threat to both sides.

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Ridley Scott has proven himself in the past to be a stellar director, even when taking on less-than-stellar projects. The same goes for this disappointment, because AMERICAN GANGSTER looks great and wanted to be a huge gangster blockbuster. Though the film was successful at the box office and definitely has its fans, I felt it was very underwhelming. The script seems like a mishmash of gangster tropes and melodrama. While the gangster tropes are fun to watch (especially in the final 30 minutes), the family melodrama is a dreary slog to sit through. The aspirations to make this into a gangster movie with heart were noble, but the execution feels like a been-there, done-that experience. I watched the theatrical cut and found myself frequently bored when I should have been invested in both Crowe’s cop and Washington’s criminal. Instead, the film feels overly familiar and frequently dull.

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Though AMERICAN GANGSTER definitely has its moments and two strong performances (three, if you count Brolin’s ten minutes as a side character), it ultimately feels like a by-the-numbers disappointment. I am an avid fan of gangster movies and frequently seek them out, but I was constantly bored throughout the nearly three-hour-long running time in this fictional version of Frank Lucas’s story. The movie isn’t necessarily made better by both of its actual counterparts coming out against it as exploiting a real-life story as a melodramatic fluff. Two solid performances, a few good scenes, and solid production values aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER is kind of a snoozefest.

Grade: C

BIG EYES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski

Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Madeleine Arthur & Delaney Raye

Tim Burton seems to have made the same type of movie for the past decade or so. This can be for better (SWEENEY TODD, FRANKENWEENIE) and for worse (CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CORPSE BRIDE). BIG EYES is a refreshing non-Burtony Burton film. Though it’s based on a fascinating true story and was poised as a potential Oscar contender for 2015, BIG EYES went in and out of theaters at blink-and-you-missed-it speed. I was originally planning on covering the film when it was in theaters, but regrettably missed out. Having finally seen it, I am happy to say that BIG EYES is a near perfect delight and one of the most underrated films from last year. It also happens to be the best Tim Burton film since 2007’s SWEENEY TODD.

BIG EYES, Amy Adams, 2014. ph: Leah Gallo/©Weinstein Company

The time is 1958 and Margaret has just left her husband, moving with her daughter to San Franciso in the process. The single mother is a struggling artist who paints furniture by day and sells her artwork (paintings of big eyed children) on the weekends. At one of these art walks, she meets the charming Walter Keane. The two form a relationship. One thing leads to another and soon they’re married. The pair of Keanes display their artwork for sale at a beatnik night club. Through a misunderstanding, Margaret’s portrait of a big-eyed child is mistaken for Walter’s work. He takes credit and begins selling her paintings under his name. Though Margaret is understandably upset, she decides to go along with the lie because Walter has convinced her that nobody would buy “lady’s art” in this oppressive day and age. As years pass by and she watches as her hugely popular art is passed off as someone else’s work, Margaret struggles with the decision to reveal the truth and get out from under Walter’s thumb.

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BIG EYES is based on an interesting true story and remains mostly accurate to the actual events. Some liberties have been taken in a couple of characters, one dramatic scene, and in scrunching the timeline up for a tighter running time. Aside from these elements, almost every plot point (even the most bizarre and unbelievable parts of this story) really happened. In fact, it’s been noted that Burton held back in one particular area: Walter’s insanity. It might initially seem hard to sympathize for someone who allowed themselves to be manipulated in the way that Margaret Keane was, but BIG EYES shows just how easily this whole situation spiraled out of control…much to Walter’s benefit and Margaret’s dismay. This is all driven by a really solid script that manages to tell the entire story in way that feels well paced, wholly entertaining and totally genuine.

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Amy Adams is fantastic as Margaret, adopting a light Southern accent and a timid demeanor that eventually becomes a quiet strength. Christoph Waltz seems to have no problem playing a bad guy (including the mismatched villain in GREEN HORNET, the most evil Nazi in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, and a potential Bond villain in SPECTRE), but he plays a domestic delusional husband in Walter. Waltz exudes a charisma and class that few actors have today. It’s easy to see why Amy Adam’s character (or real person in this case) is attracted to him. We like him to an extent. His abusive attitude doesn’t fully register itself until later in the film, when he becomes all out over-the-top, manipulative, and monstrous…just like the real guy. As far as the supportive cast is concerned, Danny Huston plays a gossip writer, Terence Stamp is an art critic and Jason Schwartzmann is a gallery owner. Of this trio, Stamp is really the only one of any influence as he steals his few scenes and actually contributes to the plot in a big way. Huston is enjoyable in his part, but is also delivers unneeded voice-over narration. He is still utilized far better than Schwartzmann who merely serves as a modernist snob providing fleeting comic relief.

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On technical aspects alone, BIG EYES looks great and sounds even better. Burton-regular Danny Elfman composed the score and did a fine job of it. Though it’s obvious that Burton used CGI and elaborate set dressing, the film feels like it’s a colorful version of the 1950’s and 60’s. In these stylistic choices, the movie feels ever so slightly like a Burton flick (mainly in the bright color scheme), but this is a far more human tale than he usually tells. It’s up there with ED WOOD as his best real-world film!

BIG EYES, l-r: Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, 2014. ph: Leah Gallo/©Weinstein Company

Though it may not have garnered much attention in spite of good reviews and a big name director/cast, BIG EYES is well worth your time. It’s an entertaining, emotional and uniquely stylish take on a remarkable true story. Boasted with top-notch atmosphere and great performances, this is one drama that will hook you from the very start and keep your attention. I highly recommend checking out BIG EYES. If you’re still interested after watching the film, you should also look up the true story and prepare to be surprised by how accurate the film actually is.

Grade: A

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