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

TRUMBO (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language including some Sexual References

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Directed by: Jay Roach

Written by: John McNamara

(based on the book DALTON TRUMBO by Bruce Alexander Cook)

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Stephen Root & Roger Bart

Though Hollywood has produced thousands of on-screen stories, filmmaking also produces a number of interesting tales that take place within the studio system itself. If you want evidence of this, just watch a few celebrity interviews and behind-the-scenes documentaries. Hollywood is not without its dark side though and its ugliest moment probably came in the blacklisting of cast and crew members during the Red Scare. Though many hard-working people (not just in Hollywood) lost their jobs, homes, families and lives based purely on their political beliefs during the Red Scare, some managed to persevere and make it out in one piece. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was very much the latter and this biopic tackles his fascinating story.

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With a successful filmography under his belt and a promising future still ahead of him (a three-year contract promises to make him the highest paid writer in Hollywood), Dalton Trumbo is a talented man with a typewriter. He also happens to be vocal in his political beliefs (he’s a Communist) and this has led to scrutiny from his co-workers. When the FBI comes knocking and Trumbo is summoned to testify before Congress about alleged propaganda, he finds himself blacklisted, out of work, and facing potential prison time. Doing all he can in the face of seemingly impossible odds, Dalton takes to the black market of penning screenplays under different names and working on cheap B-movie crap to keep his family afloat. As years pass, we see the complex workings of one interesting man’s story play out on the screen.

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If any nominations come to TRUMBO this awards season, they will most likely be for Bryan Cranston’s performance. For someone who’s played one of the most memorable characters in television history, Cranston becomes Trumbo with a take-no-prisoners attitude and matter-of-fact way of speaking. The movie doesn’t idolize the screenwriter either in showing that he has definite faults, especially regarding tensions with his family as he furiously types out “black market” screenplays. Trumbo was no hero. He was a merely a man caught in insanely unfair situations that still seem disturbingly relevant in America today. Cranston owns the part and delivers a stunning performance.

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On the supporting side of things, TRUMBO boasts many different characters, some of whom only pop up for a couple of scenes. It goes to show just how well written and terrifically performed this story is that I never once had a single problem remembering who was who. The flow of the film feels natural and even. Diane Lane is a sympathetic as Trumbo’s strained wife, while Elle Fanning has never been better as Trumbo’s teenage daughter. Helen Mirren is positively hateable as Hedda Hopper (the human equivalent of TMZ during the 40’s and 50’s). Meanwhile, John Goodman is perfect as a studio exec who uses Trumbo’s services. Hands down, Goodman also has the funniest scene of the entire running time (you’ll know it when you see it). Other memorable performances that I can’t fully elaborate on for lack of space include Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Stephen Root, and Roger Bart.

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TRUMBO isn’t without a couple of problems though. Louis C.K. sticks out like a sore thumb in that his character (though essential to the story) doesn’t meld well with the tone of the film. Also, Dean O’Gorman looks remarkably like Kirk Douglas, but David James Elliot only sounds like John Wayne and doesn’t bear much resemblance to the iconic actor. The movie can also get a little too melodramatic during a couple of moments. However, these sappy scenes don’t detract from the rest of the stellar qualities surrounding them.

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I’d rank TRUMBO next to 2012’s HITCHCOCK. Both are recent movies (from the 2010s) that take a look back at studio politics and life within the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. Though this film definitely examines a harsher and more frustrating tale. TRUMBO is a flat-out terrific story about a fascinating man during a horrible time. The film doesn’t get too bogged down in being a political statement either, but rather examines how someone succeeded through severe persecution. Though it has a couple of shortcomings (Louis C.K.’s performance and slight melodrama), TRUMBO comes highly recommended for those who might be interested in this sort of thing.

Grade: B+

THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Strong Bloody Gruesome Violence, Grisly Images involving Nudity, Sexual Content and Language

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Directed by: Ryuhei Kitamura

Written by: Jeff Buhler

(based on the short story THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN by Clive Barker)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, Roger Bart, Ted Raimi, Vinnie Jones & Tony Curran

THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN has a special place in my movie watching past. I was in my sophomore year of high school and an avid horror fan who would read/watch anything that sounded remotely scary. I frequently visited a certain website that gave me insight into the world of horror filmmaking from the studio perspective and press announcements. In November 2006, it was announced that a film adaptation of Clive Barker’s MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN was officially underway. Months later, official casting information surfaced as well as a teaser poster. Over a year later, we had a trailer and this looked like an awesome masterpiece of terror. It was also touted as the first in a long line of BOOK OF BLOOD stories to be adapted onto film. As it turns out, only two followed (2009’s BOOK OF BLOOD and 2010’s DREAD). Most of this could be attributed to Lionsgate’s and Joe Drake’s piss-poor treatment of MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN upon release. Despite mountains of hype in the horror community and strong word-of-mouth coming out of festival screenings, the film was shuffled around through numerous release dates before ultimately winding up in 100 discount theaters. This is truly a shame, because MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN is a stellar nightmare of a horror film and stands out as the best Clive Barker movie to date.

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Leon is a photographer who has grown sick of taking grisly accident photos to sell to local newspapers. In an effort to expand his career, he meets with a reputable art contractor who advises him to capture the darker side of the city. So on that advice, Leon ventures into the subway where he captures a couple of great/dangerous photos. However, it turns out that one of these photos might be a clue to a possible murder. Leon soon finds himself on the trail of a mysterious butcher, Mahogany, who doubles as a serial killer on the late-night subway train. From thereon out, a deadly cat-and-mouse game erupts between Leon and Mahogany as blood is shed, bodies pile up and a mystery reveals horrifying secrets that lie under the city streets.

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I’m hesitant to say too much about MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, because part of the enjoyment directly comes from the unexpected twists that this story takes along the way. Rest assured, the plot is dark and disturbing. This is a grim friggin’ ride that doesn’t let up on the tension or brooding atmosphere the whole way through. Those looking for fun slasher fare had better look elsewhere, because MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN isn’t your typical gorefest. It’s also not a predictable serial killer thriller as well. The final third takes some really insane turns that might throw the viewer for the loop (in a good way). It simply isn’t anything that you expect. Though the conclusion is explained a bit better in the source material, I really love this adaptation of Barker’s work. It’s faithful to the short story while also offering enough original material to fill a feature-length run time.

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Before he starred in drunken comedies, voiced a space raccoon, and was nominated for Best Actor, Bradley Cooper played the lead in this grisly horror film. As Leon, Cooper is a compelling protagonist who slowly changes due to the trauma being seen in various horrifying scenarios. Even when he makes questionable choices, there’s always a concrete motivation behind Leon’s actions, making him an unusually well-developed horror character. Leslie Bibb makes a strong impression as Leon’s girlfriend and plays a bigger role in the second half of the film. Brooke Shields shows up for three scenes as an art critic and it’s up in the air as to why she’s even in this film, though she does steal her scenes. Roger Bart is enjoyable as Leon’s best friend and also has a bigger part in the second half. Without a doubt, the best character of the film is Mahogany. Played by Vinnie Jones, this mute (he only has one word of dialogue in the entire screenplay), intimidating killer is a fierce force to be reckoned with. Jones expresses so much through body language and facial expressions, far more than most dialogue-heavy cinematic killers. The scenes between him and Bradley Cooper are something to behold.

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MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN is a beautifully shot film. The visuals capture a grimy atmosphere with a polished look. The entire film reeks of dread and impending doom. The title itself suggests that this movie will get messy and oh boy, it does! Lionsgate actually submitted this film to the MPAA numerous times before it walked away with an R rating. Even still, only two minutes of gore were removed from the every-bit-as-brutal theatrical cut. Rest assured, MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN has some of the most insane kill scenes in horror movie history and I don’t say that lightly. Each death is stylized in a way that makes the scene as beautifully and carefully constructed as it is gruesome and gory. If there are any flaws to be found in this film (aside from an ending that was pulled off marginally better on the page), they come in a few seconds of spotty CGI. Even still, the creative use of this CGI is still bound to satisfy gore hounds. We get severed limbs, body parts, a couple of crazy fight scenes, and gallons upon gallons of blood.

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In my opinion, THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN is one of Clive Barker’s best short stories and translates into near-perfection on the screen. Usually, short stories being turned into feature-length films tend to drag or stretch out unneeded details, but TRAIN has an unusually clever script. I loved MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN when it first came out and still love it to this day. I saw it three times at my local theater, caught it a few times on FearNet, all before buying the DVD on its release day. Without a doubt in my mind, I am calling MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN the best Clive Barker adaptation in existence!

Grade: A+

LAST VEGAS (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexual Content and Language

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Directed by: Jon Turteltaub

Written by: Dan Fogelman

Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline & Mary Steenburgen

It’s not often that you see very many films celebrating getting older and wiser to the extent that LAST VEGAS does. These messages mainly pop up in coming-of-age stories with relatively young protagonists. There have been exceptions in recent years starring well-worn cinematic veterans in dramedy roles. THE BUCKET LIST is an obvious example of this, but 2013 had two of these films in nationwide release. One of which made a giant splash at the box office and another of which was sort of a flop. The bomb was GRUDGE MATCH and the splash was this film: LAST VEGAS. I was tempted to cover LAST VEGAS upon its original release, but never got around to it. So almost a year later, I’m watching and critiquing this story of four old folks trying to live it up in Last Vegas…only to find that it’s a so-so film.

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Billy, Paddy, Archie and Sam have been friends since their childhood together in Brooklyn. 58 years have passed since those happy times and these men are quickly reaching their final years of life. After Billy gets engaged to a young thirty-something woman, the trio of old fogies throw him a bachelor party in the best place for such occasions: Las Vegas! They’re old guys trying to live it up in a strange new world where many things have changed. As you might imagine, hijinks ensue and the old guys come to terms with their age in different ways.

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LAST VEGAS is fun in moments, but also tries to have a sentimental edge (especially in the all too predictable conclusion) that doesn’t work very well. If this movie didn’t star these four legendary actors, than it would probably be a downright terrible movie. It’s a film that does get tired and repetitive, developing a flimsy story on the one-note joke that these four old guys are trying to live it up in Las Vegas (which is crowded by plenty of young people, drinking, partying, and sex). The fun of the story hinges completely on the cast, all of whom are fun to watch. Plenty of comparisons have been drawn to this being an old folks’ version of THE HANGOVER and that’s a pretty accurate dead-on description. The humor (though definitely with some PG-13 content) keeps things very safe, which makes sense given that a majority of the target-audience for this movie would be disgusted by the heavy R-rated HANGOVER jokes.

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What little plot makes up LAST VEGAS is very predictable. Each character has their own story-arch and these are interesting to various degrees. Robert De Niro’s thread is actually the least enjoyable, but he’s the best actor here. Everyone can predict where things are eventually heading in regards to Morgan Freeman’s relationship with his worrisome son, the possibility that Michael Douglas is forcing his marriage to a far younger woman, and Kevin Kline’s quest to have superb sex with someone other than his wife. Notice I didn’t use any of the character’s names in that last paragraph. This is because nearly everyone will just see these actors as not so much playing characters but really hamming it up for the cameras. The plot is less of an actual interesting story and more of an excuse for these guys to hang out. It’s almost the Adam Sandler effect with his godawful GROWN UPS movies, but this one keeps more dignity intact.

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At the end of the day, LAST VEGAS is harmless and may delight the older crowd who can relate better to these characters than I can at the moment. I’m far from the point in my life of being as old as these folks, so I can’t honestly say that this movie was aimed towards me to begin with. There are a couple of funny moments and everything is kept light-hearted. It’s a fluffy experience that really has no lasting impact, but doesn’t necessarily do anything all-out bad either. The best part of this movie was seeing De Niro, Douglas, Freeman, and Kline together, even if it’s in a middle-of-the-road effort.

Grade: C

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