Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ridley Scott's Godfather GoodFellas Blow

Academy Award nominee for art decoration and Ruby Dee. Sorry, dear, it was the foreigners' year to win. To start on an intensely personal note, I think I'm getting used to all those hypodermic needles when I go to the doctor. I never thought I would, and I still don't totally like it, or hate looking over and seeing the blood going into it, but that painful puncture of the skin gets easier and easier with each inoculation or blood draw. Except when they miss the damn artery and just jab random muscle. That's not so good. Or when they leave one tiny air bubble in the solution, just to give you a good scare, but I digress. The main thing here is about how we've become a culture of lists. David Letterman paved the way in the beginning of course, with his nightly Top Ten list, but the internet has exploded the need for lists quite ... exponentially? You knew that word was coming, right? Had to.

Not just top 10 lists, of course. Twenty-five is also a popular list number. Cosmopolitan magazine will invariably have the top 25 signs your guy's cheating on you, or the top 100 new positions to try tonight. Why, I remember in the old days when MTV had the Top 300 videos of all time! Really? Only 300? Or the top 1000 places to visit or foods to try before you die, just to add the spice of urgency to your otherwise sedentary, drab, uneventful schedules. Yes, lists ranging in numbers, category and degree of urgency all over the place, because there's a wealth of information out there on the web, but the real money is in collating all this information into easily digested, infotainment form!

Of late, movies have especially fallen victim to this craze of list-ification, for lack of a better (or the proper) word. And in viewing something recently like American Gangster, and being unable to put on the tin foil hat in time to block the giant media conglomerate's auxiliary signal, one can't help but think: where would a movie like American Gangster be in, say, a list of the great gangster pictures of all time? A list to be featured prominently, say, in a magazine such as Film Comment or Details Magazine? Well, of course Godfather would be #1, followed by Godfather 2 at #2. Out of respect, Godfather 3 would have to round out the Top 25, let's call it. That contentious area near the top of the list, of course, is subject to payola. Always has been. It usually depends on what's coming out soon: say, for example, Paramount Pictures is releasing a newly remastered Bugsy Malone on Blu-Ray and Hi-Def. And because it's Bugsy Malone, or something like Mobsters or even, God forbid, Deuces Wild (couldn't even remember the title!) the writer or editor of the list will have to write "What? It's a good movie! Or a childhood favorite, anyway." No, there's no shame or irony, or even science about these things anymore. They're called guilty pleasures now.

But back to the central question here: where does American Gangster belong on this list? Well, short answer, somewhere in the middle. Yes, that obscure middle between Godfather and Bugsy Malone where all good films go to die. But not right away for American Gangster, because it did open at #1, and went on to make more than 100 million dollars at the U.S. box office. Let's see GoodFellas do that today, huh? Was Denzel or Russell Crowe in GoodFellas? I think not. Case closed. These kinds of films are doing better lately, like The Departed, and of course let's not leave out the influence that was HBO's The Sopranos. The movie appetite was primed, the stage was set for an honest-to-God true to life story like American Gangster to come along and, like Donnie Brasco before it, the people in the movie just couldn't believe Brasco was the Blue Magic CEO of ... oh, wait, mixing my movies again.

More importantly, does it eke out a unique place for itself in the gangster genre? Sort of, but doing that is much harder these days. There are nods to Serpico and Blow, and countless others I'm not aware of, I'm sure. Calling it Black Godfather seems unfair somehow. And it's not really like GoodFellas because GoodFellas is more like a documentary in comparison. American Gangster seems to lean more on script conventions. After all, we do start with two seemingly separate plot threads that eventually intertwine: the story of Denzel's rags-to-riches fable of Bumpy Johnson's driver's rise to power, and Russell Crowe's Serpico-esque cop becoming head of a special drug task force. So really, this is Ridley Scott's Amos & Andrew, when you get right down to it!

Now normally I'm still in the throes of '70s fatigue, in the movies and TV shows anyhow. (Hey! Remember that afro you had back in the 70s? Every great TV character goes through this rite of passage now, either as an actual flashback or as a reluctant but well-costumed attendee at a theme party.) Ridley has kidnapped Gus Van Sant's cameraman to provide that washed out 70s look to the film, and you can see where the money went: to meticulous use of period vehicles. CGI or not, it's pretty neat. (Especially in HD!) There are of course the usual discos and bell-bottom fashion here, but we also do get a Vietnam war backdrop, and boldly go where no drug film has gone before: into Apocalypse Now territory! Not to give anything away, but finally, a reason to keep the Vietnam War going! As in The Good Shepherd, a period piece about the CIA's formation in the early 60s, there is a nod to our modern woes in a post 9-11 world, only not as blatant as The Good Shepherd. When Crowe's police work goes so far as to open coffins returning from vietnam, well ... Again, not as obvious as the rendition or waterboarding of The Good Shepherd. That's what I got from it, anyway. Sorry if I ruined the surprise.

The acting is top notch as usual. Kudos to RZA as one of Russell Crowe's Untouchables. However, as my good friend pointed out, Denzel's Frank Lucas seems to have been painted in a better light than the actual man probably was in real life. That's leaving aside the occasional fits of ultra-violence, of course, when he has to kill someone to make a point. And even though Crowe's cop is trying to better himself by becoming a lawyer, it seemed more than a little implausible that they would leave the prosecution of Frank Lucas up to him. But, I'm too tired to read up on that myself. Maybe he really did, I don't know! It just seemed implausible! ...oh yeah. I was expecting something different from Josh Brolin's performance, but I guess he hit the right note. See, this was all before his sudden rise in stardom, so I guess it was just a case of holding his own amongst the Oscar winners. The scene where he pulls over Frank Lucas after his wedding was a good scene. You'll just have to see that one for yourself. Also, there's the dude that plays Russell Crowe's childhood buddy who's now a gangster, and I swear he could be the next earthly reincarnation of Robert De Niro, if that job wasn't already taken.

As I said before, it feels less like a documentary like GoodFellas and more of a Hollywood script, but a good one. Steven Zaillian, who took a critical and audience beating over All the King's Men, is still one of the smartest screenwriters in Hollywood today. One of my favorite lines is given by Russell Crowe's character, that locking up Frank Lucas would be a blow to the law enforcement community, because it would put too many cops out of work! Oh, and Crowe's ex-wife's impassioned 'speech' to him in court: one man's virtue is another man's stubbornness, something to that effect. She did it better.

So where does it go in the list? Well, in the same column as Blow, but above, and the same row as Serpico. Something like that. That's for a more enterprising mind than mine to figure out. ;)

-so sayeth the Movie Hooligan

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