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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

American Gangster

Denzel Washington gives one of his increasingly appealing, wise, movie star performances as a successful drug kingpin in the Universal 2-DiscUnrated Special Edition, American Gangster. As Washington’s stardom is sustained, he seems to be drifting away a little bit from acting – from trying to find the real emotional truth in every moment – but what he is doing instead is so crisp and irresistible that it is a great deal more satisfying … like dessert compared to vegetables. He gives a little grin and delivers what might be the most innocuous line imaginable, but he conveys such deft authority with each inflection and gesture that you’re spellbound by his every word and move. Poor Russell Crowe can’t sustain an American accent for a full movie to save his soul, but otherwise he carries the other half of the 2007 Ridley Scottfeature effectively, as a police detective (who later becomes a prosecutor working on the same case) trying to figure out just exactly who the drug kingpin is. The film is based upon a true story and delivers what feels at least like an accurate historical portrait of both the drug business and law enforcement in New York in the Seventies, doing so in a consistently engrossing and entertaining manner. The theatrical film runs 158 minutes and is a fully enjoyable concoction that will endure entirely because of the star power that is carrying it. On the same platter as the theatrical version, Universal has also included an ‘Unrated Extended Version,’ which runs 177 minutes. While the additional story details the longer version supplies are gratifying, the film’s tone shifts at the end, into the ‘white guy redeems the black guy’ cliché, which leaves the theatrical version as the more mature and stimulating cut.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. Scott has the daunting task of setting the film in New York City and New Jersey, but keeping it in period, and he pulls it off enjoyably well. The picture often has a gritty, street look, but that is conceptual and the color transfer is solid. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has some decent surround effects and a strong dimensional presence. There is an alternate French track in 5.1 Dolby and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian are intercut on a commentary track that runs over the theatrical release. Zaillian talks about wrangling the many details of the true story into a workable feature film. Both he and Scott reference the extensive research they did and share the insights they gained from it. Scott’s commentaries are always exemplary. He speaks instructively on various aspects of making the film-he talks quite a bit this time about choosing the music-breaks down the story and the character motivations as he sees them, and analyzes his own creative process, revealing that it has become more intuitive as he has gotten more films under his belt. “What I need as a director, what Russell needs as an actor, what Denzel needs as an actor are all kind of slightly different things. I like frugal, intelligent frugality, because that leaves me room to function because I’ll always stretch with what I do. What I do is not really discussible or describable, because half the time, I’m not sure what I’ll do yet until I actually get there, but once I get there, once I’ve seen all the locations and smelled all the wardrobe and smelled the paint inside the rooms and cast the people, I’ve got the universe in my head. Even as I’m driving in that morning, I’m knowing exactly what I’m going to do. The whole organic structure of the scene will be all laid out in my head, and that’s how it works. Whereas, actors are essentially on their own in relation to whoever they may be in the scene, and they of course, then, have to learn the words, so if the words aren’t learned or the words aren’t absolutely tied down, they ought to adjust them, then that has to come together. The other person is aware they are going to be adjusted. And frequently, a structured film like this doesn’t have time for rehearsal. People are always shocked about how little rehearsal I do. Russell likes to rehearse. Denzel, less. I think they’ve got a sense I’ll always arrive knowing exactly what I want them to do. ‘I’ve thought this, this, this, this, this.’ Silence. ‘Okay, you want to walk it?’ ‘Why not…’ We walk it. I say, ‘You want to shoot it?’ They say, ‘Okay.’ So then now we’re going to shoot it. That’s it. It defies all logic about film schools and acting schools and all that stuff. What it finally comes down to-these two arrive here incredibly experienced. Your experience will give you that probable confidence to push some things this way or that way, or recognize it when it’s happening, and then agree.”

The second platter contains a very good 78-minute production documentary with lots of excellent behind-the-scenes footage (one of the best segments-a look at the dolls that are used to fill an auditorium during a prize fight scene), supplemented by a terrific 25 minutes of additional footage concerning a script meeting, a discussion on how to test heroin purity, and the staging of an action sequence. The real life individuals represented by Russell and Crowe both participated in the film’s production and are given decent coverage in the documentary. There are also 4 minutes of deleted scenes, but they don’t amount to much-one, an alternate opening, would work better as a trailer teaser.

Universal has also released a 3-Disc Collector’s Edition. The first two platters are identical to the 2-Disc release. Accompanied by a glossy booklet containing photos and essays, the third platter features a 5-minute look at the acting and musical contributions of Common and T.I. to the film, a bland 18-minute promotional documentary, a much better 22-minute promotional documentary (Crowe says with amusement that he would have liked to have played Malcolm X), an Anthony Hamilton music video, a Jay-Z music video, a trailer, and the ability to download a copy of the Unrated version for playback on computers and handheld devices.

March 5, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at www.DVDLaser.com

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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

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