MCN Columnists
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

Leave a Reply

Quote Unquotesee all »

“Any time a movie causes a country to threaten nuclear retaliation, the higher-ups wanna get in a room with you… In terms of getting the word out about the movie, it’s not bad. If they actually make good on it, it would be bad for the world—but luckily that doesn’t seem like their style… We’ll make a movie that maybe for two seconds will make some 18-year-old think about North Korea in a way he never would have otherwise. Or who knows? We were told one of the reasons they’re so against the movie is that they’re afraid it’ll actually get into North Korea. They do have bootlegs and stuff. Maybe the tapes will make their way to North Korea and cause a fucking revolution. At best, it will cause a country to be free, and at worst, it will cause a nuclear war. Big margin with this movie.”
~ Seth Rogen In Rolling Stone 1224

“Yes, good movies sprout up, inevitably, in the cracks and seams between the tectonic plates on which all of these franchises stay balanced, and we are reassured of their hardiness. But we don’t see what we don’t see; we don’t see the effort, or the cost of the effort, or the movies of which we’re deprived because of the cost of the effort. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice may have come from a studio, but it still required a substantial chunk of outside financing, and at $35 million, it’s not even that expensive. No studio could find the $8.5 million it cost Dan Gilroy to make Nightcrawler. Birdman cost a mere $18 million and still had to scrape that together at the last minute. Imagine American movie culture for the last few years without Her or Foxcatcher or American Hustle or The Master or Zero Dark Thirty and it suddenly looks markedly more frail—and those movies exist only because of the fairy godmothership of independent producer Megan Ellison. The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.”
~ Mark Harris On The State Of The Movies