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American hate: (l-r) Washington and Brolin in American Gangster.

Old School

By Shawn Stone

American Gangster

Directed by Ridley Scott

 

Minus the gory violence—and, crucially, the racial subtext—Ridley Scott’s American Gangster could have been made in the depths of the Depression. It has no CGI flash. No shaky camera moves. No flash-forwards or flashbacks. Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it’s a traditional epic narrative of two men, one a criminal and one a cop, and each man’s climb up the ladder of success. Which, as they sang about Jesus, is just all right.

That era, you may or may not recall, was the Golden Age of Heroin. Thanks in part to our excellent military misadventures in Southeast Asia, smack hit the big time. It devastated inner-city communities, and took out numerous hippies, suburban dropouts and Vietnam War vets. It was the dawn, also, of the endless War on Drugs.

Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a Harlem gangster. He is underestimated because, one, he’s black, and two, he’s all steely reserve with no flash. Thanks to his tireless efforts, however, the heroin available to the average consumer becomes both higher quality and cheaper. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a New Jersey cop. He is underestimated and loathed because he’s ambitious and, even worse in a thoroughly corrupt police culture, honest. Because he can’t be bribed—and because he is, while a complete dumbass in personal relationships, very smart—Roberts becomes the man capable of taking Lucas down. The movie parallels their successes and mistakes, as Lucas becomes the number-one smack distributor in metro New York and Roberts becomes the head of a newly formed Federal drug task force.

The roles play to each actor’s screen strengths. Washington, the self-absorbed movie star who often relates to others actors as, well, a self-absorbed movie star, plays a man whose depths of pain and anger are revealed only in terrifying (and moving) flashes. Crowe, who usually comes across as half-thug and half-asshole, plays the self- deprecating, unsure “loser” who makes his flaws seem charming, and sticks to business enough to become a winner. One couldn’t imagine better casting in the leads.

The supporting cast is just as good, using familiar faces in expected roles: Ruby Dee as a devoted mom; Ted Levine as a grizzled cop; Cuba Gooding Jr. as a flashy gangster; Armand Assante as a mob boss; and Josh Brolin as a dirty cop. It’s a traditional Hollywood kind of shorthand that works well here.

The screenplay by Steven Zaillian is panoramic. It captures the paradox of a successful, racially proud black capitalist triumphing over the Italian gangsters and white cops who hate him, while at the same time destroying a swath of his own community. It reminds us that, left unmonitored and unchecked, cops can be worse than the criminals they’re supposed to catch. And there are none-too-subtle political references, to American military imperialism and the narco-law-enforcement industrial complex, that keep American Gangster from being just a popcorn flick.

And yet, the film succeeds as entertainment because Scott directs American Gangster as if it were just a popcorn flick, giving no more weight to politics than he does to Roberts’ sex life or Lucas’ devoted family—or to the bloody scenes of pure violence. Sometimes, less is more.

New York Buzz

Bee Movie

Directed by Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner

You’d have to have been living under a rock if you haven’t heard in some form the dire news of late regarding the disappearance of bees and the resulting implications for the planet. Then again, you could be excused, somewhat, if you filed it away in that section of your brain reserved for really bad things to worry about. Later. After the kids are in bed, or I finish this report. So I half expected Jerry Seinfeld’s animated feature Bee Movie to be along the lines of Happy Feet, in the sense of drumming into our heads the fact that the world is simmering with global warming. All Hollywood animated films, it seems, have to be rife with messages like “Love yourself” and “Follow your dreams.” Of course, it helps that, without exception, the protagonists of these go from being misunderstood and mocked into highly successful, often rich, winners, for whom self-love and affirmation are given as an obvious birthright.

Thankfully, Seinfeld, who cowrote the screenplay with Spike Feresten, Barry Marder and Andy Robin, lets both the personal and environmental lessons play out on their own, preferring instead to focus on character development and comic situations. Much like Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate (which the movie shrewdly spoofs), Barry (Seinfeld) isn’t sure he wants to follow in the paths of millions of years of bees before him, by working a particular job until death. Intrigued by the “jockeys” who leave the hive to pollinate the world and return with nectar, he accepts a dare to join them, despite the fact that he hasn’t been bred for this purpose. Once out in a glorious Central Park, with its beautiful flowers and vast expanse of green lawns, Barry’s hooked. And when he encounters the sweet florist Vanessa (Renée Zellweger), his fate is sealed. Vanessa has a boorish boyfriend, Ken (Patrick Warburton), a thriving business and, lucky for Barry, the ability to hear him speak. The movie deftly sidesteps the idea of a bee-human romance, even though Ken is driven crazy with jealousy as Vanessa helps Barry launch a court case against the honey industry for stealing the product of his, er, people’s hard work.

It sounds crazy, what with Ray Liotta appearing as himself, defending his manufactured honey, and Sting getting arrested for co-opting a bee moniker. The animation is nothing spectacular, and at times the preponderance of yellows and pinks remind me, queasily, of a Play-Doh meltdown. But what works, really well, is the emphasis on the shtick. Bee Movie comes across like an apian episode of Seinfeld, with its Upper West Side humor, and fast, witty banter. Particularly funny are bits by Chris Rock, as a mosquito who calls his compatriots “bloods,” Matthew Broderick, who plays Barry’s best friend Adam, a very nerdy, nervous type, and Larry King as Bee Larry King. And watch for a hysterical bit involving the takedown of one Winnie the Pooh, honey thief. At its heart, Bee Movie is a boisterous and vivid evocation of all we love best about New York and its inhabitants—the wisecracking, seen-it-all, blasé bluster looks a lot better in this production than the real thing often does.

—Laura Leon


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