Tuesday, 27 November 2007

American Gangster

The late 90's brought us cockney gangster movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch - the works of Guy Ritchie. Later on he married Madonna, poor thing, and his good friend Matthew Vaughn introduced Daniel Craig to a wider audience with the stylish thriller, Layer Cake. After a while, though, everyone got fed up with mockney accents and Vinnie Jones pretending to be an actor, so it's no surprise that English director Ridley Scott decided to make an American Gangster movie.

He recruited a couple of Hollywood heavyweights by the names of Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington, who between them have several Academy Awards. This film might just win them a few more, as they play-off against each other in the roles of gang-chief Frank Lucas (Washington) and maverick cop Richie Roberts (Crowe). This film is surely a potential nominee for the Academy to consider.

American Gangster is a film primarily about drugs. The 18 certificate it received is unsurprising given the frequent references to heroin addicton, in a movie that is based on a true story. It also examines the success achieved by Frank Lucas as a result of selling drugs, as well as mirroring a strict structure of rules normally used by the Italian Mafia. The corruption that is rife within the police force plays a telling factor in both the lives of Lucas and Roberts, as they seek avoid the greedy hands of the corrupted.

Frank Lucas creates his Italian Mafia family structure within the confines of the Harlem projects, a housing scheme introduced to America that is commonly referred to as the ghetto. His success is dependant on importing drugs via the army during the Vietnam War, but also on Huey Lucas, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who holds his trust as his right-hand man. Lucas himself, who is only focused and determined on building his empire, doesn't use the drugs that fund his success.

Roberts is charged with the task of tracking Lucas down, but is hindered by the corruption and mistrust that is drowning the legal system. Cash embezzling and drug taking tempt even his own partner, leaving Roberts with only himself to rely on. During these difficult times Roberts' ex-wife is also fighting for custody of his son, causing him even more stress while he battles to bring Lucas down.

The performances of Crowe, and particularly Washington, are superb. Crowe settles into the role of a 70's New York cop with ease. Stereotyping of his Hawaiian shirt-wearing character was abundant, including making his methods unorthodox, but giving him a heart of gold and making sure he gets results! Washington, however, had a more difficult task of portraying such a successful protagonist in a bad light. The way Lucas dresses, the way he lives, even the fact he takes his mother to church every Sunday makes him a very likeable character. The director, Ridley Scott, includes sequences of drug taking that prove Lucas to be a bad apple, supported by Washington's display of a man who will stop at nothing to make money.

Both leading men have their own battles to fight during the film and rarely have anything to do with each other until the end, ultimately coming together to form a thrilling finish. The performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor should be merited, as he becomes more accomplished as a Hollywood actor. His British accent wasn't to be heard as he achieved an American drawl without flaw. I was on the edge of my seat to see if he would break into a good old cockney sing-a-long and it would be a Guy Ritchie gangster flick all over again. Fortunately he stayed with the film title, which proved to be an eye-opening representation of an American Gangster.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Johnny Depp

In the glitz and glamour of Hollywood it takes a strong character to stand out in the crowd. Johnny Depp has made a habit throughout his career of picking the parts of colourful personalities, when perhaps it would've been easier and even more beneficial to choose a simpler role. However, the dedication shown to his selections has been fruitful for Johnny, who now has the pick of the roles he has always sought. He has proved himself to be a strong character.

His turns as infamous eccentrics like Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), were relatively well received by mainstream cinema audiences. Both films were directed by Tim Burton, who will collaborate with Depp once more for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, due for release next year. Helena Bonham Carter, another regular of Burton's movies, will be included in a cast featuring Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen and Alan Rickman.

Any feverous anticipation that previously awaited the latest Burton/Depp movie was strictly reserved to a cult following in the past. Those who wore ninety percent black attire, lived in their attics and dabbled with witchcraft would be awaiting the next instalment from the duo. It was in 2003 that something happened forcing them to rethink the attic and move onto a boat instead. That something was Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Curse of the Black Pearl would be the first of a trilogy of pirate movies starring Johnny Depp as the mischievous Jack Sparrow. It would also launch Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley into the Hollywood atmosphere, while making Depp's star shine brighter than ever before. He had gone beyond bland mainstream compliments and distinguished himself as a unique movie icon, comparable to the stars that littered Hollywood in the days of the silver screen.

When his next film is released he will receive the focus of a far wider audience than he had previously, having acquired new fans from the success of Pirates of the Caribbean. Whether they are prepared for his portrayal of a homicidal barber or not remains to be seen, frankly I'm not sure if I'm ready for that. The family viewing appeal of Pirates of the Caribbean has created a following of young teenage fans, which might be too young for his other rumoured project, Sin City 2. The previous incarnation of the graphic novel, by Frank Miller, featured sex, guns and lots of bloody violence.

With his profile raised to new heights it will be interesting to see if Depp's performances still embody the bizarre characteristics of the oddball personalities he plays. All eyes will be on Sweeney Todd, which if convincing may see a sudden rise in hair growth. It could be a case of avoiding the barbershop or risk ending up in a particularly meaty pie.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

The Dark Knight

It isn't due until summer 2008 but I'm too excited to avoid talking about it. Christopher Nolan's reinvention of the dwindling Batman franchise began in 2006 with, funnily enough, Batman Begins. So, now it has started it must continue, and The Dark Knight will return to do battle with the Joker next year. A teaser trailer is already available featuring some cockney mutterings from Michael Caine.

Heath Ledger (above) has been given the difficult task of making the role of the Joker his own, bringing the flamboyant figure to the screen for a new generation of audiences. Ledger's predecessor, Jack Nicholson, left an enduring mark on the character's image, etching his mischievous grin into the memory of those who watched the Tim Burton films of the 90's. Changes have been made to the batmobile for the sequel, along with replacements made to the cast following Katie Holmes' withdrawal from the project, prompting Nolan to recruit Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Friday, 9 November 2007


When Hollywood thrust their latest terrorist-laden drama onto the big-screen last week, my eyes didn't exactly light up with joyous anticipation. A frequent barrage of films in recent years featuring a square-jawed hero named Bruce, waving the stars and stripes while saving the world, has left me somewhat cynical about the prospect of a new Middle-Eastern terrorist movie.

Rendition is a political thriller that centres on Isabella El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon), the American wife of Egyptian-born chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), who disappears on a flight from South Africa to Washington. Isabella desperately tries to track her husband down, while a CIA analyst at a secret detention facility outside the U.S. is forced to question his assignment, as he becomes party to the man's unorthodox interrogation.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the character Douglas Freeman, the CIA analyst who gets thrust into the world of interrogation following the death of a colleague. He answers to the hard-nosed CIA chief Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), who is quick to crush any queries that Freeman has about the legal evidence, or lack of it, that supports Anwar El-Ibrahimi's arrest. With a cameo from Academy-Award winner Alan Arkin adding to the heavyweight cast it appears to be the earliest bid for an Oscar this season.

The standard of performances and the complexity of the plot make it a strong contender. Meryl Streep was always bound to produce the goods, but Jake Gyllenhaal's transition from wacky teen star to Hollywood leading man was evident in his execution of this role. Reese Witherspoon (above), star of the Legally Blonde movies, was convincing as Isabella El-Ibrahimi, who deals with the difficulties of pregnancy whilst trying to track down her missing husband and father of her son.

I had expected a few annoying things to occur during the film. Firstly, Reese Witherspoon's gargantuan chin often clouds an entire film, and I sometimes find it hard to think of anything but the protruding feature. Secondly, I waited for Captain America to save the western world, but he must have had prior engagements, as the film actually painted a pretty poor picture of the American government's dealings in the Middle-East. Thirdly, the obvious and predictable plot I expected did not materialize, and the twist in the tail of the movie was as exciting as it was unforeseen.

Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhaal could not take full responsiblity for the film's success. In fact, not even Reese Witherspoon's chin could steal the limelight from the real star. The bravery shown by director Gavin Hood must be commended, as it's considered dangerous territory to cast America in a less than dazzling light in Hollywood. He managed to mix a complex plot with the terrorist fears that currently dominate the western world, as well as addressing the issue of possible unlawful interrogation processes associated with the American government.