Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ridley Scott's sore spots

American Gangster promises much from the advertising, highlighting to live-wire Oscar winners in the form of Denzel Washington and Russell crow as, respectively, a powerful Harlem based crime lord and an honest cop heading a narcotics investigation that eventually brings him to trial. Directed by Ridley Scott, this should have been a sure thing, but the lesson behind items bandied as safe bet is that they go sour more often than we wish.
Scott is, at times, a brilliant stylist who can set a mood, get atmosphere and move action and drama along concurrently, as is the case in his masterworks Blade RunnerAlien, The Duelist, Gladiator . The balance between the oddly composed frame, the baroque design and the character driven plots  made for what is now a rare thing in the industry, a well made Hollywood entertainment. He's never met a skewed color scheme or illogical edit he wasn't taken with, a fact that makes more than a few of his movies as if they're in competition with brother Tony Scott. Ridley Scott often gets as agitated and formula-glutted and offers up patented bits of nonsense like the predictable (but stylistically engaging) crime story  Matchstick Men and Kingdom of Heaven, generic equivocations of style employing an excess of trendy edits ,gauche camera filters that came to nothing at all except a noisy journey to forgone plot resolutions. American Gangster is somewhere between these virtues and vices, and it is to be commended that Scott has calmed his camera hand and offered up the wonderfully grit-textured scenery of a Seventies-era New York with a minimum of gratuitous flair.
The plot, though, is something pieced together from a half dozen crime dramas one could name, the most obvious being the face to face meeting between Washington's and Russell's crook and cop characters, where opposing world views are exchanged: the nod to Pacino and DeNiro in Heat is glaring, obvious as a zit. Scott also takes his time developing the story lines of the crime boss and the cop to where they eventually meet and lock horns, in between being the standard troubled marriages, drug addictions, mob hits, all proceeding at a snail's pace. Add to this drawn out build up the fact of Denzel Washington's persistent monotone and we have a collection of tics and quirks passed off as style. Russell Crow again manages to barely hide his Australian drawl and underplays his part as the dutiful and shambling cop, more cipher than character. 
Both characters are more stereotypes for the writers to hang their refurbished clich├ęs on. Still, this seems old, contrived, pieced together by the numbers, and the assurance that this film is based on a true story doesn't mask the feeling of having seen all this before, nor can it make for the lack of dramatic tension. It's a paycheck, not a testament. Slowness is not a sin, of course, but there is the occasional mistake by good directors and their script writers who think slack momentum equals literary acumen, something this film maker obviously coveted. 
Black Hawk Down is a bad film by a good director, Ridley Scott does his best work when there is something of compelling literary interest here, i.e., characters that are written, not merely depicted as they are in Black Hawk. The Duelist, Blade Runner, Alien, and Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, among his best work, achieve a "suspended- disbelief" credibility in as much as image comes to match idea, and directing hand seems to catch some of the musicality of conflict and buried desire that gives off a sense of some larger insanity of desire that is hidden. Black Hawk is a routine war-is-hell yawner that cannot rise above its status as movie-of-the-week fodder. Scott is a fine stylist if he has the literary substance to make his approach more than just gestures and window dressing, as it is here. 
The moral drift of this thing is disturbing, and the feeble little declaration toward the end that the Marine's motivation in a rudderless, under-determined mission is being there for the other guys, your buddies, does not raise the level. I suspect Scott would do stronger, more compelling work if he were adapting a war story that had an implicit argument within it, or at least a consistent point of view that would make the visual displays fire up more than mere weirdness. 
It's intriguing to think what he would have done with Heart of Darkness had Coppola not beat him to it. There remain Michael Herr's brilliant Dispatches, a vivid gonzo journalism read on the Viet Nam war. Viet Nam, though, is pretty much tapped out as a film subject matter. The camera lingers too often in Black Hawk Down, lapsing into slow motion while presumably native music blasts over the speakers, the lens frozen as though dumbfounded, an acid head who discovers his face in the mirror. It’s a bad film that lacks the guts of these idealized Marines convictions. Had Ridley Scott given us something that suits the military culture BHD (the film) pretends to celebrate, something even on the level of John Wayne, we'd have a film with a narrative reason to exist. Scott, though, is a director of strange moods and articulate passion, and his diffidence here is betrayed by unmotivated characterizations --stereotypes , really, card board cut outs --and his frequent lapses’ into fluttering slow motion , accompanied by booming music, with piercing vocals. He loves exotica, and sometimes it works, but not here, when a straight up comprehension of military ethos and genre expectations would have worked much better than this distracted, protracted performance. ______________________________________________
Ridley Scott never directed a film as beautiful or as provocative as film Blade Runner, his adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep much has been said of the film's look, an evocation of Los Angeles in a future time, with smart and stylish renditions of classic film noir style. If nothing else, this film does make fine... See More use of the extremes of light and dark, with a muted , earth toned schema for the matters in between that suggest the competing sediments of rust, dust, soot and chemical pollution, a suitable palette for a thriller set in the future. More than the look, however, is the set of issues the movies manages to cogently engage, from the spiritual ---the rogue androids quest to meet their creator and so extend their lives--to the sociological and philosophical. Immigration, urban densification, the mashing of cultures, the unprincipled introduction of technology into the marketplace. He's directed other noteworthy films ,but none of them have the combination of ideas, tone, or visual allure that made Blade Runner a singular piece of work; the odd thing is that it is that rare instance of when an elegantly designed vehicle contains any number of ideas that are substantial enough for a half-dozen discussion groups and a surfeit of monographs.
 This follows Philip K.Dick's fascination with how populations are willing to relinquish their humanity--the kind of inventive, curious, adventurous humanity that isn't afraid of hard work, using its brain, or risking death in the cause of finding out more of the world. In his novels technology is seen as the means through which the human being becomes less human by having the burden of having to use his Free Will less and less. As the machines take on more of what was exclusively the domain of flesh and blood, the tragedy that befalls those who've chosen convenience and leisure over a grittier essence don't seem tragic at all; it is hard to empathize with the products of pure leisure that haven't a care except for the entertainment of their senses.