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“American Gangster”

“American Gangster” (photo)

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In his heyday, Frank Lucas was making a million dollars a day, selling unusually pure heroin he got factory-direct, as it were, smuggled from Asian opium fields inside the coffins of Vietnam War casualties. That true story, the one that serves as the basis for Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” is amazing. But Scott’s film is not.

Mark Jacobson’s article about Lucas, “The Return of Superfly,” is still available for free online here, and is worth a read if you’re interested in the story and the film. In Jacobson’s piece, Lucas narrates his own life, with all the flair (and, no doubt, exaggeration of facts) you’d expect from an unrepentant hustler. The movie is faithful to the broad strokes of Lucas’ life, but not necessarily to the specifics of his or Jacobson’s story. It leaves out some of the most outlandish (and seemingly most cinematic) details — like an incredible story that implicates Henry Kissinger in Lucas’ drug ring, and another that places the site of one of the most important meetings in Harlem drug history in the lingerie department of Henri Bendel’s on 57th Street. It also adds the story of Richie Roberts, the man who eventually prosecuted Lucas for his crimes but who doesn’t warrant a single mention in Jacobson’s piece.

That’s fine in theory. And it certainly allows “American Gangster” to explore the “cop/criminal” dynamic that has fueled so many good recent cop movies, from Michael Mann’s “Heat” to John Woo’s “Hard Boiled” to Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” as well as David Simon’s television masterpiece, “The Wire.” Lucas and Roberts — who never meet until the end of the film — live on opposite sides of the law with similar sets of problems: both are outcasts, both are loyal to their family and friends above almost everything else, both are underestimated by their superiors, both are discriminated against (Lucas for his skin color, Roberts for his Judaism). To blurry the boundaries between good and bad further, a great deal of time is spent on the men and their respective home lives, and see how a bad person could be a good husband and vice versa.

The problem in execution is that “American Gangster” doesn’t add anything new to the dialogue between the cop and criminal archetypes. It’s not as pensive as “Heat,” not as dynamic as “Hard Boiled,” not as sardonic as “The Departed.” And at almost three hours in length it’s too long and sluggishly paced to work as a thriller, and too short to attain the complexity of a work like “The Wire.” (If you’re going to spend three hours on this movie, you may as well just spend nine more and watch any season of “The Wire” instead). It doesn’t help that this movie was essentially made once before, in period, with a good deal more verve and grit as 1972’s “Across 110th Street.” This underappreciated blaxploitation-era gem shares plenty with “American Gangster” — including its title song — and surpasses it, in the intricacy of the dynamic between the police and the crooks, in the quality and quantity of blistering action sequences, and in the sweaty desperation of the characters. Plus it never tries to pass off the Williamsburg Bridge as somewhere in New Jersey.

All this comparison is a long-winded way of suggesting that there isn’t much else to do while watching “American Gangster” than compare it to other films in its genre. Certainly the acting is good — with Washington and Crowe, even when all else fails you can at least count on that (see “Virtuosity”). But despite having that vivid Jacobson article as a source, Steven Zaillian’s script does little more with the Lucas character than turn him into a Harlem Tony Soprano. Roberts, with his rigid moral code in the workplace and disastrous home life, looks an awful lot like Crowe’s Officer White from “L.A. Confidential.”

Director Ridley Scott always gets a good handle on the style of whatever period he’s recreating in his films, and “American Gangster” is no exception; supporting actor John Hawkes in particular looks like he just stepped out of a time machine from the set of a John Holmes films. But his grasp on the fundamentals of storytelling are a little shakier. Slow and repetitive, “American Gangster” doesn’t provide half the entertainment value of Jacobson’s lengthy article. And it’s a lot cheaper and quicker to just read the article.

“American Gangster” opens November 2nd.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.