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American Gangster (2007)

 The man I worked for had one of the biggest companies in New York City. He didn’t own his own company. White man owned it, so they owned him. Nobody owns me, though.

— Frank Lucas

I have previously watched American Gangster when an aunt loaned me the DVD of the movie. I watched a third of the movie when I stopped, because it was too long for me to pay any attention to it. I knew that the movie was nominated for two Oscars including a Best Supporting Actress nom for Ruby Dee for her five-minute role and for Best Art Direction. Watching the movie against almost made root for the bad guy… almost.

Harlem 1968. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) mourns the death of Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) who was a surrogate father to him. Bumpy was Frank’s teacher for dealing with the gangster life, especially for a black man in those times. Frank wants to take over in Bumpy’s place, but do things a little better. He wants to get the best product, which was cocaine to give to the people of Harlem. He wants to show his dominance with the other gangsters of the neighborhood like Tango (Idris Elba) who treats Frank like a servant and Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who is all talk and no bit.

At the same time, an undercover cop, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) tries to be on the straight and narrow in a sea of corruption in the police department. Richie’s partner, Javier Rivera (John Ortiz) discovered a car that had almost a million dollars in it. John wants to keep some of the money, but Richie wants to do the right thing and turn them all in. he Richie is not the most popular cop in the precinct. He is going to night school to get his law degree and having to pay child support to his ex-wife, Laurie (Carla Cugino).

There is a crooked cop, Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) who confiscated drugs from busts, water them down and sell them back to the bad guys for a profit. He wants to get some hush-hush money from Frank, but Frank doesn’t want to be another police lackey.

Opium and heroin are on the rise during this time and about goes to Bangkok to get the purest heroin that he could find. He finds it and sells it on the street as “Blue Magic” for dirt cheap. With the money from selling the 100 kilos of heroin, he buys a home for his Mama (Ruby Dee) and the rest of his family. Frank decides to expand his business and include his brothers in the process.

Meanwhile, Richie is hand selected to lead a special group of DEA agents to help bring down the drug trafficking ring. their first target is Frank Lucas.

The movie came with the theatrical version and the unrated version. I wanted to see the theatrical version, because it was short. The movie is 2:45 at least. That is a lot of movie about a bad guy selling drugs to his own people. The unrated version would make it three hours. No thanks. I was able to take the movie. there were some good moments in the movie that was bogged down by filler scene that I could do without.

Judgment: It’s interesting to see a movie about a black gangster, but I wish that it was a tighter story.

Rating: 7/10

The Great Debaters (2007)

I am here to help you to find, take back, and keep your righteous mind.

— Melvin B. Tolson

I haven’t seen The Great Debaters since it was in theaters at the end of 2007 when it nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Picture. I went to see it because it had the Oprah stamp of approval on it. It was there. I liked the movie, but then it waned when I heard if this movie was based on any semblance of truth.

Back in 1935, a small Marshall, Texas college named Wiley is home to one of the best debate teams in the state. They want to prove themselves that they could be the best debaters of the entire country. The outspoken Professor Tolson (Denzel Washington) wants to ensemble the best team that he could find to carry out his goal.

Forty-five students auditioned for only four spots on the team. The lucky four are the core debaters; the troublemaker Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), the bookish Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) and the alternates, the fourteen year old prodigy, James Farmer Jr (Denzel Whitaker) and the first female on the team, transfer student, Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett).

The chemistry between the team members is shaky at best when the shy James likes Samantha, but the alpha male, Henry swoops in to get her first. James, Sr. (Forest Whitaker) does not take to kindly of having a girl on the team to distract Junior from keeping his eyes on the prize.

There is something deeper with this story when James Jr follows Professor Tolson one night after a party to find him leading a sharecroppers meeting calling for a union. It is raided by the police and James swears to never speak a word to anyone about it.

The debate team first tries to challenge the top Negro colleges.  After a series of victories, it can open doors for debating the best White colleges going all the way to the grand daddy of them all, Harvard.

The reason that I have hesitation with this movie is because even though this movie is based on true events. Some of the people in the story were made up or an accumulation of several people. The only one that were real are the Farmers and Professor Tolson. The debate team did not challenge Harvard. They went against the University of Southern California and they could not be declared winners, because they were not considered in debate society at the time.

A movie about people debating is nice to see it snippets, but not a whole movie about it.

Judgment: I know that it’s supposed to be inspirational, but something was lost in translation for me.

Rating: 6/10

Training Day (2001)

Believe it or not, I do try to do some good in the community.

— Alonzo Harris

Director Antoine Fuqua made a big splash with Training Day. The movie was largely ignored when it initially came out in theaters, because the quality of movies in the year 2001 was not that good. It got an extra boost when Denzel Washington won the Oscar for Best Actor over perennial frontrunner Russell Crowe. This is a different take on the cop genre, but a good take on it.

As the title suggests, this movie chronicles the day in the life of a rookie cop, Jake (Ethan Hawke) on his first day on the beat. He is nervous about impressing Alonzo (Washington) who might give him leg up in the chain of command.

Jake wants everything that he needs to know about the beat. Alonzo wants to give the noob a reality check about what it’s like to be a real narcotics cop in Los Angeles.

They drive all day in Alonzo’s tricked out black Cadillac. Alonzo’s numerous lessons to Jake are to unlearn what the textbook protocol from the academy. Think with his gut and not with his mind. Not bring his personal life into his job. Have a keen eye on how to handle a shakedown.

The more that Jake gets to know the work ethic of Alonzo, the more he realizes that Alonzo is not a good role model of what it’s like to a narcotics officer. Some of his tactics doesn’t rub Hoyt the right way. If you want to be a good undercover narcotics officer, you have to know what it’s like to be drugs. You have to bends the rules a little bit.

Jake thinks that maybe doing what Alonzo would get him in his good graces, but going against Alonzo might be him killed.

There are two strong performances here from Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke. The movie deals with the duality of what’s right and what’s wrong. Denzel’s Alonzo character is morally reprehensible that you don’t feel any sympathy for him. This is the biggest flaw about the movie.

Judgment: If you want to see Denzel be villain, watch this movie.

Rating: ***1/2

Inside Man (2006)

My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself. I’ve told you my name: that’s the Who. The Where could most readily be described as a prison cell. But there’s a vast difference between being stuck in a tiny cell and being in prison…

— Dalton Russell

Considered Spike Lee’s most critically and commercially successful movie of his career, Inside Man is not your average bank heist movie. I own this movie on DVD for a while, but I never cracked it open and watched it. I have given it to former co-workers to watch, but I never did because it came out of a subscription I had with Columbia House a couple of years ago. Watching it now, I don’t know why I waited this long.

At first, you think that this would be a typical bank robbery, but it’s not. A masterful criminal, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and his crew holds up a Manhattan Trust Bank disguising themselves as painters armed with AK-47s and smoke bombs.

Det. Fraizer, (Denzel Washington), a hostage negotiator that is in some hot water over a drug dealer, check cashing and $100 thousand missing dollars is assigned to the case with his partner, Det. Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor). They rendezvous with Capt. Darius (Willem Dafoe) to let the duo know about what is going on.

The robbers usher to the hostages to the bank vault level to confiscate their keys, cell phones and clothes. The hostages are asked to change into the identical painter coveralls the robbers have on. These are not your ordinary robbers.

With all the news coverage about the robbery spreads to the news, the chairman of the bank, Mr. Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) calls a “fixer” Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to protect special items in his safety deposit box.

They all come together to try to diffuse the situation. There are more layers to the movie when Dalton strings Frazier along like a puppet. He always stays one step ahead of him. It’s a cat and mouse game.

Nothing is what it seems to be when the purpose of the robbers is not about money, but it’s about a person getting their due justice. It’s a morality play that is reminiscent of the legend of Robin Hood.

The performances were solid across the board. The dialogue is quick and biting. The action keeps you on your toes with twists and turns.

The only gripe I have about the film is that the film wrapped up to nice and neat with any loose ends are solved. Nothing is left to the imagination of the audience to think about when the end credits begin.

Judgment: A solid psychological thriller that keeps you on your toes.

Rating: ****

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