Weekend Movie Reviews: "American Gangster" and "The Kite Runner"

It's a slow weekend, so I'm going to try this again, even though last time I reviewed a film you all flamed me. This time, I think your reaction will be different, because I saw two spectacular films recently; one of them you've probably seen already, the other you haven't, because "The Kite Runner" hasn't yet had its general release.

"The Kite Runner" was the special screening many of us in attendance at BlogWorldExpo got to see the night before the conference opened, at a small theater tucked away behind (but not connected to) the MGM Grand Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

I can't say enough good things about this film. It's a fictionalized history of what happened in Afghanistan from the mid 1970's to the present day, but that's too simplistic a summary. It shows this history through the eyes of two young boys, who become friends even though one of them is the son of privilege, and the other is the son of a man who works for the other's father as a servant. There's more to this relationship between the two boys, and I cannot divulge more without spoiling a lot of the point of the film. Anyway, the title of the film comes from the "kite running" that young boys do as a pastime in pre-Soviet Afghanistan. When the Soviets take over in 1979, the privileged family flees, eventually settling in northern California. Years later, the boy, now a man, marries (outside of his ethnic group, which causes further friction), and for reasons I can't say because it would be another spoiler, feels compelled to return to Afghanistan to see what's become of his country and also to rescue a young boy.

What we see is depressing, as the full force of the Taliban has now come into play (the scene is set not long after the 9/11 attacks). Another connection between the Taliban and the earlier conflicts, involving the man now from California, and someone who was a tormentor -- and involved in a truly disturbing scene involving the two boys -- in the earlier Afghanistan, is revealed.

But that's just the nuts and bolts of the history. Mostly, this is a story about people -- about real human relationships. I hesitate to use the word "heartwarming", because that sounds so sappy, but it truly is.

After the screening we were fortunate to have a Q&A session with the film's lead actor, Khalid Abdalla, who is probably unknown to you unless you saw "United 93", where he played the hijacker Ziad Jarrah. Abdalla's background is fascinating -- he is of Egyptian descent, born in Scotland, but as he told us, his parents "are from Illinois". He told us about how he prepared for the film, learning how to speak Pashtun, immersing himself in the culture of Afghanistan. None of the film was actually shot there, given the dangers that still exist in that country. But Abdalla reminded all of us that the film is, as the official site says, about friendship, hope and redemption. That sounds like a PR agent's line, but you'll find that it's really true.

The director, Marc Forster, has done recent films such as "Finding Neverland", "Monster's Ball", and "Stranger than Fiction" -- nothing that can be typecast, and he isn't here, but this film may gain him an Oscar nomination. It will be released nationwide on December 14. Don't miss it.

You may have already seen American Gangster, but if you haven't, don't miss it either. You probably already know the basics of the story, based on real people: Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a drug lord in 1960's and 1970's New York, based in Harlem, said at the time to be more powerful in drug running than the Mafia. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a small-time New Jersey police detective, who stumbles on what Lucas and his gangs are doing and faces an uphill battle trying to convince his bosses, New York detectives (who at one point tell him that "anytime he crosses that bridge into NYC, for anything, they have to tell them"), and federal authorities that they've got a battle to stop drugrunning that they've never seen before.

What really makes this film isn't the nuts and bolts, it's the performances of Washington (supremely confident, until his own mother shouts him down) and Crowe (quietly confident, knowing he's right, even when staring down a federal prosecutor played chillingly by Roger Bart, better known for comedic roles in "Desperate Housewives" and "The Producers"). They are not only believable, but even though they have two of the most recognizable faces in American acting today, you don't see them, you see the characters they are playing.

Warning to the squeamish: this movie is extremely violent, with several up-close shootings. Nevertheless, those are not gratuitous; they are all germane to the story and to show how ruthless Frank Lucas and his gang were. Richie Roberts, small-time detective, wound up helping to put a pretty big dent in drugrunning in NY and NJ in the 1970's; over 100 people were sent to prison as a result of his work and. Ridley Scott ("Alien", "Blade Runner", "Thelma & Louise", "Gladiator") directed, and he too may have an Oscar nomination headed his way. Don't miss this one, either.

AYRating for both films:

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