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'American Gangster': An American Critique

The expansive new mob drama American Gangster stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Fresh Air's film critic says it's a whopping overdose of perverse '70s nostalgia, a panoramic portrait of a nation disintegrating from moral rot.

But the charismatic real-life monster who inspired the film — a druglord who exults in his scams and brags about his murders — has become so controlled, and domesticated, that even with Washington's star power, he doesn't carry the movie. Crowe, credible as an obsessed detective, helps somewhat. But ultimately the movie feels like Scarface drained of blood, at arm's length from the culture that spawned it.



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Other segments from the episode on November 2, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 2, 2007: Interview with Kevin Costner; Review of DVD releases of the television shows "Twin Peaks," "Seinfeld," and "My So-Called Life"; Interview with Brad Bird…


DATE November 2, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Actor/director Kevin Costner on his new film "Mr.
Brooks" and his career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

My guest Kevin Costner has been one of the most recognized faces in Hollywood
for 20 years. Emerging as a leading man from films like "No Way Out," "The
Untouchables" and "Bull Durham," then directing and starring in "Dances with
Wolves," which won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best
Director. Among his other films are "Field of Dreams," "JFK," "Waterworld,"
"Tin Cup," "Thirteen Days" and "The Upside of Anger."

Costner's most recent film, "Mr. Brooks," is now out on DVD. I spoke to
Kevin Costner in May, when "Mr. Brooks" was first released. In it, Costner's
role is a dark one. He plays Earl Brooks, a successful business owner and
family man who has a secret life as a serial killer. The film is about his
struggle with an addiction to the thrill of murder, and he frequently argues
with his evil alter-ego Marshall, played by William Hurt. In this scene, Mr.
Brooks is at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where he doesn't reveal the
nature of his addiction, and he's challenged by his dark side, Marshall.

(Soundbite of "Mr. Brooks")

Mr. KEVIN COSTNER: (As Earl Brooks) Hi, my name's Earl. And I'm an addict.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Actor: (In character) Anyone else?

Mr. WILLIAM HURT: (As Marshall) If you were honest, you'd step up there and
say, `Hi, I'm Earl, I killed two people last night. I really got off on it,
but I need your help to be cured.'

Mr. COSTNER: (As Earl Brooks) I'm different, Marshall, I won't argue that
with you. This is the only place that has ever helped me be normal, and I
have been straight up until last night. For the past two years. I'm not
going to kill again. And I am not going to quit coming here because it upsets

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Well, Kevin Costner, welcome to FRESH AIR.

How did you figure out how to play a serial killer? And, as you say in this
case, one who's a very empathetic character in parts of his life?

Mr. COSTNER: Yeah, it almost does a disservice to start off with "serial
killer," because immediately you're just going to eliminate a certain part of
the audience, probably including me, that says, `Gee, I just don't want to go
see a movie about that. Sorry, I like you very much, but thanks but no
thanks.' I don't like serial killer movies. I don't like finding myself in a
room with blood on the walls or, you know, too much silence. I don't like
scary movies. You know, I don't like the haunted house situations. They
genuinely, I guess, scare me. Hate to admit that since I play a lot of

But in terms of how I played it, I obviously had all the research at the tip
of my fingers. Unfortunately, that's the condition of our society that we
have these people all around us now, and there's probably not a channel, not
an hour in the day that you can't find some channel devoted to this horrific
situation that we see played out almost daily and weekly.

DAVIES: One of the things that William Hurt said in the production notes was
that that interplay between you and he reminded him of mirror exercises. What
does he mean?

Mr. COSTNER: Well, you know, one of the things that I think we both really
loved is, you know, we've had these careers where now we're kind of known
around the world and among our own colleagues, but I think sometimes it's so
fond to look back at your journey and how, before anyone knew you, you know,
you look fondly back at class and the exercises that you performed and how
you, you know, mimic each other. And there's 100 games you play as an actor,
and I think those that love acting the most love all the games. And William
is talking about exercises that one does in mimicking each other and voice
quality and kind of value-for-value acting, whether it's voice or a physical

DAVIES: So that's what--you're not standing in front of a mirror, you're
standing in front of another actor and mimicking each other?

Mr. COSTNER: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you're--and again, we're playing the same
guy. It just, it forced us to go into our bag of tricks.

DAVIES: I want to talk a little bit about your, you know, career. You grew
up in California. From what I gather, a more or less normal existence, to the
extent anybody has one, played sports in high school, and, I wonder, what was
the impulse that pushed you into performing, into acting?

Mr. COSTNER: Well, I really--yeah, I was born in Compton, lived for seven,
eight years, and then kind of moved around a lot, went to four different high
schools. But I just--I really had a very normal childhood. I mean, we
weren't poor, but we weren't rich. It was only when I started seeing other
people's backyard that I understand that we didn't have some of that stuff.
But it was a childhood I wouldn't have traded. My upbringing was incredibly
conservative, but has served me well. There are moments when I had to break
out of that, and clearly the choice to become an actor was one of those. I
needed to kind of get out of this maze of, you know, what was a young man
supposed to do? You're supposed to go to college, go to business, get a job,
work and--but something inherently in me was a voice that was coming out
saying, `Man, you've got to find out, really, what you need to be about.' I
mean--and when I started to contemplate acting, because I always knew that I
was performance-oriented, the voice kept coming back, `Yeah, you're just
trying to postpone going out there into the real world and working.' You know,
I mean...

DAVIES: Are we talking about college, or after college, or...

Mr. COSTNER: We're talking about during college.

DAVIES: Uh-huh.

Mr. COSTNER: Because I could tell that I was not equipped. I mean, I know
what a good student is. I think probably one of my strengths, if I have any,
is the recognition of who is kind of good at what they do. And I've never
been intimidated by, you know, knowing that I wasn't the guy. I was just
encouraged knowing that the guy we needed in the right spot was in the room,
or we better go find him because we don't have the right guy. And if I would
assess myself, I was not an academic. So I wasn't going to do well in school,
and I could see that.

And when I finally did stumble onto acting late at night one night in an
accounting class, where I was on the left side of the bell curve, all the way
to the end, I just, I read about a play in the student newspaper,
"Rumplestiltskin." And if I had a tail, it would've started wagging. I
immediately started to get interested. `Oh, I mean, tomorrow at 12:00, I can
go in for an audition somewhere?' I was clearly excited about 12:00 the next
day and had no interest in what was happening at that very moment with a
professor who was talking about accounting. But I was excited about that
possibility, and I just decided to chase that. And I obviously didn't get the

But from there I realized that they were providing classes one night a week.
So I started to go one night a week, and one night a week turned into five
nights a week. And I found it.

DAVIES: You know, there's a story--sometimes these get mangled in the


DAVIES: ...that an encounter with Richard Burton...

Mr. COSTNER: Right.

DAVIES: ...drove you to acting seriously. Is that right?

Mr. COSTNER: No, it didn't--it was a significant moment, make no mistake; I
think that's why it's lived a little bit in the consciousness of people. I
did see him on a plane, and it was right around the time when I was
thinking--I was already taking these classes, and I was thinking, `Do I want
to do this?' And I desperately wanted to talk to him, and he had bought all
the seats around him on the plane so that no one could talk to him. And,
clearly, everybody was watching him, and I was watching him. But at one
moment, I just felt so compelled to go up to him. And his reaction could have
been 100 different things to me, but it was incredibly generous. I think he
was reading Gore Vidal's "Lincoln" at that moment, and he said, `Well, yes,
I--you know, I will answer a question when I'm done reading,' or something
like that. So I literally watched him for the next hour, and when he finally
put the book down, I thought it was my moment, and then he leaned his seat
back and went to sleep. And I thought, `Hm. He's forgotten about me.' And he
took a little cat nap, and in about 15 minutes he kind of woke up and looked
back at me, and he kind of waved me up.

And what we talked about was very sweet. And I asked him a couple questions,
which to this day I wish that we could have circled back to each other to talk
about, but it was significant, but how important, I don't know. I just saw
him, and I--it just--I thought, `This is what I want to do.'

DAVIES: Well, you got into acting, and I know that Lawrence Kasdan cast you
for a role in "The Big Chill."

Mr. COSTNER: Yeah.

DAVIES: Which is the answer to a trivia question. You're the guy at the
beginning of the movie who's the cadaver who's being dressed for the funeral.

Mr. COSTNER: Right. What's that worth now on Trivial Pursuits? Is it 50
points or what?

DAVIES: And then you're in "Silverado," that great, sweeping Western that he

Mr. COSTNER: Right. Right.

DAVIES: And you had a string of really successful films early. I mean "No
Way Out," where you played the Navy ensign, and "The Untouchables."

Mr. COSTNER: Right.

DAVIES: And then kind of that enduring favorite "Bull Durham." You know, this
is taking you back 20 years now, I know, but those of us who still love and
admire that movie just continue to quote it at ball games and all. Does it
hold a special place in your heart, too?

Mr. COSTNER: Well, it does. I--"Field of Dreams," "Bull Durham," those
movies--and for that matter "For Love of the Game." Those three particular
movies are, I guess, represent my franchise. They're my sequels, I guess.
But they just, you know...

DAVIES: The Costner baseball collection. Yeah.

Mr. COSTNER: Yeah, I guess they are, you know. They're really stand-alone
movies, and the architecture of my career has been the stand-alone movie, for
the most part, and those movies were absolutely individual, yet, you know,
circle the same subject.

DAVIES: Let's hear a clip from "Bull Durham." This is--you, of course, play
"Crash" Davis, who is a...

Mr. COSTNER: Right.

DAVIES: ...veteran catcher with almost enough talent to make the big leagues,
but basically has spent a career in the minor leagues. And in this film, he's
at the Durham Bulls and his job is to groom a young pitching talent.

Mr. COSTNER: Right.

DAVIES: "Nuke" LaLoosh, and you dispense advice.

Mr. COSTNER: Right.

DAVIES: This is late in the film, where Nuke has finally gotten called up to
the big leagues. You're kind of feeling down about your own career, but you
sit and give him a last piece of advice. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of "Bull Durham")

Mr. COSTNER: (As Crash Davis) Look, Nuke, these big league hitters are going
to light you up like a pinball machine for a while, right? Don't worry about
it. You be cocky and arrogant, even when you're getting beat. It's the
secret. You got to play this game with fear and arrogance.

Mr. TIM ROBBINS: (As Nuke LaLoosh) Fear and ignorance?

Mr. COSTNER: (As Crash Davis) No, fear and arrogance. All right, you
hayseed, not ignorance?

Mr. ROBBINS: (As Nuke LaLoosh) I know, I know. I just like seeing you get
all worked up.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's Tim Robbins and my guest Kevin Costner, from the classic
"Bull Durham."

You know, I just--it's one of my favorite films, and you seem to just
perfectly embody the swagger of a ballplayer. Where did that come from? Did
you have a history with baseball before that?

Mr. COSTNER: Yeah, I played it early in my life, and it's really a game that
I always felt like I understood and played it in the street, played it on an
organized level. I mean, a lot of people dream about being able to play
professional baseball, and you could put me in that same category. And I've
been able to now play it. I've been able to pitch a perfect game in Yankee
Stadium with Vince Scully announcing it, so it's a, you know...

DAVIES: Right, that was the film "For the Love of the Game."

Mr. COSTNER: Yeah. It's been a really good ride, where that's been

DAVIES: Kevin Costner. His film "Mr Brooks" is now out on DVD. We'll hear
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: My guest is actor Kevin Costner. His most recent film "Mr. Brooks"
is now out on DVD.

Well, we should talk about "Dances with Wolves," which just looms large in
your career. And this was a Michael Blake novel adapted for the screen, and I
read that--now, this was, you directed this film, and of course won the Oscar
for Best Director. It also won Best Picture and five other awards that year.
But I read that you actually envisioned someone else directing it, right?

Mr. COSTNER: I did. I initially asked two very prominent directors--I won't
name them--and both of them saw flaws in the script. I don't think they saw
them as--they might have saw them as flaws in the script, but they--I think
they recognized the conventions of modern-day filmmaking, and the first one
identified that he felt that maybe the Civil War sequence--because I told them
that the movie was long. And as they looked at it, they immediately thought
that maybe we didn't need the opening Civil War sequence that took up about 15
or 20 minutes where, you know, it establishes kind of who he was. And, you
know, you could see that that was a natural cut in the film, but I thought,
`No, I don't want to do that.'

And then the other one suggested that maybe the Mary McDonnell character
should be, you know, a Native American woman, that her being a white captive
was maybe a bit cliche. And I thought, `No.' I mean, I can understand why
they might think that, but if you know anything about the American frontier,
white captives was a way of life. It was a way of commerce. It just is what
happened when you had this migratory march across this continent without any
kind of military being around. A lot of people think of it in a sense about
Indians, about movie, about Native Americans, and I take--I'm happy that they
think that, but it really was a white man's story who ventured in.

DAVIES: Well, let's hear a cut from "Dances with Wolves." This is a moment
well into the film where you, as Lieutenant Dunbar, have settled with this
Lakota-Sioux tribe. And they are going off to fight a war. You wanted to be
involved, but Kicking Bird, who was one of the men that you come to deal with,
has said, no, you should stay behind. And this scene is translated through
the Mary McDonnell character, whose name is Stands with Fist, I think.


DAVIES: So let's listen to this cut from "Dances with Wolves."

(Soundbite of "Dances with Wolves")

Mr. GRAHAM GREENE: (As Kicking Bird) (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. MARY MACDONALD: (As Stands with Fist) He also asks that you watch over
his family while he is gone. This thing he asks is a great honor for you.

Mr. COSTNER: (As Lieutenant Dunbar) Tell him that I would be happy to watch
over his family.

Ms. MACDONALD: (As Stands with Fist) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. GREENE: (As Kicking Bird) (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. MACDONALD: (As Stands with Fist) He thanks Dances with Wolves for

Mr. COSTNER: (As Lt. Dunbar) Who is Dances with Wolves?

Ms. MACDONALD: (As Stands with Fist) It is the name which all the people are
calling you now.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's from "Dances with Wolves," directed by our guest Kevin

One of the things that was interesting about this film was that so much of the
film is actually in subtitles with the Indian characters speaking the
Lakota-Sioux language.

Mr. COSTNER: Right. Right.

DAVIES: And I imagine that might not have been so easy for a studio to
digest. Talk a little bit about how you decided to use the Lakota language
and, you know, mechanically. I mean, not that many people speak it.

Mr. COSTNER: Right. Well, as we took the movie around, it was passed on.
You know, we did the whole circuit through town, and it was passed on. I was
on my second lap and literally at the last studio, and the comment that came
back was, `Kev, we really--we understand what you're talking about. We
understand that you want to make this movie long, but the thing that is
bothering us is the subtitles. We're just not sure that it's going to fly.' I
thought, `You know, it's so funny, because I think that what's makes the movie
is the sense of humor, the sense of a kind of a--what really caused so much
conflict on the frontier was our inability to communicate.' And that was kind
of the pivot point for me on this movie, that these people who desperately
should be talking to each other, want to talk to each other, couldn't. And
the simple language allowed fear and everything to slide in.

So I looked at everybody in the meeting, I go, `You know, it has to--no, the
subtitles have to be there.' And at that point, they really couldn't make the
movie. And I decided to throw a last chip into the pot, if you will, and I
said, `By the way, I also want to have final cut on it.' I remember, as I left
the room, my partner, as we shut the door, he pulled me right against the
wall, just literally, you know, just outside the door and goes, `What was that
about?' I said, `What was what about?' He says, `The final cut. What was that
about. Why did you have to throw that in?' And I said, `Well, Jimmy, you
know, it just dawned on me that if people don't understand completely about
how the movie is, how can we also put somebody in the position of cutting this
movie?' It was kind of a bold move, but it kind of, almost like becoming an
actor, a lot of things just became clear.

DAVIES: If you're just joining me, my guest is actor Kevin Costner. His new
film is "Mr. Brooks."

The stories about Kevin Costner's career always talk about, you know, there
was the enormous success with "Dances with Wolves," and then there's what's
called the slump, you know, "Waterworld," most expensive film ever made at
that time, you know, mixed reviews. And then "Postman," not so good reviews.
Do you look--how do you look at that period? I mean, do you see it as a

Mr. COSTNER: Well, I, you know, I think if you look at things
empirically--well, if you want to look at things empirically and talk about
money, then "Waterworld" certainly paid for itself multiple times. It's very
difficult to get anybody to write that. But that was a very financially
successful movie, and a movie that's kind of loved around the world. People
are almost ashamed to say, I get it all the time. `Hey, Kev, by the way, I
liked "Waterworld."'

DAVIES: Uh-huh.

Mr. COSTNER: It's flawed, as are all movies that I've been a part of, and it
has its flaws, but I understand kind of what you're asking. I've just always
kind of put my stock in an individual movie. And I just, I go forward. I
like "The Postman," but I can't, you know, sit and try to convince someone
else to like it. I like it, that's why I did it. And I don't like turning my
back on my work, but I certainly should allow other people their opinion about

DAVIES: You recently directed and starred in "Open Range," a Western with
Robert Duvall. I mean, this is, you know, you've done Westerns, a fair
amount, over your career. I'm thinking back to "Silverado"...

Mr. COSTNER: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...which was, you know, you were very young and a different kind of

Mr. COSTNER: Right.

DAVIES: What do you love about the genre?

Mr. COSTNER: I think it's our Shakespeare, you know. And I think they're,
number one, very difficult to make. They're not easy. They're a lot more
sophisticated than just `Yep' and `Nope.' And yeah, there's the black hat and
the white hat, but how you get to those is if you actually really try to
understand the time, that people were having to live by their wits back then.
It's not Frontier Land like in Disneyland. It's, you know, sometimes the West
has become mythical. But it was a very real place 150 years ago where people
were living and dying based on decisions, based on going left and right. And
I think, when you treat the Western that way, you have a chance to make, you
know, a movie that can relate to a contemporary audience. But you don't have
to kowtow to them by trying to make everything modern. If you just exist in
the moment, you--that's why I say it's Shakespeare--you will begin to

I don't completely understand Shakespeare, but when I see it performed
beautifully, I suddenly, 10 minutes in, begin to understand everything that's
said, every nuance that's there. And the West is the same thing. I think you
find the Victorian language that was going on there, the simplicity of what
one man would say to another when he wanted him to get his message. And
pretty soon, you don't have to be just an American to understand that what he
said was really serious.

DAVIES: Well, Kevin Costner, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Announcer: Support for NPR...

Mr. COSTNER: Well, thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Kevin Costner plays a family man with a secret life as a serial
killer in the film "Mr. Brooks," which is now out on DVD. I'm Dave Davies
and this is FRESH AIR.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: David Bianculli on released box sets of "Twin Peaks,"
"Seinfeld" and "My So-Called Life"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.

Three giant box sets of complete TV series have just been released or are
about to be released on DVD. Our TV critic David Bianculli says each of the
three is wonderful, and each captures a different time in the history of
network television. The three shows: "Twin Peaks," "My So-Called Life" and
"Seinfeld." Here's his review.

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: Each of these shows came at a very different moment in
time. "Twin Peaks," by David Lynch and Mark Frost, was one of the most
imaginative and unusual TV series ever made when it premiered on ABC in 1990.
Seventeen years later, it still is. Its images, music and ideas seem just as
fresh. "Twin Peaks" was a true water cooler show, with everybody talking
about it the next day and obsessing about its `Who killed Laura Palmer?'
murder mystery.

"My So-Called Life," which lasted for only one season in 1994, starred Claire
Danes as a typical teenager, but the series was brilliant in the way it
depicted her character and her world. The series didn't last because ABC
didn't care enough then about attracting young female viewers. Although these
days, when such shows as "The OC" and "Gossip Girl" are aimed squarely at
them, "My So-Called Life" would be a gold mine, a platinum mine if you figure
in how much it would have exploded on the Internet.

And finally you have "Seinfeld," in all likelihood the last great hugely
popular situation comedy. Even if someone figures out how to make as good and
bold a comedy as that again, and to make it last for nine full seasons,
nothing will come close to approaching "Seinfeld" in terms of the audience it
drew. On television, those times are over.

But if you buy these box sets, you can relive those times again. And make no
mistake, before I discuss the various bonus materials of each set, I should
stress that watching the shows themselves is reward enough. But what's new?
On "Twin Peaks: The Definite Edition," released this week by CBS and
Paramount, a lot. First of all, you get the original movie-length pilot and
both seasons, which previously had to be bought separately. Then the bonus
material comes in, including long lost deleted scenes, some new documentaries
and other features and goodies. The deleted scenes are interesting, but there
are only four of them and they're not the ones you'd probably hope to have.
Three different death scenes featuring three different killers were shot by
David Lynch in the episode where Sheryl Lee's Madeleine Ferguson was murdered.
We don't see those, but we do see an extra scene involving the purchase of

Yet the "Twin Peaks" set includes new `making of' documentaries that are like
catnip for fans of the show. There's even a bonus short in which Lynch meets
some of the cast members to reminisce over coffee and pie. This is where
Madchen Amick, who played Shelly the waitress, tells Lynch she had been an
actress in Los Angeles only a year when he hired her for "Twin Peaks."

(Soundbite of "Twin Peaks" bonus short)

Ms. MADCHEN AMICK: I had a few good acting jobs that seemed to be coming
into place, and one of them was the "Baywatch" pilot.

Mr. DAVID LYNCH: Uh-huh.

Ms. AMICK: Which I was actually filming when I met you. But so, during that
process of that year....

Mr. LYNCH: Now that, tell us about "Baywatch." What is that?

Ms. AMICK: "Baywatch" was a delightful show for many years...

Unidentified Man: It's an exercise video.

Ms. AMICK: ...that featured a lot of people in--with beautiful bodies in
bathing suits and lifeguards saving people at the beach.

Mr. LYNCH: I got you.

Ms. AMICK: And, you know.

Mr. LYNCH: It's just a beach show.

Ms. AMICK: It's a beach show.

Mr. LYNCH: Uh-huh.

Ms. AMICK: But...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: I love that. Only David Lynch would have to be told what
kind of TV show "Baywatch" was.

The cast of "Seinfeld" gets together, too, with series co-creator Larry David
to waltz down memory lane. But this brand new bonus special is a bigger
affair, featuring lots of clips, lots of laughs, and even a very funny
introduction by Jerry Seinfeld.

(Soundbite of "Seinfeld" bonus special)

Mr. JERRY SEINFELD: Nine years! Jesus, Mary and Joseph, that's a long time
to do a sitcom, my friends. That is how long "Seinfeld" ran on NBC. That's
also how long it has been since the show's cast and crew went our separate
ways. Unfortunately, over the past few years, "Seinfeld" has become something
of a forgotten relic. Believe it or not, there are parts of the United States
where the show can only be seen four times a day.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: "Seinfeld: The Complete Series," comes out next week from
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. It's got a staggeringly hefty price, more
than $275 retail. But it's beautifully packaged and even comes with a
specially made coffee table book episode guide. Break it down to about 30
bucks a season and it almost sounds like a bargain.

Finally, there's "My So-Called Life." This series was released once before,
years ago, but this new edition from Shout! Factory coming out this week is
loaded with features that themselves are loaded with new insights. Claire
Danes, for example, was one of two young New York actresses looked at for the
central role. The other? Alicia Silverstone, who starred in "Clueless"
instead. Series creator, Winnie Holzman, and executive producers Ed Zwick and
Marshall Herskovitz went with Danes, even though she was only 15, which meant
she couldn't work more than five hours a day. And that meant the show had to
be written to pay attention to the full ensemble, including the parents, and
that's what made it so special. That and it's universality. Here's a snippet
from one of the documentaries, with a taste of Claire Danes' voiceover
narration from the pilot, followed by Herskovitz talking about the characters'
and the show's appeal.

(Soundbite of "My So-Called Life" documentary)

Ms. CLAIRE DANES: (As Angela Chase) I cannot bring myself to eat a
well-balanced meal in front of my mother. It just means too much to her.

Mr. MARSHALL HERSKOVITZ: We always felt that this show would appeal to
everyone. We felt because everyone either wants to be a teenager, is a
teenager or was a teenager, and those years are so powerful and evocative, you
know, nobody forgets what they were like in high school.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: "My So-Called Life" never caught on. "Twin Peaks" started
strong but faded fast. "Seinfeld" started slowly but built into a monster
hit. All three of them are unique triumphs in their respective genres, and
now all three are getting the full DVD treatment they deserve.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.

Coming up, Brad Bird and Patton Oswalt of the film "Ratatouille." This is

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Writer and director Brad Bird and comedian Patton
Oswalt discuss film "Ratatouille"

The animated film "Ratatouille" is out on DVD Tuesday. My guests are Brad
Bird, the writer and director, and comedian Patton Oswalt, who does the voice
of the main character, Remy. Remy is a rat whose exquisite sense of smell and
taste make him yearn to be a chef. Bird wrote and directed the animated film
"The Incredibles." Patton Oswalt co-starred in "The King of Queens" and
organized the comedy tour "The Comedians of Comedy." Terry spoke to Brad Bird
and Patton Oswalt in June, when "Ratatouille" was first in theaters.

Here's a scene from "Ratatouille," with Oswalt as the rat Remy. Remy is
talking to the ghost of the late celebrated chef and restaurant owner Gusteau
in the rafters of Gusteau's old restaurant. They're looking down into the
kitchen, where the porter has accidentally knocked the soup pot from the stove
and is desperately trying to recreate the soup, throwing everything in sight
into the pot. Gusteau speaks first.

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRAD GARRETT: (As Gusteau) Now, who is that?

Mr. PATTON OSWALT: (As Remy) Oh, him? He's nobody.

Mr. GARRETT: (As Gusteau) Not nobody. He is part of the kitchen.

Mr. OSWALT: (As Remy) He's a plongeur or something. He washes dishes or
takes out the garbage. He doesn't cook.

Mr. GARRETT: (As Gusteau) But he could.

Mr. OSWALT: (As Remy) Uh, no.

Mr. GARRETT: (As Gusteau) How do you know? What do I always say? Anyone
can cook.

Mr. OSWALT: (As Remy) Well, yeah, anyone can. That doesn't mean that anyone

Mr. GARRETT: (As Gusteau) Well, that is not stopping him. See?

Mr. OSWALT: (As Remy) No! No! No, this is terrible! He's ruining the soup
and nobody's noticing. It's your restaurant. Do something!

Mr. GARRETT: (As Gusteau) What can I do? I am a figment of your

Mr. OSWALT: (As Remy) But he's ruining the soup! We've got to tell someone.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of something falling with a clunk)

(End of soundbite)


Patton, what was your reaction when you got the call saying, `You're perfect
to play a rat'?

Mr. PATTON OSWALT: I think my reaction was more--I wasn't even concentrating
on, `Oh, I'm going to be a rat,' was that I had gotten a call from Pixar and
it was a Pixar movie being directed by Brad Bird, because I'm such a Pixar fan
from back in the day. I mean, the short films "Luxo Jr." and "Red's Dream," I
would see them at animation festivals, and then I watched all the Pixar films.

Mr. BRAD BIRD: You're a nerd, Pat.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh yeah, I'm a huge Pixar nerd, so it's like asking, you know, a
guy--it's like asking some weird "Star Trek" shut-in, `Hey, would you like to
play Kirk's son?' `Excuse me? What? Oh, all right, you know.' You can't
even--I couldn't even get my mind around that I was doing this. Luckily, it
was a two-year process of doing the voice, so I've been able to get my footing
at this point. You know, if it had been quicker, I would be the worst guy to
promote this movie...

GROSS: Brad...

Mr. OSWALT: ...because it would just be me going, `I can't believe I met
Brad Bird and we talked and we had sandwiches. OK, so this is weird.' It
would be so pathetic, you wouldn't want to talk to me right now.

GROSS: Brad Bird, did you cast Patton Oswalt? And what made you think that
his voice would be perfect for the main rat?

Mr. BIRD: Well, actually, you know, he was talking. I heard this comedy
routine he did, "Black Angus," about Black Angus, and he was so volatile about
food and so passionate and funny about it, you know, it just struck me,
`That's the character.' You know? He's so volatile, but in a good way. I
mean, you know, Patton has very strong opinions about anything and he'll let
you know, and when he loves something, he `loooves' it, and when he hates
something, he `haaates' it. And that kind of extreme emotion is perfect for
Remy, you know.

GROSS: Patton, can you do a little bit of the Black Angus bit that Brad Bird
heard you do?

Mr. OSWALT: Yes, it is very early in LA. I'll try to do it with the same
energy that he heard it. But basically it's about how the commercials for the
Black Angus restaurant--and Black Angus used to be a very friendly restaurant,
where, `Come in and have a steak and have a baked potato. It'll be a good
time.' And you go, `That sounds fine.' And then over the past few years, the
commercials have turned into this like gauntlet of threatening food where it
doesn't even look pleasant any more. And there's this--it sounds like an
initiation rite.

`Now at Black Angus we'll start you off with an appetizer platter featuring
five jumbo deep fried gulf shrimp, served with a side of our butter and cheese
cream soup and 15 of our potato bacon bombs and a big bowl of pork cracklins,
with our cheesy butter sauce.'

Mr. BIRD: And what the hell? A couple of corn dogs.

Mr. OSWALT: Exactly! And you're like, you know, `We're each going to split

`No! You'll each get your own! Then we'll take you to our mile-long soup and
salad bar with our he-man five head of iceberg lettuce salad served in a
canoe, with 18 pounds of ranch dressing, and what the heck, four

I'm like, `Oh man, you know what? I just--how about I'll just get a little
mixed green salad?

`Hey, I'll put on a dress and curtsy before I bring you a mixed green, buddy.'

`Uh, why are you yelling at me?'

And it just keeps--it just never ends. Yeah.

GROSS: Brad Bird, why did that make you think of the refined rat in your

Mr. BIRD: You know, I don't know. I think it was the passion that I was
responding to more than anything else. The fact that he could get so wound up
about the food, you know. Because, you know, Patton also talked about how he
just loves steak, you know? And...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD: The weird thing is that I didn't really grok that Patton was a
foodie. That was just one of many routines that...

Mr. OSWALT: Did you just say grok? You just said...

Mr. BIRD: Grok. Yeah. that's a Steve Jobs word, by the way.

Mr. OSWALT: You called me a nerd and you said grok?

GROSS: It precedes...

Mr. BIRD: Hey, that's a Steve Jobs word...

GROSS: It precedes Steve Jobs, doesn't it?

Mr. BIRD: ...and I learned it from Steve Jobs.

GROSS: Isn't that from like Vonnegut or something? Is it...

Mr. OSWALT: I think it's Heinlein.

Mr. BIRD: I don't know. Steve used it and..

GROSS: No, oh, it's Heinlein. Robert Heinlein. Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, I just nerded out again!

Mr. BIRD: You outnerded me, yes.

Mr. OSWALT: Like, `Excuse me, Terry. No, it's Heinlein, not Vonnegut.
Excuse me, no, you're wrong.'

Mr. BIRD: Oh yeah. Isn't that Lovecraft? Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: Grok.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah. No, I actually heard that from Steve Jobs. So, yeah, OK.
So Steve uses that word.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, OK, good.

Mr. BIRD: But I didn't know that he was a foodie. We actually hired him and
he was working before I knew that he was--this is like a major thing for
Patton. If he goes to any town, he scouts out what is the most happening
restaurant in that town...

Mr. OSWALT: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BIRD: ...and he will send you a menu. I mean, he will e-mail you...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD: ...the menu from a great restaurant, and he's e-mailed me a few.
And he'll like say...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD: ...`Order this!'

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, yeah.

Mr. BIRD: And, you know, I mean, he's a major foodie, and that's perfect.

GROSS: Now, you know, the movie kind of is really enamored of wonderful food,
but it also satirizes very pretentious food and pretentious people who are

Mr. BIRD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So in your tours of the finest restaurants as research for the movie,
if you could each share one of the most pretentious...

Mr. BIRD: You laugh, Terry.

GROSS: things that you experienced.

Mr. BIRD: Pretentious food things. I can't think of a specific thing
that--I mean, we were at the top one in Paris at the moment, you know, the two
years ago that we went. And they had, you know, a guy for each person at the
table. You know, five of them would descend on your table at once, like a
D-Day landing. And they'd go vum-vum-vum-vum! And you'd get everything at
once. You know what I mean? All the dishes would be landing at the same
time, hot. And, you know, the amount of coordination that it would take to do
that is just staggering. And they are that good, which is why they get three
Michelin stars.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BIRD: And, you know, as goofy as it is, we wanted to have that kind of
feeling in the movie because, you know, the movie is nuts. I mean, it's a
crazy idea. But if you can surround it with believable, you know, observed
truths, you can kind of--that kind of buoys up the movie and makes the fantasy
more believable.

GROSS: Patton, what's one of the most pretentious foodie things that you

Mr. OSWALT: Well, I remember Brad Bird and his wife took me and my wife to
the French Laundry in Yountville...

Mr. BIRD: Yes.

Mr. OSWALT: part of research. They had--it was a 17-course meal
except that my wife and I would get course A, Brad and his wife got course B,
and you would taste and then pass around, so it was a 34-course tasting. And
I remember near the end of the meal--it got to the point where my wife--they
brought out pork loin three ways. And it was, of course, delicious, but my
wife like took a little bite of each one and then she said, `I
physically--unless a waiter comes and tamps down the food, like puts his foot
down my throat, I can't eat any more food.' And the waiter gave this look,
like, `Is there a reason you're not eating this right now?'

Mr. BIRD: Yeah, that's what they do. That's what they do.

Mr. OSWALT: She goes, `I love it but I'm just so full.' And he looked like
he was about to go back in the kitchen and get stabbed, like they were going
to kill him. He looked so upset.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: `Why aren't you eating this?' We're like, `Because you've given
us 25 courses.' There was a salt course. Oh, here, OK, listen to this, Terry.
Here's pretension.

Mr. BIRD: Five different kinds of salt.

Mr. OSWALT: Five--there was a salt course. Five different kinds of salt.
`This was found at a fossil dig in Montana. It dates from the Jurassic

Mr. BIRD: He's not kidding.

Mr. OSWALT: I'm not kidding.

Mr. BIRD: He's not kidding.

Mr. OSWALT: It's a black fossil salt. It was just like, `Is Ashton Kutcher
going to come out and, like, yell at us?'

Mr. BIRD: `And I'll think you'll be amused by its presumption.' You know.

Mr. OSWALT: `You'll be...'

Mr. BIRD: Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, and how about--remember the butter course that comes from a
single cow...

Mr. BIRD: Yes.

Mr. OSWALT: ...that they own at a...

Mr. BIRD: They...

Mr. OSWALT: And they know the name of the cow. They know...

Mr. BIRD: Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: ...the name of the cow. This came from...

Mr. BIRD: They know what it's fed.

Mr. OSWALT: ...Bossy.

Mr. BIRD: Bossy

Mr. OSWALT: In Vermont.

Mr. BIRD: And we're one of only two...

Mr. OSWALT: It was really...

Mr. BIRD: ...places on earth that can get Bossy. The thing is is that we're
laughing about it, but at the same time, you can taste a difference.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, it's ridiculous.

Mr. BIRD: And that's the most ridiculous thing, is that the five different
kinds of salt actually do taste different.


Mr. OSWALT: Oh, yeah.

Mr. BIRD: And they actually bring different aspects out in the food. I
mean, if you pay attention. On one hand, you're laughing about it because

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD:'s obsessive, you know, somebody is super into this and as
Patton is to comedy...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. BIRD: ...and I am to filmmaking. But the truth of the matter is, if
you're paying attention, it actually is a different experience. And the
butter was different. Some of it was sweeter.


Mr. BIRD: And some of it was creamier.


Mr. BIRD: And they were all--it actually was an experience. But just next
time, just a little mercy, that's all.

GROSS: Well, Brad Bird, Patton Oswalt, thank you both so much for talking
with us.

Mr. BIRD: It's been really fun. I love your show, Terry.

GROSS: Oh, thank you.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah. Yeah, thanks for having me back. Thanks, Terry.

DAVIES: Brad Bird wrote and directed the animated film "Ratatouille." Patton
Oswalt does the voice of the main character, Remy. "Ratatouille" is out on
DVD Tuesday.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Song from new Nelly McKay CD

Terry Gross recently recorded an interview with singer Nelly McKay, which
we'll broadcast later this month. Let's listen to a track from her new CD,
which features her and singer Bob Dorough.

(Soundbite of "Oversure")

Ms. NELLY McKAY: (Singing) Have you got some time
Have you got some spine
Have you got something to begin with
Or are you in a sinwich

Have you got some nerve
Have you got some verve
Have you got something to depend on
Or do you fender bend on

And if you say no
Do you mean to go
Down below the earth with nothing

Now you've got my name
And you've got my fame
Have you got something to remind you
Of who you use to be
Or are you happy being me

Moonlight and roses
Starlight and fairytales that won't come true
Good news for those who pine away
The day comes shining through

Mr. BOB DOROUGH: (Singing) Kittens hi-hattin'
Sitting on satin
With a host who's catnip fond
For those who seize the day
The way is paved beyond-er

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) I didn't know
The world was like this
If I'd'a known
Then I'd be psychic
If I had a clue
Then maybe I'd be blue as a mockingbird

Why do you think she laughs so much?

Mr. DOROUGH: (Singing) I didn't know
I had such problems
If I'd'a known
Then I'd'a solved them
But looking down the road the Oklahoma toad's beckoning to me

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "American Gangster." This is FRESH

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: David Edelstein on new film "American Gangster"

The English director Ridley Scott has made such film as "Blade Runner" and
"Gladiator," but never tackled a gritty, urban thriller like "American
Gangster." The new film stars Denzel Washington as a drug kingpin and Russell
Crowe as the cop on his trail. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: "Reality...What a Concept" is the title of an old Robin
Williams comedy album and it runs through my mind when I see the current New
York-set crime films like "We Own the Night" and "American Gangster." Amid all
the syncopated, pixelated, computer-generated Hollywood products, these films
ape the gritty, jangly, hyper-realist feel of '70s movies like "The French
Connection," "Serpico" and even blaxploitation pictures like "Super Fly."
There's also nostalgia--a perverse nostalgia--for the days when New York was
an open sewer, but at least 42nd Street wasn't a Disney property and you
didn't need $2500 a month for a studio in the East Village.

"American Gangster" is a whopping overdose of the '70s. As the title
proclaims, it means to be nothing less than a panoramic portrait of a nation
disintegrating from moral rot. The movie unfolds in a New York plagued by
drug abuse and police corruption, by the trickle-down effects of Vietnam,
Nixon and racism. It could also be seen as a critique of capitalism, although
it romanticizes its anti-hero almost as much as it condemns him.

The film was inspired by "The Return of Superfly," a magazine profile by Mark
Jacobson of one-time Harlem kingpin and heroin dealer Frank Lucas, following
his long stint in prison. Lucas emerged as a flamboyant sociopath, but as
played by Denzel Washington he's sleek and self-contained, disdaining flash.
He imports his brothers and cousins from down South and strolls through
Harlem, recalling his mentor, "Bumpy" Johnson.

(Soundbite of "American Gangster")

Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) The man I worked for had one of the
biggest companies in New York City. He ran it for more than 15 years.
Fifteen years, eight months and nine days, I was with him every day. I worked
for him. I protected him. I looked after him. I learned from him.

Unidentified Child: (In character) One, two, five, six, seven, eight. One,
two, five, six, seven, eight.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Lucas) Bumpy was rich, but he wasn't white-man rich.
You see, he wasn't wealthy. He didn't own his own company. He thought he
did, but he didn't, he just managed it. White man owned it, so they owned
him. Nobody owns me, though.

Unidentified Woman: (In character) Hey.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Lucas) How you doing, baby?

Woman: (In character) Good.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Lucas) That's because I own my own company, and my
company sells a product that's better than the competition at a price that's
lower than the competition.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: The filmmakers don't whitewash Frank, exactly. He blows a
rival's brains out. He brings in heroin from Southeast Asia that's twice as
strong as his competitors and sells it so cheaply that the death rate surges.
But the charismatic monster of Jacobson's profile, a man who exults in his
scams and brags about his murders, has become so controlled and domesticated
that, even with Washington's star power, he doesn't carry the movie.

To be fair, he doesn't need to, since half of "American Gangster" centers on
the obsessed detective Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe in a '70's
haircut and corduroy jackets. Crowe is credible even with a broad New Jersey
accent, but he doesn't transcend his part, either. Yet another driven cop
with a pigsty apartment and an ex-wife who complains he's an absent dad. He's
an object of pity, a casualty of this topsy-turvy moral universe. Fellow cops
shun him for seizing nearly a million dollars in drug money and not pocketing

As in "The French Connection," the filmmakers underline the contrast between
the honest detective's impoverishment and the gangster's obscene luxury. The
director, Ridley Scott, cuts from Frank's warm-hued Thanksgiving dinner to
Richie's lonely sandwich in a blue-grey twilight. Later, Scott cuts from
another holiday meal to a dead junkie mother with a toddler wailing beside
her. It's an important point about the fallout from Frank's good business
instincts, but crudely made. Scott wouldn't need the clunky editorials if he
didn't put Frank on a pedestal.

"American Gangster" is watchable, but it feels secondhand. It's like
"Scarface" drained of blood, at arm's length from the culture that spawned it.
Crowe and Washington don't share a scene until the end, a stare down that's
tautly written and acted, but too little too late. By then they're supposed
to be allies, of a sort, against Josh Brolin, who plays a corrupt detective
with a Snidely Whiplash mustache. He belittles Richie and shakes down Frank.
He even has the drug dealer's dog shot. He's a cheap and cynical device to
show how Frank and Richie are, on some level, united against a corruption
that's bigger than they are.

Whether they mean to or not, the filmmakers let Frank off the hook. He did
the crime. He did the time. Now he's played by Denzel in a prestige movie.
It's not a bad legacy, really.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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