Gangs of New York

New York, 1846. Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), the leader of a group of Irishmen going by the name of the Dead Rabbits, has roused other rival gangs to join together and fight Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), the leader of the tyrannical New York Natives, over ownership of the Five Points. When Neeson is slain, his son escapes and leaves the city, returning sixteen years later as Leonardo DiCaprio, who understandably has a score to settle with Bill over his father’s murder.

I can see what Martin Scorsese was trying to do here, basically a mid-19th century Goodfellas, but if Henry Hill had a vendetta against Paulie, but unfortunately he was quite a way off the mark. Whilst Gangs of New York isn’t a bad film, it’s no match for Goodfellas in terms of story and generally being awesome. What Gangs does have, though, is a lot more violence, and of course Daniel Day-Lewis in full on mental mode. His Bill Cutting is easily the best and most memorable aspect of the film, with his hair plastered immobile to his scalp, with his fringe greased down and intimidating moustache twisted up. As always, Day-Lewis gives an intense, extreme yet believable performance as the film’s most rounded character, and the fact that he lost to Adrien Brody for The Pianist (one of ten Oscar nominations the film failed to pick up trophies for) is beyond me, though Brody should definitely have been nominated. Bill is, at times, downright terrifying, most notably during the knife-throwing scene, where his “Whoopsy-daisy!” sends a shiver down my spine, and waking up to see Daniel Day-Lewis, draped in the American flag, may well soon be a recurring nightmare of mine.

By comparison, DiCaprio’s Amsterdam is something of a disappointing hero, dithering about with Cameron Diaz’s petty thief Jenny, who also happens to have a connection with Bill, as he quickly rises through the ranks of New York’s gang culture. He’s a bit bland to be honest, although really who wouldn’t be when compared to Bill the Butcher? and the dance scene he and Diaz share is insipid and awkward, far more than I feel it should be. The supporting cast fares better, comprised of the likes of Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly and Brendan Gleeson, as well as Henry Thomas (Elliot from E.T.!), Stephen Graham and Eddie Marsan making up the lower ranks, but all making their marks. 

The script is largely good and often quotable, with such gems as “You see this knife? I’m going to teach you to speak English with this f**king knife!”, “She’s a prim-looking star-gazer,” and my personal favourite, “I don’t give a tuppenny f**k about your moral conundrum you meat-headed sh*t sack!” The occasional black comedy was nice – the town has 37 individually run fire departments, who spend more time brawling over who gets to fight the fires than they do actually putting the fires out, and Broadbent’s politician’s solution to people hassling him is to hang some people – but no-one important of course. And there’s so much floor-spitting it’s a wonder everyone doesn’t have to walk around in wellington boots.

I feel I must mention the violence in this film, as there’s an awful lot more than I was expecting. At times it’s fairly comical – Neeson’s priest setting bludgeoning people about the heads with his cross – but elsewhere it’s less appreciated, for example a woman who rips off ears (she then uses them as a form of payment at the local bar), and there are far more animal carcasses than I really wanted to see. This is only to be expected – Bill is a butcher, after all, but we see more here than during a Rocky training montage. Along with the violence and dead pigs, there’s also enough racism to make even Prince Philip blush. No racial slur goes uncussed.

My main problem with this film is the lack of subtlety. There’s a pretty blatant metaphor spelled out in the opening scene, as Neeson recounts to his son the tale of St. Michael, who cast Satan out of paradise. It becomes pretty clear than in this parable, DiCaprio is to play the part of the saint, Cutting is Satan (his main office is referred to as Satan’s Circus) and paradise is New York, more specifically Paradise Square, the centre of the Five Points. This metaphor is handled pretty heavily, and flashing back to this opening scene every time Amsterdam encounters someone from his childhood really doesn’t help. I approved of the parallels between the two warring sides – they both pray to the same God, as do the law enforcement out to stop them, all believing they are on the side of justice and their Lord. The politics wasn’t bad either, though again it was less subtle than it could have been, with conscripts to the civil war boarding onto a boat as coffins are simultaneously unloaded from it directly in front of them.

The scale of the scenes is very impressive, with hundreds of extras across multiple storeys of buildings and far into the distance, occasionally pyrotechnics and a hell of a lot going on. This, along with Daniel Day-Lewis, is the only part of the film really worth watching for, so I can’t recommend it all that much.

Choose life 6/10

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Hugo

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, one of the kids from Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang) lives inside the clockwork at a train station in 1930s Paris. He spends his days maintaining and fixing the clocks, stealing only the pastries and milk that he needs to survive and avoiding the child-hunting station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). A run-in with station shop-worker Georges (Sir Ben Kinglsey) results in Hugo having to work for the toymaker, all the while building a bond between Jugo and Georges god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). 

On the surface, this doesn’t appear to be a typical Martin Scorses project. For starters, it’s a kid’s film, not something you’d generally associate with the director of Goodfellas, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. There’s nary a gangster to be found, nor a grisly death or vicious killer. Hell, it’s not even set anywhere near New York. But once you get past the halfway point of the film, and the story switches from that of a young boy trying to eke out an existence on his own to a tale about the history of the beginnings of cinema, it becomes clear just what Scorsese saw in this story. It’s no secret that the great director is a passionate man, especially when it comes to the medium of movies, so seeing an opportunity to make a film dedicated to films themselves would have been an opportunity he jumped at. Fortunately, it helps that it’s a captivating story, filled with vibrant characters and plenty of heart, without too much schmaltz. Wihtout the secondary cinematic storyline, this would have felt far more like a Spielberg picture than a Scorsese.
I didn’t have the opportunity to see this film in 3D, but I get the feeling that if you are able to, you should give it a shot. This may come as a surprise to many of you, given my usual stance on the current trend of shamelessly, and often needlessly, opting to add a third dimension to films that really don’t benefit from it, but there are many scenes here where it would probably not only have fit, but benefitted the viewing experience. 3D works best when there’s lots of little things flying in the air, for example the dandelion-thing scene in Avatar, or the lantern scene in Tangled, and in Hugo we get at least two opportunities for this, first with snow and then later with flying pieces of paper, both of which I’m sure would have looked fantastic in 3D. There’s also a lot of forced deep perspective and carefully considered samera angles, making this possibly the first film I’ve seen where the 3D was probably justified.

There’s great camerawork elsewhere too, particularly in a Goodfellas-esque extended tracking shot through the inner-workings of the train station that is positively mesmerising. It’s clear that almost every shot has been digitally enhanced to make it look older and more French – the colour scheme is rich and everything has a sepia tone, seemingly even the air. At times this felt a bit too stylised, and often took me out of the film with how fake everything looked, but it’s nowhere near as bad as many of the films that use so much CGI that they may as well be videogames. 

The kids aren’t bad, but they are overshadowed the tremendous supporting cast, including the likes of Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer and Richard Griffiths in relatively miniscule parts around the train station (I was half expecting them to break into a rendition of ‘Who Will Buy?’ from Oliver). Kingsley is superb in a role that requires moments of seriousness, compassion, pity and wonder, but Sacha Baron Cohen does have a tendency to over-act now and then, presumably a result of his more comedic past. He is by no means bad, but reigning his performance in a little, to be less of a caricature, would have been better in my eyes.

I think the people that will get the most out of this movie are film fans, especially those with an interest in the beginnings of cinema. Fortunately I am such a person, and I also appreciated Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, as one of history’s first film nerds. There are many references to classic early and silent films like La Voyage Dans La Lune, L’arrivee and Safety Last, featuring the classic image of Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock face, eventually recreated by young Hugo himself, and I was engrossed at the details of how effects were created before more traditional editing processes were invented, with actors remaining frozen in place whilst explosive charges were set around them. The old technology and equipment was fascinating to me too, appealing not only to my love of cinema but my mechanical background, with a hand-cranked projector required to watch something now available on YouTube.

Scorsese has created that most marvellous of films, a successful, inventive children’s picture, that just happens to have an informative and educational semi-biopic of one of cinema’s founders wrapped up inside it. It’s beautiful, engrossing, perfectly cast and just plain delightful. And there’s a robot!

Choose film 9/10

Quiz Show

The year is 1957, Sputnik has just launched, Eisenhower has died and Nixon is president. The quiz-based game show Twenty One, hosted by the reptilian Jack Barry (a tremendously smarmy Christopher McDonald) has swept the nation and every week John Turtorro’s nerdy know-it-all Herb Stemple defeats his new opponent. The only problem is, Stemple’s ‘freak with a sponge memory’ appearance, all bad teeth, terrible glasses and ill-fitting suit, isn’t playing well with the shows bosses and sponsors, who’d much rather Ralph Fiennes clean cut intellectual Charles van Doren takes his place. Showing an obvious disdain for quiz shows, Robert Redord’s assured directorial style, flitting between the stories of Stemple, van Doren and Rob Morrow’s personal investigator Richard Goodwin keeps the largely talky sections enjoyable and entertaining, whilst still grounding them into the seriousness of the issues at hand. This, with a great cast that also includes Hank Azaria, David Paymer, Martin Scorsese (!) and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances from the likes of Calista Flockhart, William Fichtner and the West Wing’s Timothy Busfield, makes a film far superior to the programmes it holds a mirror up to.

Choose film 8/10