London Fields


There is nothing like a dame – take it from me!

(2018) Mystery (Paladin/Atlas) Billy Bob Thornton, Amber Heard, Theo James, Jim Sturgess, Cara Delevingne, Gemma Chan, Jamie Alexander, Jason Isaacs, Lily Cole, Henry Garrett, Jennifer Missoni, Alexandra Evans, Michael Shaeffer, Belle Williams, Emily Kincaid, Triana Terry, Hon Ping Tang, Chris Wilson, Chris Ryman, Rita McDonald Damper. Directed by Matthew Cullen

 

For my money, Martin Amis is one of the most gifted and interesting novelists in the world today. He has a way with words and imagery that few authors can match. He has a very cinematic style but oddly, the movies made based on his works have not exactly lit the world on fire.

This one won’t either. Nicola Six (Heard) is a woman with the kind of gift that you just wish you could take back; she knows when she’s going to die. She knows how she’s going to die (she’ll be murdered). She even knows where she’s going to die (in a London alleyway inside a car). She just doesn’t know who. Terminally ill writer Samson Young (Thornton) has done a home exchange with bestselling author Mark Asprey (Isaacs) who wants to get the flavor of Hell’s Kitchen from Samson’s grungy apartment. In the meantime Samson is hoping that his years-long writer’s block can be broken by a change of scenery and when he hears Nicola’s story, he knows he’s the man to write it.

Nicola has narrowed the “who” part of the equation to two men who both have romantic inclinations towards her; the coarse and amoral South End darts champion Keith Talent (Sturgess) who sees Nicola as a trollop and a sex toy that is his rightful due, and Guy Clinch (James), a posh and married industrialist who has money and the world’s most nightmarish kid. One of them is going to kill Nicola. Who will it be? And will they do it in time for Samson to get the whole thing down on paper before he cashes in himself?

The movie has all the elements of a great Amis novel – the whiz-bang satire, the noir overtones, the almost cartoonish characters with outlandish names – but it doesn’t have the energy nor does it have the inspiration. First-time feature director Cullen (known for having done Katy Perry videos, among others) inserts bizarre juxtaposing images throughout the movie which rather than enhance the flow of the story or set the viewer to thinking simply just takes them out of the movie and irritates them. I can’t tell you how many times I started reaching for the “off” switch before deciding to give the movie a second chance. To be fair to Cullen however it is likely that most of those images were inserted by the producers after the fact and against his wishes. Either way, they are deal killers.

That’s a shame because I was excited that this kind of cast (which includes Johnny Depp in an uncredited role as a gangster and rival darts champion for Gary) would be working on an adaptation of an Amis novel. While Thornton is always an interesting performer, the others either feel zombie-like (Heard) or over-the-top to the point where it approaches self-parody (Sturgess). The narration, which is meant to give the film a noir-like tone clashes with the British gangster movie that Cullen appears to be attempting to make. I think that the director had an idea in mind but I’m just not sure he executed it very well.

This was filmed more than three years ago and has been beset by legal issues and an ability to secure distribution until recently. There are some things worth checking out but really the only thing one could hope for from this disappointment of a movie is that it might motivate those inclined to be readers to maybe pick up the source material by Amis and give it a read. That would be a far more fulfilling use of their time.

REASONS TO GO: Billy Bob Thornton is a national treasure.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a whole lot of unnecessary surrealism.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity, a little violence and drug use, and a whole lot of profanity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director sued the producers and the production company after alterations were made to the film that he hadn’t authorized.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 26/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trouble is My Business
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Don’t Go

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Best of Enemies


William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal make their points.

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal make their points.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal, Kelsey Grammar (voice), John Lithgow (voice), Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Matt Tyanauer, Noam Chomsky, Sam Tanenhaus, Ginia Bellafante, Brooke Gladstone, Todd Gitlin, Andrew Sullivan. Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville

Politics can be as divisive a conversation as can be. Many are as passionate about their political beliefs as they are about their own families and umbrage can be taken with the slightest of provocations. The modern political process is about as civilized as we evolved cavemen can make it, right?

William F. Buckley Jr. in many ways was the father of conservative commentary. Patrician, erudite, intelligent, urbane and witty, he embodied for many the conservative man; a bit condescending, a bit argumentative, and absolutely sure he was right. While Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and his ilk are nothing like Buckley – they are more shouters than speakers – much of their philosophy stems from this man for good or ill. As the founder and editor of the National Review, he helped shape conservative thought into what it is today.

Gore Vidal was an author and essayist, was from a well-connected Mid-Atlantic family (his father was a Senator). While he didn’t attend college, he was noted for being patrician, erudite, intelligent, urbane and witty, for many he embodied the liberal man; a bit strident, a bit acerbic and absolutely sure he was right. The author of the controversial Myra Breckinridge, he was a gay man who believed that sexual identity should be done away with and everyone should be free to love whomever they wanted. He was very much ahead of his time and was a champion of lefty causes.

Both men ran for office unsuccessfully and both men absolutely hated each other with a passion, feeling that the other stood for everything they were against. Both believed that the political thoughts of the other would be the ruin of the country. Neither man would back down an inch from what they believed. You wouldn’t want to invite them to the same party.

And ABC News did just that. During the tumultuous 1968 elections, they were lagging in third place far behind NBC and CBS, both of whom had respected newscasters (David Huntley/Chet Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, respectively) leading their gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. ABC, whom it was joked wasn’t in fourth place because there were only three networks, didn’t have the funds to go toe-to-toe with their competitors. So rather than compete, they sought to innovate. They decided to give the conventions only 90 minutes coverage each night and 30 minutes of that coverage would be given to discussion between Buckley and Vidal.

These debates turned into all-out wars as at first the commentators attacked the other position, then attacked the other personally. They were donnybrooks indeed – both men were master debaters, fine speakers and insightful. However the latter category all but disappeared as they cut each other to ribbons with well-placed barbs. Buckley apparently chose not to prepare for the debates, whereas Vidal assiduously studied and strategized. Buckley had faith in his own intellect that he could take his opponent apart with ease.

The Republicans had their convention that year in Miami and a great effort was made to keep protesters as far away from the venue as possible. The Democrats had their convention in Chicago and Mayor Richard Daley boasted that he would maintain law and order but that didn’t work out so well for him; there was heavy rioting from protestors and scenes of brutality by the Chicago police were broadcast for the nation to see.

It was in that atmosphere on the ninth debate out of ten that things reached a head between Buckley and Vidal. When the latter accused Buckley of being a crypto-Nazi, the conservative lost his cool, attacking Vidal with “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” While Buckley would later apologize for reacting in anger in print, the antipathy between the two men never lessened.

The movie essentially documents the debates, showing highlights from the broadcasts as well as background on the two combatants. We get plenty of talking head interviews, from Buckley’s biographer Sam Tanenhaus and from Vidal supporter the late Christopher Hitchens (who might have been the only modern political commentator to be able to hold his own with the two giants). We also get to hear the words written by the two, voiced by John Lithgow (Vidal) and Kelsey Grammer (Buckley).

The subject is captivating and the filmmakers make a good case as to why this was a turning point not just in national politics, as a case can be made that modern conservatism had its beginnings in the 1968 elections, but also in the way politics were covered. The Vidal-Buckley debates weren’t the first usage of competing viewpoints as political analysis, but they captured the imagination of the viewing public at the time and came into more widespread use afterwards. These days, it’s almost the only kind of political analysis you can find.

Where the film falls short is in really giving us more than cursory background on Buckley and Vidal. We get the basics – stuff you could easily pick up from their Wikipedia pages – but little more about who these men were. It seemed to me that they were two sides of the same coin; perhaps that was why they loathed each other so much beyond the political disagreements. Maybe they saw in each other a little bit of themselves.

This is still fascinating stuff for anyone who follows modern politics and wants a sense of how we got to where we are now. We see the talking heads on MSNBC and Fox News and of course the Internet trolls and wonder what happened to bring us to this point. To a large extent, it was this set of debates. It was the political/intellectual equivalent of going to an auto race and hoping for a crash. It is far more visceral and satisfying to watch people screech at each other rather than put any thought into what’s going on around us. And maybe that’s just human nature. But it is also depressing as all get out that we’ve devolved from respecting news to preferring shouting matches.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating archival footage. A precursor for modern political campaigning.
REASONS TO STAY: Is a little bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Our Nixon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Paul Taylor Creative Domain

Straight Outta Compton


N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

(2015) Musical Biography (Universal) O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Carla Patterson, Paul Giamatti, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Sheldon A. Smith, Keith Stanfield, Cleavon McClendon, Aeriel Miranda, Lisa Renee Pitts, Angela Renee Gibbs. Directed by F. Gary Gray

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not really a fan of rap but then again, I’m not really the target audience. It is hard for someone who grew up in a white collar suburban neighborhood to feel the same rage as someone who grew up in an inner city neighborhood where police harassment is an everyday occurrence as is gang violence and drug abuse. I’m also uncomfortable with the misogyny and homophobia that is often expressed by rappers, and I don’t condone the glorification of the thug lifestyle that they occasionally promote.

That said, it doesn’t mean I don’t respect the music nor the effect it has had culturally. When gangsta rap and N.W.A. exploded on the scene, it had the effect of a cultural atom bomb on not only inner city youth but also on white suburbanites, some of whom feared it as the expression of all their racist stereotypes but also on the younger white suburban kids who embraced hip-hop culture and tried to emulate it, often to the amusement of the hip-hop community  (I once heard a rapper sneer as he saw a group of white teen girls listening to Tupac “What do they have to be mad at? Daddy won’t let them borrow the car?”) among others.

There is no denying though that gangsta rap is the result of legitimate grievances felt by the African-American community. Andre Young – a.k.a. Dr. Dre (Hawkins), O’Shea Jackson – a.k.a. Ice Cube (Jackson, the son of the actual Ice Cube) and Eric Wright – a.k.a. Easy-E (Mitchell) – all grew up in Compton, a predominantly poor, black section of Los Angeles. All are witness to the assaults going on in the community against those that live there, both from ultra-violent gang bangers and from the police who are supposed to be protecting them but yet treat all of the residents like criminals. All are angry that nothing is being done about it and that politically speaking, the African-American community is essentially invisible.

They all love hip-hop that is going on then, most of it coming from the East Coast. West Coast rap was then in its earliest stages and when the three of them got together along with MC Ren (Hodge, formerly of the underrated Leverage) and DJ Yella (Brown) there was no denying that there was magic going on. Easy decides that they need to record the songs that they are writing and after early attempts, they secure the services of Jerry Heller (Giamatti) to manage their business affairs but more importantly, open doors. One of the doors that gets opened is to Priority Records, who agree to distribute their Ruthless Records label which includes N.W.A. as well as the D.O.C. (Yates), a friend from their Compton neighborhood.

Then they record Straight Outta Compton, arguably the best rap record ever made. One of the tracks on it, “F**k Tha Police” becomes something of a touchstone for the band’s fans, who feel the same frustration. Of course, the law enforcement community look at it as an attack on them personally and a call to violence against them rather than as an opportunity to look at themselves and institute reforms – an attitude that continues to this day.

The album shoots the band into the national spotlight and becomes a monster success. However, Ice Cube, noting that the contract is not beneficial to the band members, opts to leave the band rather than continue. He starts a successful solo career and trades musical barbs with his former bandmates. After an N.W.A. record without Cube continues their hot streak, Dre is persuaded by his bodyguard Suge Knight (Taylor) to start his own label with him, which becomes Death Row Records, home to legendary acts like Snoop Dogg (Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur.

Easy-E is left with Ruthless and Jerry Heller, and finds his business falling apart. At the same time, his health is failing – the lifestyle of groupies, drugs and parties has led him to contract AIDS. Dr. Dre has become disenchanted with his friend Suge whose tactics of intimidation and violence are against his ethics; he eventually disentangles himself from Knight and starts his own Aftermath label. Rumors begin to swirl that the original N.W.A. is planning a reunion. But given Easy’s health, can it happen quickly enough?

This is as masterful a musical biography as you are likely to see. The portrayals are spot on, particularly Jackson as his dad who looks eerily like Ice Cube circa 1991 and has all the mannerisms down right. Mitchell does maybe the most emotional work as Easy-E, who has the hardest road of the three original members. The scene in which he’s informed of his diagnosis is easily one of the most heart-wrenching of the summer.

Fans of the band will delight in the soundtrack which carries not only the music of the band in question but also of performers on their various labels and performers who were (and are) important to the band members themselves. It’s a primer on early 90s West Coast rap, gangsta rap and hip-hop in general. For many, the movie will be worth it just for the music alone.

&The movie tends to demonize the “villains” of the group’s history (Heller, Knight and law enforcement) while glossing over some of the chinks in the band’s armor – Dre’s notorious incidents of woman battering for example, although since he’s one of the main producers of the film, one can hardly expect the writers to drag out all his dirty laundry.

In that sense, history is written by the winners and while Heller and Knight have both vehemently objected to their depiction in the film, there is no doubt that both had things to answer for in their actions. This is a loud, raucous celebration of N.W.A. and their music but also of their place in cultural history; their music remains relevant even today which is both a testament to their abilities but also an indictment of our own culture which has failed to heed their words and make things better; the Black Lives Matter movement is a direct spiritual descendant of the band which is depressing that it’s still needed.

REASONS TO GO: Gripping story well told. Terrific performances. Informative.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t address some of the darker aspects of the group.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of cursing. Nudity, sexuality, drug use and a little violence for good measure.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the largest opening weekend box office ever for a musical biography, beating Walk the Line.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Biggie and Tupac
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: No Escape

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

(2013) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, Toby Jones, Lynn Cohen, Patrick St. Esprit, Meta Golding, Megan Hayes. Directed by Francis Lawrence

With the Twilight series completed (at least for now), the studios scrambled to find a new franchise that would appeal to a similar demographic. They’ve found it with The Hunger Games based on the best-selling Young Adult book series by Suzanne Collins.

Following the events of the first film (there are spoilers for that film if you haven’t seen it yet), Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are preparing to go on their Victor’s Tour of the 12 Districts of Panem, a traditional responsibility of the winners. Their love story has captivated all of Panem which has the tyrannical President Snow (Sutherland) a bit worried. You see, he has seen through the pair’s ruse. Katniss still has it bad for the strapping miner Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) and her sham relationship with Peeta was something done so that they could both survive. Snow warns Katniss that she not only has to convince Panem that her feelings for Peeta are genuine – she has to convince the President first of all.

This isn’t the same Panem that Katniss left however. The repressive policies that have created such a wide gulf between the haves of Capital and the Have-Nots of the Districts has begun to spark some thoughts of uprising with Katniss herself a symbol that is giving the people the courage to stand up for themselves. The new master of the games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) agrees with the President that Katniss needs to go – but not as a martyr. She must be associated with the government of Panem and become a symbol of its corruption and repression – then they can kill her.

And he has just the means to do it. The 75th Edition of the Hunger Games is coming up, the so-called Quarter Quell and rather than getting all-new tributes, Heavensbee proposes that the tributes be reaped from the existing pool of victors. Katniss, as the only female winner from District 12 is automatically chosen to go and this time she’ll be up against trained killers who have a win in the Games to their credit. This will be a Hunger Games like none seen before.

While director Gary Ross has exited and Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has stepped in, there are plenty of familiar faces including Haymitch (Harrelson), the alcoholic former winner who has become mentor to Peeta and Katniss; Effie (Banks), Caesar (Tucci) the smarmy host of the Games whose capped teeth can be seen from space and Cinna (Kravitz), the brilliant clothing designer who is largely responsible for Katniss’ popularity and image.

There are also new faces mostly the tributes for the Quarter Quell including the hunky Finnick (Claflin), his mentor Mags (Cohen), the brainy engineer Beetee (Wright) and the savant Wiress (Plummer), as well as the buttkicking Johanna (Malone) whose motivations remain unclear. The overall performance level has been raised significantly from the first film.

So too have the special effects. There is a sequence in which a kind of mandrill-like monkey clan attacks and it is done so smoothly and seamlessly that it doesn’t seem like CGI at all. The look of the film is pretty satisfying in every sense.

More importantly, there’s so much going on here than just a mere action tale or a romance. There are all sorts of underlying subtexts from the class warfare to the vapid fashion-obsessed culture to the role of mass media in shaping opinion. That’s the kind of thing that makes a critic’s heart beat faster – assuming they have the gumption to look more closely at the movie or its source material.

Lawrence has won an Oscar since the last time she played Katniss and her self-confidence from that clearly shows in Kat’s own growth. While Hemsworth is a fine actor, it’s Hutcherson who captured my attention and seemed to make a better foil for Ms. Everdeen. However, be warned that some of the romantic elements don’t have the same amount of complexity that the rest of the story has and so it seems aimed more squarely at juvenile hearts. Also it should be said that at times Katniss is of a participant in her own story and more of a reactant. For someone who is as supposedly kickass a warrior and strong in spirit she can come off as a self-pitying wimp in places. I don’t think it’s Ms. Lawrence’s fault so much as it is male writers who have problems writing strong female characters. I’d love to see a female screenwriter take a crack at the next one although I understand that’s fairly unlikely an occurrence.

Still, this is solid entertainment that is going to capture the imaginations of its young female core audience. Katniss is truly a heroine to be admired, much more so than Bella Swan. In every respect this is a superior franchise to that other one with a lead character who is much worthier of being a role model despite the occasional hiccups. I wasn’t sure if I cared about seeing a sequel after the first Hunger Games; after the second, I can’t wait for the third.

REASONS TO GO: Some fine performances and action sequences along with a solid storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Stumbles over itself with occasional overkill and main character sometimes doesn’t seem true to her own traits.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, with a few frightening images, some suggestive situations, a couple of instances of bad language and overall thematic elements not for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the Capitol scenes were filmed at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis hotel which also happens to be where Dragoncon, one of the Southeast’s premiere conventions, takes place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Running Man

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Muscle Shoals

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World


Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Keira Knightley and Steve Carell are not impressed with the dailies.

(2012) Dark Comedy (Focus) Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Melanie Lynskey, William Petersen, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Derek Luke, Gillian Jacobs, T.J. Miller, Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, Mark Moses, Bob Stephenson, Martin Sheen, Melinda Dillon, Tonita Castro, Jim O’Heir. Directed by Lorene Scafaria

 

What would you do if you knew that you were going to die? Not just you, but everyone and everything? All that we have made, all that we have done – all gone. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you want to be with when the end comes?

That’s the question that confronts Dodge Peterson (Carell). Actually, it confronts everybody. An asteroid named Mathilda (and how sad that the instrument of our destruction is called Mathilda) is on its way on a collision course with Earth. Attempts to divert the 80-mile wide rock have failed miserably and in 21 days, it will crash into our world, killing all living things and, in all likelihood, a few dead things as well.

His wife, upon hearing the news, makes a run for it with someone she actually loves as opposed to her husband whom she has been cheating on for quite awhile anyway. Dodge, an insurance salesman, makes a few desultory attempts to go to work but as it becomes clear that society will be soon breaking down completely, he gives up on that.

His maid (Castro) comes in as always, preferring to keep herself occupied and gently reminds Dodge to pick up some window cleaner. Returning home from the store through the park, he notices some young people embracing. Despondent, he ingests the entire bottle of cleaning product and lies down.

He wakes up the next morning, feeling a bit ill but having the cleanest esophagus in town. He also has a dog whose leash is tied up to his ankle with a note reading only “Sorry” on Dodge’s chest. He takes the dog home. He also runs into Penny (Knightley), a neighbor who has lived in the same complex for three months but whom he hasn’t gotten to know although she is well aware of his wife’s indiscretions – and those of her boyfriend as well which is how Dodge comes to learn of his wife’s infidelity.

Angry, he throws out all of her stuff and in the process finds a box of his mementos including some pictures. As he takes a trip down memory lane while taking sips from a bottle of prescription cough syrup that his wife left behind, he notices Penny sitting on his balcony, crying. He invites her in after agreeing not to rape her; in exchange, she promises not to steal anything. She is distraught not just because the world is ending but because she broke up with the loser boyfriend (Brody) that she left England for and now will never see her family again because all air travel has stopped (and cell phones and land lines are useless since nobody is sticking around to keep those systems running).

It also turns out that Penny has been getting some of his mail mistakenly and has just now remembered to give it to him. Among the letters is one from his first love Olivia, who he’d broken up with long ago and who had gone on to marry someone else. But, the letter says, she’s divorced now and is looking to reconnect with the true love of her life – Dodge.

He realizes that he needs to go find her because this might – okay, will be – his last chance at true love. However, there is rioting going on, increasing in violence and as it becomes apparent the apartment complex will be overrun, Dodge finds Penny and begs her to drive him to his home town where he can find Olivia (his own car got taken out by a suicide jumper). He promises in return that he knows a guy with a plane who can fly her to England.

On that note, they set off. On the way they run into a variety of people, including a trucker (Petersen) who doesn’t want to wait for the asteroid to incinerate him and an ex of Penny’s named Speck (Luke) who is planning on riding out the asteroid in an underground bunker with a six month supply of potato chips and who is eager to have Penny stay as breeding stock. What Penny and Dodge find on their journey to be with the ones they love is not what they expect.

From the initial sound of it you might think this is a movie about death but it’s not. It’s a movie about life. It’s a movie about how precious life is and a reminder that we are all under a death sentence – we just don’t have the date marked down on our calendars just yet.

Carell plays the subdued, somewhat wallflower-ish guy better than anybody; he’s done it well in such movies as Crazy, Stupid, Love and Dan in Real Life. This is his best performance to date. Dodge is a man who hasn’t lived life; life has just happened to him, and he feels a certain sense that he’s missing something. He comes to live for the first time in those final days, and not just because he shows up at parties that become orgies, or stopping in restaurants where everybody is determined to party the rest of their lives away. For the first time, he is doing something instead of being done to and it empowers him in ways you might not imagine.

Knightley is an Oscar nominee who has proved in other movies that she’s not just a pretty face. She is continuing to grow as an actress. Penny is a free-spirited sort who has made a mess of her romantic life, putting her in a position that she is far from the places and people she loves when it is too late to get back to them. Penny is a bit kooky, but Knightley subdues that aspect of her personality, making her more of a person who marches to her own beat rather than someone who has to wear her quirkiness on her sleeve, which is a refreshing change given how many offbeat indie heroines I’ve seen lately.

The underlying theme here is that life is meant to be lived and none of us know how much time we really have. There’s no sense in living a life of regret because there will come a time when it is time to pay the piper and when we justify our lives to whatever higher power you believe in, it is the regret we must justify with the least amount of ammunition to do it with. I found this movie uplifting, despite the subject matter. When we left our screening, Da Queen and I overheard a teenage girl complaining to her boyfriend that the movie was too depressing. Perhaps she lacks the life experience to see past the end of the world aspect – it is in the title after all, so it shouldn’t be a surprise – but there is a rich subtext going on here that is very much worth exploring. The worst aspect of this movie is that I think the studio made a mistake in when they released this. Despite the apocalyptic element of the movie, it really doesn’t fit in as a summer film. It might have been better served as a fall or holiday release. I think people are more in tune with this kind of movie at that time of year.

REASONS TO GO: Gives much pause for thought. Strangely uplifting even though the subject is a bit depressing.
REASONS TO STAY: Inconsistent. Lacks a sense of social anarchy that would surely occur.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of drug use, a little bit of violence and quite a bit of foul language, some of it sexual.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The wife of Dodge Peterson is played by Steve Carell’s real-life wife, Nancy. Presumably, she isn’t cheating on him in real life either.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The reviews are pretty polarized.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle Mile
VINYL LOVERS: Penny has an extensive collection of vinyl records from the 60s, 70s and 80s as well as a pretty sweet audio set-up.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Gangs of New York


Gangs of New York

A more dapper group of gents you will never meet.

(2002) Historical Drama (Miramax) Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, David Hemmings, Cara Seymour. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

It’s a myth that immigrants have always been welcomed to America with open arms. Immigrants have all too often been sneered at, spat upon and been the victims of violence. Still, nobody can argue that immigrants were the bricks that built America. Every European-descended American citizen has an immigrant somewhere in their family tree. Gangs of New York is a story of some of those who built modern America, and it isn’t pretty.

In the mid-1800s, Priest Vallon (Neeson) wants his Irish comrades in the Five Points section of New York to be left alone. He wants freedom from the harassment of the Nativists, led by “Butcher” Bill Cutting (Day-Lewis). The two warring factions decide to settle their differences the old-fashioned way — on the field of battle.

Vallon is backed by his lieutenant, Happy Jack (Reilly) and the mercenary Monk McGinn (Gleeson) who fight passionately but to no avail – the Nativists carry the day after Cutting cuts down the Priest. Vallon’s son is taken away to Hellgate to be raised as an orphan.

Forward to 1862. The Civil War is in full fury, and the word of the day is conscription. Irish immigrants continue to pour into New York, at a rate of 15,000 a week; ongoing for the 15 years since the potato famine of Black ’47. The son of Vallon, Amsterdam (DiCaprio) has grown to manhood and intends to infiltrate Butcher Bill’s gang, and then strike at his father’s killer when the time is right. Amsterdam meets a thief and cutpurse, Jenny Everdeane (Diaz) from whom he initially recoils, but the two fall deeply in love true to Hollywood form.

Cutting has made an alliance with Boss Tweed (Broadbent) of Tammany Hall to deliver crucial votes in the upcoming election in exchange for political protection. However, the coming conscription is making everyone uneasy. Many don’t want to fight for the rights of blacks, who are despised nearly as much as the Irish.

Still, Amsterdam quickly becomes one of Butcher Bill’s best men, and the gang leader takes a liking to the young man, in almost a father-son relationship. Eventually, he discovers the true identity of Amsterdam and all hell breaks loose, leading to a confrontation. Unfortunately, the two leaders pick a bad day for a fight – a riot has broken over the conscription act, and federal troops move in. A fight for survival becomes even more harrowing.

Director Martin Scorsese does an incredible job of evoking 1862 New York City. He establishes a realistic depiction, down to the language and idioms of the dialogue. The costumes, the sets, all reek of authenticity. Of course, there is a great deal of violence, which is to be expected. There is also a surprising amount of nudity, particularly in the bordellos where some of the movie is takes place.

The cast is marvelous. Daniel Day-Lewis gives his most electrifying performance since The Last of the Mohicans and one of his finest ever, pointing out what a shame it is he doesn’t do more movies. DiCaprio doesn’t have to carry this movie due to Day-Lewis’ presence and as a result delivers a more relaxed performance, paving the way for a long association between him and Scorsese. Reilly, Broadbent, Gleeson and Henry Thomas (as a friend of Amsterdam’s) all do solid work.

The problem here is the love story. It’s extraneous, and detracts from the movie overall. The Jenny Everdeane character exists only to be DiCaprio’s love interest, and doesn’t contribute much to the story. It’s billed as a love triangle, but the movie would have worked just as well, if not better, without it. Some of the 2-hour, 46-minute run time could easily have been excised.

Martin Scorsese is considered by some to be the greatest American film director of all time, and Gangs of New York does nothing to diminish that claim; in fact, over the years it’s become a movie that many consider to be one of his finest – certainly it stands up well with some of his better-known movies like Taxi Driver and The Departed. It’s an amazing epic that never averts its eyes from the seamier sides of the story, but refuses to wallow in them either.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Day-Lewis. Perfect capture of an era long gone. One of Scorsese’s finest and that’s saying quite a lot.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A superfluous love triangle. Runs a little bit too long.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a whole lot of violence, some of it quite graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a surfeit of nudity, along with a few curse words.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The sets of old New York were actually built on the lot at Cinecitta studios in Rome. George Lucas visited the set during filming and reportedly said to Scorsese “You know, sets like that can be done with computers now.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a 30-minute Discovery Channel documentary on the real gangs of New York, a U2 music video, a featurette on the Five Points area where the filmwas set, and a featurette on the immense sets at Cinecitta with Scorsese conducting a personal tour of the sets and relating stories from the production.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.8M on a $100M production budget; the film was just shy of breaking even during it’s theatrical run, although it almost certainly turned a profit on it’s home video release.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Arbitrage