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Posts Tagged ‘Leonardo Dicaprio’

Back a couple of months ago when they first announced the re-opening of the cinemas, the lack of new movies was supposedly going to be made up for by the reappearance of many old classics to lure people back into the habit of going to the flicks. In Oxford at least this never really happened, as most of the cinemas are still shut and will stay that way for nearly another week – the Phoenix showed a revival of Spirited Away (which, to be fair, they seem to do about once a year anyway) and a screening of The Blues Brothers and that’s about it. (Would I have been tempted out by the promised showing of The Empire Strikes Back? We shall never know. I wouldn’t have wagered against it.) Maybe this would have paid dividends, however, as I am pleased to report that this week’s cinema attendance was up from two to five, possibly because the film on offer was another revival, if perhaps not quite a golden oldie: Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception.

Of course, there are revivals and revivals, and it is telling that the spruced up Inception re-release was preceded not just by a short retrospective film concerning it, but a preview piece for Nolan’s latest, Tenet. I am beginning to worry that expectations for Tenet are running impossibly high – even if it weren’t for the fact that the film has taken on a kind of totemic significance as the First Big Post-Lockdown Release, the look and feel of the publicity is leading people to think it is somehow a spiritual successor to Inception itself. Living up to this will be a stern test of even Nolan’s abilities.

I say this mainly because Christopher Nolan is possibly my favourite living film director: no-one currently working in mainstream cinema has the same track record when it comes to making films which are not just technically proficient, but also sophisticated and resonant, taking what look from some angles like glossy genre pictures and turning them into something affecting and mind-expanding (even Dunkirk, which is the first Nolan film I was significantly disappointed by, is still made to the highest of standards).

And (as you may have guessed) Inception is my favourite Nolan film: I saw it on its opening weekend ten years ago, staggering back to my digs in a due state of happy disbelief straight afterwards. I watch it once a year or so, on average: I seem to have ended up with two copies of it on DVD, although I have no real recollection of where the second one came from.

What makes it so special, in my eyes at least? Well, let us consider the situation pertaining at one point towards the end of the film. A group of people are on a plane, sleeping. They are dreaming that they are in a van in the process of crashing off a bridge. Some of the dream-versions of themselves in the van are asleep, dreaming they are in a hotel where gravity has been suspended. The dream-versions of some of the people in the hotel are also asleep, dreaming they are in an Alpine hospital surrounded by a small private army, with whom some of them are doing battle. Others are asleep, and are dreaming they are exploring an infinite, ruined city of the subconscious mind. So, just to recap: they are on a plane dreaming they are in a van dreaming they are in a hotel dreaming they are in a hospital dreaming they are in a ruined city. The miraculous thing about Inception is not merely that this makes sense while you are watching it, but it actually feels entirely logical and even somewhat straightforward.

One element of this film which I feel is too-little commented upon is the playfulness of it – a very deadpan sort of playfulness, admittedly, but even so. The main characters are thieves and con-artists, for the most part, and there’s a sense in which Nolan himself, as writer, is pulling an elaborate con-trick on the audience. A writer I interviewed many years ago suggested to me that writing pure fantasy is essentially cheating at cards to win pretend-money: a pointless exercise. The internal mechanics of Inception are pure fantasy: the story is predicated on the existence of technology allowing people to dream collectively, which is entirely fictitious (and the film naturally just treats it as a fact, not bothering to even suggest how it works). Yet Nolan comes up with underlying concepts and principles for the dream-sharing experience which are so detailed and plausible you buy into them without question, even though this requires the film to teach them to the viewer, in some detail, starting from scratch. Simply as a piece of expository work it is a startling achievement: militarised subconsciousnesses, dream totems, the ‘kick’ used to waken dreamers – all of these are very significant to the plot, and the script elegantly explains how and why without slowing down or seeming unnecessarily convoluted (I’m not going to pretend Inception isn’t convoluted or somewhat demanding for the viewer, but the rewards are more than worth it).

Just conceiving the world of the movie and then communicating it to the audience to tell a story of guys on a mission to break into someone’s subconscious mind and plant an idea there would be a noteworthy achievement, but threaded through this is a much less procedural and genuinely moving story of guilt and grief: main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) – but, this being the story that it is, this becomes literally true. In the dream worlds memories and metaphors have genuine power and existence, and the dream motif which dominates the film seems to me to mostly be there to facilitate this metaphorical level to the story – the heist-movie trappings are yet another mask, or con trick.

And yet there is another level to the movie, too – or perhaps another way of looking at it. For what is going to the cinema at all if not an exercise in collective dreaming? The idea of dream-as-movie is another pervasive one – Nolan uses the standard techique of beginning a scene with two characters already in place to indicate the discontinuities of the dream world. And the dream worlds the characters descend through, getting further away from reality as they go, resemble increasingly outlandish kinds of thriller – initially something quite gritty and urban, then the slick and stylised interior of a hotel where a complex Mission: Impossible-style scam is attempted, and then finally the Bond-like action in and around the Alpine fortress. Is it a coincidence that the next Bond film to be released featured a lengthy sequence in a ruined city bearing a striking resemblance to the subconscious realm of this one? Perhaps a compliment was being returned.

Great script, great direction: superb cast, too, many of them doing what is surely amongst their best work. You watch it now and are suddenly aware that Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to name but two, seem to have dropped out of sight as far as mainstream cinema is concerned; even Tom Hardy seems to be only doing one film every two or three years, and those mostly blockbusters. (You look at Hardy in this film and realise that he does seem to be doing his audition piece for Bond: he seems either unaware of the fact that he’s not the main character in this movie, or deliberately choosing to ignore it.) I suppose there is still the consolation of Ken Watanabe making Transformers and Godzilla movies in the meantime.

For something to really grab my attention it usually has to be very big or very complicated, or preferably both: Inception meets these criteria, and then some. Every time I watch the movie I see something new, some new angle or connection or little piece of trickery, usually in the least expected of places. Add Hans Zimmer’s score to all the other things I’ve mentioned and – well, I suppose it is theoretically possible that Inception is not the best film of the 21st century so far. But I cannot think of another candidate.

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Not many people can claim to have a movie genre with their name on it, especially if they work across a whole range of styles and tones. If you make a serious gangster film, then people say you’ve made a crime drama, not something that’s essentially a Martin Scorsese film; if you make a giant monster movie, then they call it a monster movie (if they’re feeling charitable), not an Ishiro Honda-type picture. But if you make a comedy-drama about the lives of New Yorkers, fairly understated in tone, probably focused on their relationships, and very likely in black and white, it’s probably going to be suggested that you’ve made a Woody Allen movie, no matter whether you’re Noah Baumbach (a director who seems to visit Allenesque territory more than most) or whoever.

One of the things which has come to characterise Allen’s movies in recent years is that the director himself has made fewer and fewer appearances in front of the camera – he’s only been in one of his own films in the last ten years, narration duties aside – and this has led to the slightly odd phenomenon of the Proxy Allen, whereby another performer comes in and plays the character whom Allen would clearly have taken on were he still in his thirties or forties. Sometimes the actor involved is such an obvious substitute for Allen that the results are more or less seamless – for example, Jesse Eisenberg often seems to be doing his take on Allen’s schtick even when he’s appearing in other movies, so for him to do it in, say, Cafe Society, is hardly unexpected. John Cusack’s attempt at the same thing in Bullets over Broadway is likewise not a particular stretch.

However, we are here to talk about Allen’s 1998 film, Celebrity, made during one of the periods where his touch and instinct generally seem to have deserted him a little. The film concerns a couple of characters and their various encounters with celebrity culture of the period. As as not unusual for an Allen movie, there is a not-especially-subtle structure to the story: Lee (Kenneth Branagh) is a writer and journalist, who – perhaps almost despite himself – really aspires to fame and everything associated with it, but finds it always just out of reach as he blunders through a series of farcical encounters with models, actresses, and celebrity authors. Judy Davis plays Lee’s ex-wife Robin, whom he leaves at the start of the film – Judy has no desire to be famous whatsoever, which means she inevitably ends up rising without trace to a genuine degree of prominence (though her own experiences along the way are also fairly absurd).

The Proxy Allen character in this movie, in case you haven’t figured it out, is played by Kenneth Branagh, who in the late 90s seemed to be making a genuine attempt to become a proper Hollywood star (he turned up in Wild Wild West the following year). Now, I like Kenneth Branagh, and enjoy his work as both an actor and a director very much, but I have to say he is not someone who naturally comes to mind as a substitute for Woody Allen. Nevertheless, Branagh shows his quality by turning in a performance which is frequently very funny indeed, hitting just enough of the Allen beats to work, despite the obvious differences in appearance and performing style. The biggest difference, for me, was that Lee is slightly shabby and sleazy in a way that Allen characters generally aren’t – lots of Allen characters behave pretty badly towards women whom they’re involved with, but it’s almost as if the director gives himself a pass. Branagh seems more willing to acknowledge the unpleasantness of the character he’s playing, possibly because it isn’t on some level a version of himself.

It’s fairly clear that Allen believes he is making a sophisticated and insightful statement about the nature of fame and our society’s relationship with it, rather than just making a knockabout comedy. This probably explains why the film is in black and white, because nothing projects significant artiness like making a movie in black and white (to Allen’s credit, there is a neat gag about the pretentiousness of directors who still insist on making black-and-white films). On the whole, though, I’m not sure the director succeeds in achieving his ambition.

This is a fairly picaresque movie, and as usual with this sort of project, it stands or falls by the quality of the individual episodes along the way – and, I have to say, it’s a pretty mixed bag. There’s a very funny sequence where Lee is dragged along on a debauched weekend away by a self-absorbed young star (Leonardo DiCaprio) whom he’s trying to sell a script to – at one point Lee tries to hold a script conference in the middle of an orgy – but too often the satire is just too broad to be really effective, or Allen just seems to be indulging himself in the usual themes of how socially awkward guys who can write are sexually irresistible to attractive young women. Some of the comedy is rather broader and coarser than you normally find in an Allen movie, too – there’s a scene in which Bebe Neuwith nearly chokes to death on a banana while giving tips on how to perform oral sex, for instance. Then again, it was the late 90s, and this may just be a sign of the director attempting to adapt his style to a cinematic landscape he was now sharing with people like the Farrelly brothers.

It is terribly late 90s, too – quite apart from Leonardo Dicaprio, whose career was just post-boat at this point, there are also people like Winona Ryder in the cast. There’s probably something slightly ironic about the fact that so many people in minor and supporting roles in this film have since gone on to be genuine celebrities themselves – Debra Messing, Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Wright, JK Simmons, and so on.

However the film’s biggest, blackest joke for modern audiences comes towards the end, when Robin finds herself interviewing a succession of prominent New Yorkers in a chic restaurant. The film is about the general worthlessness and corrosive toxicity of celebrity, and its negative effects on society. So it seems somehow utterly appropriate that the only famous person who appears in this movie as himself is the Insane Clown President, Donald Trump, who turns up for an entirely unfunny cameo. On some level, I suppose, we have to concede Allen’s overall point, even if in this case the joke is on the entire world. On the whole, though, a fairly insubstantial and inconsistent movie.

 

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It must be that time of year again, for there seems to be a conspiracy at work to make me feel stupid and/or lacking in true gravitas. It’s becoming very nearly an annual thing, as I say, and always just as awards season is kicking off in earnest: the great and the good announce their lists of contenders and nominees for the big prizes, I duly go along to check out some of the most lauded films, and emerge, bemused, a couple of hours later, honestly not entirely sure quite what the fuss is about.

This is, admittedly, a slightly negative note upon which to start a review, but then it seems somewhat in keeping with the general tone of Alejandro G Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is one of most thorough-goingly bleak and uncompromising films I’ve seen in a long while.

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You want to hear about the story? Well, frankly, it strikes me as a rather secondary element of the film, but here we go: in 1823, a party of trappers in a remote North American wilderness find themselves under relentless attack by a war party of the local Ree Native American tribe. A handful of the men manage to escape the slaughter, due in no small part to the expertise of their guide and scout, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man well-versed in the ways of the locals (he even has a half-native son to prove it).

However, as the group struggles back to their base, disaster strikes when Glass is attacked and savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, leaving him close to death. The leader of the group, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), refuses to leave Glass to die alone, and eventually agrees to pay a few of the men to stay with him and do what’s necessary. Taking him up on this offer is the slightly unhinged Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy at his Tom Hardiest), who, with respect to the whole stay with Glass – wait till he dies – bury him plan, is quite prepared to skip the middle step…

But Fitzgerald has reckoned without Glass’ almost inhuman will to survive, and the guide crawls out of his grave and slowly begins to recuperate, intent on getting his revenge on Fitzgerald. But there are many miles of frozen wilderness, filled with hostile Ree, between Glass and his objective, and Fitzgerald is not a man to take lightly…

Well, it sounds like the stuff of a fairly traditional action-adventure story, with a lot of western trappings, and I suppose to some extent it is: there are lots of shootings, stabbings, and various fights during the film’s very considerable running time. But it never really feels like an actual action-adventure, and probably even less like a western. It’s just a bit too relentlessly bleak and horrible for that.

I was browsing around the blog last night, seeing what I’d written about other problematic Oscar nominees in the past, and I came across what I said about 12 Years a Slave. Many of the things I said then definitely rang a bell with what was going through my mind about The Revenant – ‘a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery’, ‘a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish’, and ‘almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value’.
Well, I should make it very clear that I don’t think The Revenant is a bad film; by any objective standard, this is a film made with enormous skill and thoughtfulness. There are very few moments of it which are not strikingly beautiful to look at, and – while not as tricksy as the single-take shenanigans of Birdman – Inarritu engages in some bravura camerawork at key moments in the story.

But at the same time I can’t help wondering if there is less going on here than meets the eye. On one level, this is a simple story about a man who simply refuses to die until he’s carried out his self-appointed mission, and what such a man is capable of (I wasn’t surprised to see that DiCaprio has said this is one of the toughest films he’s ever done, nor that he had five stunt doubles – I imagine the first four died mid-shoot). But on another level… well, that’s the thing, if there is another level I don’t really see what it is. It’s just buried a bit too deeply.

It doesn’t really help that much of the peripheral plot feels a bit murky, too – the fact that a lot of the dialogue, Tom Hardy’s in particular, is delivered in such a thick accent as to be utterly unintelligible, is probably responsible for some of this. But there are subplots whose connection to the main story seem either unarticulated or entirely arbitrary – a party of Ree wander through the film, searching for a kidnapped young woman. They play a key role in the resolution of the climax but I’ve no idea why things play out in the way they do, based on what I saw in the rest of the film.

Another relevant line from the 12 Years piece is ‘this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point’, and this time around it’s the treatment of native Americans that the film has something to say about. It is, as you would expect, a very revisionist western (to the extent it’s a western at all), and while the Ree may carry out atrocities against the European characters, it’s made very clear that they are ultimately victims rather than aggressors.

As I said, this is a serious film, and a well-made and good-looking one. I’m not completely sure if the performances are actually as good as all that, but I suppose the willingness of the performers to suffer for their art, not to mention their services to the growing of luxuriant beards, demand some sort of recognition. And I know the Academy likes serious films, and historical films (especially ones about American history). But 12 Oscar nominations? Really? That’s more than The Godfather, West Side Story, or Lawrence of Arabia, and The Revenant isn’t in the same league as any of them.

I think it’s probably just a case of momentum, that this film is the work of a bunch of people whom the Academy, on some subliminal level, is aware it really likes and feels like it should be nominating on a regular basis – Inarritu, obviously, following his success last year, and also DiCaprio – who’s almost become one of those people whose lack of an Oscar colours how they are perceived. Maybe even Tom Hardy has also joined this club, he’s certainly done good enough work in plenty of high-profile films recently.

The Academy is ultimately a political body with its own little quirks and fixations and I think it’s this that explains why The Revenant has done quite so well in terms of racking up the gong nominations this year. I will say again that it’s not a bad film, though neither will it suffuse you with joy and good humour: it is very heavy going. On the whole, much easier to admire than to actually like or enjoy.

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Would it be a truism or merely trite to suggest that one of the worst ways possible to make someone appreciate a book is to force them to study it? I suspect many people would agree; many friends of mine were undoubtedly put off To Kill A Mockingbird for life after studying it at GCSE. In my own case, though, I don’t know – while it took me over a decade to go back to Pride and Prejudice after being obliged to read it at A level, I’ve always enjoyed Chaucer and was always able to appreciate the remarkable quality of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. To this day I can still bang on at tedious length about the themes and imagery of this novel, and the prospect of seeing what Baz Luhrmann could do with (or possibly to) the story was an intriguing one.

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Set in New York in the early 20s, this is a tale of obsession, excess, and corruption amongst the monied folk of the city. Nick (Tobey Maguire) is new to the area, and really the only people he knows socially are his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and their friend Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki). One other person he is aware of, however, is the enigmatic Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the immensely wealthy host of lavish parties at the mansion next door to Nick’s house. When Gatsby becomes aware of Nick, things change for everyone: Gatsby and Daisy have what is delicately known as a Past, and he is desperate to resume their relationship…

Baz Luhrmann isn’t exactly what you’d call a prolific film-maker – this is only his second project since 2001’s Moulin Rouge (one of the very first films I ever rambled on about on t’Internet). However, while Luhrmann may not make many films, the ones he does turn out are super-concentrated stuff: visuals, sound, editing and performances are all usually cranked up to startling levels of intensity. For this reason I find his films to be a bit of a change of pace, and occasionally an indigestible one: I’m surprised he hasn’t done more work making music videos and commercials, because his style is perfect for this sort of short form. Two hours plus of crash zooms, colour saturation, musical iconoclasm and restless camera pans, on the other hand, just leave me feeling somewhat embattled.

Possibly out of a sense of responsibility to Fitzgerald’s thoughtful text, Luhrmann manages to restrain himself at least some of the time on this occasion, but one is still left with an almost irresistible sense that in the making of this film, the interplay of sound and visuals was always the prime consideration, with the actual script being of only secondary importance. This is not to say that there aren’t some startlingly effective moments scattered throughout the film, but they feel like they’ve been inserted into the story from outside rather than naturally arising from within it. The Great Gatsby is a restrained, mostly internalised story, and Luhrmann has had to work quite hard to find ways to insert his idiosyncratic visual energy into it.

Which is not to say he’s taken particularly great liberties with the story: in fact, his additions to it seem atypically restrained. There’s a framing device in which Nick, now morbidly alcoholic, is recounting the events of the story as a form of therapy, but this is really it so far as I can remember. More conspicuous is the way in which the story has been subtly trimmed and reshaped so it now focuses almost entirely on the Gatsby-Daisy romance. DiCaprio, admittedly, does not make an appearance for quite a long while, but the mystery of his character is at the centre of the story nevertheless. And once he departs from the plot, Luhrmann wraps up the film with almost indecent haste, jettisoning some of the book’s most poignant moments in the process. The main consequence of this is that the character of Jordan is much reduced in significance, and her relationship with Nick almost totally excised. As a result Nick seems even more of a passive onlooker, and Maguire struggles to make the character particularly endearing.

This is not to say that the acting in this film is sub-par: Joel Edgerton is very good, as is DiCaprio – most of the time at least. Certainly, nobody is what you’d call actively bad. The problem is that at least some of the time, everyone is being obliterated by the art direction and sound design, which swamp the subtleties and paradoxes of the story and reduce it to a succession of lavish, frenetic tableaux. The human story and emotions just aren’t there when you need them to be, and the result is a film which is polished and intricate, but ultimately hollow. Given that two of the key themes of The Great Gatsby are the contrast between appearance and reality, and the perils of superficiality, for Luhrmann to have made such a superficial adaptation of it is actually quite ironic: whether this is the sort of irony F Scott Fitzgerald would have appreciated is another matter.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 13th 2003:

[Originally following a review of Morvern Callar.]

Another young person with mendacity issues is the subject of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, but in this case the story is true. This is the story of Frank W. Abagnale Jr, who as a teenager earned a reputation as the most audacious conman in US history. He is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who convincingly ages about twelve years in the course of the film.

Abagnale’s story would be dismissed as hopelessly farfetched were one to suggest it as a work of fiction: following a relatively normal childhood, the traumatic divorce of his parents led him to run away from home and begin a career as a passer of forged cheques. This in turn led to him successfully passing himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer (his Sean Connery impression is less convincing). Of course a lifestyle such as this, which eventually saw Abagnale fraudulently making millions of dollars, was bound to attract the attention of the authorities, and in Frank’s case nemesis takes the unlikely shape of dogged FBI investigator Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) who pursues him around America and the world, the two forming a strangely personal bond in the process…

With Spielberg, DiCaprio, and Hanks on board, expectations were obviously going to be high for this movie. And so I am delighted to report that Catch Me If You Can is an absolutely wonderful piece of entertainment, not too deep or heavy but just an expertly made, perfectly judged drama with comic overtones. Leo is much, much better here than he was in Gangs of New York: the combination of charm, bravado, and vulnerability which is his speciality is perfect for Frank. This is another example of a character that on paper seems like a nasty piece of work, but the deft script and Leo’s performance keep you feeling and rooting for him right up to the closing credits. And this makes Tom Hanks’ performance as Hanratty all the more impressive, as somehow he manages to remain equally sympathetic. This is mostly down to shrewd use of Hanks’ star persona, which as ever is largely composed of a hefty chunk of solid decency.

The two stars receive perfectly judged support from a great supporting cast. Christopher Walken plays Frank Sr., and to be fair to him he’s no less plausible as Leo’s dad than Liam Neeson, Gene Hackman or any of the other actors who’ve preceded him. He gives a subtle, affecting performance in a relatively small but pivotal role. Taking time off from showing Dubya how the President ought to behave, Martin Sheen is good as one of Frank’s dupes, and rising star Jennifer Garner (more on whom in next week’s column, fingers crossed) has a memorable cameo.

You can almost sense Spielberg relaxing and letting his hair down on this film, after the rather weightier and darker movies he’s made over the couple of years. He is the master entertainer of modern cinema and his storytelling here is virtually flawless: it’s moving, funny, and tense, with Frank’s strained relationship with his father clearly indicated as the trigger for his crimes. Not that they’re presented as such – there’s a sense of barely suppressed glee as each new scheme of Frank’s comes to fruition. The contrast between Leo’s playboy lifestyle and Hanratty’s much more humdrum existence is neatly evoked – at one point a night of passion for Leo is juxtaposed with a disastrous trip to the laundrette for his adversary. The nostalgic nature of the tale helps keep it light, something played up to by the excellent, retro-styled opening title sequence. John Williams does his usual sterling work on the score, even if bits of it sound suspiciously like parts of his music for Attack of the Clones.

Some films are unfairly dismissed in the eyes of certain critics simply because they’re intended as pieces of pure entertainment and I really think this is one of them. Superbly made in every respect, and enthralling from start to finish, Catch Me If You Can should stand as a career highlight for all involved. Unreservedly recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 16th 2003: 

Hello again everyone, and let excitement be unrestrained, let joy be unconfined, because after a slightly shaky start 2003 hits its stride with a long-anticipated epic from one of the screen’s most accomplished, yet elusive artists. Yes, that’s right, Cameron Diaz has finally made another movie!

Well, perhaps not. The movie in question is Gangs of New York and while Diaz undoubtedly plays a key role, most people will be slightly more interested in the contributions from director Martin Scorsese (who arguably hasn’t been on top form since 1993’s The Age of Innocence), Leonardo DiCaprio (absent from our screens since 2000’s The Beach – not, as you might think, out of shame, but mainly because Gangs was so long in production), and Daniel Day-Lewis (who supposedly retired from acting five years ago to become a cobbler before being tempted back for this role).

Gangs of New York is set during the birth of modern America, in the mid-nineteenth century. In a terrific opening sequence, savage combat is fought in the streets of New York between rival gangs, one made up of descendants of the original European Protestant settlers, the other of more recent Irish Catholic immigrants (Scorsese doesn’t need to stress the parallels with Ulster or other religious conflicts, nor does he). The Irish are defeated and their leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson, obviously in a cameo role) is killed. His young son is sent to an orphanage upstate, from which he emerges sixteen years later vowing revenge on the man who murdered his father – a psychopathic crime lord known as the Butcher…

From here on it’s a slightly routine revenge-drama with a few gangster-movie staples thrown in for good measure, but it’s made extraordinary by its setting – this is a period of history that seems never to have been portrayed before (or maybe the film just makes it feel that way). New York is depicted as lawless, terminally venal, and locked in a permanent state of chaos – even the rival fire brigades engage in pitched battles on the street in order to claim the ascendancy. The city is split from top to bottom, along lines of ethnicity, religion, and wealth. The richness, vibrancy, and detail of the movie is remarkable.

The screenplay recognises that America’s greatest strength, its diversity, is also its greatest weakness. The film occurs before the great Polish and Italian immigrations and strips this theme down to its barest form – that of the English and Dutch set against the Irish. (Ironically, the original settlers refer to themselves as ‘Native’ Americans.) The film’s final message on this theme is (perhaps deliberately) a little unclear – the final conflict is never really consummated but at least it avoids cheap flagwaving and sentiment, instead choosing the slightly more ominous suggestion that while the past may be forgotten, it never loses its influence over the present.

Scorsese’s flair and deftness with the camera is as masterful as ever and the editing is also frequently superb. The gang battles which bookend the film are tremendous, as is the depiction of the Draft Riots the latter one coincides with (an event which until less than eighteen months ago remained the single largest loss of civilian life in American history). Elsewhere the film is less accomplished, but it’s never less than very watchable.

This is largely due to a towering, bravura performance from Day-Lewis as Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting. Looking like a bizarre hybrid of Will Self and the Mad Hatter, he swaggers through the movie, effortlessly acting everyone else off the screen. Cutting is one of the more complex characters to appear in a major release in recent years, but Day-Lewis nails the part, managing to be grotesque, funny, and chilling simultaneously. He dominates the film, even to the point of eclipsing Jim Broadbent (who appears as a crooked politician). Broadbent is only one of an outstanding supporting cast, including John C Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, and Henry Thomas (clearly sticking to a ‘one big movie every twenty years’ regimen). Those wondering what David Hemmings and John Sessions have been up to recently will find their questions answered too.

But what of Leonardo? And, come to think of it, Cameron Diaz? Well, I hate to say it, but if this movie has a weak point performance-wise it’s in the leading couple. Diaz’s part isn’t as meaty as DiCaprio or Day-Lewis’s but she does the best she can, although she’s saddled with a ginger wig that makes her look dismayingly like Heather Graham. Both she and Leo deploy Oirish accents direct from County Leprechaun. Furthermore, Leonardo just never feels right as a street-hardened gang leader out for brutal revenge. Whatever the numbers this film does, this isn’t the acting showcase he probably intended it to be.

There are a few other problems with Gangs of New York. The plot does feel a little rushed in the final third of the film, probably due to vigorous use of the editing suite at the behest of producer Harvey Weinstein. Like DiCaprio’s last big hit (you know, the one with the boat in it) it falls into the usual Hollywood trap where the residents of the British Isles are concerned, sentimentality regarding the sons of Ireland (Irish good! British bad! shrieks the subtext, accompanied as usual by penny-whistle tootlings on the soundtrack). And I know I’m not the only one who’s startled by Leo’s ability to recover from having his face head-butted to a pulp before being branded with a hot knife (this probably isn’t a film to take elderly relatives to see) with barely a scar to be seen.

The good outweighs the bad. This isn’t the all-conquering masterpiece some people have claimed it is, but it is a vaultingly ambitious, highly intelligent, and exceedingly well-made film. Martin Scorsese’s contribution alone would be worth the price of a ticket, as would Daniel Day-Lewis’s. Together they ensure that movie standards for the year to come have been set high early on. The gauntlet is thrown down.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 8th 2007:

I first laid eyes on Martin Scorsese nearly twenty years ago. Not actually in the flesh, of course; he was contributing to a BBC documentary about (of all things) Hammer horror and, to be honest I had very little idea who he was. The name rang a vague bell, though, as having something to do with the recent film about Jesus which had received so much helpful free publicity from the fundamentalist Christians complaining about it – for people claiming to have privileged access to omniscience, fundies are awfully slow on the uptake sometimes.

These days, things have changed for both of us. I have a pretty good idea who Scorsese is and have seen many of his films and he in turn has, er, shaved his beard off and let his hair turn a distinguished whitish-grey. One thing which has not changed is his lack of recognition by the Academy – in fact, were one to make a list of Great Still-Working Directors Who’ve Never Won An Oscar, his would be one of the first names to be included. The list of Great Dead Directors Who Never Won An Oscar is in its own way quite a distinguished one, including the likes of Hitchcock and Kurosawa, but on balance one gets the impression this is an injustice that everyone involved would like to see fixed as quickly as possible.

In short, this must surely be Scorsese’s year. His latest film, The Departed, may be a remake, but it’s a classy piece of work set roughly in the gritty urban milieu Scorsese’s best movies all inhabit. The original Chinese movie, Infernal Affairs (aka I Want To Be You), was reviewed here in 2004, and the American version sticks reasonably close, in concept if not detail.

Boston gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson at his most demonic) and Boston police captain Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) find themselves somewhat at odds as they go about their chosen professions, and so each hits upon a cunning ruse – they will introduce a spy into the other man’s organisation and thus cause him no end of nuisance! Costello virtually adopts a young man named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and puts him through school and police academy until he joins the organised crime task force. Queenan selects a young trainee with the right background, William Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) and sends him deep undercover to the point where he can plausibly join Costello’s gang (an eclectic bunch of hoods from places like Aberdeen and East London, judging from the cast list). Both moles soon become aware of the existence of the other, if not their identity, and quickly realise that their lives may depend upon finding the other man first…

One is made aware very early on in this movie that some serious talent has been put into making it. The script is seldom less than polished, and while the story is intricate it is never very hard to follow what’s going on. Similarly, nearly every key role is filled with a name actor doing very solid work – also appearing are people like Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, and Mark Wahlberg (who appears to have been Oscar nominated just for swearing a lot – by his standards it’s a good performance, but by no means anything really special). The only really unknown performer in a key role is Vera Farmiga as the woman Damon and di Caprio both get involved with, and she’s pretty good as well. Scorsese’s mastery of soundtrack and technical virtuosity are also on display throughout. This is a distinctly superior thriller.

However, that’s all it is. It’s a great piece of entertainment, but no more, and in some ways it isn’t even as good as the original movie (which I seem to recall I only gave qualified praise to anyway). There’s never any doubt here that di Caprio is a hero while Damon is a nasty piece of work, whereas in the original the spy in the police was presented as a genuinely likeable and almost sympathetic guy. The ending has also been changed, with a much less ambiguous conclusion being inserted (some of the plot mechanics which bring this about seem rather implausible to me, as well).

But anyway, this is still a good bet for a night out – Nicholson is on particularly good form and the film suffers noticeably when he’s not on screen. I’m a little surprised the film is set amongst the Irish mob rather than the mafia, but I suppose Scorsese has been there a number of times before and is wary of spreading too many stereotypes. (It hasn’t stopped him casting Italian-Americans in at least two keys roles in the movie!)

In many cases, winning an Oscar is more a sort of body-of-work award than a prize for a specific film – and bearing this in mind, surely no-one would complain were Scorsese to pick one up for The Departed, even if (to my mind) it’s rather less satisfying and enjoyable than either Gangs of New York or The Aviator. Better to get a richly-deserved award for the wrong movie than to never get one at all.

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