Thursday, April 27, 2017

Film Review: Gangs of New York

"Gangs of New York"  **** (out of ****)

Martin Scorsese once again shows us the mean streets of New York in the drama "Gangs of New York" (2002).

When Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" was released the sheep (movie critics) had a mixed reaction to it. In fact it was the first time I could remember so many "critics" criticizing a Martin Scorsese picture. There was Manhola Darhis of the New York Times who felt Scorsese had made this picture for the purpose of being able to win an Academy Award (something he had not accomplished at this time). She, in all her "wisdom", called the movie "Oscar bait". There was also New York Observer critic, Rex Reed, normally a defender of Mr. Scorsese's work, who felt the movie wasn't up to Scorsese's best.

I point this out not to "shame" the "critics" that trashed Mr. Scorsese and this film but to reinforce the belief, time serves as the ultimate critic. Great movies will be remembered and stand the test of time. Even if they weren't successful upon their release, audiences will find those movies ("It's A Wonderful Life" (1946), "Duck Soup" (1933), "The General" (1926) and "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) are a few examples). I think "Gangs of New York" is one of those movies as well. Many may not remember the greeting this film received. They will be able to judge the movie solely on the quality of the movie itself. They will not be caught up in the gossip of the day such as how the movie was originally set to be released in 2001 and was pushed back a year. Normally not a good sign. Some complained Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't "worthy" of collaborating with Mr. Scorsese and there were reports the movie was over budget. In the end though, it doesn't matter. Time has judged the movie and given it a stamp of approval.

This is not to suggest "Gangs of New York" didn't have its defenders. The movie went on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations. The "movie critic" Richard Roeper called it the best movie of the year. Former Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert gave it a three-and-a-half star rating. And many praised Daniel Day-Lewis' performance.

Watching "Gangs of New York" three things strike me thematically. One, with time all is forgotten. Modern generations will forget those that lived before them and never know of their hardship. Two, man fights man, creating meaningless "gangs", fractions but the real enemy is the government. "Gangs of New York" ends with the U.S. government ordering the death of its own citizens as the poor have risen up and have said the Civil War draft is not just since the rich were able to buy their way out of it for the price of $300 (this is actual fact. Not fiction. Look it up). Three, how "Scorsese" the movie is in its themes, primarily loyalty.

"Gangs of New York" blends fact and fiction telling us the story of Irish immigration to New York and the resistance it was met with by those that didn't want "foreigners" entering their country. Too bad someone wasn't around to suggest building a wall. Which leads to another point. Nothing has changed. People are debating the same issues they have for hundreds of years and nothing will get better or change because people haven't changed. In "Gangs of New York" the Irish were the immigrants not wanted to enter the country. Today it is Mexicans and Muslims. Only "the other" has changed. The hatred remains the same.

Fighting against the Irish is Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis). He "controls" the district known as the Five Points and a gang called the Natives. They are the "true Americans". Bill is initially opposed by the leader of another gang called the Dead Rabbits led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). In the film's opening sequence the two gangs will have a final conflict to decide who is the true leader of the Five Points. Vallon dies in battle at the hands of Bill, in front of Vallon's son, Amsterdam (played as an adult by Leonardo DiCaprio). Forward 16 years later and now Amsterdam wants revenge.

This leads to the most interesting dynamic of the film, the relationship between Bill and Amsterdam. Although Amsterdam is filled with hatred for Bill, Bill accepts Amsterdam into his gang and treats Amsterdam as a son. In one scene Bill makes a heartfelt speech saying as much. This creates a blurry line for Amsterdam. Can he hate this man who has been good to him? Is there good and bad in everyone? This makes Bill the most interesting character in the film. Bill is a multi dimensional character. Amsterdam had potential to be one but is shortchanged by the writers. Amsterdam isn't given the larger-than-life personality of Bill.

Within the Bill character Mr. Scorsese and screenwriters Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonergan and Steven Zaillian, are able to present him as a sympathetic character and then shock us by his villainous nature, brutally killing people. What makes Bill even scarier is, we understand him and in our current political climate, know people like him.

Maybe the weakest character in the movie is Jenny (Cameron Diaz) a pickpocket that Amsterdam falls in love with who had a relationship with Bill. She adds very little to the film and seems to mostly be a symbol to show a "softer" side of Bill and Amsterdam. I guess you need a female character in a movie to tell a man, just as he is about to go into battle, that war is a bad idea. Then the man will tell the woman he will come back alive. If every scene between Jenny and Amsterdam was cut out, you might even have a better movie.

There is however a great group of supporting characters including including political boss, William Tweed (Jim Broadbent), Happy Jack (John C. Reily), an Irishman who fought along side Priest Vallon and in the passing years becomes a policemen, under the thumb of Bill. And "Monk" McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), a man for hire who also fought along side Vallon and knows Amsterdam is up to something.

"Gangs of New York" is also a visual masterwork, as everything you see was created on a sound stage at Cinecitta, the famous Italian studio where Federico Fellini shot his movies. How the art-direction and set-direction didn't win an Academy Award is a mystery and a shame. It was one of the most impressive elements to me, when I first saw the movie. I still think it is one of Mr. Scorsese's best looking movies.

Now, 15 year after its release, and with the gossip of the day behind it, Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" holds up well. It's themes of political corruption, loyalty and history is the work of a passionate filmmaker. Mr. Scorsese had wanted to tell this story on the big screen for more than 20 years. If Woody Allen shows us a romanticize view of New York, Mr. Scorsese gets down to the gritty side of the city. He shows us the blood, sweat and tears that went into making New York what is it. That's what "Gangs of New York" is, a crash course in American history.

I wouldn't say this movie is as influential as Mr. Scorsese's other films, such as "GoodFellas" (1990), "Raging Bull" (1980) or "Taxi Driver" (1976) but "Gangs of New York" is a masterpiece nevertheless. I called it one of the best films of 2002 (I placed it in the number three spot) and declared it one of the best films of the first decade of the 21st century. Watching it again, my mind has not changed.

"Gangs of New York" is a rewarding experience, worthy of multiple viewings. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the most effective performance and is in some ways, the center of the movie. Time has not dulled this movie. If anything, it has proven to be a "timeless" movie, still relevant today.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Film Review: A Day at the Races

"A Day at the Races"  *** (out of ****)

All bets are off with the Marx Brothers and "A Day at the Races" (1937).

For years I believed "A Day at the Races", MGM's Marx Brothers follow-up to "A Night at the Opera" (1935), the brothers first movie at the studio, was a "lesser" comedy, one that lacked the zest and zingers of their earlier comedies. Watching it again I find my memory wasn't too far off however the movie is better than I remembered and there are laughs to be had.

This seems to be a slightly different opinion compared to other modern Marx Brothers fans, who over the years I have always heard say, "A Day at the Races" ranks among their best. While I firmly believe one should not criticize the Marx Brothers (they are simply too funny) I also believe nothing quite compares to their earlier Paramount comedies like "Duck Soup" (1933) or "Horse Feathers" (1932) and should be the standard bearer that all other Marx Brothers comedies are ranked against. By comparison, "A Day at the Races" doesn't reach the apex.

Watching "A Day at the Races", the seventh Marx Brothers comedy, the team appears to be slowing down a bit and their age is showing. That by itself is no reason to dismiss any comedy, as I am someone who frequently argues against ageism. Great comedians don't stop being funny because they get older. If "A Day at the Races" is a "lesser" comedy it is only in comparison to what the Marx Brothers had previously accomplished. Excluding that, it is an entertaining movie worthy of an audience. In fact, the movie was a box-office success when first released.

"A Day at the Races" feels comfortably familiar in its plot with Groucho playing Dr. Hackenbush, who has been hired as chief of staff at the Standish Sanitarium, in an attempt to keep the sanitarium's only patient, Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who is convinced she is ill, content. However unknown to everyone, Dr. Hackenbush is a veterinarian. But, with business so bad the sanitarium cannot afford to lose its patient. Judy (Maureen O' Sullivan) owns the sanitarium and would like to ask Ms. Upjohn for financial help or else she will be forced to sell the property to J.D. Morgan (hmm, if you replace that "D". Played by Douglas Dumbrille) who owns a nearby casino and race track.

What I dislike about the movie is Groucho doesn't play Dr. Hackenbush with the same brash confidence he played his other memorable characters. This time around Groucho is worried about being discovered as a veterinarian. Normally Groucho would pretend to be the foremost authority on the issue of his choosing. This attitude plays better for Groucho's persona and allows him to get more laughs.

As is usually the case, some of the best scenes involve Groucho interacting with Margaret Dumont. As in their other comedies together Groucho would flirt with Ms. Dumont's character because of her great wealth despite not being physically attracted to her. In "Duck Soup" Groucho discovers Ms. Dumont is a rich widow. Groucho ask her "will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first."

This leads to a great sequence with Groucho and Ms. Upjohn dancing. Groucho notices a good looking blonde, Flo (Esther Muir, who you may recognize from Wheeler & Woolsey comedies) and begins flirting with her behind Ms. Upjohn's back and sometimes in front of her. What Groucho doesn't realize is Flo has been hired by Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley), Judy's business manager, to catch Groucho in a compromising situation which would turn Ms. Upjohn against Groucho and result in her leaving the sanitarium.

Another memorable sequence involves Chico and Groucho with Groucho trying to place a bet at the race track. Chico, wanting to con a few dollars out of Groucho, pretends he has a hot tip for Groucho in one of the races however the tip is in code and instead of simply telling Groucho its meaning he must buy book after book in order to de-code the code.

We also get to hear two staples of Marx Brothers movies, Chico at the piano. This time he uses Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody as an introduction (he does this in "A Night in Casablanca" (1946) as well) to "On the Beach At Bali-Bali" while Harpo plays some Rachmaninoff for us.

Unfortunately as is the case with several comedies of this era the comedy is mixed up with a romantic sub-plot. This time it involves Judy and her singing boyfriend Gill (Allan Jones). In an effort to help Judy, Gill, along with some friends, Tony (Chico Marx) and Stuffy (Harpo Marx), have bought a race horse. Gill hopes if his horse wins a big race Judy's financial problems will be over.

For a Marx Brothers comedy the movie is unusually long, 111 minutes. It is the longest comedy the boys appeared in. It is too long. The movie was going to be longer but musical numbers were cut out (one of them was sung by Groucho). One more song could have been cut in my opinion, "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm". Though it features Ivie Anderson (who was part of Duke Ellington's orchestra) it does nothing for the picture and wouldn't interfere with the rest of the plot if it was cut. It would however spare us seeing the brothers in blackface. Comedies like "Horse Feathers" and "Duck Soup" were only 68 minutes. They focused exclusively on the comedy which may explain their shorter running time and why I find them funnier.

The movie was directed by Sam Wood, perhaps best known for the dramas he directed including "Kitty Foyle" (1940) starring Ginger Rogers, in a role she would win an Academy Award for, and Ronald Reagan's best movie, "King's Row" (1942). It was said Mr. Wood, who also directed "A Night at the Opera", didn't understand the Marx Brothers' style of comedy and supposedly lacked a sense of humor. Rumor has it he and Groucho did not see eye to eye.

While there is a definite shift in tone in "A Day at the Races" compared to the Paramount comedies one has to admit there are funny moments in the movie. It is much better than later efforts like "The Big Store" (1941) and "Love Happy" (1949). Worth watching.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Film Review: Citizenfour

**** (out of ****)

Is truth stranger than fiction?

It is, unfortunately, a questions many people have to ask themselves given the political climate of the last couple of years, especially since the last U.S. Presidential election. Everything in the news seems so "fantastic", outrageous, that if someone told you these things 20 - 25 years ago you would have said to yourself, it's not possible.

Back when the story of the over reaching efforts of NSA surveillance and its illegal invasion of privacy towards United States citizens, many people were appalled. How on Earth could the government do this? The head of the agency went before congress and said "no". Information is not being collected on citizens concerning tracking on telephone calls and their duration, recordings of their conversations, knowledge of web search history...ect. Others however knew what was going on. It was called the Patriotic Act and was put into legislation after the terror attacks on 9/11.

Since the story broke it has never really stopped being discussed in the news and we find ourselves discussing it more frequently thanks to comments made by Donald Trump, claiming the former president, Barack Obama, issued wire taps on Trump Tower in New York. Also, a law was recently passed making it okay for search engine sites (Google) to sell your browsing history to corporations for advertising purposes.

With all this in mind and with last year's release of the Oliver Stone movie "Snowden" (2016) I thought it would be a good time to revisit the documentary "Citizenfour" (2014), a documentary I placed on my top ten list upon its release.

From a story-arc perspective "Citizenfour" is lacking. There isn't really a linear story being told. This has no beginning, middle and end. But, there is powerful information here. Crucial information every American, every person in the world, should know. Your government is spying on you. Everything you do is being seen by someone. That is no longer science-fiction or a conspiracy theory but has become "the new normal". Some people merely accept it. It is what it is. How can you stop it? But if it doesn't give you pause, quite frankly, there is something wrong with you. Why should we be watched? Why should the government know my location at all times? Why should the government know my purchase history? Read my emails, the duration of my telephone calls or my browsing history? The defense is, it is all in the name of national defense. It is how we fight terror. That is of course a blanket statement in which anything can fall under it and what has lead us to where we are. Some people rationalize and tell themselves, I have nothing to hide. Let the government spy on me. One, that is exactly what the government wants you to say and think. For them it is better if citizens are complicit and do not protest. It is also because of this train of thought, the rest of us must suffer.

That rationalization however is the product of fear. In theory bad things can happen anywhere. A terror attack can happen in a small rural town or a metropolitan city. In actuality though, it doesn't. But just as long as you are in a state of fear you will allow your government the 'freedom' to do whatever it has to in order to keep you safe. The extent of which includes being watched 24/7.

"Citizenfour" doesn't necessarily make these connections and instead argues the viewpoint, it is best to get all of this information out to the public in order to allow a debate. The debate is one-sided however. The media interviews politicians and intelligence officials, all who the share the opinion what Snowden did was wrong. As such society cannot have a proper debate. I would guess even with documentaries and news reports and legislation passed there are still Americans that don't understand the extent of the government's spying on citizens.

The value of "Citizenfour" is in its small way informs us of the scope of what is being done in the name of "national defense". It attempts to pull the curtain down and expose the men (peeping toms) behind it. It doesn't do this in a flashy way. Essentially "Citizenfour" is a conversation between Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald, who is writing articles for the British newspaper, The Guardian, as Snowden is in hiding in a hotel in Hong Kong.

Even with the limited locations and flashy visuals, "Citizenfour" still remains captivating and frightening. It has the makings of a really good spy novel but it is not fiction. It is reality. Once the viewer allows the implications of what is being said to settle in and think about it, it can make you uncomfortable. Everything you do, the government knows about it. Just think about that. You have no privacy. I don't know if your microwave is taking picture of you (as suggested by Kellyanne Conway) but it doesn't need to because your television is storing your data (this it true! Look it up).

Of course the ultimate fear people have is, with all of this capability, what if people abuse this power? What if people use surveillance for revenge? That is essentially what Donald Trump was implying was President Obama's motivation. Could we / would we trust Trump to make these decisions to not abuse power?

Directed by Laura Poitras, "Citizenfour" received much critical acclaim when released and won the Academy Award for best documentary. Ms. Poitras considers this part of a trilogy she has made on the "war on terror" since 9/11 and it is probably the most accomplished documentary of her career and the one that has had the most far reaching effect.

For its ability to incite and provoke discussion, "Citizenfour" should not be missed. This is a topic that will be with us for the foreseeable future.