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The Observer Review 12 January 2003
Scorsese paints the town red
Blood is the dominant motif of a flawed but astonishing depiction of the struggle for America’s soul FILM OF THE WEEK
Tim Adams on Romania’s peasants’ revolt, page 9
is giving himself a dry-shave before the fight in which he will die. He hands his cutthroat razor to his seven-year-old son Amsterdam, saying: ‘The blood stays on the blade.’ Blood is the leitmotif and the overarching image of this savage movie. It begins with the blood of the embattled gangs turning the snow on Paradise Square red and ends Gangs of New York (167 mins, 18) Directed with the streets of New York flowing by Martin Scorsese; starring Daniel Daywith the blood shed by the victims of Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz the 1863 Draft Riots. If the snow represents the pristine America contested by FOR MARTIN SCORSESE’S characters the waves of immigrants, the pools that life is a constant struggle – internally mingle the lifeblood of natives, immiwith their consciences, externally with grants and blacks stand for the lives other men and with a dangerous envi- sacrificed to create New York. ronment. You can find allies, you can Much of the background material adhere to rules and conventions, but for Gangs of New York comes from Heryour victories, if you have any, will be bert Asbury’s 1928 book of the same hollow, short-lived, ironic. In his first name, a rich slice of mythologising film, Boxcar Bertha, the conflict was Americana, though Scorsese and his political, between an itinerant union three screenwriters have used organiser and ruthless bosses who cru- Asbury’s real gangsters to create a cify him during the Depression. In his variety of invented characters. Essengreatest film, Raging Bull, the mid- tially his movie tells two stories, one dleweight boxer Jake LaMotta faces private, the other public. The public worse demons in his mind than he one is about the melting pot of Amermeets in the ring. In his new movie, the ica, a story of the role of prejudice, flawed masterpiece Gangs of New York, class and economic exploitation in the the confrontation is raised to an epic forging of a new nation. The private level and is a contest for the very soul one is about tribal revenge. As a child, and identity of America as represented Vallon’s son Amsterdam sees Bill the by the Manhattan of the mid- Butcher kill his father; 16 years later nineteenth-century. (as Leonardo DiCaprio) he emerges The film begins in 1846 with a from reform school bent on killing Bill pitched battle in the ironically named with his father’s knife. The deed, howParadise Square, the centre of the jerry- ever, must be done in ritual fashion. built slum in downtown New York ‘When you kill a king you do not stab known as Five Points. In a catacomb him in the back, but before the whole beneath the city, Priest Vallon (Liam court so they can see him die,’ he says. Neeson), leader of a gang of Irish immiSo Amsterdam works himself into grants known as the Dead Rabbits, pre- the unknowing Bill’s inner circle, pares to go into battle against a band of becomes his surrogate son and takes as xenophobic Protestants calling them- his lover Bill’s ex-mistress, the cunning selves the Natives. Closely resembling pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz). The Orson Welles’s Macbeth, Vallon’s army lives of these three are lived out in a stride to loud percussive music through colourful low-life world, at once Dartheir Gothic cave carrying torches and winian and Dickensian, where the chief brandishing axes, clubs and knives, led entertainments are bare-knuckle boxby a man holding a Celtic Cross. ing, betting on dog-fights and drinking Emerging into the daylight they con- in filthy taverns where the indigent can front their enemy in silence across a get a drink in exchange for their ears, snow-covered battleground. The which are kept in a bottle on the bar Natives are stylishly dressed, almost like pickled eggs. The enormous set carnivalesque, and their leader, the designed by Dante Ferretti at Rome’s self-conscious dandy Bill Cutting Cinecittà and the costumes by Sandy (Daniel Day-Lewis), wears a top hat, Powell contribute to the film’s stylised satin waistcoat and check trousers. theatricality and often you are With his whiskers and sly smile, he reminded of the stage and screen verresembles a human fox. Cutting is nick- sion of Oliver! named Bill the Butcher and likes cutDay-Lewis gives a gargantuan perting up dead animals and live people. formance as the mad, charismatic Bill, When we first see him Priest Vallon a cross between Fagin and Bill Sikes,
Daniel Day-Lewis, centre, as ‘Bill the Butcher’ Cutting with, on his right, Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon in Gangs of N ew York. inevitably overshadowing DiCaprio and Diaz as the Oliver and Nancy figures. There is a stunning scene when, quite literally wrapped in the Stars-andStripes, Bill watches Jenny and Amsterdam in bed together. Several real-life characters figure beside them, most significantly the corrupt machine-politician Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall (Jim Broadbent in bluff good form), the showman Phineas T. Barnum, and the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, author of the phrase ‘Go West, young man’. The ambition is immense. This is Scorsese’s version of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and there are echoes of
Day-Lewis gives a gargantuan performance as the mad Bill, a cross between Fagin and Bill Sikes, inevitably overshadowing DiCaprio and Diaz
Kurosawa, Eisenstein and Visconti, as well as the nod to Welles already mentioned. Yet in the version released (apparently an hour shorter than the director’s preferred one) the public and private seem forced together. The final confrontation between Bill and Amsterdam, reminiscent of the melodramatic climax of Duel in the Sun, coincides with the July 1863 Draft Riots, a demonstration against enforced conscription for Civil War service that turned into the bloodiest civic disruption in American history. But the two events do not seem happily yoked. There is something both facile and sentimental in an ending that sees Bill the
Butcher buried alongside his old enemy, Priest Vallon, near the site of the future Brooklyn Bridge, and a series of dissolves that advances over several decades from the smoking ruins of New York after the riots to the skyscrapers of the next century. This device is borrowed from the triumphalist ending of the 1936 MGM picture, San Francisco, where the new city rises from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake. As with Heaven’s Gate, judgment on this film must await Scorsese’s longer version. Nevertheless, this remains an astonishing achievement, a film with a passionate sense of life, by one of the greatest filmmakers at work today.
De Niro’s a cop (again). In a so-so movie (again)
The tale of a New Jersey lawman is not inspired – but a Mexican version of Thomas Hardy certainly is
City by the Sea (109 mins, 15) Directed by Michael Caton-Jones; starring Robert De Niro, Frances McDormand, James Franco The Good Girl (93 mins, 15) Directed by Miguel Arteta; starring Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly Perfume de Violetas (90 mins, 15) Directed by Maryse Sistach ; starring Ximena Ayala, Nancy Gutiérrez,Arcelia Ramírez, María Rojo Innocence (92 mins, 12A) Directed by Paul Cox; starring Julia Blake, Charles Tingwell The Tuxedo (99 mins, 12A) Directed by Kevin Donovan; starring Jackie Chan LARGELY because of his presence, few films starring Robert De Niro are without merit, but few recent ones have had real distinction. City by the Sea, while watchable enough, is no exception. In the dozen or so pictures he’s made these Robert de Niro and past five years, he has mostly played Frances McDormand ageing cops or ageing crooks, and in in City by the Sea. this one he’s Vincent LaMarca, an ageing homicide cop with the NYPD. LaMarca is a real-life character and the movie is vaguely inspired by an interesting true story. Sadly, the filmmakers have turned it into something fatuously factitious rather than convincingly fictitious. LaMarca’s father, it transpires, was executed in 1959 for the death of a baby during the course of a desperate kidnapping, and the eightyear-old Vincent was taken under the wing of the police captain who arrested his dad. Vincent carried on the pattern by deserting his wife and their young son, Joey, who, without his dad around, went to the bad as a junkie in the dilapidated Long Island resort of Long Beach. Joey accidentally kills a local drug dealer, whose body is conveniently washed up on his father’s Manhattan patch, and he is subsequently suspected of murdering his father’s police partner (the sturdy George Dzundza). The only part of the film that carries
Yessica’s is a society in which women oppress each other out of an inherited sense of inferiority to preening males
conviction is the seedy resort town that mirrors the desperate lives of the chief characters. However, if I was the mayor of Asbury Park, New Jersey, where it was shot, I’d have asked for my town’s name to be kept off the picture rather than being listed under ‘Special Thanks To’ in the credits. The quiet desperation of American small-town life also figures in The Good Girl, by the same director (Miguel Arteta) and writer (Mike White) who made the enterprisingly offbeat Chuck and Buck a couple of years ago. Jennifer Aniston, trying to escape from her glamorous Rachel Green character in Friends, plays the 30-year-old Justine, a West Texas Emma Bovary. The frustrated wife of a constantly stoned housepainter (John C. Reilly), she embarks on an affair with a deeply disturbed young man 10 years her junior (Jake Gyllenhaal from Donnie Darko). Neglected by his parents, writing agonisingly personal stories, the boy has adopted the name of the narrator of Catcher in the Rye – ‘Tom is my slave name, Holden’s what I call myself’.
can style, with Yessica as doomed as of the Australian stage and cinema, Tess. What she’s really the victim of is Charles Tingwell and Julia Blake, who a society in which women oppress each bring a wealth of experience and feelother out of an inherited sense of infe- ing to their roles. Blake, in particular, riority to preening males. It’s a touch- takes on an ethereal air as the movie ing tale with a mortifying climax. progresses and looks more like Virginia Where The Good Girl and Perfume de Woolf than Nicole Kidman does in the Violetas are about women hopelessly forthcoming The Hours. trapped, Innocence is about the liberaHollywood continues to do badly by tion of a woman in her late sixties the Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan from a dull, 43-year marriage as a in The Tuxedo, a limp comedy-thriller result of a reunion with the love of her in which Chan, a naif chauffeur, takes life, a widower whom she hasn’t met over when his employer, a Bond-style since the Fifties. This is the first film agent (Jason Isaacs), is put out of I’ve seen for some time by the Dutch action. The megalomaniac villain is a director Paul Cox, who settled in Aus- manufacturer of bottled water who tralia in the mid-Sixties after going plans to pollute the world’s water supthere as an exchange student at the plies so that his company can have a age of 23. It’s a good deal less lugubri- global monopoly, and he works from ous than the pictures for which he is an underground laboratory that even best known, such as Cactus and Man one of 007’s enemies would consider of Flowers. unduly modest. The flashbacks to the reunited couWhereas earlier films exploited ple’s passionate courtship in Adelaide Chan’s phenomenal acrobatic skills are shown lyrically, mostly in slow and his ability to do his own stuntmotion. The scenes set in the present work, the makers of this movie give The usual stations of the socially are sharply realistic as we see the cou- him a magical tuxedo and an all-purcrucified small-town hero and heroine ple in late middle age confronting the pose Bond-style wristwatch that enable are found in The Good Girl – the dreary renewal of sexual desire, the disruption him to perform impossible feats with home with its kitschy furnishing, the of accepted routines, and the pain the aid of the special-effects departsoul-destroying workplace (the Retail caused to a kindly, uncomprehending ment. Chan is also getting a little old Rodeo supermarket), the motel with its spouse. The film is what a sequel to for playing a gormless George Formbyinevitably defective neon sign as a Brief Encounter might be like and, type sexual innocent. place for adulterous assignations, the though occasionally clumsy and overIn addition to wasting Chan, the picfundamentalist church with its false explicit in its dialogues about love, ture gives Isaacs a poor role (he should offers of salvation. But the dark memory and death, it rings true. have been the villain) and, once again, humour and tragic sense of futility of The poignant scenes of lovemaking one of the greatest living European this well-acted film just about keeps are handled with great tact and the cou- actors, Peter Stormare, is cast as a patronising caricature at bay. ple are expertly played by two veterans demented buffoon. Yessica (Ximena Ayala), the gawky put-upon heroine of the Mexican film Perfume de Violetas, would have envied the life of Justine in The Good 1. Gangs of New York (18) Masterly in the hills of Middle Earth. Girl. The 13-year-old Yessica lives in a movie about rival gangs fighting with 4. Innocence (12A) Moving cramped two-room apartment in a subknives and clubs in the slums of midAustralian picture centring on a urb of Mexico City with her mother, two nineteenth-century Manhattan. pair of mature adults engaging in younger siblings, her mother’s exploita2. City of God (18) Masterly movie mature adultery without undue tive new lover and her macho stepabout rival gangs fighting with knives embarrassment. brother. She is neglected by her mother, and guns in the slums of lateraped by her stepbrother’s slimy co5. Spider (15) Ralph Fiennes sheds worker, constantly punished by insentwentieth-century Rio. his charisma to give a powerful sitive schoolmistresses, and loses the 3. The Lord of the Rings: The Two performance as a schizophrenic one thing that brightens her life, the Towers (12A) Masterly movie about rival returning to his childhood haunts close friendship of a female classmate. and his haunted childhood. gangs fighting with swords and spears This is Thomas Hardy, Latin-Ameri-
PHILIP FRENCH’S TOP FIVE FILMS
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