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Gangs of New York (2002)
Very Good - Up to a Point
I have never supported violence on the screen for its own sake. Any film should tell the story first and any violence should be a mere a by-product of that story. With so much word of mouth suggesting that the movie is an orgy of fighting and clashing gangs it must be infuriating for the films marketers when they advise that it may be anything else, therefore I put any preconceived notions aside when watching and found it to be quite an enjoyable movie up to a point.
The basic plot involves Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) coming to the streets of New York to avenge the death of his father at the hands of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) sixteen years earlier. Bill doesn't recognise Amsterdam, who manages to worm his way into his life purporting to be a good ally for Bills street gangs, while all the time figuring out how, and when, he wants to reveal his identity and get his revenge. The movie is set at the time when conscription into the army for the civil war first rears its ugly head.
The conscription issue would seemingly remain nothing more than a historical footnote until the story of Amsterdam and Bill is unexpectedly forgotten in the `bigger' picture and the movie concentrates on the riots that plagued the area in this era. And suddenly I was confused. Not because of the plot, it isn't that difficult to follow, but Scorsese had spent so long trying to create the tension between Amsterdam and Bill and appeared to either forget about it, or get bored with it and move onto something new it just didn't make sense. Perhaps the point was supposed to be that the struggles of individual men are nothing compared with the larger issues, perhaps it was there because it was in the book, perhaps Scorsese was trying to give us a history lesson, perhaps it was an excuse for more violence? Basically there seemed to be no clear point in it being there and since the movie was too long anyway (possibly to make it qualify for being the `epic' the film makers so desperately seemed to have wanted) it could have been cut entirely and would have made the film a more manageable length. Compared to something like Titanic, where the story of Jack and Rose was the main bulk, but suddenly the ship began to sink (and if you think that's a spoiler, you really need to attend more history lessons) at least in that instance the main storyline continued to unfold with the sinking lending new opportunities for plot-points, rather than James Cameron saying `let's forget about them for half an hour and do a bit of directorial self-indulgence'. Maybe I've laboured the point a little but if there was one thing that let the movie down for me, this was definitely it.
For the first three quarters, where Bill and Amsterdam are actually concerned in the movie, I was rather enjoying myself. The violence was well shot, brilliantly choreographed and seemed to support the story rather than try to replace it (with the above exception), the cinematography second to none and aside from a few dodgy bits of editing I had few complaints aside from the occasional odd accent. But again, where the conscription was utterly superfluous, so was Cameron Diaz as the wily Jenny Everdeane. It's no comment on her acting, which was okay, but she didn't really need to be there unless to allow boyfriends to convince their girlfriends to come along because there's a sniff of a love story too. Jim Broadbent was memorable as most of the individual performances were, but it wasn't enough to rescue the film from what it tried to be - but ultimately tried too hard.
The Bounty (1984)
Does well to live up to maritime legend.
I first saw The Bounty many years ago late at night while trying to find something decent on television and I couldn't have asked for a better result, rarely has channel hopping proved so prosperous. Years later, when I got hold of the video, the film had lost none of its' wonder. I wasn't lucky enough to catch it on a cinema screen and often wonder how it would compare, but it remains terribly powerful on the small screen - an achievement few movies can lay claim to.
The Bounty set sail in 1788 to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies as a cheap source of food for slaves but after a paradisiacal spell on the island (with an abundant sexual promiscuity from the Tahitian women), the sailors mutinied shortly after leaving the island. Due to reasons that become clear throughout the course of the film, the episode has remained one of the most documented and talked about in maritime history and the movie does well to live up to legend.
Most time is spent examining the relationship between Lieutenant William Bligh (Anthony Hopkins) and Masters Mate Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson) who had been friends for many years before setting sail, but whose friendship becomes tested after a clash of interests while harboured in Tahiti. It is this relationship that drives the movie onwards. In many accounts William Bligh has been painted as a bad tempered megalomaniac and Fletcher Christian as a courageous man driven to the edge, however the writers, Richard Hough and Robert Bolt, are careful to keep this relationship so well balanced that your sympathies sway between both points of view for the duration of the movie. Though the crux of the film lies in this association, all too brief moments explain the feelings of the rest of the crew and I would have liked to see more made of the thoughts of the films largest cast, the Tahitians.
With actors ranging from Dexter Fletcher to Laurence Olivier, and Daniel Day-Lewis to Liam Neeson the casting (as in many British movies) is second to none. Even the unknown Tahitian actors, such as Wi Kuki Kaa as King Tynah, carry off their roles with well-observed sensitivity and an understanding of the structure of the story.
Roger Donaldson directs with aplomb and brilliantly captures the claustrophobia of the ship and the situation while maintaining the expanse of the ocean and the Tahitian landscape. Though the film rightly focuses on the story of the mutiny itself, and the events leading to it, some of the most interesting parts of the true story have been sorely missed or skated over. I wont go into these events here (to save giving the story away), but if you liked the film it's worth reading much of the literature that has been written about The Bounty to get the complete and fascinating account.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Better than the sum of its parts
The Usual Suspects is two movies in one. Enjoyable the first time you watch it, even more enjoyable the second time round. The first viewing asks questions that are answered in an `I could kick myself' moment in the final few minutes, and the second viewing is interesting because when you know the answers, the film becomes that much clearer. It requires a certain amount of commitment, though. Be warned, if you stop concentrating for a moment then the remaining running time of the movie will be spent trying to figure out how what you missed has lead to what you are now watching.
It concerns the story of five felons brought in by the police for a line-up and how those same felons reluctantly end up working for the mysterious and ghost-like Keyser Soze: a legend among the criminal fraternity, a man who no-one has seen and lived, a man so dangerous that he is thought to be the devil himself.you get the idea. The plot is rather intricate so I shan't bother to explain it here but it does rather make me think that Christopher McQuarrie, the writer, kept going to the office in the morning with yet another complexity to add that he thought up the night before. That's not to say it doesn't work, far from it, but it does leave you reeling from the sheer amount of information and names thrown at you from the offset.
Gabriel Byrne is good, but not flawless, as the tortured Dean Keaton who is torn between his career as a criminal and his forlorn attempt at trying to go straight, but his relationship with uptown lawyer Edie Finneran (Suzy Amis) is badly explored and I never felt it gave motive enough for his actions throughout the movie. Kevin Spacey is wonderful as the crippled Roger 'Verbal' Kint and is effective with the results both cunning and tragic. The real star of the movie, however, is a strangely accented Pete Postlethwaite as Kobayashi, supposedly Keyser Soze's right-hand man. He effortlessly plays a character of terrible coolness and poker-faced efficiency leading the dance that the rest of the characters must follow.
Director Bryan Singer has done well to bring such a momentous and involved screenplay to life and any gripes I may have cannot detract from the fact that the film, as a whole, is much better than the sum of its parts.
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Those who are looking for a historically accurate portrayal of Shakespeare's life had better look elsewhere - but then this was never intended to be a serious look at the life of the man. Those who attack it for its' fanciful relation to history have missed the point entirely. It is a romantic comedy obsessed with nothing more than making references in storyline and plot to the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and those references are made so seamlessly it could almost be assumed that what we see on the screen actually happened to the man.
In fact the overall story we are presented with is not new. Anyone who had read or seen `Romeo and Juliet' will have a pretty shrewd idea of the path the narrative takes - the twist is that in the film, Shakespeare writes the play `Romeo and Juliet' in parallel to, and based on, his `real life' relationship with Lady Viola.
The opening sees Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) desperately trying to write the masterpiece `Romeo and Ethel, the Pirates Daughter', a comedy he hopes will rival anything by Christopher Marlow (Rupert Everett). Words fail him until his muse appears in the shape of Lady Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), a noblewoman whose love for the work of Shakespeare's leads her to dress as a boy (since at the time women were not allowed on stage) and attend an audition in disguise (mistaken identity and women dressing as men are devices Shakespeare often used in his comedies). She is given the role of Romeo and begins a forbidden relationship with Shakespeare, the only one who knows her real identity, in spite of the fact that she is betrothed to the villainous Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) at Queen Elizabeth's (Judi Dench) command.
Fiennes portrays Shakespeare wonderfully and not as the infallible master of rhetoric. He takes the Bard from the pedestal and brings him down to a human level that we can all sympathise with. His relationship with Paltrow is handled sensitively, although many of the scenes that are exclusively their own did have enough a little too much `Chick-Flick' for my liking. Paltrow's R.P. accent is technically very good, and though I normally like my English to be played by the English, I was as happily surprised by her performance as I was by Ben Affleck's brief, but memorable portrayal of the self-important Ned Alleyn. Much of the credit, though, must go to Michelle Guish for the wonderful supporting cast including: Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter, Martin Clunes and Geoffrey Rush, to name but a few.
John Madden directs hypnotically and constantly keeps the camera on the move but most credit for the film must go to Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard for their cunning and often self-parodying script. The only comment I would make is regarding the sheer number of theatre references. Those who have worked in the theatre will be aware of many, if not all, of the in-jokes that the film is littered with. Those who have not may be left with the feeling that they have been excluded from much of the content.