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An American Masterpiece, 11 January 2003

Martin Scorsese's long awaited dream project, Gangs of New York, was well worth the wait. The nearly three hour film is breathtaking in its scope and attention to detail, immersing the viewer completely in the brutal streets of 1860s New York City.

Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a solid performance as Amsterdam Vallen, a young man who is bent on revenging his father's murder. Although his Irish accent is sometimes a little shaky, DiCaprio proves here that he is more than the matinee idol that most people think he is. His Amsterdam is brooding and haunted, the fire of rage present in every move he makes.

In her most serious role yet, Cameron Diaz gives a well-rounded turn as Jenny Everdeane, a gutsy pickpocket. Diaz is an actress of extreme beauty, and she uses it to her advantage here. Her Jenny is a damaged woman, with scars on the outside and on the inside. She is filled with humor and also has the grit and instinct needed to survive. Unfortunately, Diaz nearly disappears in the film's last forty-five minutes, as the revenge plot takes center stage. She manages to make the most of her rather truncated screen time, and in doing so creates a woman that the audience cares about.

Also very impressive is Jim Broadbent as the corrupt politician Boss Tweed. Broadbent, who won an Oscar last year for his remarkable work in Iris, is one of the best character actors working today. He is nearly unrecognizable as Tweed, and gives the character an oily charm that makes the viewer both revile and like him.

Towering above everything and everyone is Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher. Day- Lewis makes Bill the most utterly cinematic character to grace the silver screen in many years, terrifying even as he fascinates. His monologue to Amsterdam in the middle of the film, delivered while draped in an American flag, is a stunning piece of acting, and shows a deep and infinitely complex characterization. With his stove-pipe hat, enormous moustache, and glass eye, Bill is a murderous and charismatic leader. Towards the end of the film, as Bill and Amsterdam circle one another, it is difficult to decide who you want to win.

Scorsese's Gangs is an unqualified triumph, and one wishes that it were even longer than three hours. If the film does not win Best Director, and Actor for Day-Lewis at the Oscars this year, it will be a supreme and unforgivable injustice.

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Very Close to Heaven, 11 January 2003

Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, a homage to the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, is an exquisitely crafted film of beauty and grace. The world that Haynes creates is so meticulously detailed that one almost forgets that the movie isn't fifty years old.

Julianne Moore deserves an Academy Award for her portrayal of Cathy Whitaker, a homemaker whose idyllic life begins to disintegrate when she learns that her husband is gay. Moore's Cathy is a delicate woman who would like to be courageous, but can't be because of the world that she is trapped in. As her innocence begins to die, she realizes how empty and superficial her life is. When she begins a cautious romance with her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) she begins to see the racism and hypocrisy that forms the underbelly of a seemingly perfect world. At the end of the film Cathy has no illusions, and realizes that the life that she thought was perfect is actually a never-ending hell.

Dennis Quaid is equally stunning as Cathy's tortured husband Frank. After Cathy discovers his homosexuality, the two are forced to grapple with a truth that neither of them can comprehend. Frank goes to a doctor for "treatment," and his confession is heartbreaking. He says that he "can't let this thing, this sickness, destroy my life. I'm going to beat this thing." We look at Frank and pity him because we realize that such a feat is impossible, and unnecessary, but Frank does not possess that knowledge. Frank begins to drink more, and when he finally breaks down and tells Cathy that he has fallen in love with another man, all of the anger, shame, and joy comes pouring out of him all at once. It is a supremely moving moment, and the best performance of Quaid has ever given.

As the marriage between Cathy and Frank begins to unravel, the two also begin to fight. All of Cathy and Frank's arguments and confessions take place at night, bathed in shadows. The truth has no place in this bright, artificial world, and it must stay hidden at all costs. One night, when Frank tries to make love to Cathy and can't, Cathy tries to placate him, saying that he is "all man" to her. At that remark Frank hits her, and for a moment the audience does not breathe. Cathy then asks quietly for her husband to get her some ice. Cathy is all restraints, and it is only with her kind gardener that she has a chance to break free. The scenes between Moore and Haysbert crackle with erotic energy because everything remains unsaid. When Cathy finally asks him to dance with her, it is a moment when we realize what human beings are capable of being together.

The fourth example of stellar acting comes from Patricia Clarkson as Cathy's best friend Eleanor. Eleanor is a bitter, gossipy, cold-hearted woman, and when she tells Cathy "I am your best friend," you want to scream to Cathy not to believe her. Clarkson makes the most of her rather limited screen time, and turns in a fascinatingly layered performance.

Far From Heaven may very well be the best picture of the year. In creating an artificial world, Todd Haynes has managed to lay bare the human soul in a way that has never been done before. It is a moving and important motion picture, populated with some of the most nuanced acting I have ever seen. Cathy and Frank Whitiker may be far from heaven, but the film comes about as close to heaven as is possible.