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All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

The surprise surge of the Oscar season is a German-language remake of the 1929 Best Picture winner, and after watching all 140 minutes, it’s easy to see how it would have made such an impact with modern  Academy voters. All Quiet on the Western Front is still a relevant story even more than 100 years after its events. It’s a shattering anti-war movie that continuously and furiously reminds you what a terrible waste of life that four-year battle over meters of territory turned out to be, claiming over 17 million casualties. I’ve read the 1928 German novel by Erich Remarque and the new movie is faithful in spirit and still breathes new life into an old story. We follow idealistic young men eager to experience the glory of war and quickly learn that the horror of modern combat isn’t so glorious. There are sequences in this movie that are stunning, like following the history of a coat from being lifted off a dead soldier in the muck, to being reworked at a seamstress station, to being commissioned to a new recruit who questions why someone else’s name is in his jacket. It’s a simple yet evocative moment that sells the despairing reality. The movie doesn’t skimp on carnage as well, as long stretches will often play out like a horror movie where you’ll fear the monsters awaiting in the smoke and that nowhere is safe for long. And yet, where the movie hits the hardest isn’t depicting the trenchant terror but with the little pieces of humanity that shine through the darkness. There’s a small moment in a crater shared by two enemies where one of them is dying, and these final moments of recognizing the same beleaguered helpless and frightened humanity of “their enemy” are poignant. Make no mistake, All Quiet is a condemnation on the systems of war where old pompous generals send young men to needlessly die for outdated and absurd reasons like the concept of “maintaining national honor.” A significant new subplot involves Daniel Bruhl (Captain America: Civil War) as a representative of the German government trying to negotiate an armistice when the French representatives are looking for punishment. It allows us to take a larger view of the politics that doomed so many and laying the foundation for so many more doomed lives. The ending of this movie is a nihilist gut punch. The production values are impressive and elevate the artistry of every moment. The sound design is terrific, the cinematography is alternatingly beautiful and horrifying, and the production design is startlingly detailed and authentic; it’s easy to see how this movie could have earned nine Oscar nominations. All Quiet on the Western Front is a warning, a eulogy, and a powerful reminder that even older stories can still be relevant and resonant.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Outfit (2022)

What a disarmingly suspenseful movie this was. The Outfit flew under the radar when it was released in the early months of 2022, but it deserves better and is genuinely one of the best films of that year. It’s structured much like a stage play, based in one location with a group of characters under great duress. Set in 1956 Chicago, the movie takes place entirely within the tailor shop of Leonard (Mark Rylance), an expat from Britain’s famed Savoy Road who has a special arrangement with local gangsters. He lets them use his shop for their business and doesn’t ask questions. Then one fateful night a job goes wrong and the surviving criminals hide out in the shop, suspecting one among them is a traitor. Written and directed by Graham Moore (Oscar-winner for 2014’s The Imitation Game), the movie is an ever-shifting game of constant suspense, with new characters coming into the fray and with every person holding their own secrets. I was impressed with how the movie kept upending my expectations while holding onto clarity, as each new combination of characters onscreen meant a different dynamic of who knows what and what angle they’re gunning for. Rylance is our anchor of this shifting game and it’s an open question whether he is hapless victim or manipulative schemer. The writing is so sharp and the ensemble are so refined each in their role (Dylan O’Brien, Zoey Deutch, Simon Russell Beale) that you ignore the rather pedestrian direction by Moore. This little movie is such a sly surprise that can pack a wallop while keeping you entertained and duly satisfied by the end. The Outfit is is a well-made yet familiar story but told with pristine craftsmanship.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Corsage (2022)

Corsage aims to loosen the stuffy costume drama with a dose of feminist upheaval and irreverence, but ultimately I felt like I was spending my time with a bored woman trying and failing to conquer her boredom. After turning 40, the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps) has a midlife crisis. She’s been renowned for her beauty, as that was her primary function for her husband the Emperor (Florian Teichmeister, an actor literally on trial for child pornography), and has become obsessed with her weight. Every person she meets seems to remark that she’s much thinner than her paintings. Now that she’s beyond her child-rearing age, she is languishing with how to spend her copious amounts of time in fabulous luxury. She goes horseback riding. She visits her cousin, and tries to have an affair with him. She gets to experiment with an early film camera. She gets prescribed morphine for her melancholy. She visits wounded soldiers and women locked away in sanitariums. She even gets a tattoo on vacation with her best friend. I thought the movie was going to be either more of an expose on yet another woman suffering from the oppression of her gilded cage, and Corsage glances at this topic, or a fictional account of a rebellious woman pushing against the patriarchal powers that be. The movie doesn’t really feature either approach. There aren’t enough tweaks to its genre to qualify as satire. It’s a character study of a supremely bored wealthy woman missing out on any passion in her life, whether that’s from lovers or political causes or even good company. Krieps (Phantom Thread) is the best reason to keep watching, but as the movie chugged along, it felt like I was watching a depressed character go through the motions looking for anything to possibly spark joy. The movie felt rather rudderless and I don’t feel like the totality of the scenes added up to a multi-dimensional portrait of our lead. I wish the movie had more attitude or more irreverence or even reverence, something to stir the nascent passions of those watching and waiting for more.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Argentina 1985 (2022)

How does one adjudicate a country’s own nightmare and find justice? That was the situation Argentina found itself in after returning to a democratic state following seven years under a military junta that kidnapped, tortured, interrogated, and killed thousands of its own citizens in the guise of “stopping radical communists.” Argentina 1985 gives you its setting in the title but it’s really about the chief prosecutor (Ricardo Darin) trying to hold the top generals accountable for their crimes against humanity. There is a lot riding on this case and plenty going against him, including near-constant death threats for he and his supportive family. There are some very harrowing personal accounts in the movie, but it’s set up almost like an underdog courtroom drama conceived by Aaron Sorkin, and much is made about putting together the young hotshot team and seizing the day. The movie is swiftly paced for being over two hours and has notable comic relief to keep things from getting too overwhelmingly gloomy given the subject matter. However, Argentina 1985 never loses its focus on making the powerful account for their sins. It’s a rousing courtroom drama with piercing details, engrossing human stories, and the temerity of history. In the light of rising authoritarian movements around the world and even in the U.S., this movie has even more urgent political relevancy about making sure the crimes of government officials are accounted for and that justice is served. It’s a testament to the heroism of everyday citizens and it makes for an invigorating drama that doesn’t lose sight of the big picture amidst the plethora of procedural details.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The King’s Daughter (2022)

Originally filmed in 2014, The King’s Daughter is a curiosity as it’s been on the shelf for almost eight years. As another critic quipped, in the ensuring years, star Kaya Scodelario has been in an entire trilogy of Maze Runner movies. I don’t know what this Chinese-by-way-of-French production was going for as we follow the court of King Louis XIV, played by Pierce Brosnan in an astounding array of outlandishly bad costumes and terrible wigs. He resembles a Vegas magician set back in time. Anyway, he calls to court the young Marie-Josephine (Scodelario) who has been raised by nuns since she was dropped off as a baby. If you can’t already see where this is going, then I can’t help you. But wait because there’s also a mermaid (Bingbing Fan, who in the years since this movie possibly served time in China’s prison for tax evasion) in the basement being held captive because Louis thinks eating her heart will be the key to him becoming immortal. So, yeah, what is this? It’s striving for a fairy tale/storybook sort of feeling but it’s a plot that will only work with the youngest of children. The characters are simplistic and boring, and once the mermaid is introduced it becomes like a costume drama version of Free Willy. Even with being on the shelf for eight years, the finished film still feels rushed, and the special effects for the mute mermaid are a colorful mess. Fun fact #1: the director is responsible for 4 Baby Genius sequels. Fun fact #2: this will be the late William Hurt’s last movie to his career. The King’s Daughter is a movie that makes you ask, “What were they thinking?” quite a lot, and the best decision was to withhold it from mass viewing for eight years.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Hours (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 25, 2002:

Okay, after watching the Golden Globes award show and seeing The Hours crowned with the highest prize, and hearing incessantly about Nicole Kidman’’s fake prosthetic nose in the movie, it was time to venture into that darkened theater and see how good the awards-friendly The Hours was. Little did I fully realize what I was getting myself into.

Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf, who is in the midst of writing her novel Mrs. Dalloway, where she proposes to display a woman’s entire life through the events of a single day. Julianne Moore plays Laura Brown, a housewife in 1951 having difficulty adjusting to a domestic life that she feels ill equipped for. Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughan, a gay copy-editor in 2001 planning a party for a poet and former lover (an emaciated Ed Harris), who is suffering from the late stages of AIDS. These three storylines will be juggled as the film progresses, with each woman’s life deeply changing before the end of the day.

The Hours is a meandering mess where the jigsaw pieces can be easily identified. The attempt at a resolution for an ending, tying the three storylines together, is handled very clumsily. The film spins on and on that you start to believe the title may be more appropriate than intended. What this movie needed was a rappin’ kangaroo, post haste! The film is wrought with victimization and screams “Give me an award already!” Before you know it you’’re being bludgeoned to death with what is profoundly the most over serious Lifetime network movie ever assembled. And there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Lifetime movies but The Hours does not share the sensibilities of its TV brethren.

Kidman, nose and all, gives a strong performance displaying the torture and frailty of a writer trapped within her own mind but too often relies on wistful staring or icy glares. Moore is effectively demoralized but cannot resonate with such a shallow character. Streep is the least effective of the three and fizzles among an over-stuffed assembly of characters.

The supporting cast is unjustly left for dead. The characters are seen as parody (Toni Collette as Moore’s un-liberated homemaker neighbor), extraneous (Claire Danes as Streep’s daughter, Allison Janney as Streep’s lover, Jeff Daniels as Harris’ ex-lover, you know what, almost anyone in the Streep storyline), one-note (the workmanlike John C. Reilly who plays yet another doting and demystified husband) or merely obnoxious (Moore’s brat child that refuses to separate from her). It appears The Hours is the three lead actress’ game and everyone else is not invited to play along.

Stephen Daldry’s direction shows surprising stability and instinct after his art-house pandering Billy Elliot showed little. The technical aspects of ‘lThe Hours are quite competent, especially the sharp editing and musical score, which just points out further how slickly hollow and manufactured the film is.

The Hours is an over-glossed, morose film that is too self-important for its own good. It sucks the life out of everything. And for all its doom and gloom and tsunami of tears, the only insightful thing The Hours is trying to pass off onto the public is that women are more depressed than you think.

Nate’s Grade: C

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS

I thought 2002’s The Hours would be a good movie to come back to not necessarily because I thought it would be revelatory but because I thought it may have been emblematic of my more dismissive, glib attitude when I was a twenty-year-old smart alack getting published in his college newspaper and considering myself a hotshot wordsmith. I was worried that my initial review would come across as snide and condescending considering the subject matter. I dubbed it the “most over serious Lifetime network movie ever assembled” and yet, twenty years later, after having devoted two more hours watching The Hours, I must say that this comment still holds merit.

I was fully ready to disavow my younger self as being unkind to this movie, or being too quick to dismiss a movie about women’s suffering through three generations, especially as a young man trying to be clever and, by early 2000s standards, snarky and cynical. Well, even in 2022, I still dislike The Hours, and it’s because of how overwrought everything comes across in this movie. This movie is overstuffed with the trapping of importance, and the 1950s section featuring Julianne Moore as an unhappy housewife stifling her desires (not to be confused with her 1950s unhappy housewife also stifling her desires in 2002’s Far From Heaven) is played to the point that it could be self-parody. That’s not the kind of artistic approach you’d think you would want in something so transparently desirous of special award consideration. For me, it was unmistakable even early on, and the heightened melodramatic atmosphere made me, at several points, almost want to giggle at how obvious and cloying and annoyingly reaching each moment came across. There is no subtlety to be had with The Hours, and that’s fine, but there is also no real striking substance beyond a few transitory moments of grace that stand out. The Moore segment has her drifting through the day like a zombie and almost on the verge of tears at every single turn. I felt sorry for Moore, who is coasting on emotional instinct as the character she’s been given is, at best, meant to be a symbolic placeholder of millions of women of her era. Her interaction with her son makes her sound like a deranged android grasping for human behavior. The moment where they sift flour together and claim it’s beautiful was just so stupifying. It’s amazing to me that Moore was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this role. She’s also the example of the kind of woman that Woolf was writing about with her titular Mrs. Dalloway heroine, but without Woolf explicitly commenting, the entire 1950s segment is one big airless melodrama, meant as a misdirect of the movie’s miserablist obsession with suicide. By the time old lady Julianne Moore shows up to unload a hasty monologue explaining decades of unknown drama, you may have decided that the three stories could have been two (or one).

Each of the three plot segments is intended to better inform the other, to coalesce into a thesis statement on the plight of women, except each storyline is so thinly written. Without the others to provide direct companionship, each one of these storylines would be pitifully minimal and fail to evolve the notions of feminine hardship. Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is sad because she feels stifled by the country and doctors who are trying to improve her mental health. Laura Brown (Moore) feels stifled because she is a cloested lesbian pretending to be a happy and doting housewife to her oblivious husband (John C. Reilly, not to be confused with his other oblivious husband in 2002’s Chicago). And Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is sad because one of her closest friends (Ed Harris) is dying from AIDS. That’s it. Each of the three timelines is threaded together for the intention of greater relevance, but what it really does is put the onus on the viewer to find more relevancy in context. Sometimes the three women will be doing the same actions, sometimes one will make a comment that seems to be answered by another, and sometimes they’ll inadvertently quote one another or Woolf’s novel. Except the connections and layers are superficial and clinging to an obvious thesis and biding its overlong time for absent depth.

Much of the early publicity around The Hours circulated around Kidman’s fake nose, which producer Harvey Weinstein hated (he also hated the score by Phillip Glass that would later be nominated for an Academy Award) but Kidman absolutely loved. During the time of production, she was divorcing Tom Cruise and was a tabloid magnet but the prosthetic nose allowed her a degree of refreshing anonymity with the paparazzi. She kept the nose on for the entire movie. I’ve been more critical of Kidman’s since her early 2000s career summit (Moulin Rouge, The Others, The Hours), but she legitimately is good in this and has more spark and reserved melancholy than she’s shown in numerous latter roles. Whether she deserved the Best Actress Oscar over the likes of Diane Lane (Unfaithful), Salma Hayek (Frida), Renee Zellweger (Chicago), and Moore (Far From Heaven), is another question I think I already know the answer to, but it allowed every single critic and would-be Oscar historian to use the same hacky joke: “she won by a nose.”

This cast is stacked to the point that even small parts are played by great actors. On top of the big three you’ve got Harris and Reilly, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Margo Martindale, Eileen Atkins, Allison Janney, Miranda Richardson, and Jeff Daniels. It’s an embarrassment of acting riches, which makes it all the more disappointing when they are kept strictly as archetypes and stereotypes.

Director Stephen Daldry is a complete mystery to me. His first three directing features earned him three Oscar nominations for Best Director (2000’s Billy Elliot, The Hours, 2008’s The Reader). I thought The Reader was horribly misguided but it led to Kate Winslet winning her first Oscar, and I thought his follow-up, 2011’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was also horribly misguided and was still nominated for Best Picture. I don’t understand the adulation.

In my original review, I concluded by saying, “The Hours is an over-glossed, morose film that is too self-important for its own good. It sucks the life out of everything. And for all its doom and gloom and tsunami of tears, the only insightful thing The Hours is trying to pass off onto the public is that women are more depressed than you think.” I thought re-evaluating the movie twenty years later would prove more insightful and perhaps prove my younger self wrong, but the me of the year 2022 was the one in the wrong. I agree that its central thesis is relevant, but having three underwritten stories of sorrow stacked atop each other and expecting poetry is asking a lot. I wish this movie was indeed better but it’s prime early 2000s overwrought Oscar bait.

Re-View Grade: C

Gangs of New York (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 20, 2002:

Watching Martin Scorsese’s long-in-the-making Gangs of New York is like watching a 12-round bout between two weary and staggering prize fighters. You witness the onslaught of blows, see the momentum change several times, and in the end can’t really tell which fighter is victorious. This is the experience of watching Gangs of New York, and the two fighters are called “Ambitions” and “Flaws.”

The film begins in the Five Points district of 1840s New York among a vivid gang war over turf. Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) witnesses the slaying of his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), at the blade of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his “Native” Americans gang. So what does this son of a dead preacher-man do? Well he grows up, plots revenge by making a name under the wing of the Butcher becoming like a surrogate son. But will vengeance consume him?

Watch Leo DiCaprio assemble toughs, rake heels, and ne’er do wells to his Irish gang of rapscallions with facial hair that looks to be tweezed! Witness a one-dimensional Leo suck the life out of the film like a black hole! See Leo become the least frightening gangster since Fredo. Watch the horribly miscast Cameron Diaz play pin-the-tail-on-an-accent! Witness as she tries to play a pickpocket with a heart of gold that falls hopelessly and illogically in love with Leo! Marvel how someone looking like Diaz would exist in a mangy slum! See the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis upstage our stupid hero and steal every scene he inhabits! Witness one of the greatest villains in the last decade of movies! Watch Day-Lewis almost single-handedly compensate for the film’s flaws with his virtuoso performance! Admire his stove-top hat and handlebar mustache!

Witness a wonderful supporting cast including John C. Reilly, Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleeson! Wish that they had more screen time to work with! Wonder to yourself why in all good graces this film took nearly two years of delays to get out! Speculate away!

Gangs has the sharp aroma of a film heavily interfered with by its producers. The whole exercise feels like Scorsese being compromised. Gangs is a meticulous recreation of 1860s New York that often evokes an epic sense of awe. The story has more resonance when it flashes to small yet tasty historical asides, like the dueling fire houses and the Draft Riots. But all of these interesting tidbits get pushed aside for our pedantic revenge storyline with Leo front and center. You know the producers wanted a more commercial storyline, which probably explains why Diaz has anything to do with this.

The script is credited to longtime Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks, Steven Zallian (Academy Award winner for Schindler’’s List) and Kenneth Lonergan (Academy award nominee for You Can Count on Me). So with all these writing credentials, don’t you think one of them would realize all of the dumb things going on with the story? The ending is also very anticlimactic and ham-fisted. Just watch as we segue from a graveyard to present day New York, all thanks to the Irish rockers of U2!

I know this much, Day-Lewis needs to stop cobbling shoes and act more often. Gangs is his first visit to the big screen since 1997’’s The Boxer. He spent part of this hiatus in Italy actually making shoes. I don’’t know about everyone else but this man has too much talent to only be acting once every five years. Somebody buy his shoes and get him a script, post haste!

Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is at times sprawling with entertainment in its historic vision and at other times is infuriating, always dragging behind it a ball and chain called “stupid revenge story/love story.” I’’m sure the film will get plenty of awards and Oscar nods in prominent categories, and this seems like the Academy’’s familiar plan: ignore a brilliant artist for the majority of their career and then finally reward them late for one of their lesser films. So here’’s hoping Scorsese wins the Oscar he deserved for Raging Bull and Goodfellas.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS

It is rare to find a movie that is almost exact in its percentage of good aspects and poor aspects. This 50/50 balance is best exemplified by 2002’s Gangs of New York. The ten-time Oscar nominated movie (and zero-time winner) was intended to be director Martin Scorsese’s epic, and twenty years later it’s still his biggest movie in size. Scorsese waited twenty years to tell this sprawling story of New York City’s early criminal underworld, so at 160 unwieldy minutes it’s no surprise how overstuffed and unfocused the finished product ended up. It’s a movie with so many engrossing historical anecdotes, amazing texture and supporting actors, and a stunning return to upper-tier acting by Daniel Day-Lewis, and yet it is hampered by Leonardo DiCaprio’s lackluster storylines, both for vengeance and for love (maybe a love of vengeance?). It’s so bizarre to watch this movie because there can be sequences where the movie just excels, and then there are sequences where I just want to sigh deeply. It’s like the movie is in conflict with itself, and you, the viewer, are ultimately the frustrated victim.

Let’s focus on the good first. Day-Lewis had essentially retired from acting and went to work in Italy as a cobbler until Scorsese appealed to him to reconsider acting. Every second this man is onscreen deserves your utmost attention. DiCaprio was the advertised star of the movie but Day-Lewis was the real star. The movie is almost a Trojan horse of sorts, luring you in with a standard revenge plot line only for you to lose all interest and root for the charismatic villain. Day-Lewis is so enthralling, so commanding as Bill the Butcher that every moment he is absent feels like an eternity. He remained in character for the duration of the shoot, spooking waitresses, and learned how to throw knives from circus performers and how to cut meat from an actual butcher. Considering the man’s famous Method-acting approach, I wonder just how many skills Day-Lewis has acquired over decades. This man could be the living embodiment of Michelle Yeoh’s character in Everything Everywhere All at Once, able to, at a moment’s notice, tap into a uniquely honed skill-set upon need. I wish that itself was a movie; Day-Lewis filming a role when terrorists invade the set, and now he has to utilize every lesson and skill of his past acting roles to defeat the baddies and save the day. He may be the most interesting man in the world. Since Gangs, Day-Lewis has only appeared in five other movies, and amazingly he has been nominated for Best Actor three times, winning twice (that averages an Oscar every 2.5 movie roles). This man has become like an acting Halley’s Comet, waiting for him to swing around again and burn brightly and then, just as suddenly, pass back into the lengthy waiting period.

I loved the historical asides in this movie. I loved the scene showing, in one unbroken take, Irish immigrants stepping off the boat into New York harbor and getting immediately signed into service, given a rifle and uniform, and lined up to board another boat to fight the Confederacy. I loved the entire character of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and how transparently corrupt he is, reminding me of Claude Rains in Casablanca. I loved him competing with the dozens of other firefighting units squabbling over turf while a house burned down to cinders. I loved him scrambling for some entertainment for the masses, and he asks Bill to gather up four nobodies that they can publicly hang, and then we cut right to these relatively innocent men saying their last words before being hanged, including one man’s young son watching. It’s an incredible sequence. The culmination of the 1863 Draft Riots is terrific and maximizes the messy nature of the movie best, communicating the many breaking points that lead to this notorious riot. The opening of this movie is wonderful and a terrific mood setter as we watch the members of the Dead Rabbits assemble for battle, with the rattling percussive score by Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings), finally breaking outdoors and watching gangs advance like armies. I loved the narrated history of the different gangs settled in New York and their peculiarities and fixations. I loved the before and after stories of Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), who settled as a corrupt police officer, and Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), a mercenary who tries to go straight through, of all things, politics. I loved that the movie reminds us that just because these people reside in the North doesn’t stop them from being racist (an archbishop is especially aghast at a black man being allowed in his church). I loved the occasional P.T. Barnum appearance. I loved the proliferation of so many tall hats amidst all the handlebar mustache-twirling villainy. I loved when the movie felt like a living documentary, soaking up the richness of the recreated history.

Where the movie sputters is with just about all that involves DiCaprio’s character, Amsterdam. The revenge storyline is just so boring compared to everything else going on, enough so that I think even the movie forgets about it. Amsterdam becomes Bill’s budding protege and literally saves his life at several points (if your goal is for him to die, why save the man?). He’s such a boring character because all he thinks about is vengeance, so every relationship he builds is only about how much closer to achieving his goal he can be. Amsterdam is a thoroughly dull character, and DiCaprio doesn’t come across as a credible tough guy yet, especially diminished in the large shadow from Day-Lewis’s Butcher. It wasn’t until 2006’s The Departed where I felt like he shed his boyishness fully to play a credible adult man. DiCaprio has been great with Scorsese, and this movie was the start of a decade of collaborations (four movies, two Oscar nominations), but he feels miscast here as a brooding hero given inordinate attention.

Worse is the romance with a pick-pocket prostitute played by Cameron Diaz. I pity Diaz. She’s been given the spunky love interest role in the Oscar-bait movie, which is generally underwritten and only viewed as aiding the hero’s journey of our male lead or being the offramp not taken (“Don’ get y’er refenge, Amsti’dam, ‘stead come wit me to San Fran in Calyfer’nia”). This is not a good character and she’s meant to give voice to the female underclass perspective, so it’s even more irksome when her headstrong, defiant nature gets sublimated as a rote romantic option. Diaz is also woefully miscast and my 2002 quip of her playing “pin-the-tail-on-the-accent” is accurate. I might argue that maybe dramas aren’t her strong suit, but she was great in Being John Malkovich and In Her Shoes and The Holiday, though all of those had notable comedy elements. She has the ability but this might just have been too unfamiliar for her, and so she struggles throughout with a character defined by her sexual connections to the villain and the hero.

While these characters and the performances are the biggest misses in Gangs of New York, there are other misguided or poor elements adding to that 50/50 margin. The opening sequence is great until the actual gang warfare begins and you realize that Scorsese, arguably the greatest living American director, cannot direct action to save his life. The action is choppy and lacking any of the kinetic qualities we associate with most Scorsese movies. Not even the talents of editor Thelma Schoonmaker can help save this deficit. The movie’s overall scattershot nature also makes it rather uneven and difficult to build momentum. The ending plays out like a footnote to the Draft Riots and robs the viewer of whatever catharsis could be granted from the long vengeance plot. If the whole movie has been leading up to Amsterdam’s vengeance, well robbing him of it could be meaningful, if the self-destructive nature of vengeance had been a theme. It’s not like Amsterdam has suffered at all, beyond the occasional stab wound or black eye, so him learning a lesson about the futility of vengeance would seem inappropriate and trite. I also want it known for posterity that there is an un-credited actor listed online as playing “Hot Corn Girl.”

Twenty years later, Gangs of New York is still a frustrating and sometimes exhilarating viewing. It began a road for Scorsese that led to him finally winning his first, and still only, Oscar for directing The Departed. The sprawling nature of the movie is both a blessing and a hindrance. It allows for a wider scope and cast of characters but it also means that if you’re liking a subplot or a supporting character, you’ll have to wait your turn before they re-emerge. My old review back in 2002 perfectly sums up the majority of my feelings in 2022. There’s much to see and much to like with Gangs of New York but also too much to restrain its potential greatness.

Re-View Grade: C+

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

The Banshees of Inisherin is a melancholy movie that aspires for tragi-comedy but comes up short. I’m a big fan of writer/director Martin McDonagh’s past films, especially 2017’s Three Billboards and 2008’s In Bruges, and his command of character writing and finely hewn tonal shifts. With Banshees, it’s the tale of a falling out between two friends, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) and Padraic (Colin Farrell), and the repercussions of this disunion. Colm (pronounced Call-em) looks at his long-time daily drinking partner as unrepentantly dull and as a drain on his emotional energy. As he’s getting older, he’s more mindful of his time and wants to try and create a violin piece to outlive him. Padraic (pronounced Patrick) cannot accept that his friend can just abruptly end things, so he persists, wanting to know why, wanting to know what he can do to mend this friendship, and not listening to Colm’s threats if he doesn’t leave well enough alone. The film is set in 1923 on the island of Inisherin during the short-term Irish civil war, and the backdrop gives way to gorgeous landscapes and an overwhelming sense of isolation. Every character in this movie is feeling some gnawing sense of loneliness and discontent, from Colm and Padraic looking at their friend and wondering why, to Padraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) who pines to leave and start a life on the mainland on her own, to Dominic (Barry Koeghan) who is looking for any human connection beyond his alcoholic and abusive father. McDonagh is terrific at writing his characters and interspersing droll humor and establishing the staid rhythms of this small world. The actors are all uniformly fantastic with special attention to the sad-eyed Farrell and super-charged Koeghan. I was enjoying my time but then I started to worry what this would all amount to, and the answer remains a big question mark. The movie’s story feels like an over-extended parable, and in doing so that holds many of the characters to be less developed and nuanced, serving their role as perspectives or victims of the folly of fate. By the end, I don’t really know what the larger theme or message of McDonagh’s movie. Maybe it’s about the facile nature of so many friendships, maybe it’s about what we choose to signify the fullness of a life lived, or maybe it’s just that a man’s donkey is nothing to trifle with. The Banshees of Inisherin is more funny than profound, but even kept too strictly in parable terms, it’s still an entertaining and occasionally heartbreaking watch.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Fabelmans (2022)

Steven Spielberg has been the most popular film director of the last fifty years but he’s never turned the focus squarely on himself, and that’s the draw of The Fabelmans, a coming-of-age drama that’s really a coming-of-Spielberg expose. The biographical movie follows the Fabelman family from the 1950s through the late 60s as Sammy (our Steven  Spielberg avatar) becomes inspired to be a moviemaker while his parents’ marriage deteriorates. As a lifelong lover of movies and a childhood amateur filmmaker, there’s plenty here for me to connect with. The fascination with recreating images, of chasing after an eager dream, of working together with other creatives for something bigger, it’s all there and it works. I’m a sucker for movies about the assemblage of movie crews, those found families working in tandem. However, the family drama stuff I found less engaging. Apparently Sammy’s mother (Michelle Williams) is more impulsive, spontaneous, and attention-seeking, and may have some un-diagnosed mental illness at that, whereas his father (Paul Dano) is a dry and boring computer engineering genius. I found the family drama stuff to be a distraction from the storylines of Sammy as a budding filmmaker experimenting with his art and Sammy the unpopular new kid at high school harassed for being Jewish. There are some memorable scenes, like a girlfriend’s carnal obsession with Jesus, and a culmination with a bully that is surprising on multiple counts, but ultimately I found the movie to be strangely remote and lacking great personal insight. This is why Spielberg became the greatest filmmaker in the world? I guess. I’ll credit co-writer Tony Kushner (West Side Story, Lincoln) for not making this what too many modern author biopics have become, a barrage of inspirations and connections to their most famous works (“Hey Steven, I want you to meet our neighbor, Ernest Thalberg, or E.T. as we used to call him back at Raiders U.”). The Fabelmans is a perfectly nice movie, with solid acting, and the occasional moment that really grabs hold of you, like a electrifying meeting with a top Hollywood director in the film’s finale. For me, those moments were only too fleeting. It’s a family drama I wanted less family time with and more analysis on its creator.

Nate’s Grade: B

RRR (2022)

The Indian film sensation that has converted millions across the world has one new convert: me. I’ve been hearing about RRR all year and how outlandish it is, how wild and audacious this three-hour action historical musical can be, and that it’s a celebration of the exuberant possibilities of film, and to every part of that sentence I pump my fist and declare an enthusiastic yes. Think of it as a superhero movie that also happens to be a musical. RRR is set in 1920s India and follows two real-life figures central to India’s independence from Britain. Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) and Alluri Sitarami Raju (Ram Cgaran Teja) never met in real life, but the movie makes them not just enemies but also the best of friends. Both men are set on a collision course, with Bheem searching for his little sister who was kidnapped into the big city by the British governor (Ray Stevenson), and Raju is working his way through the ranks of the British police and searching to arrest Bheem. What might get in the way is the greatest bromance in years, as these guys don’t just like one another, they will swear their undying allegiance and love for the other. Raju helps his BFF talk to a nice British girl he is crushing on, and he even helps Bheem by leading a dance off between hilariously haughty British elites. That “Naacho Naacho” dance is a shot of pure joy and encapsulates the movie: it’s frantic, frenetic, overpowering, and purely genuine. There isn’t a hint of irony in any of the overzealous 186 minutes here. The lead characters act like super powered gods, or burst into song and dance, complete with cover-worthy poses, but at no point does the movie want you to laugh at it; it wants you to get on board and enjoy how perfectly crazy the movie is. It took me about an hour, but I was won over completely by RRR. There is a man getting whipped who moves the crowd into a revolutionary mob through the power of his song. There’s a guy throwing a leopard at another man’s head. A man kicks a running motorcycle into the air and then uses it as a projectile. It’s got spectacular action with more style than a hundred Hollywood movies. The action is so well choreographed and clear to understand that it’s immensely gratifying to watch. The extravagant wire work adds to the grandiose mythic nature of the movie. The arc that Raju has is more compelling and satisfying than many in even American indies. Not only are these gents buff as hell, and effortlessly charming, but they can and will dance circles around the competition. I won’t pretend I have a deep knowledge of Indian cinema but this seems like an excellent entry for many Western fans to explore the stylistic heights of Indian cinema. This is a wild romp with cheer-worthy heroes, a bromance for the ages, and villains you can’t wait to topple. RRR is a bit exhausting by the end but I was never bored during its different tonal shifts. It might not be the best movie of the year but it’s certainly going to be the most movie you’ll get in 2022.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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