Gangs of New York (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
I admire Martin Scorsese as a director but I do not think this film is one of his best even though I did like it quite a bit. “Gangs of New York” tells the story of Amsterdam Vallon’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) thirst for vengeance after his father (Liam Neeson) was killed in the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) when he was a child. But since this is a Scorsese film, it simply cannot be that simple. It was also about the frustration and eventual uprising of the poor against the corrupt rich and those of power, rivalry between gangs, the rapid rate of immigration to New York, and the intolerance that comes hand-in-hand when people of very distinct cultures and mindsets are forced to live together. It is an epic picture in every sense of the word but yet there’s something about it that made me believe that it did not quite reach its full potential. When I think about it, I believe that one of its main weaknesses is its almost three-hour running time. While the first twenty minutes were necessary to establish the movie’s emotional core, the next hour was banal. Nothing much happened except for the fact that DiCaprio’s character returned to New York and wanted to gain The Butcher’s trust. So they attend social gatherings together, walk along the streets, go drinking… Pretty much what “tough guys” were supposed to do back in the day, I suppose. I found it really hard to care; perhaps if the whole charade did not last for an hour, I would have stuck with it. However, it did regain its footing half-way through after The Butcher finds Amsterdam and Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) sleeping together. (It’s not a spoiler. Everyone should know it was bound to happen.) Starting with that scene, I felt like DiCaprio and Day-Lewis were playing a cat-and-mouse game from who they really are to what their motivations are, especially Day-Lewis’ character. The second part of the film felt so much more alive and exciting; I also noticed how grand everything looked–the set, the clothes, the soundtrack… I was sucked into this world that Scorsese had envisioned like I was in his stronger motion pictures. Nevertheless, I cannot quite give this film a four-star rating and feel good about it because it did have that one hour that was pretty unnecessary. Regardless, DiCaprio and Day-Lewis gave very strong performaces and should be appreciated. I loved it when they had scenes when it was just the two of them in a room. I felt like I was right there with them and feeling like I shouldn’t be.
West Side Story (1961)
★★★ / ★★★★
“West Side Story” is pretty much an updated version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Instead of Montagues vs. Capulets, it’s the Sharks vs. the Jets, Puerto Rican immigrants and second generation Americans, respectively. I’m not very interested in musicals but I had to see this one because it’s considered a classic. Although I was pleasantly surprised with how well-made it was, I was also disappointed because it’s not very consistent in its quality. After it delivers one great scene, a pointless and aimless scene comes right after it, which balances out into mediocrity. Although the songs are memorable and some even made it to the modern media consciousness, there were some musicals numbers that tried to do too much. For instance, in one shot the characters are singing in a dimly-lit backdrop; the next frame introduces a glaring use of color in order to symbolize certain emotions when it really didn’t need to do it. Certain techniques like that became distracting and they took me out of the emotions that I was feeling at the time. Natalie Wood as Maria (a Shark) and Richard Beymer as Tony (a Jet) had strong chemistry so I was interested in what was about to happen to their relationship. I wish the film had focused more on them instead of the rival gangs. I think Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, the directors, spent too much time on the gangs just hanging about, bickering, and acting stupid. Not to mention those scenes were a bit lame (in this day and age) so I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I got what the directors were trying to do: To paint a picture that youth is the time to make mistakes and how teenagers are forced to grow up once they learn to take responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that they should spend about half the movie trying to get that message across. I felt like this movie could’ve been condensed from two hours and thirty minutes to an hour and forty minutes. Still, I’m giving this a recommendation because some parts were very strong such as when the film tried to tackle the issues of immigration, racism, groupthink, and us vs. them. Those social themes made this a musical with a brain even though it may not seem like it at first glance.
West Side Story Tickets and Information
★★★★ / ★★★★
I found this film to be thoroughly engaging from beginning to end because, despite the roughness and violence presented on the outside, the core is very sensitive but nothing is glamorized. Presley Chweneyagae is excellent as the lead because he’s convincing as a gang leader and a person who happens to have a broken soul because of his childhood. We see his character change in myriads of ways but each of those changes are subtle enough to leave a lasting impression. My favorite scene was when Chweneyagae was able to connect the old man on the wheelchair to a dog with a broken back. That scene was so powerful because there are a lot of muffled emotions and unsaid thoughts yet I couldn’t help but feel like everything is being revealed. I do not consider this a typical journey of a man becoming a “better person” by the end of the picture. Instead of taking a literal journey to exotic places, the main character was able to find self-respect, honor, and the ability to love in the place where he lived pretty much his whole life. With the help of the baby that he accidentally took while hijacking a car–seeing himself in that child while at the same time reminding him that the child is everything that he is not–he began a transformation that ultimately warrants his redemption. I’m glad the Academy recognized this as the Best Foreign Language Film of 2006. I will remember this film for a very long time.
Gran Torino (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I honestly thought this movie was going to end up a dud because the previews looked really preachy. But after about fifteen minutes into the film, I really cared for Clint Eastwood’s character even though he’s racist and a very secretive person. I knew he would open up a bit after meeting his Hmong neighbors but I wanted to see his struggles before becoming a better person. Eastwood’s character made me laugh even though he uses every racist Asian term because we are made to understand what he’s been through and how conflicted he is by people who do not look like him. The way he interacted with the Hmongs during a party was done in a bona fide manner, such as when the older women kept putting food on his plate. As part of the Asian community, that rings true whenever there’s a special occasion, especially when others think that you’re too skinny. The film was at its best whenever Eastwood’s character would interact with Ahney Her and Bee Vang; we come to realize that he treats them like a daughter and son, respectively, more than his blood relatives, and they treat him more like a father or a grandfather more than anyone else. There was a point in the film when Eastwood admitted that he finds more similarities with his ethnic neighbors than with his own flesh and blood. I think a lot of people feel that way especially when they don’t feel like they are appreciated despite their flaws. In a way, Eastwood’s character reminded me of my late grandfather. Even though my grandfather was not strict, he resembled Eastwood’s mannerisms such as his intimidating growl and the way he walked. As much as I loved the comedic moments, the dramatic elements are also very involving. The scenes which feature the Hmong gangs and the things they are capable of are both scary and heartbreaking. (I’m amazed by some people on IMDB who claim that Asian gangs don’t exist. Yes, they do exist.) I thought the ending was perfectly handled because it shows how much Eastwood’s character has grown and what he is willing to do for the kids who taught him how to feel more alive and connected. In the end, we realize what the Gran Torino is supposed to symbolize. Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino” is rumored to be his last film. If it is, I think his fans will (or should be) proud of this film. If it isn’t, then I’m excited for what he will come up with in the future.