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.
Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Intended to be a trilogy, “Mongol,” directed by Sergei Bodrov, painted a beautiful but often complex picture about a man’s (the future Genghis Khan played by Tadanobu Asano) journey on how his experiences from when he was a child shaped his ideals and eventually came to a decision to force such ideas to all Mongolian people. I don’t know much about the history prior to Genghis Khan’s ascension to power so I’m not the right person to ask about whether or not it’s historically accurate. Instead, I’ll review this film from a tabula rasa perspective. After reading some of the critics’ reviews, I finally decided to watch the movie and had high expectations. While I did expect scenes that consisted of ferocious bloodbath, I got exactly that and more. I was surprised by the amount of heart that this film had to offer. I liked the fact that it showed more of Genghis Khan’s failures than his victories. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, he kept getting up and wanting to fight again so it was not difficult at all to root for him. There’s something truly inspiring from watching a person’s inner drive accumulate in spite of extremely difficult situations and be able to pull through. What didn’t work for me, however, were the mythical scenes. I found it frustrating whenever the picture would cut the scenes whenever Genghis Khan’s life was in danger. It would then jump to another scene when he would be perfectly okay and somehow evaded the situation. I get that faith was an important aspect of Genghis Khan’s life (and the fact that this film was being told in a first person point-of-view, which, as we all know, is not always objective) but I felt that there were too many of those scenes and it took me away from the situations. Regardless, there are still a lot to see here such as the stunning background imageries and well-defined (as well as graphic) battle scenes. If one is into historical epics that humanize a warrior’s journey to power instead of glamorizing it while at the same time dealing with issues such as the fragility of alliances, this is definitely the film to see. It goes to show that an epic film doesn’t need to come out of Hollywood as long as it is ambitious, while at the same time still able to deliver the elements that ultimately convince the audiences why they should care for the lead character.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’m not going to judge this film with regards to whether or not it followed real life (which it didn’t in some parts) because it was based on a play by Peter Morgan. Michael Sheen stars as David Frost, a British television host who one day decides that he’s going to interview Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Of course, that decision isn’t as easy as it sounds because he has to have the right amount of funds, gather the right people for research and risk his entire career. The drama prior to the scenes before the interviews was really effective because it solidifies the idea that Frost will be utterly finished if the people do not get what they want from Nixon: remorse with regards to his actions while being the President of the United States, admittance that he did participate in a number of cover-ups and that he did, in fact, abuse his power while leading the country. Sheen was very effective as Frost because even though he’s outgoing, charismatic and enthusiastic enough to tackle such a political issue, we feel for him whenever he is pushed in a corner like a mouse because he simply lacks the experience of interviewing a person of Nixon’s caliber. Langella was quite impressive as well. At first I was skeptical on why he was nominated for Best Actor but after watching this picture, I knew that he deserved it. He may not look like Nixon but he convinced me that he was powerful, intimidating and extremely intelligent. I loved those scenes when he would play mind games with Sheen; though those scenes were really serious, I felt that Langella was having a great time as an actor. To feel that resonance while also being invested in what was happening on screen, to me, means the mark of a great actor. Aside from the two leads, I also enjoyed watching Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr. and Rebecca Hall as Caroline Cushing. Directed by Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon” is a classic David vs. Goliath story. Although I was a blown away by the script because of its sharpness and wit, I was more impressed with its efficiency as it tackled the important questions while painting complex characters worthy of in-depth analysis. I’m glad this was nominated for Best Picture in 2008.
★★ / ★★★★
This second part of the trilogy confused me. It started off with promise because it focuses on the ugly divorce between Julie Delpy and Zbigniew Zamachowski. Even though I thought the story would revolve around Delpy, Zamachowski is interesting because he’s vulnerable but he’s not above not taking revenge for the hateful things that Delpy did to him. After the divorce, Zamachowski ended up back in Poland and began acquiring wealth. He then hatched a plan to answer the questions that have been bothering him and decided to return to Delpy’s life. The first and last part of this picture were effective because it embraced its atypical way of telling the story. One moment it’s a marriage drama but the next it’s a well-told dark comedy. However, the middle portion was too aimless for my liking. I constantly found myself trying to figure out where the story was going or if it was even planning on going anywhere. Zamachowski’s character who has been kicked around like a homeless puppy by a handful of individuals spent too much time feeling sorry for himself. It works in some segments of the film because it makes the audiences root for him, but spending too much time in a depressed state can lead to audiences’ ambivalence. Even as he started to gain wealth and power, he still felt sorry for himself. Whatever happened to a depressed but strong protagonist like from its predecessor (played with such craft by Juliette Binoche)? I also missed the astute use of music and color in order to reveal certain layers of a character. This one barely had any and that frustrated me. If one is looking for an unconventional film that straddles the line between drama and dark comedy, this is the one to see. But if one is looking for something that’s rich in implications and technical ways of revealing certain aspects of characters without using words, avoid this one because it will disappoint.
Mean Streets (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The thing I like most about Martin Scorsese’s films is that he always gives his audiences the full package: great ear for dialogue, main characters that are very conflicted, astute use of color and settings that reflect a particular mood or attitude. This is one of the finest examples of Scorsese’s amazing career as a director. Harvey Keitel is wonderful to watch as a man who wants to acquire a respectable reputation in a mob in New York City’s Little Italy. However, his loyatly is torn in many different directions: the mob boss (Cesare Danova), his girlfriend (Amy Robinson), the church and his best friend (Robert De Niro). Keitel’s character is a man who wants to please everybody to the point where he ends up having too many worries in his mind. Those unfinished business that run about in his head breed frustration and anger inside him until he can no longer make everyone happy. However, this is not the kind of film that aims to teach audiences a valuable life lesson. Its goal is to simply observe this one man trying to keep his head above water while sharks surround him. My favorite scenes in this picture are all of the scenes when Keitel and De Niro would talk to each other. Each scene that they have whenever it’s just the two of them is so crucial because both of them reveal something that the audiences don’t know about them–usually something that is hidden whenever they’re around “tough guys” that run all over Little Italy. Some of the scenes really touched me because even though they are best friends that experience all the ups and downs, they’re more like brothers to each other. Even though De Niro’s character is irresponsible and immature, it’s not hard to tell that he loves Keitel unconditionally. On the outside, people may label this as a gangster film because of all the swagger of each character, but I consider this an ultimate character study. I admired Scorsese’s use of camera angles and quick cuts because they add to the movie’s overall feel. This film, without a doubt, influenced some of Quentin Tarantino’s best work such as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” So if you enjoyed those pictures, you’re most likely going to enjoy “Mean Streets.” I would like to see De Niro, Keitel and Scorsese team up in a modern film to see how much their chemistry has changed.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I can’t say that this is one of my favorite films from Stanley Kubrick, but I have to admit that this picture is extremely well-crafted. I was impressed that Kubrick shot each scene with only natural light such as the sun during the day and candles during the night. His use of certain cameras that tend to highlight the magnificient backgrounds is nothing short of brilliant. Like “Full Metal Jacket,” the topic of duality is explored in a meaningful way. The first part of the film focuses on Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal): how he left his family and joined the British Army. The second part of the film is about Barry Lyndon (still played by O’Neal) and his attempt to attain the respect he can never achieve. Redmond Barry and Barry Lyndon, though the same person, are completely different from each other. The former is naive and honorable, but the latter is hungry for wealth and power. On the outside, it’s about the rise and fall of man. But I think it’s so much more than that. “Barry Lyndon” is a classic example of a man so willing to change himself by forgetting his past as he tries to gather wealth and power (by marrying Marisa Berenson who plays Lady Lyndon), all the while not caring about anyone who gets hurt by his actions. At the same time, he’s not viewed as a completely evil person because of the events that shaped him; he still has the capability to love even though he does not show it in an apparent manner. I can see why most people would initially dismiss this film because it is very slow-moving. However, if one learns to embrace its slow nature, he or she will be rewarded by its epic historical story. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that this film won two Oscars–Best Cinematography amd Best Costume Design–because I’ve never seen anything like it. Each prop is gorgeous, especially the clothes and the paintings on the walls. Many times in the movie, especially during the second half, I felt like I was visiting a museum, not just because of the aesthetics, but also due to the echoes created by the characters’ feet and the whispers in conversations. Kubrick really was a perfectionist and it shows because each of his work is always exemplary. This is a difficult film to swallow and one of the reasons is its three-hour running time. However, it’s a fascinating character study. Barry Lyndon doesn’t realize that by forgetting where he comes from, he loses a significant portion of himself and therefore cannot grow to be a better person. He finds happiness in material things but never realizes that all he had to do was look inside himself. And that is only one of the many tragedies that this breathtaking film has to offer.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
★ / ★★★★
When I read this film’s scathing reviews (to say the least), I thought people were just being way too hard on it so I still wanted to watch it. Despite people’s advice (and insistence) to stay as far away from this movie as possible, I still hoped that I would like it even just a little bit because I love the first two “Mummy” installments (they reminded me of the spirit of the “Indiana Jones” franchise). This time around, I’d have to agree with everyone else; this is as bad as they say it is. First of all, they replaced my favorite actor from the franchise: Rachel Weisz. I thought she was perfect as Evelyn O’Connell because she excels at being bookish-smart and rarely depending on chance in order to reach some sort of success. It means that she’s perfect for Brendan Fraser’s character, Rick O’Connell, because he’s too goofy for his own good (which often leads him to trouble) and only depends on luck in order to get the upper hand. Maria Bello, Weisz’s replacement, interprets the character so differently, I felt like she was Rick O’Connell’s unwelcome second wife. She’s one dimensional, not that strong, and lacks charisma. Not to mention she doesn’t have chemistry with Frasier. Moreover, even though Luke Ford as Alex O’Connell is nice to look at, I didn’t find him as witty and as plucky as the younger Alex O’Connell (Freddie Boath) back in “The Mummy Returns.” In fact, I found Ford as interesting as an inert plank leaning against a wall. Brendar Frasier, despite his best efforts and fun energy, was sidelined. To me, the focus of this film was the conflict between Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li’s characters. Not only did the camera spend too much time on them (even though I really liked their martial arts scenes), the story is really about a thousand year old thirst for power and revenge. And somehow, Frasier and the gang managed to get tangled in its maelstrom. As for the film’s pacing, it didn’t really get interesting up until the forty-minute mark. In fact, I was kind of getting sleepy which is not a good sign because I love action-adventure films. I love watching characters travel from one place to another, seeing exotic locales, and winning at the end of the day. In this film, I didn’t really care about the characters because I never thought they were in any real danger. I literally rolled my eyes from when the Yetis appeared up until the end. Just when I thought that’s the worst of it, a dragon appeared… and then a giant monster that could bring down planes. In a nutshell, it just got too ridiculous. As much as I love the “Mummy” franchise, I’d have to urge everyone to skip this one and see something else–something that truly captures how it’s like to go on an adventure.