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“The Blood Stays on the Blade”: The Birth of a Nation in Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Kundun. This week, we’re looking at Gangs of New York. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s complicated and messy 2002 passion project.

Martin Scorsese had wanted to make Gangs of New York for over thirty years.

The director had reportedly stumbled across a copy of Herbert Asbury’s book while house-sitting for a friend over New Year in 1970. Gangs of New York became one of the projects that Scorsese desperately wanted to make, alongside The Last Temptation of Christ, which had been given to him by Barbara Hershey on the set of Boxcar Bertha. Of course, Scorsese would not get to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York during the seventies. Instead, the implosion of New York, New York would set his plans back years.

Scorsese had reportedly been hoping to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York following the release of New York, New York, when Robert DeNiro convinced him to direct Raging Bull instead. Scorsese would spend the eighties adapting to the collapse of the New Hollywood movement, and would just about manage to get The Last Temptation of Christ produced. He never gave up on Gangs of New York, and the film went through various iterations over the years. It might have starred Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd or Mel Gibson and Willem Dafoe.

When the possibility of making Gangs of New York emerged in the late nineties, it might have seemed like a culmination. As the project lurched closer and closer to actually materialising, it must have seemed like it would be one of Scorsese’s last major motion pictures. After all, Scorsese was almost sixty. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were the only two other “movie brats” who were still making high-profile and big-budget films. There was perhaps a sense that Scorsese might just about have this film left in him, before retiring to less mainstream and more esoteric works.

While Scorsese had entered the nineties on a high note with Goodfellas, the films that followed were not as universally welcomed. Roger Ebert complained about “a certain impersonality” in Cape Fear, the film following Goodfellas. The Age of Innocence arrived with a shrug. Casino was treated as highly derivative of Goodfellas, with Peter Travers sighing that “the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale.” Kundun sparked a diplomatic incident with China, and was quietly buried by Disney. Bringing Out the Dead felt like a curiosity more than a classic.

Of course, history has been kind to all (or at least most) of those films. Scorsese’s nineties output is recognised in hindsight as a vibrant and important part of his career. Nevertheless, as Gangs of New York slowly and awkwardly forced itself into being, it might have looked like the last swing of the bat from one of the great American directors. A film that had been simmering in the director’s imagination for decades, it might serve as a definitive and concluding statement about the city and the nation that he loved.

More than twenty years after the shutters came down on the New Hollywood movement, Scorsese would finally get to make an epic that was comparable to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Of course, those sorts of projects feel like capstones – Heaven’s Gate famously brought United Artists tumbling down, while Coppola would never direct anything with as much freedom or cultural impact after Apocalypse Now. As such, Scorsese’s long-delayed shot at making his epic passion project seemed like closure.

Looking back at Gangs of New York, this seems absurd. Almost two decades after Gangs of New York, Scorsese is still making films. Scorsese is enjoying larger budgets on films like The Irishman and The Killers of the Flower Moon than he did earlier in his career. If anything, Gangs of New York is a watershed. It is not Scorsese’s epic finale, but is instead the first in a series of epics that includes films like The Aviator or The Wolf of Wall Street. It introduced Scorsese to a young actor who “reignited” his enthusiasm for film making.

Indeed, time has been very kind to Gangs of New York. The film seemed to arrive at a crucial moment, both for Scorsese as director and for the United States as a nation. Gangs of New York offers a snapshot of American history that resonates strongly. It is not so much a historical picture as a dive into the depths of a shared unconscious and an excavation of the scars left on the American psyche. The catchy Oscar-nominated theme song might have boasted that the film was about “the hands that built America”, but the film was decidedly less optimistic in its perspective.

Gangs of New York is a story about the blood that stains those hands, and how history tends to repeat for those who refuse to learn from it.

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159. Gone With the Wind – Winter of ’39 (#165)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Grace Duffy and Rioghnach Ní Ghrioghair, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturdays at 6pm GMT.

So this week, Victor Fleming, George Cukor and Sam Wood’s Gone With the Wind.

A tale of revolution, romance and redemption set against the backdrop of the Civil War, Gone With the Wind remains one of the most sweeping epics ever produced by the studio system. The decades-long love affair between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler unfolds against the backdrop of the fall and rise of Scarlett’s family fortune.

At time of recording, it was ranked 165th on the list of the best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part II (Review)

To be fair, the clue is in the title.

It is hard to overstate just how big a cultural impact The Matrix had. The film was the fifth highest grossing movie in the United States, the fourth worldwide and the highest-grossing R-rated film of 1999. The Matrix immediately entered the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time at in the twentieth position, and only climbed from there. The Matrix was the first movie to sell more than one million copies on the the nascent DVD format.

Can’t see the forest for the trees.

More than that, The Matrix became a cultural shorthand. Phrases from the film (and its production) entered the popular lexicon; “I know kung-fu”, “the woman in the red dress”, “the red pill”, “bullet time.” Quentin Tarantino named it as one of his favourite movies of the previous quarter-century. The film lives on a context beyond its original production, its language coopted by fringe groups like incels or men’s rights activists or the alt-right. This just speaks to the impact that the film had upon an entire generation of young men.

To be fair, The Matrix did not necessarily articulate anything new, instead bringing together a wealth of science-fiction tropes with an Asian-influenced action aesthetic. After all, it was just one of a wave of films dealing with similar thematic ideas around the same time; The Thirteenth Floor, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenZ, Harsh Realm. Even Star Trek: Voyager had riffed on similar ideas in stories like Projections or Course: Oblivion. Nevertheless, The Matrix seemed to speak to a particular millennial anxiety at the end of the nineties.

Love across light years.

The Matrix was the story of a future in which humanity had been enslaved, in which human bodies were treated as batteries for a vast and uncaring system. In order to keep humanity docile, this system fed mankind a shared illusion of life at the end of the twentieth century. This illusory world was reality for those dreamers trapped within it, touching on various anxieties about reality and unreality in the context of the late nineties. The Matrix packaged up a host of ambient fears about capitalism, virtual reality, illusion and the end of history in a clever and exciting action film.

It seems inevitable that Voyager would offer its own take on this concept. After all, the series had been playing with similar ideas dating back to its own first season. The fragility of reality and the dangers of convincing simulation are a recurring motif. Indeed, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are not even the only episodes that draw heavily from The Matrix. There are shades of it to Work Force, Part I and Work Force, Part II. Nevertheless, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are undoubtedly the most overt examples of this.

Unimatrix reloaded.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Q and the Grey (Review)

The Q and the Grey is an extraordinary cynical piece of work.

What better way to mark the release of Star Trek: First Contact into cinemas than to ensure that the very next episode of Star Trek: Voyager to broadcast features a guest appearance from one of the most beloved recurring characters to have appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation? After all, the series had just led into the release of the movie with Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II providing a mid-nineties reimagining of the beloved Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Pitching Q.

Pitching Q.

More than that, with Michael Piller gone from the writers’ room, the production staff had laid out a vision for the future of Voyager. The series effectively jettisoned any number of ideas that Piller had fostered over the first two seasons, from tension between Starfleet and the Maquis to the Kazon to Lon Suder to the idea of long-form storytelling to the relationship between Neelix and Kes. Instead, Voyager had decided to pitch itself as the most generic Star Trek ever, with little reference to the central premise of the series from here on out.

Indeed, The Q and the Grey is the second story in a very short space of time to make light of the crew’s journey home by refusing to press a more powerful guest star for assistance. In Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, the ship’s temporally displaced return to Earth was shrugged with only a few lines of dialogue used to explain why this trip halfway across the galaxy could not be exploited to shorten their journey home. In The Q and the Grey, Janeway declines Q’s offer of assistance to get the crew home.

Bold-faced liar.

Bold-faced liar.

“My crew and I will get home,” Janeway informs Q. “We’re committed to that. But we’re going to do it through hard work and determination. We are not looking for a quick fix.” It is effectively the “building character” excuse for why Janeway doesn’t simply ask Q to return the ship home at the end of the story when the dust settles; nobody actually knows why that is, but it is probably best to offer some moral argument. The fact the Q could easily return the ship home, saving the lives of those who will die in the years ahead, is glossed over.

However, that does not matter, because Voyager has largely rejected its central premise. This no longer a series about a crew desperately longing to get home, except when it provides a convenient motivation. This is a Star Trek spin-off that is content to offer reheated leftovers inherited from The Next Generation. In this case, The Q and the Grey feels like a retread of Q Pid, a particularly uninspiring Next Generation episode. Next, Macrocosm will offer its own take on Genesis, another less than iconic Next Generation story.

And your little dog, too.

And your little dog, too.

All of this is building, to Voyager‘s most blatant and obvious inheritance from The Next Generation. The Borg are coming to Voyager, in greater numbers and higher concentration than they ever appeared on The Next Generation, as the show continues awkwardly trying on its older sibling’s clothes. It is disappointing and uninspiring by equal measure, watching Voyager abandon any pretence of its own identity in favour of something safer and more familiar. Then again, this was always a Star Trek show about longing for the comforts of home.

However, The Q and the Grey is not merely unoriginal and uninspired, it is also unfortunate. Kenneth Biller’s script is cringe-inducing and embarrassing, illogical and misogynistic. The biggest issue with The Q and the Grey is not that Voyager has settled for offering a pale imitation of The Next Generation. The problem is that that the imitation is downright terrible in its own right.

It fingers.

It fingers.

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Non-Review Review: Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones does a decent job approximating the feel of a prestige picture.

Free State of Jones feels almost like writer and director Gary Ross is running through a checklist of all the elements expected from a successful prestige picture. It deals with heavy subject matter, unfolding primarily during the Civil War and touching upon Reconstruction. It is paced indulgently, never rising to more the a sitting trot. It is anchored in performance by a critically-acclaimed Oscar-winning actor who dominates the film. Its cinematography is uncomplicated and stately. It is laboured with a framing device that offers the illusion of depth.

When the dust settles...

When the dust settles…

Free State of Jones plays as an imitation of a much bolder and provocative film. There are points at which the film brushes up against potentially brilliant ideas, only to back away. For a film about slavery, Free State of Jones finds itself unable to look beyond its white leading character. The framing and scene composition is clearly intended to seem dignified, but instead feels lifeless. The film’s perspective is limited, in both a literal and figurative sense. There are a lot of interesting ideas inside Free State of Jones, but none of them are allowed to grow.

There is a heavy earnestness to Free State of Jones, but it suffocates the story.

Riding shotgun on secession.

Riding shotgun on secession.

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The Death of the Auteur Blockbuster, 2000-2016

Suicide Squad premiered last week, to incredibly negative reviews and an incredibly impressive box office.

There are a lot of discussions to be had about that, but the most interesting narrative is the story that has developed behind the scenes. If rumours are to be believed, it seems that there is a very intriguing book to be written about the production of Suicide Squad, although the less said about Jared Leto’s bodily fluids the better. Writer and director David Ayer was reportedly given six weeks to write a script featuring almost a dozen major characters, only for the final cut to be given to a company that had cut the film’s viral trailers.

suicidesquad

It is not particularly proud moment for film-making, particularly given the emphasis that Warner Brothers had put on their blockbuster slate as “film-maker driven.” Indeed, the laundry list of rumoured deleted scenes has become a convenient stick with which the movie might be beaten. How in the name of goodness could Suicide Squad be so messed up as to portray the fundamentally abusive relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn as loving and affectionate? The answer is that the original cut of the movie was candid about the abuse, but it was cut out.

Although Warner Brothers’ DC movie slate has become an easy target for pundits looking to score cheap shots and drive page-views, the problem is more fundamental than that. In hindsight, with the summer of 2016 coming to the close, it feels like the end of the era. The curtain is drawing down on the short-lived “blockbuster auteur” era of big budget franchise film-making.

captainamerica-civilwar8

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Non-Review Review: Captain America – Civil War

Captain America: Civil War is, in some ways, a little too civil.

The third film in the series (following Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is produced to the highest professional standard. It is sleek and stylish, well-constructed and cleanly edited. It is always clear what is going on, no mean feat for a film with a cast this expansive. Character motivations are always entirely clear, even if there’s seldom any effort to explain why these characters have these motivations. It is a well-oiled, well-lubricated machine that hits all its marks and zips through its two-and-a-half hour runtime.

America, #!?> yeah...

America, #!?> yeah…

The biggest problem with Civil War is that it is a little too clean and professional, a little too mechanical and a little too impersonal. The film’s plot is anchored in some pretty heavy ideas about collateral damage and the responsibility that comes with unilateral intervention, but the script contorts awkwardly to ensure that things never get too heavy. “We’re still friends, right?” the Black Widow quips during her throwdown with Hawkeye, and Civil War is very careful to ensure that it doesn’t damage anything that cannot be replaced.

This is a perfectly reasonable approach to the film, given how many more films are leaning upon it, but it also feels a little forced. There are points at which Civil War bends itself into unnatural shapes to ensure that it can have its cake and eat it too.

He ain't heavy, he's my Rhodey...

He ain’t heavy, he’s my Rhodey…

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The X-Files – The Field Where I Died (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Morgan and Wong’s four scripts for the fourth season of The X-Files are utterly unlike any other stories in the show’s nine-season run. Experimental, bold, confrontational; these four stories stretch and pull at The X-Files, as if eager to see just how far the hit show will bend.

The Field Where I Died is probably the weakest of these four episodes, but it is also the most ambitious. It is a script with big ideas and a willingness to commit to those ideas. There is no modesty here, no hesitation. There is a sense that Morgan and Wong are committing wholeheartedly to their themes and their concepts. The Field Where I Died is an episode that rubs quite a lot of people the wrong way, for a number of different reasons; however, the episode never pulls its punches. It never holds back. It never tries to be anything that it is not.

Far afield...

Far afield…

There is a lot to admire here. The Field Where I Died is not an episode with a simply formulaic concept or a conventional structure. It looks and feels completely unlike any other episode of the show. Even when the show touched on similar themes in its final season, the result was radically different. Hellbound is a much more conventional episode than The Field Where I Died. More than Home or Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man or Never Again, this is an episode that really seems like an odd fit for The X-Files.

Then again, that may be the beautiful thing about The Field Where I Died, for all its many flaws. It is utterly unlike anything else on television in the nineties. The fact that it can produce an episode of television so unique and incomparable is ultimately what makes The X-Files feel like The X-Files. The fact that The Field Where I Died feels so unconventional and eccentric is precisely what makes it a worthy episode of The X-Files.

Another roaring success for Mulder...

Another roaring success for Mulder…

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J. Michael Straczynski’s (and Ron Garney’s) Run on the Amazing Spider-Man – Civil War (Review/Retrospective)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

Spider-Man is a pretty important character in the whole Civil War event. Indeed, he’s probably the event’s third most important character – aside from Captain America and Iron Man. So it makes sense that J. Michael Straczynsi’s extended run on The Amazing Spider-Man would stop and engage with the massive crossover spanning the entire Marvel Universe. And, from a logistical “structuring a comic book crossover tie-in so it makes any sense to a reader picking up the book” point of view, Straczynski does a great job. You can read The Amazing Spider-Man without needing to even pick up the Civil War miniseries.

However, as a piece of writing on its own merits, Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man tie-in is a mess. Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man run has been collecting trouble aspects for quite some time, particularly when Straczynski seemed to brush up against the editorial demands for the book. Sins Past was perhaps the most obvious example, but with Civil War the comic entered a phase where it was pretty much an editorial means to an end. Everything from this point on was pushing towards One More Day, an event that would wipe decades of continuity from the title. (Including Straczynski’s run.)

Civil War really gets the ball rolling on these sweeping editorially-mandated changes, but that’s not the only problem with the story arc. Given Spider-Man’s importance to Civil War, and his role as defector from one side to the other, it seems like Spider-Man would really be the perfect lens through which Straczynski could explore the issue. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear upon which side of the issue Straczynski comes down.

A tangled web...

A tangled web…

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Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato Jr.’s Run on Thunderbolts (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato Jr.’s year-long twelve-issue run on Thunderbolts is a phenomenal piece of work from a mainstream comic book company. It’s an absurdly fun comic book – one that goes completely off the rails any number of times, moving with momentum of a runaway freight train. Ellis’ unhinged plotting and dialogue find a perfect partner in Deodato’s dark and moody (yet photo-realistic) artwork.

While Ellis includes quite a bit of social, political and even meta commentary in this year-long anti-hero team-up book, there’s a sense that Thunderbolts was written with an intention of going completely overboard, basking in the surreal absurdity of superhero storytelling conventions while playing with a selection of (mostly) second-tier characters that free Ellis’ hand significantly. There are few dependencies and obligations that Ellis has with this cast, allowing him to go to town with them.

In many respects, Thunderbolts feels like a slightly more cynical, slightly more grounded counterpart to his (roughly) contemporaneous Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. Over course, “slightly more grounded” simply means that a middle-aged civil servant in a goblin outfit is the villain of the piece, rather than a hyper-intelligent talking dinosaur.

Norman Osborn is a perfectly sane individual...

Norman Osborn is a perfectly sane individual…

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