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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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New Escapist Column! On “Rogue One” as “Star Wars” for the Twenty-First Century…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine a little while ago, looking at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Like most films, the original Star Wars was a product of its time. It spoke to simmering tensions and traumas related to the late seventies, from lingering atomic anxieties to the horrors of the Vietnam War. However, a lot of time has passed since the original trilogy, and our cultural anxieties have changed over the intervening years. Since the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney, the Star Wars franchise has been fixated and focused on the original trilogy. However, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the only film to make an effort to ask what those tropes and conventions mean moved to the present day.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Spider-Man – Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home cannot help but exist in the shadow of Avengers: Endgame.

Indeed, one of the problems marketing Far From Home was the manner in which the entire emotional premise of the film served as a spoiler for Endgame, which meant that the film had to wait quite late in the game to release its second trailer. This sets up an interesting tension with Far From Home, which finds itself in the the seemingly contradictory position of being both the last movie in the current “phase” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also a film actually being produced by a company other than Marvel Studios.

Masking his feelings.

This weird push-and-pull runs through Far From Home, which seems caught between existing as a coda and epilogue to Endgame and working as a Spider-Man movie in its own right. To a certain extent, this was always going to be a tension within Far From Home, even before Endgame set its sights on becoming the biggest movie of all time. Endgame was always going to exert a gravity on Far From Home, given its plot mechanics and its character decisions. Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, along with director Jon Watts, were always going to be reacting to narrative and character choices that they never made.

As such, the most interesting thing that Far From Home can do is to literalise that tension.

Night Monkey Moves.

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125. V for Vendetta (#153)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta.

Accosted by “finger men” for breaking curfew, Evey Hammond is rescued by a mysterious stranger who only introduces himself as “V.” As Evey finds herself drawn deeper into the world of this violent vaudevillian figure and as she discovers more and more of his plot to topple the country’s totalitarian regime, Evey finds herself wonder whether this masked figure is a vigilante or villain.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 153rd best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: 2 Fast 2 Furious

I’m rewatching The Fast and the Furious for a separate project, as solidarity with fellow film critic Jay Coyle for his “Cinema of Experience” project to look at the changing face of cinema in the twenty-first century. He’ll be writing up his account of how the experience of watching movies has changed in the past twenty-or-so years, but I found my rewatch of The Fast and the Furious interesting enough to write a longer-form review of it.

The Fast and Furious franchise exists somewhere in the space between The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious, but is never quite caught on camera.

The Fast and the Furious is a late nineties undercover urban western about lawlessness in turn-of-the-millennium Los Angeles, of the dead end of the American Dream where young men (and occasional women) drive fast cars in circles to nowhere in particular, living their lives “one quarter mile at a time” without any purpose or any escape. It is a moral quagmire, a tribal wasteland in which law and order mean nothing. The film centres on a police officer sent to infiltrate this world of fast cars, who ultimately cannot bring his target to justice – because there is no justice in this empty and nihilistic world.

2 Fast 2 Furious is effectively a soft Miami Vice reboot. It is a bright and colourful thriller which follows former undercover police officer Brian O’Conner and his old friend Ramone Pierce as they are tasked to infiltrate a drug kingpin’s organisation in Miami. It is a much more conventional and delineated film, and also a much less existential. There are clearly defined good guys and bad guys, and O’Conner has absolutely no ethical objection to bringing in this particular criminal. The film is also appreciably brighter, both be virtue of its heavily saturated surroundings and by an increased emphasis on neon.

Watching 2 Fast 2 Furious, there’s a real sense that the production team had no idea what a hypothetical sequel to The Fast and the Furious would look like, only that it should exist… and maybe it should have some cars in it. Indeed, 2 Fast 2 Furious is pointedly at its most ridiculous when the script is forced to shoe-horn the “obligatory racing bits” into a conventional “undercover Miami drug bust movie.” There’s a weird disconnect between the two films, that goes beyond the absence of Vin Diesel.

Even with Paul Walker present and few small continuity references, there’s little to tether 2 Fast 2 Furious to The Fast and the Furious. It recalls the sort of old-fashioned Hollywood cynicism that produced sequels like Die Hard with a Vengeance, when familiar characters would be clumsily bolted on to a completely unrelated script to create a new franchise installment. Of course, with Dom Toretto in the wind, 2 Fast 2 Furious doesn’t even really have that many familiar characters to anchor it. Brian O’Conner was never going to be the franchise’s breakout character, after all. 2 Fast 2 Furious only has the name.

In some ways, the spark that would drive the Fast and Furious franchise is found in neither The Fast and the Furious nor 2 Fast 2 Furious. After all, the later blockbuster installments of the franchise feel like a completely different breed than either film; espionage-style superhero films involving the fate of the world. That spark is found in the gap between The Fast and the Furious nor 2 Fast 2 Furious, in the cynical idea that just about any kind of movie can be a Fast and Furious movie if you stick enough cars in it.

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37. No Country for Old Men (#171)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, 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 every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men.

Lives are thrown into chaos when a drug deal in Texas goes horribly wrong. Llewelyn Moss stumbles across two million dollars in drug money, and finds himself drawn into a world of violence and chaos as cartel hitman Anton Chigurh is on his trail. If this is not the mess, it’ll do ’til the mess gets here.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 171st best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Inquisition (Review)

Inquisition is a superb piece of television, and a highlight of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It is a very clever extrapolation of various themes and ideas that have been bubbling across the length and breadth of the series, particularly concerns about what happens when incredible power is concentrated in institutions that find themselves under threat. One of the underlying assumptions of the Star Trek universe is that mankind is somehow different than any other sentient life form, somehow more enlightened and more idealistic than the other major powers that make up the broader shared universe.

Luthless.

Deep Space Nine has always been wary of this assumption, in part because it is frequently made with no real exploration of what specifically makes mankind more evolved and more compassionate than the Romulans or the Klingons. More than that, Deep Space Nine has been openly suspicious of that idea because of the moral complacency involved. If Star Trek assumes that mankind is so special and so unique that it has evolved past all of its darker impulses, the franchise has a massive blindspot that could be readily exploited.

This is nothing new. Although the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation leaned heavily into the idea of mankind as a hyper-evolved species with much to teach the wider cosmos, that series really came of age when it followed this train of thought to its logical conclusion in The Measure of a Man. A society that deems itself beyond moral reproach is capable of anything, because it lacks the introspection to really consider the moral weight of its actions. Even in peacetime, the Federation was only a single court case away from re-instituting slavery.

Imperialist leather.

Inquisition is very much a logical extension of this idea. Beyond the sprawling epic six-episode opening arc, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine arguably works best when it sits outside the Dominion War and explores the impact that the conflict has beyond the space battles. Statistical Probabilities ponders the war in numerical terms. Honour Among Thieves inquires about life in the underground and at the margins. In the Pale Moonlight touches on the backroom politics and the moral compromises. Inquisition looks at how the Federation itself has been changed by the war.

Like Homefront and Paradise Lost, Inquisition has aged well. Less than half a decade after the episode originally aired, the United States would be trying “enemy combatants” in secretive military tribunals, detaining suspected terrorists without trial in secretive holding facilities, and engaging in “enhanced interrogation” including sleep deprivation to make subjects more pliable. Although the production team could have no idea at the time, the image of a dark-skinned man being paraded in irons is a lot more evocative two decades after the fact.

“Not quite the parade that I had in mind.”

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The Dark Knight Rises (and Falls) in 2016

As it draws to a close, there has been considerable reflection on the fact that 2016 has been a very “strange” year.

Of course, “strange” is perhaps a polite way of phrasing that sentiment. “Harrowing” might be another. “Depressing” could also fit. The year has been physically and emotionally draining for virtually everyone. It was the year that audiences around the world bid farewell to talents as diverse as David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen. When it was determined that December 2016 would receive a “leap second”, it felt almost like an insult. Why should 2016 last one second longer than it absolutely has to? (Not that 2017 promises to be better.)

The hole in things.

The hole in things.

However, the biggest shocks of 2016 were political. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump shook the world to its core, and not just because the pollsters somehow failed to predict them. Those public votes were seen as stern rejections of liberalism and progressivism, of an angry and disenfranchised class striking back at what had been seen a disconnected and aloof elite. It was presented as a strike back against the establishment, against vested interests, an expression of rage – whether racial or economic.

Some of the best films of the year helped to capture that sense of anxiety and resentment. The Hateful Eight suggested that perhaps the United States had never reconciled itself following the end of the Civil War and perhaps it never would. Green Room suggested that there was still a primitive savagery lurking just off the main roads, nestled snugly in the heart of the country. The Girl With All the Gifts dared to suggest that those who reacted with panic and fear to change were likely to find themselves consumed by it.

Everything falls apart.

Everything falls apart.

However, the movie that most successfully embodied 2016 was not released in 2016. It was released four years earlier. That film was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to his groundbreaking Batman trilogy of films. Batman Begins had been released in 2005, and its meditations on fear made for a potent superhero story in the midst of the War on Terror. The Dark Knight was released in 2008, and seemed the perfect film to close out the Bush era. It was even described as “the first great post-Sept. 11 film.”

In some respects, The Dark Knight Rises was lost on its initial release. It seemed rather out of place, with audiences unsure how best to read the film. It was not the sequel that anybody had been expecting. Indeed, it seems fair to observe that it was not the sequel that Christopher Nolan would have been expecting as he worked on The Dark Knight. That had been a crime epic with political undertones. The Dark Knight Rises was a revolutionary epic and war movie, an odd combination for a film released in 2012. And yet it feels perfectly in step with 2016.

"Okay, maybe Batman vs. Superman wasn't everything that it could have been."

“Okay, maybe Batman vs. Superman wasn’t everything that it could have been.”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Paradise Lost (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

Part of what is so remarkable about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is how prescient it seems.

The Star Trek franchise is renowned for its central metaphors and allegories, its fondness for addressing contemporary issues through abstract philosophical discussions. Even the most casual of television fans can point to episodes like Let That be Your Last Battlefield or A Private Little War as examples of the franchise’s engagement with contemporary social issues. (Of course, they may not be able to actually name those episodes.) Of course, the reality was always more complicated than that, but this social engagement is part of the popular memory of the franchise.

Armed and dangerous...

Armed and dangerous…

While there is a tendency to overstate the importance of social commentary and engagement in the history of the Star Trek franchise, it is a massive part of the cultural behemoth. Although not every (and arguably not even most) Star Trek episodes are explorations of moral philosophy that apply to the contemporary world, they are an essential part of each and every Star Trek series. Sometimes these episodes are brilliant, and sometimes they are heavy-handed. Sometimes they are earnestly sincere, and sometimes they are hopelessly misguided.

However, Deep Space Nine stands out in comparison to its contemporaries. Even twenty years after the show aired, it seems like Deep Space Nine speaks to contemporary anxieties and uncertainties.

The Changeling Face of Evil...

The Changeling Face of Evil…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Way of the Warrior (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

The third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was really just a dress rehearsal for what lay ahead.

The third season had been a tumultuous time for the show, with Michael Piller departing the franchise to pursue opportunities outside Star Trek. It was the year directly after the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and all attention was focused on the pending release of Star Trek: Generations and the launch of Star Trek: Voyager. On top of that, the third season suffered from a great deal of confusion and disorganisation throughout the year, making it very hard for the production team to set an end goal for themselves.

"This could be the start of a beautiful friendship..."

“This could be the start of a beautiful friendship…”

In fact, the third season of Deep Space Nine was such a mess that the production team had not even managed to hit the end of season cliffhanger that they wanted. The Adversary had been drafted at the last possible minute when the studio vetoed the idea of ending the year with a Vulcan withdrawal from the Federation. This is not to discount the long list of impressive episodes produced during the season, but it does illustrate that the third season of Deep Space Nine had not progressed according to plan.

At the same time, it was a vital learning experience for the show. It provided a clear framework for what followed, providing producer Ira Steven Behr with a foundation from which he would build the rest of the run. The work put in during the third season would pay dividends in the fourth and fifth seasons, as the show began to play with and pay off ideas that had been carefully and meticulously established during that most chaotic of seasons. In fact, the show begins paying off those dividends with The Way of the Warrior, the first episode of the fourth season.

Klingons woz 'ere...

Klingons woz ‘ere…

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