“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

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“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

I just recently watched the 1936 disaster film, “SAN FRANCISCO”, which starred Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt. Released 30 years after the actual event, the movie is basically about a Barbary Coast saloonkeeper (Gable) and a Nob Hill impresario (Holt) who became rivals for the affections of a beautiful singer (MacDonald), both personally and professionally in 1906 San Francisco. The story culminated in the deadly April 18, 1906 earthquake that devastated the city. 

In the movie, a gambling hall tycoon named Blackie Norton (Gable) hires an impoverished but classically-trained singer from Colorado named Mary Blake (MacDonald). Mary also attracts the attention of a wealthy Nob Hill patron named Jack Burley (Holt), who believes that she is destined for a better career as an opera singer. Mary becomes a star attraction at Blackie’s saloon, and a romance develops between them. Complications arise when she is also courted by Burley. He also offers her an opportunity to sing in the opera. Meanwhile, Blackie’s childhood friend, Roman Catholic Father Tim Mullen (Tracy), keeps trying to reform him, while the other nightclub owners attempt to convince Norton to run for the City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors in order to protect their crooked interests. Despite Father Tim’s best efforts, Blackie remains a jaunty Barbary Coast atheist until the famous 1906 earthquake devastates the city. He “finds God” upon discovering that had Mary survived.

Basically, “SAN FRANCISCO” is an excellent movie filled with vitality, good performances and great music. Director Woody Van Dyke did an excellent job of capturing the color and energy of San Francisco during the Gilded Age. He was ably supported by the movie’s Assistant Director (Joseph M. Newman) and montage expert (Slavko Vorkapich). Composer Bronislaw Kaper and lyricist Gus Kahn wrote the now famous title song, performed by MacDonald. One of the best moments in the film occurred when MacDonald’s character announces her intention of performing the song in the movie’s Chicken’s Ball, producing applause and cries of joy from the audience. As for the famous earthquake itself . . . I am amazed that after seventy years or so, I still find it impressive. To this day, the earthquake montage is considered one of the standards that all disaster films are compared with. In fact, Assistant Director Newman won a special Academy Awards for his work.

Robert Hopkins (who received an Oscar nomination) wrote the story for “SAN FRANCISCO” and the famous Anita Loos wrote the screenplay. Hopkins and Loos created a good, solid story. But I have to be honest that I found nothing remarkable about it. It seemed like your basic Gable programmer from the 1930s that easily could have been set during any time period in American history . . . well, except for the actual earthquake. I do have one major problem with the movie’s plot – namely its religious subplot in which Father Mullen spends most of his time trying to redeem Blackie. Quite frankly, it struck me as heavy-handed and a little out of place. Perhaps Hopkins and Loos had intended for the scene in which Blackie found Mary offering compassion to some of the earthquake’s survivors to be a tender and emotional moment. It could have been . . . if they had left out the heavy religious theme.

The only good thing about the religious aspect of the story was Spencer Tracy’s presence in the film. One cannot deny that he gave the best performance in the movie. Well, he and veteran actress, Jessie Ralph, who portrayed Jack Burley’s Irish-born mother. But Tracy’s presence also meant that one had to deal with the movie’s religious subplot. And as much as I liked Tracy in the film, I think it could have done without him. Jeanette MacDonald gave a solid performance as the saloon hall singer-turned opera diva, Mary Blake. However . . . I found MacDonald’s singing more remarkable than her character. Pardon me for saying this but Mary is one boring woman. Rather typical of the female characters that Gable’s characters had romanced in his movies during the mid and late 1930s. I find it amazing that two dynamic men like Blackie and Burley were so dazzled by her. Both Clark Gable and Jack Holt gave solid performances as the two rivals wooing for Mary’s hand. Ironically, despite the differences in their characters’ backgrounds, they were chillingly alike. Both were charming, gregarious and extremely underhanded men. Quite frankly, I found it amazing that Mary could prefer one over the other.

Despite some flaws – the most obvious being the religious subplot that turned out to be as subtle as a rampaging elephant – “SAN FRANCISCO” is a first-class, rousing movie filled with music, drama, laughs and one of the best special effect sequences in movie history. I heartily recommend it.

 

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“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” (2016) Review

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“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” (2016) Review

When I had first learned of Disney and Lucasfilm’s plans to create a series of stand-alone films within the STAR WARS franchise, I felt a little taken aback. I had felt certain that the new owners of the franchise would stick to a series of films that served as one chapter in a long story. But following the 2015 release of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” and my slight disappointment over it, I was willing to accept anything new.

“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” was announced as the first of a series of those stand-alone film. However, I found this ironic, considering that the plot for “ROGUE ONE” more or less served as a prequel to the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. The 2016 film’s plot centered around the Rebel Alliance’s discovery of the first Death Star and their efforts to steal the very plans that served as a plot incentive for “A NEW HOPE”. Upon contemplating the movie’s plot, it occurred to me that Disney/Lucasfilm could have re-titled the movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – ROGUE ONE” and change the title for all of the films that followed chronologically. Especially since “ROGUE ONE” seemed to have a major, major impact upon the narrative for “A NEW HOPE”.

Actually, “ROGUE ONE” begins with a prologue set thirteen years before the film’s main narrative. Research scientist Galen Erso and his family are discovered to be hiding out on the planet Lah’mu by Imperial weapons developer, Orson Krennic. The latter wants him to help complete the Death Star, which had began construction several years earlier. Although Galen instructs his wife Lyra and daughter Jyn to hide where they can be found by Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera, Lyra instructs Jyn to hide and tries to rescue her husband from Krennic. Unfortunately, Lyra is killed, Galen is escorted away by Krennic and a squad of death troopers and Jyn spends the next few years being raised by Gerrera.

Thirteen years pass when Imperial cargo pilot Bodhi Rook defects from the Empire in order to smuggle a holographic message from Galen to Gerrera, now residing on the desert moon Jedha (where the Empire is mining kyber crystals to power the Death Star). Rebel intelligence officer Captain Cassian Andor learns about Bodhi’s defection. He frees Jyn, now a minor criminal in her early twenties, from an Imperial labor camp at Wobani. He brings her before the Rebel Alliance leaders, who convince her to find Gerrera and rescue Galen so the Alliance can learn more about the Death Star. While meeting Gerrera on Jedha; Jyn and Cassian become acquainted with Bodhi, who is Gerrera’s prisoner; a blind former Guardian of the Whills named Chirrut Îmw; and Chirrut’s best friend, a former Guardian of the Whills-turned-freelance assassin named Baze Malbus. While Jyn and the others escape the destruction of Jedha’s holy city by the Death Star and head for Galen’s location on Eadu, they are unaware that Cassian has been covertly ordered by Alliance General Draven to kill Galen after confirming the existence of the Death Star.

I noticed that the media tend to describe the plot for “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” as a mission for a group of rebels to steal the Death Star plans. And yet . . . after watching the film, I noticed that “theft of the Death Star plans” story line did not really kick in until the last thirty-to-forty minutes. Most of the film seemed to be centered on the Rebel Alliance confirming the existence of the Death Star. By shifting the actual attempt to steal the Death Star plans to the movie’s last act, Gareth Edwards and the film’s producers may have undermined the actual narrative surrounding the mission. It seemed . . . well, it reminded me of Luke Skywalker’s plans to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt in 1983’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” – confusing, a bit lame and out of left field. It also struck me as a bit rushed. I also found the major battle over Scarif during the heist of the Death Star plans a bit too much. I thought it was unnecessary to include it in the movie. Since the opening crawler for “A NEW HOPE” had made it clear that the Rebel Alliance had won its first major battle against the Galactic Empire, while the plans were being stolen, I can blame George Lucas instead of Gareth Edwards. So now, the movie is a . . . what? I do not know. Perhaps I had been expecting a Star Wars version of a heist film. Or an espionage film that did not a major battle. Instead, I found myself watching a movie that seemed to have more than one kind of narrative.

I had a few other problems with “ROGUE ONE”. Once the movie had moved past the prologue regarding Jyn Erso’s childhood, the narrative rushed. At breakneck speed. It rushed from Cassian Andor’s meeting with an informative on a planet whose name I do not remember, to his rescue of Jyn Erso from an Imperial prison transport, to Bodhi Rook’s disastrous meeting with Saw Gerrera and finally to Jyn’s meeting with the Rebel Alliance leaders on Yavin. Once Jyn, Cassian and the latter’s companion – a reprogrammed Imperial droid called K-2SO arrive on Jedha; the movie slows down to a tolerable pace. I also had a problem with the movie’s prologue – especially the circumstances surrounding Lyra Erso’s death. I am still wondering why she had believed she could save her husband from Orson Krennic and a squad of death troopers with a blaster. Was she really that stupid? Or did the screenwriters simply found a lazy and contrived way to kill her off?

“ROGUE ONE” also featured the appearances of a few characters for fan service. C-3P0 and R2-D2 were briefly shown at the Rebel Alliance base on Yavin before they were supposed to be aboard the Tantive IV. Their appearance struck me as unnecessary and forced. Speaking of the Tantive IV, what kind of transport did Bail Organa used to return to Alderaan? Especially since the corvette was his personal transport and his adoptive daughter, Leia Organa would end up using the ship for her mission, later on. I was very surprised to see Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba, the thuggish pair who had harassed Luke Skywalker in “A NEW HOPE”. This pair had bumped into Jyn and Cassian on the streets of Jedha City. Considering that an hour or two later, the Holy City was destroyed by the Death Star, I found myself wondering how they had avoided death in order to reach Tattoine in time to encounter Luke and Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in “A NEW HOPE”. I eventually learned that the pair had left Jedha just before the city’s destruction. Okay . . . but why include them in this movie in the first place? It was unnecessary. And their presence in the movie nearly created a blooper within the saga.

“ROGUE ONE” also featured the return of the Death Star commander, Grand Moff Tarkin and a young Leia Organa. Since Peter Cushing, who had portrayed Tarkin in the 1977 film had been dead for over two decades; and Carrie Fisher was at least 58 to 59 years old when the movie was shot; Lucasfilm had decided to use CGI for their faces. Frankly, it did not work for me. I feel that Lucasfilm could have simply used actor Guy Henry to portray Tarkin without pasting Cushing’s CGI generated image on his face. They could have done the same for actress Ingvild Deila, who briefly portrayed Leia with Fisher’s image. Honestly, the CGI images of the two characters reminded me of a video game. A relative of mine had pointed out that both had a “dead in the eyes” look about them.

And yet . . . despite these quibbles, I still managed to enjoy “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” very much. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I did Disney’s other entry for the franchise, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The movie’s narrative seemed very original in compare to the 2015 movie. Of all the STAR WARS movies I have seen, it seemed more like an espionage flick than any other in the franchise. And like the Prequel Trilogy, “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the last act of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”“ROGUE ONE” seemed willing to explore the ambiguity of its characters and its plotlines.

This especially seemed to be the case for characters like the ruthless Rebel Alliance General Davits Draven, Alliance leader Mon Mothma, the extremist Rebel freedom fighter Saw Guerra and one of the main characters – mercenary Baze Malbus. Forest Whitaker had been cast to portray former Clone Wars veteran and Rebel freedom fighter, Saw Guerra; who had served as Jyn Erso’s guardian following her mother’s death and father’s capture. I noticed that Whitaker, who seemed to have a talent for accents, had utilized a slight West African one to portray Guerra. However, I was more impressed by Whitaker’s portrayal of the imposing Guerra as a slightly withered soul, whose years of political extremism and violence had left him physically disabled and paranoid. I really enjoyed one scene in which Whitaker conveyed Guerra’s fear that his former protegee, Jyn, had sought him out to kill him. Alistair Petrie did an excellent job in combining both the commanding presence of General Draven and his ruthless ambiguity. After all, this was the man whose sole reason behind the search for Galen Erso was to have the latter killed. Genevieve O’Reilly had portrayed the younger Mon Mothma in 2005’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”, but her scenes had been cut. Eleven years later, she returned to portray the same character. Only in this film, O’Reilly’s former Senator Mothma who is nearly rendered speechless by Jyn’s revelation about the Death Star. O’Reilly did a first-rate job in portraying a Mon Mothma never seen before. Yes, she behaved like a leader. However, O’Reilly got the chance to convey some of Mon Mothma’s uncertainty about the Alliance dealing with the Death Star. I realize that some of you might find it odd that I would list Baze Malbus as one of the movie’s more ambiguous characters. He really did nothing in the movie to hint his ambiguous nature, considering that he spent most of his time coming to the aid of his friend, Chirrut Îmwe or their companions. But I noticed how actor Jiang Wen skillfully conveyed Baze’s cynical personality and reluctance to play hero and get dragged into the rebellion against the Empire.

If there were two characters that truly reflected the movie’s moral ambiguity – namely the two main protagonists, Jyn Erso and Captain Cassian Andor. Since the age of eight or nine (I think), Jyn has endured a lot by the age of twenty-two – the loss of her parents via death and capture, being raised as a Rebel fighter by an extremist like Saw Guerra and eventually abandoned at age sixteen, and life as a petty criminal (which included the occasional prison incarceration). It is not surprising that by the time the Rebel Alliance had recruited her, Jyn had become a cynical, wary and slightly ruthless young woman. And Felicity Jones did one hell of a job in bringing her to life. This is not surprising. Jyn Erso was such a complicated character and Jones was talented enough to convey this aspect of her. Cassian Andor, an intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance, had experienced a hard life since the age of six. His homeworld of Fest had joined the Separatists during the Clone Wars. This means that Cassian has been fighting for twenty of his twenty-six years – first against the Galactic Republic and later against the Empire, after he had joined the Rebel Alliance. Cassian shared Jyn’s ruthlessness. In some ways, he is a lot more ruthless and pragmatic than her. And unlike Jyn, Cassian is a dedicated warrior, rebel . . . and loner. But unlike her, he was also a very dedicated warrior and rebel. It seemed very apparent to me that those years as a freedom fighter had not only transformed him into a loner, but almost into another Saw Guerra. And Diego Luna gave a brilliant performance as the ruthless and pragmatic Captain Andor. I have only seen Luna in two other roles, but his performance as Cassian Andor was a revelation to me. Perhaps I should check out some of his other work.

“ROGUE ONE” featured other interesting performances. Donnie Yen gave a very charismatic performance as the blind former Guardian of the Whills priest, who believes in the Force. I must also add that I thought that as a screen team, both he and Jiang Wen seemed to be the heart of the movie. Another interesting performance came from Alan Tudyk, who provided the voice for K-2SO, the former Imperial enforcer droid reprogrammed to serve Cassian and the Rebel Alliance. Jimmy Smits gave a charmingly brief performance as Alderaan’s senator and royal prince, Bail Organa – a role he had originated in the second and third Prequel movies. He and O’Reilly enjoyed a poignant moment on screen, as they discussed the possibility of requesting the help of none other than former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Riz Ahmed gave a very memorable performance as the very man who helped Galen Erso kick start the events of this film, former Imperial shuttle pilot turned diehard Rebel, Bodhi Rook. Whether being scared out of his wits by Saw Guerra or enthusiastically supporting Jyn’s scheme to steal the Death Star plans, Ahmed’s Rook seemed to be a bundle of raw energy. Speaking of the Erso family . . . Mads Mikkelsen gave a very poignant and sad performance as Galen Erso, a brilliant scientist who willing helped the Empire complete its construction of the Death Star following the death of his wife and his daughter’s disappearance. Before one can label Galen as another one of Mikkelsen’s villainous roles, he turns out to be an unusual hero who surreptitiously gives the Rebel an opportunity to destroy the weapons station . . . before he is betrayed by them. The movie’s main antagonist; Orson Krennic, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military; was actually portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn. Krennic proved to be something different as far as STAR WARS villains go. Mendelsohn did a first-rate job in conveying Krennic’s murderous tendencies and raging ambition. At the same time, he did a great job in allowing Krennic’s inferiority complex to crawl out of the woodwork . . . especially when in the presence of the domineering Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin or the very intimidating Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader.

Many have claimed that “ROGUE ONE” is either the darkest or ambiguous film in the STAR WARS franchise. I do agree that the movie is ambiguous. Most of the main characters were not portrayed as dashing heroes or idealistic heroines who made little or no mistakes. With the exception of a few like Bodhi Rook, Chirrut Îmwe, Bail Organa and Orson Krennic; the movie featured some very ambiguous characters . . . three of them being Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor and Saw Guerra. I was especially impressed by how screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy portrayed Jyn Erso. Instead of feisty heroine or someone who is ridiculous ideal, they had portrayed her as a young woman who had aged before her time, due to the hard knocks she had experienced. A few STAR WARS fans had complained that Jyn’s reason for going after the Death Star plans had not been motivated by some kind of patriotism or ideal. Someone even went so far as to criticize her for not being some leader or a person with “special” abilities. Personally, I am glad. With the exception of Rey, who proved to be a little too perfect for my tastes, I had no problems with the saga’s other lead women characters. I liked that Jyn could not give a rat’s ass about the Rebellion. I liked that she felt a great deal of anger toward the Rebellion Alliance for what happened to her father. And more importantly, I am glad that her decision to go after the Death Star plans was based upon a personal reason – to finish what her father had started.

But what I had found even more interesting were the screenwriters and Gareth Edwards’ willingness to shine an unflattering light on the Rebel Alliance. Looking back at the Original Trilogy’s portrayal of the Alliance, the latter came off as an organization governed by morally upstanding and brave people. Perhaps a little too shiny or a little too . . . “good”. Not so in “ROGUE ONE”. One example of their moral ambiguity was featured in a scene in which the Alliance political and military leaders expressed reluctance and fear to do something about the Death Star, let alone continuing with the rebellion. Despite my annoyance at the “town hall” style meeting, I must admit that I enjoyed watching the Rebel Alliance leaders express their flaws and fears. I was also fascinated by how the filmmakers – through the Cassian Andor, Saw Guerra and General Draven characters – reveal how low the Rebel Alliance would sink for its cause. This was especially apparent through Cassian’s murder of a Rebel informant and Guerra’s paranoia, which led to his torture of Rook Bodhi. However, General Draven’s orders for Cassian to assassinate Galen Erso, along with his second plan regarding the scientist really conveyed the ugliness of the Rebel Alliance. And I loved it.

But is “ROGUE ONE” the “darkest” or most ambiguous of the eight current films in the STAR WARS saga? Personally, I believe that honor still belongs to the 2005 film, “REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Yes, “ROGUE ONE” was willing to convey the more unpleasant sides of its main characters. Then again, I could say the same about the Original and Prequel Trilogies. Especially the latter. And yes, “ROGUE ONE” was willing to reveal the uglier sides of the Rebel Alliance. Although I cannot say the same about the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy seemed very ambiguous in its portrayal of both the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order. But I cannot regard “ROGUE ONE” as the saga’s most ambiguous film. Despite the mistakes and crimes committed by many of the film’s protagonists, the theft of the Death Star plans and the Battle of Scarif pretty much provided redemption not only to the movie’s protagonists, but also the Rebel Alliance. One cannot say the same for the protagonists from the Prequel Trilogy. Nearly all of them, along with the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order, suffered the consequences of their mistakes and crimes . . . for years to come. There was no last minute redemption for the by the end of “REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Perhaps that is an ending that certain moviegoers could not swallow, especially in a STAR WARS movie.

I have no memories of Michael Giacchino’s score for “ROGUE ONE”. None whatsoever. David Crossman and Glyn Dillon’s costume designs earned them a Saturn Award nomination. Personally, I did not see what the big deal was about. I will give Crossman and Dillon credit for creating the right costumes for the movie’s characters and setting. Otherwise, they almost strike me as a rehash of John Gallo and Aggie Guerard Rodgers’ work in the Original Trilogy. I felt somewhat impressed by Doug Chiang’s production designs – especially for the Jedha City and Scarif sequences. His work was enhanced by Greig Fraser’s photography. Speaking of the latter, I noticed that Fraser’s photography of the Jedha City streets brought back memories of Gilbert Taylor’s photography of the Mos Eisley streets in “A NEW HOPE”. Both settings seemed to possess a similar lighting and atmosphere as shown in the two images below:

The Maldives served as a stand-in for the planet of Scarif, location of the Death Star plans and the movie’s major battle. Between Chiang’s production designs and Fraser’s photography, part of that sequence brought back memories of various World War II movies set in the Pacific Theater:

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In the end, I rather enjoyed “ROGUE ONE”. There are some aspects of it that struck me as very original – especially in its characterization and its portrayal of the Rebel Alliance. Yet, at the same time, its plot and setting made it clear to me that the Disney Studios and Lucasfilm are still chained to some kind of nostalgia for the Original Trilogy – a nostalgia from which I feel they need to break free. And although I feel that the movie possess some flaws in its narrative, I still believe that it proved to be first-rate in the end.

1750-1799 Costumes in Movies and Television

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Below are images of fashion between 1750 and 1799, found in movies and television productions over the years:

 

 

1750-1799 COSTUMES IN MOVIES AND TELEVISION

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“Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939)

 

 

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“The Devil’s Disciple” (1959)

 

 

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“Barry Lyndon” (1975)

 

 

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“Poldark” (1975-1977)

 

 

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“Dangerous Liaisons” (1988)

 

 

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“The Aristocrats” (1999)

 

 

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“Marie Antoinette” (2006)

 

 

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“Amazing Grace” (2006)

 

 

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“The Duchess” (2008)

 

 

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“The Book of Negroes” (2015)

 

 

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“Poldark” (2015-2019)

“THE INFORMANT!” (2009) Review

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“THE INFORMANT!” (2009) Review

As a rule, I am not particularly fond of whistleblower films. I find them rather boring and unoriginal. Then I saw Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 movie, “THE INFORMANT!” and concluded there might be one whistleblower film that I do like. 

Based on true events and the 2000 non-fiction book, ”The Informant”, by journalist Kurt Eichenwald, the movie is about Mark Whitacre, a rising star at Decatur, Illinois based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the early 1990s who wound up blowing the whistle on the company’s price-fixing tactics, only after his wife forced him to. Soderbergh cast Matt Damon as Whitacre and Scott Bakula as FBI Special Agent Brian Shephard, the man to whom he ratted out ADM.

The movie began in 1992 when the FBI was brought in to investigate a possible case of corporate espionage against ADM. The espionage case later was found to be groundless, but during their investigation, Mark Whitacre, under pressure from his wife, told an FBI agent named Brian Shephard that he and other ADM executives were involved in a multinational conspiracy to control the price of lysine. So far, this plot struck me as no different than any other whistleblower movie. But what made ”THE INFORMANT!” unique to me was the character of said whistleblower – Mark Whitacre. The movie’s first half portrayed him as an eccentric man and enthusiastic executive who seemed reluctant to expose his superiors at ADM. But he eventually dedicated himself into assisting the FBI into spending years in gathering evidence by clandestinely taping the company’s activity in business meetings at various locations around the globe such as Tokyo, Paris, Mexico City, and Hong Kong, eventually collecting enough evidence of collaboration and conspiracy to warrant a raid. Following the raid, it all went downhill for Whitacre. The stress of being the FBI’s mole for three years led him to react to the media in a bizarre manner. More importantly, the FBI and the public discovered that Whitacre had embezzled millions of dollars from ADM.

When I first saw the billboards for ”THE INFORMANT!”, I thought it would be some kind of espionage film like the Jack Ryan novels or something like 1974’s ”THE CONVERSATION”. I eventually learn that the movie might have more to do with industrial espionage . . . and the fact that it was another whistleblower film. Why I did not bother to skip this film upon hearing this, I do not know. Perhaps I was willing to give it a chance due to the fact that Soderbergh and Damon (who did the three ”OCEAN’S ELEVEN” movies) were working together, again. And you know what? I am so glad that I gave it a chance. What started out as an amusing, yet detailed account of Whitacre’s years as a whistleblower for the FBI, ended in a chaotic character study of a very intelligent man who turned out to be a chronic liar and embezzler. As much as I enjoyed the movie’s first half, I really enjoyed the second half that exposed Whitacre’s crimes. The plot – or should I say Whitacre’s character – began to spiral out of control once the whistleblower tried to deflect himself from fraud charges in hilarious ways. By the time the movie ended, I did not know whether to be astounded or amused by how it all fell apart for Whitacre.

”THE INFORMANT!” featured a pretty good solid cast that included Scott Bakula as the long suffering FBI agent Brian Shephard who had recruited Whitacre to act as an informant for his agency . . . and lived to regret it. Joel McHale portrayed his partner, the more outgoing FBI agent Robert Herndon. It was interesting to see comedians like Thomas F.Wilson, the Smothers Brothers – Tom and Dick, Allan Harvey, Patton Oswalt and Scott Adsit all in serious roles. I enjoyed Tony Hale’s performance as Whitacre’s first attorney, James Epstein. Watching his reaction to the growing chaos that seemed to surround Whitacre was rather funny. And Melanie Lynskey gave a strong performance as Whitacre’s wife, Ginger, who seemed to act as the whistleblower’s conscious and backbone. But who am I kidding? The movie is owned lock, stock and barrel by Matt Damon’s brilliant performance as Mark Whitacre. I cannot even describe how good he was in capturing this complex, deceiving and yet, sympathetic personality. I found it criminal that Damon was not nominated for an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Do I have any quibbles about ”THE INFORMANT!”? Uh . . . I can only think of one or two complaints right now. I found Soderbergh’s cinematography rather uninspiring. Yep . . . that is what I had said. The film’s director had also acted as the photographer. And I found it dull and slightly metallic at times. If Soderbergh honestly considers himself a genuine cinematographer . . . well, I would suggest that he stick to directing and producing. And I must admit that right before the FBI had decided to arrest some of ADM’s executives, the pacing became so slow that it nearly dragged the film. Aside from those complaints, I really enjoyed this movie. But I must warn you . . . if you are expecting it to be another ”THE INSIDER” or ”DEFENSE OF THE REALM”, you are going to be sadly disappointed. ”THE INFORMANT!” struck me as possessing an unusual and highly original story for it to be viewed as another whistleblower film.

 

“MILDRED PIERCE” (1945) Review

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“MILDRED PIERCE” (1945) Review

I have been a fan of the 1945 movie, “MILDRED PIERCE” for years. Ever since the age of twelve. But many years have passed since I felt the urge to watch it. When I learned about the recent HBO version of the story, I decided to re-visit the past and watch the movie again. 

Based upon James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, “MILDRED PIERCE” is about a middle-class woman who struggle to make a new life for herself and her daughters and maintain their social position, following the break-up of her marriage during the last years of the Great Depression. After a difficult search Mildred finds a job as a waitress, but she worries that it is beneath her middle-class station. More than that, she worries that her ambitious and increasingly pretentious elder daughter, Veda, will view her new job as demeaning. Mildred encounters both success and failure as she opens a chain of successful restaurants, operates a pie-selling business and copes with the death of her younger daughter, Kay. Veda enjoys her mother’s newfound financial success but turns increasingly ungrateful and demanding, while openly condemning Mildred for becoming a working woman.

Anyone familiar with Cain’s novel would immediately realize that screenwriters Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner and Catherine Turney took a great deal of liberties with the plot. One, the movie only spanned at least four to five years, in compare to the nine years featured in the novel. Any references to the Great Depression were eliminated altogether. However, the movie did feature one scene in which Mildred wrote the year 1939 on some document. In the novel, Mildred’s younger daughter was named Ray, not Kay. Nor did she die in the bedroom of the house owned by her father’s mistress, Mrs. Biederhof, as shown in the film. And Mildred’s friend, Lucy Gessler and co-worker Ida Corwin were combined into the wise-cracking Ida, who started out as Mildred’s boss and ended up as her partner (or manager – I am still not certain). References to Veda’s training as a pianist and later success as an opera singer, were tossed. The movie only made brief mention of her training as a singer. More importantly, Mildred’s second husband, Monty Beragon, was never killed. In fact, there was no murder mystery at all in Cain’s novel. Monty’s murder was invented by the filmmakers, because the old Production Code required that evildoers – namely the selfish and pretentious Veda and Monty, who were caught necking by Mildred – be punished for their misdeeds.

Even after so many years, “MILDRED PIERCE” remained a very entertaining and energetic film. Somewhat. The movie had one or two problems. One, why on earth did the screenwriters allow Ray (pardon me) Kay to die at the home of Bert Pierce’s mistress? How tacky is that? Why did he not have the good sense to take his younger daughter to the hospital? When I first saw the movie years ago, I had no problems with the murder mystery that had been included in the plot. But when I watched the movie recently, it finally occurred to me that the focus upon Monty’s murder in the first fifteen or twenty minutes nearly bogged down the movie’s pacing. I found myself longing to reach for my DVD remote and push the Fast Forward button. But a part of me argued that I had to watch every moment of the film to fully appreciate it. Fortunately, the movie eventually delved into Mildred’s back story, which included the breakup of her marriage, the job hunt, Ray’s (pardon me) Kay’s death, her first meeting with Monty, the launch of her first restaurant and most importantly, her relationship with Veda. As the unfolding of Mildred’s life weaved its magic spell, the script occasionally broke away from this very entertaining melodrama and forced us to contemplate the identity of Monty’s murderer. And every time this happened, the movie nearly grounded to a halt. I used to derive a great deal of pleasure when the very evil Veda was revealed as Monty’s murderer. Unfortunately, the pleasure of that moment failed to grasp me, the last time I saw “MILDRED PIERCE”. I finally remembered that when I first saw the movie, I knew that Veda was the killer. And her reason for killing Monty? After Mildred had interrupted Veda and Monty’s passionate embrace, the latter made it clear to his spoiled stepdaughter that he would always love Mildred. Go figure. When I first saw the movie, I cheered when Veda was being led away by the police. But after my last viewing, I realized that transforming Veda into a murderer did not solve the main problem – namely Mildred’s unhealthy love for her daughter. As Veda was being led away by the police, the look on Mildred’s face expressed her continuing obsession over the former. Nothing had really changed – at least not the relationship between Mildred and Veda. In the end, attaching the murder mystery did not solve a damn thing.

But despite these flaws, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still a first-rate movie after sixty-six years. The screenwriters and director Michael Curtiz handled the meat of the story – Mildred’s tormented relationship with Veda – with great skill and drama. I was happy to notice that the best aspects of Cain’s plot remained intact. My favorite sequences include Mildred’s lessons on the restaurant business as a waitress, the introduction of Monty’s character, the showdown between Mildred and Veda over the former’s waitress uniform, and Veda’s attempt to blackmail the wealthy Forresters with a fake pregnancy. I also have to commend Curtiz for providing the movie with his usual brisk pacing. I realize that I had earlier complained of the pacing featured in the movie’s first 15 to 20 minutes. And although the movie threatened to bog down in the scenes that featured the murder mystery, I thought that Curtiz handled the other aspects of Mildred’s life with his usual competent and artistic manner.

Fans of Cain’s novel have complained that this adaptation have skimmed one or two strong aspects of Mildred’s personality – namely her narcissist obsession toward Veda. I cannot say that I fully agree with this criticism. Mind you, I do believe that the movie failed to delve deeply into the aspect of Mildred’s personality that led her to indulge in Veda’s desires at nearly every opportunity. But MacDougall, Faulkner and Turney’s screenplay did not ignore it altogether. In the argument scene that featured the Pierces’ breakup, Bert pointed out Mildred’s penchant for indulging Veda’s whims . . . almost to the point of ignoring younger daughter Kay. Mind you, Bert is not completely blameless, considering his lack of interest in Veda and his failure to provide for his family. And in another scene, Mildred’s snobbery and class aspirations – something in which she had passed on to Veda – is apparent in her insistence that Kay continue with her dance lessons, despite the latter’s tomboyish nature and disinterest in any kind of social aspirations.

What can I say about the cast of “MILDRED PIERCE”? To be honest, I cannot find fault in the performances featured in the movie. Many have criticized Bruce Bennett for giving a dull performance as Bert Pierce, Mildred’s first husband, who leaves the family in a financial lurch. Mind you, his portrayal of Bert did not exactly rock my boat. But I did not find it dull – especially in two scenes that featured a heated argument between his character and Mildred. Butterfly McQueen gave an entertaining performance as Mildred’s maid, Lottie. Even more importantly, her character was not the wince inducing cliché that she portrayed in 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Jo Ann Marlowe was charming as Mildred’s earthy and tomboyish younger daughter, Kay. I especially enjoyed her little spoof of Carmen Miranda. Both Jack Carson and Eve Arden gave deliciously sarcastic performances as Bert’s ex-partner Wally Fay (Burgan in the novel) and Mildred’s boss-turned-partner Ida Corwin. In fact, both were given some of the best lines in the movie. I cannot help but wonder if this line – “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” – had led to Arden’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

Zachary Scott has portrayed a good number of heels throughout his movie career. But none of them had been as interesting as his performance as Monty Beragon, the Pasadena socialite who becomes Mildred’s second husband. Instead of portraying Monty as a one-note villain or sleaze, Scott portrayed the character as a complex personality that seems to convey both some of the good and a good deal of the bad in humanity, and who became a tool in Mildred’s campaign to win back her daughter . . . and grew to resent her for it and his willingness to become her gigolo. Ann Blyth earned a well deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of Veda Pierce, Mildred’s snobbish, selfish and ungrateful older daughter. And I must say that she did a superb job. What impressed me about Blyth’s performance was that not only did she convey all of the venality of Veda’s personality without going over the top, she also managed to hold her own against the powerhouse of Joan Crawford. Speaking of the latter actress, the role of Mildred Pierce must have seemed like a godsend to her career. After eighteen years with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Crawford found herself shoved aside for new starlets to fill the studio’s roster. Warner Brothers saved her career with a new contract and the Mildred Pierce role. And Crawford gave it everything she got. Some have accused the Hollywood icon of being obvious in a pursuit for Oscar gold. Personally, I simply saw a first-rate performance. She did an excellent job of conveying Mildred’s determination to become a successful businesswoman and obsession toward winning Veda’s love. Most importantly, I do not believe that she was “over melodramatic” as some critics have claimed. If I have to be honest, I consider Mildred Pierce to be one of her best roles.

After reading this review, one would suspect that my opinion of “MILDRED PIERCE” is not be as positive as it used to be. And that person would be right. My latest viewing of the film detected some flaws that I had failed to notice in the past. The biggest flaw seemed to be the screenwriters’ attempt to combine aspects of film noir and melodrama. It simply did not work for me, because the movie’s noir aspects dragged the pacing. But despite any flaws, I feel that the movie still manages to hold up very well after nearly seventy-four years. And this is all due to Michael Curtiz’s excellent direction, Ernest Haller’s photography, some very sharp dialogue and characterization, and a first-rate cast. Even after all of these years, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still entertaining to watch.

 

Top Ten Most Depressing “STAR TREK VOYAGER” Episodes

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Below is a list of what I believe to be the top ten (10) most depressing or darkest ”STAR TREK VOYAGER” episodes:

 

 

TOP TEN MOST DEPRESSING “STAR TREK VOYAGER” EPISODES

Memorial

1. ”Memorial” – Chakotay, Tom Paris, Harry Kim, and Neelix begin to experience strange visions after an away mission. Voyager’s crew discover that the four had earlier encounter a war memorial that convey memories of a past military massacre. (Season 6)

 

 

 

Course Oblivion

2. ”Course: Oblivion” – After B’Elanna Torres and Tom Paris get married, subspace radiation causes the crew and their ship to disintegrate. (Season 5)

 

 

 

Tuvix

3. ”Tuvix” – A transporter accident merges Tuvok and Neelix into a new person. (Season 2)

 

 

 

Deadlock

4. ”Deadlock” – A duplicate Voyager is created after it passes through a spatial scission, after the original ship tries to evade a Vidian ship. (Season 2)

 

 

 

Prey

5. ”Prey” – Voyager rescues a Hirogen survivor who tells them a new kind of prey is on the loose – namely a stranded Species 8472 trying to return home. (Season 4)

 

 

 

Hunters

6. ”Hunters” – A transmission from Starfleet Command gets held at a Hirogen relay station and Janeway sets course to retrieve it, along with letters from home for the crew. (Season 4)

 

 

 

Extreme Risk

7. ”Extreme Risk” – B’Elanna Torres purposely puts herself into increasingly more dangerous situations, in order to deal with her survivor’s guilt over the destruction of the Maquis. Meanwhile the crew decides to build a new shuttlecraft, the Delta Flyer. (Season 5)

 

 

 

Friendship One

8. ”Friendship One” – The crew is sent on its first mission by Starfleet in years: to find a lost probe from Earth’s past that has endangered a planet in the Delta Quadrant. (Season 7)

 

 

 

Thirty Days

9. ”Thirty Days” – Tom Paris disregards orders by helping an aquatic world and pays the price for his actions. (Season 5)

 

 

 

Mortal Coil

10. ”Mortal Coil” – Neelix dies in an attempt to sample proto-matter from a nebula. Seven-of-Nine revives him using Borg nanoprobes, but Neelix finds it hard to adjust to resurrection, especially since he has no memory of an afterlife of any kind. (Season 4)

What are your choices?

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” (2002) Review

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“GANGS OF NEW YORK” (2002) Review

With the exception of a few, many of Martin Scorsese’s films have been set in the City of New York – whether in the past or present. One of those films is his 2002 Oscar nominated film, “THE GANGS OF NEW YORK”

Loosely based upon Herbert Ashbury’s 1927 non-fiction book, “GANGS OF NEW YORK” had the distinction of being a crime drama about a gang war . . . set during the first half of the U.S. Civil War. Before I continue, I should add that the film was not only based upon Ashbury’s book, but also on the life and death of a street gang leader named William Poole.

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” began in 1846, when two street gangs – the Protestant”Nativists” led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting; and the “Dead Rabbits”, an Irish immigrant gang led by “Priest” Vallon; meet somewhere in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan for a fight. Near the end of a vicious street brawl, Cutting kills Vallon. A close friend of Vallon hides his young son inside an orphanage on Blackwell’s Island. Sixteen years pass and Vallon’s son, who has renamed himself Amsterdam, returns to the Five Points neighborhood to seek revenge against “Bill the Butcher”, who now rules the neighborhood. Against the back drop of the early years of the Civil War, Amsterdam maneuvers himself into Cutting’s confidence, as he waits for the right moment to strike and get his revenge against the man who killed his father.

There are aspects of “GANGS OF NEW YORK” that I either liked or found impressive. Considering that Scorsese shot the film at the Cinecittà Studios and the Silvercup Studios in Queens, New York; I must admit that I found Dante Ferretti’s production designs serving for Manhattan rather impressive. Impressive, but not exactly accurate or near accurate. The movie looked as if it had been shot on a sound stage. But I must say that I admired how the designs conveyed Scorsese’s own vision of Manhattan 1862-63. I also noticed that the color tones utilized by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus reminded me of the three-strip Technicolor process from the early-to-mid 1930s. Rather odd for a period movie set during the U.S. Civil War. However, thanks to Ferretti’s designs and Michael Ballhaus’ very colorful photography, the movie’s vision of 1860s Manhattan had a theatrical style to it – especially in the Five Points scenes. I did not love it, but I found it interesting.

I could probably say the same about Sandy Powell’s costume designs. They struck me as an extreme version of 1860s fashion, especially in regard to color and fabrics, as shown in the image below:

And there was something about the movie’s costume designs for men that I found slightly confusing. Mind you, I am not much of an expert on 19th century fashion for men. But for some reason, I found myself wondering if the costumes designed for the male cast were for a movie set in the 1840s, instead of the 1860s, as shown below:

But if I must be honest with myself, I did not like “GANGS OF NEW YORK”. Not one bit. The movie proved to be a major disappointment. One of the main problems I had with this film was that Scorsese; along with screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan; took what should have been a character-driven period crime drama and transformed it into something nearly unwieldy. When you think about it, “GANGS OF NEW YORK” was basically a fictionalized account of a feud between American-born William Poole and an Irish immigrant named John Morrissey, the former leader of the real “Dead Rabbits” gang. And their feud had played out in the early-to-mid 1850s. Instead, Scorsese and the screenwriters shifted the movie’s setting to the early years of the Civil War and ended the narrative with the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 in some attempt to transform what could have been a more intimate period drama into this gargantuan historical epic. I found this perplexing, considering that the Civil War had little to do with the film’s main narrative. It also did not help that the film’s narrative struck me as a bit choppy, thanks to Scorsese being forced to delete a good deal of the film at the behest of the producers.

I did not have a problem with the conflict/relationship between Bill Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon. I thought Scorsese made an interesting choice by having Amsterdam ingratiate himself into Cutting’s inner circle . . . and keeping his true identity a secret. This paid off when Amsterdam saved Cutting from an assassinating attempt, leading the latter to assume the position of the younger man’s mentor. At first, I could not understand why Scorsese had included a romantic interest for Amsterdam in the form of a grifter/pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane. In the end, she proved to be a catalyst that led to Amsterdam and Cutting’s eventual conflict near the end of the film. One of the few people who knew Amsterdam’s true identity was an old childhood acquaintance named Johnny Sirocco, who became infatuated over Jenny. When he became aware of Amsterdam’s romance with Jenny, Johnny ratted out his friend’s identity to Cutting.

But what followed struck me as . . . confusing. On the 17th anniversary of his father’s death, Amsterdam tried to kill Cutting and failed. Instead of killing the younger man in retaliation, Cutting merely wounded Amsterdam, branded the latter’s cheek and declared him an outcast in the Five Points neighborhood. An outcast? That was it? I found it hard to believe that a violent and vindictive man like Bill “the Butcher” Cutting would refrain from killing someone who tried to kill him. Perhaps this scenario could have worked if Cutter had tried to kill Amsterdam and fail, allowing the latter to make his escape. Or not. But I found Scorsese’s scenario with Amsterdam being banished from Cutting’s circle and the Five Points neighborhood to be something of a joke.

As for the movie’s performances . . . for me they seemed to range from decent to below average. For a movie that featured some of my favorite actors and actresses, I was surprised that not one performance really impressed me. Not even Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar nominated performance as William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. Mind you, Day-Lewis had one or two scenes that impressed – especially one that involved a conversation between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam, inside a brothel. Otherwise, I felt that the actor was chewing the scenery just a bit too much for my tastes. Leonardo Di Caprio, on the other hand, was crucified by critics and moviegoers for his portrayal of the revenge seeking Amsterdam Vallon. Aside from his questionable Irish accent, I had no real problems with Di Caprio’s performance. I simply did not find his character very interesting. Just another kid seeking revenge for the death of his father. What made this desire for revenge ridiculous to me is that Bill the Butcher had killed “Priest” Vallon in a fair fight. Not many critics were that impressed by Cameron Diaz’s performance. Aside from her questionable Irish accent, I had no real problems with the actress. I had a bigger problem with her character, Jenny Everdeane. To put it quite frankly, aside from her role serving as a catalyst to Cutting’s discovery of Amsterdam’s true identity, I found Jenny’s role in this movie rather irrelevant.

As for the other members of the cast . . . I found their performances solid, but not particularly noteworthy. I thought Henry Thomas gave a decent performance as the lovelorn and vindictive Johnny Sirocco. The movie featured Jim Broadbent, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Cara Seymour and Michael Byrne portraying true-life characters like William “Boss” Tweed, P.T. Barnum, Hell Cat Maggie and Horace Greeley. They gave competent performances, but I did not find them particularly memorable. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, David Hemmings, Barbara Bouchet and Alec McCowen. But honestly, I could not think of a performance that I found memorable.

My real problem with “GANGS OF NEW YORK” was Scorsese’s handling of the movie’s historical background. Quite frankly, I thought it was appalling. I am not referring to the film’s visual re-creation of early 1860s Manhattan. I am referring to how Scorsese utilized the movie’s mid-19th century historical background for the film. Earlier, I had pointed out that the Civil War setting for “GANGS OF NEW YORK” barely had any impact upon the movie’s narrative. I think it may have been a bit in error. Scorsese and the screenwriters did utilize the Civil War setting, but in a very poor manner.

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” should never have been set during the U.S. Civil War. It was a big mistake on Scorsese’s part. Day-Lewis’ character is based upon someone who was killed in 1855, six years before the war’s outbreak. Scorsese should have considered setting the movie during the late antebellum period, for his handling of the Civil War politics in the movie struck me as very questionable. From Scorsese’s point of view in this film, the Union is basically a militaristic entity bent upon not only oppressing the Confederacy, but also its citizens in the North – including immigrants and African-Americans. This view was overtly manifested in two scenes – the U.S. Naval bombing of the Five Points neighborhood during the Draft Riots . . . something that never happened; and a poster featuring the images of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass that appeared in the movie:

What made this poster even more ridiculous is that the image of Frederick Douglass was anachronistic. Douglass was roughly around 44 to 45 years old during the movie’s time period. He looked at least 15 to 20 years older in the poster.

In “GANGS OF NEW YORK”, Americans of Anglo descent like Bill the Butcher were the real bigots of 1860s Manhattan. Not only did they hate immigrants, especially Irish-born immigrants, but also black Americans. I am not claiming that all 19th century Anglo-Americans tolerated blacks and immigrants. Trust me, they did not. But did Scorsese actually expected moviegoers to believe that most of the Irish immigrants were more tolerant of African-Americans than the Anglos? Apparently, he did. He actually portrayed one character, an African-American named Jimmy Spoils, as one of Amsterdam’s close friends and a member of the latter’s newly reformed “Dead Rabbits” gang. Honestly? It was bad enough that Scorsese’s portrayal of Jimmy Spoils was so damn limited. I cannot recall a well-rounded black character in any of his movies. Not one.

Scorsese and his screenwriters made the situation worse by portraying the Irish immigrants as generally more tolerant toward blacks than the Anglos. In fact, the only Irish-born or characters of Irish descent hostile toward African-Americans in the film were those manipulated by Anglos or traitors to their own kind. According to the movie, the violent inflicted upon blacks by Irish immigrants was the instigation of Federal military policy. By embracing this viewpoint, Scorsese seemed unwilling to face the the real hostility that had existed between Irish immigrants and African-Americans years before the draft riots in July 1863. Actually, both the Irish and the Anglo-Americans – “the Natives” – were racist toward the blacks. One group was not more tolerant than the other. The movie also featured Chinese immigrants as background characters. In other words, not one of them was given a speaking part. If Scorsese had really wanted the New York Draft Riots to be the centerpiece of this movie, he should have focused more on race relations and been more honest about it.

I really wish that I had enjoyed “GANGS OF NEW YORK”. I really do. I have always been fascinated by U.S. history during the Antebellum and Civil War periods. But after watching this film, I came away with the feeling that Martin Scorsese either had no idea what kind of film that he wanted or that he tried to do too much. Was “GANGS OF NEW YORK” a period crime drama or a historical drama about the events that led to the New York Draft Riots? It seemed as if the director was more interested in his tale about Amsterdam Vallon and William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. If so, he could have followed the William Poole-John Morrissey conflict more closely, set this film where it truly belonged – in the 1850s – and left the Civil War alone. I believe his handling of the Civil War proved to be a major stumbling block of what could have been an well done film.