Volume 4, Number 51
This Week's Reviews: Alias Betty, Gangs of New York, 'R Xmas.
This Week's Omissions: Two Week Notice, The Wild Thornberrys Movie.
BY: DAVID PERRY
In Alias Betty, Truffaut protégé Claude Miller makes one of the rare Truffaut-esque films in recent years. Though the film does lack the proud gaze of a Truffaut anti-technician aestheticist, it does seem to grasp the visual style and storytelling attributes that so often mark Truffaut's best films. Not near the levels of his 1950s and 1960s work, Miller does imitate much of the same look and feel Truffaut succeeded in creating during his more mediocre 1970s work (with the notable exceptions of Small Change and Day for Night).
But, in many ways, Alias Betty is clearly a Claude Miller film, devoid of any real debt to François Truffaut. Miller, adapting from the Ruth Rendell novel The Tree of Hands, brings to the screen an often absurd, always impressive array of stories that look at the maternal instincts that bind women to their children and the way men are constantly in the way.
Instead of the Truffaut that I could sense hiding behind the camera for much of the film's first half, the story helps to clear many misconceptions about the film's indebtedness to the director. Instead, as the film approaches its close, I was more reminded of the films of Michael Haneke (Code Unknown in particular) and Nicole Garcia.
Part of the reason that Garcia and her film Place Vendôme came to mind could have been the fact that the actress-turned-director gives one of her finer performances in front of the camera for Miller in Alias Betty. Playing a mentally distraught (and distressing) mother, she gives new meaning to the idea of maternal devotion: in many ways, her only real love is for herself, and you get the impression that she's not even that fond of the person inside her own body.
Her character of Margot Fisher is not the only mother that moves the stories that Miller tries to tell in Alias Betty (the French title translates to Betty Fisher and Other Stories, a much better and more fitting title). Her daughter, Brigitte, is also a mother, but one of a completely different mold. While psychosis has left Margot's instincts askew (at one point in the distant past, she stabbed young Brigitte in the hand), Brigitte, who has become a successful writer and has taken the name Betty, has shown herself to be the model mother for her child Joseph (Setbon).
The film begins with Margo arriving in Paris for a series of medical tests, which leaves her in the unexcited hands of Betty for the period. There's still a great amount of tension that escape (she moved to New York for many years, which is where she had Joseph), motherhood, and success have not dulled. Their coffee table conversation has the disconcerting feeling of a pair of wildcat preparing her scared prey.
But it is not Betty who is physically hurt during this time, but Joseph. Seeing a bird in his second-story window, he attempts to touch it and falls to his death. Betty's life is broken and seemingly irreparable -- she goes into catatonia. When she comes back from a week of mourning, Betty finds that Margot has not told anyone of the death and has, unthinkingly, decided to take care of another child, José (Chatrain), who bares a slight resemblance to Joseph. Betty is understandably angered.
What Betty does not know at the time and the audience quickly understands is that Margot has abducted José from his working class Paris home, a life in the housing projects that is more than disagreeable for a kid. His mother, Carole Novacki (Seigner), a barmaid and temptress of the greatest degree, doesn't know which of the eight men she slept with that week sired José. In many ways, the audience begins to believe that Betty may be the best thing that could ever happen to this kid.
Part of the reason that Alias Betty succeeds is in its performances. While Carole never really holds true (she is too cold to be seductive and too abrasive to be likable, even in the slightest sense), the other two mothers come to life with a transgression befit to the film's multi-layered, Altman-esque narrative structure. Almost all of the awards thrown upon the film have smartly been aimed at these two performers.
Most of the film goes at a fine pace, though repetition
often hampers its success (this is especially true in the addition of Carole's lovers to
the story and Miller's evident love for Brad Mehldau's piano version of Radiohead's
"Exit Music (for a Film)" which Adrian Lynne put to better use in Unfaithful).
Miller's hold on maternity is surprisingly absorbing even if he seems to be at odds with
himself how to balance it with some masculinity.
|Gangs of New York
BY: DAVID PERRY
There was a terrific book published a couple years ago called Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis (and later made into an A&E documentary series) that covered the fraternal order of revolutionaries and political pioneers who worked together to create a workable nation out of the recently freed United States of America. I caught myself thinking back to those names -- Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, Washington, Franklin -- as I watched Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. While it takes place nearly a half century after Ellis finishes his documentation of the men who created a nation, Scorsese is also making a case for his subjects. Through their bloody lives and base customs, the rogue caught in Gangs of New York may be just as important to the social growth of the 20th century as the Founding Brothers were to the political growth.
Gangs of New York is one of the most auspicious, best directed, most exquisitely detailed, and grandest epics in recent years. It calls attention to itself with every frame, jarring the audience into its mix of violence and rebellion; it asks audiences to sit for a moment and think about our past as a civilization. The history books rarely go into detail about the mistreatment of Native Americans in the colonial period, the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and the globalized capital greed that the US has brought on other nations in the modern period. Our history is ugly, filled with crimes against entire nations and peoples for the sake of our own personal growth. We try to act as if the only great blemish in the historical American Way is in slavery -- a subject that cannot simply be glossed over since we fought a war over it -- without taking the time to understand why other nations look at us with a suspicious eye.
As a student of American history, I find the entire development of the nation to be of utmost interest, a capsulated look at the best way to quickly create a world power. But what is most intriguing is rarely the stories that are covered in mainstream history books. It is the underlying stories of subtle evils that are most important in many ways. Even though we do not sit around and think about the way J.P. Morgan changed our lives, he did -- his life as a robber baron and the way citizens and the government reacted to it has had an immense significance to our economic beliefs. I can only imagine the slight footnote that Kenneth Lay will be in future history books even though he has completely changed our lives and the lives of our progeny.
The characters that populate Gangs of New York are the scoundrels and criminals who fought for the land they believed their own in the mid-1800s New York. With the midsection of Manhattan going to the rich and the northernmost sections still being developed, the poor were left trying to survive in the bottom of the island, where they found unending wars between various groups who thought they had the right of controlling the area land.
The film begins with one such war, a battle fought between natives (i.e. people born in America, though descended from the men who immigrated and pushed out the real Native Americans) and Irishmen trying to forge some life on the shore of their new island. The place in question are the Five Points, an area long since developed and forgotten.
The Protestant natives, led by the lanky cutthroat Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Day-Lewis; in a brilliant, all-out scenery chewing performance), begin their violent battle with the Catholic Irishmen, led by the ecclesiastically solemn Priest Vallon (Neeson) and calling themselves the Dead Rabbits (no relation, I believe, to Eminem's character in 8 Mile), in the middle of the Five Points. It is a snowy day -- when Scorsese and longtime cinematographer Michael Ballhaus raise the camera to a deity's view, the snow has become a pink mush cluttered by bodies, rest, and motion.
These were violent times, as Scorsese continually tries to remind the audience throughout the film. What went on that cold day in 1946 is considered barbaric today but was acceptable then. While this altercation did happen, much of the rest of the story follows completely fictional ideas thrown beside historic moments. But the central thesis between Scorsese's film and the book it was slightly based on, Herbert Asbury's news style documentation of the gang wars of the time, remains the same: what these barbaric men did were destructive to the people involved, but bring to mind the very social fabric that they helped establish.
In that opening battle, which lasts nearly 20 minutes from its Peter Gabriel-scored preparations to the jolt forward 16 years, Vallon is killed by Cutting and his men are forced to forge on with their lives without any leadership to overthrow the new king of the Lower East Side. Vallon's son sees all this and is taken by natives to Hellgate House of Reform by the request of their leader.
Cutting evidently never read of Richard III and the English king's precautions in securing his power, because he pretty much allows the kid, who calls himself Amsterdam when we are reintroduced to him in the guise of Leonardo DiCaprio, to writhe in anger throughout his time at Hellgate. When he leaves the place, he is primed for revenge.
What Scorsese and screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan decide to do next is more Greek than Shakespearean, though, as Amsterdam decides to get inside Cutter's inner circle so that his vengeance can be brought by a person Cutter trusts and at a time when he is surrounded by his closest aides. It just so happens that he has a gala event planned: the annual celebration of the day he killed Priest Vallon.
Amidst all this, Cutter and Amsterdam enter a semi-Oedipal relationship that trickles all the way down to Jenny Everdeane (Diaz), the prostitute who Cutter has pushed aside and is now ready to fall into Amsterdam's arms. Meanwhile, draft riots are about to break out (they do during the film's extended climax), race relations are proven to be just as bad in the north as in the south, and Amsterdam begins to question his integrity in the face of his father's legacy.
If much of this feels contrived, that seems to be part of the allure that Scorsese is aiming for. What Gangs of New York boils down to is an event epic, the type of film that David Lean might make if he were a New Yorker. The way Scorsese, costumer Sandy Powell, and production designer Dante Ferretti (who deserves a dozen Oscars for his recreation of 1863 New York at the Cinecittá studio in Rome) painstakingly go through every minute detail to make it seem real comes from the love of a man who sees this as more than just a story, but His American Story. If Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago is the ultimate story of the Russian way, and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind is its American epical equivalent, then I nominate Gangs of New York to be among the filmic brethren of those books' cinematic counterparts.
This is not to say that Gangs of New York is a
flawless film (neither Daiz nor DiCaprio succeed in bringing their characters to life and
the voiceover narration, which may be an unintended addition to the film to take care of
information otherwise lost after Harvey Weinstein forced an hour cut, seems abysmally out
of place), but its problems are mere quibbles beside the expansive (and expensive) heights
it aspires to meet. This is a history lesson and a rare epic film, a movie that succeeds
in edifying the footnotes in history by showing their importance to the rest of the text.
This is not Martin Scorsese's best film, but, I dare say, it may be his most fully
BY: DAVID PERRY
The distance with which Abel Ferrara touches upon his protagonists in 'R Xmas comes without the disdain that one would expect. Though these characters are all criminals, their actions are not as much derided by Ferrara as they are treated with incredulity. While Ferrara has no reason to hold them in contempt, he does wonder why they are in this situation in the first place. Best of all, he understands that the reasons are not simply their own.
He opens the film with a picturesque view of an untainted New York, one inhabited by the happy midgets that are nowhere to be seen in Martin Scorsese otherwise all-inclusive Gangs of New York. As he pulls the camera back, the place is shown to be a cinematically altered view of a children's Christmas play. This is a posh Manhattan private school, where the children of congressmen, solicitors, and other millionaires are educated.
But the parents Ferrara are interested in are not quite in any of those groups. While they are rich, they haven't quite reached the comfort of liquid wealth and they are definitely not from some accepted work force. They are drug dealers to the very junkies that they are trying to hide their child away from. The father (Brancato, Jr.) understandably worries about describing his work when the school has Parent's Day.
Both the father and the mother (de Matteo) dote over their child, almost as if they fear the legacy that they must give her. They raise her in the lap of luxury and keep their business in an alternate location far away from their Meadows apartment.
Almost all of the film's impressively short 83 minutes are spent on Christmas Eve as the wife must work to save her husband from some corrupt authorities who have taken it upon themselves to kidnap criminals in their off-time and, perhaps, teach them a lesson they won't forget. The middleman (Ice-T) speaks to the wife as if he knows that she's going to have to fight for every penny in the huge ransom and relishes this fact. You also get the distinct impression that's he's going to enjoy this off-duty money.
Ferrrara treats the story with a starkness that goes in-line with much of what he has done in the past. Though 'R Xmas doesn't have the bite of his masterworks, Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, but it does announce a return to form for the director, who has been lost in an oblivion of stagy features like The Funeral and a failed mainstream attempt with Body Snatchers. It is not meant to be any slight for the man, but he, like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, just seems to be at home with the criminal underworld that acts like a cancer on the rest of society.
Both of the actors have an intensity that makes them irrefutably acceptable even if their acts are not. Getting their acting chops from The Sopranos (de Matteo is a regular, Brancato, Jr., was one of the second season's victims), they have a believability in their characterizations that make these two flimsily written characters seem real. You begin to empathize with their dilemma, even if you want to keep them as far away from your children as possible.
None of the major characters are given names, which adds a touch of universality to their story, though really serves little in helping the film other than as a footnote (since the actress playing the daughter goes by her real name, why not just call the couple Lillo and Drea?). What is remarkable about the film, though, is its grasp of New York political history and the relationship between crime and the people that run the city.
The film opens with the title: "In December of 1993
the Honorable David Dinkins was completing his first and only term as Mayor of New
York." This establishes the film in the pre-Guiliani days in which New York was less
police state Disneyworld, more urban reality. The open ending of the film comes as a
chance to think over what is ahead of these characters as well as the city in its entirety
-- their lessons learned from Christmas Eve are not fully in their hands. There's a man
waiting to take his oath of office who will change them more than the kidnappers.