Not bad enough to dismiss but too dense and boring to praise, let’s just call Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York the year’s longest and most expensive cinematic disappointment. Massively overproduced and confusingly overpopulated with people and ideas that choke on their own cross-purposes, it’s a major director’s ambitious attempt to chronicle the crime and chaos that ruled New York City in 1863. While the rest of the country was fighting the Civil War, the Five Points section of lower Manhattan was a battlefield unto itself. In a bloody, lawless landscape of human suffering crawling with gangs of rival immigrants and tribes of underworld killers-united by poverty and filth, and divided by false promises from the corrupt politicians of Tammany Hall, ruled by the infamous Boss Tweed-Mr. Scorsese’s New York (designed on a sound stage in Rome) looks like an alien planet costumed by Charles Dickens. In a melting pot of dissidence and exploding tempers, the American-born natives hate the Irish Catholics, the “micks” hate the “chinks,” the “chinks” hate the “niggers,” the fire brigades hate the cops, the cops hate everybody. And they all fight each other with a glossary of archaic words that makes the audience scream for subtitles. There are lynchings, candlelight dances, Chinese theatricals, armies of thieves, prostitutes and drag queens, gangs of ghouls who sell freshly slaughtered bodies to medical science, and tons of nauseating violence, culminating in the draft riots that almost burned New York to the ground, from the wharves to the mansions on Fifth Avenue. In this canvas of mayhem, there is also a David-and-Goliath plot about an Irish lad named Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio, looking like a troll), who returns from 16 abusive years in an orphan asylum-slash-workhouse to avenge the death of his father (Liam Neeson) and falls into the clutches of the man who killed him, a one-eyed monster called “The Butcher” (Daniel Day-Lewis). Jim Broadbent is the smarmy Boss Tweed. Cameron Diaz is a trashy pickpocket who looks like one of the victims of Jack the Ripper. Brendan Gleeson is the honest, working-class Irish patriot they run for sheriff. Henry Thomas is the two-faced urchin who betrays them. When they finally declare war on each other, you wait around just to see how long it will take Mr. Scorsese to wipe out the entire cast. In this age of ignorance, few people know (or care) anything about the violent history of New York. Even if you’ve read about the draft riots, the crooked elections and the sinister corruption of Tammany Hall in the 19th century, you won’t see it illustrated with half the clarity you find in old Police Gazettes . For a fascinating dossier on an era when New York was Dodge City, it fails to engage the emotions for its nearly three-hour running time. It’s both a history lesson and the kind of moving panorama you pay to see in a national park, with all of the preachy moralizing you get from both. It’s the duty of a historical pageant to do more than catalog facts and drop names. But in deconstructing an age of gangs and war chiefs locked in rampantly criminal rivalries, where everyone is a villain and there is nobody to root for or care about, Mr. Scorsese fails to deliver the necessary cinematic images that explain the times and embody so many clashing points of view with coherence. (No mention of the Italians, who survived it all to start the Mafia.) There’s plenty to look at (great scene: the sideshow freaks escape from the burning P.T. Barnum museum, while a circus elephant runs amok through the plundering mob), but the movie is all style and no substance. The characters are cutouts from old wanted posters that never come to life. The graphic horrors are repetitive tableaux. I continue to admire the craftsmanship and singular vision of Martin Scorsese, but I don’t predict much box-office allure for Gangs of New York .
For Leo fans, Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is more of an odds-on favorite. This is a meticulously directed, deliciously acted, humorously written work of skill, energy and imagination that showcases the range, charm, charisma and talent so sadly missing from Mr. DiCaprio’s luckless miscasting in Gangs . The juicy role of real-life con artist Frank Abagnale Jr., a mischievous and brilliant kid from New Rochelle traumatized by his parents’ divorce, who forged hundreds of checks and successfully assumed the identities of a Pan Am pilot, pediatric head of a hospital E.R. in Atlanta and assistant attorney general for the state of Louisiana-all before he was 19 years old-is dream casting for Mr. DiCaprio, and Tom Hanks is nothing less than sensational as the F.B.I. agent who devotes his career to stalking the elusive impostor but remains constantly shamed and humiliated by his failure to catch him. Mr. DiCaprio makes this scoundrel not only lovable, but deeply sympathetic, too. You have to like this cad. Each chapter of his adventures unfolds with Mr. Spielberg’s customary polish and devotion to great storytelling. Why not? Abagnale’s got the wonder and amazement of a children’s book hero, and his story is as awesome as science fiction. Forging his own medical diploma from Harvard, rising to new heights as a prosecutor by watching Perry Mason TV shows, or staging his own spectacular escape from the Miami airport surrounded by the beautiful stewardesses he recruited for Pan Am himself to distract the police, he’s a unique and fearless combination of Archie Andrews and Batman. Christopher Walken gives his best performance in years as the father who thrills vicariously to his son’s felonies to make up for his own failures in life. The marvelous screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, based on Abagnale’s own book, is the kind of biographical triumph without embellishment that could teach a few valuable lessons in how to write a biopic with mass appeal to the overrated Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the silly scripts for Adaptation and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and is something of a fraud himself. Sentenced to 12 years in prison, Abagnale saved his biggest surprise for last: He resurfaced as a millionaire and ended up as a guest on To Tell the Truth , interviewed by Kitty Carlisle. This funny, riveting, entertaining, fizzy, feel-good movie is one of the best of the year.
In The Pianist , Roman Polanski returns to his native Poland for the first time in 40 years to recreate a vivid, heartbreaking canvas of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, as seen through the eyes of the celebrated composer, concert pianist and national hero Wladyslaw Szpilman. Aesthetically inclined, ill-equipped for war or even Resistance fighting, this Polish Jew somehow miraculously survived through one ironic twist of fate after another, saved by his own innocence-and the aid of an anonymous Nazi music lover who kept him alive in the final days of the war. Half a million Jews were herded into a few blocks of misery and disease. Shooting from across the street in a dark apartment building, Mr. Polanski shows each light go on as the families are routed from their dinner tables and machine-gunned in the streets. A woman with a dying child in her arms begs for one drop of water. The images linger like surgical scars, but the force of the pianist’s stranger-than-fiction experiences after his own family is sent to Treblinka remains, as both a canvas of human faith and a riveting adventure story. Hiding under the noses of the Germans in abandoned flats, attics, cellars and even a bombed-out hospital, he narrowly escaped death many times in many ways-once, by pretending to be a corpse. Through it all, he held onto his sanity by moving his fingers to the sounds of piano concertos in his head. He died in 2000, at the age of 88. The detailed screenplay, by the great writer Ronald Harwood ( The Dresser ), carefully illuminates every shadow of those tragic days with an uplifting dedication and spirit that relieves the gloom and lends a thread of optimism. In a haunting, deeply inspired performance, Adrien Brody as the pianist looks insanely like photos of the mad monk Rasputin. It’s as though the real Szpilman had been channeled through the actor’s body. Mr. Polanski, who escaped the Ghetto himself at age 7 by crawling through a hole in a barbed-wire fence, calls The Pianist “a testimony to the power of music, the will to live, and the courage to stand against evil.” The Pianist , which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes for obvious reasons, is his Schindler’s List -a great film of integrity and unforgettable power that leaves you breathless with gratitude.
The new Pinocchio is a noisy, exasperating take on the children’s classic starring Roberto Benigni, a hyperkinetic writer-director-player of unparalleled mannered hysterics who is as irritating as a human deer tick. As the puppet who wants to be a boy, he jumps, hops, leaps and bounces his way through a procession of phony, charmless scenes, screeching in an overwrought voice like a broken factory whistle. (I saw it in Italian, so the dubbed version in English might be an improvement, although nothing can save the film itself.) Carved from a rolling tree log that destroys half of Italy, hung from a tree by thieves, rescued by a fairy with blue hair, swallowed by a whale and turned into a donkey, this dopey, bug-eyed Pinocchio is duped so often by the world at large, you find yourself praying for somebody to put him out of his misery and chop him up for firewood. When he lies, his nose flies out like a toilet plunger, while his pal the cricket looks like a TV set with rabbit ears. This gluttonous overdose of whimsy cries out for animation, but when the nursery-book action is played out by real people in tacky costumes from a Macy’s parade, it loses its magic fast. It’s unusual to see so many people making fools of themselves at the same time. Lethal for kids and an unspeakable insult to adults, this unreleasable fiasco is a torture for all. Where is Walt Disney when we need him?
New Orleans, 1981: A young soldier comes home from the Army to a mother who runs a brothel. Sonny (James Franco, a lean, intense actor whose breakthrough role as James Dean on TV launched a promising career) was trained to be a male prostitute by Mom (Brenda Blethyn, with a cracker accent), but now he wants to get out of “the life” and go straight. At 26, he knows his days in the sack with paying customers are limited, but all that talk about making a career change and starting over leads nowhere. Sonny resigns himself to a dreary fate that is almost as depressing as this movie. Making his directorial debut, Nicolas Cage plays a small role as a flamboyantly gay pimp. Sonny is a guided tour through the seedy underworld of prostitution in a town that is not called “the Big Easy” for nothing, but from the French Quarter sewers to the oversexed echelons of Garden District society, this movie erroneously depicts New Orleans as a freak show populated by immoral alley cats. Mena Suvari, Brenda Vaccaro and Harry Dean Stanton make colorful contributions as decadent characters from the Tennessee Williams archives, but Mr. Franco is the center of focus. He’s a good actor, but in Sonny he should have been encouraged to break away from the James Dean imitations. As the sulking, moody male hustler in the title role, he has all of Dean’s mannerisms and self-indulgence, but none of his sweetness and vulnerability.
Spike Lee’s 25th Hour charts the last day of freedom in the life of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a smart, privileged drug dealer sentenced to seven years in prison. There’s time for a last meal with his dad (Brian Cox), and one final night of partying with his girl (Rosario Dawson) and his childhood buddies, Frank (Barry Pepper), an investment banker with an apartment overlooking Ground Zero, and Jake (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a teacher. One of them betrayed him, but which one? On the last night, truths are revealed, ties are broken and old wounds reopened, with typical Spike Lee monologues full of cynicism and rage about every aspect of New York life he loathes, from East Side housewives with Hermès scarves to Pakistanis stinking up the taxis with the smell of curry. In the 25th hour of this purgatory, in the S.U.V. carrying Monty out of town, there is one last-minute escape plan offering redemption and a rosy future on the lam in Mexico, but when the camera angle opens wide, the car is still on a road in upstate New York, on its way to Sing Sing. See it for Edward Norton, who does his usual job of turning sackcloth into satin. He makes the fear and danger of what awaits him behind bars and the regret for wrong choices in his wasted life palpable and real, but this is still a depressingly downbeat film-dark, dank and deadly.