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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Gangs of New York
Gangs of New York
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // R // July 1, 2003
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Aaron Beierle | posted June 18, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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The Movie:


A movie of immense scope, cost and ambition, "Gangs of New York" is the film that director Martin Scorsese has wanted to make for many years (based on the book "The Gangs of New York", by Herbert Asbury). After finally securing the budget, the production suffered from constant rumors of cost overruns, on-set problems and discussion of just why the film wasn't making another release date (it originally started filming in 2000 and was supposed to open late in 2001, but finally was released a year later).

Once the film opens, its easy to see where the money went. In a fine decision by the filmmmakers, the filmmakers decided to build "Gangs" in an old school manner, crafting massive and detailed sets, providing costumes for amazing amounts of extras and not using much, if any, CGI. Visually, this is an astonishing and fascinating film to watch.

The film opens with Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio playing the older version) losing his father (Liam Neeson) in a street battle between his father's group and another - the other lead by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) - in 1846 New York. 16 years later, Amsterdam returns with a plan for revenge: join Bill the Butcher's gang - which still rules the five points of NY - in order to be close enough to him to avenge his father. Once he makes his way in, he may not find it so easy to carry out his task. Meanwhile, there's a romance, despite the fact that it never really fits terribly well into the picture. Amsterdam runs into Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket who's also seeing Bill. He also gets help from corrupt politician William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and friend Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas).

As previously noted, I found a lot to like about "Gangs of New York". Production design by Dante Ferretti is remarkable, as I freeze-framed the movie a couple of times simply to admire the amount of construction involved. Every small detail adds up to capture the grim tone of a poverty-stricken area boiling with tension, fear and hatred. Michael Ballhaus - who has worked with Scorsese often in the past - captures it all superbly, with the cinematography providing plenty of interesting compositions. Long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker's editing is as crisp and reliable as ever. Once one starts to discuss aspects of the production in front of the camera, however, this start to become more uneven. Day-Lewis offers a performance that's both fascinating and powerful. Crafting a truly unpredictable, complex and terrifying villian, Day-Lewis was rightly nominated for an Oscar.

The problem is, few of the other performances can compare. While Dicaprio has certainly had good efforts throughout his career, I just didn't find the performance entirely compelling. While satisfactory overall, Dicaprio never quite convincingly portrays the conflict and anger of the character. He's just a little too subdued. Diaz is charming (and looks great as a redhead), but her accent is iffy at times and her character never feels entirely necessary. Diaz and Dicaprio don't manage much chemistry, either. Supporting performances by John C. Reilly, Broadbent, Thomas and others are generally enjoyable, but supporting characters could have been developed better. There are also times when the movie feels like it could use some trimming, as there are moments when the world that has been created for the movie is allowed to upstage the characters and story. A subplot or two also could have been lost to tighten focus.

Overall, I thought "Gangs of New York" remained engaging, even though I felt aspects of it (character development, a couple of performances) could have used improvement. Scorsese's recreation of New York of the era is done on a ridiculously grand scale that has to be seen to be believed. I can hardly imagine how many must have been involved not only with the construction and planning, but with the research. Whether or not the story was progressing, I appreciated the film as an interesting portrait - although quite the depressing (and sometimes very brutal) one, if still accurate - of a forgotten era.


The DVD


VIDEO: "Gangs of New York" is presented by Miramax in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film is spread across both discs of this 2-disc set, with the first disc ending on the encounter between Jenny and Amsterdam, where she threatens to bite him. For the most part, this is a terrific transfer. Sharpness and definition are more than satisfactory, as the crisp and clean picture shows off plenty of detail, allowing for one to appreciate the remarkable amount of work that went into crafting each and every set.

While most of the presentation does look superb, some flaws still do enter in. A tad of edge enhancement does appear in the occasional scene, as do a few instances of compression artifacts. The print seemed to be in top-notch condition throughout the first half of the film. During the second half, however, I began to notice several instances where a couple of specks/marks were visible.

The film's natural color palette was superbly rendered, with strong saturation and no concerns. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones looked accurate.


SOUND: "Gangs of New York" is presented by Miramax in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. This is certainly quite an enjoyable mix, with a dynamic, forceful presence and quite a bit of activity for the surrounds. The rear speakers aren't always put to aggressive use, but they certainly do enter in during plenty of scenes to provide sound effects, detailed ambience or reinforcement of Howard Shore's score. Strong, deep bass - even moreso on the DTS version - is often present throughout the picture. Dialogue, music and effects remain crisp and convincing.

EXTRAS:

Commentary: This is a commentary from director Martin Scorsese. This is an interesting, energetic commentary from the director, who goes into good detail on technical issues, the production process and story/casting. Although there didn't seem to be much discussion of the film's production/budget concerns, Scorsese does touch on budget and talks about his philosophy of "going for the most" on nearly everything involved. There are also stretches where the director gives the audience a sense of the timeline involved in the production. Although there are some considerable gaps of silence during the director's commentary for the nearly three-hour picture, I found this to be an interesting listen.

Set Design: Although the sets in the film are amazing and its easy for one to imagine the amount of work that went into them, its even more fascinating to see the artists at work trying to construct the buildings. Many of those involved share their opinion on how the immense, real sets helped them. For example, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus was able to shoot with more freedom and choices, while the actors were able to immerse themselves in the time period. The DVD also includes a 22-minute featurette where production designer Dante Ferretti and director Martin Scorsese walk through the film's sets, pointing out details and telling stories from the production. The 22-minute feature also includes the ability to occasionally view 360 degree views of the area of the set.

Costume Design: This 8-minute featurette gives an idea of the remarkable amount of work that costume designer Sandy Powell faced working on "Gangs". Not only did the effort require a great deal of research, but there were also tons of extras to costume.

Also: 13-minute featurette on the 5 points, 30-minute Discovery Channel documentary on the gangs in New York at the time, U2 music video, theatrical and teaser trailers for "Gangs of New York". The first disc also includes "Sneak Peek" trailers for Quentin Tarantino's upcoming "Kill Bill", "Frida", "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", "A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese" and "Quiet American".


Final Thoughts: Despite a few concerns, "Gangs of New York" remained a haunting and powerful picture that offered a stunning recreation of the city in the time period. Miramax's DVD edition offers very good audio/video, along with a few informative supplements. Recommended.

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