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As waves of immigrants swell the population of New York, lawlessness and corruption thrive in the lower Manhattan section known as the Five Points. This is where, after years of incarceration, young Irish immigrant Amsterdam Vallon returns with the determination to seek revenge against the rival gang leader who killed his father. But Amsterdam's personal vendetta becomes part of the full-blown gang warfare that erupts as he and his fellow Irishmen fight to carve a place for themselves in their newly adopted homeland!

Martin Scorsese
Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson
Writing Credits:
Jay Cocks, Steven Zallian, Kenneth Lonergan

America Was Born In The Streets.
Box Office:
Budget $97 million.
Opening weekend $9.496 million on 1504 screens.
Domestic gross $77.679 million.
Rated R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language.

Academy Awards:
Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor-Daniel Day-Lewis; Best Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Editing; Best Sound; Best Song-"The Hands That Built America".

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 167 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 7/1/2003

DVD One:
• Costume Design Featurette
• Set Design Featurette
• History of the Five Points Featurette
• Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York
• The Five Points Study Guide
• Theatrical Trailer
• Teaser Trailer

DVD Two:
• Discovery Channel Special “Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York”
• U2 “The Hands That Built America” Music Video

Search Titles:

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Gangs of New York (2002)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 24, 2003)

With every passing year, it becomes more and more likely that Martin Scorsese will join that select group of elite directors never recognized officially by Oscar. Hey, the Academy didn’t deign to recognize Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, why should they honor Scorsese?

2002 put Scorsese in the bridesmaid position once more, though at least this time he didn’t lose to an actor with visions of grandeur. Scorsese’s first Best Director nomination came for 1980’s Raging Bull. Although the film and Scorsese earned nearly unanimous plaudits – and earned 24th place on the American Film Institute’s Top 100, the highest ranking of Scorsese’s three entries – he lost the Oscar to Robert Redford and his directorial debut, Ordinary People.

Scorsese lost again for 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, but I suppose that one stung a little less. For one, Scorsese lost to Barry Levinson and Rain Man, so at least an established director slapped him this time. In addition, Christ failed to receive a nod for Best Picture, so it seemed much less likely that Scorsese would get an award for his work; it’s not impossible for a director to win an Oscar when his movie fails to grab a Best Picture nominee, but it’s insanely unlikely.

Scorsese experienced déjà vu when they distributed awards for the films of 1990. Again despite enormous praise, his GoodFellas went home without major Oscar recognition. Instead, another actor-turned-director won the day, as Kevin Costner and Dances With Wolves nailed major victories.

Scorsese failed to garner another Oscar nod until recently, when 2002’s Gangs of New York nabbed 10 nominations. Alas, despite sentimental favor and major promotional campaigning on his part, Scorsese left the auditorium without a trophy once again. Roman Polanski received the Best Director prize for The Pianist, while Chicago earned Best Picture. Despite the 10 nominations, Gangs went home without a single award.

I suppose there are many reasons why Gangs failed to receive any trophies. At the heart, the main cause may be simple: it’s not that great a movie. While ambitious and sporadically successful, no one will mistake Gangs as competition for Scorsese’s better flicks.

Gangs opens with a prologue set in 1846. We meet “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson) and his young son Amsterdam (Cian McCormack). “Priest” leads a contingent of Irish immigrants into a bloody battle with Bill “The Butcher” Cutting and his native-born Americans. This fight is meant to determine who will run the Five Points section of New York. After a savage fight, Bill prevails and kills “Priest”. This segment ends as we see Amsterdam taken away into official custody.

The movie then flash-forwards to 1862, where we see an adult Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he emerges from a long stay in a house of reform. Unfortunately, this didn’t reform him at all, so he returns to the Five Points and a life of crime. He quickly meets up with an old childhood friend named Johnny (Henry Thomas). Johnny introduces Amsterdam to other young ne’er-do-wells, and the latter joins up with their gang. Amsterdam also literally runs into a lovely pickpocket named Jenny (Cameron Diaz), and though the pair initially display animosity toward each other, it seems inevitable they will eventually develop romantically.

In the meantime we see inside Bill’s organization and discover his connection to the sleazy politician William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent). The latter uses Bill and his men as their “enforcers”. Eventually Amsterdam and his pals will come into the employ of Bill, and those two men will develop a close relationship, though Bill doesn’t know the real identity of his young protégé. Since he continues to bear a grudge related to the death of his father, this causes conflicts inside Amsterdam as the film leads inexorably toward a confrontation.

“Inevitable” and “inexorable” aren’t words I usually use in regard to really good movies, and they’re at the heart of this one’s flaws. If Gangs works, it does so totally due to the will power of its director. It seems like a shame that Scorsese failed to win the Best Director Oscar not because Gangs was 2002’s best film, but because few – if any – other flicks owe their success so totally to the work of their directors. Of the other nominees, it’s hard to think of one that likely would have fallen totally flat had someone else made it.

I think that Gangs falls into that category. Without Scorsese’s strong personality and visual style, this film would have become a total mess. As it stands, the flick finds it difficult to rise above its bland origins. The plot provides little more than a coming of age revenge drama. As I noted, a lot about it seems predictable and inevitable. I won’t claim that no surprises appear during Gangs, but they’re few and far between.

In addition, the script seems messy as plot threads come and go somewhat at random. Perhaps in an attempt to hold it all together, Scorsese utilizes narration from Amsterdam, but this actively harms the piece. The poorly written dialogue comes across as cheesy and unnecessary.

The film works best during its first two acts, but it more fully falls apart during the final third. Scorsese keeps it going until then mainly via sheer will power, but as the movie loses sight of personal relationships and goes for a historical viewpoint, it becomes significantly less involving. While the characters never seem terribly intriguing, they remain at the heart of the flick, and it can’t quite survive a diminution of their status.

The actors sure make a go of it, though. Ever since he became a teen idol with Titanic, folks seem to have decided that DiCaprio is a triumph of looks over talent. That’s not correct. Remember that he already earned an Oscar nod for 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape four years prior to Titanic, and the boy impressed others as well. He does nicely as Amsterdam. As written, the role lacks much depth, but DiCaprio brings a good sense of heart to the part, and he makes it a more forceful, beefy role than one would expect from the boyish and somewhat physically slight actor.

Day-Lewis earned massive plaudits for his work as Bill, and he indeed brings a strong personality to the part. However, I think he plays the role to its excessive ends. He chews the scenery with gusto and hams it up relentlessly as Bill. This generally works for the role, but I occasionally thought that he needed to back off somewhat; Bill sometimes comes across like a cartoon.

Despite the film’s decline toward the end, Scorsese’s visual flair helps make it work for a while. The opening battle between the various gangs seems nearly stunning. Daringly set to Peter Gabriel’s “Signal to Noise”, the sequence presents a brutal event in a terrific way. While many more set pieces will appear before the film ends, none of them quite live up to the strength and audacity of this opening.

Ultimately, Gangs of New York feels like one massive missed opportunity. In no way would I classify it as a bad film or a failure. Many parts of it work well, and it really offers some excellent moments. However, it falters as it progresses, and it never capitalizes on its successes. Occasionally exciting but often messy, Gangs falls short of the mark.

The DVD Grades: Picture B- / Audio B / Bonus B+

Gangs of New York appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The decision to spread the 167-minute Gangs across two discs surprised and irritated many. Had this resulted in a stunning visual presentation, I’d support it. Unfortunately, Gangs never appeared to capitalize on this, as it suffered from more flaws than I expected.

Sharpness caused most of the concerns, largely due to the presence of some occasionally intrusive edge enhancement. Haloes popped up sporadically and didn’t create a constant issue, but they interfered with more than a few scenes. This rendered some wide shots in a mildly blurry manner. Most of the time the movie remained detailed and well defined, but a little too much of it appeared slightly soft. No issues related to jagged edges or moiré effects appeared, however.

As for print flaws, a smattering of those showed up throughout the movie. Though a few bits of grit appeared, mostly I noticed examples of white specks. These certainly weren’t heavy, and they showed up pretty infrequently. However, given the recent release date and “major motion picture” nature of the project, I thought the DVD displayed too many of these defects.

On the positive side, colors seemed terrific. Other than a few stylistic desaturated sequences – such as the opening fight – the movie mostly displayed rich and warm hues. The tones were deep and lively without any signs of noise or messiness. Black levels also came across as dense and tight, while shadows were clean and accurately delineated. Much of Gangs looked excellent, but enough of the image created problems that I didn’t think it earned better than a “B-“ given the vintage and prominence of the project.

The film’s audio seemed somewhat more successful, but those elements still weren’t great. Gangs of New York boasted both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. I thought the pair seemed virtually identical. At no point did I detect any substantial differences between them.

As a character-driven drama, the soundfield often remained pretty subdued. Much of the time the track simply bolstered events with general atmosphere. Music presented good imaging, and the track created a nice feeling of environment. When pushed, however, it became more involving. The best parts popped up during the film’s climactic riot sequence, especially when the military became involved. In addition to gunfire, the track presented excellent movement of cannon blasts. The surrounds strongly entered the picture here and during other set pieces, and effects such as the soaring cannonballs worked quite well.

Unfortunately, the quality of the audio appeared somewhat erratic, with most of the problems present during the film’s first act. Within that time span, both the Dolby and DTS tracks suffered from a few elements that featured excessive reverb. From DiCaprio’s narration to foley effects to the voices of extras, some parts of the track sounded distant and featured too much echo. For example, check out the scene with the competing fire fighters; so much reverb popped up that the whole thing came across as staged and fake.

Happily, these issues essentially evaporated after a little while, and the rest of the audio seemed satisfying. Outside of the aforementioned bits, speech sounded natural and distinct. I noticed no issues related to the speaking of lines, and effects also failed to present any concerns. Those elements appeared accurate and tight, and they also featured pretty solid bass response when appropriate. The cannon blasts provided the film’s sonic highlights, but other parts of the film also woke up my subwoofer in a satisfying way. The score seemed nicely clear and robust as well. Ultimately, the audio of Gangs of New York was pretty good, but the smattering of flaws knocked down my grade to a “B”.

This two-DVD edition of Gangs tosses in a nice mix of extras. Most are specific to the individual platters, but an audio commentary from director Martin Scorsese spreads across both. Though not obviously edited, this track also didn’t sound like a running affair, as it appeared to come from an interview. It definitely failed to become screen-specific, as I recall no instances during which Scorsese actually remarked directly upon the action.

Nonetheless, the director offered a very good chat that related to the film. He mostly covered the history behind the movie as he told us about the times and facts of the era. In addition, we learned about the film’s long path to the screen, casting, the visual style, music, sets, costumes and other production elements. He even told an interesting tale about how he originally wanted the Clash to do the music back when he initiated the project in the Seventies. Despite a few moderate empty spaces, this commentary provides a solid examination of the flick.

After this we find a series of video programs. The nine-minute and six-second Set Design featurette presents some movie images, footage from the set and production art, and interviews. We get remarks from production designer Dante Ferretti, Scorsese, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, second unit director Vic Armstrong, and actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gary Lewis, Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly, and Brendan Gleeson. A pretty basic program, Ferretti gives us a little decent information about the creation of the film’s sets and its look, but too much of it comes across as fluffy. We hear many comments from the participants about how great the sets were but not much depth.

A companion piece, Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York lasts 22 minutes and 30 seconds. We watch Scorsese and Ferretti as they stroll through the sets. They offer comments about the work, the movie, and the factual basis behind them. We learn lots of nice details about the sets and get a fine look at them in this interesting little program.

“Exploring” can be viewed with or without “360-degree pop-ups”. With that feature activated, you’ll occasionally get the chance to hit “enter” on your remote and watch a 360-degree illustration of the set in question. I think the footage in the program proper displays them well enough to make this feature somewhat redundant, but it’s a good addition for those who want to see as much of the sets as possible.

The eight-minute and 11-second Costume Design resembles “Set Design” in its construction. Here we find remarks from Scorsese, costume designer Sandy Powell, wardrobe supervisor Paolo Stefano Scalabrino, and actors Liam Neeson, Day-Lewis, and Diaz. They cover the historical details and liberties as well as other considerations involved with the costumes. “Costume” seems much more compelling than “Set”, as it includes substantially greater levels of actual information and doesn’t just praise the designers’ work.

Next we find a History of the Five Points. This 13-minute and 35-second program features the usual movie clips, behind the scenes tidbits, and interviews. We discover statements from Scorsese, author/historical advisor Luc Sante, and actors DiCaprio, Neeson, and Broadbent. Sante dominates the piece as he leads us through a quick glimpse at the facts behind the film. Some of this appears elsewhere, but we get some new information, and “History” feels like a tight and useful piece as a whole.

For more material in the same vein, we go to the Five Points Study Guide. The “Luc Sante Introduction” gives us a very good text overview of the historical information. The “Five Points Vocabulary” provides definitions for terms heard in the movie. Both combined help flesh out their subjects neatly.

DVD One concludes with a mix of ads. We get both the teaser and theatrical trailers for Gangs as well as promos in the Sneak Peeks domain. There we find trailers for Frida, Kill Bill, The Quiet American, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Chicago and A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese.

On DVD Two, we locate two features. The first offers a Discovery Channel special called Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York. This 35-minute and 11-second program includes a few movie clips, many historical items, and interviews with Kenneth T. Jackson of the New York Historical Society, archaeologist Rebecca Yamin, Ruth Abram of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, anthropologist Brian Ferguson, authors Luc Sante, Tyler Anbinder and Peter Quinn, actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, and Liam Neeson, and director Scorsese.

Though the appearance of the film folk made me worry that “Uncovering” would offer little more than a puffy promotional piece, instead it gives us a nice examination of the facts behind the movie. The participants trace the history of pretty much everything we see in the flick. There’s information about real-life counterparts to characters as well as notes about the evolution of the Five Points, the various riots and other legal issues, and many other topics. This program moves briskly as it concisely relates the material. It’s a fine piece that I wish I’d watched before I saw the movie; knowing these details enhances the film.

Lastly, we get the music video for U2’s “The Hands That Built America”. Not identical to the clip that appears on the band’s The Best Of 1990-2000, this one uses the same footage of the band in the studio, but tints it to offer an old-timey look and intercuts it with movie footage. The Best Of edition isn’t very good, but this one’s even worse. I adore U2, but this is a cheesy video.

Gangs of New York won’t go down as Martin Scorsese’s worst film, but it also falls far from the top of his work. The movie presents a handful of enthralling sequences but suffers from a weak script, a messy third act, and a mix of other problems that undercut its strengths. The DVD displays generally good but erratic picture and sound plus a nice roster of supplements enhanced by a good commentary from the director. Enough of Gangs seems compelling for me to recommend a rental, but don’t expect a whole lot from this flick.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2522 Stars Number of Votes: 111
9 3:
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