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HTF REVIEW: "Gangs of New York"



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#1 of 57 StuartGalbraith

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Posted June 15 2003 - 09:16 AM

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DVD Review – Gangs of New York
Director, Martin Scorsese; Producers, Alberto Grimaldi and Harvey Weinstein; Screenplay, Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, based on a story by Jay Cocks; Director of Photography, Michael Ballhaus; Art Director, Dante Ferretti; Editor, Thelma Schoonmaker; Music, Howard Shore.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Alec McCowen, David Hemmings, Barbara Bouchet.
An Alberto Grimaldi Production. A Miramax Films Release. Color (prints by Technicolor). Super 35 (2.35:1). 167 minutes. MPAA Rating: R. Released December 20, 2002.

DVD: Released by Miramax Home Entertainment. Street Date July 1, 2003. $29.99
2.35:1 / 16:9
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1 Digital Surround (English); French Language Track.
Special Features: Costume Design Featurette; Set Design Featurette; History of the Five Points Featurette; multiple-angle, 360-degree set shots; Discovery Channel Special “Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York”; “Five Points Study Guide” with Luc Sante introduction and Five Points Vocabulary; Audio Commentary with Martin Scorsese; Trailers.

Reviewed by Stuart Galbraith IV

It took director Martin Scorsese 25 years to bring Gangs of New York to the screen. Few films in recent memory generated as much worried prerelease trade press, and despite mixed reviews the film went on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. The picture explores of the origins of organized crime in 19th century New York and attempts to function as a kind of antecedent to everything from Scarface (1932) to GoodFellas (1990). Gangs of New York paints a broad canvas with characters real and imagined, grappling with issues from unjust conscription laws to racism, poverty, political corruption, turf wars – even the origins of the Manhattan's infrastructure. Ultimately, though, Gangs of New York has a script that boils down to a standard revenge melodrama, albeit with an elaborate and unique production design. Insofar as that goes, the picture is entertaining if overlong, and the historical recreations keep things interesting.

The story's focus is Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), an Irish immigrant whose father (Liam Neeson) was killed 16 years earlier by Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), whose anti-Catholic/anti-immigrant gang then took full control of New York's Five Point District. Now, under the growing cloud of the Civil War, and unaware of the boy's identity, "The Butcher" takes Amsterdam under his wing, making him his right-hand man. As the gang's power and influence grows, Amsterdam bides his time, waiting for the right moment to strike back at his father's killer and renew the Irish-American cause.

Stretched over 167 minutes, the elephantine production has more in common with Samuel Bronston's epics of the 1960s, films like 55 Days at Peking (1963), than, say, more character-rich films like The Godfather. As someone who actually likes Bronston's epics, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But we never much get into Amsterdam's head, and his romance with pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) is no more believable than Charlton Heston's was with Ava Gardner. But like Bronston's epics (of which Scorsese himself is a fan) Gangs of New York loves its elaborate and detailed sets, its lavish costumes and attention to little historical details. In that light the picture can be a lot of fun, but it's not in the class of a Goodfellas or a Raging Bull.

How is the Transfer?
In a rather surprising move, Miramax has spread the feature over two discs. Disc One runs 85 minutes while Disc Two clocks in at 82 minutes. The DVD's special features likewise are spread out over both discs. Undoubtedly, there will be complaints about this. Partly this is justified as the break comes at an awkward moment and would have been better positioned at a more obvious break ten or so minutes further in. As someone who used to watch movies Super-8 and 16mm, with reel changes every 20-40 minutes, and then later on 30-minute CAV laserdiscs, one minor break is no big deal. The upside to all this is obvious, however: the picture looks and sounds fantastic. Beyond some very minor edge enhancement, the Gangs of New York DVD is very good. Presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio with an anamorphic transfer, the film has rich color and sharp resolution. The sound, in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, is up to modern industry standards.

Special Features
The DVD's extensive Special Features offer an invaluable historical background on the picture's setting, from its architecture and apparel to its political anecdotes and geography. Indeed, the special features focus on the film's historical accuracies and liberties while generally sidestepping the controversy surrounding the film's production.

This is certainly true of the nine-minute “Set Design Featurette” and the eight-minute “Costume Design Featurette,” both of which are serviceable and moderately interesting. Much better is the “Exploring the Sets” feature, which runs 22 minutes and shows Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti touring sets built on the backlot of Italy's Cinecitta Studios. There's a story that when George Lucas saw the elaborate recreations of 19th century New York he told Scorsese that he could have saved himself a lot of trouble using CGI. Whether that's true or not, the fact remains Scorsese built what was basically an enormous backlot just for this picture. The sets, both exterior and in soundstages, are elaborate and detailed. Had the film been shot in the United States, one can easily imagine the picture costing twice its $100 million budget. This segment also has an added, 360-degree view function. As Scorsese and Ferretti tour the sets, a prompt allows the viewer to stop the tour and switch to a 360-degree angle of that particular location. One has to admire the gee-whiz aspect of the technology to do this, but the effect is rather like shopping for a home on the Internet. The view is also so radically distorted that its value is rather limited.

Also on Disc One is an informative 13-minute “History of the Five Points,” as well as a “Five Points Study Guide,” but even on my 55-inch TV the font for this latter feature -- several pages of text -- appeared relatively tiny and not easy to read. Martin Scorsese contributes an audio commentary track, some of which is derived from an interview he gave to Terry Gross for her excellent National Public Radio show “Fresh Air.” As usual, Scorsese speaks at a breakneck pace and this results in about eight hours worth of commentary over 167 minutes. Finally, Disc One offers a half-dozen trailers for other Miramax releases, including Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming Kill Bill. Two trailers for Gangs of New York are likewise included.

Disc Two has a 35-minute Discovery Channel special, “Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York,” a flawed but generally interesting history of the Five Points area before, during, and after the events chronicled in the film. U-2's “The Hands That Built America” video is also included. None of the special features, including the trailers, are anamorphic.

Parting Thoughts

Anyone expecting a GoodFellas in period dress will likely be disappointed with Gangs of New York. The picture's core is entertaining but shallow, and the entire film nearly suffocates under the weight of its elaborate production. But the film also offers a rare look inside an unjustly forgotten time and place in American history. For that alone the picture is worth seeing, and Miramax's DVD offers both an excellent presentation of Scorsese's film and informative supplements which shed new light on its setting.


#2 of 57 Joshua_Y

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Posted June 15 2003 - 09:21 AM

Man...thats quite ridiculous spreading it out over 2 discs...its not even 3 hours long! Bad move! Could have easily put the film on a single disc with DTS and no supplements and would have looked the same...ugh! Still buyin it because the movie is excellent...

#3 of 57 Jon Robertson

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Posted June 15 2003 - 09:38 AM

How is Scorsese's commentary - they're generally worth their weight in gold!

#4 of 57 Adam Portrais

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Posted June 15 2003 - 10:57 AM

Josua is right. The movie really could have been on one disc and the features on the other. Oh well, it was a great movie and because of the commentary and features I still will be picking this one up.

Thanks Stuart, your reviews are coming along nicely.
(and not to be a jerk, but are you ever going to include screen shots like Ron did?)

#5 of 57 greg_t

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Posted June 15 2003 - 11:06 AM

(and not to be a jerk, but are you ever going to include screen shots like Ron did?)


Direct from Ron:

Don't expect any screenshots, however. They were taking up an enormous amount of bandwidth


http://www.hometheat....=&pagenumber=2

#6 of 57 Steve Schaffer

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Posted June 15 2003 - 11:12 AM

I know I'm in the minority, but I get more out of an accurate verbal description of the video quality when seen on a typical home theater setup than from a screenshot.

Not to denigrate Ron's efforts in any way, but the many screenshots made his reviews almost impossible to view on my
webtv, they just refused to load.

A couple or three screenshots will load fine, though a bit slowly, but much more than that and I can't read the reviews at all.
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#7 of 57 Steve Christou

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Posted June 15 2003 - 11:45 AM

I'll wait for the region 2 and hope the film isn't split in two, I hate that.Posted Image

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#8 of 57 Patrick McCart

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Posted June 15 2003 - 01:29 PM

And if it was all on one disc, people would complain about the video being sub-par. Posted Image

Come on... what is really worse? Moving your person for a few seconds to exchange the discs or watching average quality video? You can at least burn off a cheeto or two by getting up to change discs. Posted Image


I want to pick this up since it was one of the two films I wanted to see in 2002 (The lone theatrical screening I attended was The Two Towers.) I'm very interested in hearing Scorsese's comments on the film!

#9 of 57 Adam_S

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Posted June 15 2003 - 01:32 PM

delighted that they're spreading the film out over two discs, because it gets me the best picture AND sound quality. I am disapointed that they apparently chose a bad spot to split the film.

The Terry Gross interview is outstanding and points out that Scorses was deliberately trying to make a film that would work for many different audiences, not just elite cineastes who only watch Bergman and Tarkovsky etc. For that I applaud him.

The average Joe (that knows a little about movies, enough to know Scorsese=respected artist) might go into the film expecting it to be pretentious and unwatchable--he comes out thinking, Wow this is way better than I thought. Whereas the educated cineaste/ movie buff who worships the ground Scorsese walks on goes in knowing all sorts of buzz gleaned from the internet and magazines (like how this is his dream project for 25 years etc), and enters the movie expecting a brilliant, moving masterpiece one of the finest movies ever made--and they come out disapointed (cough, much like Star Wars fans cough), thinking "Is this all?".

yet both responses are valid.

I think these two reactions are fundamentally representative of what Scorsese was trying to achieve, he was absolutely not attempting to make an art film for 30 people in the world to like, he wanted to create a film that everyone would be able to enjoy and access (hense the narration filling in some much needed info on the period).

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#10 of 57 Ray H

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Posted June 15 2003 - 02:31 PM

Thanks for the review! I've been waitingfor one for the past few weeks.Posted Image
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#11 of 57 Travis_W

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Posted June 15 2003 - 02:37 PM

I like having the film all one disc (with LOTR:EE being the exception since it's 3.30) but if having it one two discs will benefit the presentation-I'm for it.

Also nice to see that Disney didn't just chuck this out as a bare-bones disc.

Also nice to see a review this early, thanks a bunch Stuart.
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#12 of 57 Mike Graham

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Posted June 15 2003 - 03:44 PM

I'm glad the presentation is spread out over two discs - the DVDs are supposed to present the movie in the best possible way, so this would let the bitrate be a little higher - good job! Posted Image

#13 of 57 Adam Portrais

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Posted June 15 2003 - 04:15 PM

[quote]Direct from Ron:

quote:

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Don't expect any screenshots, however. They were taking up an enormous amount of bandwidth
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Thanks, I guess I missed that one.

#14 of 57 Steve_Tk

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Posted June 15 2003 - 05:49 PM

Quote:
And if it was all on one disc, people would complain about the video being sub-par.


So true. There's always something for people to complain about Posted Image

Is this worth a sight unseen purchase, I don't do that a lot, but I love epics and his movies.

#15 of 57 Dave H

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Posted June 15 2003 - 05:52 PM

If they dropped the DTS track, I guess it wouldn't be an issue (which I would have been for).

#16 of 57 MichaelBryant

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Posted June 15 2003 - 06:16 PM

Quote:
I'm glad the presentation is spread out over two discs - the DVDs are supposed to present the movie in the best possible way, so this would let the bitrate be a little higher - good job!


We don't even know if this was the reason it was done. That's just a guess on your part. Considering the special features are included on both the discs kind of cancels out the "we are saving space to improve picture quality" argument. As someone else mentioned earlier, the movie could have been placed on one disc and the special features on another. My guess is it was done for some other reason.

#17 of 57 Damin J Toell

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Posted June 15 2003 - 06:33 PM

Quote:
We don't even know if this was the reason it was done. That's just a guess on your part.

Just a guess, perhaps, but a fairly logical one.

Quote:
Considering the special features are included on both the discs kind of cancels out the "we are saving space to improve picture quality" argument.


It doesn't cancel it out at all. The special features are likely encoded at a much lower video bitrate than the feature, and are also unlikely to contain both DD & DTS 5.1 tracks like the film does. The sum total of the special features on disc one therefore likely don't take up anywhere near the space that would've been required for the remainder of the film. So while the space left empty by having only half the film on disc 1 might leave sufficient room for a number of small extras encoded at low video and audio bitrates, that space may well have not been sufficiently large enough to allow for the second half of the film at the desired quality level.

Quote:
As someone else mentioned earlier, the movie could have been placed on one disc and the special features on another. My guess is it was done for some other reason.


And that reason would be...?

DJ

#18 of 57 Gordon McMurphy

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Posted June 15 2003 - 08:37 PM

Nice review, Stuart. Posted Image

Once again we find ourselves with a strange disc change-over for a New York gangster film! Posted Image

It doesn't bother me though.


Gordy

#19 of 57 Ronald Epstein

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Posted June 15 2003 - 08:55 PM

Guys,

I don't want to interrupt Stuart's review
thread, but it seems to have already been done
with some of the comments regarding screenshots.

Though many of you seem to prefer screenshots
in reviews, please be aware that during the last
6-7 months of my review career the screenshots I
posted were downsized and thus degraded in order
to save bandwidth. While the screenshots were
cool to look at, they never represented actual
picture quality.

A small suggestion: I feel it's a little rude to
post links to other site reviews in anybody else's
review thread. We all know other review sites exist.

I'm not going to make a big deal out of it
either way.

Ronald J Epstein
Home Theater Forum co-owner

 

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#20 of 57 Mike Graham

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Posted June 15 2003 - 09:03 PM

We seemed to have gotten off topic - thanks for the review Stuart! I'll definitely be giving this one a rental (I already caught it theatrically) to see if I like it the second time around.


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