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Gangs of New York (Blu-ray)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment / 2002 / 167 Minutes / Rated R
Street Date: July 01, 2008
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Reviewed by Joshua Zyber
Monday, June 30, 2008
This is a review of the domestic Blu-ray release of 'Gangs of New York'. We have also reviewed a French import Blu-ray release of the movie with a different video transfer here.
Even great artists stumble on occasion. Arguably America's best living filmmaker, Martin Scorsese had grand ambitions for his historical epic 'Gangs of New York'. Long fascinated by organized (and disorganized) crime and its roots in American culture, the director claims to have been planning an adaptation of Herbert Asbury's 1928 non-fiction book on-and-off since stumbling across it in early 1970. The material, an account of gang violence and political corruption in Civil War-era New York City, certainly seems right up his alley. Afforded a mammoth budget approaching $100 million (his largest at the time) and free reign to recreate 19th Century New York on the famed Cinecittà studio lot in Rome, the project was finally green-lit for release in 2002. The resulting film tells a sprawling narrative on a sweeping scale, with stunning production values and an A-List cast. It's also something of a huge mess.
The story begins with the Battle of Five Points in 1846, where bands of rival gangs have aligned themselves into two camps warring for control of their miserable slum. The self-proclaimed "Native Americans" (chiefly White Anglo Saxon stock born in the country) led by Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) face off against immigrants (primarily Irish) led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) in a bloody conflict involving knives, bricks, bats, and other blunt instruments in the city streets. Bill wins, brutally. Jumping ahead 16 years, Vallon's son (Leonardo DiCaprio), having spent his formative years hardening his resolve in a House of Reform, returns to the area seeking vengeance for his father. Now going by the moniker Amsterdam (real subtle there, Marty), the young man allows himself to be taken under Bill's wing to learn about his operation and get close to the man, only to find his feelings conflicted by his growing admiration for father-figure Bill and a shared romantic interest in comely pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz).
This all occurs against a backdrop of rampant corruption centered around William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and his Tammany Hall cronies, who have their hands deep in organized crime's pockets and run the police and fire brigades as nothing more than their own savage gangs on the city payroll. All the while, escalating racial tension in the city has been inflamed by implementation of the country's first military draft, and will culminate in the Draft Riots of 1863, in which huge mobs overrun Manhattan destroying everything in their wake.
Daniel Day-Lewis is an absolute force of nature as Bill. It's another astounding performance in a career filled with them. He swallows up any scene he's in. Less impressive is DiCaprio, still trying to shake off his pretty boy image by beefing up and affecting an unconvincing "Oirish" accent. Don't get me wrong, DiCaprio is usually a fine actor who has capably carried other movies; this just isn't his shining moment. Diaz is flat-out miscast and is frankly awful in her role.
The movie certainly has a lot going on. That's both an asset and a liability. The scale of the picture is suitably epic, with amazing production design and costumes. Scorsese does an excellent job capturing the atmosphere of general anarchy dominating the age. The various themed gangs with their odd names (the Dead Rabbits, the Bowery Boys, the Plug Uglies, the Shirt Tails, etc.) and coordinated outfits are both menacing and strangely fantastical at the same time (in some ways, the picture is reminiscent of 'The Warriors' in its crazily surreal depiction of inner city crime). The story deals with many important themes, and the director orchestrates several set-pieces of enormous scope and visionary artistry.
And yet, at the end of it all, the whole thing feels unfocused and disjointed. The script is too talky, with clunky voiceover narration attempting to patch over gaps in the story. At just shy of three hours in length, there's a lack of momentum, and far too much emphasis placed on the uninteresting romance between Amsterdam and Jenny. Scenes of little consequence are allowed to drag on without reason, while others that would seem important are skimmed over and cut short. On top of it all is one of the worst musical scores ever recorded for a motion picture (Howard Shore must have stretched himself too thin between 'Lord of the Rings' installments), capped by an especially treacly and mood-breaking pop ballad by U2 as soon as the end credits come up.
'Gangs of New York' is a movie that reaches for great things, and has moments of genuine greatness within it, but on the whole never pulls together. It's a big disappointment from Martin Scorsese. Fortunately, the director would bounce back to form with his next pair of features, 'The Aviator' and 'The Departed'.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Gangs of New York' comes to Blu-ray from Buena Vista Home Entertainment (in other words Disney). As usual for the studio, the disc opens with annoying promos and trailers before the main menu, which thankfully can be skipped. Strangely, the pop-up menus available during the feature aren't overlaid on top of the movie image as they are on most Blu-ray discs, but rather shrink the movie down into a tiny box inside a larger menu screen.
Unlike the DVD edition, the 'Gangs of New York' Blu-ray contains the entire feature film on one disc without interruption.
When it hit DVD, 'Gangs of New York' had a video transfer that was sometimes praised for its apparent sharpness and vibrancy by viewers (and even some professional reviewers) watching on small TV screens. However, more discerning videophiles with larger displays found the disc to be marred by abhorrent amounts of edge enhancement ringing that left thick, ugly halos around just about every object in the frame. It soon became notorious as one of the worst DVDs ever released.
Overall, Disney has had a pretty good track record on Blu-ray, even taking pains to remaster certain titles (such as the first 'Pirates of the Caribbean') they'd previously ruined on DVD to make sure they got a proper High Definition treatment. Hopes were high that 'Gangs of New York' would similarly benefit from some fresh attention and care. The movie does have very nice photography by Michael Ballhaus, after all. Sadly, no such luck. The studio has simply recycled the old DVD master. Thus history repeats itself and a movie with one of the worst-looking DVD releases because one of the worst-looking Blu-ray releases available.
If I have anything positive to point out, the 1080p/VC-1 transfer (presented in the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio) has bold colors and rich black levels with good shadow detail. Its opening couple of close-up shots impressed me with their popping detail and dimensionality. That will do it for the positives.
Things start to go south as soon as the movie cuts to a rather edgy medium shot, and then everything goes utterly to hell when we get to the first wide shots during the Battle of Five Points. The entire picture is smothered in grotesque edge enhancement artifacts. Further, Digital Noise Reduction has been slathered on to reduce grain, which kills all textural detail and causes smearing during camera pans and fast movement. When it is present, film grain looks noisy due to the electronic sharpening and regularly freezes in place or swims in unnatural patterns due to the DNR. There's also something wrong with the gamma in the transfer. Whites (like the snow) and bright reds and oranges frequently bloom and crush detail. Posterization artifacts are visible in bright portions of the frame. The result of all this is an image that looks extremely dupey and electronic, and never gets better during the entire three-hour run.
Certain scenes also have colored vertical stripes at the extreme left and right edges of the frame. I don't know whether that's a photographic flaw on the original film negative or a fault of the video transfer. I don't normally advocate cropping, but in this case shaving a tiny bit of picture off the sides might have been less distracting.
All in all, the 'Gangs of New York' Blu-ray is a travesty. It might look acceptable on a small screen -- in fact, I played it on a 17" LCD monitor while I was listening to the audio commentary, and it looked pretty good there; the edge enhancement was still visible, but not quite as distracting at that size -- but any decently-sized home theater display will magnify its flaws. The disc may look better than the old DVD edition, but that's damning it with faint praise. By High Definition standards, it's just terrible. Blu-ray is capable of better than this.
Well, at least the audio sounds OK. The movie's English-language soundtrack is presented in standard Dolby Digital 5.1 or uncompressed PCM 5.1. As expected, the PCM track is preferred if you have capable equipment.
The mix has nice bass thump and impact, especially the pounding cannon fire during the climax. Sound effects such as clanging knives and other metallic weapons are sharply recorded, and gun shots have a satisfying crack. Dialogue is always clear and intelligible, and even shifts directionally across the front soundstage from time to time (rare in modern movies). Surround usage is only moderately aggressive, but decidedly picks up during the Battle of Five Points and Draft Riot sequences. The soundtrack exhibits pleasing spaciousness and fidelity in both quiet and loud scenes alike.
Any disappointment I may have stems directly from the movie itself, not its audio presentation on Blu-ray. 'Gangs of New York' has a surprisingly bland and uninspired sound design, with a lousy musical score and countless scenes that are just sonically dull. That isn't the Blu-ray's fault, but I certainly won't be pulling this disc off the shelf when I want an audio demo.
Almost all of the bonus features from the DVD edition have made their way to the Blu-ray. The featurettes are obvious EPK material and often more promotional than substantive.
- Audio Commentary – Martin Scorsese is an old pro at the commentary format, and as usual delivers an engaging talk during the movie. This is a long film, and there are a few gaps here and there, but he provides a lot of interesting information about the origins of the project, his inspirations, his personal connection to New York City and his fascination with its history, casting the movie (DiCaprio was cast on the advice of Robert De Niro), thematic concerns, and the challenges of structuring and editing such a sprawling story. One can forgive the director for thinking that the movie turned out better than it really did, but this commentary allows a new appreciation for what he was trying to achieve.
- History of the Five Points (SD, 14 min.) – Historical advisor Luc Sante discusses the real Bill "The Butcher," the Draft Riots, the Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall scandals, and the rampant corruption among police and firefighters. He also explains how the "yellow" press of the day distorted the news so badly that there are few reliable historical accounts from the time period.
- Set Design (SD, 9 min.) – Production designer Dante Ferretti talks about his collaboration with Scorsese, the historical research needed, and shows us some technical drawings and models.
- Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York (SD, 23 min.) – Scorsese and Ferretti take us on a walking tour of the massive city sets built on the Cinecittà lot in Rome.
- Costume Design (SD, 8 min.) – Designer Sandy Powell explains the mixture of historical accuracy and heightened fantasy stylization in the wardrobe.
- Discovery Channel Special: Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York (SD, 35 min.) – A very promotional TV special with a skimming overview of the history of old New York, and specifically the Five Points district, which was described as "the most dangerous slum in the world." Clips from the movie are repeatedly plugged.
- U2 Music Video: The Hands That Built America (SD, 5 min.) – Not one of the band's better songs. The video is mostly clips from the movie.
- Trailers (SD, 5 min.) – One teaser and one full theatrical trailer. The latter shamelessly spoils a rather big plot development.
There are no Blu-ray exclusives.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
Missing from the DVD edition is the "Five Points Study Guide," comprised of a video introduction by historian Luc Sante and text about the "Five Points Vocabulary." The "Exploring the Sets" featurette is also lacking some pop-up prompts that branched off to 360-degree views of specific landmarks in the set.
No easter eggs reported for 'Gangs of New York' yet. Found an egg? Please use our tips form to let us know, and we'll credit you with the find.
'Gangs of New York' may not be the masterpiece that it set out to be, but the film is still a notable footnote in Martin Scorsese's career and has many worthy elements that merit viewing. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray has a downright terrible video transfer that will look atrocious on a large High-Def screen. Stick with a rental on this one.
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