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The (F)arthouse Critic--"Gangs of New York:" a review

2003-01-14 - 10:10 a.m.

Three Reasons Why You Should See Martin Scorsese's "The Gangs of New York." Followed by The Three Reasons You Might Not Like It When You Get There.

1. Bill the Butcher, (played so brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis that you see no trace of the actor), is one of the most crazily charismatic and supremely scary characters to grace the screen in ages. With his huge top hat, handlebar mustache, glass eye (which he raps his knife against, klink klink klink), stilt-like legs, and sweeping, murderous movements, Bill the Butcher is like a cross between Captain Hook a really bad guy from a Dickens novel. He's amazingly vivid without being cartoonish and without overacting. Even though he's an evil bastard, I wish I had a little pencil sketch of this guy to hang over my bed--that's how freakin' cool he looked.

2. You have to admire the ambition in this achievement: a period piece about the days when New York had dirt streets and was ruled by gangs who swung at each other with axes and picks to defend what they thought was theirs. It's a bit of American history that most people probably don't know or think much about. Or at least I hadn't before I saw the movie. But then again, I had gym teachers for history class. But you get the point. It really is so sweeping in its reach that it makes other movies out right now seem tiny and tossed-off.

3. This may be an offshoot of point number one, but the sets and costumes make it all worthwhile. In the opening scene, we see a gang of Irishmen and other immigrants preparing to battle against Bill the Butcher's gang of purists, or "natives" who will fight to the death to keep out anyone with "outsider" blood. In that moment we not only see New York in its earliest days but smell the sweat on each man's clothing. The greatest strength in this category, other than watching Bill the Butcher walk down the street in his stovepipe hat and coattails, is that none of the crowds are computer-generated: somebody actually had to go out and find or make all those period clothes. It's amazing. It truly makes you feel like you're in Civil War-era NYC.

And now, the three reasons you might not like it once you get there:

1. The love story between Amsterdam (Leo DiCaprio) and Jenny (Cameron Diaz) is so trite it's treacle. In fact, it has parallels to another huge-budget period movie, one that it really ought not to have parallels to: "The Titanic." At the very end, as Amsterdam and Jenny limp away from the lifeless masses lying in the blood-soaked street (see point #2 below), there's an old-fashioned-flute sound that seriously makes you expect Celine Dion to start pounding her chest and singing about hearts, indeed, going on. The love story line was so predictable I kept thinking surely it must be a set up, surely there must be a curveball coming around the bend to make us smack our foreheads, but it never did. I was with this movie all the way until Diaz's "NOOOO!" scene when Amsterdam's safety is threatened. It was old-school soap opera style.

2. And then there's that blood and guts thing. As you might expect from Scorsese, "Gangs" is unendingly, unapologetically violent--so much so that this is where the cartoony element comes in. For two hours and forty-five minutes, there are beatings and stabbings and smackings and slicings and dicings and dear God there's a lot of blood. As in "Goodfellas," Scorsese loves those long, red meat slabs hanging from the ceiling. He loves those grandiose, slowed-down moments when a man is shot and his hands go up in the air, his head bobs back, and the glass window behind him explodes into shards. The thing is, I'm sure there are perfectly academic arguments as to why this is an art form--and actually, I'm not really arguing against that. But in my personal preference, violence-as-background music gets a little old after three long hours.

3. Though DiCaprio and Diaz give satisfactory performances, that's about where it stops. Early on, you have to abandon any hope that the Irish accents will stick--but at least DiCaprio's character states his reason for swinging back and forth in dialect: he lost his lilt when living in an orphanage. But something about his performance seems lackluster-- I'm undecided as to whether it's his acting or the fact that his character was underdeveloped to begin with. His voiceovers, though, sound like he came into the studio one day to read them off the sheet of paper--forgetting the accent and the acting all together.

Diaz is better than I expected her to be--save for the afore-mentioned screaming scene--but she unfortunately creates a problem in the film that's really not her fault. This doesn't apply to Day-Lewis' character because he is so heavily disguised--both wardrobe-wise and through his skilled acting--but sometimes in a period piece, it's really distracting to see big-name Hollywood actors, (especially when bits of their dialogue swing unforgivably into the modern). In other words, when the movie opened, I was instantly transported back to 1840's America, to the dirt and grime of it, the racial intolerance of it, the political promise of it, especially for those arriving daily on boats--and then, boom, I see Cameron Diaz and say, "Hey, look! There's something about Mary!"

that was then - this is now

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