Scorsese's new film is pretty spectacular. Have you seen it? What did you think? I recommend this movie.
I found this review and agree with most of it:
Date: 26 January 2003
Summary: great filmmaking overcomes banal story
Finding yourself brooding over the sorry state of civilization lately? If so, I would strongly recommend you take a trip to `Gangs of New York' and see how much worse things USED to be in the not too distant past. The film is Martin Scorcese's epic paean to the Lawlessness That Made America Great, a theme most often explored against a Far West backdrop, out on the open prairie or in two-bit towns like Tombstone, Arizona or Dodge City, Kansas. Here it's been transferred to 1860's New York City, which in Scorcese's vision, turns out to be a veritable Dickensian hellhole of vice and corruption, a place teeming with rival gangsters, pickpockets, corrupt politicians, lawbreaking policemen, and even firefighters so obsessed with matters of jurisdiction that they do physical battle with rival departments while an unattended building goes up in flames behind them. This is a world where life has no value and where a man's existence can be snuffed out without so much as a by-your-leave or a single person left behind to mourn him. The members of these rival gangs make the Sharks and the Jets - who would make their appearance on the same turf a full century later - look like mere pantywaists in comparison.
Visually, the film is a masterpiece, offering some of the best cinematography, art direction and costume design of any film released in 2002. With the help of some master craftsmen, Scorcese has created a complete world unto itself, one that doesn't look quite like anything we have ever seen on film before. The setting provides a stunning mixture of the real and the surreal, with everything from the clapboard buildings to the foot-tall hats deriving their style from extrapolated exaggeration. It is truly an astonishing, eye-popping achievement.
The same cannot necessarily be said for the rest of the film, however. Based on a story by former film critic Jay Cocks, the screenplay by Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan and Cocks himself never quite achieves the level of greatness promised by the setting. The main drawback is the story itself, which is basically just a trite revenge melodrama all gussied up in fancy period clothes. Leonardo DiCaprio takes center stage as Amsterdam Vallon, a young man who, as a boy, witnessed the murder of his father at the hands of Bill `the Butcher' Cutting, the meanest man ever to terrorize the streets of this fledgling metropolis. Bill, who is an expert with knives and other cutting instruments, is the man all the denizens of the section of the city known as The Five Fingers fear, and he is able to use that fear to make himself undisputed king of the area. After a 16-year absence, Amsterdam returns to the scene of the crime, determined to even the score and make Bill pay for his offense with his life.
Despite the glories of the setting, Scorcese is never able to bring the story itself to life. Perhaps DiCaprio is just too weak and passive to make a very convincing foil for the hard-as-steel Bill Cutting (who seems heavily derived from Dickens' Bill Sikes character in `Oliver Twist,' a literary source that never seems too far from the minds of the movie's authors). Perhaps Daniel-Day Lewis is just too convincing in the role of villain to make it seem like anything even close to an even match. Perhaps, too, the obligatory romantic plot strand involving DiCaprio with a miscast Cameron Diaz is simply too hokey to fit into the grim tale being told here. Whatever the reason, the core of the film turns out to be the weakest element of `Gangs of New York.' Moreover, the dialogue is utterly banal and uninspired, consisting mainly of syrupy platitudes and half-baked philosophizing. Lucky for us, then, that the director has provided us with enough visual stimulation to keep us at least intrigued, if not quite fascinated, throughout.
What does fascinate us, however, is all the historical detail that permeates the outer fringes of the story. These include the ever-present backdrop of the Civil War, which keeps encroaching into the world these people inhabit, and the anti-war riots that tore virtually all of New York City apart - both of which the filmmakers use as a kind of macrocosmic comment on the petty battles and rivalries taking place in this hellish part of town. In moments like these, `Gangs of New York' almost touches greatness. Also of interest is the way in which the film highlights the fervid anti-immigration attitude that has so completely permeated the history of a country that, in a bewildering paradox, has always prided itself (in theory, at least, if not always in practice) on being the great `melting pot' for the world's downtrodden and disenfranchised to flock to - and the film reminds us of how prevalent that anti-immigrant attitude still is today in many quarters. Truly, some things never change.
Yes, `Gangs of New York' is a severely flawed film in a lot of ways, but it is also a work of vision and of almost unparalleled technical accomplishment that deserves to be seen. Even if there is not much here to engage the mind or the heart, you can always feast your eyes on the glorious visions unfolding up there on the screen.