“GANGS OF NEW YORK” (2002) Review

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“GANGS OF NEW YORK” (2002) Review

With the exception of a few, many of Martin Scorsese’s films have been set in the City of New York – whether in the past or present. One of those films is his 2002 Oscar nominated film, “THE GANGS OF NEW YORK”

Loosely based upon Herbert Ashbury’s 1927 non-fiction book, “GANGS OF NEW YORK” had the distinction of being a crime drama about a gang war . . . set during the first half of the U.S. Civil War. Before I continue, I should add that the film was not only based upon Ashbury’s book, but also on the life and death of a street gang leader named William Poole.

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” began in 1846, when two street gangs – the Protestant”Nativists” led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting; and the “Dead Rabbits”, an Irish immigrant gang led by “Priest” Vallon; meet somewhere in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan for a fight. Near the end of a vicious street brawl, Cutting kills Vallon. A close friend of Vallon hides his young son inside an orphanage on Blackwell’s Island. Sixteen years pass and Vallon’s son, who has renamed himself Amsterdam, returns to the Five Points neighborhood to seek revenge against “Bill the Butcher”, who now rules the neighborhood. Against the back drop of the early years of the Civil War, Amsterdam maneuvers himself into Cutting’s confidence, as he waits for the right moment to strike and get his revenge against the man who killed his father.

There are aspects of “GANGS OF NEW YORK” that I either liked or found impressive. Considering that Scorsese shot the film at the Cinecittà Studios and the Silvercup Studios in Queens, New York; I must admit that I found Dante Ferretti’s production designs serving for Manhattan rather impressive. Impressive, but not exactly accurate or near accurate. The movie looked as if it had been shot on a sound stage. But I must say that I admired how the designs conveyed Scorsese’s own vision of Manhattan 1862-63. I also noticed that the color tones utilized by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus reminded me of the three-strip Technicolor process from the early-to-mid 1930s. Rather odd for a period movie set during the U.S. Civil War. However, thanks to Ferretti’s designs and Michael Ballhaus’ very colorful photography, the movie’s vision of 1860s Manhattan had a theatrical style to it – especially in the Five Points scenes. I did not love it, but I found it interesting.

I could probably say the same about Sandy Powell’s costume designs. They struck me as an extreme version of 1860s fashion, especially in regard to color and fabrics, as shown in the image below:

And there was something about the movie’s costume designs for men that I found slightly confusing. Mind you, I am not much of an expert on 19th century fashion for men. But for some reason, I found myself wondering if the costumes designed for the male cast were for a movie set in the 1840s, instead of the 1860s, as shown below:

But if I must be honest with myself, I did not like “GANGS OF NEW YORK”. Not one bit. The movie proved to be a major disappointment. One of the main problems I had with this film was that Scorsese; along with screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan; took what should have been a character-driven period crime drama and transformed it into something nearly unwieldy. When you think about it, “GANGS OF NEW YORK” was basically a fictionalized account of a feud between American-born William Poole and an Irish immigrant named John Morrissey, the former leader of the real “Dead Rabbits” gang. And their feud had played out in the early-to-mid 1850s. Instead, Scorsese and the screenwriters shifted the movie’s setting to the early years of the Civil War and ended the narrative with the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 in some attempt to transform what could have been a more intimate period drama into this gargantuan historical epic. I found this perplexing, considering that the Civil War had little to do with the film’s main narrative. It also did not help that the film’s narrative struck me as a bit choppy, thanks to Scorsese being forced to delete a good deal of the film at the behest of the producers.

I did not have a problem with the conflict/relationship between Bill Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon. I thought Scorsese made an interesting choice by having Amsterdam ingratiate himself into Cutting’s inner circle . . . and keeping his true identity a secret. This paid off when Amsterdam saved Cutting from an assassinating attempt, leading the latter to assume the position of the younger man’s mentor. At first, I could not understand why Scorsese had included a romantic interest for Amsterdam in the form of a grifter/pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane. In the end, she proved to be a catalyst that led to Amsterdam and Cutting’s eventual conflict near the end of the film. One of the few people who knew Amsterdam’s true identity was an old childhood acquaintance named Johnny Sirocco, who became infatuated over Jenny. When he became aware of Amsterdam’s romance with Jenny, Johnny ratted out his friend’s identity to Cutting.

But what followed struck me as . . . confusing. On the 17th anniversary of his father’s death, Amsterdam tried to kill Cutting and failed. Instead of killing the younger man in retaliation, Cutting merely wounded Amsterdam, branded the latter’s cheek and declared him an outcast in the Five Points neighborhood. An outcast? That was it? I found it hard to believe that a violent and vindictive man like Bill “the Butcher” Cutting would refrain from killing someone who tried to kill him. Perhaps this scenario could have worked if Cutter had tried to kill Amsterdam and fail, allowing the latter to make his escape. Or not. But I found Scorsese’s scenario with Amsterdam being banished from Cutting’s circle and the Five Points neighborhood to be something of a joke.

As for the movie’s performances . . . for me they seemed to range from decent to below average. For a movie that featured some of my favorite actors and actresses, I was surprised that not one performance really impressed me. Not even Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar nominated performance as William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. Mind you, Day-Lewis had one or two scenes that impressed – especially one that involved a conversation between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam, inside a brothel. Otherwise, I felt that the actor was chewing the scenery just a bit too much for my tastes. Leonardo Di Caprio, on the other hand, was crucified by critics and moviegoers for his portrayal of the revenge seeking Amsterdam Vallon. Aside from his questionable Irish accent, I had no real problems with Di Caprio’s performance. I simply did not find his character very interesting. Just another kid seeking revenge for the death of his father. What made this desire for revenge ridiculous to me is that Bill the Butcher had killed “Priest” Vallon in a fair fight. Not many critics were that impressed by Cameron Diaz’s performance. Aside from her questionable Irish accent, I had no real problems with the actress. I had a bigger problem with her character, Jenny Everdeane. To put it quite frankly, aside from her role serving as a catalyst to Cutting’s discovery of Amsterdam’s true identity, I found Jenny’s role in this movie rather irrelevant.

As for the other members of the cast . . . I found their performances solid, but not particularly noteworthy. I thought Henry Thomas gave a decent performance as the lovelorn and vindictive Johnny Sirocco. The movie featured Jim Broadbent, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Cara Seymour and Michael Byrne portraying true-life characters like William “Boss” Tweed, P.T. Barnum, Hell Cat Maggie and Horace Greeley. They gave competent performances, but I did not find them particularly memorable. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, David Hemmings, Barbara Bouchet and Alec McCowen. But honestly, I could not think of a performance that I found memorable.

My real problem with “GANGS OF NEW YORK” was Scorsese’s handling of the movie’s historical background. Quite frankly, I thought it was appalling. I am not referring to the film’s visual re-creation of early 1860s Manhattan. I am referring to how Scorsese utilized the movie’s mid-19th century historical background for the film. Earlier, I had pointed out that the Civil War setting for “GANGS OF NEW YORK” barely had any impact upon the movie’s narrative. I think it may have been a bit in error. Scorsese and the screenwriters did utilize the Civil War setting, but in a very poor manner.

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” should never have been set during the U.S. Civil War. It was a big mistake on Scorsese’s part. Day-Lewis’ character is based upon someone who was killed in 1855, six years before the war’s outbreak. Scorsese should have considered setting the movie during the late antebellum period, for his handling of the Civil War politics in the movie struck me as very questionable. From Scorsese’s point of view in this film, the Union is basically a militaristic entity bent upon not only oppressing the Confederacy, but also its citizens in the North – including immigrants and African-Americans. This view was overtly manifested in two scenes – the U.S. Naval bombing of the Five Points neighborhood during the Draft Riots . . . something that never happened; and a poster featuring the images of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass that appeared in the movie:

What made this poster even more ridiculous is that the image of Frederick Douglass was anachronistic. Douglass was roughly around 44 to 45 years old during the movie’s time period. He looked at least 15 to 20 years older in the poster.

In “GANGS OF NEW YORK”, Americans of Anglo descent like Bill the Butcher were the real bigots of 1860s Manhattan. Not only did they hate immigrants, especially Irish-born immigrants, but also black Americans. I am not claiming that all 19th century Anglo-Americans tolerated blacks and immigrants. Trust me, they did not. But did Scorsese actually expected moviegoers to believe that most of the Irish immigrants were more tolerant of African-Americans than the Anglos? Apparently, he did. He actually portrayed one character, an African-American named Jimmy Spoils, as one of Amsterdam’s close friends and a member of the latter’s newly reformed “Dead Rabbits” gang. Honestly? It was bad enough that Scorsese’s portrayal of Jimmy Spoils was so damn limited. I cannot recall a well-rounded black character in any of his movies. Not one.

Scorsese and his screenwriters made the situation worse by portraying the Irish immigrants as generally more tolerant toward blacks than the Anglos. In fact, the only Irish-born or characters of Irish descent hostile toward African-Americans in the film were those manipulated by Anglos or traitors to their own kind. According to the movie, the violent inflicted upon blacks by Irish immigrants was the instigation of Federal military policy. By embracing this viewpoint, Scorsese seemed unwilling to face the the real hostility that had existed between Irish immigrants and African-Americans years before the draft riots in July 1863. Actually, both the Irish and the Anglo-Americans – “the Natives” – were racist toward the blacks. One group was not more tolerant than the other. The movie also featured Chinese immigrants as background characters. In other words, not one of them was given a speaking part. If Scorsese had really wanted the New York Draft Riots to be the centerpiece of this movie, he should have focused more on race relations and been more honest about it.

I really wish that I had enjoyed “GANGS OF NEW YORK”. I really do. I have always been fascinated by U.S. history during the Antebellum and Civil War periods. But after watching this film, I came away with the feeling that Martin Scorsese either had no idea what kind of film that he wanted or that he tried to do too much. Was “GANGS OF NEW YORK” a period crime drama or a historical drama about the events that led to the New York Draft Riots? It seemed as if the director was more interested in his tale about Amsterdam Vallon and William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. If so, he could have followed the William Poole-John Morrissey conflict more closely, set this film where it truly belonged – in the 1850s – and left the Civil War alone. I believe his handling of the Civil War proved to be a major stumbling block of what could have been an well done film.

 

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“SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” (2012) Review

“SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” (2012) Review

Five to six years oversaw a busy period for the Brothers Grimm. During that period, there have been two television shows and two movies that featured their work. At least one television series and the two movies retold the literary pair’s story about Snow White, including the recent film, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”.

Directed by Rupert Sanders; and written by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is a twist on the Snow White tale in which the Huntsman not only becomes the princess’ savior, but also her protector and mentor. In this tale, Snow White is a princess of Tabor and the daughter of King Magnus and Queen Eleanor. After the Queen’s death, King Magnus marries a beautiful woman named Ravenna after rescuing her from an invading force of glass soldiers. As it turns out, Ravenna is a powerful sorceress that controls the glass soldiers. She kills Magnus on their wedding night and seizes control of Tabor. Duke Hammond and his son William (Snow White’s childhood friend) manages to escape the castle. But Snow White is captured by Ravenna’s brother Finn and imprisoned in one of the castle’s towers.

As a decade passes, Ravenna drains the youth from the kingdom’s young women in order to maintain her youth and beauty. When Snow White comes of age, Ravenna learns from her Magic Mirror that the former is destined to destroy her, unless she consumes the young woman’s heart. When Finn is ordered to bring Snow White before Ravenna, the princess manages to escape into the Dark Forest. Eric the Huntsman is a widower who has survived the Dark Forest, and is brought before Ravenna. She orders him to lead Finn in pursuit of Snow White, in exchange for her promise to revive his dead wife. But when Eric learns from Finn that Ravenna will not be able to resurrect his wife, he helps Snow White escape through the Forest. Snow White later promises him gold if he would escort her to Duke Hammond’s Castle. Meanwhile, the Duke’s son William manages to infiltrate Finn’s band in order to find Snow White on his own.

What can I say about “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”? It is not perfect. Well . . . I had at least two minor and one major problems with the movie. The two minor problems centered around the performances of Chris Hemsworth (Eric the Huntsman) and Charlize Theron (Ravenna). Basically, both gave first-rate performances. I cannot deny that. But . . . there were moments during the movie’s first half hour in which I found it difficult to comprehend Hemsworth’s accent? Was he trying to use a working-class Scots or English accent? Or was he using his own Australian accent? I could not tell. As for Theron . . . she had a few moments of some truly hammy acting. But only a few moments. But the major problem centered around the character of Snow White.

The movie’s final showpiece featured a battle between Snow White and Ravenna’s forces at Tabor’s Castle. The battle also featured the princess fighting along with both Eric and William. When on earth did Snow White learn combat fighting? When? She spent most of the movie’s first thirty minutes either as a young girl or imprisoned in the Castle. I figured that Eric, William or both would teach her how to fight in combat before their forces marched back to Tabor. The movie featured a scene in which Eric taught Snow White on how to stab someone up close . . . but nothing else.

The only reasons I wanted to see “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” were the visual effects and the fact that I was a fan of ABC’s “ONCE UPON A TIME”. That is it. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to pay a ticket to see this film. But I am glad that I did. Because I enjoyed it very much, despite its flaws. Thanks to Daugherty, Hancock and Amini’s script, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is part epic, part road movie, part fantasy horror tale and part romance. For me, all of these aspects made this tale about Snow White fascinating to me. And Snow White has never been one of my favorite fairy tales. Director Rupert Sanders not only meshed these attributes into an exciting movie. More importantly, his direction gave the movie a steady pace. I find it amazing that “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is Sanders’ first feature film.

The most interesting aspect about the film was its love triangle between Snow White, Eric and William. Although Eric was originally supposed to be nothing more than a savior and mentor for Snow White, someone made the decision to add a little spice to their relationship. I suspect that this had something to do with Hemsworth’s age and his chemistry with star Kristin Stewart. The movie did not end with Snow White romantically clenched with one man or the other. Although some people were either disturbed or annoyed at this deliberately vague ending, I was not. I suspect that if Snow White had chosen either Eric or William, she would not have found her choice an easy one – either politically or romantically.

There are other aspects of “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” that I found admirable. One, I was impressed by Dominic Watkins’ production designs, which ranged from horror to light fantasy. I was afraid that the movie would visually turn out to be another fantasy production with another second-rate “LORD OF THE RINGS” look about it. Watkins’ designs were ably enhanced by the special effects team led by Vince Abbott and Greig Fraser’s beautiful photography. And I loved Colleen Atwood’s costume designs. She did a great job for most of the cast. But her designs for Charlize Theron’s evil queen were outstanding. Take a look:

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The performances featured in “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” struck me as pretty damn good. The revelations of the actors portraying the Seven Dwarfs took me by surprised. Toby Jones was the first to catch my eye. Then I realized that a who’s who of well known British character actors were portraying the dwarves – Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, and Eddie Marsan. They were all entertaining, especially Hoskins, McShane and Marsan. More importantly, I was very impressed by their roles in the movie’s final battle. Sam Spruell’s performance as Ravenna’s sleazy brother Finn sruck me as almost as frightening as Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna. But only almost. Despite her moments of hammy acting, Theron nearly scared the pants off me, making her Evil Queen just as frightening as the one featured in the 1937 Disney animated film.

I must admit that I was not that impressed by Sam Claflin’s performance as the missionary in last year’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES”. But I suspect that was due to the role he was stuck with. “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” provided him with a much better role as the aristocratic William, who felt guilty over his and his father’s failure to prevent Snow White’s imprisonment following the King’s death. Not only was Claflin was able to strut his stuff in a more interesting role and prove that he could be a first-rate action hero; he also had surprisingly great chemistry with both Stewart and Hemsworth. As for the Australian actor, he was superb as the grieving huntsman, Eric. Okay, I had a few problems with his questionable accent during the movie’s first half hour. However, he overcame that flaw and gave a great and emotionally satisfying performance as a man whose destructive grieving was overcome by his relationship with Snow White. And he also proved that he was more than an action star in a scene in which he gave a beautiful soliloquy regarding Eric’s feelings for the princess. The belle of the ball – at least for me – was actress Kristen Stewart. I must be honest. I am not a fan of the “TWILIGHT” movies or Stewart’s role of Bella Swann. But I certainly enjoyed her performance as Snow White in this film. For the first time, Stewart seemed to be portraying a character that seemed animated, interesting and pro-active. She has great chemistry with both Hemsworth and Claflin. And she did surprisingly well in the action sequences . . . especially in Snow White’s confrontation with Ravenna. I hope to see Stewart in more roles like this.

I heard rumors that due to the movie’s surprising success, Universal Pictures hopes to release a sequel to “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”. I do not know if this is a good idea. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed the movie very much, despite its flaws. The script proved to be an interesting mixture of fantasy, horror, comedy, romance and a road trip. And the cast, led by Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, was first-rate. But considering how the movie ended, I simply do not see the need or possibility for a sequel. Apparently, so did the suits at Universal Pictures.  They released a prequel instead – one that did not prove to be as successful as the 2012 film.