Thursday, June 2, 2011

Love/Hate: Gangs of New York

There are several movies with which I have love/hate relationships. None of them actually involve love or hate but, rather, aspects I like or admire and aspects I find dull or uninspired or just plain wrong. One of the great Love/Hate relationships I have in the cinema is with the film Gangs of New York. There is almost as much I like about that film as I don't like so it comes about as close to an even split as I'm going to get. I will attempt to explain why but most of it is based on gut feelings, something that doesn't translate well into written analysis so listing may, instead, be the order of the day. I may say harsh things about a movie many love but hope that, in the end, Bill "The Butcher" Cutting himself would declare of this piece, "It's fair. A touch indelicate, but fair."

LOVE:

*Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill "The Butcher" Cutting. As always, Day-Lewis doesn't pull back and that makes for one hell of a watchable performance. In my view, people continue to misunderstand acting that many describe as "hammy" or "over the top." I have commented on this many times but will say it again: A bad actor attempting to ham it up or go "over the top" is painful to watch and, often, wooden. A great actor doing it is a joy to behold (Charles Laughton, Gary Oldman, Bette Davis). I love when he says the "indelicate" line quoted above. Also, after piercing Amsterdam Vallon's (Leonardo DiCaprio) side, announcing, "That's a wound."

*The look of the film. The sets and art direction are terrific to take in and director Martin Scorsese creates an other worldly feel with it, providing a real sense of space and depth within the sets that transport the viewer back in time.

*Jim Broadbent because, well, you know, he's Jim Broadbent!

*The time it takes to develop its story. It doesn't rush itself and doesn't necessarily go where one would expect.

*The history provided in the film, though largely fictionalized, is nonetheless fascinating and did actually inspire me to research it further.


HATE:

*Cameron Diaz. I just can't stand her in this movie. I find her line deliveries flat and unbelievable and no matter what they do to her costume and makeup, she doesn't look period. She's found a niche in comedy and I think she's skilled at it but in drama, especially this particular period drama, she doesn't work.

*Leonardo DiCaprio. I've grown to like DiCaprio in many things, including all of his other efforts with Scorsese but here he feels forced. From Day-Lewis and Broadbent I get period characters I believe, from DiCaprio I get unconvincing period affectations.

*The opening and closing music. God, how I hate it! This is probably the biggest "Hate" factor of them all. When the opening fight begins and, despite the rest of the film using period Celtic American musical motifs, goes into electric guitar riffs while the action slows to jagged frame by frame slow motion, I don't feel taken out of the movie so much as desperately wanting to leave the movie, and I don't even mind non-period music in period pieces.

Then, at the end, as Amsterdam ponders the future memory of who they were and what they did, cheesy synthesizer-sounding strings strike up (complete with electric guitar riffs, again) as if Scorsese said to the music director, "Now, listen, I'm serious, I really want you to totally screw up this ending," and then the music director pulled out his "100 Greatest Cheesy Movie Themes of the 80s" album and said, "I've got just the thing!"

*The CGI/Matte work/Special Effects. When the camera pulls back at the beginning to show where they are (pssst, it's New York) it looks like the worst matte painting in history as viewed through a broken down screen door. Honestly, I'm not sure if it's matte, CGI or a combination of both, I just know it looks bad. At the end, when Musical Cheese-Fest 2002 is going on, the New York skyline changes or, rather, the really bad CGI/Matte drawing of the New York skyline changes. Hey Marty, way to do everything in your power to destroy the closing shot.

*Finally, and here comes the big one, Martin Scorsese's direction. It's pretty dreadful. He makes some good choices (I mean, how could he not, he's Martin Scorsese so it's not a total loss) but he makes many more bad ones. Mainly, he doesn't stick with any one stylistic approach. There's the jagged frame by frame slow-mo of the fight scene. There's the varying musical approaches. There's the hectic, chaotic climax, narrated by a reporter reading off the telegraph machine so the viewer gets a play by play of the action. Dear Lord, that's got to be one of the most ill-advised approaches to a climax I've ever seen. Scorsese clearly wanted the ending to simulate a newsreel play by play but, alas, the story takes place during the Civil War so he goes with the reporter reading off the telegraph instead. The ending felt so disconnected from the rest of the film, so emotionally distant, that by the time we see the long line of dead bodies waiting to be claimed one feels relief only that, with the end credits nearing, the constant shift in styles will be mercifully over.

When Gangs of New York ends, and the big, overdesigned title card (seriously, the title card is overdesigned! How? Why?) I walk away with a sense of longing. A longing for a better, more consistent film. And, really, that's not a knock so much as an acknowledgement that I like a lot in the movie and wish I liked the movie itself more. And I'll watch it again. I'll watch Bill teach Amsterdam how and where to cut someone for maximum effect (another favorite scene) while I drift off as the Cameron Diaz scenes play out. I'll love it and I'll hate it and dream of what might have been but the movie's shortcomings won't keep me away. After all, with Gangs of New York I know where I stand. It's hit and miss and that's not deadly. That's a wound.