Wednesday, December 5, 2007

NEW YORK, NEW YORK (United Artists 1977) MGM/Fox Home Video

An odd melding of irreconcilable cinematic styles, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) is at least a serious attempt at resurrecting the old Hollywood musical from, what was by the end of that decade, its self-imposed oblivion. Indeed, by 1977, few producers in the industry would touch the genre for fear of winding up with a costly box office bomb that would end their career.

There are many reasons why the musical proved unviable in the ‘70s. The short answer is that audience’s tastes had veered toward realism – a quality not sustainable in the musical as an art form. So too, did the retirement and/or death of many of the artisans who had created such song and dance magic at MGM and elsewhere during Hollywood’s glory days necessitate a changing of the old guard and marked difference in the way such projects were being handled even ten to fifteen years earlier.

Thus, Scorsese was faced with a rather insurmountable challenge – make a film that remained faithful to the musical’s roots by evoking the very best while adding a new, fresh and light touch that would sustain a different generation’s opinion and praise for the genre. He was only partly successful.

Plot wise: the film opens with New York celebrating the end of WWII. Opinionated musician and self-professed ladies man, Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) is on the make for a quick seduction at one of the swanky night spots. But he finds more than ample challenge presented by his prospect of choice; Francine Evans (Liza Minelli).

After a rough start, Francine quietly warms to Jimmy’s smooth operations. Over the course of the next forty-eight hours, their romance will go from non-existent to three alarm fire – primarily after Jimmy’s star as a saxophone player begins to rise. Before long, he’s formed his own big band with Francine as his lead singer. They tour the country and celebrate their success by falling in love.

However, when Francine becomes pregnant, Jimmy decides that its time to pitch his star to another singer and another town. The separation is made all the more bitter when Jimmy’s star begins to fall while Francine finds her career at the cusp of greatness in the movies and on Broadway – venues Jimmy aspired to but can never reach without Francine’s help and talent to back him up.

Scorsese is going for all out homage to Minnelli’s father with this movie – a veritable feast for the eyes with a lush manufactured style indicative of the studio system’s best. But the film is hampered by its choices in central casting. Though deriving from musical stock, Liza Minnelli looks unwell and frail throughout most of the film – her heavy pancake make-up and forties bob appearing forced and out of place. She’s in good voice though, leaving at least the musical portions of the film on very solid ground.

The casting of DeNiro is a colossal mistake. He is a fine actor, no doubt – but his particular brand of brash and cocky foreplay is better served in a contemporary setting. Forced into the confines of this artificial period piece, DeNiro’s acting sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb – making him appear a clumsy addendum to the piece instead of its leading man. Quite simply, there’s little to zero chemistry between him and Minnelli.

The screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin is fairly standard with few reasons to distinguish itself above just passable entertainment. So too is Scorsese’s methodical pacing at odds with what a director like Charles Walters in his prime would have made short shrift of employing effervescent aplomb.

In the final analysis, New York, New York was not a success, necessitating United Artists to insist that Scorsese cut some of the musical sequences in order to pair down their expenses and the film’s running time. At any rate, the concise version that most people saw proved just as grating on ticket buyers. Today, the film has been restored to the length that Scorsese originally shot and desired. But it’s just longer, rather than improving on plot development or narrative structure.

This is the second outing for the film on DVD and a colossal disappointment it remains despite this being advertised as a 30th Anniversary Edition. The chief cause for this critic’s displeasure remains with the film transfer – a direct import from MGM’s tired first issue in ‘letterbox’ 1:66:1 widescreen. It has been common for MGM to offer its widescreen films without the benefit of being enhanced for 16x9 displays. But, as this disc has been reissued under MGM/Fox Home Video (and, in light of the re-issuing of many less than stellar MGM transfers in above average remastering efforts from Fox of late) this disc is simply NOT up to snuff.

In light of the fact that this is a 30th Anniversary Edition, one would at least hope that management would have the decency to provide new disc art. Instead, we get the old ‘SE’ edition with a second disc of extras. Transfer wise: colors are saturated but not as glowing as one might expect. Many scenes contain a barrage of age related artifacts, excessive amount of film grain and quite a lot of digital grit that is both distracting and (in light of all the new technologies currently available and designed to temper these anomalies) quite unacceptable. Certain scenes are also out of focus. When the image is sharp, color fidelity is fairly accurate. Fine details are nicely rendered.

The audio has been remixed to Dolby 5.1. Only the musical portions benefit from this remastering effort. Extras include the same audio commentary and intro provided by Scorsese on disc one plus three new featurettes on disc two that are a nice update and offering that chart the film’s production. Not recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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