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Many people compare "Once Upon a Time in America" with "The Godfather".
In my opinion these two movies can't be compared. Both are masterpieces
in their own way, but each of them has a different style. You don't
compare a Picasso to Michelangelo's Sixteen Chapel either, do you?
What is it that makes this movie a masterpiece? Well, first of all there is the director. Sergio Leone is a real master when it comes to creating a special atmosphere, full of mystery, surprises and drama... He's one of the few directors who understands the art of cutting a movie in such a way that you stay focused until the end.
The way the movie was cut is also the reason why a lot of Americans don't think this movie is very special. There are three versions, but only the European version is how the director imagined it to be. He didn't want his movie to be shown in chronological order (1910's - 1930's - 1960's), but wanted to mix these three periods of time. The studio cut the movie in chronological order, loosing a lot of its originality and therefor getting a lot of bad critics. If you want to see this film the way Sergio Leone saw it, you have to make sure you get the director's cut.
The second reason why this movie is so great is the music. Ennio Morricone, who is seen as the greatest writer of film music ever, did an excellent job. Together with the images, the music speaks for itself in this movie. From time to time there isn't said a word, but the music and the images on their own tell the story. He understood perfectly what Sergio Leone wanted and composed most of the music even before the movie was shot.
Last but not least there is also the acting and the script. The actors all did an excellent job. But what else can you expect from actors like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci... They helped making this movie as great as it is by putting there best effort in it. The script helped them with it. It took twelve years to complete, but it hasn't left any detail untouched. The writers really thought of everything when creating it.
I can really recommend this movie to everyone, but especially to people who like the gangster genre. When you want to see the movie, you better be sure that you will have the time for it. This isn't a movie that is finished after 90 minutes. You'll have to be able to stay focused during 3 hours and 47 minutes, which will certainly not be easy during the first 20 to 30 minutes. Some scenes at the beginning only make sense when you have seen the end of the movie. But when you are able to stay focused, you'll find this one of the best movies you've ever seen. I certainly did and I rewarded it with a well deserved 10/10.
This movie was a masterpiece. It ranks as one of the very best in film
history, if not the best. At Cannes people yelled and screamed,
couldn't believe just how good it was. The profound atrocity was a
combination of two completely brainless acts, the first being Zack
Stienberg's hatchet job for US release, supposedly requested by either
Warner Bros or The Ladd Company (one blames the other now) and the
second was the lack of anyone (and everyone)to post anything in this
great film for Academy Award consideration, of which probably as many
as 14 nominations and 4 sure- fire Oscars went down the toilet.
These atrocities were perpretrated, I believe, with two reasons in mind, the first to preserve the dim hope of "The Killing Fields" (Daly & Semel's baby) of garnering any awards... and second, to try to boost up the non- foreign chances. Warner Bros knew just how good it was, that goes without saying. The problem was... they already had their share of cash cows and they wanted a real star- studded showpiece to point at. The small minds already had their showpiece but, alas, it was an "eye- tallyan" flick with a producer/director who didn't communicate well. The hatchet job was carefully planned, I believe... the so- called "sneak preview" was done in Canada and not well received, probably due to the fact that the sound system was over- amped and the film 'broke' 3 or 4 times during the showing, what a farce! The awards snub started with the GGs and carried right thru. What a myriad of stupid and utterly pointless decisions! Must have literally tore Leone's heart out when he learned what they had done.
Morricone's score was a sure- thing Oscar, no question about it. DeNiro and maybe even Woods would have fought it out for best actor, Tuesday Weld as supporting actress, any one of 4 or 5 other supporting actors & actresses, most notably William Forsythe, cinematography, film editing, the list goes on & on... (best picture...Amadeus???? give me a break!!) Just what in the hell were they thinking?
Saw it in a theater 20 years ago and then again on TV about 1998 and finally in its correct format(on DVD) about two years ago and again last week at a friend's house. Stirred up all those angry thoughts all over again... sorry about that, getting' old & crotchety.
This is, for me, one of the finest examples of cinematic art. It isn't a
simple, cut-n-dried 90 minute little package that gets wrapped up with a
pretty bow at the end. You get pulled in by the enigmatic opening that
unwinds the threads of the story to be found later. For many people having
half an hour of purely visual story telling, of stories that are only
mysteries at that point, before anything becomes truly linear is difficult
to follow and discourages to many people. Our own memories are only
that only become linear as we concentrate on scenes from our lives. Once
Upon a Time in America is like that as we follow Noodles through the
`significant' part of his life - the times that formed him. When the story
actually starts, we meet the girl that he always loved but could never
David `Noodles' Aaronson (DeNiro) was a kid on the very mean streets of Brooklyn when organized crime was born in America and he grew into and out of it. That's the simplest synopsis of the plot. The reality is that this isn't a movie about gangsters. Being a gangster is the easiest way for Noodles to survive and get ahead, but it also alienates and ruins his one love. Whenever he is close to giving himself to Deborah he always gets pulled back into the gang, in some form or another.
DeNiro's portrayal is of a gangster, through and through, who also has a conscience that, while not preventing him from being a ruthless killer, rules his life with regret, remorse and guilt. Leone takes a bit of poet/historic license by showing the Brooklyn Bridge being built in the background (the bridge had been built 40 years before), but it symbolizes Noodles' own growth. When the bridge is just pilings and incomplete towers, Noodles is just forming his future. By the time the bridge is complete, Noodles is nothing but a gangster and the bridge is majestic. When he returns 35 years later our view of the bridge is from under a freeway -- the world has moved along, but the bridge and Noodles are just as they were.
The length: If you're looking for a brief distraction that you'll barely remember 30 minutes later, this isn't the movie for you. However, if you are prepared and able to be undistributed for the nearly 4 hours that this film uses to compress a lifetime -- you will be rewarded with many facets of thought and examination.
This film is a profound expression of truth regarding friendship and
betrayal. Noodles, played by Robert De Niro and Scott Tiler (during
childhood), is a simple man and a thug with one credo: you can battle the
entire world but you never betray a friend. During the course of this film
we experience various pieces of Noodles's life, from childhood, through
young adulthood and old age. We learn what happens to his friends, his foes
and the love of his life, Deborah. The time span considered is long,
including Noodles's childhood shortly after the turn of the century,
the prohibition era, and finally the 1960's.
The film is about relationships; the many years Noodles spends away from his friends receive only a cursory mention. The film, like life and memories, unfolds slowly and reflectively. Sergio Leone's cuts are long and each scene is beautifully amplified my Ennio Morricone's haunting score. The story is not told chronologically. Instead, the chapters of the story are slowly revealed like pieces of a great jigsaw puzzle. Each delicious piece might make us laugh, or cry, or smile, or feel shock. But, as each piece falls into place, a mystery unfolds. When the final piece is revealed, the true essence of the story becomes clear and a sad and beautiful tapestry comes into view.
This film is a true masterpiece, expressing a profound statement about friendship and betrayal, with fantastic acting, writing, directing and music. There is a shortened, two-and-a-half-hour version of the film released that is a disaster. It is like trying to understand a jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing. The original four-hour film can be viewed and enjoyed several times and each time the viewer will see something new.
Simply the best movie ever made. Dot.
Life. Love. Friendship. Nostalgia. Souvenirs. Childhood. Adulthood. Betrayal. Children's dreams. Psychology. Sex. Manhood. Womanhood. Romance. Illusions. Acting. Ambition. Glory. Fate. Masochism. Sadism. History. Death...
Some even say it's a movie on Italian Mafia...
This movie is to cinema what "A day in the life" is to modern music : an evocation of what life is, in a global approach, with its darker sides and its epic moments, and in the end everything is vain and you die. Magnified as always by the superb work of Ennio Morricone, and the perfect acting of De Niro and Woods, it was for Sergio Leone THE movie of his life, his long time cherished plan, his masterpiece to end with. Additionally, it has become THE movie of the 20th century.
It's been said that when one watches a "spaghetti" western (one of the
"Man with no name" films with Clint Eastwood) filmmaker Sergio Leone's
trademark cinema style and flair for clear storytelling is instantly
recognizable. This is no truer than in his most ambitious effort, Once
Upon a Time in America, in which his usage of close-ups, concise camera
movement, sound transitions and syncs, and the sudden change in some
scenes from tenderness to violence. And, he pulls it off without making
the viewer feel dis-interested. Of course, it's hard to feel that way
when watching the cast he has put together; even the child actors (one
of which a young Jennifer Connelly as the young Deborah) are
believable. Robert De Niro projects his subtitles like a pro, with his
occasional outburst in the right place; James Woods gives one of his
first great performances as Max; Elizabeth McGovern is the heart of the
film; and Joe Pesci should've had more than just a one scene
appearance, thought it's still good.
It's a story of life-long friends, in the tradition of the Godfather movies with obvious differences, and the story cuts back and forth to Noodles (De Niro) in his old age returning from exile, looking back on his childhood in Brooklyn, his rise to power with his partners, and the twists come quite unexpectedly. The pace is slow, but not detrimental, and it gives the viewer time to let the emotions sink in. The story is also non-linear, and yet doesn't give away facts to the viewer- this is something that more than likely influenced Tarantino (and many others) in style. By the end, every detail that has mounted up makes the whole experience rather fulfilling, if not perfect. Finally, I'd like to point out the exceptional musical score. Ennio Morricone, as it says on this site, has scored over four hundred films in forty years, including Leone's movies. This would have to be, arguably, one of his ten best works- his score is equally lively, saddened, intense, and perhaps majestic for a gangster epic. Overall, it's filled with the same spirit Leone had in directing the picture, and it corresponds beautifully- there are some scenes in this film that would simply not work without the strings. Grade: A
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Once Upon a Time in America" is a film set free of time; it spans many
different years and, like "Citizen Kane," never tells the audience
where it is. As many times as I watch it, I can never guess what is
going to happen next.
And watching "Once Upon a Time in America" on the new extended DVD is like revisiting an old friend, finally seeing a masterpiece in its entirety. Many people complained of the choppiness in the three-hour-version of the film originally released in 1984 - and the new four hour version puts all the pieces together and is truly marvelous to behold.
This is the dirty, gritty version of "The Godfather." It has an incredible amount of violence, especially for a film made almost twenty years ago. I'm not sure how much violence, sexual content and so on was in the original cut, but this extended version is pretty close to an NC-17 rating.
The film stars Robert De Niro in one of his most memorable yet forgotten roles. He plays Noodles, a gangster operating sometime during the 1930s. Noodles grew up during the early 1900s, and on the streets he and four other kids started their own crime operation. After a local crime lord named Bugsy gets jealous and murders the youngest member of Noodles' operation, Noodles returns the favor and kills Bugsy. Apprehended by police, Noodles is sent to jail for years.
Sometime, years later, Noodles is released into the free world. He isn't a changed man, either. His old crime buddy Max (James Woods) picks him up and introduces him to the old gang members. Soon they are back in business, working for Frankie (Joe Pesci).
This is the truest definition of an epic. "Once Upon a Time in America" is one of the most forgotten gangster films, and yet it is ironically one of the best. It took director Sergio Leone almost ten years to get this motion picture to the screen. Sergio's original script treatment - the outline for the story - was 200 pages long. Just the outline. Soon he employed numerous writers to redo the script, and they bounced it up to 400 pages. There is a saying that for every page in a film script, there is one minute of screen-time. You do the math.
After the long scriptwriting process, they then had to get permission to film the movie, from the author of the novel this film is based upon. Then, after that struggle, there came the film itself. How to turn such a bold narrative into a compelling film? What techniques should be used? Where to start?
The beginning of the film opens up during the 1930s or sometime around then, fast-forwards to the 1960s, then flashbacks to the early 1900s. It skips around a lot. This makes the viewer active, trying to figure out where and when they are. It is an element that gives a film rewatchability. Roger Ebert pointed out that "Citizen Kane" is set free of chronology, and the same goes for "Once Upon a Time in America."
Sergio Leone is the master of extreme close-ups and wide frame shots, seen in "Fistful of Dollars" and here with wide shots of busy streets. In one scene a young girl (pre-stardom Jennifer Connelly) walks along a street, and Leone pulls the camera up, up, up and back, back, back, revealing the entire street. Soon she is lost in the crowd. The same thing is done with De Niro's character as a child, and we lose image of him in the crowd, but then Sergio uses an almost invisible dissolve and we come back upon him.
The acting by De Niro is superb. His character, Noodles, is probably the character in this film who is most in-touch with his feelings. We often feel for him, but numerous times in the film he does things disturbing and sickening and we are repulsed. One scene extended in the DVD is the controversial rape scene between De Niro and Elizabeth McGovern. After it is all over, Noodles climbs out of the back seat of the car and walks to the side of the road, standing there, looking into the distance. Many people say this is guilt because he knows what he has done and is ashamed. I don't think so. During the film he rapes numerous women and doesn't seem to mind at all. I think the point Leone was trying to make is that De Niro's character has no idea how to treat or respect women. His entire life he grew up around women who were treated as objects (such as the young prostitute who lived in his apartment complex). So when Noodles stands by the side of the road, this is not from the guilt of what he has done - it is from the guilt of not knowing how to treat a woman, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do. Not knowing how to respect her. His entire life he was taught that women were just there for pleasure, but when he stands by the road this is a sign that Noodles is starting to think this may all be wrong. It is the guilt of naivety, not self-awareness.
"Once Upon a Time" is the master of gangster flicks. Two other tremendous gangster flicks, "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas," have gotten the respect they rightfully deserve over the years - but "Once Upon a Time in America" has been seemingly ignored - up until know. I hope that this DVD sparks a newfound interest in the film, because no one should go a lifetime without seeing this moving motion picture.
Sergio Leone's films are all love letters to America, the American dreams of an Italian who grew up at the movies, who apprenticed with Wyler, and Aldrich, signed himself Bob Robertson, and gave us Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Charles Bronson as we know them. Sadly, America didn't always repay the compliment. Leone's were "spaghetti westerns", money makers to be sure, but deemed disrespectful of the great tradition of Ford, Walsh and Hathaway. Many critics and Holllywood insiders called his earlier Eastwood films cynical and violent bottom-line commercial exploitation. By the time that they caught on to Leone's genuine popular appeal, the director had already moved on. And, his Once Upon a Time in the West was damned as pretentious, bloated, self-indulgent: an art film disguised as a Western, the Heaven's Gate of its day. That film's canny blend of pop appeal and pure cinematic genius gradually dawned on the powers that be (or were), and helped give rise to the renaissance of American filmmaking in the early seventies. It is worth noting that The Godfather could have been made by Leone, had he chosen. Leone had been pitching a gangster film that would encompass generations, for a generation or two, himself. Rather than do the Puzo version finally thrown back at him, he waited an eternity, and finally realized this, his last finished project. That ellipse of a decade or so between conception and completed movie is paralleled in the film, itself, by Robert De Niro's ("Noodles'") opium dream of the American twentieth century, its promises, and betrayals. Naturally, Leone was betrayed, once again, himself, by America, and this truly amazing film, with its densely multi-layered, overlapping flashback structure was butchered upon its release, becoming a linear-plotted sub-Godfather knockoff in the process. Luckily, the critics had grown up enough in the meantime to finally get a glimmering of what Leone was up to, and demand restitution. Very few saw it properly in theaters, but the video version respects the director's intentions, more or less. Ironically, Leone had foreseen television screen aspect ratios as determining home viewing of the future, and abbreviated his usual wide screen format for this movie, so this most troubled last project was the first released on video to most properly resemble the true cinematic experience. For diehard fans of the Eastwood westerns impatient with this at first, watch those movies till you want and need more. This will eventually get to you. For art film fanatics who don't get the earlier Leones, travel in the reverse direction, and you will be pleasantly surprised. This is the movie that Leone spent a decade conceiving. It will deliver for decades of viewing to come.
Leone's beautiful vision met with an epic story to create one of the most beautiful movies of all time. Four hours long but time melts away as you are transported into New York. In a movie where the importance of time is stressed, and how it should not be wasted, it is pleasing that this considerably long movie does not waste, rather enhance your time. Instead of regretting lost time we are instead left exhilarated and wondering. Performances all-round are fantastic right from the child performances, 'Noodles, I slipped' to the aged De Niro with a look in his eye that he has seen it all before. His weariness is astonishingly realistic and applause should be directed at De Niro and his method. A true masterpiece.
Once Upon a Time in America, which bookends Once Upon a Time in the West as director Sergio Leone's best work, is a powerhouse of a movie. A gangster epic told in a very different style than the standard of the genre, The Godfather, it is in some ways (at least to this viewer) even more emotionally compelling. Although the movie was sabotaged upon release by an edited studio version eliminating about 40% of its original length, the version now available for rental is thankfully the nearly 4 hour version intended by Leone. The story is at essence a basic one about friendship among thieves, telling the story of a group of Jewish kids in New York near the turn of the century who grow up to become powerful and ruthless mobsters, while maintaining (or trying to) their bond with one another. As was most famously done in the taxi scene between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, the movie again makes the point that bad people can have good aspects to them, such as loyalty, devotion, and even love. I think this movie includes one of Deniro's best roles, and far and away James Woods best film work. The score, by arguably the greatest movie composer of all time, Ennio Morricone, is incredibly haunting in its beauty and sadness (with no fewer than three separate themes that are breathtakingly beautiful). The non-chronological manner in which the story is told results in a wonderfully effective narrative device: the movie begins and ends with the same scene. The first time you see the scene, it is a frantic jumble, without meaning or context, and you do not know why it is so important. When the scene recurs at the end of the film, everything has become clear, and the scene has an incredible poignancy and sadness to it: although it occurs in the middle of events chronologically, you realize that, in a real sense, life stopped at this point for one of the film's main characters. There is no other event that matters anymore to him. This is not a simple movie, and it merits repeated viewings. Indeed, in my view one cannot fully appreciate the greatness of the film until the second viewing, when the full story is known, and the events of the film resonate with knowledge of where they ultimately, and tragically, lead.
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