Friday, December 24, 2010

Once Upon a Time In America

I watched the original cut of this film, as the cut that was released in theaters was shortened and rearranged thus making Sergio Leone go nuts and die 5 years later. The original cut is a trim 3 hours and 49 minutes. Roger Ebert has called this "the best film about the prohibition era." Old 70s and 80s Directors Cuts always contain some weird shit somewhere (Apocalypse Now for instance is pretty terrible in DC form), this one has it in the first few scenes of the childhood section (and it's only about 5 minutes or so), but after that the rest of the film is excellent.

There are some disturbing scenes later in the movie but they're rather plot centric and while they could be shorter it isn't anywhere as strange as the earlier portions. Due to the American cut killing 90 minutes of the film and rearranging the way the plot happens the film was not successful in the US, though once it was rereleased on DVD as the extended cut in 2003 it was universally praised again. Presumably it would have been the favorite for Best Picture with the original cut.

This film takes place in 3 different time periods, the first shown being the prohibition era where Noodles (De Niro) and company are at their economic peak, though the downfall of this peak is the first scene in the film so there is a great deal of intrigue about the rise and fall. The second period shown is 35 years later (the aging effect in this film is great, De Niro looks just like he does now except he was 26 years younger at the time) when he returns to where the downfall occurred and discusses the situation with the old bartender of his speakeasy Moe. The third period is when they are kids, which is the shortest and generally worst part though mostly due to the unnecessary scenes. The film cycles between these 3 points of view and weaves an interesting narrative.

Like most gangster movies this movie is more about figuring out the situation than action itself, there are several action scenes but it's a much more contemplative film than an action film. The plot is not mysteriously complex or anything and it's not shown as a Suspense movie so that's not really much of an issue, but it is still very interesting and De Niro is once again excellent. James Woods is also very good in this film and I always thought he was a solid actor though his career hasn't been nearly as amazing as De Niro's. Joe Pesci is in this film for about 5 minutes yet somehow has the fourth credit listing, he's fine in his role but it's sort of difficult to make a judgment about one short scene.

Much like in Taxi Driver and the Deer Hunter De Niro's character is incredibly easy to sympathize with, despite occasionally horrific acts. His life is what the movie is centered around and it is pretty amazing throughout. (well at least when De Niro is actually playing the part, all of the kids are terrible except for one) The cinematography is quite complex as the scenes and eras change rapidly, there's a hidden elevator in the first scene which is later carefully shown with no words to discuss it for instance, several other scenes are effectively shown with the camera. This movie has 5 minute pauses with no spoken words with regularity that seemingly always work well at conveying emotion.

Overall this is one of the better gangster films I've seen, it's not as good as the Godfather but it's a lot better than the Untouchables and Road to Perdition. If only the 5-10 minutes of crappy scenes were cut it could have been almost perfect. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly remains Sergio Leone's finest work but this isn't all that far behind and shockingly isn't a spaghetti western. The best film I've reviewed so far other than Inception.

Final Grade: 9.5/10

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