Tag Archives: epic

Cold Mountain – Review

3 Sep

Civil War movies fascinate me because I’ve always seemed to gravitate towards World War II films so I feel like I’ve missed out a little bit. It’s a really intriguing era with a lot of potential for some exceptional production design with how America looked and functioned in this mid 19th century time. In 1997, a novel called Cold Mountain was released having been written by Charles Frazier. It went on to win the National Book Award, but I don’t really hear too much more about it. In 2003, it was adapted for the big screen by acclaimed film maker Anthony Minghella, who before this won the Academy Award for his directing of The English Patient. I had some reservations going into Cold Mountain, but it actually surprised me. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a solid Civil War epic that deserves some attention.

With the South talking of seceding from the North, tensions in the small North Carolina town of Cold Mountain are high. Many people want the war to happen, but the new town preacher, Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland), and his daughter, Ada (Nicole Kidman) are staunchly against it. Amongst these talks of war, Ada finds peace with a local man she meets named WP Inman (Jude Law), and the two quickly fall for each other. Before anything can be done with their feelings, North Carolina secedes from the Union and most of the men of the town enlist to the Confederate Army, including Inman. As the years of the war drag on and hope for the South seems bleak, Ada struggles to survive in the town and only gets by with the help of a local woman (Kathy Baker) and her new tough talking friend, Ruby (Renée Zelwegger). Meanwhile, Inman is injured in a battle and after receiving a letter from Ada decides to desert and make the long journey home to Cold Mountain. Along the way, Inman sees all sorts of kinds which gives him a perspective of what he’s been fighting for and how the war has torn apart so many lives.

That was a pretty tough summary to write because there’s so much that happens in Cold Mountain. It’s a long movie that clocks over two and a half hours, which was actually one of my main worries. I’m all about watching a long movie that has a grand scope, but I’ve seen some recently that don’t really know what to do with a story of that magnitude. Luckily, this isn’t Minghella’s first rodeo and he knows just how to handle a story like this. I left out a lot of characters and subplots, because there’s no way I’d be able to fit it all in to one paragraph. This is truly an epic film and it’s one that works. Inman’s travels through the different regions is extremely entertaining because he sees so many different kinds of people. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a reverend who gets banished from his town for getting a slave woman pregnant, Giovanni Ribisi plays a man who is using the war to his advantage in treacherous ways, and Natalie Portman is a woman who’s lost nearly everything. It’s a journey that has layers and is at times heartbreaking, touching, and hilarious. This may sound cheesy, but it really felt like an adventure.

While this adventure through the crumbling South, Ada’s own personal adventure in Cold Mountain is just as interesting. It’s a town in utter despair with the casualties of war posted on a board in the middle of town. The town seems to be dying just like the men that went off to fight, and watching it happen can prove for some rough viewing. The Civil War has always been seen as a war where Americans killed their fellow men, and that macrocosmic idea is taken to just one town where the violence of the war bleeds into this area that hasn’t seen any actual battle. It’s a different kind of struggle for survival and even though it isn’t as epic a journey as Inman, it never bored me. This is another surprising thing about this movie. It’s nearly 3 hours but I was never bored.

This is a huge cast so forgive me if I can’t get to everyone. Jude Law and Nicole Kidman both do very good work in this movie and their chemistry is believable even though the amount of screen time they share compared to how long the movie is is very small. A lot of the minor characters really steal the show however. Both Hoffman and Portman are two that really stand out, but I also have to give credit to Brendan Gleeson and Jack White, of all people. The real stand out performance, however, is Renée Zelwegger, who won the Academy Award for her performance, and rightfully so. The only thing that doesn’t always work for me in this movie is the writing. It gets a little too theatrical in moments that require some down to earth dialogue. It’s a very melodramatic movie at times and sometimes it works, but sometimes I found myself cringing.

Cold Mountain was a surprisingly affective movie that I don’t hear too much about. It has an incredible cast that are part of a really entertaining, but sometimes difficult story about how war can tear a nation to shreds. The only thing that didn’t sit well with me was some of the melodramatic writing that just felt forced and was probably only necessary so they’d have a clip for the Oscars. Still, that is a minor issue that doesn’t hurt the movie to bad. It’s an epic adventure that has all the ingredients for a memorable film.

Final Grade: A-

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Review

26 Jul

Comic book movies are everywhere nowadays, but the only companies you really see flooding the market are Marvel and DC. There’s so many more companies with so many more stories to tell, so I always welcome a world that I’ve never had the pleasure of traveling to before. In 1967, the comic series Valérian and Laureline was created by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières and ran until as late as 2010. This series tell the story of special spacial-temporal agent Valérian and his partner Laureline as the travel time and space protecting the universe. There’s so much material to work with and with someone like Luc Besson in the director’s chair, I was all for this. Besson’s work has been known to be hit or miss, and this one is a slight miss for me. He was on the right track with something that could’ve been a modern day space epic, but got way too distracted somewhere down the line.

After being awoken from a dream where a planet and its inhabitants are destroyed, Special Agent Valerian (Dane DeHaan) along with his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are assigned to infiltrate a black market ring and extract an object called a converter. After completing the mission and being nearly killed in the process, the duo return to Alpha, a giant space station that is the home to millions of people from many planets, hence the nickname of the City of a Thousand Planets. The agents are informed by Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) that there is an infection spreading on the space station which is a major concern to all the races that live on the space station and that this converter may be the key to stopping it. During a meeting with the representatives of the station, Filitt is attacked and kidnapped by the same people that Valerian dreamed about. With the converter and their Commander missing, Valerian and Laureline have to travel into unknown territory on the space station, avoid the seediest of characters with ulterior motives for the agents, and uncover a major conspiracy that could potentially destroy Earth’s relationship with the other planets.

The first 40 to 45 minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets had me hooked. I was loving the visuals and the world that was created for this movie. It was definitely a film to see in 3D, and I found myself easily getting lost in the environment. This is a stunningly beautiful movie with some of the best special effects you’ll see all year. There was a real sense of swashbuckling adventure that can easily serve as a reminder as to why I love action adventure movies, especially in heavy science fiction universes like this one. I was really prepped for a rollicking time at the movies with this, but we weren’t even an hour into this movie’s bloated 2 hour and 17 minute run time. Once we get to Alpha, things start going sour and that heavy feeling of disappointment began weighing down on my chest.

Let’s rewind a little bit here. While the first hour or so of this movie is solid action and adventure, I do have to talk about Dane DeHaan as Valerian. There’s something about how he delivers his lines that’s a weird combination of overdone and totally dry. It’s like he’s enthusiastically underperforming at every chance he gets. It was an awkward performance, and while he did fine at the more action oriented work, his lines with Delevingne were just awkward. Part of this may be because they had very little chemistry and the writing was just plain weird and on the nose. Cara Delevingne is a lot more tolerable than DeHaan, and her scenes provide some of the funnier and more memorable parts in the movie. There are a couple memorable performances by Ethan Hawke and Rihanna, but they are completely pushed to the wayside and forgotten about as soon as their minimal usage is complete. It’s unfortunate that some of the best characters get so easily forgotten about. I’d like to say something about Clive Owen’s performance, but it was so standard, there’s really nothing to comment on.

Back to the plot and all of its shortcomings. Once Valerian and Laureline make it to Alpha, I expected the plot to thicken from there. It does start to get intriguing, but after the Commander gets kidnapped the movie devolves into a series of scenarios that don’t really have a connection with the main plot involving the converter and the aliens from Valerian’s dream. First Valerian gets lost then Lareline gets lost and then the plot gets lost and I just started losing interest. I haven’t seen a movie this distracted in a long time, but to be fair there’s a lot of really cool stuff to look at on this station it’s pretty easy to get lost. Once the plot finally refocuses I was relieved but I kind of lost interest in it at that point. It took a while to really get myself invested in what was happening after being sidetracked for so long.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is ultimately categorized as a disappointment for me. The action is a lot of fun and the special effects are fantastic. There’s nothing wrong with the world that Besson created, but there is major problems with how he tells the story and the how he wrote the characters. Dane DeHaan is pretty bad as Valerian and it was hard to get back on the main plot after aimlessly running around Alpha for so long. I had much higher hopes for this movie, but it’s a classic example of style over substance used poorly and storytelling that is shot out of an airlock.

Final Grade: C

Amistad – Review

13 May

In 1839, the slave ship La Amistad was taken over in a slave revolt led by Mende captives. This led to a drawn out trial involving many different parties concerning murder charges and property rights, while abolitionists of the time used the trial to prove that these Africans had rights the same as anybody else. While this incident didn’t change the times it did have lasting effects whose ripples could be felt throughout that time in history. It remained a story that seemed overshadowed by other historical events until Steven Spielberg, producer Debbie Allen, and writer David Franzoni resurrected the story for modern audiences. While it isn’t the most historically accurate film in the world, it has a sense of courage and honor that shows there was plenty of good in a time of evil.

After freeing himself from his chains securing him to the slave ship La Amistad, Mende captive Sengbe (Djimon Honsou) leads a revolt against the Spanish slave traders on the ship. Due to their lack of knowing how to properly navigate a ship, Sengbe and the rest of the Africans find themselves landing in an American port and are swiftly arrested by Naval officers. The captives are once again locked in jail where they await trial for murder and cases involving property rights. This attracts the attention of abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) who enlists the help of property lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to represent the captives in a court of law. The proceedings actually keep favoring Baldwin’s arguments, but it doesn’t take long for President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) to intercede and take the matters to the Supreme Court. With their case quickly spiraling out of control, Joadson, Baldwin, and Sengbe recruit the help of former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to stand up for the Africans’ rights in the highest court of the land.

Amistad is the first film Spielberg made with Dreamworks, and at this point it’s hard to believe there was a time that he wasn’t working with this company. This was the time when Spielberg was really showing what he had to offer. This is epic film making that only got better with Saving Private Ryan. The production design of this movie is top of the line with sets that seem to live and breathe. I am really interested in this time period, so I may be a little bit biased to praise movies that so completely bring this era to life. While the set design and costumes already stand tall, there are other factors that exist to completely draw you into the world of this movie. The first is John Williams’ beautiful and often sweeping score. The other is Janusz Kamiński’s eye catching cinematography that was also put on display with Spielberg’s previous movie, Schindler’s List.

Like I said earlier, Amistad is an epic movie that really takes its time in telling the story and making sure all of the information is clear to the audience. This is both a good and a bad thing. While there is plenty of dramatic momentum moving the story forward, it’s hard to ignore that this can be an overly wordy movie. There are some moments where you have to stop and think of people really talk like the characters in this movie do. The writing is mostly spot on, but there are times when it becomes a little bit too theatrical when a general rule for film making is to show the audience information and not outright tell them. There’s one scene in particular that really stands out. There’s a scene where John Quincy Adams is addressing the Supreme Court, and it’s clear that Spielberg was really into shooting this scene, and for a while it’s incredible. It’s an amazing speech that unfortunately never seems to end. There were at least three different times where I thought that the speech was over, but then the camera would change and Hopkins would continue on. It became almost comical.

While this movie does get a little wordy and bogged down in over the top dramatic soliloquies, the people delivering these lines are all megastars in their own rights. This is a great cast with Freeman, McConaughey, Honsou, and Hopkins all knocking it out of the park. McConaughey and Honsou especially work great together and their getting to learn to understand each other while not speaking the same language is my favorite part of the whole movie. I do feel like Morgan Freeman was underutilized and only has a few memorable scenes where I feel like he was actually given something to do. Finally, Hopkins isn’t in the movie all that much, but when he is it feels like I’m watching the real John Quincy Adams and not an actor playing the part. Few actors can pull that off as well as Hopkins can.

Amistad has all the working of a memorable and epic Steven Spielberg movie. It’s filled with a cast of great actors, excellent music, and fantastic production design. It also is a little bit overdone in some parts, which can either add more of an entertainment quality or come off as something a little less respectable. This isn’t Spielberg’s finest achievement, but it is one that I feel doesn’t get the respect that it deserves. Personally, I thought it was a great movie and it’s one that I’d love to watch again. It tells an excellent story, and while it may not be totally historically accurate, it’s a pretty epic way to spend an afternoon.

Final Grade: A-

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Review

6 May

In 2014, Marvel took a gamble and released Guardians of the Galaxy, which featured a team of heroes that were way more under the radar than any of the Avengers. Since it’s release, everyone can confidently say who Star Lord or Groot are because the film was so much fun. It made a killing at the box office and stands as one of the MCU’s greatest entries. It was inevitable that a sequel would be made featuring the beloved intergalactic crew, and it was up to James Gunn to once again capture everything we love about the first film and make something new. While Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t quite as excellent as the first film, this is still a worthy sequel that provides a lot of laughs, action, and heart.

Peter Qull (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are known far and wide as the Guardians of the Galaxy. After helping the Sovereign race to protect important batteries from a space monster, and robbing them soon after, the Guardians find themselves stranded on a planet with Gamora’s sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), as their captive. They are soon met by Ego (Kurt Russel) and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Ego informs Quill that he is his father and brings the Guardians back to his planet. As the team learns more, they begin to discover that this planet may not be what it seems, so they have to set aside their differences and team up with Yondu (Michael Rooker) to stop a force that threatens the entire galaxy.

There’s plenty to talk about with this movie because this is kind of an odd entry into the MCU. It has all of the energy that the original film did and it’s excellent to see the characters all together again, but the story in this one if very different than the first one, which is actually kind of a good thing. Let’s start with the negatives. For one thing, the pacing of this movie is really off. Things start off with a bang, but the team soon splits up and the story kind of loses track of itself. There’s what’s happening on Ego’s planet, but than there’s also a story involving Yondu, Rocket, Groot, and some Ravagers who hold a mutiny. Both of these stories seem equally important, so I was unsure where the movie was going. Luckily, the narrative finds itself again after some time and really makes up for some of the odd pacing. Another issue I had with this movie is the fact that it got a little mean spirited. Sure, the original movie had a lot of off color humor, but this one makes some of the characters (mostly Drax and Rocket) just come off as obnoxious and overly rude at times. It was a bit of a departure in tone, and I wasn’t really fond of it. Fortunately, this happens in just a few scenes and isn’t really a big deal for most of the movie.

Despite some weird narrative issues, when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decides to let loose, it gets crazy. This movie has some really wild action that made me smile so hard I thought my head would rip in two. The best part of the movie features Yondu, Rocket, and Baby Groot getting the best of some mutineers. That scene alone was just blockbuster perfection and is the reason why these movies are so beloved by fans. For all of the action and humor, this movie also has a lot of heart to it that gives it the emotional weight these comic book movies really need to be taken seriously. Forget how Captain America: Civil War made you feel. This movie has some real drama that may not leave a dry eye in the theater. It’s one thing to make a major CGI fest that focuses on wowing you with the action and the spectacle, which Guardians does, but it has so much more to it than that.

Speaking of CGI, this movie has some of the best special effects I’ve seen all year. The ships whizzing through space engaging in over the top dogfights made it hard to blink. There’s so much happening in some of these set pieces, it’s hard to believe that actual humans created these scenes. What’s excellent about this movie, and this is no surprise knowing who James Gunn is, there are some really excellent practical effects and make up as well. The Sovereign race is painted gold, but it looks perfect. The same can be said about Gamora and Yondu’s make up. I spent some of the time just trying to find one flaw with the make up, but there were just none to be found.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t quite as good or exciting as the first film. The first one was honestly just perfect. It was such an epic story it would’ve been hard to beat. Still, this is a really good sequel that captured the heart of the first film and reworks it to create something different. The story feels a bit smaller and disconnected from the rest of the workings of the MCU, but it also feels more personal to the Guardians. Any fan of this universe should have a blast with this movie. I know I sure did.

Final Grade: B+

Kong: Skull Island – Review

13 Mar

I love monster movies. Like I really, really love monster movies, so the fact that Legendary is giving us a whole universe dedicated to giant monster brawls is almost too exciting. The first film in the MonsterVerse, Godzilla, came out in 2014, and despite some mixed reviews, I thought it was pretty badass. It did have some flaws, but when it got down to the monster mayhem, it really knew what it was doing. Now we have the second film, Kong: Skull Island, which introduces King Kong and the island to the universe. This beloved ape has been around since 1933, and it’s awesome to see that he has no intentions of giving up his big screen glory. This film is excessive, yes, but it’s also an extremely entertaining and action packed thrill ride.

William Randa (John Goodman) is a government official who has all the proof he needs to lead an expedition to an undiscovered island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Skill Island. After fighting for approval, he finally gets the go ahead and begins assembling his team. His first order of business is to find a tracker, which he finds with James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former SAS captain that served in the Vietnam War. He also recruits the help of Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his regiment, the Sky Devils, as a military escort. Photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) also joins the expedition with hopes of uncovering some unknown government conspiracy. When the group finally gets to the island, it doesn’t take long for the protector of the realm, a 100 foot tall ape named Kong, to show up and defend his land. This attack splits the group in two, which forces them to work together and keep their eyes peeled for Kong and the other horrors that wait for them on the island.

I had such a blast with Kong: Skull Island, that I’m still getting excited thinking back on it. It’s exactly what I wanted from this movie, and based on what some other critics were saying, I was kind of worried I was going to be let down. One thing that’s worth noting that can be seen as a negative are some of the characters. Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard and John C. Reily’s Hank Marlow are two examples of well thought out and fully realized characters. I understand their motivations and they stand out amongst the rest. There are other side characters that also have large personalities that make them memorable, but there’s no real development with any of them. Tome Hiddleston and Brie Larson, however, seem to hardly be in character at all. They’re just the stereotypical heroes you would expect to see in this movie. They try to add a little back story to them, but that exposition doesn’t really help at all. They’re just there to save the day, and that’s about it.

The original King Kong has one of the most classic stories in the history of film, and no sequel or remake since then has been able to capture that same essence and feeling. Kong: Skull Island doesn’t even try, and it’s all the better for it. Sure, it has the same kind of set up with the characters being introduced and sailing to the island, and there are natives which are to be expected on Skull Island, but that’s where the similarities end. The story of this movie pretty much revolves around Hiddleston and company trying to stay alive and get to the rendezvous point on the other side of the island. This is really all I needed, but there’s a cool subplot added in with Jackson’s character that raises the stakes even more. I was so thrilled to see this movie not get bogged down in trying to be something more than it is. The plot was there to drive the movie forward, but it wasn’t so stale and uninteresting that I lost track of what I was really watching. This keeps the pace fast with the action always moving forward. It’s cool to say that I was never once bored watching this movie.

Let’s talk about the man of the hour though. Toby Kebbel is tasked with being a side character soldier, but also was the motion capture actor for Kong. This seems appropriate since he did the motion capture for Koba in the new Planet of the Apes movies. He really brings Kong to life in this movie, which is awesome, and the physicality of the role is not to be forgotten. Kong has major throw downs in this movie that will force any viewer to go into popcorn munching overdrive. This is where the movie really shines, and I appreciate the visuals that add to the excessiveness that I mentioned I loved so much. Sure, the close ups and the crazy compositions of Kong back lit by the sun may seem cheesy, but they’re really just too cool to look at, and provided some of my favorite parts of the movie.

Is Kong: Skull Island going to match the classic status that Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack did with the original back in 1933? Of course not, but it does add a fulfilling new chapter to the MonsterVerse, and also was just a highly entertaining film. Once the characters get to the island, the action very rarely slows down and I found myself getting lost in the visuals of the island and the monster brawls that seemed larger than life happening before my very eyes. This isn’t a movie about characters nor does it have any important lessons to teach the viewer. This is about giant monsters throwing down for a couple of hours. In that way, it did not disappoint.

Final Grade: B+

The Great Wall – Review

3 Mar

I recently did a review for Zhang Yimou’s 2011 war drama, The Flowers of War. In that review, I mention that Yimou is a very respectable film maker who has an especially strong talent for filming what I believe to be some of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen. His latest film is The Great Wall, a monster movie that involves protecting the Imperial City from creatures hell bent on destroying civilization as we know it. That combined with Yimou’s colorful and sweeping directorial style kind of made this a must see for me. Well, all I can say is that this film definitely looks great. That’s pretty much where the compliments end.

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William (Matt Damon) and Pero (Pedro Pascal) are two mercenaries scouring the East looking for “black powder,” which we now know as gunpowder. During their search, they end up at the Great Wall of China and are questioned about their intentions immediately upon their arrival. The two partners soon learn why the soldiers at the wall are so concerned about their motives. During a seemingly quiet afternoon, the wall is raided by alien monsters called the Tao Tie, whose goal is to penetrate the wall and continue on to the Imperial City. It doesn’t take long for William to come to a decision as to wether he wants to escape with Pero and another Englishman, Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), or if he would rather stay and defend the Great Wall with the newly appointed general, Lin Mae (Jing Tian).

I was excited for this movie for multiple reasons. First off, I was pumped to see Zhang Yimou tackle a big budget monster movie and have his style painted all over the movie. I was also just pumped to see another monster movie from Legendary, which has pretty much become the monster movie company for America. In these ways, the movie does succeed. When battles start happening, I got really into it. The special effects look kind of cartoony, but for some reason, that didn’t really bother me. I was taken aback by Yimou’s use of color and framing scenes to make them look as epic as possible. One of these shots in particular happened in the very first battle where you can see most of the battle in one super wide shot. Another really cool thing are the different regiments of the soldiers and the uniforms they wear to identify themselves. Honestly, in terms of style and scope, this movie stands tall.

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Like I said before, that’s pretty much where all of the good stuff ends. The Great Wall really isn’t all that good of a movie despite having a really cool premise. My biggest problem was the characters. I haven’t seen such poor development and writing in a really long time. Any scene that didn’t involve a battle or special effect of some kind fell flat. Like completely, utterly flat. It’s incredible how an epic period piece featuring alien monsters attacking the Great Wall of China could be so boring. There are a few characters worth something, but that’s not saying to much. William’s partner Pero has a good amount of one liners and a story that at least attempts to go somewhere before that’s shut down by some idiotic decisions from the writers. Lin Mae is also a pretty cool character who feels the most human out of anyone else. The worst offender of characters not worth anything is Sir Ballard. If you were to take Willem Dafoe out of this movie, nothing would be different. He’s completely wasted here.

I was also really bothered by the acting in this movie, but part of this also has to fall on the writers. There was so much clunky and awkward dialogue in this movie which only made me more distracted during the down time that I’ve already complained was boring enough. Like I said before, the only exceptions from this are Pero and Lin Mae. They weren’t perfect, but they were better than the rest. Honestly though, I was mostly shocked at how flat and uninspired Matt Damon was. I didn’t know until the end of the movie that he was supposed to be European, and I still don’t know exactly where he’s supposed to be from. His accent is on and off throughout the whole movie, and the way he delivers his lines is cringeworthy. Aside from his weird accent, he uses this over the top tough guy voice that wore thin on me after the second line of dialogue he had.

The Great Wall is a very disappointing movie. Throughout its run time, I saw a lot of hope for potential, but nothing really came of it. I will say that this is a fantastic looking movie with cool creature design and some excellent use of lighting and costume design. Everything else from the characters and their development to the structure of the narrative is flat, recycled, or just plain boring. As a monster movie, it works at the most basic of levels. As a movie to be appreciated and viewed for something more than that, it’s a failure.

Final Grade: C-

Once Upon a Time in America – Review

8 Feb

Sergio Leone is best known for helming the epic spaghetti western trilogy that features A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and perhaps his most famous film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. His final feature film, however, was something very different from his previous works. In 1984, Leone released Once Upon a Time in America, a film that has become a sprawling gangster epic. When it was first released, its run time was cut down to two hours and twenty minutes and the chronology of the movie was changed to make it happen in chronological order, while the original length was more like 4 hours with a story told through flashbacks. The shorter version is the one people would much rather forget, so today I’m going to be looking at the longest cut, which runs over four hours, set in the proper order, and features scenes not shown in previous American releases.

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After living a life of crime and excitement, small time New York gangster Noodles (Robert De Niro) is forced to leave the city and go into hiding for over thirty years. After all this time away, he is mysteriously called back to New York City by an unknown part for an unknown reason that involves a bag full of money that was stashed in a locker at a train station when Noodles and his friends were kids and just getting started in their life of crime. Upon his return, he is overwhelmed with memories of meeting his best friend and partner, Max (James Woods), a friendship that over the years got more and more strained as motivations and relationships stood in the way of their goals. As Noodles starts piecing together the mystery of who summoned him, he also takes the time to reflect on the decisions and the action that got him to the lonely place he finds himself in the later years of his life.

One of the most important thing about any movie is the characters that are created for the audience to relate to or understand or anything like that. To me, some of the most memorable characters come from gangster movies because I really enjoy the depth of the best gangster characters, but I also see the more revolting sides of the personality as something that truly gives their characters weight. That how most of the characters in Once Upon a Time in America are created. Noodles and Max are two sides of the same coin and create a relationship dynamic that is typical for this genre but feels different and, because of the film’s run time, explored in a much finer way. Even the side characters in the film have unique character traits that make them memorable, and never does the large cast ever seem to blend together in any way. De Niro and James Woods are both excellent in their roles, and I also have to give props to Elizabeth McGovern for her role as Deborah, a character with one of the most unsettling stories of all the characters in the film.

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While crime and typical gangster themes are explored in this movie, the themes explored in Once Upon a Time in America feel grander in scale than most movies in this genre. Part of the reason these themes resonate so well is the fact that the story is told through flashbacks and not in chronological order. When Noodles returns to New York City, there’s this noticeable level of sadness and disconnect that he feels towards everything. When the story goes back in time to the 1930s, we see why these feelings exist. This creates themes of loneliness, friendship, loss, and the strongest of all those explored, regret. To me, that’s what stuck with me the most is the regret that Noodles feels towards his life and his choices. This makes every death or separation feel all the more powerful.

I can’t talk about a Sergio Leone movie without talking about his artistry behind the camera. Like all of his other films that I’ve seen, Once Upon a Time in America is a gorgeous cinematic experience. The sets that are built combined with his wide angle style of shooting makes this epic film seem grander than most. The color pallet is also something to notice with the past having a much warmer pallet as compared to the present time where the world is covered with neon lights and blues and grays. His collaboration with cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, who worked with him on his previous two films, also adds a lot with his camera work and lighting. Finally, I have to mention Ennio Morricone’s beautifully realized score that turns the emotions, loves, and losses of the characters into incredible music. It’s a solid reminder of why he’s my favorite film composer.

Once Upon a Time in America is both a technical achievement while also acting as a haunting tale of impulsion and consequences. This is the kind of movie that can serve as a reminder to any cinephile as to why they love movies and the process behind their creations. Sergio Leone is truly a master of his craft, and everyone involved successfully created one of the most memorable gangster films ever made. Just make sure you stray away from the heavily cut American release and find the longer versions to truly get the full impact of the story. It’s not one to be missed.

Final Grade: A+