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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+

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Videodrome – Review

7 Feb

David Cronenberg. What can I say about him? It’s pretty indisputable that he’s the master of body horror, and thinks of some crazy ways to creep us out with putting the physical body through some of the most bizarre situations a human being can ever think of. Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with Cronenberg. I was very excited than immediately disappointed with both Scanners and A History of Violence, but I was blown away by Eastern Promises. In 1983, Cronenberg released Videodrome, one of the strangest movies I think I have ever seen.

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Max Renn (James Woods) is the sleazy president of a UHF television station called CIVIC-TV. Renn believes that it’s his job to give the people what they want, mostly concerning shows that feature violence and softcore pornography. Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), the operator of the station’s pirate satellite dish, discovers a strange show called Videodrome, a program that has no plot to speak of, but instead just seems like some sort of snuff film, which Max automatically thinks is fake and decides it’s perfect for CIVIC-TV. Max also begins a relationship with radio host Nikki (Deborah Harris), a sadomasochist who is turned on by Videodrome, and decides to audition for it. When she fails to return, Max begins inquiring about the show, but everything begins to spiral as he starts having the most horrific hallucinations imaginable and his body starts mutating out of control.

This only is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Videodrome. There’s a lot more I’d like to mention in that summary, but unfortunately it would go on for a while and I would also be ruining some of the experience. Trust me on that one, this movie is quite an experience. Like I said, I’m not always a fan of Cronenberg’s stuff, because despite every movie I’ve seen of his being incredibly strange, but the story and the plotting have to be set up nicely. So far, Videodrome is my favorite of Cronenberg’s work, because not only is it ridiculously strange, it was very much ahead of its time when it was made and the relevance of the movie may even seem more important in our present technological situation.

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By saying that the movie is more relevant now than it was in 1983 isn’t stretching it too much. A lot, if not all, of the technology in Videodrome is completely outdated, from VCRs, Betamax tapes, and cathode ray tube televisions. But what Cronenberg is saying about technology, the media, and the public’s desensitization to violence are now heated issues discussed heavily today.  All of these themes really come across very strongly and are very hard to miss, but I’m still not quite sure I follow everything Cronenberg is saying. All of the trippy insanity, that really makes the viewer question what they’re seeing, sometimes fogs the messages of the movie. I can at least say that about me because sometimes I really couldn’t believe what I was looking at.

Videodrome also reinforced my opinion that the animatronic effects used in the 1970s and the 1980s will always reign supreme because of how they look and the skill it takes to create them. While I really didn’t like Scanners and thought The Brood was passable at best, I have to admit that the effects in both of those movies are outstanding. The effects in Videodrome beat both of them out, and are only rivaled by Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. There are some totally disgusting scenes using crazy looking animatronics and awesome make up effects by Rick Baker, who worked on Star Wars before this.

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a movie that inspires me as someone who wants to make film his career. The story is and outlandish sci-fi horror with themes that not only still hold up, but have become more important. This is a sick and twisted kind of movie that will run your brain in circles as you try to keep up with what’s going on. It isn’t a puzzle film, but it’s so strange it’s almost too weird to fully comprehend until you really let it sink in. Videodrome is now one of my new favorite movies.