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Once Upon a Time in America (SE)
DVD disk
10.07.2004 By: The Shootin Surgeon
Once Upon a Time in America (SE) order
Sergio Leone

Robert De Niro
James Woods
Elizabeth McGovern


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Sergio Leone's final masterful epic takes us through 50 years in the life of David “Noodles” Aaronson (De Niro). From his beginnings as a petty thief in Brooklyn’s Jewish neighborhood to his rise, alongside a trio of childhood friends into a fully mature gangster, bootlegger and owner of New York’s most popular speakeasy.
With only a dozen films to his directorial name, Sergio Leone reinvented epic cinema through an operatic style that to this day has shed its influence, knowingly or unknowingly, upon hundreds of films. From his single-handed creation of the spaghetti western to this tale of the younger days of America, Leone’s signature style of direction, with its extreme close-ups, sparse dialogue, memorable themes and enormous scale has offered uniquely remarkable moments. That style came through again in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA to give us a modern-day classic and a haunting movie with fully developed characters and the telling of a tale rather than a script, one in which actors could tell more with a glance or a stare than with a pageful of dialogue.

Anchored masterfully by the duo of Robert De Niro and James Woods, this is a film that will entrance and transport you back to the earlier days of the last century. Back then, organized crime had a hand in every industry and prohibition made rich men out of those willing to take their chances and defy, murder or pay off lawmakers. De Niro and Woods, as well as Scott Tiler and Rusty Jacobs, who respectively played the younger versions of the two main stars, were perfect choices to play the three generations of gangsters. Among other stars to appear in this great ensemble were Joe Pesci, Elizabeth McGovern, Burt Young, Danny Aiello, Treat Williams, William Forsythe and making her big screen debut, the radiant Jennifer Connelly, 14 years young and already showing grace and poise.

The Two-Disc Special Edition features a newly remastered Director’s Cut which brings the total running time of the movie to a staggering 229 minutes. Normal by Leone standards, the length of this film never proves to be a hurdle to its enjoyment. It’s a story that couldn’t be told in only a couple of hours and the depth to which it becomes involving, through its detailed accounts and characters, makes it seem perfectly normal. It’s not a fast-paced film with the mob-style hits that we’ve become accustomed to through THE GODFATHER or GOODFELLAS though. It’s a slow, methodical tale spanning a man’s life so one shouldn’t expect to see Leone’s version of Coppola’s classic (which Leone incidentally turned down in order to make this film). The added sequences also mean you’ll be afforded more time to listen to a score penned by one of the great masters of thematic music, Ennio Morricone, whose collaborations with Leone have been as important to the success of their projects as anyone else's. He delivers yet another surreal score here, one which eventually becomes as much a part of the characters as the actors who play them.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is a film everyone should see for several reasons. First of all, it marks a departure from standard Italian mob movies by giving us 4 Jewish kids running rackets in their own neighborhood. Second of all, it marks a unique opportunity to watch established stars of cinema side-by-side with relative unknowns, all bringing their best to the table and giving viewers performances worth more than money can buy. And last, but definitely not least, it allows us to give a respectful goodbye to a man who did so much to change cinema for the better. Leone never again directed a film and died in 1989, leaving behind a library of some of the most exciting, riveting and original films to date. Any fan of his work owes it to him and to themselves to see this version as Leone himself had wanted it to be.
Although not packed to the brim, this edition does have enough to keep most satisfied. To tell you the truth though, after a four-hour long movie, I don't know who in their right mind would want to sit through a dozen features, so it's really all right that they trimmed it down here.

Full length commentary track with Time Magazine film critic and film historian Richard Schickel: As expected, Schickel looks at the movie from an analytical point of view and does a pretty good job of placing it within the rest of Leone's body of work. I don't think anyone would be able to sit through the entire length of the movie while listening to a commentary track, but if you remember any scenes that intrigued you in particular, he'll more often than not give you some interesting tidbits about them.

Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone (20 mins.): This is a brief documentary in which writers, producers, family members, actors and a host of others discuss Sergio Leone in general and as part of the creation of this film, on which he spent a good part of his life. Among the speakers are James Woods, Quentin Tarantino and the late James Coburn. Worth particular attention are the sequences which discuss the barbaric manner in which the studio initially butchered this film, which is the reason why it's relatively unknown in the mainstream to this day. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was released in a chopped up version in 1984, in which over 100 minutes of footage, the sequence of events and the score had been dramatically altered. It's said to this day that this massacre caused Leone to die of a broken heart a few years later.

As well, you will find the film's theatrical trailer and Photographic Memories, a short montage of film and set stills.
This stunning masterpiece is one of those rare movies that will appeal to fans of all film genres. Transcending the standard Mafia-type movie and exploring the deeper emotions of a man involved in organized crime throughout his life, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is a story you will likely want to revisit several times during the rest of your life. Whether you rent his edition or buy it, make sure you take the time to carefully watch this movie. Trust me, you won’t regret the investment of four hours you put into it.
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