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Once Upon a Time in America - Blu-ray Movie Review

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Once Upon a Time in America - blu-ray Review

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5 Stars

The story behind the scenes goes like this: master director Sergio Leone actually turned down an offer to direct The Godfather in order to focus on his lengthy adaptation of The Hoods, written by Harry Grey.  It must have been a tough decision.  Especially since The Godfather and its sequel came out before his envisioned version of The Hoods saw the light of the day and also because both were hailed by his contemporaries as masterpieces of the medium.  The critics and the public were content with their Gangster drama.  They needed no more.  Yet, Leone remained relentless in his pursuit of telling the story of “growing up gangster”; he had a vision and it had to be told – even if it took 13 years from the day he turned down Paramount’s generous Godfather offer.

In 1984, Once Upon a Time in America finally had its Cannes Film Festival premiere.  Roger Ebert was there.  He described it as “an epic poem of violence and greed” and celebrated its release with lavish praise.  Director Leone was satisfied with the narrative layers – even if it carried a near 4 hour running time.  More bang for the buck, right?  In front of the camera, his leads had done their job well: James Woods, Robert DeNiro, James Hayden, and William Forsythe practically disappeared into this multi-decade tale of prohibition, thug life, and betrayal.  The aged and ill-in-health Leone had delivered a masterpiece.  Everything was looking good for Once Upon a Time in America, that is until the studio got their hands on the print before its release in America.

The result was complete financial disaster.  The film made no sense.  “What the hell is this nonsense?”  Those were the common words associated with the film.  Three decades – the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1960’s – all crammed together into a timeline that made no sense to an unsuspecting and unknowing public.  It was horrible; four hours whittled down to an anemic 134 minutes.  Of course this would fail.  Of course, and it did.  The groundbreaking work that editor Nino Baragli had performed would go unseen by most of America until an extended version found its way onto two VHS tapes (Remember that format?).

Yet, fans out there held fast to their belief that all would be made right.  Eventually, the “real” version would be seen.  One day, patience would win out.  Then we would know what was what.  That day has arrived.  Arriving this month for blu-ray fanatics everywhere Once Upon a Time in America finds itself fully restored, completely uncut and exactly how Leone wanted it to be.  And, trust me when I say that the film is a complete and shocking masterpiece of brutality and brotherhood.

To suggest that Once Upon a Time in America is about one thing – or is the story of one man – is doing the film a grave injustice.  This is an incredibly complicated film that celebrates the art of constructing a film as much as it does storytelling.  Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli handles the camera as one would a lover, caressing every frame with a delicate sense of wonder.  Leone’s final film is an experience that starts in the streets with kids “rolling over” drunk men for money and gold and ends in the senate, concerning political power.  Yes, two friends, David "Noodles" Aaronson (DeNiro) and Maximilian "Max" Bercovicz (James Woods) butt heads, but their power trip goes places no betrayal ever should.  With a cast that includes Larry Rapp, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, Joe Pesci, Treat Williams, Burt Young, James Russo, Danny Aeillo, and a young Jennifer Connelly, Once Upon a Time in America plays as a love letter to what America offers is populace strained by the extremes of poverty and then power.  It’s a duplicitous beast, playing ever more clear and stronger with each viewing.  Yes, familiarity does breed understanding and, with a movie as thick as this is, memorizing sequences and “Frisbee” tosses are key for interpretation.

Hypnotically aided by Ennio Morricone’s famous score, Once Upon a Time in America’s  haunting honesty will do more than resonate with you upon reaching the final freeze-frame, it will unsettle the spirit that makes you so very American and shake it free for introspection.

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Once Upon a Time in America - blu-ray Review

MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, sexual content, language and some drug use.
Director
: Sergio Leone
Writer
: Harry Grey
Cast:
Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern; Joe Pesci; Tuesday Weld
Genre
: Crime | Drama
Tagline:
As boys, they said they would die for each other. As men, they did.
Memorable Movie Quote: "I'm the chief of police, not the chief of the people."
Distributor: Warner Home Video
Release Date:
February 17, 1984
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
January 11, 2011

Synopsis: A great tale of a group of Jewish gangsters in New York who knew each other since childhood. It goes through their glory years during prohibition, and then they meet again 35 years later.

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{2jtab: Blu-ray Details}

Component Grades
Movie

Blu-ray Disc
5 Stars

3 Stars



Blu-ray Experience
4 stars

Blu-ray

Blu-ray Details:

Available on Blu-ray - January 11, 2011
Screen Formats: 1.78:1
Subtitles
: English SDH, French, Spanish
Audio:
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; French: Dolby Digital 5.1; Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Single disc (1 BD)

The 1080p transfer is a brilliant upgrade for this film. Sure, it appears to be a direct port of the Special Edition DVD, but the HD enhancement is noticeable and welcomed. The hues are solid, with black being consistently strong and deep. No, this isn’t the end-all-be-all of transfers for this movie and some fans will be upset that it isn’t as clean nor as bright as it should look, but this first pass “ain’t half bad”, as the saying goes. It certainly looks better than I have ever seen it. The sound is presented in a sufficient DTS-HD master audio 5.1 track that – at times – reaches its limitations and becomes a bit too sharp at times.

Supplements:

Commentary:

  • Since this is a direct port of the DVD release, the informative commentary provided by Richard Schickel is included. This is Grade A stuff here, folks.  Schickel is a man who knows a thing or two about film and about Leone. It shows, too. Schickel’s passion for Leone’s films comes through, as does his understanding of the man’s cinematic genius.

Special Features:

And here is where we get a little limp.  This doesn’t sport an abundance of supplemental material and, once again, this is a complete disappointment. Nothing new. Only what went before on the DVD release.

The supplemental material is as follows:

  • Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone excerpt (20 min)
  • Theatrical Trailer

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