Classic Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in America (1984)


Title: Once Upon a Time in America
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Production Company: The Ladd Company | PSO International | Embassy International Pictures | Rafran Cinematografica
Summary/Review:

Sometimes it seems that all you have to do to make it on a Great Films list is to make a movie about gangsters and make it very long.  That is the formula that legendary Italian director Sergio Leone followed in making Once Upon a Time in America, which ended up being his final film, and one he spent over a decade creating.  It’s also the final part of a loose trilogy of Once Upon a Time… movies that began with Once Upon a Time in the West.  Notoriously, the production company severely cut down the movie for its American release and rearranged the scenes in chronological order.  This movie bombed in the U.S. but the nearly 4-hour “European Cut” that I watched is considered a classic.

The movie is told from the point of view of David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert DeNiro, played by Scott Tiler as a teenager) who forms a gang in the Jewish enclave of Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his friend Max (James Woods, Rusty Jacobs as a teenager) and three other friends.  The story is framed by an older Noodles returning to New York City after 35 years because someone has learned he betrayed his friends in 1933.  The bulk of the film takes place in flashback during the Prohibition Era of the 1910s to 1930s.

Noodles is the epitome of unsympathetic narrator as we see him not only carry out violent crimes, but brutally rape two different women including the one who is supposed to be his lifelong sweetheart, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly as a teenager). Women in this film are seemingly just there to be humiliated, beaten, and raped.  This is no doubt and accurate depiction of how gangsters treated women and girls, but if it’s up to you if that’s something you want to watch in a movie.

I’m not sure why Leone chose to cast actors of Italian/Irish and Irish ancestry in the lead roles as Jewish gangsters.  Not only was it unfair to ethnically Jewish actors who could’ve played the parts but it’s confusing since DeNiro and Woods had already played gangsters of other ethnicities.  I found Jacobs  was a lot more charismatic as the Young Max than Woods, who is just his usually creepy-ass self. The plot hinges on the audience’s’ belief in Noodles and Max having a deep friendship but I never feel any such connection between DeNiro and Woods. Indeed, the film seems to deliberately repel any emotional connection one might make with the characters. There are huge plot twists that end up being corny and unconvincing, and at the end I was left wondering why we spent nearly four hours on this story.

The one thing Once Upon a Time in America has going for it is that it looks really good. The sets are picture-perfect recreation of the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. I’d love to learn how it was produced and how they got Manhattan Bridge to hover over so many of the street scenes in the era before CGI.  Otherwise, gangster movies aren’t really my cup of tea, so your impression of this film may vary, but I found this movie to “meh” overall.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Cabaret (1972)


Title: Cabaret
Release Date: February 13, 1972
Director: Bob Fosse
Production Company: ABC Pictures | Allied Artists
Summary/Review:

Brian Roberts (Michael York) is an English academic who arrives in early 1930s Berlin and plans to teach English lessons while working on his doctorate.  He settles into a boarding house where he meets Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), perhaps the ur-Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with emphasis on “manic”), an American who sings and dances at the Kit Kat Klub. Despite Brian believing himself to be homosexual, their friendship grows into a romance.  Then their twosome becomes a threesome as they are both pursued by the playboy Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem).  All throughout the film, the decadence of the Weimar Republic transitions to the Nazi regime.

While it’s facile to say that a musical would not work without the song and dance, the plot of Cabaret is rather slight. The musical numbers performed in the Kit Kat Klub by the Emcee (Joel Grey) and Minnelli are not only outstanding but act as perfect commentaries on the characters and the plot.  I did find the Emcee a bit terrifying, both for his uncanny appearance and his willingness to indulge in anti-semitic humor when it was least expected.  The most terrifying song in this movie is the only one not sung by Grey or Minnelli, but a chorus of people in a beer garden singing the militant Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

Despite the many allusions to Cabaret that are made in popular culture, this movie was not what I expected. It’s definitely a lot weirder than I imagined, and for a musical it is very bleak (which should not be surprising for any story involving the rise of Nazism).  Nevertheless, I liked it, and maybe it’s not an all-time classic, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Rating: ***1/2