Once Upon A Time In America
Although my friend Art had lent me this disc long ago, I had forgotten about it until recently, and I finally watched Sergio Leone's final film. I have to say that this was an exceptional piece of filmmaking, lovingly shot by Tonino Delli Colli, and acted with total involvement.
The opening scene shows us exactly what we're in for... it's just like a scene from a Spaghetti Western, only it isn't.
This film was involving from opening to closing, but I couldn't help but think that, despite its running time of nearly four hours, that there was more to the film than what was seen here. I know that the version of the film on the DVD is much improved from the original American release, but I feel that there are more story elements that I think there might be an audience for, given the popularity of this film.
I was somewhat disappointed by the fact that this film wasn't in 'Scope, which sounds like a minor concern, I know, but Sergio Leone was one of those filmmakers whose style was so impressive... Quentin Tarantino appears on the DVD documentary commenting that when he wants a certain type of extreme close-up, he refers to it as a "Sergio Leone shot." He's not the only one, either. It is difficult to explain, but what Leone did in his Spaghetti Westerns was to redefine what a 2.35:1 widescreen shot looked like. The "Dollars" trilogy and Once Upon A Time In the West were shot in two-perf TechnoScope (similar to today's Super 35 format, but without the extra picture on the top and bottom of the screen), and Duck, You Sucker! was shot in anamorphic Panavision, but there is an aesthetic of frame that transcends the technical elements of both formats and was uniquely Leone. Once Upon A Time In America is, unfortunately, only lensed at 1.85:1, and doesn't quite have the same feel. That, of course, may be intentional.
Ennio Morricone is as much a star of this film as is Robert De Niro or James Woods, and his use of Zamfir's pan flute is quite effective. I have to say that it is a bit jarring to see the young Jennifer Connelly grow into Elizabeth McGovern... while I have nothing against Ms. McGovern, Connelly's career has in the time since the film has been made so eclipsed hers that one almost wishes to have seen her play the part all the way through.
I had never gotten around to seeing this film because it is the type of movie that several people have told me they wanted to show me. They all lost, because after years of these empty promises, I decided to give up the ghost and just rent the frickin' DVD already.
This film is bizaare and enigmatic, the latter trait one that is dealt with in the theatrical director's cut release that is due out on DVD later this year. Apparently, the new version of the film tells a more coherent story. I'm not sure how I feel about taking some of the mystery away from what is going on in the film, especially considering that writer/director Richard Kelly's explanations on the commentary track of the DVD are not only unsatisfying, but seem to be somewhat beside the point.
Which brings us to my central reason for being bowled over by the film. It is, in its original state, a very Lynchian piece that follows a dream-logic as opposed to a linear narrative. The more one discusses the science-fiction aspects of the story, the more one gets embroiled in several topics that the Kelly has elipsed, or denied. It is difficult to watch this film and not see that Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) indeed has some serious mental issues, and even if those particular issues make him more in-tune with a greater force that is creating a causality loop.
I really liked Michael Andrews' dark score and Steven Poster's anamorphic Panavision photography, and the songs chosen for the film (which is set in 1986) work beautifully. The performances are great, and Drew Barrymore makes up for any residual eye-rolling as a producer that she may have earned from the Charlie's Angels pictures.
I have always found that genre is one of the most interesting subjects in fiction. The way that expectation and convention can be used in new and different ways (and how they can get old and stuck in the mud) is fascinating to me. One of my favorite genres is science-fiction, but several of my favorite science-fiction films combine that genre with others... Alien, for example, is a horror film.
It is no mystery why the definitive book on the making of the most acclaimed science-fiction film since 2001 is called Future Noir. Blade Runner is a detective story, film noir set in the future, which greater implications. While Ridley Scott's vistas of Los Angeles in November of 2019 are quite dazzling, one sees as one gets closer how grungy the city really is, and how your distance from the ground defines your place on the social scale. Multi-billionaire Elden Tyrell (Joe Turkel) occupies a penthouse on his industrial palace, while Deckart (Harrison Ford) lives in a nondescript apartment on the 97th floor. J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) lives in an old deserted building, equivalent to middle-class housing.
It is in the way that the film inverts its noir cliches that allow those science-fiction elements to flourish. Rachel (Sean Young) looks like a femme fatale, but her genuine vulnerability when she finds out that she isn't who she thought she was - that she isn't anybody, really - undercuts this.
This is one of the few films about the future that looks like it was on the right track (certainly, this administration's treatment of environmental and fiscal concerns make it seem like they are dead set on creating this world), a frightening look that is only put into perspective by the weight of the story itelf.
Few films have the balls to ask a question like "what is human?" and mean it. Blade Runner doesn't really have villains; to refer to Roy (Rutger Hauer) as a "bad guy" is impossible. His methods are questionable, but he, like all of the replicants in the film, are immature (the performances of all of the actors playing replicants struck me this time, each somehow managing to convey both worldliness and a childlike quality from within. The questions Roy poses to his maker are simple, and the fact that Tyrell has no way to help him aggravates him, but in many ways is an interesting parallel to the role of faith in modern society.
I watched my laserdisc of the director's cut. I am eagerly awaiting a decent DVD release of this title; the current release has no features but the trailer, and while it is 16:9 enhanced, the sound is in Dolby Stereo, just like the laser, and Blade Runner needs a good 5.1 mix.
Okay, this one really threw me for a loop. After Blade Runner, I wanted to watch something a little lighter, so I popped in this old Peter Hyams favorite, only to find that time has not only been kind to it, the film now appears downright prophetic.
Alien did it first, taking a future reality with intriguing technology, but making it lived in and taken for granted. Outland takes it one step further. The mining colony seen in this film treats its workers like cattle, a dead end job on the ass end of space, little different from any number of frontier mining towns.
And that is what Hyams exploits. In many ways, Outland is a remake of Fred Zinneman's Western classic High Noon, with O'Neill (Sean Connery) filling in for Kane (Gary Cooper), but it is set in space and offers much in the way of not only satire but a cautionary message about how people are used by business for their own ends.
It is actually somewhat more depressing to see what life is like for the miners (communal showering, semi-private bunks, the only sexual release being the company prostitutes) than Blade Runner is in entire, mostly because in 1981 this seemed like a flight of fancy. Today, if the outer planets are colonized, what is seen in this film is looking more and more like it could happen.
Frances Sternhagen also appears, and is great, as usual.
This DVD is crap, I must say. Although the jacket states that it is 16:9 enhanced, it isn't. Furthermore, it is the old, grainy laserdisc transfer... and the sound isn't all that great, either. This film needs a good remastering, and hopefully it might earn some features, too, as was done with Hyam's earlier Capricorn One. There's too much interesting shit here to be left undiscussed.