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343 of 363 people found the following review helpful
Okay, a four hour gangster movie is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, especially when the pacing is absolutely glacial and DeNiro and Woods aren't on-screen for about half that time because of a childhood flashback that's longer than some full movies. But, if you take this movie on the terms director Sergio Leone sets, it's a richly rewarding cinemeatic experience. I've heard the film described as "an opium dream of a gangster movie" and the pacing seems to justify such a response. But it's slow and richly detailed, and a little odd at times, for very good reasons that pay off in spades by the film's emotionally titanic (though slightly anti-climactic} finale.
Despite what can seem like turgidness on first viewing, this film is likely to stick to your ribs and merit repeat screenings. DeNiro smolders throughout, while James Woods delivers a teriffic scenery-chewing performance. The story is friendship (and betrayal, of course)--or is it Romulus and Remus? Greek tragedy, perhaps? Godfather parts 1 and 2 rolled into one film? Yes, and more. And viewers familliar with Leone only through his spagetti westerns are in for a surprise: Leone is a world-class film-maker here, capable of stunning beauty and cruelty, often within the same frame.
Does it really need to be this slow? Does the flashback to childhood need to be almost and hour and a half long (don't worry--it's absorbing enough in its own right to keep you from noticing)? Does the the chronology need to be so screwy? Does that darn phone need to ring so long? Absolutely.

Fans of Woods, DeNiro, Leone, or gangster movies in general canot afford to pass this film up. The supporting cast, especially the young actors playing the gang members in thier childhood, is also consistently stellar. Best viewed on a cold wintry afternoon when you've got plenty of time. Opium not provided.
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150 of 159 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2000
When "Once Upon A Time in America" was initially released, there wasn't much of a stir in America due to the well-documented excision of around an hour and half of footage. But, on its release to home video, the restored, uncut version was suddenly available to American viewers. Thank God. This is a deeply moving, emotionally-wrenching film that deserves its ranks in the annals of some of the greatest motion pictures ever filmed. Movie lovers will delight in this film from frame to frame. Top-notch performances, extended sequences with attention to detail that rival the best Kubrick films, and plot twists told through inventive flashback sequences make this a movie-lovers paradise.
I remember when it first came out, I was mesmerized by it for three reasons. Firstly, when it was released there was possibly never a more violent film than this one, with the possible exception of Scarface. Thus, the action is first-rate. Secondly, the performances were all compelling. One performance that went overlooked, I think, was Tuesday Weld's volatile performance as the damaged and emotionally scarred girlfriend of the equally volatile Woods. DeNiro, of course, holds every scene he's in; there's a great sequence in the film involving crooked cop Danny Aiello and a sick practical joke played on him by the gangsters seeking to influence him; additionally, a young Jennifer Connelly gives a fine performance as the childhood sweetheart of one of the gang-members. Thirdly, the pacing of the film was deliberately extended in several sequences to allow for Ennio Morricone's haunting, melancholic, and most deeply felt musical score. When Morricone's music swells, so collectively do we, and the play on the screen becomes the ultimate tragedy that can never have a happy ending.
Some of the visuals of the film are especially striking, not the least of which is the aerial shot of DeNiro lying under a mesh cover on a mattress in an opium den, grinning goofily while he allows the opium to take its effect, and wipe away the memories of his betrayal. Other standout visuals include the shot of a frisbee flying through the air to introduce yet another flashback sequence, the opening sequences of horrifying violence, and a final sequence involving a garbage truck.
All of this together creates an unforgettable movie experience, one that will stay with the viewer for a long time.
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258 of 286 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2003
"Once Upon A Time In America" is director, Sergio Leone's stunning tale of organized crime and the destruction it unleashes into the lives of four life-long friends. Robert DeNiro headlines a cast of great talent that includes Joe Pesci, Treat Williams and James Woods. When this film first premiered in 1984 it was 229 minutes. However, the subject matter was considered so violent and shocking, and the pace so methodically slow that nearly 40 minutes were excised for general exhibition, rendering the story line practically incomprehensible. I am pleased to say that this new 2-disc set at last gives us the story as it was originally intended, full of robust characterizations, enthralling action sequences and filled with the sort of memorable moments that have reminded me why we all go to the movies - to be entertained (not overwhelmed with way-too-many, ultra-slick digital effects!).
Warner Brothers 2 disc set does have its drawbacks. First, the movie itself is spread over two discs and, there is no polite way to say it, the interruption is obtrusive. The break happens right in the middle of a crucial scene. Interruption aside, the DVD is marred by considerable film grain and a bit of digital grit that make most of the images digitally harsh instead of creamy smooth. Many scenes offer remarkable clarity and depth while others, mostly night time or dark scenes suffer from a loss of fine detail that disappears into a haze of undistinguished muddy blacks, browns and blues. Edge enhancement, pixelization, shimmering and aliasing are present throughout the transfer, sometimes distractingly so. The audio is remixed 5.1 and is strident and lacking in tonal bass.
Extras: Pretty much a retrospective and audio commentaries. Some toss away stuff. That's it, that's all!
BOTTOM LINE: For its sheer mastery in the art of cinema story telling, I recommend "Once Upon A Time In America". The transfer leaves something to be desired but hey, it's nice to have this American classic back in the spotlight and, finally, in its full running time.
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Now, I am by no means a Sergio Leone fan, but he deserved the Oscar for Direction for this film. I firmly believe that this film stands up there with "The Godfather, Part II", "Casablanca", and "Citizen Kane" as one of the greatest films ever released (maybe the best). Sergio Leone's violent, visual, masterpiece of turn of the century Jewish boys from New York growing into a life of crime has a different effect on all those who have viewed it in its various forms. I, personally have never seen the shortened version so I can not comment on it. There isn't anything in this film that isn't worth the four hour running time. Brilliant, poetic visuals, great photography and fantastic performances across the board.
Leone touches on issues of violence (the scenes are gory and sometimes explicit), sexual depravity (its no coincidence that all sexual encounters are in unconventional places and only in Noodles' rape of Deborah does he exhibit any kind of emotion toward any of his partners, gently caressing and kissing her as he violates her in a pathetic attempt to show his love), and simply growing old (brought about by the reminisces of Noodles' childhood with a beautiful good 'ol days type feeling despite the criminal nature of his childhood) and leaves us clamoring for more after the four hours are through.
Robert DeNiro is fantastic as always as Noodles. But it is James Woods, in my opinion that steals the show as Max. William Forsythe, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Burt Young, Joe Pesci, Jennifer Connely and Tuesday Weld add to this film just as actors of their quality are expected to. Their performances, as well as the two leads at the very least deserved, but didn't recieve any, Academy Award nominations. (In fact, the Oscars were the only ceremony to snub this film). Ennio Morricone's score was as beautiful and evocative as one would expect from the master of the Italian score.
Worth seeing. Sit back, take the phone off the hook and prepare for a cinematic experience.
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50 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 1999
I've just finished watching Sergio Lione's beautiful, long, violent masterpiece. I've mentioned long , as unlike many others I feel it is one the movie's best qualities. For the 1 1/2 hour flashback, is so poetically realised you can almost smell New York, and by the time the movie is over you truly feel that you have lived their lives. As the movie opens the phone is ringing, and its only after repeated viewings do you realise this symbolic of De Niro(noodles)'s guilt for turning his friend in , and as he belives cuasing his death. It this level of detail in every frame, and the contrast of Ennio Morricon's second best score( after The Mission) with the violence, that make this film experience truly special. Watch it alone, watch it repeatedly, and please stay away from the crime against cinema that is the shortened version. Note:I truly think had this film been released in its full length in the U.S. , it would have beat Ghandi to best picture, and given Mr.Lione a very deserved oscar, but the incoherent shortend version obviously didn't even get nominated.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 2003
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is an absolute masterpiece of cinema.
It's beautifully crafted - the acting, casting, cinematography, music (Ennio Morricone), sound FX, etc are all faultless. Inspiration stuff!!!
Everybody seems to quote the Godfather films (well at least 1 & 2) as their favourite Gangster films but I MUCH prefer this film. It's PAINFULLY beautiful. I try to watch it at least once or twice a year just to remind myself how great cinema can be. (Thankfully I never saw the short version the distributers butchered on it's first release).
Yes there's horrific violence and a rape scene but I don't think that they're gratuitous at all. I defy anyone not to feel uncomfortable watching the interminably long rape scene - I hated De Niro's character for doing it but Leone is such a master Director that I was amazed to find myself reluctantly feeling sorry for De Niro's character for not being able to express his love openly and purely after years of having to be a hardened gangster...especially after trying so hard to create the most romantic evening ever for her!
I loved how you have to use your head to piece together what's going on - some reviewers here have complained that they didn't understand everything. C'mon! It's all there...Work it out for yourself what happened to James Woods in his last scene (sorry but I thought it was obvious!). Sure most mainstream films spoon-feed their audience the answers these days but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's the right thing to do! (And if a person doesn't get it, it doesn't AUTOMATICALLY mean it's the Director's fault...)
But I digress...If you love Cinema, then you've GOT to see this film. It's not only one of the Greatest Gangster Films ever made, it's one of the greatest FILMS ever made!
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2002
I firmly believe that there are works of art that are simply a masterpiece in itself irregardless of whether or not popular culture recognizes it to be so. "Once Upon A Time in America" is the four hour culmination of a visionary director's career; it is a stellar work of grandiose filmaking and, more importantly, passionate storytelling that is lost in current filmaking. The compliments are often bestowed upon its cinematography and while the color and feel of the movie is perfect and gorgeous, the many complaints about its length and confusing plotline is ungrounded. The movie is quite worth the 227 minutes playtime and makes sense well enough when isn't cut into a shorter version.
Leone's masterpiece is often compared to the Godfather series and often comes up the less favorable brother of the two. Personally, while I see why the Godfather is an infinitely more appealing film to the mass public, I dont agree that those movies were in any way better. "America" does not glorify it's characters and that is where the tragedy and beauty lies in this film. Leone creates an artistically beautiful film to watch, but his actors beautifully, and tragically [sometimes violently], humanize their respective characters. This is a story not about a hero to root and love, but a story about an innately good Jewish boy who found himself torn between two paths in life and finding himself consistently making the wrong, violent choices that force him into a criminal life full of regret. Robert de Niro and his younger counterpart Scott Tiler do an amazing job capturing the angry innocence of this young man that grows old to be a troubled man. They deliver stoic performances depicting "Noodles" [the main character] that leaves one pitying the older De Niro and aching for the younger Scott Tiler that went from being just a dreaming street punk to a haunted criminal. Also wonderful performances by Jennifer Connelly as his younger love interest and James Woods as de Niro's doppleganger.
This is a movie that leaves an haunting impression behind. There is a palpable regret and tragedy following the protagonist throughout an entire lifetime. This is a story about the choices we all make as humans and how a single moment in error can change the entire course of one's life and in some ways, even rob you of it. This is a movie worth renting once, at least. The dvd has not been released in the US yet, but a dvd version has been released from a Brazilian company, for those who are interested, and can be attained with effort. Amazing movie that will leave you remembering it, if not loving it for its tragedy.
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57 of 65 people found the following review helpful
Once again Sergio Leone proves that he is the master of the classically "American" genre film, this time training his exquisite eye from the Western to the gangster film...gangster EPIC, actually.
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This movie takes place via disjointed flashbacks over a period of fifty years, focusing on the life (and death) of crime as experienced by four childhood friends, specifically David "Noodles" Aaronson, portrayed in maturity by Robert DeNiro in another typically inspired performance.
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The movie in its American release nearly 20 years ago was absolutely butchered by the US-based distributor, with over an hour of footage removed from the feature in order to make it more managable for US audiences. The result was that the personality of the movie was essentially siphoned off and the film was savaged by film critics nationwide. When the movie was released for cable a year or so later, a fair bit of the footage was restored (and in fact another edit presented the film exclusively in chronological order from Noodles' youth to old age).
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This restored version does include as much as the film's original footage as can be accounted for (to our knowledge), and the effect is somewhat more enlightening than the cable edit I first saw (and legitimately loved) almost two decades prior. The violence edited back into the movie makes it more difficult for the viewer to find sympathy/empathy with any of the characters (which may have been a stretch to begin with)...but while the extra features are a wonderful addition to the DVD (James Woods' admission on the Leone bio piece that to this day he is asked what exactly happened in "his" last scene...and to this day he's uncertain himself...is worth the price of purchase alone. And Richard Schickel's film-length commentary track is also a joy to watch/listen to.
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But Warner Brothers REALLY dropped the ball by deciding to split the film into two equal lengths for the purpose of placing it on 2 discs; particularly when considering that in fact Leone did make provision for an intermission within 2:45 of the film's original running time. The most obvious issue is that yes, a rather crucial scene was unceremoniously interrupted as Disc One ends and resumed at the beginning of Disc Two. Arguments will be made that this was necessary to include the full-length commentary track for both discs, but even "Pulp Fiction" with a complete running time of over two-and-a-half hours was able to complete the presentation with commentary track on the same disc; you have to believe Warner Borthers could at least have done a better job with Leone's final masterpiece. As it is, the perfect realization of the film that was by all admissions nearest and dearest to the Italian film maestro's heart still eludes him, even in this digital age. Had he lived to see it, he could not have been pleased with this treatment. Nor was I. A terrific film, beautifully and lovingly shot as always, speaking to the emotions of the viewer in a way that so many American directors simply can't pull off...but once again the editors have failed the artist. I own it, and will view it regularly out of respect to its brilliance as a film, but someone should have been sacked over this DVD presentation.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2006
This is on my all time favorite list. It's one of the most majestic, moving epics ever made. And considering Leone hadn't directed a film in 12 years makes it all the more remarkable. Everything in this film comes together so well. Performances, direction, and Ennio Morricone's music is the most moving score he ever did for Leone. Morricone had actually composed the music for the film way back in 1976 (!). It just took Leone a long time to obtain funding and to secure the rights for the film (it's based on a novel called The Hoods by Harry Grey). Morricone and Leone had probably the most unique collaboration in the history of cinema. It's a shame Morricone (and Leone) never won Academy awards. As people probably already know, this DVD edition is Leone's cut, the 229 minute version that played all across Europe (where it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece). Thankfully, the 139 minute butchered version is nowhere to be found. It was out on VHS briefly in the 1980's (along with the long version), and has never appeared again on home video. Critics, for once, helped this film get noticed. They trashed the short version, rightfully calling it a travesty. Then Warner Brothers released the uncut version to arthouse theaters, and the film was recognised as a classic. The film is like an epic novel, unfolding slowly, layer by layer, until the sad, melancholy ending. Some have said that the whole film is an "opium" dream of Noodles (De Niro's character), but I personally don't agree. But that's up for debate. A great work of art like this inspires debate. Leone died 6 years after this film (he was only 60), but he is as great an artist as Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Herzog, Ford, Fellini, etc., etc.. No one made films like he did, and no one has ever captured his style and substance. You see homages constantly to his work, but Leone's films have a depth to them that most people miss. This is his deepest work, a film that will last forever...
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2000
...a meditation on time, memory, and the nature of cinema itself. Imagine a gangster film written by Proust and directed by Max Ophuls. Leone devoted 15 years of his life to this project; when it was all over (betrayed by America itself, just like Noodles), it pretty much killed him. There are rumors that Leone's intial cut, 40-50 minutes shorter than the "long" (227 min.) version released in Europe, is being restored. I hope and pray this is true. Christopher Frayling's excellent biography of Leone outlines the missing footage -- some violence, and a lot of stuff from the "1968" sections of the movie -- more of Noodles enountering faces from his past, particularly Tuesday Weld and Treat Williams. I always found that the 1968 material seemed rushed and choppy -- hopefully this footage will remedy that and turn "Once Upon A Time In America" into the masterpiece it undoubtedly is.
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