Film Review: Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

Also known as: C’era una volta in America (original Italian title)
Release Date: May 20th, 1984 (Cannes)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone
Based on: The Hoods by Harry Grey
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Scott Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Jennifer Connelly, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, Darlanne Fluegel, Mario Brega, Estelle Harris, Louise Fletcher (only in 2012 restoration)

The Ladd Company, Embassy International Pictures, PSO Enterprises, Rafran Cinematografic, Warner Bros., Titanus, 229 Minutes (original), 139 Minutes (original US release)

Review:

“Age can wither me, Noodles. We’re both getting old. All that we have left now are our memories. If you go to that party on Saturday night, you won’t have those anymore. Tear up that invitation.” – Deborah Gelly

I tried watching this about fifteen years ago but if I’m being completely honest, it bored me to tears. And I’m speaking as a guy that has a deep love for the films of Sergio Leone, a man who sits among the best in my Holy Trinity of Motion Picture Directors. The other two being Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick, naturally.

So years later, I felt that I really needed to revisit this, as maybe I wasn’t in the right head space and because I generally have a hard time sitting through movies that feel like they could take up an entire day. Well, this took up an entire afternoon and I did have to take a halftime break and make a ribeye.

But regardless of that, I really enjoyed this picture and I can’t deny that it is one of Leone’s best. In fact, I may have to edit my rankings of his films, as I would now put this third behind The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In the West.

What’s interesting, is that this movie has more in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy than Leone’s own pictures, which were mostly top tier spaghetti westerns. But like his westerns, he also employs the talents of musical maestro Ennio Morricone, who gives real life to the motion picture full of mostly understated performances.

This movie is incredibly slow paced but it’s that kind of slow pace that is more like a slow simmering stew of perfection than the chef accidentally setting the burner too low and walking away.

As far as the acting goes, this is a superb film. Robert De Niro and James Woods own every scene that they’re in. However, the supporting cast is also stupendous, especially the child actors, who play the main characters in lengthy flashback sequences.

This is also compelling in that it is full of unlikable, despicable characters yet you are lured into their world and you do find yourself caring where this is all going and how life will play out for these characters. You never like them but that’s kind of what makes this story so intriguing. With The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, there were things you could connect with and respect about the man, despite his crimes. In Once Upon A Time In America, you don’t really have moments with these characters that humanizes them all that much, in fact it does just the opposite of that. I can see where that might be bothersome to some people but we also live in a world where people saw Walter White from Breaking Bad as some sort of hero.

Once Upon A Time In America also shines in regard to its visual components. It’s a period piece that covers different periods, all of which come off as authentic, even if the city sometimes looks more like it was shot in Europe (some of it was) than truly being Depression Era New York City. But the sets and the location shooting all worked well and this picture boasts some incredible cinematography. It should be very apparent to fans of Leone that he’s taken what he’s learned making fabulous movies and found a way to perfect it, in a visual sense, even more with this, his final picture.

There’s not a whole lot I can pick apart about the movie, other than the pacing being slow. But again, it’s not a painful slow and it certainly isn’t full of pointless filler and exposition. Every frame of this movie needs to exist. But maybe take some breaks or just approach the film like you’re binge watching a short season of a TV show.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: Sergio Leone’s other films but this has a lot in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films.

Film Review: The Stuff (1985)

Also known as: Larry Cohen’s The Stuff
Release Date: June 14th, 1985
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Larry Cohen
Music by: Anthony Guefen, Richard Seaman (jingles)
Cast: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Danny Aiello, Rutanya Alda, Scott Bloom, Brian Bloom, Patrick Dempsey (uncredited), Mira Sorvino (uncredited)

New World Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“The name’s Mo Rutherford. They call me that ’cause when people give me money, I always want mo’.” – David ‘Mo’ Rutherford

The Stuff was a film that flew under the radar when it came out in 1985. Its theatrical release was very limited. Also, when it was released in New York City, a hurricane hit on that day and newspapers weren’t able to be delivered. Apparently, as the director Larry Cohen claims, the film had good reviews that never made it into the audience’s hands. In 2017, the film does hold a 70 percent critics’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

There was also probably some genre confusion about the film. While it appears to be a horror film in all its marketing material, which it is, the film is also a satirical comedy that pokes fun at the health fads of the 1980s, which saw a huge influx of “diet”-branded foods hit the market that people jumped on like hotcakes covered in crack cocaine.

I never even heard of this film until the early 1990s and I was a kid that spent a great deal of time in video stores, wherever I went. I think that most people discovered this later, as it has since developed a pretty large cult following.

One thing this film has, is pretty brilliant special effects. Different substances were used throughout the movie to represent “The Stuff”, as it moved and attacked people. The scene with a lake of “The Stuff” was done by superimposing imagery and using animation techniques. It came off great for a film from this era with a very small budget. Also, the rotating bedroom set used in two scenes of the original A Nightmare On Elm Street is used in The Stuff to recreate the same effect but instead of blood crawling up the walls, we get homicidal marshmallow goo.

The effects that were especially cool where when people’s bodies started to rip apart and ooze out “The Stuff”. The scene, at the end, where Garrett Morris’ head starts to tear apart is a fantastic practical effect and still pretty horrifying.

Now the acting is far from commendable but this picture does feature the always great Garrett Morris as well as Danny Aiello and Paul Sorvino. Also, Michael Moriarty’s “Mo” is an entertaining character.

The Stuff is a fun movie and it is hokey in all the right ways. I’d almost like to see a sequel that is sort of the reverse of this that pokes fun at all the anti-GMO hysteria and the religiously pro-organic people.

Film Review: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Release Date: May 19th, 1989 (Cannes)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee
Music by: Bill Lee, Public Enemy
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, John Savage, Roger Guenveur Smith, Rosie Perez, Joie Lee, Steve White, Martin Lawrence, Robin Harris, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Park, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Turturro, Miguel Sandoval

40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Universal Pictures, 120 Minutes

Review:

In the summer of 1989 I was in Brooklyn visiting family for a few weeks. Being a big film buff, even at ten years-old, I had already seen every big summer movie that year. My cousin was driving us around and he asked if I wanted to see a movie. I did. He asked what I wanted to see. Thinking he would say “no”, I still replied “Do The Right Thing.” Being the cool nineteen year-old kid that he was, he smirked and said, “Well, alright.”

Leading up to my seeing Do The Right Thing in a movie theater in Brooklyn, not far from where the movie took place, I was mesmerized by the trailers and footage I saw on television. Living in Southwest Florida, I didn’t have a lot to do during summer days, except hang with friends, play video games or watch TV. I often times spent hours watching a cable channel called Movietime, which was actually E! Entertainment Television before it re-branded itself. On that channel, they always showed trailers, over and over again, and also went behind the scenes on films in development or coming out. It was a cool channel that taught a young film fan a lot about the industry and art he loved. But it is there, where I saw trailers and other footage for Do The Right Thing. Something about it just drew me in.

I always cherished the experience of seeing this film, so close to where it was made, at a time when I hadn’t quite experienced a real adult film in the theater. It was exciting but at the same time, it was a lot more than that. Do The Right Thing had a profound effect on me and how I saw other people. When I watch it now, much later in life, it is a reminder of that experience and the lessons I learned from it. It also is one of the first films that I saw to really cultivate my love for the art of motion pictures and filmmaking itself. This, alongside Cinema Paradiso, made me see movies differently.

Having just revisited Do The Right Thing for the first time in several years, it is kind of sad. Not because of the film itself but because it took away some of my optimism in regards to people. When I saw it was a kid, I truly believed that society was headed in the right direction. I thought that as time rolled on, the struggle of black people and the prejudices in America would improve. Yet, this film is almost thirty years old and its message is maybe even more relevant today than it was in 1989. Will it be even more relevant in another 30 years?

Spike Lee did a fantastic job with Do The Right Thing and it is, still to this day, my favorite Lee film (Malcolm X is a very close second). Maybe it is due to the experience it gave me when I should have been too young to have to see the world for what it is. But out of all his films, this one has the strongest message not just for African-Americans but for all Americans. And again, it is still a message that needs to be heard today.

The cinematography is stellar. The film really captures the people, the scenery and Brooklyn life in that era. The technique of using first-person perspective, which gets more prevalent as the film progresses and racial tensions increase, is masterfully shot and presented. The breaking of the fourth wall, as characters’ inner monologues come to life, directed at the audience, is effective in understanding their deepest inner prejudices and in helping escalate the tension from a narrative standpoint.

The use of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” throughout the film is perfect and really gives an anthem to the attitudes of many of the characters. It represents, what this film, at its core, is all about. The character of Radio Raheem was the perfect vessel within the film to deliver the song to the masses, as he walked up and down the street, all day, blasting the song from his radio. He wasn’t just a vessel for the message though, he was also a symbol, a physical embodiment of it. Bill Nunn did a fine job as Raheem and made him into an iconic figure for many.

There are several really standout performances in the film. I think a lot of props need to go to Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin’ Out. Most people know Esposito as the villainous Gus from Breaking Bad. It was his role in this film, that put him on the map for me. Then years later, when I did see him on Breaking Bad, playing one of the greatest villains in television history, I was ecstatic because this was a guy who I had followed since seeing him on the big screen as a ten year-old in a Brooklyn movie theater. I’ve always thought Esposito was an underutilized actor but those who regularly work with him know his talent. In Do The Right Thing, Esposito is so committed to the role that he really stands out above everyone else. And we’re talking about a movie that has Samuel Jackson, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, Ossie Davis, Danny Aiello, Martin Lawrence, Frank Vincent and so many other faces that own the screen when they are on it.

Roger Guenveur Smith’s performance as Smiley is also superb. You couldn’t not feel for the guy and when he lost his shit, you were right there with him. It’s also heartbreaking to see how others in the film treat him, even his friends, due to his handicap. Smith  has played a lot of great characters over the years but Smiley is the one I most fondly remember.

There are few films that illustrate a sense of human brotherhood as much as Do The Right Thing. While it shows cultural clashes and tensions boiling over into violence, it also provides hope and displays a lot of wisdom. Most of the characters try to maintain order but the few who keep pushing each other bring the whole neighborhood to its breaking point. And then the cops show up to screw it up even more.

Do The Right Thing isn’t just a great film, it is an important film, maybe even more so today than in 1989.

Film Review: The Godfather, Part II (1974)

Release Date: December 12th, 1974 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
Based on: The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Music by: Nino Rota
Cast: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire, Morgana King, John Cazale, Marianna Hill, Lee Strasberg, Bruno Kirby, Joe Spinell, G.D. Spradlin, Frank Civero, Roman Coppola, Danny Aiello, Harry Dean Stanton, James Caan, Abe Vigoda, Richard Bright

The Coppola Company, Paramount Pictures, 200 Minutes

Review:

It is hard saying which is the better movie between The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. For me, both of them are as close to perfect as a movie can get. I like Part II the most overall but I like that Part isn’t broken up by a nonlinear plot and feels more cohesive. I also like the ensemble of the first movie better. That is actually magnified when you get to the end of Part II and see a flashback dinner scene of all the men in the family, excluding Marlon Brando’s Vito. After spending almost seven hours with this family, up to this point, they always seem to be at their best and their most dynamic when all the men are present.

Everything positive I said about the first film still holds true in the second. The acting, direction, cinematography, costumes, art and design are all absolutely top notch.

However, this chapter in the saga takes things to a new level. The world that the Corleone family lives in is even bigger and more opulent. The section of the film that sees Michael go to Cuba is mesmerizing. It adds an extra bit of grit to the picture, not that it needed anymore than it already had.

The highlight of this film is Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the younger Vito Corleone. He took a role that was very much Brando’s and made it his own without stepping on the toes of his elder. It was definitely a performance that deserved the Oscar De Niro got for it. It is also the only time two different actors have won an Oscar for playing the same character.

The film also contrasts the first movie in that you see the Corleone empire being run in different ways. While the family business is the bottom line, Michael goes further than his father in what he’s willing to do to keep the empire running. Michael went from a young man who didn’t want his family to define his legacy, in the first film, to a man that goes to extremes to keep the family together while he is battling the conflict within himself.

Godfather, Part II is a more dynamic and layered story overall and it is well-executed. While I mentioned preferring the linear plot to Part I, the plot is still managed perfectly. The scenes of Michael and then the flashbacks of Vito go hand-in-hand and they reflect off of each other, showing that despite the differences in the father and son characters, that they still travel the same path in a lot of ways.

In reality, The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II just feel like one really long movie that had to be broken into two parts. And the place where they decided to break them, at the end of the first movie, was the best spot. It flawlessly separates the legacies of the two men, out for the same thing but in very different ways.