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: Career Opportunities (1991)

Also known as: One Wild Night (working title)
Release Date: March 29th, 1991
Directed by: Bryan Gordon
Written by: John Hughes
Music by: Thomas Newman
Cast: Frank Whaley, Jennifer Connelly, Dermot Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney, Barry Corbin, William Forsythe, John Candy (uncredited)

Hughes Entertainment, Universal Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“[to himself] She’s so beautiful. And I’m the town liar.” – Jim Dodge

This film probably gets a worse rap than it should. If you are comparing it to John Hughes’ top films, yeah, it falls short. But it is still a fun and amusing coming of age comedy that still has the John Hughes spirit worked into its script.

Maybe some of the problems with this is that Hughes didn’t direct the movie and that it rehashed a lot of ideas that he already addressed in better ways with previous films like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles but those ideas are still worth exploring in a fresher way with characters that are a bit older.

I liked Frank Whaley and I know that even he had reservations about his own performance and being cast in the role but I think he did a good job and he was certainly likable in this, despite being the “town liar”. Really, he’s just a chronic embellisher and storyteller.

Jennifer Connelly also did a good job and her performance and line delivery were actually better than what the script called for. But I think the thing that worked well for this picture was that she had really good, natural chemistry with Whaley.

I also liked all the smaller characters in the film like the cameos by John Candy and William Forsythe, as well as the scenes with the always entertaining Barry Corbin. Dermot and Kieran Mulroney were also enjoyable as the bumbling bandits that come in at the end of the film.

If I’m being honest, some of my love for this movie could be due to nostalgia. As a kid, this movie was cool because what kid didn’t want to be locked in a Target all night with the entire store as a playground? Plus, I was crushing hard on Jennifer Connelly and frankly, that’s a crush that never really died, as she still catches my attention in almost every film she’s in.

For the time, the soundtrack is also solid. It features a lot of pop hits but it’s that weird era where music was transitioning from the ’80s into the ’90s and being middle school age when this movie came out, meant that a lot of the music worked for me and the time.

While I wouldn’t put this in the upper echelon of Hughes’ work, it’s still a fun, energetic and entertaining movie. Hughes actually requested to have his name taken off of the film, as he didn’t like the finished product, but I still think this is a better picture than most people give it credit for.

Career Opportunities achieved what it set out to do. It was made to be a lighthearted coming of age comedy that served as escapism for an hour and a half. Okay, maybe it fell just slight of that running time but it was good escapism for a twelve year-old in 1991. And I still revisit it every half decade or so.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other coming of age John Hughes comedies: Ferris Bueller’s Day OffWeird ScienceSixteen CandlesThe Breakfast ClubPretty In PinkSome Kind of Wonderful, etc.

Film Review: The Devil’s Rejects (2005)

Also known as: House of 1000 Corpses 2, House of 2000 Corpses (working titles)
Release Date: July 22nd, 2005
Directed by: Rob Zombie
Written by: Rob Zombie
Music by: Tyler Bates
Cast: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon, Matthew McGrory, Ken Foree, William Forsythe, Leslie Easterbrook, E. G. Daily, Geoffrey Lewis, Priscilla Barnes, Kate Norby, Lew Temple, Danny Trejo, Diamond Dallas Page, Brian Posehn, Michael Berryman, P.J. Soles, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Mary Woronov, Tyler Mane, Tom Towles (cameo)

Cinelamda, Lionsgate, 109 Minutes

Review:

“I am the devil, and I am here to do the devil’s work.” – Otis Driftwood

This was a film that I had in constant rotation for a few years after it came out. It has been quite a long time since I’ve seen it, however.

Most of what I remember is that I love the characters of Captain Spaulding and Otis and that they made it a fun experience. Granted, I recently revisited House of 1000 Corpses, so I was reminded of my appreciation for these characters. But they are played by Sid Haig and Bill Moseley, so why wouldn’t they be fantastic?

In the years since this was released, I was disappointed every single time that Rob Zombie made a new movie. Each one seemed to get worse and he showed himself to be a one trick pony. In fact, I gave up and I think I’ve missed a couple of his pictures now.

That being said, this is Rob Zombie’s best movie, as I assume that even the last couple don’t measure up, based off of what I’ve read about them.

This takes the world of House of 1000 Corpses, a decent homage to slashers and the “creepy family in the woods” shtick, and turns it into something else entirely. Where the first film feels like a combination of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, this film is more like Natural Born Killers. This takes the three main characters from the crazy killer family and puts them on the run from the law. And the law is led by a cop that turns out to be just as insane as the killers.

The most interesting thing about this picture is that it flips the script on the bad guys. The ones who tortured and murdered countless people end up in the victim’s chair when the sadistic cop finally has them in his possession. The hunters become the hunted and really, this is a film full of nothing but shitty people doing shitty things to one another. But it is still a neat little experiment to experience.

Sid Haig and Bill Moseley really take their game to a whole new level here and both were fantastic, charismatic and entertaining. Unfortunately, Sheri Moon, Rob Zombie’s wife that he always puts front in center in all of his movies, is pretty terrible. She sort of just exists to be some psychotic eye candy that spends more time showing her butt to the camera than doing anything worthwhile. I’ve also always found her voice to be annoying. Sorry, she just sticks out like a sore thumb in the worst way possible in everything that she is in. This film is no different.

One things this film does well, is it utilizes a lot of old school horror legends in good ways. The characters played by Ken Foree and Michael Berryman are entertaining and add a lot of depth to the film, as just following the three main characters starts to wear thin. Foree really comes in at the right time, diverting some attention away.

The film also has a cool bounty hunter duo played by Danny Trejo and Dallas Page. I liked them a lot and actually wish they got some sort of spin off. They had good chemistry, were enjoyable in their roles and probably have some other stories worth telling.

The most impressive performance, however, was by William Forsythe, who played the psycho sheriff hell bent on revenge against the killer family that murdered his brother in the previous movie. Forsythe was sick and twisted but had a badge and police force to back him up.

The Devil’s Rejects is far from a perfect film but it is better than House of 1000 Corpses and certainly a lot more polished than that film was.

Apparently a sequel is coming, even though the family gets gunned down in the final moments. I’m not looking forward to it though, as this was a good ending to the story and Zombie’s track record since this picture has been terrible.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Its predecessor House of 1000 Corpses.

Film Review: Dick Tracy (1990)

Release Date: June 15th, 1990
Directed by: Warren Beatty
Written by: Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr.
Based on: Dick Tracy created by Chester Gould
Music by: Danny Elfman
Cast: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo, James Keane, Seymour Cassel, Michael J. Pollard, Charles Durning, Dick Van Dyke, Frank Campanella, Kathy Bates, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Ed O’Ross, James Tolkan, Mandy Patinkin, R. G. Armstrong, Henry Silva, Paul Sorvino, James Caan, Catherine O’Hara, Estelle Parsons

Touchstone Pictures, Silver Screen Partners IV, Mulholland Productions, Walt Disney, Buena Vista Pictures, 105 Minutes

Review:

“You get behind me, we all profit; you challenge me, we all go down! There was one Napoleon, one Washington, one me!” – Big Boy Caprice

I guess, from a critical standpoint, this film didn’t get the sort of respect that it should have. I’m not really sure why or how it didn’t resonate with some critics but Roger Ebert adored it, as do I.

In fact, Dick Tracy is almost a perfect film for what it is and I’m not sure what else anyone would want from this near masterpiece. Warren Beatty directed and starred in this and he gave us something magical and marvelous. It fit the classic comic strip to a t and truly breathed live action life into it. As great as the comic strip was, I feel like this film is an improvement on the story, the characters and the ideas of Chester Gould’s beloved creation.

Unfortunately, this great launching pad for what should have been a franchise, never got to have a sequel due to copyright disputes between Warren Beatty and Tribune Media Services. The courts eventually settled in favor of Beatty but that wasn’t until 2011. He has since talked of a sequel but there hasn’t been much movement and so much time has passed. Also, Disney had hoped that this would achieve 1989 Batman numbers but it didn’t hit that mark, even though it was financially successful.

And at least this film has its fans and, at the time of its release, the public supported the picture. Some of this could be due to the film’s immense star power, boasting a cast of superstars, or because of the awesome marketing campaign this film had – one of the best of all-time, in my opinion. Especially, the tie-in stuff they did with McDonald’s. Plus, there was that great Batman picture the previous year, which finally proved that comic book movies could be something that can be taken seriously.

The film has held up tremendously well and may actually be more visually alluring today. The use of vibrant giallo-like colors and tremendous matte paintings gave the film a real pulp comic feel that felt lived in and lively. Today, the picture truly feels like a work of art and has a visual uniqueness that stands on its own.

The picture was also enhanced by the incredible score by Danny Elfman. This is one of the greatest scores of Elfman’s long career and is very reminiscent of his work on Batman, the previous year, and 1990’s short lived The Flash television show. The score is powerful and blends well with the old timey tunes and the performances by Madonna.

Being a poppy 1930s style gangster story, Beatty tapped the Bonnie and Clyde well and cast Estelle Parsons and Michael J. Pollard in small roles. The film was only missing Faye Dunaway and Gene Hackman in reuniting the gang from that classic 1967 film.

Beatty was a fantastic lead and perfect Dick Tracy. Additionally, the rest of the cast was magnificent. Al Pacino got to be a hammy mob boss and foil to Tracy. Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice is also one of my favorite Pacino characters ever put to celluloid. Both Madonna and Glenne Headly are stellar as the leading ladies and this is just one of many roles where I became a huge fan of Headly.

The cast is rounded out by so many other great actors in smaller roles. Dick Van Dyke plays a crooked mayoral candidate, Dustin Hoffman plays the gangster Mumbles and R. G. Armstrong is the sinister mob boss Pruneface. You’ve also got cameos by James Caan, Catherine O’Hara, Kathy Bates and Paul Sorvino. William Forsythe and Ed O’Ross play Big Boy’s top henchmen Flattop and Itchy. You also have the always great Seymour Cassel as one of Tracy’s cop buddies. Plus, Charlie Korsmo was cool as The Kid.

Dick Tracy is action packed and stylish but it doesn’t put that style over its substance. The narrative works, the plot moves swiftly and there is never a dull moment. Plus, who the hell doesn’t love Tommy gun shootouts in the street?

It is also worth mentioning that the character of The Blank is one of the coolest film characters to come out of this era, even if used sparingly and in the dark. Had this gone on to be a film series, it would’ve been cool seeing someone else take up that mantle or The Blank living on in some way. The character also added an interesting twist to a film that, on its surface, looks like just a straight up cops and gangsters, good versus evil, cookie cutter type scenario. The Blank added a third, unpredictable element and a noir vibe.

Dick Tracy is one of the greatest summer blockbusters ever made and it deserves more recognition today than it receives. It took some creative risks that paid off and it brought together a literal who’s who of great bad ass actors.

My initial viewing of this motion picture on the big screen is one of my fondest childhood memories. It stands alongside Batman, 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the original animated Transformers movie and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as one of my favorite theatrical experiences of my early life.