Film Review: Cold Pursuit (dir by Hans Petter Moland)


Released back in February (just in time for Valentine’s Day!), Cold Pursuit was this year’s Liam Neeson revenge flick.

This time, Neeson played Nels Coxman, a snow plow driver who speaks in a raspy tone of voice and tends to walk around with a thousand-yard stare on his face.  After his son is killed by gangsters, Nels sets out for revenge.  It turns out that Nels’s father was some sort of mob enforcer so both Nels and his brother (William Forsythe) have apparently inherited the “instinctively know how to kill” gene  So, while Nels’s wife (Laura Dern) stays at home and has a nervous breakdown, Nels heads out and starts killing folks.  Since the gangsters are led by an idiot named Viking (Tom Bateman), they all assume that they’re being targeted by a rival drug gang, one which is led by a Ute named White Bull (Tom Jackson).  So, while the two drug gangs are killing each other off, Nels is busy killing any stragglers that he comes across.  It all adds up to a lot of killing.

Cold Pursuit is different from other Liam Neeson revenge films by the fact that it’s an out-and-out parody of the genre.  So, while Neeson walks through the film with his usual glum expression and commits all the usual mayhem that we’ve come to expect from a vengeance-driven Neeson, everyone else plays their role as broadly as possible.  Tom Bateman leaves not a single piece of scenery unchewed in the role of Viking while Tom Jackson is stoic to the point of insanity in the role of White Bull.  Whenever a gangster gets killed, a title card appears, listing his name, his nickname, and his religion.  Meanwhile, two cops (Emmy Rossum and John Doman) prove to be comically ineffective.

And I will admit that I did laugh a few times while watching Cold Pursuit.  The scene where Neeson asks his brother to explain why everyone has a nickname made me smile.  Some of the murders are clever and the action scenes are frequently so over-the-top that you can’t help but be amused by them.

That said, Cold Pursuit didn’t really work for me.  I think the problem is that the filmmakers spent so much time trying to parody Neeson’s films that they didn’t consider that the majority of those films are themselves already parodies.  I mean, just watch The Commuter and tell me that film isn’t cheerfully winking at the audience.  Since Neeson’s screen persona hasn’t really been a serious one for close to ten years now, parodying it isn’t quite the subversive act that Cold Pursuit seems to think it is.  The difference between Neeson’s other films and Cold Pursuit is the difference between merely winking at an audience or pulling a gun on an audience while demanding, “LAUGH, DAMN YOU!”  Sometimes, the funniest jokes are the ones that you pretend you’re not making.

On the plus side, the film looks gorgeous.  It takes place in the Colorado mountains and makes great use of the frozen landscape.  And George Fenton’s score is nicely evocative and well-used in the film.  Finally, Liam Neeson is always fun to watch, even when it’s in a somewhat flawed film like this one.

 

Film Review: American Me (1992, directed by Edward James Olmos)


American Me tells the story of Montoya Santana (Edward James Olmos).  Conceived during the Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s, Santana is first arrested when he’s just 14 years old.  It’s only a breaking-and-entering charge but, on his first night in juvenile hall, Santana is raped by another inmate.  When Santana retaliates by murdering his rapist, his fate is set.  As soon as he’s 18, he’s transferred to Folsom Prison but, by that time, he and his friend J.D. (William Forsythe) have already formed what will become La Eme, the Mexican Mafia.  Running things from their cells, Santana and J.D. not only control the prison’s drug trade but they also keep an eye on who, from their old neighborhood, is going to be joining them behind bars.  Santana establishes early on that the punishment for any sign of weakness or disloyalty is death.

When Santana is finally released from prison, he finds that the world has changed since he was first incarcerated.  La Eme has become powerful both inside and outside of prison and nearly everyone in Santana’s old neighborhood looks up to him.  But Santana, himself, is lost.  In prison, Santana was feared and respected but, on the outside, he’s a 34 year-old man who has never had a job or a relationship.  He’s never even learned how to drive.

After meeting and falling in love with Julie (Evelina Fernandez) and seeing firsthand the damage that the drug trade is doing to his community, Santana starts to have second thoughts about La Eme.  But, according to the rules that he previously established, trying to leave La Eme is punishable by death.

American Me is a classic gangster film and I’m always surprised that it doesn’t have a bigger following than it does.  Along with starring in the film, Olmos made his directorial debut with American Me and he provides an unflinchingly brutal look at the drug trade and the violence that goes along with it.  Olmos was allowed to film inside Folsom Prison and even used actual prisoners are extras, bringing a touch of neorealist verisimilitude to the prison scenes. Early on, there’s a sequence that follows a baggie of heroin from one orifice to another until it finally reaches it destination in the prison.  It leaves you with no doubt that if people are willing to go through that much trouble to get drugs, it’s going to take something more than just zero tolerance laws to dissuade them.

Once Santana is released, Olmos does a good job, as both an actor and director, of showing just how lost he is.  In prison, Santana was in charge and feared but, when dealing with people in the real world, he’s just as awkward as he was when he was a teenager on his way to juvenile hall.  Olmos gives a tightly-wound, subtle performance as a man who is as much a prisoner of his outlook as he is of the state of California.

The men who served as the real-life inspiration for Olmos’s film were reportedly outraged by American Me.  They weren’t upset by the film’s portrayal of the drug trade or their callous disregard for the members of their community.  Instead, the film’s crime was suggesting that their organization was founded by someone who had been previously raped in prison.  (That Santana subsequently killed his rapist made no difference.)  Three people associated with the Mexican Mafia, all of whom has served as consultants to American Me, were subsequently murdered in the days immediately following the release of the film.

As for Edward James Olmos, he has remained busy as an actor.  One generation got know him on Miami Vice and then the next came to know him from Battlestar Galactica.  He’s subsequently directed four other films.  For me, his strongest work, as both an actor and a director, remains American Me.

A Movie A Day #336: The Bronx Bull (2017, directed by Martin Guigui)


New York in the 1930s.  Jake LaMotta (Morean Aria) is a tough street kid who is pushed into fighting by his abusive father (Paul Sorvino) and who is taught how to box by a sympathetic priest (Ray Wise).  When Jake finally escapes from his Hellish home life, it is so he can pursue a career as a professional boxer.  Ironically, the same violent nature that nearly destroyed him as a youth will now be the key to his future success.

In the late 60s, a middle-aged Jake LaMotta (William Forsythe) testifies before a government panel that is investigating that influence of the Mafia in professional boxing.  LaMotta testifies that, during his professional career, he did take a dive in one of his most famous matches.  LaMotta goes on to pursue an entertainment career which, despite starring in Cauliflower Ears with Jane Russell, never amounts too much.  He drinks too much, fights too much, and gets into arguments with a ghost (Robert Davi).  He also gets married several times, to women played by everyone from Penelope Ann Miller to Alicia Witt.  The movie ends with Jake happily walking down a snowy street and a title card announcing that Jake is now 95 years old and married to his seventh wife.  (The real Jake LaMotta died on September, 9 months after the release of The Bronx Bull.)

The Bronx Bull is a largely pointless movie about the later life of the antisocial boxer who was previously immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.  In fact, The Bronx Bull was originally announced and went into production as Raging Bull II.  Then the producers of the original Raging Bull found out, filed a lawsuit, and the film became The Bronx Bull.  Because of the lawsuit, The Bronx Bull could cover every aspect of Jake’s life, except for what was already covered in Raging Bull.  In fact, Scorsese’s film (which undoubtedly had a huge impact on LaMotta’s later life) is not even mentioned in The Bronx Bull.

William Forsythe does what he can with the role but, for the most part, Jake just seems to be a lout with anger issues.  With a cast that includes everyone from Tom Sizemore to Cloris Leachman to Bruce Davison, the movie is full of familiar faces but none of them get too much of a chance to make an impression.  Joe Mantegna comes the closest, playing Jake’s best friend.  The Bronx Bull was not only shot on the cheap but it looks even cheaper, with studio backlots unconvincingly filling in for 1930s Bronx.  The film’s director, Martin Guigui, occasionally tries to throw in a Scorsesesque camera movement and there are a few black-and-white flashbacks but, for the most part, this is the mockbuster version of Raging Bull.

Film Review: Patty Hearst (dir by Paul Schrader)


The 1988 film, Patty Hearst, is based on a fascinating true story.

In 1974, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was a 19 year-old student at Berkeley who was kidnapped from her apartment by a group of self-styled leftist revolutionaries known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).  The SLA was led by a charismatic escaped prisoner who called himself Field Marshal Cinque and who announced — via messages that Hearst read into a tape recorder — that Hearst was being held hostage in the name of social justice.  The police and FBI spent several months unsuccessfully searching for Hearst until one day, the SLA released an audio tape in which Hearst announced that she had now joined the SLA and would now be known as Tania.  Hearst was soon robbing banks and went from being a hostage to a wanted criminal.  When she was arrested in 1975, Hearst claimed to have been brainwashed by the SLA and people still debate whether she was a sincere revolutionary, a calculating criminal, or a victim.

(From what I’ve read about the Hearst kidnapping, I guess the modern day equivalent would be if Kendall Jenner disappeared and then resurfaced in Portland, setting cars on fire with Antifa.)

What can said for sure is that, after being arrested and convicted of bank robbery, Patty Hearst was sentenced to 7 years in prison.  Hearst served less than three years before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter.  Twenty years later, another President — Bill Clinton — gave her a full pardon.  Needless to say, the rest of the SLA did not receive a pardon or, for that matter, even a commutation.  The majority of them, including Field Marshal Cinque, died in a fiery explosion that came at the climax of a gun battle with police.  The rest were arrested, convicted, and ended up serving their full sentences.  Of course, while the majority of the SLA came from middle and upper middle class backgrounds, only one of them was the heir to a fortune.  When she was arrested, Patty may have given her career as being an “urban guerilla,” but ultimately, she was the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst.

(Regardless of whether you believe Patty Hearst was brainwashed or not, it’s an undeniable fact that it’s easier to be a revolutionary when you know you won’t face any serious consequences if the revolution eventually fails.  If the members of the SLA were around today, they could just spend their time on twitter, retweeting John Fugelsang’s thoughts on Jesus.  But, in 1974, there was no twitter…)

Based on Every Secret Thing, Hearst’s own account of her kidnapping and subsequent life as a fugitive, Patty Hearst opens with the heiress (played by Natasha Richardson) being kidnapped and held prisoner by the SLA.  For the first fourth of the film, we see everything exclusively through Patty’s eyes.  She spends her days locked in a dark closet that’s so tiny that she can barely stand.  Whenever the door is opened, shafts a bright light flood both the closet and the screen, blinding not only Patty but the audience as well.  At first, Patty cannot even see the faces of the people who have kidnapped her.  All she knows are their voices.  Whenever that door opens, neither Patty nor the viewer knows whether she’s going to fed, berated, comforted, or raped.  All four of them happen to her, several times over the course of her time in that closet.  It’s harrowing to watch, all the more so because Natasha Richardson gives such an empathetic and bravely vulnerable performance as Patty.  When Patty is finally allowed to leave that closet, the audience is almost thankful as she is.  And, when Patty gets out of the closet, the look of the film changes as well.  It goes from being darkly lit to almost garishly colorful.  Patty’s entire world has changed.

The first part of the film is so powerful that it’s not surprising that the rest of Patty Hearst suffers by comparison.  Once Patty gets out of the closet and declares her allegiance to the revolution, she becomes a bit of a dead-eyed zombie and the focus naturally shifts to the rest of the SLA.  Ving Rhames gives a powerful performance as Cinque, the head of the SLA.  Cinque may be a passionate revolutionary but he also has a dangerous messianic streak.  Even worse, the film suggests, is Cinque’s lieutenant, Teko (William Forsythe).  Teko claims to be a revolutionary but ultimately reveals himself to be as much of a misogynist as those who he claims to oppose.  (Today, Teko would probably be one of those guys arguing that it’s okay for him to use the C word because he’s an “ally.”)  Whereas Cinque has no doubt about his revolutionary commitment, Teko always seem to be trying to prove something to everyone, especially himself.

Ultimately, Patty becomes almost a bystander to her own story.  For a time, she is the most famous bystander in the country.  Though the film is sympathetic to Patty, Natasha Richardson plays her with just a hint of ambiguity.  Ultimately, Patty comes across as someone desperately searching for an identity.  Since she is not sure who she ultimately is, it’s easy for Patty to become an “urban guerilla” and it’s just as easy for to her go back to being an heiress.  By the end of the film, it’s obvious that Patty is just as confused by her life as everyone else.

Patty Hearst was directed by Paul Schrader, who is best known for writing the scripts for such films as Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder.  (Among Schrader’s other directorial credits: Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People, and The Canyons.  Needless to say, he’s had an interesting career.)  In many ways, Patty Hearst is probably more relevant today than it was first released.  Considering that our culture is currently dominated by people pretending to be revolutionaries and celebrities famous solely for being famous, Patty Hearst feels rather prophetic.

Watching this film and experiencing Patty’s transformation from vapid heiress to brainwashed political activist to briefly notorious celebrity, I realized that we now live in a world of Patty Hearsts.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Laugh Killer Laugh (dir by Kamal Ahmed)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  It’s taking a while but she’s definitely making some progress!  She recorded this 2015 thriller off of the El Rey network on May 9th!)

This is a strange one.

William Fosythe, character actor extraordinaire, plays Frank Stone.  Frank is a burglar who works for an infamous mobster named Tough Tony (Victor Colicchio).  As you can probably tell from his nickname, Tony’s tough but he still enjoys a good laugh.  Not Frank.  Frank never laughs.  He doesn’t even smile.  In a world of flamboyant and verbose gangsters, Frank is quiet and withdrawn.  He lives in a cramped apartment, withdrawn from the world.  At night, he is haunted by nightmares of his childhood.  He was raised in an orphanage where a sadistic headmaster (Tom Sizemore) regularly ordered his to never smile.  In the view of the headmaster, Frank had nothing to smile about and certainly no reason to ever laugh.

Then, Frank enrolls in a creative writing class.  His main reason for enrolling is that he’s falling in love with another student, Jackie (Bianca Hunter).  However, once he’s enrolled, Frank finally starts to express himself for the first time.  What the class doesn’t realize is that his dark and violent stories aren’t fiction.  Instead, Frank is just writing about his day-to-day life.  The class may be impressed but Tough Tony isn’t particularly happy that a bunch of strangers know all of his secrets.  Tough Tony’s solution is predictably brutal but he may be underestimating Frank, who has now discovered not only the joy of laughter but the joy of killing as well.

I have to admit that all of the Mafia stuff didn’t really interest me.  I’ve seen so many gangster movies that I could pretty much predict everything that was going to happen as far as Tough Tony was concerned.  Victor Colicchio did a good job and was properly loathsome in the role but, ultimately, he was just another self-amused gangster.

Far more interesting to me were the parts of the movie that involved the creative writing class.  I’ve taken a few creative writing classes and this film perfectly captured the experience.  I recognized almost everyone in that class.  There was the lonely woman who wrote stories that presented her as being both a seductive temptress and an innocent victim of a selfish lover.  There was the guy who, having read too much Raymond Carver, seemed to be obsessed with the idea that he could turn the mundane details of his everyday life into great art.  Even Frank Stone was a familiar type to me.  In every class, there’s always one guy (and it’s almost always a guy) whose writing is so nihilistic that you praise it because you’re scared he might kill you otherwise.  And then there was Ackley (Kevin Corrigan), the asshole who never read anything but showed up for every class so that he could tell everyone else that their work sucked.  Every class has an Ackley.  Even the supportive but somewhat wimpy instructor (played by Robert McNaughton) felt true to life.

Laugh Killer Laugh is an odd and uneven little movie and definitely not for everyone.  There are some serious pacing problems and some of the supporting performances aren’t as strong as you might want.  (Tom Sizemore, however, will scare the Hell out of you.)  That said, William Forsythe gives a wonderfully strange and ultimately sympathetic performance as Frank.  The film makes perfect use of Forsythe’s off-center persona and it’s almost worth watching just for that.

The Daily Horror Grindhouse: Halloween (dir by Rob Zombie)


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Is Rob Zombie a good filmmaker?

That’s the question that every horror fan has to ask themselves at some point.  Needless to say, Zombie has a huge following and no one can doubt his love for the genre.  And yet, despite that, it seems that Zombie’s detractors will always be as outspoken as his fans.  His fans point out that Zombie makes movies that literally feel as if they’re filmed nightmares and that, as a committed horror fan, he’s willing to go further in his quest to shock you than most mainstream filmmakers.  His detractors, meanwhile, tend to see Zombie as an excessive filmmaker who often uses an abundance of style to cover for a weak narrative.

Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle when it comes to Zombie.  I think, as a storyteller, Rob Zombie does occasionally struggle to maintain a coherent narrative but, at the same time, I think his strengths as a director ultimately overcome his weaknesses.  As a visual filmmaker, he’s a lot stronger than he’s often given credit for and I don’t think anyone would criticize the way that he uses music in his films.  He may not be the strongest director of actors but he’s got a good eye for casting and he’s given work to some of our best character actors (Sid Haig, Malcolm McDowell, Brad Dourif, William Forsythe, and the late Karen Black, just to name a few).  If his films are extremely graphic and bloody … well, that’s the current state of horror.  If anything, I would argue that Zombie deserves credit for unapologetically embracing the mantle of being a 21st century grindhouse filmmaker.

That said, Rob Zombie’s films rarely seem to be as good on a second viewing as they were during the first.  He’s one of those directors who comes at you strong that, to a certain extent, his films almost beat you into submission.  During the first viewing of one of Zombie’s films, it’s not unusual to be overwhelmed by all the style and the music and the gore and the over-the-top characterizations.  Even if you don’t like the film itself, it definitely makes an impression on you.  It’s only on repeat viewing that you might start to notice that Zombie’s narratives are often rather clumsily slapped together.  Several times, Zombie’s visual style seems to dictate the story as opposed to the other way around.

That was certainly the case with his 2007 remake of Halloween.  While the film follows the same basic plot as John Carpenter’s original, it also spent a lot more time delving into the past of Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch as a child, Tyler Mane as an adult).  It was obvious that Zombie was far more interested in Michael than in any of his victims.  (Carpenter took the exact opposite approach, developing the characters of Annie, Laurie, and Linda and allowing Michael to remain a cipher.)  As a result, the first half of the film deals with Michael and his dysfunctional childhood while only the second half features Michael escaping and returning to Haddonfield.  Laurie, Annie, and Lynda are well-played by Scout Taylor-Compton, Danielle Harris, and Kristina Klebe but ultimately, they all remain rather generic.

The first time I saw Rob Zombie’s Halloween, I thought it was one of the most disturbing films that I had ever seen.  I should clarify that I mean that in a good way.  Zombie’s Michael was truly terrifying but, at the same time, Zombie portrayed him as a kid who never had a chance.  Whereas Carpenter’s Michael started the film as a fresh-faced little boy dressed up like a clown and holding a bloody knife, Zombie’s Michael is born into a world of chaos and darkness.  With his dysfunctional childhood, it was hard not to feel that Michael never had a chance.  Feeling abandoned by both his family and, eventually, his therapist, Michael retreated into a world of pure anger and hate.  Whereas John Carpenter’s Michael rarely seemed to be angry (instead he was just relentless), Zombie’s Michael is rage personified.

Unfortunately, Zombie’s Halloween spends so much time on Michael and his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, perfectly cast) that it doesn’t leave much time for the night he came home.  Essentially, the entirety of Carpenter’s original film is crammed into the film’s second half and, on repeat viewings, you can’t ignore how incredibly rushed it all feels.  It’s obvious that Zombie’s heart was in the first half of the film.  In the second half, he’s just going through the slasher movie motions.

Rob Zombie’s Halloween is definitely a flawed film.  John Carpenter’s original remains the superior Halloween but, to be honest, I don’t think Rob Zombie would deny that.  Zombie set out not to replace Carpenter’s Halloween but to tell a different version of the same story.  When Zombie’s Halloween works, it really works.  Flawed as it may be, Halloween proves that Rob Zombie is a talented filmmaker, albeit one with room to grow.

As for Halloween II … well, we’ll talk about that later…

Shattered Politics #50: Once Upon A Time In America (dir by Sergio Leone)


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Before I start this review of Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangster epic, Once Upon A Time In America, I want to issue two warnings.

First off, this review is going to have spoilers.  I’ve thought long and hard about it.  Usually, I try to avoid giving out spoilers but, in this case, there’s no way I can write about this movie without giving away a few very important plot points.  So, for those of you who don’t want to deal with spoilers, I’ll just say now that Once Upon A Time In America is a great film and it’s one that anyone who is serious about film must see.

Secondly, I’m not going to be able to do justice to this film.  There’s too much to praise and too much going on in the film for one simple blog post to tell you everything that you need to know.  Once Upon A Time In America is the type of film that books should be written about, not just mere blog posts.  Any words that I type are not going to be able to match the experience of watching this film.

For instance, I can tell you that, much as he did with his classic Spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone uses the conventions of a familiar genre to tell an epic story about what it means to be poor and to be rich in America.  But you’ll never truly understand just how good a job Leone does until you actually see the film, with its haunting images of the poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto in 1920s New York and it’s surreal climax outside the mansion of a very rich and very corrupt man.

I can tell you that Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his best but you won’t truly know that until you hear it while gazing at Robert De Niro’s blissfully stoned face while the final credits roll up the screen.

I can tell you that the film’s cast is amazing but you probably already guessed that when you saw that it featured Robert De Niro, James Woods, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Elizabeth McGovern, and Jennifer Connelly.  But, again, it’s only after you’ve seen the film that you truly understand just how perfectly cast it actually is.  Given the politics of Hollywood and the fact that he’s unapologetically critical of Barack Obama, it’s entirely possible that James Woods might never appear in another major motion picture.  A film like Once Upon A Time in America makes you realize what a loss that truly is.

So, if you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to see it.  Order it off of Amazon.  Do the one day shipping thing.  Pay the extra money, the film is worth it.

Much like The Godfather, Part II (and Cloud Atlas, for that matter), Once Upon A Time In America tells several different stories at once, jumping back and forth from the past to the present and onto to the future.

The film’s “past” is 1920.  Noodles (Scott Tiler) is a street kid who lives in New York’s ghetto.  He makes a living by doing small jobs for a local gangster and occasionally mugging a drunk.  He’s also the head of his own gang, made up of Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curry), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi).  Despite his rough edges, Noodles has a crush on Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), a refined girl who practices ballet in the back of her family’s store.  When Nooldes meets Max (Rusty Jacobs), the two of them become quick friends.  However, their criminal activities are noticed by the demonic Bugsy (James Russo), who demands any money that they make.

The film’s “present” is 1932.  Noodles (Robert De Niro) has spent twelve years in prison and, when he’s released, he discovers that some things have changed but some have remained the same.  Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe), and Patsy (James Hayden) are still criminals but they’ve prospered as bootleggers.  Occasionally, they do jobs for a local gangster named Frankie (Joe Pesci) and sometimes, they just rob banks on their own.  During one such robbery, they meet a sado-masochistic woman named Carol (Tuesday Weld), who quickly becomes Max’s girlfriend.

As for Noodles, he continues to love Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). But, when he discovers that she’s leaving New York to pursue a career as an actress, he reveals his true nature and rapes her.  It’s a devastating scene — both because all rape scenes are (or, at the very least, should be) devastating but also because it forces us to ask why we expected Noodles to somehow be better than the men who surround him.  After spending nearly two hours telling ourselves that Noodles is somehow better than his friends and his activities, the movie shows us that he’s even worse.  And, when we look back, we see that there was no reason for us to believe that Noodles was a good man.  It’s just what we, as an audience, wanted to believe.  After all, we all love the idea of the romanticized gangster, the dangerous man with a good heart who has been forced into a life of crime by his circumstances and who can be saved by love.  In that scene, Once Upon A Time In America asks us why audiences continue to romanticize men like Noodles and Max.

As for the gang, they’re hired to serve as unofficial bodyguards for labor leader Jimmy O’Donnell (Treat Williams) and, in their way, help to found the modern American labor movement.  (“I shed some blood for the cause,” Patsy says while showing off a huge bandage on his neck.) When fascistic police chief Aiello (Danny Aiello) needs to be taken down a notch, they kidnap his newborn son and hold him for ransom.  (While pulling off this crime, they also manages to switch around all the babies and, as a result, poor babies go home with rich families and vice versa, neatly highlighting both the power of class and the randomness of fate.)  However, the good times can’t last forever and, when prohibition is repealed, the increasingly unstable Max has to find a new way to make some money.

Finally, the film’s third storyline (the “future” storyline) takes place in 1967.  Noodles has spent decades living under a false identity in Buffalo.  When he gets a letter addressed to his real name, Noodles realizes that someone knows who he is.  He returns to a much changed New York.  Carol now lives in a retirement home.  Deborah is an acclaimed Broadway actress.  Jimmy O’Donnell is the most powerful union boss in America.  Fat Moe’s Speakeasy is now Fat Moe’s Restaurant.

Once Noodles is back in town, he receives a briefcase full of money and a note that tells him that it’s an advanced payment for his next job.  He also receives an invitation to a party that’s being held at the home of Christopher Bailey, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Who is Secretary Bailey?  He’s a shadowy and powerful figure and he’s also a man who is at the center of a political scandal that has turned violent.  And, when Noodles eventually arrives at the party, he also discovers that Secretary Bailey is none other than his old friend Max.

How did a very Jewish gangster named Max transform himself into being the very WASPy U.S. Secretary of Commerce?  That’s a story that the film declines to answer and it’s all the better for it.  What doesn’t matter is how Max became Bailey.  All that matters is that he did.  And now, he has one final favor to ask Noodles.

(There’s a very popular theory that all of the 1967 scenes are actually meant to be a hallucination on Noodles’s part.  And the 1967 scenes are surreal enough that they very well could be.  Though you do have to wonder how Noodles in 1932 could hallucinate the Beatles song that is heard when he returns to New York in 1967.)

Once Upon A Time In America is an amazing film, an epic look at crime, business, and politics in America.  It’s a film that left me with tears in my eyes and questions in my mind.  The greatness of the film can not necessarily be put into words.  Instead, it’s a film that everyone needs to see.

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