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Cinema Qua Non - Indispensable DVDs: Part 2

Day Two - A demanding Decalogue overflowing with everything: from fascinating international fare, misbegotten masterworks, some out of the blue bafflers, and that seminal show about “nothing”.

Day Two - A demanding Decalogue overflowing with everything: from fascinating international fare, misbegotten masterworks, some out of the blue bafflers, and that seminal show about "nothing".

DVD: Once Upon a Time in America

Director: Sergio Leone

Film: Once Upon a Time in America

Studio: Warner Brothers

Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly, William Forsythe, Tuesday Weld


MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1984

Distributor: Warner Home Video

US DVD Release Date: 2003-06-10


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Once Upon a Time in America
Director: Sergio Leone


Once upon a time, the movies seemed on the brink of becoming something more than merely visual storytelling, but rather (as in Federico Fellini and later Zhang Yimou) a kind of magical alchemical suspension of emotion and music and indelible image far more memorable than any of those individual elements. But with few exceptions, that brief moment of brightness has faded, and today most movies are aptly characterized by those who market them as “product".

To get a glimpse of the artistic promise movies once held, consider watching –- or watching again, if you were unlucky enough to see only the initial theatrical release –- Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.

But bear in mind –- if you did see it in the theatre, or remember those reviews –- that there are few movies whose long-term critical reputation has outstripped its initial chilly reception to a greater degree. The reason? On its first release in the mid-'80s, Leone’s masterpiece was sliced and diced like a platter of Cobb salad and flung into the theatres, whereupon moviegoers and reviewers promptly flung it back.

Ironically, the ruthless editing that nearly destroyed Once Upon a Time in America’s reputation was designed to make the movie more “comprehensible” by rendering it perfectly chronological. But Leone’s cinematic poem about memory and wasted lives and the helplessness of humans against the force of time wasn’t designed to be told chronologically.

Instead, in the Warner Brothers “Two-Disc Special Edition", we see the movie as it was always meant to be seen: As a rapturous and surpassingly tender elegy about how the past impinges on the present; the way that time can fold in on itself, collapsing 30 years into an instant; and, conversely, the manner in which the act of an instant can resonate throughout a lifetime.

The movie follows the lives of a small group of Jewish gangsters who meet as children, prosper during Prohibition, and then destroy themselves as the result of one of the gangsters’ (Robert De Niro) failed attempt to prevent another (James Woods) from carrying out a suicidal heist. Some people will be put off by their preconceptions about the gangster genre, or by a very violent beating scene in the movie’s first five minutes, and an equally painful rape scene later on, or by the running length (229 minutes). And certainly, Elizabeth McGovern (who looks here like a little girl playing dress-up in Mommy’s clothes) is egregiously mis-cast as De Niro’s lifelong love.

But despite more than a few flaws, there is something inexhaustible about Once Upon a Time in America. The second viewing reveals facets of the story the first did not; so, incredibly, does the twelfth (the number of times I have seen it, all but two on DVD). And the grandeur of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack, one of the finest and most poetic in the history of the movies, never grows old.

The last scene of the movie is a close-up of De Niro’s character sporting one of art’s most enigmatic smiles since La Gioconda. Most viewers will be haunted enough by this one to watch the DVD again, and again, in pursuit of its elusive meaning. Michael Antman

DVD: Back to the Future

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Film: Back to the Future

Studio: Universal Pictures

Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson


MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1985

Distributor: Universal Studios

US DVD Release Date: 2002-08-27


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Back to the Future
Director: Robert Zemeckis


In 1985, before cell phones, the Internet, and reality shows, teenagers often spent the majority of their time outside of their homes. Malls, arcades, and movie theaters were, for the most part, the standard choices for young adults to spend their waking hours outside of school. Most teen flicks around that time revolved around these Meccas of youth, often using two out of three elements of the following formula: un-chaperoned parties + under-aged drinking + nudity = teen hit. Then came Back to the Future.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Steven Spielberg, this teen comedy took the notion of '80s adolescence and made a sociological statement on relationships between said kids and their parents. Of course, I was ten back then and noticed no such thing. But little did I realize the cultural impact the film would have on American society.

Back to the Future was touted as a sci-fi/action-adventure film at the time of its release, and it was exactly that. According to Netflix, it has been added to the family comedy genre, and that makes sense. It is about family. But it’s also one of the first sci-fi films to take a complex theory like time travel, spin it, and make it believable. And, thanks to screenwriter Bob Gale, even as an adult, I still buy the whole space/time continuum thing. Why? Because it actually kinda makes sense. The beauty of this film is that it is intelligent without being boring. It’s a cornucopia of quality quotes, with gems like ”Hey you, get your damned hands off her," and “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” And who hasn’t heard of a flux capacitor or 1.21 gigawatts?

Let’s talk action. The Twin Pine Mall parking lot car chase scene and the skateboard chase scene in the courthouse square are two of the most thrilling action sequences in film history. I mean, who didn’t reenact the part where Marty McFly punches out Biff in the diner, runs outside, grabbing that kid’s scooter, skateboarding away with Biff and his goons chasing after him in a car?

Not only was the movie smart and action-packed, but it also featured a great soundtrack, putting Huey Lewis and the News at the top of the music charts with “Power of Love”. Even the score was terrific. During the conclusion of the film, as Marty is racing down the street during the famous Hill Valley lightning storm, trying to time the lighting strike just right so the bolt of lightning will send 1.21 gigawatts into the DeLorean, enabling him to get back home, I still cringe, thanks to Alan Silvestri’s theme. And do I even need to mention "Johnny B. Goode"?

Though there were two sequels, the first one being better than the second, as it takes on a much darker tone, the original, by far, is superior and set the standard for teen flicks in the ‘80s because of its ability to wrap so many different genres into one film. Back to the Future is one of those movies that, even 23 years later, still stands the test of time. No pun intended. Charles Moss

DVD: Crimes and Misdemeanors

Director: Woody Allen

Film: Crimes and Misdemeanors

Studio: Orion

Cast: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Jerry Orbach

MPAA rating: R

First date: 1989

Distributor: MGM

US DVD Release Date: 2001-06-05


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Crimes and Misdemeanors
Director: Woody Allen


If someone can only watch one film for the rest of their life, it had better be a film that, by virtue of its breadth of expression, can adapt to whatever mood they are in when they watch the film. We watch happy films when we are happy in order to square with our elation. We watch sad films when we are sad for to commiserate with ourselves. The correlation goes on. Therefore, a truly indispensable film must be able to assume every role that cinema plays in our life, lest we forfeit some place of film in our lives.

Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors is such a film, aglow in its mutability. On one hand, it is not only Allen’s funniest piece, but one of the funniest films in the cinema catalogue. Allen’s character Cliff is hired to make a documentary about a man whom he despises. When the final product is shown, it cuts footage of Cliff’s enemy together with that of Mussolini and several other hilariously unsubtle editing decisions. The scene is unforgettable. There is a scene in which Cliff discusses with his ex-wife a situation in which a blind date tied his sister to the bed and defecated on her chest. Allen’s dry rebuttal of his sister asking for an explanation, “Is there anything I could possibly say that would be a satisfactory answer to what I just told you,” leaves the viewer in tears. When Cliff is rejected by his love interest, he remarks about the love letter he sent her, “It's probably just as well. I plagiarized most of it from James Joyce. You probably wondered why all the references to Dublin.” Simply put, the movie slays, Allen finding an ideal balance between ironic affect and humanity.

The second plot in the film involves Judah Rosenthal, a man who has his paramour killed to prevent his wife from discovering. He must deal with the guilt for the entirety of the film. This leads to long dramatic scenes of introspection and ethical discussion. “I remember my father telling me, ‘The eyes of God are on us always.’ The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God's eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.” I would be racked to think of a film which succeeds so thoroughly in conveying moral dilemma.

All of these elements are woven together by interlocutory bits of a recorded interview with a philosopher, Professor Levy. “We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe.” The profundity of such sequences radiates through the film.

At once painfully funny, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking, Crimes and Misdemeanors is indispensible in its versatile virtuosity. Erik Hinton

TV Show: Seinfeld

US release date: 1989-07-05

Network: NBC

Cast: Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards



MPAA rating: N/A

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Seinfeld is generally considered to be the best sitcom of all time, in terms of raw popular success and critical appraisal. Rather miraculously, the complete series DVD box set is equally impeccable, filled with more than 100 hours (!) of detailed, compelling extras. Clearly this was a labor of love, and not all DVD packages so clearly reflect the excellence of the source material. In terms of pure generosity and quality, the Seinfeld collection is -- in my humble yet meticulously considered opinion -- the best complete series TV-on-DVD box set ever issued.

But at 33 discs, 180 episodes, and several hundred dollars, it's a big investment in both time and money. I'm proud to say that I have made that investment, gradually, over several months, because I am to other Seinfeld geeks, roughly, what the Pacific Ocean is to that trout pond behind my Dad's place.

However, I realize the casual Seinfeld fan may not want to sink several dozen weeks into mining every last bit of excruciating minutia from this box set. And so, in the interest of consumer advocacy -- and the promotion of what really is a 20th century work of art -- I've narrowed down the set into a few critical discs. At many rental stores, and via online services like Netflix, you can dip into the Seinfeld collection one disc at a time. But because the extras are scattered throughout the series, it's hard to know which exact disc to rent. For Seinfeld, I recommend these discs:

Season 3, Disc 4

Season 3, most fans agree, is when Seinfeld really started hitting on all cylinders. Disc 4 has six solid episodes, all with additional with commentaries and trivia. Most compelling is the 21-minute documentary “Kramer vs. Kramer: Kenny to Cosmo", a revealing look at the Kramer character, as invented by actor Michael Richards. As cast and crew discuss the evolution of the character, it's clear that Richards was every bit as intense and eccentric as the character -- a solitary comedic technician who rehearsed physical bits for hours and demanded professionalism from everyone around him. Icing on the cake: This is one of only a handful of individual disks that features a blooper reel.

Season 7, Disc 4

This disc features one of the collection's best commentary tracks, in which Jerry Seinfeld, director Andy Ackerman, and writers Jeff Schaffer & Alec Berg dissect the classic episode “The Calzone", and give a sense of just how hard it is to be this good this consistently. Also interesting is a feature on the departure of series co-creator Larry David, the secret author of the show's unique style. Season 8 marks a significant shift in tone, and is the show's third distinct era. But the best part of this disc is a documentary tribute to that most underrated asset of the show, actress Julia Louis Dreyfus.

Season 9, Discs 1 and 4

Season 9, Disc 4 has the two-part series finale, which was far from perfect, but did serve nicely as a curtain call for all the ancillary characters that so enriched the series: the Soup Nazi, David Puddy, Mr. Pitt, and many of Jerry's weekly turnover of girlfriends. Disc 1 is a winner, too, with a stellar line up of late-era classic episodes, including “The Voice", “The Serenity Now", and “The Merv Griffin Show”, all with meaty commentaries and extras. You'll also find here the bittersweet featurette “The Last Lap", detailing the difficult decision by the cast to end the show.

Finally, if you really want to geek out, the entire collection is littered with “easter eggs” -- special content hidden in the various menu screens. Google around, and you can find the list of instructions on getting the hidden goodies easily. Glenn McDonald

DVD: Tetsuo: The Iron Man - Collector's Edition

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto

Film: Tetsuo: The Iron Man - Collector's Edition

Studio: Original Cinema

Cast: Tomoro Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, Renji Ishibashi, Naomasa Musaka, Shinya Tsukamoto

Amazon affiliate:

MPAA rating: R

First date: 1988

Distributor: Tartan

US DVD Release Date: 2005-07-19


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Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto


Director Shinya Tsukamoto was a fresh-faced 29-year-old newbie when he came up with the idea for his third film, a surreal horror fantasy about a guy who realizes he’s turning into a machine. He painstakingly crafted the film himself, from shooting stop motion techniques to constructing the trash compiled “iron man”. The result was a cyberpunk cult classic that meshed the fantasy world as well as the gritty side of modern Japan. Fans waited for years for Tetsuo to be released on DVD, and expected such a legendary film to get the Criterion treatment.

Unfortunately, Tetsuo's release was overshadowed by the growing popularity of other Asian extreme films. The film was snatched up by Tartan Asia Extreme and given the same treatment as forgettable Asian extreme titles like Pulse and The Eye. The DVD had no bonus features, no commentary -- nothing. Besides an improved picture quality over the VHS version, the DVD was rather empty.

So, out of all the DVDs in my collection, why would I pick the most disappointing one? As much as commentary, deleted scenes, and extra features would have been grand, Tetsuo is perfect enough as is. Unlike other films that need extra candy to lure viewers to watch again and again, Tetsuo demands to be seen repeatedly. It's impossible to grasp all that's needed from Tetsuo on one viewing. On first viewing, the film whips away at a blinding pace, bending our senses and taking huge leaps into strange areas. On first watch, it's easy to only notice the surface things and quickly write the film off as an overly avant-garde mess.

But on multiple viewings, the film begins to unfold. Suddenly it's no longer a cyberpunk film, it's a romance film, and suddenly the idea of a man turning into a machine seems less bizarre and more reactionary and deeply parallel to certain societal themes. But hey, I'm not here to analyze this film. Although there are so many films I admire, some films are hard to watch multiple times, either from an emotional aspect or even from a startling realization a film is less perfect than how I remembered it. But Tetsuo is always brilliant, and the short length of the film (just barely over an hour) also means a ridiculous amount of multiple viewings are inevitable. Could Tartan have given a better treatment to Tetsuo? Of course, but the film does its part and that’s all that’s needed. Tiffany White

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