Aloftopens in a desolate desert of ice and snow where caravans of pilgrims, traveling in big rigs and camper vans, converge at the end of the world as if it’s the promised land. One of those desperate souls is Jennifer Connelly, cinema’s contemporary face of the female and almost holy capacity for sacrificing, suffering, and enduring. This seeker has two young sons: Gully, dying from a fatal (and pointedly unnamed) condition, is a sweet kid who adores his big brother; and budding falconer Ivan, resenting being dragged along on his mother’s obdurate odyssey to find a faith healer. She doesn’t believe; she just doesn’t have any better options at this point.
Years later, she’s become a guru healer in her own right, an Earth mother in the Arctic Circle who hasn’t seen Ivan in two decades. Meanwhile the estranged Ivan has grown into Cillian Murphy, he of the gentle blue-eyed countenance that suggests both fragile soul and budding serial killer.
Once Upon A Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) is Sergio Leone’s portrait of a 20th century American success story as a gangster epic of greed, loyalty, betrayal, and power, seen through the haze of an opium high. Shuffling back and forth through the century, from New York’s East side in 1923, where scrappy street kids Noodles and Max form a partnership that will blossom into a mob empire, though the glory days of the depression cut short by mob warfare, to 1968, when the graying Noodles (Robert DeNiro) returns from a 35 year exile to the scene of the crime to discover what really happened to his partner and best friend Max (James Woods) all those years ago, this is Leone’s most passionate, elegant, brutal, and elegiac film. William Forsythe and James Hayden complete the gangster quartet, with Joe Pesci and Burt Young as gangster cohorts. Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, Danny Aiello, and young Jennifer Connelly co-star. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his most haunting and beautiful.
The film was originally released in the US in a butchered version cut by over an hour and torn from its evocative time-shifting structure to a traditional linear narrative. It was restored to its 229-minute European cut decades ago but earlier this year it was expanded with an additional 22 minutes of footage that Leone was forced to cut out before its Cannes premiere in 1984. The added footage was taken from workprint material and, faded and sometimes damaged, stands out against the well-reserved and beautifully-mastered material from the previous cut. Among the restored sequences is a legendary scene with Louise Fletcher as a cemetery director, previously only glimpsed in publicity stills (you can see the clip below). Susan King goes over the history of the cuts and the scope of the restoration in an article for the Los Angeles Times.
It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray along with an excerpt from the documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone and trailers. A deluxe Blu-ray Book edition also features the previous Blu-ray release of the 229-minute European cut, which features commentary by Richard Schickel, and an UltraViolet Digital HD copy of the “Extended Director’s Cut.”
Darren Aronofsky takes a very different approach to the Biblical epic in Noah (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) a film both earthy and mystical. This isn’t the Old Testament prehistory we’ve seen before—Aronofsky draws from both Christian and Jewish religious texts to fill out the story (which is actually quite short in the Bible) and offers bleak, poisoned world before the flood quite different from the Mediterranean deserts and forests of previous films—and it accomplishes something quite powerful, vivid and unexpected as a result.
Russell Crowe is Noah as God’s moral man, the last of the faithful who lives his life as Earth’s steward. He keeps his family (wife Jennifer Connelly, sons Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth, daughter-in-law Emma Watson) away from Cain’s offspring (Ray Winstone as a brutal tribal warlord) and the despoilers of the Earth. The creator (as God is called throughout the film) doesn’t speak in the dramatic voice so familiar to other films. He communicates through visions and they are violent, confusing things that Noah must take on faith. Noah undertakes his task as a solemn duty, helped by a race of rock-like beings who were once angels that were cast out of heaven and anchored to Earth.
Ancient mythology and modern cosmology come together in the story of Genesis, told in Noah’s own words and illustrated with imagery reminiscent of Cosmos, a wedding science and religion in a way respectful of both. Even the Ark itself looks different than we’re used to, which is curious considering it is designed according to the dimensions specified in the Bible (see the infographic below for details on scaling the ark, the flood and other details). It’s an epic canvas for a human story and Aronofsky shows great respect for the faith of the source while taking a creative approach to dramatizing the story and the world.
On Blu-ray and DVD. Aronosky shot much of the film in Iceland to get that barren, blasted landscape and he explores the location in the featurette “Iceland: Extreme Beauty.” It’s exclusive to the Blu-ray editions of the film, as are two addition featurettes: “The Ark Exterior: A Battle for 300 Cubits” and “The Ark Interior: Animals Two By Two.” The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and UltraViolet digital copies of the film.
There has always been something a little Old Testament about Darren Aronofsky’s films, so maybe it makes sense that he’s going back to the source for his new movie. The director of Black Swan and The Wrestler is on board with the original disaster epic: Noah and the flood. Armed with the latest in computer-generated effects, Aronofsky is quite serious about this telling of the biblical tale — even grim, you might say. Noah, played by a glowering Russell Crowe, is a man convinced that his Creator plans to drown the world.
Curiously, Aronofsky shrugs off a couple of staples of the Sunday-school rendition of the story: Noah’s social ostracizing for believing in the flood (and the resulting gotcha when all the nonbelievers get soaked), and the majesty of the animals heading two-by-two into the ark. This Noah focuses on a moral fable.