(On DVD, October 2018) Is Once Upon a Time in the West the western to end all westerns? Probably not, but watching it after seeing Sergio Leone’s Eastwood-led man-with-no-name trilogy, I was struck at the sheer scope of his achievement here. Far from the low-budget heroics of A Fistful of Dollars, Leone goes for big-budget maximalism in showing how the railroad makes its way to an isolated western town, and the violence that ensues. It takes a while for everything to come into focus, but when it does we have a four-ring circus between a nameless protagonist (Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica,” and you know the tune he plays), a woman trying to transform herself in the West (Claudia Cardinale, captivating), an evil industrialist henchman (Henry Fonda, playing a villain!) and a bandit there to mess everything up (Jason Robart, not outclassed by anyone else). The four quadrants of the plot having been defined, the film then takes on its narrative speed—although at no fewer than 165 minutes and considering Leone’s typically contemplative style, there isn’t quite enough plot here to sustain the film’s duration. Still, it’s entertaining enough if you’re not in a hurry—This is clearly a film by someone who has seen a lot of westerns, and it regurgitates familiar elements in entertaining permutations. Plus there’s Leone’s visual style—the film’s best shot is a slow pullback from a man about to be hanged from an arch, with Monument Valley as a majestic backdrop. Not being much of a Western fanatic (although I appreciate it more and more as I see the best movies of the genre), I can say that there’s a limit to how much I can like Once Upon a Time in the West, but it was more entertaining than I expected, and almost as good as its lengthy running time would justify.
(On Cable TV, September 2018) Approaching Frederico Fellini’s 8½ comes with a heavy set of expectations: How can you watch something widely lauded as one of the best movies ever made without feeling at least a bit apprehensive? Do I have to turn in my film critic’s card if I don’t like it? Won’t the cool kids at the European arthouse table make fun of me? After all, I’m already not such a big fan of surrealist black-and-white auteur-driven European cinema. As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried, because I ended up enjoying 8½ a lot more than I expected. Not to the level of an all-time favourite, but well enough to considering it reasonably entertaining. It helps that the film has a lot of hooks to be interesting. It was remade as a big-screen musical in 2010 as the disappointing Nine, giving me an idea of the (disconnected) plot ahead of time. It features a movie director having trouble with his latest science-fiction epic, hitting at least two of my soft spots in one premise. It does have the advantage of a gallery of attractive actresses fawning over the protagonist. (Leading to a hilarious dream sequence in which the protagonist imagines visiting all of his past relationships living under one roof.) It features Marcello Mastroianni, who embodies the coolest of what 1960s Italy had to offer. It partially takes place at a health retreat, the kind of dream resort that wealthy Europeans like to portray on-screen. 8½ does end up being remarkably funny at times, in-between Fellini looking so deep inward that the film ends up feeling like a Klein bottle. Much of the film’s deeper effect is lost on me due to incomplete knowledge: I partially resent how much of 8½ (including its very title) is incomprehensible if you’re not thoroughly up to speed on Fellini and the state of circa-1963 Italian cinema. Wikipedia does help, but movies should not require a reading list prior to viewing. Still, it works well enough even during surface viewing. Though it does feel too long and isn’t as tightly sewn as I would have preferred, 8½ is a remarkable piece of cinema that works on several levels and does offer a playful look at some resonant issues. I won’t put it near the top of my personal pantheon, but I liked it a lot more than I expected. In my mind, my 8½/Nine mashup has gorgeous colour cinematography, an out-of-control Sci-Fi spectacular, snappy musical numbers and Mastroianni dreaming that he’s Daniel Day-Lewis cavorting with Penélope Cruz and Claudia Cardinale.