Once Upon A Time In America

Warner Home Video, $26.99

IN 1971, SERGIO Leone passed up Paramount's offer to direct The Godfather. Instead, he began an arduous quest to bring another operatic tale of N.Y.C. gangsterdom, Harry Grey's The Hoods, from page to screen. Thirteen years later, Leone would finally see his dream realizedthen watch in horror as the studio hacked 85 minutes from America. Reaching DVD on a two-disc set June 10, the original 229-minute film is now finally available in the U.S.

America's tortuous production story is told in riveting detail in a bonus featurette. Financiers got nervous after a disastrous test screening in Buffalo, and the Ladd Company's mutilation of the filmits second great hatchet job of the '80s, Blade Runner being the firstalso destroyed its chronology and Leone's intricate flashbacks. For those who saw the original at Cannes, then later viewed the American release, it was a tale of two movies: As star James Woods explains, then-L.A. Times film criticand current SW contributorSheila Benson called the U.S. version one of the year's worst films while listing the Cannes cut among the decade's best!

She may be right. Starring Robert De Niro and Woods, America proves an impressive work of craft, the most ambitious and visually stunning of Leone's many labyrinthine epics. The time-spanning story is a showcase for the gifts of both Leone and longtime cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. Yet America does lose steam during its final third, and it suffers stiff performances from Elizabeth McGovern and Treat Williams. Still, the luminous digital transfer, and stereo mix of Ennino Morricone's elaborate score, and a small clutch of extras make this a must-have for any serious DVD collection. BOB MEHR

MAY BROUGHT A rash of documentaries to DVD, including the skateboard flick Northwest (some of it shot locally); the Oscar-winning 1995 Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision; and the Full Frame Documentary Shorts compilation, with all kinds of cool stuff on it. Frida bows June 10 on two discs; extras include director Julie Taymor's commentary. On June 17, the romantic comedy Pipe Dream is a definite pick with Martin Donovan and Mary-Louise Parker; while Tom Tykwer's Heaven (with Cate Blanchett), The Bank (Anthony LaPaglia), and Tully are also worth a look. EDS.

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