The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
by Steve Habrat
Of the all Atomic Age science fiction films I have had the pleasure of seeing over the years, the one that has always stuck with me most was Robert Wise’s eerie plea for peace The Day the Earth Stood Still. Released in 1951, just as the Cold War was getting underway and nuclear weapons were being developed and stockpiled at an alarming rate, The Day the Earth Stood Still nudged its way to the front lines of the B-movie saucer men epics and became one of the most pivotal in the genre. While many films become a product of their time, preaching a message against a political backdrop of yesterday, The Day the Earth Stood Still manages to resonate even in this day and age. Looking at The Day the Earth Stood Still today, many may find that the special effects have not aged gracefully and Gort may look like a man in a giant rubber suit, but the otherworldly atmosphere complimented by the chilling extraterrestrial howls on the soundtrack and the fear mongering radio broadcasts playing in the background of every single scene allows the film to grip you from the very first frame. It is certainly a mature work of art for the science fiction genre, one that comes from one of the most versatile directors to ever work in Hollywood.
A sleek and shiny UFO barrels into Earth’s atmosphere and parks itself right smack dab in the middle of Washington D.C. The public, the press, and the military all flock to the UFO in the hopes of catching a glimpse of an extraterrestrial. After a while, the UFO opens up and two figures, Klaatu (Played by Michael Rennie) and Gort (Played by Lock Martin), emerge from inside the ship. Klaatu announces that they have to come to earth in peace and that he wishes to speak to world leaders about an urgent matter, but naturally the military gets jumpy after he pulls a strange device from inside his spacesuit and they shoot Klaatu. In retaliation, Gort, a massive alien robot capable of disintegrating anything in his path, turns their weapons into ash. Klaatu is rushed to a local hospital where he shocks the doctors over his rapid healing abilities. While in the hospital, the President’s secretary, Haley (Played by Frank Conroy), visits Klaatu and discusses his mission. Klaatu pleads with him to gather all the world leaders together, but Haley explains that it is too difficult to get all of them together in one place. After Haley leaves, Klaatu breaks out of the hospital and begins trying to get to know the ordinary citizens of earth. He soon arrives at a boarding house where he meets pretty World War II widow Helen Benson (Played by Patricia Neal) and her young son Bobby (Played by Billy Gray). As Klaatu spends time with Helen and Bobby, he discovers that they may be able to help him on his mission, but the press and the military are growing more and more terrified of Klaatu and Gort with each passing day.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is not the type of science fiction film that relies on tons of flashy special effects (well, flashy for 1951), elaborate martian costumes, and lengthy sequences of explosions to entertain the audience. No, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a thoughtful science fiction film, one that sends a chill through ideas rather than nonstop action. Watching the film today, one can’t help but pick up the eerie similarities between the constant fearful radiobroadcasts chattering in the background and the fear mongering news of today. Klaatu and Gort haven’t been on the ground an hour and the press has already labeled them a menace to the human race, evil men from Mars who are ready to blast earth to tiny pebbles. When they emerge from their ship and state that they have come in peace, the press grows even more skeptical, especially after the nifty Gort retaliates by firing a powerful laser from his eye. And then there is the message of world peace, a plea for every man, woman, and child to live in perfect harmony. Wise and screenwriter Edmund H. North are really asking a lot of the human race, but when we had nuclear weapons aimed at each other with thumbs twitching over the triggers, you certainly have to give them credit for trying. Wise and North make the point that we turn too quickly to violence and refuse to look at situations in a thoughtful and peaceful manner. Why debate and discuss when you have the ability to blow your enemy off the face of the earth?
While Wise and North toss around these massive ideas, the actors all bring their A-game to this science fiction chiller. Rennie is easily the standout as the Chirst-like Klaatu, a peaceful extraterrestrial that is dismayed over Arlington National Cemetery and awed over the Lincoln Memorial. Klaatu is kindhearted, warm, sharp, and when it is needed, stern with the jittery masses. His meeting with Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Played by Sam Jaffe) is certainly an exchange that will make the hair or your arm stand up. Neal is superb as Helen Benson, who slowly realizes that this strange man that has shown up at her boarding house is in fact the alien that everyone is talking about. She becomes Klaatu’s capable ally and even manages to save his life in a critical moment. Gray does the typical “gee-whiz” youngster with ease and he really shines when he takes the inquisitive Klaatu on a tour of Washington D.C. Jaffe channels a certain frizzy-haired scientist as Professor Barnhardt and Hugh Marlowe stops by as Helen’s nasty boyfriend Tom, who tries to hand Klaatu over to the dreaded military once he learns who Klaatu really is. Then there is Martin as the awesome Gort, who really only walks around slowly or stands motionless. He really doesn’t have to do much to be intimidating and his presence sends an icy chill right through you even if it is a bit obvious he is wearing a rubber suit.
With its collectively strong performances, well-spoken script, and expert direction, it is quite easy to see why The Day the Earth Stood Still has become the classic that it has. Wise, who also directed films like The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music, shows absolutely incredible range, even if this film was released before those three classics. It just absolutely amazes me that the same man directed all of those films. The Day the Earth Stood Still also manages to be fairly creepy at points, especially when Klaatu and Gort first emerge from the UFO and the stereotypical science fiction music oozes from the soundtrack. You’ll also be surprised to learn that the film holds up to multiple viewings and the suspense remains effective, especially if it watched with all the lights off. Overall, The Day the Earth Stood Still is probably the best and most important science fiction thriller of the Atomic Age. It is essential viewing for all film fanatics, especially if you’re a fan of the horror/science fiction/B-movies. Come for Gort and stay for the chilly warning of the final five minutes. You’ll be happy you did.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Throughout my film courses at Wright State, one of my professors (who will remain nameless in this review) argued that Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller Jaws was not an important motion picture but rather the bane of their very existence. He rarely had a kind word for the film (or Spielberg himself) and it was just downright perplexing. On the one hand, there could have been bitterness there because Jaws was such a commercial success, the first summer blockbuster marketed on a large scale and he was stuck on the smaller scale art house fare, reluctant to give anything with an explosion in it a chance. On the other hand, he could have just been in love with his own pretention and too stubborn to realize that Jaws had some very important things on its mind, mainly reflecting the Watergate scandal that gripped the nation at the time and exploring class relations among its three main protagonists. My professor liked to argue that Jaws, and the imitation blockbusters that followed, chose not to deal with real world consequences to the violent actions within the films themselves, glossing over the cold hard truth. He is wrong, folks. Jaws DOES deal with some real world grief, fear, and the heaviness in the heart of everyman hero Brody. And if what is going on underneath all the mayhem isn’t clever enough, Spielberg makes a film that is an absolutely flawless example of how to perfectly build suspense and follow through with a delivery that will have the viewer’s heart in their throat. Maybe Jaws isn’t such a piece of garbage after all…
Considering everyone and their mother have seen Jaws at least once, I won’t dive into too much detail about the plot. Jaws opens with a group of free-spirited teens partying on the beach. Two of the drunken teens slip away and decide they are going to go skinny-dipping. The boy passes out while in the process of undressing but the girl makes it into the water, only to find herself getting tugged around by an unseen predator that proceeds to rip her to bits. The next day, police chief Martin Brody (Played by Roy Scheider), who has just moved from New York City to the scenic New England island of Amity, finds the remains of the girl on the beach. The medical examiner concludes a shark killed the girl, prompting Brody to close the beaches down, just when the summer crowds are starting to pour into Amity. Overruled by the mayor, the beaches reopen with the promise that there is nothing to fear in the water. Pretty soon, two more people are dead and Brody quickly brings in Marine biologist Matt Hooper (Played by Richard Dreyfuss) to help find the shark swallowing tourists whole. Brody and Hooper join forces with a blue-collar professional shark hunter Quint (Played by Robert Shaw) and they board his rickety boat the Orca, setting out to find and kill the predator before more people are killed. They soon catch a glimpse of what they are going up against and they quickly realize that they are going to need a bigger boat.
No matter how tough you think you are, Jaws, which is based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, has at least one moment that will send you flying out of your seat. Yes, it is a rollercoaster ride caught on film but Spielberg keeps us on our toes for the entire runtime of the film. He is aided by the iconic score by John Williams, which adds to the stomach-knotting tension found woven through Jaws. I dare you not to jump when you get your first good look at the aquatic beast that rears up to show off its pearly white fangs. You’d be lying if you said your pulse didn’t quicken when Brody, who is well aware a shark killed the girl, sits helplessly on the beach while people pour into the water for a cool-off. Each playful shriek has Brody inching closer to the edge of his beach chair. I guarantee that you mimic him each time you watch the film. All of this suspense is aided by the fact that we don’t see the shark until more than halfway through the film and this glimpse is one of those reveals where if you blink, you’ll miss it. By keeping the monster off screen, our imagination runs wild with, “How big is the shark?” “What does it look like?” “Are our heroes equipped to do battle with this monster?” Between the score, the concealment of the shark, and the slowly rising tension, Spielberg crafts a film that still sends people fleeing from it to this day while the brave ones who remain scream their heads off.
While Jaws may be a big budget studio picture, Spielberg refuses to dumb the entire project down and treat us like blithering idiots. Jaws is eager to address the Watergate scandal, which the country was still trying to wrap their heads around at the time. Tricky Dick’s resignation was still fresh in the mind of most American citizens and the fear that we may not even be able to trust our own leaders is touched upon in Jaws. Throughout the first half of the film, the honest everyman Brody is pitted against Mayor Larry Vaughan (Played by Murray Hamilton), a liar done up in flashy suits who jumps on television to reassure the edgy tourists that there is nothing to fear in the waters of Amity. He breathlessly tells Brody that he can’t close the beaches down because the citizens of the area depend on the money that the tourists bring in. As the body count racks up, the slippery politician is caught up in his fib that everything is okay and out of disgrace, he allows Brody to hire Quint to track down the shark. The film uses Vaughan’s dishonesty to infuse the film with some stinging grief that really sticks with the viewer. The mother of one of the victims approaches Brody and scolds him for opening the beaches when he was aware that there was a shark in the water. This confrontation shakes Brody to his core and his character is never the same again. He seems quieter and a bit dazed as a result, seeking refuge in a bottle of wine.
When Jaws isn’t making us feel Brody’s pain, Spielberg is allowing us to really get up close and personal with the three different protagonists. Middle class Brody wanted to escape the violence of New York and live a peaceful life only to stumble into more violence where he least expected to find it. His reveal is most certainly a reflection of the violence that America was still trying to recover from throughout the 70’s. Quint is a blue-collar WWII veteran who likes to poke fun at Hooper, who has a college degree and happens to be wealthy. The group bickers with one another and they have a hard time working together at first but they are able to put aside their difference over drinks and lengthy explanations about past experiences. Quint and Hooper, who butt heads the most, are able to level with each other by comparing their scars, first physically and then psychologically. Quint’s reveal is the standout, a deeply disturbing account of being stranded in shark infested waters at the tail end of World War II. Then, to celebrate their understanding, they engage in drinking and singing, only to be yanked away from bonding by their aquatic nemesis. This bonding sequence happens to be one of my favorite scenes in the film. I love it when Spielberg cuts to the outside of the boat and up pops our antagonist, a common enemy for the uncommon trio.
Perhaps one of the most influential thrillers next to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (my professor’s favorite film), Jaws hits gold with its equal parts action, adventure, horror, thrills, and comedy, all while giving us three characters we grow to deeply care about. Unlike Spielberg’s later work, Jaws doesn’t have such a happy ending to soothe us. He is bold enough to kill off one of the protagonists, a shock to someone who is only familiar with his projects that came in the wake of Jaws. He also doesn’t shy away from graphic violence, a staple that was immensely popular in the horror films of the 1970’s. To say that Jaws isn’t a classic film worthy of study just because it was the film that “invented” the summer blockbuster and was heavily marketed by the studio is ridiculous. While marketing Psycho, Hitchcock used a gimmick that forbid anyone into the theater once the film had started. This gimmick is okay but the marketing for Jaws was a major crime? Maybe I’m the only one who sees something wrong with that argument. Jaws remains one of the best American movies ever made by a big Hollywood studio, one of the best thrillers of all time, and the quintessential summer blockbuster. An undisputed classic that will make you never want to visit the beach or go into the water again.
Jaws is available on DVD. It hits Blu-ray this August, a must purchase for any fan of cinema.
by Steve Habrat
If you find yourself being the type of person that can’t force yourself to sit down and watch a foreign art house film, you should really make an effort to start with and see Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo (The Bodyguard). Yes, there are subtitles in the film, so you will have to do a small bit of reading, but Yojimbo, which was the film that influenced Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, is such an entertaining film that you will find yourself forgetting that there are subtitles on the screen. Devoid of any off-putting pretension, Kurosawa puts more emphasis on limb-severing action and hearty comedy that will appeal to both average movie viewers and the art house crowd. A highly influential film, Yojimbo has been widely considered to be a true classic that finds its own influence in western cinema, creating a slightly surreal Japanese western that is ripe with dazzling black and white cinematography, packed camera shots, and some truly breathtaking showdowns that will leave you gasping.
Yojimbo follows a wandering, masterless samurai (Played by Toshiro Mifune) who happens upon a 19th century town that is caught in the middle of a war between two rival gangs. After dropping in to the local tavern, the elderly owner, Gonji (Played by Eijiro Tono), gives the samurai all the information about the rival crime bosses, Seibei (Played by Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Played by Kyu Sazanka). Gonji warns the samurai that he should leave the town before one of the gangs confront and kill him but seeing an opportunity to make a hefty chunk of change and a way to clean up the town, the samurai decides to stick around and devise a way to trick the gangs in to destroying each other. After infiltrating one of the gangs by displaying how skilled he is with a samurai sword, he sets his plan in motion but certain members of both gangs begin to suspect that he is not simply interested in aligning himself with one specific gang.
For the individuals out there who are fond of cinematography, the resplendent whites and the charcoal blacks from cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa and Takao Saito are an absolute must-see and perhaps my favorite aspect of Yojimbo. The film, which was made in 1961, has such a sharp, luminous picture that I absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes. For any film fan, the picture here will certainly have you dying to go out and pick up the Bu-ray for maximum picture quality. Complimenting this masterful cinematography is hack-and-slash action that sends a severed arm flying here and buckets of flowing blood there. The best “ewww” moment comes when a mangy dog trots through the streets up to the samurai carrying a severed hand in his dingy mouth. It comes as such a shock to the viewer that it becomes a combination of funny and appalling. The fight scenes in Yojimbo suddenly explode across the screen—a technique that catches the viewer off guard at first and then is suddenly over just as quickly as it began. This is a method that Leone would apply in his slow building gunfights that would begin and end in a loud crack in each and every one of his sweaty westerns.
While Yojimbo is impressive with its camerawork and white-knuckle action, Kurosawa doesn’t ever forget to keep you laughing and rallying behind our masterless samurai, who consistently toys with each gang. Yojimbo is a highly comical film, especially when the two gangs decide to go head to head in the deserted streets. Each gang has members who brag about how fearless they are and how feared they should be. When our hero approaches one gang, three young gang members approach him and boast how dangerous they are. Our hero chuckles in their faces and calls them cute, enraging them enough to have them draw their swords and lunge at the cool, calm, and collected hero. In a flurry of gore, the dangerous criminals are reduced to blubbering babies crying for their mothers. Yojimbo plays with this constantly, offering the audience hot-headed tough guys who are quickly revealed to be cowards who run off to their stern and commanding mothers (I think the women in Yojimbo are scarier than the men are!). It is a gag that constantly grabs a few belly laughs, especially the scene where the two gangs charge each other in the streets and then retreat back to their lines only to charge again and then flee. While all the charging and fleeing is going on, Mifune represents the audience, sitting back and howling at all the cowardice that has been revealed.
Mifune is an actor who is in complete control of each and every scene, playing the levelheaded hero who never seems to break a sweat, almost like all of this is second nature to him. Mifune’s samurai, who tells one gang leader that his name is Sanjuro Kuwabatake, is clearly the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s cigar chomping Man with No Name. Hell, at times, Sanjuro is seen chewing on what appears to be a cigar, further highlighting the impact. Another standout is Daisuke Kato as the vile Inokichi, Ushitora’s dim, overweight brother who adds a few more laughs to all the action scurrying about the town and speaking through bucked teeth. Tono’s Gonji is another lovable character as the elderly tavern owner who doesn’t want trouble and reluctantly aids Sanjuro in his quest to clean up the streets. Isuzu Yamada is a nasty piece of work as Orin, Seibei’s wife who hovers over her husband’s brothel and takes control when Seibei is too afraid to. Tatsuya Nakadai shows up as Unosuke, Ushitora’s youngest sibling who carries a pistol and nabs the film’s coolest battle with Sanjuro, who attacks the gunfighter with nothing but a sword and dagger.
While Yojimbo’s plot gets a little too thin at times, there is never a tedious moment to be found in Kurosawa’s western. There is something for everyone in Yojimbo, from the people who are looking for a love-reunited story all the way to those who just want to see a fearless hero cut his way through countless bad guys. Yojimbo has been caught in the shadow of Leone’s equally entertaining spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars but I think both films are equal in their eminence. As far as I’m concerned, both films are classics in their own right and their impact on cinema is quite clear. Overall, Yojimbo is a flawless action film that will keep the audience on its toes from beginning to end and one hell of a significant action hero. A must-see foreign classic with incredibly wide reach and appeal. How can you deny a film that contains the line “I’m not dying yet! There’s a bunch of guys I have to kill first!”
Yojimbo is available of Blu-ray and DVD.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
by Steve Habrat
The first pairing between director Tim Burton and versatile actor Johnny Depp would become one of their most beloved collaborations in the years the duo have been working together. The 1990 gothic fairy tale Edward Scissorhands is a fragile and enchanting bedtime story that seems to come from a personal place within Burton himself. Over the years, Edward Scissorhands has climbed the classic film ranks as it seems to gain more and more popularity as the years pass and new generations are introduced to it. While a wide audience sticks by Burton’s tale, the film has really resonated with the Hot Topic goth crowd. It’s easy to see why they love the film, as it follows a soft-spoken misfit who is encouraged to mingle with conformist suburbia where he is at first viewed as an alluring oddity and then is quickly misunderstood. Edward Scissorhands also features a tender love story, one that ends in a cracked heart but also happens to be vaguely romantic in its longing. The film is also incredibly memorable for Depp’s performance as shy recluse who is inquisitive of the world around him, a world he has never ventured out to explore.
Edward Scissorhands ushers us into candy colored suburbia where we meet local Avon saleswoman Peg Boggs (Played by Dianne Wiest) who has a heart of gold. While going door to door, she makes her way up to a seemingly abandoned mansion where she stumbles upon a shy young man cowering in the shadows. It turns out that this shy young lad is Edward Scissorhands (Played by Johnny Depp), who Peg manages to coax out and interact with. She notices that his face is horribly scared and that his hands are made out of scissors. Noticing that he is alone in the dilapidated mansion, Peg encourages Edward to come home with her and to meet her family. Upon arriving, Edward meets Peg’s husband Bill (Played by Alan Arkin), her young son Kevin (Played by Robert Oliveri), and her beautiful teenage daughter Kim (Played by Winona Ryder), who Edward quickly falls in love with. Peg begins to introduce Edward to the rest of the curious neighborhood, who quickly discover his stunning artistic talents. It turns out that Edward is a master at hedge trimming and hair cutting, making him an instant hit of the neighborhood. Soon, Edward meets Kim’s boyfriend Jim (Played by Anthony Michael Hall), who refuses to warm up to Edward. Edward also finds himself being seduced by the sultry neighbor Joyce (Played by Kathy Baker), who after being rejected by the nervous Edward, accuses him of trying to rape her. The neighborhood soon grows suspicious of terrified Edward and they begin attempting to run him out of the neighborhood.
Edward Scissorhands is such a joy to watch because we get to see Edward exploring a world that he never knew existed. It’s a delight to see him interacting with a waterbed, a mirror, and whatever else he happens to come in contact with. A scene where he attempts to eat peas is a pure “awwwwe” moment. He warms your heart with his attempts to fit in with the neighborhood. He is unassuming and always has a sheepish smile for the eccentric housewives who flock around him. He is even more intriguing because he never has too much to say and he lets his twinkling eyes do most of the talking. Credit the talented Depp, who says so much with just his movement. When he cuts hair and trims hedges, his face contorts with extreme focus and confidence but when he wanders around the neighborhood, that confidence dries up and in its place is uncertainty and wonder. In my opinion, Depp makes this film the heartwarming tale that it is.
Director Burton, who is working with a script by Caroline Thompson, allows his interest in Vincent Price and classic horror films to find a place in Edward Scissorhands. Vincent Price has a cameo in the film as a lonely inventor who creates Edward but dies of a heart attack before he is able to finish Edward’s hands. When the film is wandering the halls of the mansion, Burton relentlessly tips his hat to films like 1931’s Frankenstein and the Hammer horror films that he loved as a kid. The film also happens to be about a misfit loner artist who is misunderstood by the conservative suburbia, who only seem to accept him when they are benefitting from his talent. Even the character of Edward seems to be a haven for both Burton and Depp, a misunderstood outcast who is tormented by Kim’s jock boyfriend. In many respects, the world that Edward comes from seems much more normal and disciplined unlike the circus that is suburbia. Burton twists this suburbia into a day-glo world of routine and ennui, a place where many take comfort in gossip and empty pampering, nothing that is ever truly fulfilling.
Edward Scissorhands also finds a strong supporting cast, especially Ryder as the sympathetic Kim. Kim begins to find herself hypnotized and attracted to this peculiar young man and rejecting the obnoxious jerk that mistreats her. Her performance is absolutely magnetic. Wiest shines as the kindhearted Peg who sticks by Edward until the very end, becoming a motherly figure to poor Edward. Her patience and grace are absolutely stunning. Arkin is comical in the role of a dry husband who does his very best to connect with Edward even if that connection is a weak one. A scene in which they share a drink is absolutely hilarious, especially Edward’s reaction to the alcohol. Baker as the dishonest housewife Joyce who accuses Edward of rape is a despicable individual as is Hall’s aggressive Jim, who is equally terrible to the naive Edward. The dark horse here is the briefly seen Price as the inventor that builds Edward. The few scenes in which we get to see his radiant love for Edward is the strongest part of Edward Scissorhands and the ones that hit the hardest.
Tragic and sweet, Edward Scissorhands does have a handful of dark and sinister moments that are a staple of Burton’s work. You can try to resist the film all you want but there are moments that will charm you whether you like it or not. Like any good fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands lures us back to its magical world again and again to make us feel all warm and fuzzy from it’s fish out of water story. The film proves that there was magic to be found when you pair up Burton with Depp, as it leaves us ravenous for another collaboration from the unconventional duo. Overall, Edward Scissorhands stands as one of Burton’s strongest efforts and one of Depp’s best performances to date. If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to step into the wondrously gothic world and get to know Edward Scissorhands. A true marvel in every sense of the word.
Edward Scissorhands is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
by Steve Habrat
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II could very well be one of the greatest sequels ever made. I hesitate to say the greatest because I still favor the 1972 original slightly more than I do the 1974 follow up. Yet Coppola doesn’t just make a sequel for the sake of making one and getting another paycheck. The Godfather Part II has purpose and it actually enriches the story that was told in the first film. By giving us more of the characters that we only briefly saw in The Godfather and whipping up an absorbing back-story for Vito Corleone, The Godfather Part II actually ends up being more epic in the way it dances from Corleone, Sicily to Lake Tahoe, Nevada all the way to Havana, Cuba. The Godfather Part II turns out to be much darker and moodier than the 1972 original, all the characters barely visible in all the shadows cast in this sordid world of crime. The film also continues to explore loyalty to family and the ugly side of the American Dream, cutting much deeper than they did the first time and turning The Godfather Part II into a sullen tragedy that would have wrapped thing up perfectly.
The Godfather Part II balances two storylines this time around and piles on even more characters that we are supposed to follow. The first storyline is the background of Vito Corleone (Played by Robert DeNiro), how he made it from Sicily to New York and his rise to power in the criminal underworld. The second plotline follows Michael Corleone (Played by Al Pacino), who has fully embraced his role as the uncompromising head of the family business. Michael is looking to move into the gambling industry and has started negotiating business deals with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Played by Lee Strasberg). After two hit men try to assassinate Michael in his Lake Tahoe compound, Michael begins to suspect that there is a mole hiding within the family and he is determined to seek him out. Michael leaves his compound and leaves consigliere Tom Hagen (Played by Robert Duvall) to watch over his wife Kay (Played by Diane Keaton) and his two children. Michael then begins his business with Roth even though he is met with protests from Frankie Pentangeli (Played by Michael V. Gazzo), who took over the Corleone family territory in New York after comporegime Peter Clemenza’s death. As the business becomes more and more dangerous, Michael finds that his wife and children are slipping away from him and his family is falling apart.
The Godfather Part II digs deeper into the idea of prosperity and everything that comes along with the American Dream. Coppola and returning screenwriter Mario Puzo suggest that corruption and deceit are everywhere, making the viewer question if there is any honesty in America itself. A side character, Senator Pat Geary (Played by G.D. Spradlin), speaks of his dislike for the Corleone family right to Michael’s face at his son’s First Communion, which takes place near the beginning of the film. He attempts to stand up to Michael but later finds himself bullied into cooperation with the Corleone’s. Coppolla and Puzo portrayed Michael as the most honest member of the Corleone family in the original film but here, Michael has become even more monstrous than we could have ever imagined. His father’s office was shady and ominous, but there were still hints of warmth within it. Michael’s is even darker and downright intimidating, Michael himself barely visible as he sits in an arm chair and listens to his sister Connie (Played by Talia Shire) beg for more money. All the good that Michael possessed has crawled away. We also see Vito embrace a life of crime, fleeing from Sicily to escape the clutches of a ruthless gangster only to find himself back in it in America. At first, Vito starts out trying to make an honest living but that quickly evaporates when he is suddenly thrust into the criminal underworld. He doesn’t put up much of a fight to not get sucked all the way in.
The Godfather Part II does leave the viewer in a crumpled heap by the end of its three-hour plus runtime. The film is a tragedy, a family falling apart from lies, secrets, and neglect. Kay announces that she plans to leave Michael, who slumps in armchairs and stares into space. We question if Michael really even feels anything for Kay or if he only keeps her around to provide him with heirs for the family business. Michael also begins to see his older brother Fredo turn on him, bitter that he has been passed over in the family business and waved off as a fool. The Godfather Part II maintains its tragedy through the tainting of Vito and Michael, both who had promising futures but chose to throw it all away. Further tragic is the way that Michael alienates his family members, intimidating them and pushing them around. He’s a far throw from the soft-spoken war hero that we saw at the beginning of The Godfather.
Both Coppola and Puzo water their characters and then watch them grow in The Godfather Part II. Michael is fully engulfed by the demons he so desperately wanted to bottle up, transforming into a vile piece of humanity every time he walks into frame. While this is Pacino’s show, DeNiro gives a discreetly powerful performance as the young Vito Corleone. What I absolutely love about DeNiro’s performance is that he becomes almost transparent when he studies the ways of the criminals around him. We can see him absorb the knowledge on how to manipulate and con his way to the top. I found it incredible the way that DeNiro allowed us to see the wheels turning. Strap yourself in because Vito has explosive violent rages, ones that come when you least expect them to. I also enjoyed John Cazale as Michael’s older brother Fredo, a hotshot wannabe who puts his foot in his mouth and who is unable to stand up for himself. Fredo is a pathetic soul who has a heart of gold underneath the flashy suits. Diane Keaton is also given more room here to prove herself as Kay. When her rage and disgust with Michael pours out and she reveals a secret that she has kept from Michael, you will simultaneously feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach and have goosebumps.
The Godfather Part II does run a bit long and the amount of ground that is covered is almost exhausting. The understandable absence of Marlon Brando is what knocks The Godfather Part II down just a peg for me. I still find the film absolutely flawless, from the technical aspects all the way down to the background performers, but I just miss his character so much. DeNiro does pad the blow of his absence and he gives one of the finest performances of his career. I do favor this installment’s darker tone over the originals and the original is a pretty gloomy film to begin with. Given the length, Coppola does divvy up the action expertly and never allows the film sag, making the film incredibly consistent. Much like The Godfather, The Godfather Part II is an undisputed classic in the cinema realm, earning just as much respect as the original, if not more. Many consider this to be even better than the original and I can understand why, with the plot thickening and its emotionally draining climax. Heavier than the original, with intensity and pessimism to spare, The Godfather Part II is a spectacular follow up, a true testament to epic filmmaking and storytelling.
The Godfather Part II is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Godfather (1972)
by Steve Habrat
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 gangster epic The Godfather is without question one of the greatest films ever made. It’s so easy to see why so many people list this film in their top five films of all time. Not one frame of The Godfather seems like filler or like Coppola was having an off day when he made this flawless masterpiece. There is not one moment in the film where your eyes will wander from the screen or you will become antsy from its nearly three hour run time. It’s an absolutely riveting and extraordinary masterpiece, a harsh examination of family, loyalty, and the dark side of the American Dream. Incredibly influential, it laid the groundwork for the modern gangster dramas that trickle out from Hollywood every now and then, all secretly hoping that they may be the one that bests Coppola’s juggernaut. If you are someone who admires cinema, wishes to study the medium, or someone who works within it, The Godfather is a must-see film for both the technicalities and the story structure of Mario Puzo’s screenplay, which is based on Puzo’s own novel. If you are someone who is an acting buff, the film is a must-see for Marlon Brando’s legendary performance as Vito Corleone, the slurring Don who lurks in the shadows behind a desk and makes offers his victims cannot refuse. Hell, if you walk this earth and call yourself a human being, The Godfather should be required viewing.
The Godfather introduces us to Don Vito Corleone (Played by Marlon Brando), the head of a powerful organized crime family in 1945 New York. When an up and coming rival Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Played by Al Lettieri), who is backed by the Tattaglia crime family, comes to the Don for political and legal protection for his drug business, the Don refuses and voices his dislike for the drug importing business. Sollozzo and the Tattaglia family retaliate by attempting to kill the Don and several other affiliates of the Corleones but they only manage to severely wounding him. His loyal sons all rush to his side and his vicious eldest son Sonny (Played by James Caan) takes over the family business while the Don recovers. The Don’s beloved son Michael (Played by Al Pacino), a war hero who has just returned home from service in World War II, reluctantly begins helping the family and ends up lashing out against those responsible for the hit on his father. The reprisal sparks a deadly gang war that sends Michael into hiding along with his younger brother Fredo (Played by John Cazale), but as the war takes more lives and enemies of the Corleones close in, Michael realizes that he must return to protect his father and take over the family business.
The Godfather has a thick plot with quite a bit going happening on the side. Coppola introduces us to several characters throughout the epic runtime and at certain moments, the almost three hour runtime doesn’t seem long enough to cover all the ground that Coppola and Puzo need to. The film, however, isn’t impossible to follow and its accessibility adds to the allure of it. Coppola wins back viewers because there are so many characters; a second viewing is almost necessary just to put faces with names. You are left wanting more from secondary characters like the Corleone’s enforcer Luca Brazia (Played by Lenny Montana), Corleone’s godson Johnny Fontane (Played by Al Martino), the Don’s daughter Connie (Played by Talia Shire), her husband Carlo (Played by Gianni Russo), and the Don’s consigliere Tom Hagen (Played by Robert Duvall). There is also the detour to Sicily that Michael takes where he meets the beautiful Apollonia (Played by Simonetta Stefanelli), who we only see for a brief time.
The technical aspects of The Godfather add to its place in cinema history, a film that is packed with moody lighting, incredible set pieces, a lush trip to Sicily, and rich performances that have become legendary. Throughout most of the film, the characters sit in darkened rooms, offices, and dens, shrouded in shadows with only portions of their faces visible in an amber glow. This dark color palette Coppola uses when the mobsters meet behind closed doors compliments the shadowy subject matter that he is exploring. While the cinematography is grainy in comparison to what we have today, the film avoids looking dated due to being a period film. The set pieces never seem boastful or too grandiose, just subtle enough to let us know that we have taken a trip back in time. Most period films slip in minor showy details to remind you that you are watching a period film but The Godfather is an exception. The flashiest thing in The Godfather is some of the cars that you will see either parked or driven around. Coppola also scores points by taking a scenic journey to Sicily, waltzing through the peaceful and verdant countryside, giving us a slight break from all the paranoia and suspicion that is threaded through the film, but even this trip isn’t airtight.
The most memorable aspect of The Godfather is the performances by the two main actors. Marlon Brando is at his absolute best when he is making offers that can’t be refused. There is a moment halfway through the film when he calls a meeting with the other heads of the five rival families after the murder of someone very close to him. Slurring through Puzo’s silky dialogue, Brando shines brighter and brighter as the scene goes on. He lectures about his loss, his conservative perspective, and his readiness to forgive and move on from the pain that plagues him. It is without question my favorite Brando scene in the entire film. Pacino also checks in with a haunting metamorphosis from a disinterested son who is the apple of his father’s eye into a brooding, chilly, and obdurate gangster. The Don wants something better for his war hero son but he is inevitably drug down into the seedy underworld full of deceit and betrayal. Puzo and Coppola understand that this metamorphosis wouldn’t occur in the blink of an and they don’t demand that it does. Coppola lets his camera sit on Michael, allowing Pacino’s eyes to convey the deterioration of his morality and his soul.
The Godfather isn’t simply a bullet riddled gangster film. The film is a complicated study of family and loyalty, understanding that loyalty is far from a straightforward path. The Corleone family wants so much more for Michael but he gives up an honest life to keep the family business together. The further in he gets, the easier it is for him to embrace darkness. He will kill for this family, to protect them and uphold their name. The film also exposes the dark side of the American Dream, pulling it up like a rock that has been stuck in the dirt, exposing the worms and filth that lurk underneath. The American Dream, which consists of prosperity and success, isn’t obtained by always playing nice and to keep all that comes with the American Dream, you won’t always be able to play fair. It is virtually impossible to find anything wrong with The Godfather and it is completely deserving of its place near the top of the greatest works in cinema. There a few films in the history of motion pictures that are pitch perfect, without one misstep or questionable choice, that continues to stand the test of time. The Godfather is one of those films.
The Godfather is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
by Steve Habrat
It’s a Wonderful Life ranks as one of my favorite films of all time. I fell in love with this film many, many years ago, allowing it to both carve a sweet spot out in my heart, but also finding it to be one of the most heartfelt movies I have ever laid my eyes on. I adore everything from the good-old-boy performance from James Stewart to the small town setting of the film. Doesn’t that town just feel so homey? Hell, even our contributor Charles Beall, who resides near Seneca Falls, sent me a photo of the famed bridge where George Bailey tries to end it all, the bridge all decked out and trimmed with Christmas lights. While the film’s message of savoring everything that surrounds us and using the backdrop of Christmas still resonates today, this is a sturdy production with sharp direction, bountiful sets, and a surprising romanticism that fails to be matched (“Do you want the moon, Mary?”). It still wows me that this film was made in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Hollywood was embracing film noir and grittier pictures rather than fantastic productions, as the world had seen the epitome of evil and destruction first hand during the war. And yet the pains of real life do hang over It’s a Wonderful Life, as suicide, hopelessness, and desperation all come up, it’s all handled with a compassionate sanguinity from director Frank Capra. Capra makes us feel George’s heart and soul breaking, and we fear he may be lost, but surprisingly, it’s not the religious tones that oddly lift the picture up and allow it to really soar. It’s George’s heart of gold.
George Bailey (Played by the marvelous Stewart) is a real stand-up guy, one who will go above and beyond for the people he loves and stand up to those who bully. After the sudden and tragic death of his father, George finds himself taking over his father’s business, Bailey Building and Loan Association. While George had dreams and aspirations to go off to college and travel the world, the board of directors beg him to stay and run the family company to keep it out of the hands of the ruthless and leering Henry F. Potter (Played by Lionel Barrymore), a majority shareholder in the company who rejects giving home loans to the lower class workers of Seneca Falls. Potter desperately pleads with the board of directors to put an end to this but George consistently stands up to Potter. On the night that his father dies, George was wooing the beautiful Mary (Played by Donna Reed), who has liked him ever since he was a boy. George also had to watch as his brother Harry (Played by Todd Karns) goes off to college and gets married. George finally marries Mary, but finds himself sacrificing the honeymoon to keep the Building and Loan from collapse.
World War II soon erupts and Harry is drafted into the army as a fighter pilot and ends up being a war hero. George cannot enlist due to a bad ear, an accident from his childhood, so he stays in his hometown to hold down the Building and Loan. On Christmas Eve, George’s Uncle Billy (Played by Thomas Mitchell) is on his way to make a deposit of $8,000 for the company when he bumps into Potter. Uncle Billy shows Potter a newspaper headline that says Harry has won the Medal of Honor. When Potter takes the newspaper, he finds the $8,000 hidden inside and keeps the money for himself. A frantic search breaks out to find the money and George finds himself at the mercy of Potter, who refuses to give him a loan to save the company. Potter then promises to have George arrested for bank fraud. As George’s world crashes around him, he begins to contemplate suicide and right as he is about to end it all, a guardian angle appears named Clarence (Played by Henry Travers) and begins showing George what life would be like without him around. If Clarence can save George, he will earn his wings he has desperately been working for.
A cozy film, It’s a Wonderful Life presents George as such a likable guy, its damn near impossible to find a flaw in him. You find yourself wanting to reach through the screen and give George a big bear hug to reassure him everything will be just fine. Potter is the epitome of a vile antagonist, a man you can’t bring yourself to see any kindness in. It’s heart wrenching to watch George realize his fate as he begs to be spared by Potter. It’s moments like this that portray the realism that cinema was trying to achieve after the war but it also is perhaps my favorite sequence in the film. The scene is bitter, cruel, pathetic, and quite possibly one of the most charged sequences I have seen in a motion picture. Yet the film eases the tension the whimsical appearance of Clarence, who comes in the nick of time and adds a much needed dash of fantastic. The ending of the film reminds us of the magic in the air come Christmas, and how it puts a spell over all of us. That is, if you are willing to believe in magic.
The Christmas aspect of It’s a Wonderful Life enters only at the end of the film, which may leave some who have never seen it to question why this is such a popular holiday film, but it is the spirit of kindness and giving that solidifies it’s place in holiday movie history. The way George Bailey lives his life, as a kind and warm soul, willing to go the extra mile, is a mentality that many of us only embrace around the holidays. What would happen if we embraced that attitude all the time? Why should it only be limited to the Christmas season? If only we could all be like George every day of the year. It’s his past actions that ultimately save his life by the end of the film, rather than Clarence, who is only there to provide examples.
Capra begins the film with a hand turning pages in an old story book and he molds it into an ethereal bedtime story for all ages. He does a hell of a job with the snow caked scenes at the end of this film, scenes that especially seem like they could have been ripped out of that old story book, sometimes so detailed they almost seem like a painting. I dare you to watch the scene of George Bailey running through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, Christmas lights and artificial bells strung across the streets and trees, calling out “MERRY CHRISTMAS” and not help but think that would make a perfect Christmas card graphic or painting. Even though the film is shot in black and white, it remains eternal despite some dated dialogue. The film circumvents the cookie-cutter religious preaching and becomes a beacon of hope in humanity itself. Every time I see It’s a Wonderful Life, I swell with happiness and hope that kindness will reign supreme in the hearts and souls of every human being. With not one performance slacking and not one scene out of place, it’s a rare work of art that defines excellence. It really is the perfect film to watch with a mug of hot chocolate in hand, Christmas tree glowing bright, and snow quietly drifting down outside from the night sky. Who am I kidding? It’s the perfect film to watch anytime.
It’s a Wonderful Life is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.