Anti-Film School Recommends These Films…
Killing Them Softly (2012)
For the second week in a row, there are some new Blu-rays that just have to be in your growing movie collection. First up, we have Steven Spielberg’s breathtaking Lincoln, a biopic that resists all the trappings of the biopic genre. While it is a must-own for the Academy Award winning performance from Daniel Day Lewis, grab up the four disc set which includes such features as a Making Of documentary, a look at how Daniel Day Lewis jumped into the role of Honest Abe, and a look at the marvelous period detail of the film, to name a few. In addition to Lincoln, we also have the brutal gangster thriller Killing Them Softly, one of the most underrated films of 2012. While the political commentary may have turned most viewers off, this a seriously startling and unforgettable piece of filmmaking that made my list of the 10 best films of 2012 (Lincoln was also on there!). The Blu-ray of Killing Them Softly comes with a handful of deleted scenes and a Making Of documentary. If you wish to read the Anti-Film School review of Lincoln, click here, and if you wish to check out the Killing Them Softly review, click here. If you want to see where each fell on the 10 best films of 2012 list, click here.
-Theater Management (Steve)
We Own the Night (2007)
by Steve Habrat
The crime drama is a tough genre for a director and screenwriter to take a crack at. The genre is hopelessly enamored by loyalty, honor, and betrayal, all which have been done to death by this point. The last truly refreshing take on the genre was Martin Scorsese’s 2006 gangster epic The Departed, which was a beast of a picture that snagged Best Picture at the Oscars. The following year, director James Gray released We Own the Night, a period crime drama that tried to ride the wave of The Departed. Sadly, We Own the Night doesn’t make a tiny chip in The Departed but that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have aspects that one can admire. Slower and tighter, We Own the Night never really becomes a white knuckler due to some clichés that are just unforgivable but this grimy tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law will actually manage to disturb you ever so slightly. The film also boasts a knockout performance from Joaquin Phoenix as nightclub manager Bobby Green, a shaky tough guy who wears the mask of cool like a professional. It is a haunted performance that isn’t easily shaken once you have walked away from We Own the Night and it single handedly makes the film worth your while. If you are not interested in Phoenix, see the film for its kick-in-the-head violence that actually manages to wipe away some of the glamour that Hollywood has attached to onscreen nastiness.
We Own the Night begins in November 1988, on the mean streets of New York City, where crime runs rampant. The law is nearly powerless as the criminals snicker at the police’s futile attempts to clean up the streets. It is in the thick of the crime that we meet Bobby Green (Played by Phoenix), a nightclub manager who enjoys doing blow in the company of his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada Juarez (Played by Eva Mendes). Life is good for Bobby and the future promises to be even better but soon, his father, police Deputy Chief Bert Grusinsky (Played by Robert Duvall) and his brother, Captain Joseph Grusinsky (Played by Mark Wahlberg), warn Bobby that the owner of Bobby’s club, Marat Buzhayev (Played by Moni Moshonov), may be involved in smuggling drugs into the United States. After someone close to Bobby is gunned down by a Russian hitman, Bobby decides to become an informant for the police even though he has worked hard to keep his family’s ties to the law a secret. This leads to the capture of Vadim Nezhinski (Played by Alex Veadov), the nephew of Buzhayev. Just when Bobby thinks everything is back to normal, Nezhinski escapes from jail and vows to find Bobby and kill him.
Much heavier on the drama than the thrills, We Own the Night may not please those who are hoping for tons of shoot-em-up action. Sure, there are a few action scenes to speak of, all of which are tense and in your face. A raid on a drug house has some of the most stomach churning violence you are ever likely to see in a mainstream Hollywood film. It is pretty vicious to say the least and I actually liked this aspect of the film. All I will say is that the raid features some truly nasty scenes of people getting shot in the head. Another scene finds Bobby and Amada caught in a terrifying car chase in a heavy downpour. I never thought that a Hollywood car chase would make the hair on my arm stand up but We Own the Night has changed that. It helps that there is absolutely no music to tell us how to feel. It is just gunshots, shattering glass, and screaming, all which fry your nerves relentlessly. It ended up being my favorite sequence in the entire film. The rest of the film is a slow burner, one that hits you with thorny family relations. It is about Bobby trying to mend his relationship with his firm father and his brother who thinks the world of their father. It is these scenes that resonated the most with me, even if I was reminded about other, better crime dramas that dealt with complicated family relations and tensions (I’m looking at your, Godfather).
While aspects of the script may not stand out, the performances cover up some of the familiarity within We Own the Night. Phoenix is the one who really brings his A-game and knocks it out of the park. You are drawn to him from the get go and he refuses to let you pull away. He is almost always silky smooth, even when he is higher than a kite while his father lectures him about his lifestyle. When he explodes into rage, take cover. While he isn’t a cold-blooded gangster, he sure as hell isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Wahlberg plays largely the same role that he did in The Departed but here he is a bit watered down. He is more family man than hothead with a mouth that would make a sailor blush. Duvall is his usual tip-top self, another veteran of the organized crime genre. Here he plays the determined good guy who is a little past his prime. I sometimes think he saw the clumsiness in the script but he rolls with punches gracefully. Mendes is the one without real purpose as she just acts as the sex appeal while the boys all flex the masculine muscle. Then there are the two Russian bad guys who are your typical gangsters who make lots of threats. They won’t make much of an impression on you.
We Own the Night also has some gritty set design and wardrobe detail to really yank you out of the present. We Own the Night does find a nippy chill of unease slowly circling the edges of the action but it never engulfs the film fully. When this film is good, it is really, really good but when it is average, it is really, really average. The film is never flat out bad, but it just stinks of a paint-by-numbers approach. This causes the two-hour runtime to really drag its feet at points, which had me checking my watch one or two times. Still, I was mesmerized by how much dedication Phoenix pours into this project and I applaud him for it. He comes out on top and leaves even the veteran Duvall chewing on his dust. It leaves you wanting so much more from this guy! I really have a hard time understanding why every single crime drama that comes out wants to touch the sky. Only a small handful of them truly do while the rest come close but end up falling hard. With We Own the Night, Gray really tried to run with the big dogs but these mean streets belong to Scorsese and Coppola, two men who really know how to construct a crime drama. Gray is left just re-evaluating his approach to the genre and thinking of more ways to impress the ones who rule this genre with an iron fist.
We Own the Night is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Godfather Part III (1990)
by Steve Habrat
The Godfather Part III is widely regarded as the weakest installment in The Godfather trilogy. Many aim their blame at the performance from Sofia Coppola, director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, the fact that the film doesn’t operate as a stand-alone piece, or at the simple fact that the film doesn’t provide a satisfying wrap up to the gangster epic that began in 1972. Many of the major themes are still in tact (The American Dream, family loyalty, corruption, etc.) but I think the film just simply doesn’t tell a story that is as engaging as 1972’s The Godfather or 1974’s The Godfather Part II. In my humble opinion, I think things were properly wrapped up in The Godfather Part II, the film ending with Michael’s vicious hold on the family deteriorating into tragedy. While I don’t think The Godfather Part III holds up to the greatness of the first two films, I still believe that the film is good on its own terms, which I know is odd because the final installment leans so heavily on the events of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Coppola and returning screenwriter Mario Puzo make a film that thinks even bigger than the first two films, stretching the events out and getting a little bit too implausible for its own good.
The Godfather Part III picks up in 1979, where a graying Michael Corleone (Played by Al Pacino) is being named a Commander of the Order of St. Sebastian at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City. At a celebration after the event, Michael is reunited with his ex-wife Kay (Played by Diane Keaton), who informs Michael that his son Anthony (Played by Franc D’Ambrosio) wants to drop out of law school and pursue a career as an opera singer. Michael is upset by the decision and wishes that he would either remain in law school or join the family business. Michael, who is still desperately trying to make the family business legitimate, is still haunted by the death of his brother Fredo. Michael also finds himself confronted by his late brother Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent Mancini (Played by Andy Garcia), who wants in on the family business and wants Michael to settle a spat between him and Joey Zasa (Played by Joe Mantegna), who now handles the Corleone family’s criminal interests. Michael has been busying himself by buying up enough stock in International Immobiliare, which is an international real estate holding company. Michael becomes the biggest single shareholder and then looks to buy the Vatican’s 25% interest in the company. As the deal continues, the spat between Joey Zasa and Vincent becomes more and more deadly, pulling Michael back into the criminal underworld. After a brutal assassination attempt, Michael thinks that there may be trouble to be found in the Immobiliare deal.
The Godfather Part III has perhaps the most convoluted plotline of all the three films, which makes some stretches of the film slightly boring. This is disappointing because there wasn’t a slow moment to be found in the previous two entries. It is interesting to see how some of the remaining characters have progressed, mostly Michael’s sister Connie (Played by Talia Shire) and Kay, who has mixed emotions about Michael’s behavior and his ruthless control on the family. The biggest change can be found in Michael, who appears to have lost some of his coldness and embraced a warmer, generous heart. There are still brief flashes of the Michael in The Godfather Part II, but he is nowhere near as menacing as he once was. Coppola also removes some of the ominous feel, this film a bit brighter than the other installments. What has remained in tact is the epic reach of the film, jetting all over from New York City to Sicily and everywhere in between. The film also establishes a creepy love story between Vincent and Michael’s daughter Mary (Played by Sofia Coppola), who are first cousins but apparently are not bothered by this at all. The love story is my least favorite aspect of The Godfather Part III, at once completely unnecessary and incredibly out of place for this series.
Like the first two films, Coppola and Puzo pile on tons of characters that we need to pay attention to. The film introduces us to the vile Joey Zasa, who has turned Little Italy into a drug filled slum. We also meet Don Altobello (Played by Eli Wallach), a seemingly reasonable old man who has a dark side, Michael’s bodyguard Al Neri (Played by Richard Bright), Corleone family friend Don Tommasino (Played by Vittorio Duse), Archbishop Gilday (Played by Donal Donnelly), and powerful Italian political figure Don Licio Lucchesi (Played by Enzo Robutti), to name a few of the new characters. It times, it is almost impossible to keep track of all of them, but you will barely manage. We are really supposed to care about hotheaded Vincent, who is quickly rising to power within the Corleone family. While Garcia plays him with confident determination, at times, I really didn’t care much for his character and would have rather just stuck with Michael, who is facing deteriorating health and wishes to overcome his inner demons, which consistently plague him.
The Godfather Part III explores even further family loyalty, corruption, and the American Dream. With this installment, we learn that Michael has all the power and wealth he could ever dream of, but he still finds himself alienated from a good majority of his family. Apparently, Connie has come around and stands firmly beside her brother, at times even more vicious than he is. His son, Anthony, wishes to keep Michael and the family business as far away from him so he can and seek out an honest living. Yet The Godfather Part III firmly states that corruption is found in big business and yes, even the Vatican. This criminal underworld is like a parasite that has infected even the places that should never have been infected. Michael still voices that he wishes to make the family business legitimate and wash his hands of the mafia but this is easier said than done. Vincent also rejects trying to make an honest man of himself, firmly rejecting the idea all together and instead gleefully descending into the criminal underworld. The downside to the subtext of The Godfather Part III is that it gets a bit ludicrous and looses its subtlety. It is disappointing because this is territory that Puzo and Coppola have covered before and much more effectively at that.
The Godfather Part III is a well-made film and no one can really say otherwise. There are still solid performances to be found, but no one really rises above good and strives for greatness. No one here really challenges what Brando did in the first film and not even Pacino can match the unbearable intensity that he conveyed in Part II. Much has been made of Sofia Coppola’s polarizing performance as Mary but I personally didn’t find her all that bad. I think she is a victim of the subplot that she is thrown into, which is just there to add another layer of tragedy to a story that is already tragic enough. The cinematography is just as beautiful and Coppola can’t resist returning to Sicily to exploit that beautiful countryside and baroque architecture. The film plants here for almost half the runtime but I certainly was not complaining about this aspect. In the end, there is the feeling that all the events that are playing out are vaguely forced and empty, almost like they didn’t need to play out at all. I really liked the scenes with Kay and Michael and their attempts to patch up their relationship but I liked the way things were left in Part II. With the second installment, we knew that Michael was doomed by the suggestions of the final frame and there was really no need for Coppola and Puzo to drag things out further and then put it in bold print and italicize it.
The Godfather Part III 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.