Superman II (1980)
by Steve Habrat
If action fans were turned off by Richard Donner’s 1978 slow burner origin story Superman, they will find tons to enjoy in Richard Lester’s breathless action extravaganza Superman II, the controversial follow-up to the original film. Pitting the Man of Steel against the dreaded General Zod, a foe that possesses the same powers as Superman, Superman II manages to be more of a nail bitter than its predecessor by really putting Superman’s back against the skyscraper. Out of all the Superman films, Superman II has to be my favorite for how tense some of it can be. There are moments where you really think Supes isn’t going to make it out of this one alive, especially when General Zod teams up Lex Luthor. Superman II also features some really complex emotions, especially when it dives into the relationship between feisty news reporter Lois Lane and Superman/Clark Kent. Filmed simultaneously with Superman, it is said that Donner, who claimed to have made 75% of Superman II, quit working on this film because the studio pushed him to make it campier than the original, which led to Lester stepping in and finishing the film. Personally, I have always found this film to be a bit darker and lacking in the winks that were heavy in the first film, something that made me like Superman II even more.
Superman II begins with a quick flashback to the events in Superman, which began with wise Jor-El (Played by Marlon Brando) banishing three criminals by the names of General Zod (Played by Terence Stamp), Ursa (Played by Sarah Douglas), and Non (Played by Jack O’Halloran), into deep space just before the destruction of Krypton. He traps them in the Phantom Zone, a glass-like cube that spirals aimlessly through the galaxy. The film speeds ahead to present day with Superman (Played by Christopher Reeve) foiling a terrorist plot to destroy the Eiffel Tower. Supes discovers the terrorists have a hydrogen bomb in their clutches, which he quickly takes to space and detonates. The shock waves from the bomb destroy the Phantom Zone and free Zod and his cronies. The deadly trio soon arrives on earth, where they begin destroying anything in their path. Meanwhile Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Played by Margot Kidder) are on a business trip in Niagara Falls when Lois begins to suspect that Clark Kent is in fact Superman, given the fact that he is never around when Superman is swooping in to save the day. She is proven right and Superman learns that if he wishes to be with a mortal, he must be stripped of his powers and also live as a mortal. Soon, Superman learns of General Zod’s plot to enslave the human race and to make things worse, his arch nemesis Lex Luthor (Played by Gene Hackman) has broken out of prison and offers an alliance to General Zod.
Bigger, louder, faster, and stronger than Donner’s original film, Superman II has an epic final showdown that goes on for almost forty minutes in the streets of Metropolis. Everything that gets in between Superman and General Zod is crushed like a tin can. Cars tumble through the air and buildings are destroyed as Superman tries desperately to prevent Zod, Ursa, and Non from reducing Metropolis to ash. It is a lot of fun with some camp thrown in to keep things from getting too dark for children. To make things worse for Superman, Lex Luthor refuses to lend him a hand in trying to figure out a way to beat Zod, Luthor revealing every single trick Superman tries to use against the trio. He is basically on his own and that adds a lot of anxiety to Superman II. How does the Man of Steel beat three invincible foes with little regard for human life? Now that is one hell of a sequel if you ask me. Screenwriters Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Tom Mankiewicz work overtime to also give the love story a set of teeth. Things are not simple between Lois and Superman, at least not as easy as Superman first figures they are. Responsibility steps in between the couple and forces them to put their love on hold as Zod forces Superman to step out of retirement.
With the screenwriters taking Superman to new emotional heights, the cast is forced to add more depth to their characters. The darkness that crept into Superman’s heart of gold flares up again in smaller ways. He grapples with being stripped of his powers as a hulking bully in a diner roughs him up. He trembles with fear and embarrassment, the nerdy Clark Kent actually helpless for once. The tough Lois Lane finally loosens up a bit, especially when her theory that Clark Kent is Superman turns out to be right. I actually enjoyed that the filmmakers made her character suspect that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. I always thought it would be a cinch to spot the resemblance. The affection between Lois and Superman is out of this world when it is being fully addressed, especially when without hesitation, Superman declares that he is willing to be stripped of his powers so that he can be with the one that he loves. It’s a sweet romance that builds up to a finale of tears and hurt, something that still pierces even after having seen the film multiple times.
Superman II also comes loaded with four villains ready to lay waste to the Man of Steel. Hackman’s Lex Luthor doesn’t really show much growth outside of the reveal that he is a slight coward. He gravitates to whoever is on top at that particular moment. He seems present just to add a little bit more comic relief to the action and to keep the kids chuckling. It is said that when Donner left the film, he went with him, refusing to work for Lester. Then we have Stamp as the booming General Zod, who speaks in third person and promises anyone he meets that they will “kneel before Zod!” He is so evil that you will want to cheer when Superman shows up and asks him if he’d like to step outside to work out their differences, which is code for throwing a few punches at each other. Zod’s second in command Ursa is a sexy femme fatale who is loyal to her general until the very end. She may just be an enforcer but she still sends chills down your spine, especially her amused smirk as she butchers a group of astronauts. Rounding out the baddies is O’Halloran’s Non, a mute giant who is capable of more destruction than Luthor, Zod, and Ursa combined. He barrels at Superman in midflight and smashes through brick like it was a sheet of paper. The trio gets a fun little destruction free-for-all in a small town where they deflect flamethrowers and break missiles in half as a warm up before the battle for Metropolis.
Much like Superman, Superman II’s special effects are completely devoid of the wonder I’m sure they once possessed. Some of the battles are a bit flat as the actors bob around on wires that don’t allow them to move as quickly as they would like. Still, the moments where cars and buses crash through the streets of Metropolis hold up nicely, adding a wave of apocalyptic dread to the battle. Zod is capable of destruction that makes Luthor salivate, another aspect that is pretty neat to watch. Superman II is also loaded with barefaced jingoism that really fits the superhero that stands for “truth, honor, and American way”. The film fades out with Superman flying to the destroyed White House with an American flag that he places atop the ruins, promising the president that he will never disappear again. It is this beaming pride that makes Superman II endearing and reminds us that ol’ Supes will always be the American good old boy. Overall, a faster pace and trickier romance angle allows Superman II to be just slightly more fun than the influential original, even if it is not as thought provoking with its imagery. It also justifies the very idea of a sequel and proves that a sequel can sometimes be a great thing.
Superman II is available on Blu-ray DVD.
by Steve Habrat
You can’t call yourself a comic book fan if you haven’t seen Richard Donner’s powerful interpretation of DC Comics hero Superman, the first superhero epic ever projected onto the big screen. This 1978 blockbuster, based on the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was marketed with the tagline “you’ll believe a MAN can fly” and to this day, despite dated special effects, I still do believe a man can fly. Donner’s Superman was the film that laid the foundation for superhero origin stories, one that taught Hollywood how to properly pace the origin tale of a crime fighter in tights, slowly and with a never-ending amount of care poured into each and every frame. Superman was born out of the explosion of fantasy films that came with a gigantic price tag, mainly science fiction films escapism like Star Wars. While I have never been big on Superman and I have never really been an avid collector of his comics, I will give his big screen debut credit as being one of the best big screen interpretations of his character as well as being one of the finest superhero epics ever made. I love the slow building story that arrives at an apocalyptic disaster that only the Man of Steel could prevent and the casting of Christopher Reeve is a stroke of genius as the hero who stands for “truth, justice, and the American way”. I will even go so far to say that any director planning to make a superhero origin story should be required to watch this film before they even think about stepping behind the camera.
Superman begins with the destruction of our hero’s home planet, Krypton, and his father, Kal-El (Played by Marlon Brando), sending him to earth in an asteroid-like spacepod. Three years pass and Superman or Jor-El, as he is called on Krypton, crashes in the rural farming community of Smallville. Shortly after he lands, the kind couple Jonathan and Martha Kent (Played by Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter) discovers the young Jor-El and proceed to raise him as a normal human being even though they are well aware of his astonishing superpowers. At age eighteen, Jor-El or Clark Kent, as he is now called, grapples with his superhuman abilities and his world is shattered when Jonathan collapses and dies from a heart attack. Shortly after his father’s death, Clark finds a mysterious green crystal in the Kent’s barn, a treasure that was aboard the ship that Clark arrived in many years ago. Clark says goodbye to the grief stricken Martha and sets out to discover who he really is and why he is capable of such incredible powers. He travels to the arctic where he uses the green crystal to build the Fortress of Solitude, a temple where he can communicate with a recording from his father. It is here that Clark begins learning about his abilities and responsibilities to the citizens of earth. More time passes and the adult Clark (Played by Christopher Reeve) arrives in the big city of Metropolis, where he gets a job as a reporter at the Daily Planet and he meets the striking Lois Lane (Played by Margot Kidder), who he quickly falls in love with. Clark begins to use his powers to help the people of Metropolis, which earns him the name of Superman by the press. Superman soon grabs the attention of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Played by Gene Hackman), who is developing a plot that could wipe California off the face of the earth.
Many may find Donner’s Superman a bit longwinded and slow to get to the action, but he really wants us to become attached to the Man of Steel. It is easy to like the guy, especially when Reeve steps into the character and lets his good-old-boy charm have some fun. As Clark Kent, he is an ungainly oaf who stutters through every word that pours out of his mouth. The employees of the Daily Planet march around him, barely even registering that he is actually in the room half the time. He scurries after Lois, who tries hard to humor him but also forgets about him like the rest of their colleagues. His confidence and warmth really takes hold when he rips open that button-up shirt to reveal that iconic “S” stamped proudly on his chest. He almost single handedly cleans up the streets of Metropolis in one evening and still finds time to rescue a kitty stuck in a tree. It is funny that Donner uses New York City as his Metropolis, a city that was slowly deteriorating from rampant crime during this particular era. He seems to literally be suggesting that this “Metropolis” could use a savior who is willing to clean up the streets and stand up to the grimy violence. That savior is a Christ-like alien from another planet who can see through walls, shoot lasers out of his eyes, deflect bullets, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Superman belongs to Reeve but his supporting cast is equally as brilliant as he is. Marlon Brando shows up as Superman’s astute father who is always offering up lessons to his pupil. When Brando steps into the frame, your eyes won’t be able to be torn away. About forty minutes into the film, he gets to deliver an unforgettable speech that compares the Man of Steel to Christ, something that may upset some viewers. Brando booms, “I have sent them you! My only son!” and you can’t help but get goosebumps. When Brando isn’t making waves as Kal-El, Gene Hackman cackles as the Man of Steel’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor, who schemes up a nuclear plot (Cold War willies anyone?) that would leave millions dead. A scene where he hacks into Superman’s head and threatens to kill thousands of people in New York City sends an icy chill through the lighter atmosphere that grips the middle part of the film. Margot Kidder is a throaty looker as the force that is Lois Lane. Moving at one hundred miles per hour, Lois is always in the wrong place at the wrong time but the scenes where she is in need of help never feel strained. A sequence where she dangles from the very top of the Daily Planet will take your breath away but you never fear that Supes won’t be able to catch his damsel in distress.
Superman is loaded with sprawling special effects, destroying everything from the Hoover Dam to the Golden Gate Bridge and everything in between. These scenes of destruction still make us scratch our heads and say, “How’d they do THAT?” The most impressive has to be the wobbling Golden Gate Bridge, where the Man of Steel glides in and saves a bus of school children from tumbling to their death. The early sequences of Superman are appropriately trippy, fitting for their intergalactic landscape that looks like it would have been at home in something like Angry Red Planet or This Island Earth. These wondrous images are complimented by a trumpeting score that could only come from John Williams, who composes one of the greatest scores in the history of motion pictures. There are moments of Superman that are devilishly funny, lovingly winking at all the blue, yellow, and red clad fans that are hanging on every second of the film. My favorite wink has to be a scene where Clark is looking for a place to rip off his business attire to reveal the Superman armor. He jogs up to an exposed phone booth but opts for a revolving door that offers him some privacy for a quick wardrobe change. Yet the sweetest moments of the film are the ones where Superman literally sweeps Lois off her feet, taking her up into the clouds. These scenes show us that the Man of Steel has a mushy center.
Overall, Superman is grand achievement for the superhero genre. It proved that these stories could have intellectual ideas swirling below the special effects as well as breezy stories with tons of “WOW” moments. At two hours and twenty minutes, the film covers an enormous amount of ground, something only Superman is capable of. In the end, the whole picture belongs to Reeve, who can’t be topped as the squeaky clean do-gooder. Surprisingly, he lets a small amount of darkness and rage slip into his soul, especially when someone close to him bites the dust in the final moments. You will be hoping that suppressed rage and darkness will be let loose in later installments. Donner’s Superman is a larger than life explosion of sheer superhero bliss that you will want to revisit again and again. Bring on part two!
Superman 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 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.