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 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.