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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Godfather Part II (#32)

Entertainment 150The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall
Written by Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay) and Mario Puzo (screenplay, novel)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

When Ryan and I were watching the AFI Top 100, we decided that it would probably be a good idea to save The Godfather Part II for review until we had seen the original. That way we get to see both halves of the story reasonably close to one another and we’re not forced to try and remember all the players and relationships for the sequel, because there are many. It was a good call; when you see this movie right after the original it feels like a natural extension — and completion — of the story.

Here we see the moral degradation of our anti-hero Michael (Pacino) as he maintains and expands the empire of the Corleone family; through flashbacks we see how his father Vito (De Niro) built the Corleone name in the first place. Both men engage in acts of ruthless violence to protect their place in the society they find themselves in, and it’s hard to imagine how their grabs for power could have played any differently. The parallels are striking, and it really serves to highlight the differences between Michael and Vito.

Back at the turn of the century, young Vito Andolini escapes Sicily after his entire family is killed for a slight to the Don committed by his father. He arrives in Ellis Island, is given the name Vito Corleone, and falls into crime as a youth after his meager job at a neighborhood grocery store is taken and given to the nephew of some Don. Through shrewd maneuvering he manages to take out this Don and gain control of the neighborhood. What’s interesting is what happens after that; Vito tries to look out for people who can’t look after themselves. He also goes back to Sicily to get revenge for his family. Even though slights are not forgotten, Vito conducts himself with something of a code — you give him the respect he feels he is due, and he can be a generous and loyal friend.

By contrast, Michael pushes away his friends and allies. The only thing he really understands is working through fear and intimidation. The enemies of the Corleone family multiply from the previous film, grow bolder. Perhaps it’s his outsider’s status or just his natural temperament, but Michael simply doesn’t have the knack for managing people that Vito possessed, and it shows. An assassination attempt early in the film triggers a series of violent retributions both within and outside of the organization. By the end of the war, Michael — like Vito — is victorious, but his mastery comes at a far heavier price.

The ending of The Godfather, Part II is a simple gut-punch that shows us just how far Michael has fallen from the principled youth at the beginning of Part I. The power he wields is absolute, and he has the mind to wield it effectively (if not subtly). But his circle of confidants has shrunken drastically, and the price of that power is something he realizes must be paid.

Michael is an anti-hero done well; he has enough expertise that you have to admire him for what he’s able to pull off. He’s smart and competent, and principled enough that you empathize with him. It clearly hurts him to do what he does, but at the same time the position he’s in demands that he do it. You want nothing more for him than for him to find a way to get out of this with his relationships intact, but there’s simply no way for that to happen. His cold, mean anger is “earned” by the end of the movie — he’s been deeply hurt by various betrayals, and while it pains him to cut himself off from his support network it’s an understandable move.

If anything this movie is even more epic than the original; Vito’s story gives it a weight and scope that definitely enriches the material. Just about everything that made Part I such a feat is present here, and stretched to see what else it can do. It’s a sequel that builds on what’s come before in just about every way — story, technique, the subtlety of the performances. Together, Parts I and II tell a wonderful American epic about the price of power and success, how the struggle to attain the American dream so often results in a hollow, meaningless victory.

I have to recommend that you watch both of these movies, as close together as possible. They’re immense, ponderous, deep and sprawling. But they’re oh so very good. I liked this movie a bit more than Part I, but only because the stories benefit from what’s come before. The work of being connected to the world of the Godfather has already been made; now we can really get our hands dirty, so to speak.

When you see this film and consider what De Niro and Pacino have done since (say, Analyze This or Jack & Jill respectively) you can see why people scream bloody murder; how could minds responsible for these performances possibly think those movies were good ideas? It boggles.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Godfather (#3)

Entertainment 150The Godfather (1972)
Starring Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and James Caan
Written by Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay) and Mario Puzo (screenplay, novel)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

I’ve become fascinated with stories of regular people becoming extraordinarily bad ones. I’m not talking about the “fairy tales from a villain’s perspective” story that have become a bit of a thing; I’m talking about stories like Breaking Bad, that take a beaten-down high-school chemistry teacher, gives him a cancer diagnosis and an undiscovered streak of hubris, and watches him explode into a brief, shining star of a meth kingpin. These stories speak to the capacity for evil within us all, and remind us that all it takes are a few wrong choices and circumstances to turn us into nasty people.

I’d like to think that a lot of our preoccupation with the anti-hero in modern pop culture can be traced back to The Godfather, one of those cultural touchstones that everyone knows about it even if they haven’t seen it. Michael Corleone blazed the trail for Walter White in a lot of ways, starting out as a Marine and outsider of the Family and ending up ruthlessly seizing control of the organized crime scene. This movie shows us how he got there — through the continual threat to himself and his family.

But it’s not just the threat to the Corleone Family that molds Michael into the man he eventually becomes, and it’s not just being threatened that makes monsters out of any man. It’s the nature of the threat and the ultimate way we decide to deal with it. Sitting in on Mafia meetings, Michael soon learns that the confrontation they’re in is one of those that will only end in someone’s demise. Once it’s been reduced to an “us vs. them” scenario, survival becomes the only thing that matters. And Michael and everyone around him will try to do that at any cost.

What makes Michael’s journey from Marine to mob boss so compelling is that he does these horrible things for fairly understandable reasons. There’s a genuine love for his family within him, even knowing who they are and what they do. When they’re threatened he doesn’t retaliate out of malice or a spirit of vengeance — it’s merely the most expedient way to eliminate a mortal threat.

Perhaps it’s because he’s a military man that Michael proves to be so good at strategizing the Corleone family’s escape from complete ruin. A ruthlessly tactical mind reveals itself in the face of this adversity, and he’s all too happy to use it to not only save their place at the table, but grab a better one when the opportunity presents itself.

Who doesn’t love the discovery of a hidden talent? I’m not sure what Michael’s prospects would have been if he hadn’t gotten involved, but chances are quite good that he wouldn’t have been nearly as feared or respected doing anything else. That combination of regard and wariness that is afforded to the very powerful is a heady temptation; it’s no wonder that he fell under its spell.

Of course, the movie does an incredible job of stitching an epic out of a number of low-key moments. It’s grounded in the realism of 70s cinema, and that makes the iconic scenes feel natural and lived-in. There’s a reason that so many people in organized crime (apparently) idolize this movie — there’s a reason the folks on, say, The Sopranos quote and reference it as religiously as the Bible. It’s a romanticized look at an awful profession, grounded just enough that anyone can insert themselves into Michael’s shoes.

The cinematography, the direction, the acting — all of it’s perfectly placed. It serves as a template for just about every mob movie or series that comes after it. The importance of this movie to the cultural landscape simply can’t be understated. You can’t touch the legacy of The Godfather.

But for me, it keeps coming back to Michael Corleone and the fact that he was doomed to sink towards his worst impulses the moment he stepped into his sister’s wedding. Even though The Godfather takes great pains to paint the Corleone family as the “good” bad guys, they’re still unquestionably bad — and it’s important to note that Michael’s fall is a tragedy to be pitied, not an arc to emulate.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Star Wars (#15)

Entertainment 150Star Wars (1977)
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher
Written and Directed by George Lucas

What could I say about this movie that hasn’t been said before? The impact of this space fantasy epic can’t really be understated. It provided a template for science fiction movies to follow for a long time to come, and the universe first seen here is still alive and passionately followed today, over 35 years after its release. An entire generation of geeks (myself included) know all about the exploits of Luke Skywalker and his cohorts; the story of the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance has nearly reached the level of modern myth.

A long long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away there was a band of rebels fighting an evil Empire that had nearly total control over a vast galactic civilization filled with thousands of sentient species numbering in the trillions of souls. A confluence of events brought young farmer Luke Skywalker (Hamill) into the conflict, pairing him with an old recluse who belonged to an ancient and mystical order, a princess and leader of the rebel organization, a selfish mercenary and his tall, furry alien co-pilot. Together, they discovered the Empire’s new weapon of terrible power — capable of destroying entire planets in one shot — and worked to destroy it, turning the tide of the fight towards the rebels for the first time.

Everyone knows this story, and most of us know how this story came to be. Or at least, we’ve heard apocryphal versions of it. When we think of Star Wars we tend to think of the entire trilogy of films as a single work, but most of the really iconic stuff is yet to come. Luke’s battle with Darth Vader doesn’t happen until The Empire Strikes Back, and Vader’s redemption doesn’t come until the final film, Return of the Jedi. Both are excellent in their own right, but let’s take a look at the original movie on its own terms. Star Wars as a standalone story is actually fun to pick apart; there’s a lot of interesting stuff there.

I’m sure this has been mentioned elsewhere, but Luke really isn’t the main character of the story. He doesn’t appear until about 30 minutes in, and he doesn’t have an arc to speak of. He doesn’t grow or change through his experiences. He starts out as a young farm-hand itching to get off of his planet and have cool adventures in space, and that’s precisely what happens. He’s taught to be a Jedi, uses his newfound understanding of the Universe to beat the bad guys, and goes home. Nothing to it! There’s not much in the way of personal stakes there. Han Solo, on the other hand…

When we meet Han, it’s in a wretched hive of scum and villainy; he’s willing to con just about anyone to get out ahead of any meeting he’s in, and he doesn’t join Obi-Wan and Luke for any reason other than payment. It’s a real struggle for him to stick with the gang when things get tough. At least on the surface, he’s only into the idea of getting paid. Gradually, however, he comes to value the relationships he’s formed over the course of the movie and even comes back to join in the rebel’s final, desperate fight. It’s a completely selfless act that signifies deep and lasting character growth. Even though Luke is hailed as the hero and gets the final shot that takes down the Death Star, Han is the person who allows that to happen. Han’s the true protagonist of Star Wars here, and Luke is more of a catalyst for his journey.

The story, overall, is relatively simple, but that’s not where the magic is. George Lucas has a fairly good grasp of the film’s structure and pacing, so he hits all of the beats he needs to exactly when he needs to hit them. Besides that, the movie simply LOOKS gorgeous, and it treats us to a science-fiction landscape that’s still unique to this day. The settings look fantastic yet lived-in, really grounding the world and enabling us to get invested in it. Everything looks real, functional. The tech — light-years beyond anything we could have dreamed at the time — looks beaten up and sometimes barely works.

Even today it’s difficult to find a movie — especially a science fiction film — that blends the fantastic and the mundane quite that well. I think that’s one of the reasons Joss Whedon’s Firefly is so beloved — it manages to make a fantastic universe that feels….used. And that makes us all the more excited for it, because it’s easier for us to imagine living there, eating the food, drinking exotic alcohols, feeling the heat and dust and fabric we use to protect ourselves from it. Lucas managed to create a movie that encourages our imagination to fill the world beyond the screen. That’s the lightning in a bottle Star Wars captured.

It’s by no means a perfect movie, but it’s a vastly entertaining one. Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill have a great chemistry together, and it’s enough for us to overlook the many shortcomings in the script and direction. It’s easy to see Star Wars as the skeleton on which an entire universe was fleshed out, and that’s largely true. But taking a moment to appreciate the construction of the foundation is a worthy exercise just the same.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Chinatown (#19)

Entertainment 150Chinatown (1974)
Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston
Written by Robert Towne
Directed by Roman Polanski

Chinatown is a hell of a noir film. Set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, it uses the acquisition of water by land barons to explore deeper themes of moral bankruptcy and how one man’s remorseless lust for power can override a system set up for the public good. The villain’s relentless drive for control creates victims of the near and dear as well as complete strangers. Everyone’s powerless against one person willing to exploit the system as much as possible.

Like most detective stories, this one starts simple. Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is approached by a woman to investigate her husband, Hollis Mulwray. Jake tails him, finds him protesting the creation of a new reservoir in town and then cheating on his wife. He takes pictures, gives them to Mrs. Mulwray, and finds them plastered all over the front pages of every newspaper in town the next morning. When he gets back to his office, he meets a woman (Dunaway) who insists on asking if they’ve ever met before. When Jake denies ever seeing her, she tells him that she’s actually Mrs. Mulwray and he can expect a lawsuit.

It gets more and more twisted from there. Jake, realizing he’s been set up, resolves to see the case through to the end. Every new clue leads him to another turn in the case, and every turn takes him away from the personal and towards the political. It isn’t long before Jake finds himself uncovering a massive plot to control the land and water for a great part of Los Angeles. Worse than that, the person at the head of this plot has ruined the life of the femme fatale he’s become entangled with. I won’t say any more about the plot here; if you don’t know what happens, it’s best if you find out along with Jake.

The ending, though, is a sucker-punch that leaves an indelible mark and — frankly — makes the movie great. Jake is left shaken by the ordeal he’s just been through, and I can only imagine that he’d struggle with where to go from there. What’s the point in trying to do anything in a world that allows the events in Chinatown to happen the way they do? What good could you possibly do when you’re working within a system that allows evil men to flourish?

His dilemma becomes ours, and we’re forced to confront a really basic question through this twisting little narrative. There are so many different ways to be “evil”, to visit harm onto your fellow man, and everywhere you turn you seem to find people who are connoisseurs of the practice. The society you live in makes it so difficult to be “good,” and often you find yourself swimming upstream if you try to do the right thing. There’s little reward or recognition; in fact, if you make too big of a splash you’ll likely be trampled down by the system. What makes the fight worth it? How do you recover from a setback or loss?

Jake Gittes doesn’t have an answer for it, and neither do any of his associates. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” He might as well be talking about the world, our whole experience. It feels like the movie leads you to the door of an existential void and simply drops you there at the end of it. What do you see when you look in?

It’s incredible that a noir could lead us here, starting from the titillating possibility of marital infidelity all the way to the question about why we even bother with morality in a cold, unfair universe. The writing of the story encourages us to think more and more broadly through the way it opens, each clue exposing a wider expanse of mystery until we’re left with the grandest one of all.

I suppose that’s one of the things that makes the noir detective such a crisp and engaging figure. He’s been hardened by the world but otherwise unchanged by it, constantly trying to do the right thing the best way he knows how. He’s a modern-day Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill, only to watch it falling down again. The effort takes something out of him every time. But we imagine him returning to his office, taking other cases, going back down the hill and starting all over again. And depending on your outlook, that’s sad or inspiring. Or both.

Jack Nicholson is surprisingly great at playing Gittes, the private detective who’s competent but out of his depth here. He’s smart, wily and snarky, but there’s a severe power disbalance between the gumshoe and the ultimate target of his investigation. Nicholson seems to be the guy with all the power in the room whenever you see him most times, and there’s none of that here. It’s really intriguing to watch him struggle, be confused, try to get a handle on things.

Polanski does a great job as well, making sure every scene crackles with the energy it needs to, staying true to the noirish tropes of long shadows and stifling heat while making everything look distinctly southern Californian. For some reason, the sunny locale makes the darkness of the characters’ secrets that much more stark. He encourages Nicholson, Dunaway and Huston to be subsumed by their characters, and every bit of subtext he includes is understated, suggested by the performance. I imagine Chinatown would hold up well to repeat viewings for just that reason; there’s bound to be all sorts of stuff you missed the first time.

This movie is as good as film noir gets. It’s a great example of its genre, but it extends beyond it to play around with some really big ideas. Other movies might be a bit more entertaining, but none are as rich as Chinatown.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (#20)

Entertainment 150One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and Will Sampson
Written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman (screenplay) and Ken Kesey (novel)
Directed by Milos Forman

Jon Ronson (he of The Men Who Stare at Goats fame) submitted a report for NPR’s This American Life one week, about a man in England who pleaded insanity for a crime he committed. The defense worked; instead of going to jail, he went to a mental institution and thought he would get out in a matter of months. He discovered, with creeping dread, that proving that you’re sane once you’ve been branded insane is not easy at all. Decades later, he’s still there, fighting for his release.

This was a story that stuck with me, and I couldn’t help but remember it while watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because it was so similar. McMuprhy (Nicholson) finds himself admitted to a mental institution after a short and troubled stint in prison for statutory rape; he figures that once he’s in he’ll simply do his time and leave without any issues. What he finds instead when he gets to the ward are a bunch of patients who voluntarily submit to the tyrannical rule of Nurse Ratched (Fletcher), a steely-eyed, soft-voiced disciplinarian whose power is gained by maintaining the status quo.

McMurphy immediately chafes under Ratched’s rules, and the basic conflict of the film is set. To all casual observers, Ratched is fighting the good fight; she’s gentle, reasonable, and tries to lead her patients to make wise decisions. What’s fascinating though, is that if you listen to the way she frames her Socratic questions, there’s a minefield underneath her delicate, innocent framing. She loads her interactions with half-insults meant to break down her patient, triggering guilt and uncertainty, setting herself up so that her “helpful suggestions” solve problems that she creates and advances. It’s insidious and ingenious. She takes great pains to cover her power through bland neutrality and misdirection.

That’s why McMurphy bucking against her authority seems to prove his insanity at first. But over time, his “coyote wisdom” has an effect on the patients and they begin to think things through for themselves. Her control slipping, Rached resorts to less subtle methods of regaining the upper hand, and the film escalates from there. It becomes apparent that only one of them can lead these broken men through their troubles, and both of them very badly want to be the singular leader of the ward.

Nicholson is affably unhinged here, crude but personable, as capable of insulting and complimenting you with equal sincerity. The film is populated with people who give singular but affecting performances (Fletcher won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress here, and Will Sampson is really entrancing as the silent giant “Chief” Bromden) and recognizable, bona-fide stars in early roles (Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor). All of them carve distinctive and sympathetic characters with a minimum of screen time; I’m impressed not only with their ability to do the most with what they’ve been given, but the quality of the material they have to boot. By being incredibly flawed but relatable people, the chorus of the insane in the ward offer themselves up as real stakes for both Ratched and McMurphy; you want them to succeed, thus you want McMurphy to succeed.

The movie takes a rather dark turn towards its third act, and I won’t say much about it here in case you haven’t seen it yet. But the tonal shift proves to be the most problematic aspect of the movie — the escalating war between the nurse and the patient produces its first bit of collateral damage, and the immediate aftermath gives us something that can’t be condoned. I’ve been told that the scene in the book takes it much further than the movie, which introduces questions about misogyny on the part of the author and just what the intent is here. We’ve been with McMurphy up until this point of the film, so are we supposed to condone this too? If not, why take away our sympathy for the protagonist this late in the game? The story has so much momentum at this point, and it’s that much more jarring for the rug to be pulled out from under us in that way. What are we to make of what happens, and the consequences leading from that?

Still, you can’t help but wince at the ending, where the sudden and brutal conflict comes to its end. Both sides win, after a fashion, but the sacrifices they’ve had to make to get there are incredibly steep. I think your perception of it is determined by how optimistic you are; I think we’re meant to take away a bit of hope with the finish, though I could totally see if someone thought it tragic.

Very few people can manage to hang with Jack Nicholson at his prime, and it’s a testament to Louise Fletcher that she proved to be such a capable foil for him. The rivalry between Ratched and McMurphy prove to be the strong spine of the movie, capable of carrying the rest of the story on its back. Thankfully, it only has to do the heavy lifting in a couple of places; everyone else is on the game too.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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