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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: On The Waterfront (#8)

Entertainment 150On the Waterfront (1954)
Starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint and Lee J. Cobb
Written by Budd Schulberg
Directed by Elia Kazan

Terry Malloy (Brando) is a New Jersey dock worker whose brother is in the mob. That mob runs the Worker’s Union, and as long as you play by the rules you get the chance to work that day. Of course, playing by the rules means making sure the police and the Waterfront Crime Commission don’t ever find witnesses to the string of murders they know mob boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb) has ordered. In order to subsist, you have to simply let crime pay.

Terry was a boxer who could have fought his way out of the slums, but he took a dive on his brother’s orders so that he could win a bet. He’s also used in the murder of a popular dock worker who was thinking about flipping to the Crime Commission. When Terry falls in love with the slain worker’s sister, he’s finally jarred out of his lifetime of subservience and finds it within himself to actually stand up for what he believes is right — not just for himself, but for every other dock worker under the boot-heel of Johnny Friendly.

On the Waterfront is a story about a man coming into his own sense of morality, and what that compels him to do in the face of systemic corruption. When everyone around you has a tacit acceptance of social injustice as the way things are, it can be impossible to speak out against it. We have an earnest belief that it only takes one person to get the ball rolling, and once the process has been started momentum will take care of the rest. The death of Joey Doyle is that inciting incident, and Terry simply picks up from there to finish the job.

What’s interesting about this film to me is how the idea of standing up for social justice becomes so indelibly tied to Terry’s slow but distinct straightening towards manhood. Terry’s arc is that of the man learning to lead his own life; when he tells his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) “I coulda been a contender, instead of a bum”, the regret he’s expressing is not being tempted by his environment to be anything less than the best person he could be. Now, at long last, he’s making a different choice when faced with similar circumstances.

It takes him a while to get around to that point, and he’s coaxed every step of the way by Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint, in her first role) and Father Barry (Karl Marlden). They both know that there’s no difference in Terry’s case between personal redemption and social salvation, and it’s fascinating to watch them patiently lead him to the ideal that doing the right thing so you can be the kind of guy who does what’s right.

Brando embodies Terry with a nervous masculine energy that belongs specifically to him but feels universal. We all struggle to live up to our ideals, and the harder it is to fight against the current the sweeter the victory, no matter how small. The end of the movie feels like a triumph, even though it’s a small show of solidarity. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the workers have won over the mob, but it makes an important turning point in the fight.

This is heavy stuff under a paint of 50s melodrama. The performances feel locked firmly in their time, even though the script takes a specific situation to explore universal themes. It’s strange to pull back the ‘coating’ of the movie and find yourself identifying with it so strongly. Admittedly, the dated production can make the barrier to entry too steep for some, but it’s worth doing. The discovery of such a rich movie is worth taking it on its own terms.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Apocalypse Now (#28)

Entertainment 150Apocalypse Now (1979)
Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall
Written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Most war movies take great care to show you how disorienting it is to be in the middle of battle, and a lot of these set pieces end up being some of the greatest examples of cinema we have. There are the fiery jungles of Platoon, or the assault of the senses that made up the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. The underrated Letters From Iwo Jima offered up a distinct view of what it was like in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, and another movie on the list, All Quiet on the Western Front, offered a stark difference between civilian perception of a war and the horror of actually being a soldier in it.

They all effectively show us the insanity of conflict, in their own way. I’ve walked away from each movie with a better understanding of how things must have felt to the people who fought through World War I, World War II, Vietnam. Apocalypse Now is something different entirely. More than any other war film I’ve ever seen, it shows us how war drives good men insane, and how that insanity spreads through the rest of the company, the troupe, through the whole system. It presents armed conflict as a gentlemen’s agreement to go absolutely nuts for a while. Soldiers who are sent to fight go crazy in their own ways, and it’s quietly accepted as long as they direct their issues at the enemy. When that stops happening, the machinery stops and the corrupting influence must be expunged.

That’s precisely what happens to Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), a decorated war veteran who throws away a promising career to return to the Vietnamese jungle. There he disappears, only to resurface as a legend amongst the populace and the military alike. He’s gone AWOL along with a few other soldiers, and reigns over a small group of people he’s molded into believers. Capt. Ben Willard (Sheen) is sent to find him and bring him back if he can. If he can’t, then Kurtz is to be eliminated by any means necessary.

When we meet Willard, we immediately know he’s not in a good place. His hotel room is a mess and for a military man he seems keenly disinterested in changing that. When the Army comes for him he greets them in nothing but his underwear, clearly under the influence of some mighty powerful drugs. He’s cleaned up, shipped out and sent after Kurtz in short order, only getting himself together once someone’s given him a direction. It makes me wonder if the obsessive routine and discipline instilled in military men is meant as a psychological defense against the chaos of war. Once the battle starts, there’s no guarantee of anything at all — maybe it’s best to focus on the few things you can control, like your movement, the combat readiness of your gun, reflexes that you’ve trained to be automatic.

Willard meets a crew who takes him down the river to the border between Vietnam and Laos, and what he finds on his journey to Kurtz is a long line of people desperately holding on to a center in a situation where none exists. Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Duvall) is obsessed with surfing; it’s a good thing that a member of Willard’s crew just so happens to be a world-famous surfer in civilian life. This gets their crew a little closer to their destination, but only if they ride along with the company on the raid of a nearby village. This sets up the first of so many set pieces that illustrate the hopeless confusion, fear, anger and paranoia that rolled through the Vietnamese jungle like so much dense fog.

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

First stop on the Insanity Express.

 

Through his travels Willard meets more and more people who are lost, unable to cope with the death all around them or the immediacy of it staring them right in the face. There’s one particularly haunting sequence where the men on the boat drop acid and marijuana, then come upon another group of Army guys holding a bridge across the river. It really feels like everyone around him is mad, staring into the night where gunshots fire from places they have no hope of pinpointing. Their only choice is to shoot back, to rail against the darkness, to try keeping it together when everyone around them is falling apart. Willard asks one of them, “Who’s in charge?” A man replies “I don’t know” between bursts of gunfire.

If this is what the civilized world leads to, then madness sounds oddly alluring. Willard begins to think that maybe Kurtz has gone through the other side of it and found something, and his thoughts become more open to the idea the deeper into the jungle he goes. When we finally meet Kurtz, of course he’s not what we expect — Brando was nowhere near what Coppola expected when he showed up, vastly overweight and hideously underprepared. But they found a way to make it work, and what was committed to film was incredibly memorable all the same.

Kurtz is more interesting as a legend than a man. It’s fascinating watching the society he’s gathered, how they interact with one another, their environment, the few outsiders who drift into their orbit. And the ultimate end to Willard’s journey is less interesting than the things he uncovers along the way.

Coppola plays Willard’s journey as a fever-dream, with long dissolves and the droning of helicopters and gunfire constant in your ears. It’s very easy to get lulled into the atmosphere of war, to feel it sticking to you; the desperation and insanity waiting for those soldiers out there is palpable. All it would take is one thing to set things off, for everything to go wrong.

That intense, moody feel is what makes Apocalypse Now so great and so hard to watch. There’s a lot of unpleasantness there; not just the terrible things that Willard does and witnesses, but the quiet where he has to reflect upon it. The movie wallows in its mood and invites you to sink into it as well. I’ve never seen a war movie that so deeply involves you in its emotional heart; most of them work on a more immediate level, all adrenaline and horror. Apocalypse Now slows down to force you to live with not only the long, loud battles but the longer silences in between. It’s there that the really awful stuff lurks.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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