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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: Raging Bull (#24)

Entertainment 150Raging Bull (1980)
Starring Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty
Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (screenplay) and Jake La Motta (novel)
Directed by Martin Scorcese

This movie feels like something of an “anti-Rocky”, the story of all those fighters that don’t manage to stay on top very long or sacrifice something fundamental to get there. Even though there’s success in the ring for the Raging Bull, his personal life is in a perpetual shambles of his own making. The adaptation of LaMotta’s autobiography is surprisingly stark about painting him as an unsympathetic character, and by the time the credits roll you wonder how the real LaMotta must feel about it. Does he realize, at long last, what he’s done to his life? Or does he understand what people must think about the events that unfolded on the screen? The movie suggests that he simply lacks the self-awareness to realize the consequences of his actions. I genuinely hope that’s not the case.

La Motta is a middleweight boxer, coming up as a hot-headed kid raised in a neighborhood full of them. In one of the early scenes, a fight erupts in the club that La Motta hits after one of his bouts. He grew up in a place where fist-fighting were one of the major ways to resolve your conflicts, and it’s clear that he took that lesson to heart. Jake is the first to take offense, the last to explain why he’s offended; he simply causes things to escalate until he has the opportunity to make them physical.

His brother Joey (Pesci) is the stabilizing influence that keeps Jake on track when he threatens to go off the rails. Poor Joey has to put up with a lot; from Jake’s ever-shifting moods to managing the reputation of the fighter in the neighborhood. It’s a thankless job that he does because he sees the potential of his brother, and possesses a weary, patient love that’s evident in just about everything he does.

Jake gets out of a relationship with a woman he ignores and marries a very young blonde he fancied from the first moment he laid eyes on her in the public pool. He’s charming at first, but as soon as he’s wed her he becomes extraordinarily paranoid and possessive while ignoring her as well, for the most part. Meanwhile, he reluctantly throws a fight to get the title shot that he’s always been looking for after being told to take a dive by the Mob. Jake is banned for throwing the fight in such an obvious manner, but comes back to win the middleweight championship. He’s on top of the world with a loyal brother in his corner and a beautiful blonde on his arm. But he’s still completely miserable.

That misery gets spread to everyone he knows because he doesn’t know how else to handle it. His paranoia spares no one, and he becomes increasingly abusive to his wife and his brother. What’s worse is how he keeps sinking lower and lower both professionally and emotionally, each side exacerbating the pain of the other, and how he never realizes that the hell he’s in is the one he created for himself. It’s incredibly hard to watch; at first you feel sympathy for Jake’s lack of self-awareness, but then you just want to see his family get out of an awfully toxic situation.

Scorsese does a wonderful job making sure no punches are pulled. He’s not working with a sympathetic lead here at all, but he doesn’t try to gloss over Jake’s behavior or make excuses for him. De Niro is a wonder here, as a man who is fascinating in his unlikeability, but is somehow sympathetic with this basic, relatable desire to be liked, respected, loved. The trouble is that Jake doesn’t let higher thinking work for him. If he thinks he’s been slighted then he lashes out with the immediate, unthinking hostility of an animal. It’s instinct for him to lash back, and he does repeatedly against enemies real or (mostly) imagined.

The brutality in Jake’s world is inescapable. Even when he wins it feels like a loss; he simply takes a tremendous beating without going down before the other guy. The boxing scenes, which comprise surprisingly little of the movie are memorable for the mood they create. I remember glimpses of faces rocked by oversized gloves, the sound of meat being slapped, a face that is gradually degraded. Each battle takes something out of Jake, even if he downplays it or doesn’t realize it. Maybe it’s living with those consequences that makes it so easy for him to fly off the handle; the movie never makes that connection for us, but simply lays the evidence there to make of what we will.

So what do we make of this? Jake serves as a cautionary tale, a warning to make sure that whatever we do, make sure we do it for the right reasons. Remember who our friends are, remember their hardships too. But most importantly, be aware that we are shaped by the people around us and we shape the people we’re with. We might not be able to help the impression left on us, but we can control the impression we make. Jake has no idea about any of this because he can’t think past his own pain or pleasure. And the effects of that short-sightedness are terrible to see.

I can see why so many people regard Raging Bull as Scorsese’s best movie. He’s a director with a sure hand here, working with two actors who give stunning performances. It’s definitely earned its place here in the top 100, but that being said I’d never want to watch it again. It contains a bleakness that’s hard to stomach, and no guarantees that the people involved have learned anything by what they’ve been through. Much like La Motta himself, it is what it is.

Rating: 9/10.


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The AFI Top 100 Movies: Taxi Driver (#47)

Taxi Driver (1976)
Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd
Directed by Martin Scorcese
Written by Paul Schrader

Taxi Driver is a movie that’s more fun to think about than to watch. It moves with a rather ponderous pace, with long shots of characters staring or significant gaps in conversation that seem to encourage you to contemplate along with Travis Bickle and the people in his life. It lends itself to a naturalism that’s admirable, but most of the time I simply wondered where all of this was going. Your mileage may vary, of course, particularly if you’re quick to pick up on the themes that director Martin Scorcese and writer Paul Schrader were laying down in those long silences.

Even though I found it tough to remain engaged, I was impressed by how long the movie stuck with me. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to read a couple of critiques to get where Schrader was coming from, but even before then it reminded me a lot of a couple of Harlem Renaissance novels I read in high school — Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Travis Bickle would have felt right at home with the protagonists of those two stories, and all three of them struggled to find their place and purpose in society at large. They find themselves at odds with the world for various reasons, and the stories are driven by their attempts to figure out what to do with that.

For Travis, he feels that the world is lacking a moral fiber he considers essential. He likens the streets of New York City to a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, too broken to fix and ripe for destruction. Despite his hatred of the people around him, he longs to be a part of it. At the beginning of the movie he even says that man should not spend too much time in self-reflection. It’s important to go out and be a part of the world.

And so he does. He gets a job as a taxi driver and tries to date a girl he fancies. It turns out he’s not very good at the social aspects of his mission — he takes Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to what basically amounts to a porn flick on one of their early dates, prompting her to break things off rather abruptly. Stung by the rejection, Travis retreats further into himself. What we find in his heart of hearts is a rather ugly disdain for the world even though he enjoys its seedier elements (porn theatres).

His last hope for salvation is the young prostitute Iris (Foster), who he sees as an innocent who’s been swallowed alive by the awfulness of the city around her. They strike up an unlikely friendship, and Travis begins to think that if he can save her, just this one person, then maybe he’ll have saved himself.

Hooray for me, I did it!

The ending can be taken a number of ways, and almost all of them are interesting. Travis’ quest comes to a violent end, and depending on how you see the outcome you can take a few different lessons from it. I think it’s more interesting if you take the ending literally — the movie hasn’t engaged in flights of fancy before, so there’s no reason to think it would start then. When Travis meets Betsy one night sometime later, he picks her up, answers her questions with a confident stoicism, and drops her off by telling her that ride was free of charge.

Iris is saved. Her parents never meet Travis, but write him a letter of gratitude. His quest made the papers, and he’s widely considered a hero for what he’s done. It all wraps up neatly, and Travis’ moral compass seems validated by external acclaim. However, there’s a discordant note there that I think is intentional. Travis still doesn’t understand the world around him; he never determined why Iris made the choices she did, or why Betsy rejected him in the first place. He’s no closer to resolving the boiling pit of trouble in his gut — at best, it’s only quieted for a time. Even though we leave the story with Travis in a happy place, there’s no sense that it will last. There are too many unanswered questions.

The invisible man in Ellison’s novel reaches a level of self-awareness at the end that enables him to make the attempt to rejoin society. Richard Wright discovers that writing is his way of satisfying the hunger he has to put a mark on the world. Both of the protagonists there absorb their experiences and still feel capable of becoming a part of the larger world around them. That sense doesn’t exist here; Travis may have learned the wrong lesson. Instead of becoming a part of society while honoring his own set of virtues, it feels like he views himself as bigger than society, someone who can exert his will on the world around him without being touched by it. His rejection of Betsy at the end is a rejection of the world, and that spells trouble for him later on.

But then, I could be reading this movie all wrong. I get the sense that Bickle is seen as a bit of an anti-hero, and I can’t agree. Despite the fact that his actions have lead to a good outcome, he’s still dangerously unbalanced. There’s still an isolation, a lack of responsibility for the people around him that can’t be admired. Human beings, for better or for worse, are social creatures, and I think Bickle is an example of what happens when we reject that part of our natures. Our thinking gets warped, and even when it comes from a reasonably pure place (Bickle’s longing for a moral world) it can become misanthropic if left to fester.

I think there’s a way of honoring our individuality while still finding a way to integrate into society. Some of us will always have a place as outliers, people who see the group from a perspective most people don’t. It’s a struggle to fill that role; it can be lonely, and more often than not it’s rife with misunderstanding. But part of the job, as it were, is to find a way to explain your perspective and individual beliefs in a way that the whole will understand. That requires patience, persistence, and a self-knowledge that is quite difficult to attain. Ellison’s Invisible Man is a great example of someone who’s managed it. And Travis Bickle is a great example of someone who hasn’t.

Rating: 7/10.


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