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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: 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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What I Believe

Myth 150Over the long weekend I watched two very different movies that touched on the same theme. One of them was a religious drama written and directed by Robert Duvall, a true passion project if ever I saw one. It was called The Apostle. The other was very much a product of its time — a light and fluffy wish-fulfillment movie that was big about fifteen years ago. I’m talking about that modern classic, Practical Magic. Though they’re both on just about polar opposites of subject matter, religious inspiration and pop culture niche, they both twinged something that resides deep within me. I wasn’t expecting that, so I had to think it through.

In The Apostle, Robert Duvall plays a white Southern preacher known as Sonny to his friends. Right from the beginning you see that he’s a true believer; he wades into the chaos of a car accident, and the first thing he does when he finds one of the victims is minister to him. It’s a fascinating scene that does a wonderful job of establishing how deeply Sonny’s faith motivates him; it really is nothing less than the foundation of his character. Sonny’s entire life is geared towards his faith. Everything that happens is attributed to God (or Satan); everything that he enjoys can be connected to the Church. Soon you find out that Sonny isn’t quite what he appears to be, and the movie becomes interesting in a different way. But for that first act where we’re getting to meet him for the first time, I was totally arrested.

My entire family belonged to a black Southern church, except for us (we were Jehovah’s Witnesses). When someone died in my family, we didn’t have a funeral — we had a “homegoing celebration”. For someone who hasn’t been to a traditional Southern church service and has no idea what to expect, the liveliness can be disconcerting. Speaking as an outsider, it’s fascinating watching a mass hysteria wash over the crowd. The preacher is like a conductor, managing the ebb and flow of the energy in the room, and when he decides to turn it up to 11 it’s really something to see.

The movie filled me with an unexpected homesickness. There’s a reason that I got out of my home environment and I’ll never forget what it was, but there’s something strangely comforting about being around people who can be true believers. They live their lives with a fervor that’s infectious. They’ve rooted themselves to an ideal that gives them strength. While it’s true that many of them use that strength to do terrible things, it doesn’t always turn out that way. There are many people I remember fondly from my Jehovah’s Witness days, that I think are wonderful people, that have used their faith to really push themselves to become better.

When I left the faith of my childhood I was adrift for a while, and looking for something different. I had actually found Wicca well before I left home, and dabbled in practicing it. But college is where I really embraced it — wearing the pentacle, painting my fingernails black (that had nothing to do with Wicca, but it helped with the image), leading my school’s Pagan Student Union for a time. There was actually a small but thriving Wiccan community around my college that I got into, and found myself embedded with another group of true believers.

One of the things that drew me to Wicca was the idea that spirit flows through all things, shapeless and formless, and it’s all around you always. Your belief and will can help to shape that spirit, and the more people who direct their will towards a symbol or idea, the more powerful it becomes. The God and Goddess fulfill the same functions in the universe, and you can imagine them any way you wanted to, but for most people it would be the Earth Mother and the Horned God.

If I wanted to, I could surround myself with the symbolism of nature and work my will towards becoming attuned to it. Wicca really is a way to reposition yourself so that you have a more symbiotic relationship with the natural world, and that part is appealing as well. It’s surprisingly open; according to Wicca, casting a spell and praying to Jesus is the same thing, simply working your will towards a desired effect. As Sonny said in The Apostle: “You do it your way and I do it mine, but we get it done, don’t we?”

Watching Practical Magic took me right back to my college days, wanting to believe that I could will something into existence, that the first step to making change in the world was simply wanting it, then acting on that desire. And it reminded me that my history is filled with communities of believers, and that’s something that I don’t have now.

Am I poorer for it, not actively believing in something beyond what I can see? Over time I’ve developed my spirituality into something of an agnostic animism. I still carry the vague belief that a spirit inhabits everything, that it’s formless and takes on the properties of the will around it. But at the same time I realize that my belief could be just bullshit, an amusing fantasy that helps me make sense of a world that is senseless. If you peel back my agnosticism, you’ll find a powerful, existential drive. Reality is actually meaningless, and it’s my job as a sapient being to infuse it with any meaning I can.

I have the desire to believe, but none of the tools to do so. The reason I eventually left Wicca is that I knew I couldn’t invest in the community; I’d never be able to believe as hard as everyone else did in what they were doing. I thought it would be a nice way to pass the time, but the moment it got difficult or inconvenient, I’d cast aside the ideal.

So what DO I believe in? If I don’t actually hold stock in the fictions I create to make sense of the world, what is there?

I honestly don’t know. I have a suspicion, though, that this life is all there is and afterwards there’s nothing else. I could become some of that formless spirit-stuff after my body ceases to function, or my spirit could actually move on to some sort of after-life. Since there’s no way for me to know, there’s no way I can count on it being true. I can’t let the hope of something like that influence my behavior.

Since this life is all there is, I believe that we should make it good. I believe that humans are social creatures, and that we can’t really get along without forming clans, communities, groups of people we depend on. I believe that part of what it means to be a good person is improving the community around you, whatever it is. If you work in McDonald’s, your coworkers and customers are part of a community. Make it better. If you’re part of a bowling league on Tuesday nights, your friends and opponents are part of a community. Make it better. If you have a neighborhood grocery store that you go to once a week, the people there are part of your community. Make it better.

I believe that we only have what we have, and each other. Why shouldn’t we make our communities as great as possible? My life’s work is making my world a better place, in big ways and small. Hopefully, I can work towards dedicating more and more of my actions to it. I want to become as devoted to my ideal as Sonny was to his.

I’d like to believe that there’s a heaven that we go to after we die, or that there really is magic in the world, waiting for us to discover and shape it. But I can’t, any more than I can believe I’m actually a rabbit trapped in a man’s body typing this out to you. All I can believe in is what’s in front of me, and you, reading this, right now. Let’s make a community of it.

So…what can we do to make that better?


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