Hello. It’s time. Time to talk about The Godfather. The films that have been discussed to death, picked apart, admired, homaged, and endlessly imitated (in films as varied as Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Disney’s upcoming Zootopia); the films that left an overbearing shadow across not only filmmaking, but art as a whole, the series widely considered to consist of two of the greatest films of all time. And then there’s Part III. It began with 1972’s The Godfather (based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name), the quintessential mafia movie, featuring the quintessential gentleman gangster in Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone, who held such an overbearing presence on the film that its protagonist, Michael (as played by Al Pacino) was relegated to the supporting actor category at the Academy Awards, a baffling decision, in my opinion. It continued with 1974’s The Godfather Part II, widely considered by many to be the greatest sequel of all time, so great, in fact, that it was the first sequel ever to receive the Academy Award for Best Picture, and I believe the only, until 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. With its dual storylines and show-stealing performances from both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (their first collaboration, though it wouldn’t be until 1995’s Heat that they would share a scene), and its sweeping score, many consider it to be an improvement on the first installment. And then came Part III. Widely reviled as one of the most disappointing films of all time, and as one of the worst sequels, it still managed to garner 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (though it failed to win), making it one of only a few films to be nominated for both the Oscars and the Razzies.
This early breakdown is hardly enough depth to discuss each film, so let’s get into it, beginning with….
Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel had only been out 3 years when Francis Ford Coppola took the reins of the epic film adaptation, with its sweeping score, wonderful cast, and near-flawless pacing. For a 178 minute film, it goes by fairly fast, leaving few dull spots, excepting the incredibly boring sojourn to Sicily, which kind of kills the film halfway through. It’s ultimately unnecessary, and setting up a second horribly underwritten love interest gains the audience no insight to Michael’s character. In general, the female characters of The Godfather suffer from an overall lack of substantial roles, with the most prominent being Diane Keaton’s Kay, who disappears in the middle of the film, and Talia Shire’s Connie, who had perhaps 20 minutes total of screentime. Not exactly heavyweights in storytelling, though they’re still good, and Kay works as the audience insert character, who gets expositionized about the structures of the Mafia.
The film itself works as a romanticized examination of 40s mob politics. Themes of family loyalty are examined, as Pacino’s Michael is drawn into the family business because of his love for his family, despite his protestations that “that’s my family, Kay, not me.” Pacino puts in one of his best early performances, a remarkably subdued one, not his typical “loud Pacino” routine. He’s incredibly effective as the film’s emotional core. People may remember Brando more, but his character is more aloof, more difficult to relate to, a fascinating, yet enigmatic man.
And I kid not when I say that Brando puts in one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema here. Some may poke fun at the cotton-mouthed pronunciations and the various tics that make up Don Vito Corleone, but one cannot fault Brando here: it really works. Brando made bold choices with the character, many of the characteristics came from his mind, and they all combine to create a wonderful central performance. The character is rightfully iconic.
All in all, despite a few flaws (a dip in pacing during Pacino’s sojourn to Sicily and James Caan’s fight choreography, to name a few), The Godfather holds up as one of cinema’s finest achievements, a beautiful mafia epic rooted deeply in family. A lavishly told crime story, The Godfather earns an easy A+.
1974’s The Godfather Part II has been called by many one of cinema’s greatest sequels; the first sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. A long-standing debate among film buffs is whether Part II is a better film than Part I. The answer? Well, yes…and no. The question is not an easy one to answer.
Part II improves in many ways on Part I. Al Pacino has grown as an actor; so too, has Michael Corleone as a man. He’s attempted to become his father, though his father in a changing world, a world of betrayals and backstabbings far, far worse than in Vito’s time. A time in which the bonds of family no longer count. The film examines Michael’s fall from grace, while simultaneously telling of the rise of his father, a young Vito Corleone, portrayed herein by Robert De Niro.
And this is where opinion on the film divides. Some feel the dual storylines to be a fascinating tale of parallels; others, an unnecessary framing device that detracts from both stories. I think it to be somewhere in the middle. While the two storylines contrast effectively, I often found myself feeling that the narrative would be improved, if only we’d cut back to Vito from Michael, or vice versa. Vito’s storyline is so simplistic, and Michael’s by comparison so complex, that the film can be a bit difficult to follow. Vito’s is the tale of the rise of one man, in the ultimate expression of the American dream: a young immigrant, who earns his way to fortune through bonds of loyalty, and also murder. It takes the same romanticized view of crime as the first film, while Michael’s does not. The film sends a bit of an odd message through this juxtaposition: that it’s alright to be a ruthless murderer, as long as you make time for your family.
However, this is a relatively minor gripe. The film is beautifully photographed; the cinematography is stunning, shot through with firm direction from Coppola and a beautifully sweeping score from Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola. The performances are all spectacular here: Pacino once again pulls off one of cinema’s finest characters, and De Niro is in fine form here, he truly deserved the nod from the Academy. Diane Keaton’s role is expanded here, as is Talia Shire’s.
Other than the perhaps off-putting dual narrative, there is little to find fault with in The Godfather Part II, one of storytelling’s finest sequels, and a true work of art. The Godfather Part II is the logical conclusion to the sweeping narrative of the Corleone family, and earns a well-deserved A+.
Much as Part II is one of Hollywood’s most venerated sequels, so to is Part III one of its most reviled. A generally despised threequel, it belatedly turned one of cinema’s most beloved crime sagas into a trilogy, over 15 years after it had definitively concluded with a gunshot ringing out across a lake. Michael Corleone’s story was over, that is why this movie sucks. The talent is all back (with the exception of Duvall, R.I.P. Tom Hagen, you will live on in our hearts): Puzo, Coppola, Pacino, Shire, Keaton, etc. It also pulls in the always wonderful Andy Garcia as the son of James Caan’s character from the first film. Unfortunately, it also gains a non-actor: Sofia Coppola, in one of cinema’s most deservedly lambasted performances. She’s really, really bad. I kid you not, I was in disbelief, my jaw literally dropped at the sound of her woodenness. But she is not the problem with the film. Without her, with a different actress, any real actress, the film would still be only a mediocre crime drama with a mildly intriguing premise and a remarkably talented cast putting in either good or disappointing performances. One of the only good things to come out of The Godfather Part III is Sofia Coppola’s abandonment of acting and discovery of her true talents behind the camera. Without this film, would we even have Lost in Translation?
The story basically goes: Papal banking scandal of the 1980s. And therein lies the problem: a Godfather story has no place in the 80s. By then, the archetype of gentleman mob boss was dead, it was all drug dealers, Scarfaces if you will. Pacino puts in a decent performance, but he’s no Corleone in this, he’s only a decent Pacino. Plus, there’s weird moments like this:
Andy Garcia is the only near-perfect part of the film, he gives a solid performance, though he still has to attempt to pull off a creepy incestual “love” story with Sofia. And no actor can salvage that. The strangest thing about the incest is not that it’s there, it’s that no one seems to think that that’s strange, at all. It’s creepy, it’s weird, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. And that’s not something I want to be saying about the emotional core of a film.
Speaking of ineffective emotional cores, the entire ending just doesn’t work. At all. Whatsoever. Sofia Coppola’s character dies (Yay!), but this makes Pacino sad (Aww?). Then, we cut forward a decade or so, and Pacino’s all alone in a chair. Then, he dies, and falls off the chair. The end. Wow, I felt nothing. A beloved character dies, and I felt nothing. Why is this? Because that character was already done. His story was told, it was completed. Not every story requires three acts, and Michael Corleone’s certainly did not. Not in 1974, and not in 1990.
All in all, there’s little good about The Godfather Part III. It attempts to use the spinning newspaper headline in a serious connotation, it features mediocre to horrendous performances, the direction is uninspired, and the score is not on the level of its predecessors. The plot is simply unengaging, and its emotional core is uneffective. A lackluster third act, it ends a marathon viewing on a shoddy note. A run-of-the-mill mob film, it takes all the wrong chances and makes all the wrong choices. A snoozefest of an experience, Godfather III earns a C-.
Well, there you have it. This post took a while to throw together, and I hope that you enjoyed my ramblings on one of the most celebrated trilogies (except the third one) in cinematic history.
But anyways, I’ll be seeing you soon (hopefully) with a more pedestrian review: only one film, and one considerably more brisk than any of these. Until then, however, I salute you. Goodbye, and farewell, loyal readers, our next encounter. Bye!