The Godfather Part III (1990)

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Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in. As Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) ages and has a place of respect in society having divested himself of his casinos, he finds that being the head of the Corleone crime family isn’t getting any easier. He wants out of the Mafia and buys his way into the Vatican Bank but NYC mob kingpin Altobello (Eli Wallach) isn’t eager to let one of the most powerful and wealthy families go legit. Making matters even worse is Michael’s nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia) the illegitimate son of Sonny. Not only does Vincent want out from under smalltime mobster Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) who’s now got the Corleones’ New York business, he wants a piece of the Corleone family’s criminal empire, as well as Michael’s teenage daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola) who’s crushing on him. Ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton) appeals to Michael to allow their son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) quit law school to pursue a career as an opera singer.  A trip to Sicily looms as all the threads of the Corleone family start to be pieced together after a massacre in Atlantic City and scores need to be settled Why did they fear me so much and love you so much? Francis Ford Coppola revisits the scene of arguably his greatest triumph, The Godfather Saga, with writer Mario Puzo and yet he viewed it as a separate entity to that two-headed masterpiece. Perhaps it’s a riff on the material or a tribute act. The transition is tricky with a brusque crewcut Pacino boasting a different boo-ya voice at the beginning when the Catholic Church honours him following a $100 million donation; and the symbolism writ large in the concluding sequence, a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana in which the weakness of our own central Christ figure is punished with the greatest violence – the death of close family.  This story then mutates from a pastiche of its previous triumphs to a a pastiche of an opera. Michael is doing penance for the death of Fredo, his dumb older brother who betrayed the family. He is physically weak from diabetes and the accompanying stroke;  his efforts to go totally legitimate have angered his Mafia rivals from whose ties he cannot fully break and they want in on the deal with the Vatican;  his brother Sonny’s bastard son Vincent is nipping at his heels while sleeping with his own daughter; he is still in love with a remarried Kay, whom he finally introduces to Sicily;  he is in bed with God’s own gangsters. It’s a sweeping canvas which gradually reveals itself even if the setup is awkward:  we open on the windows at the Lake Tahoe house and see they are decorated with inlaid spider webs:  we soon see that sister Connie (Talia Shire) is the wicked crone behind the throne in her widow’s weeds, her flightiness long behind her. Like Wallach, her performance is cut from the finest prosciutto as she encourages Vincent in his ruthless ride to the top of the crime world. Mantegna isn’t a lot better as Joey Zasa. Wrapped into real life events at the Vatican in the late 70s/early 80s which gives Donal Donnelly, Raf Vallone and Helmut Berger some fine supporting roles, with an almost wordless John Savage as Tom Hagen’s priest son, this has the ring of truth but not the class of classicism even with that marvellous cast reunited, something of a miracle in itself:  it feels like the gang’s almost all here. I cheered when I saw Richard Bright back as Al Neri! So sue me! And good grief Enzo the Baker is back too! Duvall is replaced by George Hamilton as consigliere, not Coppola’s doing, but because he wasn’t going to be paid a decent salary. What were they thinking?! Even Martin Scorsese’s mother shows up! That’s Little Italy for ya! There are some witty exchanges amid the setpieces when everything beds in and the tragedy is set to violently unwind. The death of Sofia Coppola was the price she had to pay for being her father’s daughter, non e veroFinance is the gun, politics is the trigger.

 

 

 

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Happy 80th Birthday Francis Ford Coppola 7th April 2019!

The extravagantly gifted, wayward and brilliant auteur director Francis Coppola celebrates his eightieth year on the planet. And aren’t we lucky to have him! The first of the great American filmmakers to get an MFA in Film, he earned his stripes first with Roger Corman and then by writing wonderful screenplays. He won five Oscars in four years and directed both Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro to Academy Awards in the role of Vito Corleone in The Godfather films. Some of his films are among my personal favourites alongside that Mafia saga – Rumble Fish, Apocalypse Now, Tucker:  The Man and His Dream. Sometimes his works are flawed and more miss than hit but are still wonderfully full of life – One From the Heart, The Cotton Club, Peggy Sue Got Married. And then there’s a genre workout like The Rainmaker which is perfectly formed. In recent years his output has been sporadic and unsatisfying but it seems that Megalopolis, only 50 years in the writing, might yet see the light of day. Happy birthday Mr Coppola. We are not worthy. I wanted to be like those great European filmmakers of the ’50s and ’60s, and if I was hit by lightning it was The Godfather; that changed my whole life. So I just want to get back to what I was doing when I was first falling in love with films.

The Conversation (1974)

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There is no sound between human beings that I cannot record.  Surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired by the aide Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to a client known only as The Director to tail a young couple, Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams). Tracking the pair through San Francisco’s Union Square, Caul and his associate Stan (John Cazale) manage to record a cryptic conversation between them but there is interference on the tape.  He falls out with Stan over his offensive use of religious words because he is Catholic. Tormented by memories of a previous case when he was hired by a government agency that ended in three murders, Caul becomes obsessed with the resulting tapes, believing the couple are in danger, constantly piecing it together, playing it on a loop until the recordings are stolen following a one-night stand with a woman he meets at a party and he is forced to hand over the photographs to the mysterious Director (Robert Duvall) …. Since when are you here to be entertained? Literally tapping into contemporary fears about privacy and surveillance this tense paranoid conspiracy thriller is in the vanguard of early 70s films feeding on political sleaze. He’d kill us if he got the chance.  Hackman is superb as the enigmatic loner, suddenly plunged into an ethical crisis and never further away from someone than when he’s standing right next to them.  He has a failed private life with an on-off romance (with Teri Garr) but his decency is incisively writ in his love of playing jazz saxophone (the instrument closest to the human voice).  His ethics finally overwhelm his professional safeguarding, his vanity triggering the fatal misunderstanding that twists the narrative’s direction because he is trapped in the words he has eavesdropped upon.  How fascinating that Francis Ford Coppola chose to write, produce and direct this after being mired in the moral murk of The Godfather. When he had to start production on the sequel to that box office smash Walter Murch took over post-production on this and the result is a bona fide Seventies classic released just a few months before the resignation of Richard Nixon, forever linking this with Watergate but also perhaps alluding to the fate of film directors at the mercy of their entourage, their audience and a narrative they cannot control. The mystery is compounded by an intriguing piano score by David Shire.  We’ll be listening to you

The Rainmaker (1997)

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I sit here with this poor suffering kid and I swear revenge. Struggling new attorney Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) resorts to working for a shady lawyer Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke), where he meets paralegal Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito). He has a couple of clients including Colleen ‘Miss Birdie’ Birdson (Teresa Wright) whose millions turn out to be a bust but at least she has a garage apartment he can rent instead of living in his car. When the insurance company of Dot Black (Mary Kay Place) refuses her dying son coverage, Baylor and Shifflet team up to fight the corrupt corporation, taking on its callous lawyer Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight). Meanwhile, Baylor becomes involved with Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), an abused wife, whose husband (Andrew Shue) complicates matters when he confronts Baylor…  Director Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Herr do a fine job of making a very well balanced adaptation of John Grisham’s bestseller, with a nice portion of (occasionally gallows) humour to oppose the sometimes shocking domestic violence. There’s an exceptional cast doing some very convincing roleplay here. It’s a pleasure to see Rourke as the smoothly corrupt Stone, with his first scene referencing Rumble Fish (which he starred in for Coppola years earlier, when he was oh so beautiful) by virtue of a well-placed aquarium. Damon is fine as the naif who has to grow up and take responsibility for people of all ages and persuasions and the relationship with DeVito is very well drawn. There are no real dramatic surprises, just a well made film but Virginia Madsen has an excellent part in the last courtroom sequence and Place is fantastic as the mother who wants justice for her sick son. The wonderful Teresa Wright made her final screen appearance here.

The Great Gatsby (1974)

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You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can. Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) is a young man from the Midwest living modestly among the decadent mansions of 1920s Long Island. He becomes involved in the life of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), a rich man who throws the most lavish parties on the island. But behind Gatsby’s outgoing demeanor is a lonely man who wants nothing more than to be with his old love, Nick’s second cousin-once removed, the beautiful Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow). She is married to the adulterous and bullheaded millionaire Tom (Bruce Dern), creating a love triangle that will end in tragedy when a misunderstanding leads Tom’s lover Myrtle (Karen Black) to her death in a road accident and her cuckolded husband seeking revenge … We hear all about Gatsby long before we meet him, even if Nick imagines he sees him on the end of the dock early on, with that green light winking on and off. It’s the perfect way to introduce a character who is a self-made myth. Everyone has a different idea about the protagonist of a novel which itself is a masterpiece of sleight of hand storytelling:  it tells us on page one just how. There are a lot of things to admire about this film which is as hollow with the sound of money as Daisy’s voice:  the design, the tone, the casting, which is nigh-on perfect, but the writing leaves the performances with very little to do. Redford, that enigmatic, elusive, evasive Seventies superstar is the ultimately unknowable, uncommitted actor trying to revivify his past love, even as Daisy cries out to this now-multi-millionaire Don’t you know rich girls don’t marry poor boys? Waterston does his best as the writer/narrator who knows far less than he lets on. Dern probably comes off best as the unfiltered louse Fitzgerald wrote but overall Francis Ford Coppola’s script while faithful cannot replicate symbolic effect and the entire novella represents in the most eloquent language ever written class gone wrong in the ultimate American tragedy. Directed by Jack Clayton.

 

Rumble Fish (1983)

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If you could have written one book in your life and you had a choice out of everything what would it be? I’ll nail my colours here and say I would love to have been Susie Hinton and wish that I was capable of writing something so plaintively romantic and atmospheric and attracting Francis Ford Coppola to the camera when it came to adapting it for the screen. (Isn’t it better to have written a wonderful, meaningful, heartfelt book that is so small it fits in your pocket and everyone has read at an important time in their lives than a large tome nobody has?). He shot this back to back with The Outsiders, that other great short novel she wrote. And it all happened because her fans at a Fresno school petitioned Coppola to do it. It’s the story of smalltown Oklahoma teenage gangs. Rusty James (Matt Dillon) leads one of them. He lives with his drunkard dad (Dennis Hopper) and he’s not too smart. He worships his absent older brother, The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke channeling Albert Camus) who’s a pretty legendary guy around these parts, at least when gangs ruled the roost and he ruled the gangs. Rusty James breaks his brother’s anti-rumble pact, the Motorcycle Boy reappears and everything changes … A beautiful, stately, painterly work  (by Stephen H. Burum) in monochrome – with the exception of those colourful Siamese fighting fish! – when all the actors were young and oh so achingly beautiful (with the obvious exceptions of Hopper and trash star William Smith). This is one of those films you either get or you don’t. With an homage to Penrod, an amazingly choreographed fight scene or two, a love story with Diane Lane and a radical score by Stewart Copeland, there’s only one thing left to say:  The Motorcycle Boy Reigns.

Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

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Why mess with perfection? It seems a lot of films get out without their makers’ approval – CE3K being but one example. So there goes your auteur theory, box office and schedules being of more concern to the studios. Twenty-two years after it originally escaped Francis Ford Coppola’s hands, he got back with Walter Murch (who’d already spent two years of his life on it…) and re-edited a masterpiece, adding 29 minutes and substantial extra story to this fabular excursion on the wild side of Vietnam. The story is effectively the same, with the brilliance of John Milius’ touch all over this Conrad adaptation and those incredible, quotable lines – I love the smell of napalm in the morning! Charlie don’t surf! – but with added French ex-pats living out the last of their gilded sweaty days on a plantation (Christian Marquand helps). There is also a new sequence meeting the Playboy Bunnies upriver and more with Colonel Kurtz. The original soundtrack is quite possibly the scariest in my collection (try listening to it on your own in the dark) but more music was added: although Carmine Coppola had died in 1991, a deleted Love Theme was found and re-recorded on synths. If you haven’t seen this, or the original, you’re missing out on one of the great cinematic experiences. Stunning.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

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An utterly compelling sequel? Yes, it’s possible.  In fact for many people this is better than the original. But then it’s a prequel as well as a sequel and has an absorbing richness deriving from the fabled origins of the Mob back in Sicily and its growth during the Prohibition era. Robert De Niro plays the young Vito Corleone and his life is juxtaposed with that of his son the current Don, Michael (Al Pacino), as a Senate Committee closes in on the Mafia and his rivals start wiping out everyone in sight while he tries to expand his casino interests in Las Vegas. An immensely fulfilling narrative experience with stunning performances including legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth and Troy Donahue playing Connie’s latest squeeze, Merle Johnson – Donahue’s birth name.

The Godfather (1971)

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Make him an offer he can’t refuse. Go to the mattresses. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. The Godfather is truly the I Ching, non vero? Mario Puzo’s novel is gripping but kinda schlocky, Francis Ford Coppola saw a way to imbue it with a kind of classicism at a time when the few Mafia movies that had been made were really just cheap-ish thrillers. The story is that of family, brothers, inheritance, murder and mayhem. If you do the Paramount Studios tour (and I thoroughly recommend it) you can see the NYC set where Michael takes out the crooked cop and the rival who’s tried to assassinate his father Don Vito – a friend obsessed with production design asked me if the floor (tiled) was still there and I had to disappoint them. But it was a thrill. Because no matter how many times you see this film it lures you in, just like they do Sonny to the tollbooth on the Causeway (jeez, the first time I saw this I didn’t go to bed till 2 in the morning. The image of James Caan being rattled like a ragdoll under machine gunfire is unforgettable and horrible. Never mind the horse’s head…)  Watching Pacino transform from the good youngest son to the efficiently vengeful killing machine is really something – his movement under the greatcoat and bowler at the movie’s end makes you weep at how his idealism has curdled into limitless violence and ambition, and that closing shot, when his wife is literally shut out in that long shot … Oh, I feel like I’m turning into Edward G. Robinson:  Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?! It’s impossible to state how great this film is and watching it side by side with its great sequel is one of the singular pleasures of this mortal life. Seeing it in a big screen revival raised my spirits. It’s simply stunning I have it on all the time chez moi because sometimes you have to make yourself feel good and despite its content it is paradoxically comforting. Coppola did a fine job in making over the material so that you feel like you’re watching a parable about America rather than a tale of scuzzy mobsters. But he knew mid-production there was a scene missing and so he asked screenwriter and script doctor Robert Towne to help him out: the result being the garden scene when the Don is handing over the family business to the war hero son he thought would become a Senator. You can read about that in my book about Towne: https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472425177&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon. What a fabulous film. I believe in America

Twixt (2011)

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Maybe it’s a twitch or muscle memory that makes him do it, but Francis Ford Coppola’s last release is hardly a sign of an aesthetic that needs to be exercised. Val Kilmer is the writer on a book tour selling his horror books from the trunk of his car to a dwindling audience when he arrives  in a small town where Edgar Allan Poe once stayed. A murder piques his interest and his dream leads him back to a personal tragedy.  The mix of visual styles, the supporting performances, the vampire conceit, all these suggest someone trying their hand at filmmaking for the first time – not a past master. Truly these are odd times.