Wednesday, May 20, 2009

FotM: The Ultimate

I have no cool reason like Megan to excuse my tardiness with this feature as I haven’t been embroiled in post-production on my first feature film, so I will have to hope that you are feeling merciful as you read this.

When a decision is made to make a sequel to a feature film, there are two main motivating reasons. First, either the filmmaker or the studio responsible for the first film decides that there’s potential for longevity with the set of established characters and a sequel is warranted or even needed to finish the story. Second, (and this is the primary reason, in my opinion) the decision to make a sequel is made in the hopes of milking the success of the original film for all it’s worth, and, as such, is heavily based in little dollar signs floating around in the starry eyes of studio bigs. That said, the sequel is a tricky thing to navigate. While there have been some successful sequels made, there have been far too many awful attempts at filmmaking to mention. What’s even more rare is the film that does more than merely continue a story established earlier and moves into that strange, awestruck place where it’s on par with the original film.

When you’re talking about sequels, there’s one film that is the elephant in the room. It’s one of the finest examples of cinematic craftsmanship I can think of, and the fact that it’s as good as it is a bit of miracle. I’m talking about what I believe is the greatest sequel ever made. I’m talking about The Godfather: Part II.

Now, The Godfather is, in many ways, the ultimate marriage of art and popular entertainment that the cinema has ever seen. It elevated a pretty terrific pulp novel by Mario Puzo into the stratosphere of film’s all-time greats. It succeeds on almost every level. It’s a fantastically made film from almost every standpoint and, at the same time, is wonderfully entertaining. What’s more, The Godfather has something special that simply can’t be duplicated. It has a very specific feel to it. You know from the very beginning that you’re watching The Godfather. You’re not going to mistake it for anything else.

That’s what makes the existence of The Godfather: Part II such a miracle. From almost the very beginning, it feels completely right. In my mind, it’s the rarest of all sequels in that it actually rivals its predecessor as an achievement. After watching the two films once, I actually liked it more than the first film. Now, after watching them again, I tend lean more the other way. However, think for a moment about what I’m saying. I’m stacking up another film against The Godfather. That’s no small feat.

So what makes The Godfather: Part II work so well? I think the two main things that really elevate it is the collaboration of Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo on the script and the wall-to-wall excellent performances. As I mentioned earlier, Puzo wrote the original novel that the first film was based on, which ends after the events portrayed in the first film, although the flashback sequences in The Godfather: Part II are also in the book. Having Puzo there to help flesh out what the characters would do next was, I think, a tremendous gift that empowered Coppola, as skilled of a writer as he is, to take the story forward to incredible heights. In addition, the performances, particularly in the case of Al Pacino, are just outstanding. Pacino plays Michael Corleone like a coiled snake. That snake might look peaceful a lot of the time, but you just never know when it’ll strike with deadly accuracy. Additionally, John Cazale is wonderful as Fredo Corleone. In many ways, he becomes the soul of The Godfather: Part II, and what happens to his character is moving and unforgettable. He has a scene with Pacino that is as good as just about any scene from any film that I can think of. What’s more, The Godfather: Part II signified the arrival of one Robert De Niro on the cinematic scene. As a young Vito Corleone, he’s truly awesome. Although Diane Keaton won an Oscar for Annie Hall, I think that her performance here is even better. She has a scene with Pacino that is so good, it’s actually jaw-dropping.

At its heart, The Godfather: Part II is a film that concerns itself with how a person can begin doing something disreputable for noble reasons and end up losing sight of who they are. One thing that makes it particularly effective is its dual structure. Coppola cross-cuts between the rise of Vito Corleone between 1917-1925 and the growth of Michael Corleone’s empire in 1958. I think the reason that the disparity between the two of them is so apparent is because, with Vito, one always gets the sense that, regardless of the legality of what he’s doing, he’s doing it for honorable, understandable reasons. On the other hand, with Michael, he comes across as much colder and more calculating, and, as such, he doesn’t get the audience’s support in the same way. We admire Vito, but we pity Michael.

Unfortunately, the third time would NOT prove to be a charm for Coppola, as he tried to stretch the magic out with a third film. However, the fact that he was able to make an incredible film not once, but twice is astounding. In 2007, I had the honor of showing The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II to a group of “Godfather virgins.” It was a truly awesome experience. Just when they thought they’d figured out what was going to happen, they were blown away. One of my friends, who isn’t the biggest film fan, now considers those two films to be among her all-time favorites. That’s something that I’m very proud of, and, in a way, that’s the point of this blog. Megan, FilmNinja, Chris W. and I all love the movies and try to expose you to films that have moved us in the hopes that they might move you too. For cinephiles like us, there’s no greater joy than seeing a great film, but encouraging other people to see it too comes close.

It amazes me that a lot of people I talk to haven’t seen The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. There are a bunch of films that I’d say that someone who loves the movies ought to see, but these are two films that I’d say that any movie buff, fan, or aficionado on any level owes it himself/herself to see.

Maybe you’re one of these people who hasn’t seen them yet. If you are, don’t wait another minute. Don’t walk, run to wherever you have to go to rent/buy them. I envy the experience you’re about to have.


Megan said...

That is one great series of movies. They often get judged as one movie instead of two because people have so much trouble seeing one separate from the other.

Adam said...

I know what you mean. I don't think that anyone has a tough time distinguishing Part III from the other two though! I think that Coppola could have actually made a successful third film if he hadn't have waited so long to do it.

I think the "merging" that Parts I and II do in people's minds is a real tribute to what Coppola accomplished. Like I said in the article, he created such a distinctive feel for Part I that it's astounding that he was able to duplicate it. I hope that I'm half as fortunate if I'm ever involved in a similar type of project .

Anonymous said...

Its a shame what's become of Coppola now but these are definetly his crowning acheivements.

Yeah, I is probably better but I think I enjoy II more because I just love the 1917-1925 time period or at least the way they do it in that film and would have loved to have seen more of it.

I think III would have been great had they done what they originally were supposed to and cover the 30's via flashback like they do in the novel. FYI the non-Mario Puzo sequel novel was just awful, don't even bother with it.

I think the reason that I and II get lumped together is because they DID air them as one film back in the 70's and 80's and even released them like that on laserdisc I believe. Would be interesting to check out, if you haven't already

Megan said...

Yeah, it was called The Godfather Saga and it was reedited to become one long, long film. I don't think it's ever been released on DVD though...

Anonymous said...

That's the one, I knew I had the name wrong.

I don't think it has either and I'm guessing it has to do with Coppola going all Lucas-ian on us and only wanting people to see his own version of the film and to ignore all that came before.

Adam said...

Actually, I think that Coppola's motives were a bit more pure than those of Mr. "Blind-eye-to-quality" Lucas. From what I recall, Coppola recut the films into chronological order for the Godfather Saga. That way, you'd get to see the De Niro stuff first, then the first film, and so on and so forth. It sounds like an interesting idea. Did either of you see it? If so, do you think it worked?

Anonymous said...

Undoubtably but he should still make it availble or at least included it with the last DVD set. I'm not sure why he didn't but that's just my guess about it.

I don't recall seeing it myself, although I can vaguely remember seeing it on TV from way back before I could even fully understand the film. Of course, it was probably on a VHS tape that one of my relatives taped off TV or something.

I'd be interested in watching it, I think I'll hunt it down now.

Anonymous said...

Some info on it.....

I seem to remember seeing it at my Grandpa's once, I'll have to see if he still has it.

In my mind, the saga ends in 1959. The third once just didn't happen to me, its much more powerful with Micheal ending up all alone with his thoughts left to die than the Monty Python-esque death scene he got in part III.