Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Love Letter to a Polarizing Film

The Godfather: Part III, dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1990 (4.5/5)

I've always had a soft spot for The Godfather: Part III.

But it's often declared as one of the worst sequels ever. For a film that has cemented its name in the universe of cinematic crap, it was nominated for six Academy Awards back when it was released, including Best Picture. Gene Siskel placed it on his Top Ten of 1990 and Roger Ebert rewarded the film three-and-a-half stars. The general critical response at the time was mostly positive and the film currently holds a 66% "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes. And it was moderately successful at the box office, grossing around $66 million in the U.S. alone.

Despite the initial warm welcoming, the film has always gotten a cold reception from its audience and it only gets colder as it ages.

Godfather purists--meaning fans of the first two films--have always been the most apparent critics of Part III. I realize that it's not a perfect film--the ending is insanely confusing (even after my three viewings), Sofia Coppola is mostly an incapable actress, the incestuous relationship is ridiculous, the whole son-wanting-to-be-an-opera-singer thing is forced, and the metaphorical dialogue is nearly laughable--but it's an admirable piece of work for a film that was purely intended to get director Francis Ford Coppola out of bankruptcy.

Part III pulls its audience back into the sepia-tinted world of the Corleone family, also known as the violent, inescapable purgatory of Don Michael Corleone's (Al Pacino) life. It's been nearly twenty years since we've seen the Michael in Part II, sitting alone outside his Tahoe home, and contemplating everything he had lost--his brother, his wife, and his dreams of a legitimate family business. Michael became his worst enemy--and still is.

Michael has since transformed himself into a respectable businessman and philanthropist. For the past twenty years, he has been pushing his family business towards legitimacy, fulfilling a promise he made to his ex-wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) before their marriage. Although Michael is an honored man, he's a lonely one too. In old age, he wants the comfort of family, but his opera-singing son, Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio) wants nothing to do with the family business and Kay has moved on to a more secure, conventional marriage to a judge. All he really has left is his naively vulnerable daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola), and all the greedy men who wants to make money off his crime empire.

Things shake up when Michael's bastard nephew, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) enters the picture. Vincent is as aggressive, intuitive, and trigger-crazy as his late father, Santino. Vincent is tired of working for the small-time, photogenic, showman gangster, Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), and wants to work for Michael. At first, Michael is hesitant, but he's getting old, sick, and sentimental--he gives in to Vincent and his little sister Connie's (Talia Shire) wishes, and generously offers Vincent the chance to be part of the Corleone family, where Vincent's true roots are.

Vincent's not shy to show what he's got: He wants to get rid of Joey Zasa and quickly wins the fragile, romantic heart of his cousin, Mary. Michael realizes that Vincent's violent and romantic escapades are dangerous, but he sees potential in this ambitious punk: Vincent has his father's headstrong, dedicated heart, and his grandfather's calculting negotiation skills of pragmatism and reason. Most of all, Michael sees a man he can trust with the future of the family business.

There is this subplot involving a real estate company that is partially run by the Vatican that the Corleone family is trying to gain control of. There is money to be made and all the other crime families want in. But all that seems to fade to the background. This is a film about a man who wants to redeem himself and hopes to God that it's not too late to be saved.

There is a powerful scene in the film where Michael confesses his sins to a priest. It's beautifully filmed in the garden and it's one of the most poignant scenes I've ever seen--and one of the most memorable scenes Pacino has ever filmed. Michael confesses that he's betrayed his wife, himself, and killed numerous men, including his own brother. He breaks down because he knows that even if God forgives him, he can never forgive himself.

Pacino is the foundation of the Godfather series. I don't think any of the films would ever be as effective if it weren't for him. I've never revered Marlon Brando's legendary performance as Don Vito Corleone. To me, The Godfather has always been about Pacino's Michael and that intense, alluring complexity that is so central to Pacino's performance. There has never been a cinematic villain that I have sympathized with more than Michael Corleone and I don't think there ever will be. Part II shows the rise of a calculating crime boss and Part III shows the heartbreaking downfall of a tainted dreamer; Pacino understands both sides immensely well.

Pacino also has fabulous chemistry with Keaton, who plays the love of Michael's life and the mother of his children, Kay. Kay knows several secrets about Michael's history and acts as the conscience he doesn't necessarily want, but knows he needs. She still cares about him, but after all these years of bullets and broken promises, it's hard for her to not feel some disdain for his mafia lifestyle. Pacino and Keaton's scenes together in Sicily are precious; they both acknowledge a life that they could once attain, but destiny turned out differently. It's subtley romantic, but ultimately heartbreaking. It's also two great actors at their finest.

But bad habits are hard to break: There is an excellent scene where Vincent shaves Michael and Michael tells Vincent to "sell his soul" to the enemy, Don Altobello (Eli Wallach), the Hyman Roth of Part III. The entire scene intercuts with Vincent trying to convince Don Altobello that he's changing sides. It's a scene filmed with some suspenseful creativity and shows with gentle, subtle touches that Michael can still run the business and as long as he's the head of the business, he's going to run it to the best of his abilities.

Part III is shot with glorious mastery by cinematographer Gordon Willis. Everything from the dark walls of the Corleone home to the sun-drenched country of Sicily is illustrated beautifully. The signature score by Nino Rota still soars with atmospheric wonder to this world that we've known so long and continuously return to.

The numerous murders at the end of the film are rather confusing and sometimes even slow, but they are ingeniously intercut with a live Italian opera, starring Michael's son, Anthony.

There seems to be a lot of controversy about Sofia Coppola's performance. The role originally went to Winona Ryder, who had to drop out because she was sick when production began. Ryder, being an established professional actress, would have been an appropriate choice for Mary. But I find it hard to blame Coppola for her lackluster performance because her father made the decision to put her on celluoid.

Coppola, however amateur her performance is, shockingly brings a certain indescribable vulnerability and warmth to her performance. There is a scene near the end of the film where Mary's heart is undeniably in shambles and she just stares on, with all the sadness and tears of a lost schoolgirl. At that point, it's difficult not to feel an iota of sympathy for her.

Consider this my love letter to Part III. The film is a quintessential crime epic and blockbuster of the nineties (along with GoodFellas, which was released in the same year), shot with mastery and skill, and told with heart, compassion, and emotional complexity. It's a rare film in a batch of mindless modern shoot-em-ups. There will never be another film series quite like The Godfather and I might as well cherish its delicately flawed--yet completely heartbreaking--finale.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Abstract Thoughts About The Graduate

The Graduate, dir. Mike Nicholas, 1967 (4.5/5 stars)

The first time I saw The Graduate, it was on my tiny, long-retired television screen. It was one of the best movies I've ever seen. Perhaps the most entertaining motion picture I've ever witnessed. At thirteen years old, I already related to Benjamin Braddock's sense of disillusionment, confusion, and indecisiveness. I had an impaired sense of judgment, much like Ben. I did not know where to look for the light at the end of the tunnel. I just wanted to sit around all day, contemplating, searching for a definite route in life. I've always been a little ahead of the game, but somehow, it just seems like I've wasted all that time on thinking without any meaningful action.

The Graduate is also one of the most important movies ever made about the exterior glories of youth and the inner time bomb that probes the core of youth. It's simply timeless. But I'm rather bipolar about its wonders. My second viewing somewhat plagues me with the question, "Why is Benjamin Braddock such a creep?" But there's this unexplainable, puppy dog charm to his strange, and sometimes stalkerish antics.

One of the charms of The Graduate is that it uses music to express the characters' senses of confusion and temptation. Mike Nichol's groundbreaking 1967 film not only left a mark in the world of American comedy, but it also used music as a cinematic device to its fullest potential. I don't want to over-exaggerate or anything, but without The Graduate, I doubt we would have those monumental music-within-a-nonmusical-movie moments in later films. Thanks to this film, I was introduced to the music of Simon & Garfunkel. "The Sound of Silence" haunted me, like blind ghosts stuck forever on a clothes hanger. To this day, it still does. And the world of cinema was taught how to properly inject a little bit of pop into their primary medium.

The film's plot spotlights the awkward, nervous, and bored Ben (Dustin Hoffman). Ben recently graduated from college with a bachelor's degree and track star fame attached to his name. He's a golden boy of sorts: everyone wants to what the future has in store of young Ben. But it's the old family friend, Mrs. Robinson (Ann Bancroft) who sees a different kind of potential in Ben. Mrs. Robinson attempts to seduce him and succeeds. The two begin a vacuous affair, built on evening meetings at the local hotel. When Ben's family forces him to take out the Robinsons' college-aged daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), Ben seriously falls for her. In result, he must face Mrs. Robinson's raging disapproval.

Most of the time, I cheer for Ben. I want things to turn out well for him. But my conscience tells me he's a real creep. (Roger Ebert also describes Ben as a "creep," perhaps for slightly different reasons.) There is something completely unlikable about Ben. He's a social underdog, for sure, but he's a quietly despicable social underdog. People like him don't get anywhere in life. At the end of the day, guys like Ben may have won the girl, but things will be completely different in another month. The girl would've faced reality by then. Ben is alert when he finds purpose in life, but when he captures the reward, he doesn't know what to do with it. He's one of those guys who knows how to kill a man, but won't know where to dispose the body. That's Ben in a nutshell.

Hoffman is perfectly cast in this role. I want to hate Ben, but I don't. Hoffman plays Ben like a guy who's completely lost at sea and uncomfortable not only with his sexuality, but with the purpose of his mere existence. Hoffman can also deliver some excellent aw-shucks humor and convince that he's serious about his ridiculously awkward antics. The opening scene sums it all up: Hoffman has that amazing blank look on his face: slightly nervous, yet strangely, a bit hopeful. Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" blares in the background.

Benjamin Braddock is one of those characters that has cemented Hoffman as a credible actor after all these years. Here's a breakthrough performance at its ripest. I would say that Hoffman's performance in this film acts as the very foundation to his decades-long, tremendously successful film career.

But Mrs. Robinson is an entirely different story. She's manipulative and conniving, yet sexy and alive. She's this middle-aged woman, confined to the boring limitations of a domestic servant to the California suburbs. If she lived in a more modern day and age, life would have been brighter for her. I deeply resent Mrs. Robinson, although I do sympathize with her unfortunate circumstances. Bancroft plays Mrs. Robinson as an untouched enigma, which makes the character both fascinating and horrific at once. And Bancroft, in her late thirties, still looked like a golden goddess.

I hate Ben and Mrs. Robinson. I love Ben and Mrs. Robinson. It depends on my mood. When I'm cynical and depressed, Ben and Mrs. Robinson are my heroes. When I feel absolutely fine and sedated, Ben and Mrs. Robinson are devilish tools.

But Nichols does consciously showcase the playfully satirical aspects of The Graduate. The film is a surprisingly insightful look at the late-sixties, youth, counterculture, the American suburbs, the American Dream, aging, college, lust, and love. What are they? What are their purposes? What are their functions? Does it all matter?

I've watched The Graduate with my mom and my English class on two separate occasions. Both my mom and my English class seem to think this famous little classic is "weird." Okay, I'm just going on a limb about my entire English class, but my mom actually said it. Apparently it's hard to explain why exactly she feels that way. She just does.

My mom is rather repulsed by Ben's actions. She thinks Ben is one of the most filthy, disgusting cinematic characters she's ever seen on screen. And she's seen quite a few movies, many of which includes gory violence and rape. I certainly don't understand her deep resentment for Ben, but it's there.

My English class is supposed to connect The Graduate to the general idea of existentialism. Does Ben make his own decisions? How does he execute his existential way of thinking? No matter. But did they like the film? My friend said he thought it was "weird" as well.

My English class just finished viewing the film on Friday. From this particular viewing, I conclude that it is one of the most entertaining motion pictures ever made. It's mostly due to that hilariously suspenseful climatic scene, where I observe the clueless hero chase the current girl of his dreams. But that still doesn't stop me from feeling the great urge to punch Ben in the face. Or wonder what the hell he and Elaine are going to go after they take off in that yellow bus. But I do wish everything works out for everyone involved. As much as I feel this heavy disdain for the characters in The Graduate, I want things to work out well for them. Perhaps this way, they'd feel less troubled and I'd like them more, even though I won't see their journey to a brighter path. I mean, at least I want things to be okay for them, you know what I mean?

There's a possibility that I may hate this movie again once I think everything through. But for now, it's as terrific as I want it to be.