Review: The Godfather (1972)

godfather1That moment when the undertaker is first seen pleading for justice and the camera slowly pulls closer, it’s so slight we hardly even notice it, but we hear his bitter monologue about America and his disfigured daughter. A head appears in the frame and we get our first vision of the now iconic Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando as masterful as ever). It’s a brilliant little scene that introduces us to the character this whole narrative revolves around, and it really is an important point to enter his story, on the wedding day of his daughter.

But it’s not just this opening scene that’s of note. In the sprawling expanse of this film that goes from New York, to Hollywood, to Las Vegas, and even back to the old country in Sicily, there is so much to be taken in. A gruff studio head faces the wrath of Corleone when he gets a present in bed, and he learns never to cross the Godfather again. There’s the moment where Vito first utters the words, “Make him an offer he can’t refuse” and then it is mirrored by his son Michael later on.

godfather2You have the quip from the tubby Clemenza after they pull one of the many hits and then very business-like they leave the gun, but take the ever-important cannoli. There’s the turning point where Michael the war hero faces off against crooked cop McCluskey  (Sterling Hayden) and the opportunistic heroin dealer Solozzo because he wants revenge for the shot they took at his father. There’s the striking juxtaposition when Michael takes part in the dedication of his god-child knowing full well what is happening to the bosses all across town. Finally, we once more peer into the inner office now with Michael at the helm, and the door closes as a concerned Kay looks on at what her husband has become.

But not many people need to be told what their favorite scenes from The Godfather are, and they could probably rattle them off while giving color commentary. Aside from just being great scenes, however, these moments tie together a major theme that pervades this entire epic narrative. Because really, when you break it all down, with all the bloodshed, all the business, and everything else this film encompasses, it’s really about family. It becomes such an interesting paradigm, how Family can be sacred, held in such high regard, and yet violence is at times necessary and it’s also seen as a part of life. The two things are so interconnected and yet somehow they still can occupy two different spheres. Wives, children, etc. are left out of the fray. But when it comes down to business, men like Don Corleone will do what they have to do. After all, they are the men of the family and with that comes responsibility and a need to be stoic and strong. Never lose your temper, never show weakness, never say what you’re thinking, and always make them an offer they can’t refuse.

Vito Corleone played so famously by Marlon Brando is the epitome of The Godfather. A 40-year-old man was made to look decades older, he was given a distinctive mouth guard, and the rest is a giant simply delivering his lines with the nuanced — almost gasping delivery — that he was so well known for. He is in many ways the center point as the patriarch of this great family and the head of their business. Although his role does change as the circumstances change, he is a man of incredible influence with a great many friends, allies, as well as a few enemies. In other words, he’s the man with judges and politicians in his pocket, but it doesn’t come without a cost.

Sonny (James Caan) is the eldest son who is first in line to take over the role as head of the family. But although Sonny is a tough guy, his fiery temper is his downfall. He doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, and he lets his anger get the best of him. It doesn’t bode well in a business like his.

Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is another interesting addition to the family, because he’s not really one of them at all, but Vito took him off the street and he’s rather like a son, becoming a trusted member of Corleone’s inner circle. He helps carry out business and represents the Don when it comes to legal issues. He’s a good man to have around, but it also makes for an interesting dynamic with Sonny and even Michael.

Fredo (John Cazale) is the one brother who is lost in the shuffle, and he’s most certainly the weakest. All he’s good for is living it up and getting drunk so the family sends him to Las Vegas to stay out of trouble. He is unfit to be head of the family, because he simply has no guts and although his father cares about him, he would never trust him with the business.

Michagodfather3el (Al Pacino) comes back a war-hero and with a girlfriend in Kay (Dianne Keaton) who has no understanding of his culture or his people. In fact, the family wants to keep Michael as far from the fray of the family business as possible to protect him. The only possible role he might play is something unimportant so there’s no chance of him getting hurt. But while Don Vito is the focal point at first, The Godfather really evolves into the evolution of Michael from beginning to end. He starts out as an idealistic veteran so far removed from corruption. But the turn of events that deeply affect his family cause him to step into a different role, and he changes as a result. He is a far cry from the man we met during the wedding because now his almost subservient nature has been replaced by a cold-blooded dominance that is personified through his eyes. They’re like to icy black holes that can stare right through you, and they do.

The cinematography of Gordon Willis is obviously superb and generally popularized the golden tinge of The Godfather that gives it a classy and generally nostalgic touch of the 1940s. It makes locales like the open air wedding, Don Vito’s inner office, or even a cathedral all that more atmospheric. On his part, the score of Nino Rota manages to be hauntingly beautiful at one moment and even upbeat when necessary.

What more is there to say but that The Godfather is cinema at its purest and transcendent in its scope. There are few films that carry such magnitude in the vast annals of film history.

5/5 Stars

Love and Death (1975)

3e061-loveanddeath2Most every Tom, Dick and Harry has heard of the great Russian epic War and Peace. Love and Death is Woody Allen’s companion piece. It has nods to Tolstoy, Dostoevysky and channels a bit of the Marx Brothers. As one would expect, Boris aka Woody Allen comes from your typical Russian family where he is atypical in his stereotypical, bookish and misanthropic way. He was not made for 19th century Russia trading in valor and facial hair for his glasses and nihilistic philosophy. But he winds up going to war anyway watching his beloved second cousin (Diane Keaton) marry herself off to a run of the mill fishmonger.

Eventually, Boris is able to get his true love back and they are wed. It’s a union full of philosophical debates as only Woody Allen could have. But the invasion of Napoleon puts all this on hold as Sonja resolves to go and assassinate the Little Corporal. Boris hesitantly agrees to accompany her. In an ending fit for a Woody Allen film  parodying Bergman, Sonja goes through a life altering conversation while the recently executed Boris skips off with The Grim Reaper. It’s hard to beat Annie Hall but this still fairly early Allen piece has its quintessentially Woody Allen moments that are quirky and fun poke at Russian culture.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Annie Hall (1977)

d37a3-anniehall4“I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member. That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.”

So begins Annie Hall a film that Woody Allen, also known as Alvy Singer, begins with an opening monologue borrowing a quip from Grouch Marx. It acts as a lead into his life story, romantic and otherwise.

He had a childhood characterized as being morose, depressed, and so on, because as he noted early on “the universe is expanding.” He grew up living under a roller coaster and having fun with the local bumper cars. He grew up to be a comic with the same despondent outlook on life. In one memorable long shot of a sidewalk, we listen to Alvy talking to his friend about people making jokes about him being a Jew and his assertions seem uncalled for.

When Alvy was dating Annie, they went to Ingmar Bergman films and The Sorrow and the Pity was a personal favorite of Alvy. A favorite film with a perfect title and subject for the pessimistic fellow. However, what really vexes him are puffed up know-it-alls who pontificate on and on like they are God’s gift to the universe. It seems necessary at this point to break the fourth wall.

As Alvy recalls his early childhood and first relationship which began at an Adlai Stevenson rally, it is rather funny that he remains unchanged the whole time. Physically Woody Allen is playing Alvy as a young man and an old man without any change.

Then there is the fiasco with the lobsters and the memories of his first meeting with Annie over tennis. That was when he met the girl who came out of the Norman Rockwell painting. Seemingly the antithesis of Alvy himself.

Their relationship is examined with all its quirks from a trivial conversation about art, with underlying subtitles that reflect their real thoughts, to Annie’s stint as a nightclub singer. They have a comical time people watching, and Alvy recalls his second wife and the one who was a Rolling Stone reporter. His relationship with Annie also has its share of arguments, over spiders at 3 in the morning and adult education. Through it all Alvy still views Annie as a cartoon version of the Wicked Queen from “Snow White,” who he secretly loves.

It is during a famous split screen sequence (actually a split room) where the stark differences, not only between the pair, but the genders are pointed out. Things are changing. They take a trip out to sunny California and Alvy cannot help but hate it compared to pleasantly gray New York. They have laugh tracks, wheat germ killers, and trash which is subsequently made into T.V. shows. Annie loves it all.

The inevitable comes and Annie breaks up only to have Alvy soon revisit California to propose marriage. Needless to say, it does not happen. He returns to New York and makes his first play about their last conversation verbatim, with one small revision. Alvy sees Annie one last time when she returns to New York, and they share some laughs while highlights role across the screen.

Allen’s stand-in Alvy sums it all up with one final joke about a guy who has a brother who thinks he a chicken, but he fails to do anything about it because he needs the eggs. That’s how he feels about relationships. “They’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd,” but you keep on because you need the eggs. Another philosophical gem from Alvy Singer.

The irony of Annie Hall is that many a person has gone on to pontificate on and on about it, but if we actually pulled an Alvy Singer and dragged Woody Allen from out behind a movie poster, I’m sure he could set us straight. Annie Hall is chock full of humor, a far from typical type of romance, and people trying to find their way in life. Take away discussion about psychoanalysis, modernism, antisemitism, and what you are left with are people just talking. Some of what they say is about such philosophical topics, but sometimes it’s not. It’s about memories, simple observations of life, and the little things that happen along the way.

There are clashing worldviews that come up against each other like New York and California (brought to us by the cinematography of Gordon Willis). There are different sorts of people like Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. Yet we still go through relationships “because we need the eggs” so to speak. We are searching for that type of intimacy and closeness, and very often we keep looking and looking. It is painful, seemingly necessary, and all the same, it can feel pointless. It’s part of being human I suppose.

Annie Hall works for me because of the quirks that give a fresh face to the typical romantic comedy and it will be the measuring stick for other such films that are being released for years to come. I am not usually a major fan of Woody Allen films, but this one is his undisputed masterpiece. It exemplifies his general philosophy and approach to comedy. Not to mention his typical players in Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts.

4.5/5 Stars

Annie Hall (1977)

Starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, the film begins with Alvy Singer (Allen), a comedian with a good career and two unremarkable romantic relationships. That all changes when his friend (Tony Roberts) introduces him to the lively Annie Hall (Keaton). Over time they begin to grow fond of each other and they spend lots of quality time together in New York. However, after a trip to Los Angeles, they decide to split up and Annie stays in California. Alvy realizes his love and goes to see her again. His proposal of marriage is rejected, however after some time passes he comes across Annie in New York and they remember all the good times. This comedy romance is a quirky Allen movie that uses sight gags, breaks the fourth wall, utilizes voice over, and has lengthy camera shots.This film is a lot about simply talking and it certainly has its moments of brilliance.

4.5/5 Stars