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

Elf (2003)

220px-Elf_movie“The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

Elf is truly a Christmas miracle. It’s a relatively modern Christmas classic (a bit over 12 years old) that holds its own in a season usually dominated by old perennial favorites. Yet, again and again, it constantly excites, mesmerizes, and bedazzles in more ways than one.

Will Ferrell is the major treasure of Elf because, without his child-like wonderment and sincerity, this film could go downhill all too quickly. Buddy walks into female locker rooms, walks around New York in an Elf suit eating discarded gum, and calls his grown-up father “daddy” in a musical serenade, after all. But to his credit, Ferrell goes for it wholeheartedly completely engulfing himself in a magical realm that bewitches every other character who decides to join him. Everyone else walks in abject reality, but Buddy like Elwood P. Dowd (Harvey) or Dudley the angel (The Bishop’s Wife) exist outside of that and when they rub up against everyone else, they leave everyone, including the audience, changed.

From the outset, Elf comes right out of a storybook as Papa Elf (the venerable Bob Newhart) recounts how a human and his adopted son saved Christmas. Of course, it starts out as a sorry tale, because truth be told Buddy cannot figure out what his purpose in life is. What is he good at? What are his talents? For all the other elves it’s obvious: they make toys.

But when Buddy finally learns of his secret past he leaves his papa behind in a tearful goodbye, gains some sage advice from Santa (the equally venerable Ed Asner), and heads off on an iceberg to find his real father in the Big Apple.

There must be a catch, and there is a small one, Buddy’s father Walter Hobbes (James Caan) is on the naughty list. In fact, he’s a real Scrooge working slavishly day after day as a children’s book publisher. But you see Buddy doesn’t see people for their faults and that’s the secret of Ferrell’s success because his innocence and irrepressible will towards his fellow man is contagious. New York might be a culture shock and Hobbes as well as his young boy Michael are not too thrilled with Buddy’s arrival, but that’s because he’s so foreign – so nice. Ultimately, he becomes the best thing to happen in their life.

In truth, Buddy goes transforming New York systematically whether it’s the Hobbes’ home, Gimbel’s Department Store, or wherever his feet take him. And of course he finds love in his world-wearied coworker Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and saves Christmas, but that’s nothing unexpected. It’s not the results, but how we get there that counts – all those quotable moments in between.

Too often I feel bludgeoned to death by all the new takes on the Christmas season annually jostling for my affection. But the beauty of Elf is that it pays its respects to the past, thereby solidifying its own timelessness in the present. It doesn’t have to be the next big thing, but it is something that I would gladly sit down and watch annually, because of its spirit and seasonal charm. We get nods to A Christmas Story and Ralphie, an homage to George Bailey on the Bedford Fall bridge, and even Miracle on 34th Street (Buddy working at the rival Gimbels).

The music never steals the show but it does accent some sequences nicely including the voices of Louis Prima, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and so on. Each character fits well in director Jon Favreau’s narrative. The manager (Faizon Love) is a crack-up. The hired Santa (Artie Lange) is a thug. Peter Dinklage is an angry elf. James Caan is grumpy and cynical. Zooey Deschanel is pretty and cynical. Ed Asner is an endearing grouch. Bob Newhart has his usual stuttering charm. And Ferrell wraps it all up nicely with a pretty bow. Although it does completely sidestep the origins of the Christmas holiday, Elf does what it set out to do very well. It exudes Christmas spirit unabashedly.

“Christmas spirit is about believing, not seeing.” – Ed Asner as Santa

4/5 Stars

El Dorado (1966)

5a6c7-eldorado3 El Dorado is less of a remaking of Howard Hawk’s previous western production Rio Bravo and more of a reworking of it. This time the town drunk is sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum), who got his heart broke by a girl. The kid is Alan Bourdillion Traherne (James Caan) also known as Mississippi. He can be found with a shot up old hat on his head and a sawed off blunderbuss for a gun. It’s not his weapon of choice anyway. Then, there’s old reliable Bull Harris (Arthur Hunnicut), who holds down the fort and looks after the sheriff when he’s laid up. As the main love interest, there’s Maudie (Charlene Holt), a resident of El Dorado since her childhood days.
As always the man who calls the shots is Cole Thorton (John Wayne), an old war buddy of J.P.s. He has one of the fastest draws around but also has a surprisingly soft spot for doing good. He befriends the younger Mississippi and comes to the aid of J.P when he could have joined the other side.
Thorton rejects the offer of local villain Bart Jason (Ed Asner), but a threatened local ranch family wishes to take no chances. When it is all said and done Thorton receives a bullet in the back that causes him problems afterward.
Now lethal hired gun Nelson McLeod (Christopher George) has taken up Jason’s offer, and they ride into the town. One of their first meetings takes place in the old church and it ends in the arrest of Jason for his part in the whole affair. Another shootout takes place that night and now the formerly drunk sheriff also gets nicked in the leg.
Maudie is fearful of the thugs milling around her place and when Thorton and Mississippi go over to investigate they get ambushed because Cole has physical ailments of his own. They get Cole back but not without giving up their own prisoner. With one of the McDonald’s kidnapped a quick plan is devised and the final showdown begins. Our ragtag crew gets the job done, but J.P. and Cole make quite the pair. They look more like crippled old men than hardened gunfighters, both hobbling down the street with a crutch.

I must admit I am partial to Hawk’s original Rio Bravo and I have yet to see Rio Lobo, but I did really enjoy these characters. Wayne and Mitchum seem to play against type because at times they are quite comical. Mitchum is not a tough P.I. or ruthless villain, but a town drunk! Wayne can hardly shoot a gun at times and he even gets taken. That’s unheard of. It’s as if they softened with old age, but I don’t mind, because the interactions between those two, Mississippi, Bull, and Maudie are a lot of fun. Even the antagonist McCleod is a man with a sense of honor and good fun. Some great moments include Mississippi’s miracle concoction and numerous bars of soap being brought to the dirty sheriff when he finally takes a bath! The initial introduction of the two leads is priceless too. They both were smitten with the same girl.

Howard Hawks really knew how to make westerns not simply about guns and shootouts, but colorful characters who oftentimes seem more content kicking it back in the jail than in smelling out trouble. He proved it again with El Dorado.

4/5 Stars
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long
Singing a song, 
In search of El Dorado

The Godfather (1972)

This film is often cited by many as one of the greatest films of all time. I certainly would not be one to argue because it has so many extraordinary aspects. You have Brando as the title character and a great cast of others who reveal the honor as well as the brutality of this lifestyle. However this film is not just about the violence. It is complex and fascinating in many other ways.

*May Contain Spoilers

Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall, with director Francis Ford Coppola, this is possibly one of the greatest films ever. It begins at a wedding in the 1940s as Don Vito Corrleone takes care of some “business” as head of the family. All too soon it becomes evident that the Don is loyal to his friends and ruthless to those in his way. His youngest son Michael returns from the war and wants nothing to do with the business but at the same time conflict blows up when the family does not back a heroin dealer. When the Don comes close to death Michael finally gets involved. After a series of events he becomes head of the family and soon proves how powerful he can be. Although this film has so much fan fare I did enjoy it a lot. Like I said before it is not just about the violence by any means. It is a period piece with an intriguing story and complex and interesting characters that truly reel you in.

5/5 Stars