The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)

Talking about The Godfather earnestly has got to be hard. Also talking about it not in relation to its sequel–which happens less and less these days, something I’m going to blame on the sequel discussion scene in Scream 2. It’s stunningly unsurprising. My most profound observations this viewing–and its been ten years or so, since the theatrical release, then the laserdisc remasters (featuring the first letterboxed versions ever on home video)–are twain. It moves incredibly fast–at the half-way point it feels like forty-five minutes–and Al Pacino’s really damn good at the beginning, but you have no idea what he’s capable of doing, acting-wise. It’d be interesting to know if he felt more comfortable at the beginning or at the end. Otherwise, I made the standard observations–Marlon Brando’s fantastic, James Caan’s presented to the audience as the most sympathetic character in film history, Robert Duvall’s really good… I could probably chart it out, on paper not here (because I’d want to make boxes and arrows), when characters change, when we discover things, et cetera, et cetera.

That response is the problem with talking about The Godfather. More than any other film (yes, even more than the second one), discussing it devolves into some kind of dissection. This scene does this, this scene does that. There’s the scene when Michael turns. Another problem talking about the film is the novel. Having read the novel, I know the film is a shorter version of the novel, without much change. Puzo’s novel is derided, the film is praised. What does Coppola bring to the filmic storytelling Puzo didn’t bring to the text? I don’t know. Novels have a language films don’t. And it’s fine because they do different things, but this case, where the two are so similar, is particularly interesting.

A great book tends not to make a great movie. I can’t say bad books make good movies as often, but sometimes they do. (Coppola’s the master at that particular genre, given The Rainmaker novel versus film).

Someone had a story about George Clooney–maybe Brad Pitt, I don’t remember–and how Clooney had constant attention in public and attributed it to television–you’re in people’s homes once a week. Somehow The Godfather creates that feeling, that attachment. The melodramatic sensationalism plays out in the novel, I’m sure (I don’t remember and I don’t read things like that anymore), but in the film it’s different. When Sonny beats the shit out of Carlo, even though the book has a funny detail (Carlo’s been telling his crew how he could kick Sonny’s ass), it’s rewarding in the film. The audience goes to the wedding as guests, as full access guests. The morality of these characters never comes into question–maybe I noticed that one too. The FBI is messing up the wedding, Sterling Hayden is a corrupt SOB. The drug thing is manipulative, turning the Corleone’s into the good guys….

Anyway, the wedding opening. The brief moments with the characters, the almost real time pacing. It works really well for the film and Coppola knows it. That manipulative drug thing is probably the least manipulative thing in the film. But he’s manipulative in interesting ways. Why, for example, do people side with Sonny instead of Sonny’s wife? When he gets shot to pieces, why’s it so tragic–the level of violence, sure. But it’s real late in the film and it’s only to set the viewer up to accept the conclusion. But Coppola’s also interesting technically (though not particularly visually–Coppola not being fluent in that filmic language). Nino Rota’s score does good stuff, imparting information to the viewer and so on.

The Godfather‘s kind of a guarantee. It doesn’t knock the world of its axis, but it’s still really freaking great. Maybe I’m just still confused why movielens thinks I’d given three.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by Mario Puzo and Coppola, based on the novel by Puzo; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by William Reynolds, Peter Zinner, Marc Laub, and Murray Solomon; music by Nino Rota; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; produced by Albert S. Ruddy; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Marlon Brando (Don Vito Corleone), Al Pacino (Michael), James Caan (Sonny), Richard S. Castellano (Clemenza), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Sterling Hayden (Capt. McCluskey), John Marley (Jack Woltz), Richard Conte (Barzini), Al Lettieri (Sollozzo), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams), Abe Vigoda (Tessio), Talia Shire (Connie), Gianni Russo (Carlo), John Cazale (Fredo), Al Martino (Johnny Fontane), Morgana King (Mama Corleone), Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi), Alex Rocco (Moe Greene) and Richard Bright (Al Neri).


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Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)

The first half of Jaws–before the boat, when it becomes a different film–might be the most perfectly made film ever. The second half isn’t less perfectly made, but it’s its own thing, not easily comparable to any other film; that first half deals in traditional filmic standards and does so with singular success. Verna Fields’s editing, Bill Butler’s photography, Joe Alves’s production design… it’s utterly perfect. Spielberg’s use of frame depth, so startling wonderful (and now long gone). From the first moment after the credits, with Fields’s cuts during the beach party, it’s stunning. Too often the main emphasis, when discussing Jaws‘s writing, is on the Indianapolis monologue, but really, throughout, it’s great. The family scenes, the ones between Roy Scheider and Lorraine Gary, carry the first half of the film. Richard Dreyfuss’s appearance gives Scheider a friend, but it doesn’t really affect the situation very much. The whole first half of the movie builds towards Murray Hamilton (who’s so good) and his breakdown at the hospital, the one Scheider’s too busy to notice.

Then Jaws resets. Even though Robert Shaw had his moment twenty minutes in (I never look at the clock when watching Jaws, it’s an absurd idea), he’s somewhat foreign as the second half starts out. Then Dreyfuss becomes really foreign and the characters reveal themselves differently under pressure. The moments when Dreyfuss and Shaw start liking each other are great and some of my favorites, but this time I really noticed the scene after Shaw starts losing it and then he has to ask Dreyfuss for help. Scheider finds himself abandoned on the boat in stretches, since he doesn’t know what do–Scheider’s disappointment in Dreyfuss mirrors the viewer’s. It’s a constantly shifting environment, but one totally dependent on the looming disaster. The discreet moves Jaws makes, positioning its characters and their reaction to fear, is something wonderful. So wonderful, I never realized until this time watching it, both Shaw and Dreyfuss revisit their first experiences with sharks.

While this post reminds me of why I don’t like writing about great films I’ve seen before, Jaws is something even more than the usual. I could sit and talk about Jaws, listing all of the great things it does, for three times through. It’s a constantly rewarding experience.

Maybe a last little something about John Williams’s music. Even though Jaws has its famous theme, the score isn’t one concerned so much with it. Williams’s sensitivity to the changes during scenes, even to the cuts, is noteworthy. Jaws is the ideal example of something being the sum of its parts and his contribution is magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, from the novel by Benchley; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Verna Fields; music by John Williams; production designer, Joe Alves; produced by Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Roy Scheider (Martin Brody), Robert Shaw (Quint), Richard Dreyfuss (Matt Hooper), Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody), Murray Hamilton (Larry Vaughn), Carl Gottlieb (Meadows), Jeffrey Kramer (Hendricks) and Susan Backlinie (Chrissie Watkins).


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Bubba Ho-tep (2002, Don Coscarelli)

I wanted to see Bubba Ho-Tep back when I first read about it because it sounded weird–Bruce Campbell as an old Elvis versus a mummy with Ossie Davis as JFK as his sidekick. The pairing of Davis and Campbell is weird enough–they seem at odds, style-wise, not to mention Davis is actually old while Campbell’s covered in make-up. The mummy aspect is a bit of a joke but also a bit not. It comes down to what’s so surprising about Bubba Ho-Tep. It’s not really a horror movie. It’s about old Elvis Presley in a rest home. For the first twenty minutes, Campbell isn’t even getting out of bed. He just lays there and we get a look at this feeble old man, plagued with regret.

Bubba Ho-Tep is all about Campbell’s performance. It’s great–and it’s a complete surprise, given I never think of Campbell as a particularly clever actor. His Elvis captures a basic apprehensiveness (everyone thinks he’s just an Elvis impersonator who’s confused), an obscene grandiosity (it’s Elvis) and a sincere sadness (Elvis wishing he could see his daughter). I’m not sure if Bubba Ho-Tep takes advantage of the viewer’s knowledge–the daughter stuff is sad because we know it’s Lisa Marie–but it’s exploitative. I can imagine if she saw this film, she’d be incredibly uncomfortable; the line between a fictional representation of a person who died some time ago (but didn’t) and that real person disappears from Campbell’s first second on screen. His performance is wonderful.

As the sidekick, who thinks he’s JFK (Elvis thinks he’s nuts), Ossie Davis is great, but he’s basically Ossie Davis playing a guy who thinks he’s JFK. It’s his scenes with Campbell though, where it really feels like two old men with nothing but regret and a longing to have been better men.

Don Coscarelli’s direction is restrained for the most part (there are some fast cuts to illustrate Elvis’s impaired perception) and his eye for the scenes is great. He creates this world where Campbell can be old Elvis (and there can be a mummy, but the mummy isn’t as important).

Other great things include Ella Joyce as Elvis’s nurse. She and Campbell’s scenes together are really nice, especially with the mood Coscarelli gives them.

Bubba Ho-Tep‘s probably the only way to tell a story about Elvis Presley alive today and have it be a successful, meaningful story. It’s good stuff.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Coscarelli; screenplay by Coscarelli, based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale; director of photography, Adam Janiero; edited by Donald Milne and Scott J. Gill; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Daniel Vecchione; produced by Jason R. Savage and Coscarelli; released by American Cinematheque.

Starring Bruce Campbell (Elvis), Ossie Davis (Jack), Ella Joyce (The Nurse), Heidi Marnhout (Callie) and Bob Ivy (Bubba Ho-Tep).


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Bad Santa (2003, Terry Zwigoff), the uncut version

Bad Santa confused me a little. I’m not sure why I expected it to be something other than a traditional Hollywood redemption story–maybe because of Terry Zwigoff, maybe because I didn’t know (or didn’t remember from trailers and buzz) it was about Santa robbing malls. After seeing Zwigoff’s Ghost World, I avoided Bad Santa because I figured it’d be bad too. It’s interesting Zwigoff’s a hipster director because it’s got one of the most manipulative scenes I’ve ever seen in Bad Santa (outside of, I suppose, an episode of “All My Children”). He has this really funny scene–I think it’s the one where Tony Cox and Bernie Mac are yelling at each other–then he goes right into a suicide attempt. So, you’re still laughing from the first scene when you’re watching the decidedly unfunny subsequent scene. Once I realized what was happening, I couldn’t believe it. I think I started laughing more, actually, because it was an incredibly silly thing to watch.

However, Billy Bob Thornton ended up pulling the scene around, which is where Bad Santa gets interesting… with the exception of Thornton, John Ritter and Bernie Mac, the acting in Bad Santa is awful. The kid–to whom Thornton becomes a surrogate father–is fine. He’s really good with Thornton (or Thornton’s really good with him), but Zwigoff also has a good way of directing those scenes. Anyway, besides him… the acting is atrocious. Lauren Graham’s useless, Tony Cox is occasionally okay, occasionally terrible and Lauren Tom provides frequent motivation for turning off the film. But Thornton’s amazing. Even though the script is a melodramatic albatross, Thornton pulls the lines off wonderfully. In many ways, it’s a shame his performance was wasted in this film.

Zwigoff’s poor choice of music hurts a lot of the scenes in the second half–there’s one sequence where the music appears to be too loud or something, it’s disconcerting, but a more appropriate volume wouldn’t have made it a better choice–and the film’s definitely at odds with itself. The mix of absurd and real doesn’t work out–mostly the script, but also the direction (and the editing is schizophrenic).

But Thornton’s performance is a marvel and it makes the film. It’s just too bad the film doesn’t make anything for itself.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Zwigoff; written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; director of photography, Jamie Anderson; edited by Robert Hoffmann; music by David Kitay; production designer, Sharon Seymour; produced by Sarah Aubrey, John Cameron and Bob Weinstein; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Billy Bob Thornton (Willie), Tony Cox (Marcus), Brett Kelly (The Kid), Lauren Graham (Sue), Lauren Tom (Lois), Bernie Mac (Gin), John Ritter (Bob Chipeska) and Ajay Naidu (Hindustani Troublemaker).


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