|Rating: The Good – 74.9
Duration: 119 mins
Director: John G. Avildsen
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young
We all know the story: a journeyman slugger is given a shot at the title as a publicity stunt dreamed up by the champ but ends up giving the champ more than he bargained for. It may have spawned an ultimately tiresome series of sequels but this original work is a very different film to the franchised money-spinners. Rocky is at times a brutally honest portrayal of a young bruiser reluctantly moonlighting as a loan collector stuck in a rut that it seems may last a lifetime. Sylvester Stallone gives the performance of his life in bringing a phenomenal degree of authenticity to the role. He gives us so many sides to Rocky which are all so well tied into the main core of the man that it might well be one of the most layered performances we’ve seen from anyone (really!). We like him immediately but the film ends with us rooting for him like nobody before or since. Talia Shire, Burt Young, and the charismatic Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed similarly turn in the performances of their careers. Not only did Stallone do the acting, but he also wrote the damn thing and rightly scooped up an Oscar for what is an awesomely fresh and insightful screenplay. For those expecting an action movie like the sequels offered up, forget it. This is a drama and a damn good one. Yes, they’re is an action pay off at the end but it’s actually quite truncated and the real joy is to be had in the extremely fleshed out build up. That said when the fight does begin, it’s a terrifically choreographed and shot spectacle which to the very last emotion captures the theme of the movie. “I just wanna go the distance.”
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Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to the seminal The Godfather is generally regarded not simply as the best sequel of all time but one of the best films of all time. The linear format of the first story is relinquished in favour of two interwoven tales. One focuses on Michael (Al Pacino) as he continues to lose the battle for his soul while the other tells the the tale of how a young Vito (played by Robert De Niro) managed to rise to the rank of Don Corleone during his early years in the US.
The Godfather Part II differs from the original in many distinct ways beyond the obvious format changes. The themes explored are much darker as Michael Corleone’s arc is replaced by a straight line of descent. While many authors would’ve been tempted to turn him into another Vito, it’s a sign of genuine integrity that Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola remained loyal to the character’s original complexities and charted an uncomfortably believable journey. Pacino has less range to play with, given that he was no longer juggling a contrasting character shift but he does have some murky depths to plum and he responds in astonishing fashion turning in one of the most intense performances we’ve ever seen on screen. De Niro rightly got much plaudits for his uncanny depiction of a young Brando but the more weighty and arresting acting was done by the former. That said, De Niro is truly magnetic as Vito Corleone in his prime and, as such, he gives the flashback sequences a different energy all together. Through his retro-engineering of Brando’s Vito and some awfully clever writing, these segments are chock full of fascinating clues as to what made Don Corleone the man he was. These sequences are also directed with more verve when they need to be but, during more important moments, they are slowed down to create a breathless tension. The rooftop sequence in particular (like the restaurant scene in The Godfather) is a veritable masterclass in pacing as Coppola lures us into the mind of Vito as he crosses that same threshold Michael was to cross years later in Louis’ restaurant.
The Godfather Part II is as much a masterclass in composition, lighting, framing, and pacing as the original was. The film opens with another gloriously constructed family sequence which Coppola uses to once again outline the various political and personal circumstances of the main players. The Cuban segments in particular stand out not only because they lighten the heavy mood of the Nevada segments and the earlier timeline but because of how Coppola incorporates the political intrigue (both outer and inner) into the wider story of Michael’s search for his hidden enemy. That said, it must be noted that, due to the inevitability of the Corleone family’s trajectory, The Godfather Part II does not maintain that same warmth and sense of connection that the events of the first film took place within. Even during the more unsettling moments of the original, there was always a sense of family and protection surrounding Michael and co. In this film, those securities have been almost completely eroded. Michael’s relationship with Kay (in another brilliant performance from Diane Keaton) withers and, with it, his trust in others begins to falter irrevocably. It’s a powerful piece of writing done justice by the equally impressive acting and directing.
Whether or not The Godfather Part II is better than the original will always be a matter of debate and perhaps more so, preference. What can be said, is that together they easily rank as one of the greatest two-part stories ever told on film. Alone, they are something just as special and equally timeless.
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“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” Francis Ford Coppola’s epic tale of the Corleone crime family’s battle to maintain their position at top of the mob underworld gives us two of the finest acting performances in history and is the peak of cinematic story-telling. The story opens with a lavish wedding which in addition to setting a contrasting tone to the latter half of the film outlines the dynamic of the Corleone family as well as the various political allegiances both of which will define the tensions to follow. This scene also counts as one of the most awesomely written, staged, edited, and shot openings in cinema history and has become a revered masterclass in film-making
With the main players and their relationships established, writers Mario Puzo and Coppola allow both to develop throughout the rest of the film in resonating style resulting in a tragedy of moral corruption as profoundly perceptive as anything we have seen before or since on film. Within the broader battles and strategies of the Corleone organisation’s fight to remain dominant lie the more interesting and richly drawn personal battles as hopes and ambitions are turned on their heads and Michael Corleone is drawn into the world from which his father fought to save him. There are no caricatures here as father and son, brother and brother, husband and wife, and enemy and enemy are turned and twisted against each other which intermittently boil over into one sublime and daring set piece after another. As Vito Corleone Marlon Brando is at his improvisational best and commands every bit of our attention when the camera is on him. It’s one of those rare performances that is so rich and intuitive that every aspect to the character’s personality and demeanor feels real and substantial. On the other hand, Al Pacino gives us the most complete and contemplative performance imaginable. He is nothing short of mesmerising as he transforms before our eyes from the young and innocent war hero to the cold and calculating puppet-master.
Rather than embracing the counter-culture of many of his contemporaries, Coppola tells the story in the classic style of old Hollywood and the result is a Shakespearian masterpiece of pacing and intrigue informed by Nino Rota’s seminal and mesmerising score. Philip Smith’s set decoration, Dean Tavoularis’ overall production design, and Gordon Willis’ cinematography are sumptuous to behold but seductive and engaging enough to comfortably contain a story as broad as the one told here. Coppola’s use of the visual feasts they serve up is truly inspired as he frames the slow and blisteringly fast drama and action with precision and controls their momentum with his trademark ultra-disciplined innovation. And in the scene where Michael meets Sollozzo and McClusky, he gives us perhaps the best example of tension building the medium has ever offered. Sublime indeed.