Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, James Caan, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo, Sofia Coppola, Joe Mantegna, Abe Vigoda, Sterling Hayden, Danny Aiello, Bruno Kirby, Joe Spinell, G.D. Spradlin, Harry Dean Stanton, Eli Wallach, Bridget Fonda, John Savage, George Hamilton, Roger Corman
Written by: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novel by Mario Puzo
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 583
Date: 01/01/1992

The Godfather Trilogy: 1901-1980 (1992)

4 Stars (out of 4)

I Believe in America

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

From our vantage point today, it's hard to imagine The Godfather becoming the highest grossing movie in the world, as it did in 1972. It seems too slow and thoughtful for today's standards. But it is one of the greatest pictures ever made and one of the very few Best Picture Oscar winners that actually deserved the award.

With this movie director Francis Ford Coppola announced the beginning of a new (but brief) Renaissance in American film with his flawless view of a gangster family in turmoil. The Godfather is violent, but the main thing one takes away from this movie is a sense of family, a sense of honor and duty that one owes to one's own blood, and a sense of absolute trust. Al Pacino gives an amazingly subtle performance as Michael Corleone, the youngest brother of the family, and the only one with a college education and a military record. Everyone thinks Michael is going to go straight until his father, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), and his older brother, Sonny (James Caan), are shot and Michael steps in to take over as head of the family with surprising adroitness.

The Godfather is a movie of conversations around tables, planning, and waiting. The "action" scenes are unspectacular on purpose: Vito dropping his oranges in an overhead shot, Sonny at the toll booth, and policeman Sterling Hayden in the Italian restaurant. The movie is about story and characters first and production value second -- an art all but lost today. The screenplay is by Coppola and Mario Puzo, based on Puzo's novel, with a little uncredited help from Robert Towne. The cast also includes: Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Talia Shire, and Abe Vigoda, with cinematography by Gordon Willis. The Godfather is followed by two sequels, both outstanding in their own ways. Like Citizen Kane, The Godfather doesn't age.

Many name The Godfather Part II as the greatest sequel ever made, and even superior to its predecessor. It uses the ingenious device of showing Michael (Pacino) in his first days as head of the Corleone Family, juxtaposed with flashbacks of his father Vito (Robert De Niro) at about the same age, also just getting started. This film has an even broader scope than the original, but does not fail in its depiction of small, intimate moments and surprising emotional reveals. De Niro won an Oscar in the Supporting Actor category, competing against his co-stars Lee Strasberg and Michael V. Gazzo. The film had 11 nominations altogether, and won six, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Very few have stepped up to bat to defend The Godfather Part III (1990), which I consider a masterpiece and the equal of Parts I and II. As Coppola reveals (several times) in his commentary track, Godfather III was originally to be called The Death of Michael Corleone, and that's what it is. It's the final chapter of a dark life and an epilogue -- one that ends appropriately with a whimper instead of a bang. Instead of remaining loyal to the family, Michael Corleone's (Al Pacino's) children flit off on their own, one becoming an opera singer, the other falling in love with her cousin. Michael's best men have all left him and he's stuck with a WASP lawyer (George Hamilton) instead of his trusted consigliere Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall), and Sonny's bastard son Vincent (Andy Garcia) instead of a blood brother.

Michael himself has grown steely and stooped and raspy, collapsing under the weight of his own diabetes. This is not a cool gangster flick like the first two. This is about a man paying his dues. Even the controversial casting of Sofia Coppola as Michael's daughter Mary is dead on. Her lovely adolescent awkwardness perfectly compliments the off-kilter nature of the film.

Coppola was forced to rush and turn in a 162 cut for the 1990 theatrical release, but the home video cut runs slightly longer -- and is drastically better -- than the theatrical cut.

In 2001, Paramount released the trilogy in a beautiful five-disc set. Writing in the Examiner, I gave it a rave review, but wondered why the picture was so grainy. Now in 2008, Coppola himself has supervised a complete restoration of all three pictures. The new box set contains all the old extras (including Coppola's excellent commentary track), but is different in a few minor ways. In the old set, Part II was spread out across two discs, which required less compressing for the long film, but the new one, all on one disc, looks comparably good. The fourth disc includes all the bonus features from the old set, and the fifth disc includes all-new bonus features, including a new documentary The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn't.

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