Missed Opportunities: Alien Nation (1988, directed by Graham Baker)


Alien Nation starts out with an intriguing premise but sadly doesn’t do enough with it.

In 1988, a spaceship lands in Mojave Desert.  Inside are 300,000 humanoid aliens, known as the Newcomers.  Intended to serve as intergalactic slaves, the Newcomers are now stuck on Earth.  (Of course, in the view of many humans, it’s Earth that’s stuck with them.)  Three years later, the Newcomers have settled in Los Angeles and they have adopted human names.  Some of them, like businessman William Harcourt (Terrence Stamp), have become successful and have been accepted by the human establishment.  The majority remain second-class citizens, facing discrimination and feeling alone in a world that doesn’t seem to want them.

Detective Matthew Sykes (James Caan) does not like the Newcomers but, after his partner is killed by one of the aliens, he ends up working with one.  Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) is the first Newcomer to have been promoted to the rank of detective and is eager to prove himself.  Sykes renames him George and enlists him to investigate a series of recent Newcomer deaths.  Sykes’s real goal is to use Francisco’s Newcomer connections to investigate the death of his partner.  What the two of them discover is that the deaths are linked to a drug called Jabroka, which has no effect on human but was previously used to keep the Newcomers enslaved.

Alien Nation starts out with an intriguing premise.  I love the early scenes of Sykes driving down the streets of Los Angeles and seeing Newcomer prostitutes, Newcomer families, and even a Newcomer dance studio.  There is a lot promise in those scenes and they capture the feeling of a familiar world that has been irrevocably changed.  Both Caan and Patinkin give good performances and the alien makeup is still impressive.  Unfortunately, once Sykes and George start their investigation, the movie becomes a standard-issue police movie with a plot that could easily have been lifted from a Lethal Weapon rip-off.  So many interesting ideas are left unexplored, making Alien Nation an intriguing missed opportunity.  (There was later a television series based on the movie, which explored the Newcomer culture in greater detail.)

Alien Nation still has a strong cult following and I wouldn’t be surprised if it influenced District 9.  In 2016, it was announced that Jeff Nichols would be writing and directing a remake.  Nichols seems like the ideal director for a film like this and this is the rare case of a remake that I’m actually looking forward to.

4 Shots From 4 James Caan Films: Lady in a Cage, The Godfather, Misery, Bottle Rocket


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Happy birthday to one of the great American actors, James Caan!

In honor of this day, here are….

4 Shots From 4 James Caan Films

Lady in a Cage (1964, dir by Walter Grauman)

The Godather (1972, dir by Francis Ford Coppola)

Misery (1990, dir by Rob Reiner)

Bottle Rocket (1996, dir by Wes Anderson)

A Movie A Day #171: The Program (1993, directed by David S. Ward)


There’s not a single sports cliché that goes untouched in The Program.

A veteran college football coach who, after two disappointing seasons, is now being told that he must get wins at any cost?  Check!

A cocky senior quarterback who is trying to live up to his father’s expectations?  Check!

A cocky freshman who matures during the season?  Check!

A cocky NFL prospect who suffers a career ending injury?  Check!

Corrupt rich backers?  Check!

Beer?  Check!

Steroids?  Check!

Hazing?  Check!

Football groupies?  Check!

Halle Berry wasted in a one-note role?  Check!

Kristy Swanson as the one girl on campus who is not impressed by football?  Check!  Check!  Check!

The Program has its good points.  James Caan does a good job as the coach and Andrew Bryniarski, playing a player who is always on the verge of flying into roid rage, dominates every scene in which he appears.  Kristy Swanson looks good in a tennis outfit, so it’s not all bad.  But Craig Sheffer is neither credible nor likable as the star quarterback and there is not a single scene that won’t be seen coming.

When The Program came out in 1993, it included a scene where the team bonded by laying down in the middle of a busy street, while cars zoomed by on either side of them.  Things turned out alright for the people in the movie but, for the idiots who tried to imitate the stunt in real life, it was a different story.  It turns out that, in real life, drivers don’t always stay in their lane and, if you lay down in the middle of the street, there is a good chance that you are going to get run over.  After several deaths, the scene was taken out of the film.  If you’re going to die for a movie, do it for a movie better than The Program.

Insomnia File #26: Rabbit Run (dir by Jack Smight)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, at one in the morning on Wednesday, you were suffering from insomnia, you could have turned over to TCM and watched the 1970 film, Rabbit Run.  That’s what I did.

Rabbit Run is the epitome of a dumb lug film.  In a dumb lug film, a male character finds himself living an unfulfilling life but he can’t figure out the reason.  Why can’t he figure it out?  Because he’s a dumb lug, with the emphasis on dumb.  Usually, the viewer is supposed to sympathize with the dumb lug because he doesn’t mean to hurt anyone and everyone else in his world is somehow even more annoying than he is.  Typically, the dumb lug will have an emotionally distant wife who refuses to have sex with him and who is usually portrayed as being somehow at fault for everything bad that has happened in the dumb lug’s face.  (Want to see a more recent dumb lug film than Rabbit Run?  American Beauty.)  Ever since the silent era, there have been dumb lug films.  In particular, male filmmakers and critics seem to love dumb lug films because they allow them to pat themselves on the back for admitting to being dumb while, at the same time, assuring them that everything is the fault of the wife or the girlfriend or the mother or the mother-in-law.

In Rabbit Run, the dumb lug is named Harry Angstrom (James Caan), though most people still remember him as Rabbit, the high school basketball star.  Harry’s life peaked in high school.  Now, he’s 28 and he can’t hold down a job.  He’s married to Janice (Carrie Snodgress), who spends all of her time drinking and watching TV.  He has a son and another baby is on the way.  One day, when the pregnant Janice asks him to go out and get her a pack of cigarettes, Harry responds by getting in his car and driving all the way from Pennsylvania to Virginia.

When he returns to Pennsylvania, Rabbit doesn’t go back to his wife.  Instead, he drops in on his former basketball coach (Jack Albertson) and begs for advice on what he should do.  The coach, it turns out, is more than little creepy.  He also has absolutely no practical advise to give.  He does introduce Rabbit to a part-time prostitute named Ruth (Anjanette Comer).  Rabbit quickly decides that he’s in love with Ruth and soon, he’s moved in with her.

Meanwhile, there’s all sorts of little things going on.  Rabbit gets a job working as a gardener.  Rabbit befriends the local Episcopal minister (Arthur Hill), even while the minister’s cynical wife (Melodie Johnson) tries to tempt Rabbit away from both his wife and his mistress.  Rabbit both resents and envies the sexual freedom of the counter culture, as represented by his younger sister.  And, of course, Janice is pregnant…

Rabbit Run is based on a highly acclaimed novel by John Updike.  I haven’t read the novel so I can’t compare it to the film, beyond pointing out that many great works of literature have been turned into mediocre movies, largely because the director never found a way to visually translate whatever it was that made the book so memorable in the first place.  Rabbit Run was directed by Jack Smight, who takes a rather frantic approach to the material.  Since Rabbit Run is primarily a character study, it needed a director who would be willing to get out of the way and let the actors dominate the film.  Instead, Smight overdirects, as if he was desperately trying to prove that he could keep up with all the other trendy filmmakers.  The whole movie is full of extreme close-ups, abrupt jump cuts, intrusive music, and delusions of ennui.  You find yourself wishing that someone had been willing to grab Smight and shout, “Calm down!”

(On the plus side, as far as the films of 1970 are concerned, Smight’s direction of Rabbit Run still isn’t as bad as Richard Rush’s direction of Gettting Straight.)

James Caan actually gives a likable performance as Rabbit, which is good because Rabbit would be totally unbearable if not played by an actor with at least a little genuine charisma.  There’s nothing subtle about Caan’s performance but he makes it work.  You never like Rabbit but, at the same time, you don’t hate him.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing subtle about the rest of the cast either.  Something rather tragic happens about 80 minutes into the film and, as much as I knew I shouldn’t, I still found myself giggling because Carrie Snodgress’s performance was so bad that it was impossible for me to take any of it seriously.  Even worse is Arthur Hill, as the minister who won’t stop trying to help Rabbit out.  I eventually reached the point where, every time that sanctimonious character started to open his mouth, I found myself hoping someone would hit him over the head and knock him out.  Among the major supporting players, only Anjanette Comer is allowed a chance to be something more than just a sterotype.  Like Caan, she does the best that she can but ultimately. this is James Caan’s movie.

It’s a disappointing movie but it did not put me to sleep.  Give credit for that to James Caan, who is the only reason to see Rabbit Run.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season

 

Film Review: Countdown (dir by Robert Altman)


 

Earlier tonight, on TCM, I watched the 1968 science fiction film, Countdown.

Who will be the first man to walk on the moon?  Will it be Chiz (Robert Duvall), who is a colonel in the Air Force and who has been training for years and who really should get the chance just because he has a really cool name like Chiz?  Or will it be Chiz’s best friend, Lee (James Caan)?  Lee may not have Chiz’s experience but he’s a scientist and selecting him would allow NASA to portray the mission of being one of peace as opposed to one of war.  Add to that, Lee has a full head of hair and he looks like a young James Caan, who was an undeniably handsome man back in his younger days!  I mean, seriously — who would you rather have as the face of the space program: Tom Hagen or Sonny Corleone?

Of course, it might not really matter who NASA picks because the Russians are determined to get to the moon as well.  And you know what that means!  If the Russians land on the moon first, they’ll turn it into a Socialist utopia and that’ll mean ugly architecture, bread lines, and a three-month wait for toilet paper.  The stakes have never been higher!

Countdown was made and released at the height of the space race, at a time when Americans really did feel that they were competing with the Russians to be the first to reach the moon.  (Of course later, it would be learned that the Russian space program actually managed to kill far more cosmonauts than it successfully sent into orbit.)  It came out a year before Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first Earthling since Stanley Kubrick to ever step on the lunar surface.  As such, it’s interesting to see how Countdown imagines the experience of exploring the moon.  I won’t spoil who reaches the moon first but I will say that he moves remarkably quickly and with great ease for someone in a gravity-free environment.

Countdown is a good example of what I like to call a “time capsule” film.  Seen today, it’s kinda slow and a bit predictable.  For all the time that is spent on getting the astronauts ready to go into space, very little time is actually spent in orbit.  This is a very Earth-bound film.  And yet, if you’re a history nerd like me, it’s hard not to be a little bit fascinated by a movie like this.  In everything, from its fashions to its dialogue to its cultural outlook, this is very much a document of its time.  It may be a while until we have the technology necessary to travel through time.  Until then, watching a film like this might be as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing what the straight, non-Hippie crowd was doing in 1968.

If you’re a student of film history, Countdown is significant for being one of the first films to be directed by Robert Altman.  To be honest, if not for his name in the opening credits, you would probably never guess that Countdown was directed by one of America’s most influential and iconic directors.  Altman specialized in making film that were almost defiantly iconaclastic and there’s very little of that to be found in Countdown.  Admittedly, there are a few scenes that make use of overlapping dialogue and there’s a party scene that’s definitely Altmanesque.  However, the only reason I really noticed that party scene is because I was specifically looking for evidence of Altman’s style.  For the most part, the most identifiably Altmanesque element of Countdown is the casting of Michael Murphy in a small role.

The film is dominated by Robert Duvall and James Caan and, especially if you’re a fan of The Godfather, it’s undeniably fun to see these two acting opposite each other in something other than an epic gangster film.  (Duvall and Caan also acted together in The Rain People and The Killer Elite and were reportedly great friends off-camera as well.)  Duvall is especially good in Countdown, playing Chiz as a man torn between an innate sense of loyalty and his own competitive nature.  The scenes between Duvall and Caan have a charge to them that occasionally bring some much-needed life to this film.

In the end, Countdown is a fairly forgettable film but it’s worth seeing as a piece of history.

Philip Marlowe, TV Detective


cracked rear viewer

Philip Marlowe’s Hollywood history saw the shamus portrayed on the big screen by some very big names. Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery, James Garner, Elliott Gould, and Robert Mitchum (twice) all played Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private eye at one point in their careers, with varying degrees of success. Los Angeles’ favorite detective also appeared on the small screen, and I decided to do some sleuthing and investigate the TV life of Philip Marlowe.

MARLOWE LIVE!

It was Robert Montgomery who first brought Marlowe into America’s living rooms on his anthology series ROBERT MONTGOMERY PRESENTS. But this time around, Zachary Scott played the gumshoe in a 1950 adaptation of THE BIG SLEEP. Marlowe fans would have a four year wait until he came back in another anthology, CLIMAX! hosted by William Lundigan. This time around, Dick Powell returned to the role in a 1954 telecast of THE LONG GOODBYE. There’s not…

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What Lisa Watched Last Night #117: Wuthering High School (dir by Anthony DiBlasi)


Yesterday, I finally got around to watching the latest film from both Lifetime and the Asylum, Wuthering High School!

Wuthering High

Cathy and Heath

 

Why Was I Watching It?

I was late in watching Wuthering High School.  Saturday afternoon, I spent five hours in the Emergency Room, all so I could find out that I have bronchitis.  By the time I finally got home, I was so tired that I slept through the Lifetime premiere of Wuthering High School.  Fortunately, I did DVR it and yesterday, I finally found the time to watch it.

As to why I was watching it — hey, it’s a modern version of Wuthering Heights that’s set in a high school!  And it was produced by the Asylum!

Wuthering Heights, high school, and The Asylum, three of my favorite things.

Seriously, how could I not watch it?

What Was It About?

Wuthering High School is the latest version of Emily Bronte’s classic novel, Wuthering Heights.  After his family is deported, Heath (Andrew Jacobs) is adopted by wealthy Mr. Earnshaw (James Caan).  Soon, Earnshaw is viewing Heath as being more of a son to him than his biological child, the drug-addicted Lee (Sean Flynn).  Meanwhile, Heath has fallen in love with Earnshaw’s daughter, Cathy (Paloma Kwiatkowski).  Cathy is struggling to come to terms with the recent death of her mother and soon, she and Heath are skipping school, tearing up school books in slow motion, and getting sentenced to community service.  However, when Cathy rejoins the school’s popular clique of mean girls, she starts to grow distant from Heath.  While Heath plots his revenge, Cathy is pursued by the well-meaning but ineffectual Eddie Linton (Matthew Boehm).

What Worked?

At its heart, Wuthering High School was definitely a “look at the pretty clothes and look at the pretty houses” type of film.  And that’s okay because, ultimately, the clothes and the houses were all very pretty and they were all filmed in very loving detail by director Anthony DiBlasi.  At it’s best, Wuthering High School is a pure celebration of melodramatic style.

Modernizing a classic, 19th century novel is always a risky proposition.  Setting it in a high school is equally dangerous as well.  But I actually liked a few of the ways that Bronte’s story was updated.  For instance, I thought it was brilliant to turn the novel’s gambling addicted Hindley Earnshaw into the film’s drug-addicted Lee Earnshaw.  As well, transforming gypsy Heathcliff into Heath, the son of a deported illegal immigrant, worked far better than I expected that it would.

Among the supporting cast, Matthew Boehm and Francesca Eastwood were both well-cast.  Eastwood, especially, seemed to be having a lot of fun delivering her Mean Girls-style dialogue.  (“That’s not the first time you’ve been wet,” she says after pouring a drink on Cathy.)  And James Caan brought a lot of gravitas to his role.

And, finally, Paloma Kwiatkowski was well-cast as the angry and outspoken Cathy.  Many scenes that should not have worked did work because of Kwiatkowski’s sincere and empathetic performance.

What Did Not Work?

So, with all of those good points that I mentioned above, why wasn’t Wuthering High School as much fun as it should have been?  Ultimately, I think the film’s pacing was just a little bit off.  Certain scenes moved just a bit too slowly while other scenes were finished too quickly and, as a result, the entire film had an oddly rushed feel to it.

As well, I had some issues with the film’s ending.  Obviously, this is going to be a SPOILER so, if you want to be surprised, don’t read any further.  *SPOILER BEGINS* Towards the end of Wuthering High School, Cathy chooses to walk out into the ocean and drowns herself while Heath watches.  We are then left with a montage of everyone mourning, Heath digging up her grave and curling up next to her in a coffin, and Cathy — speaking to us from beyond the grave — saying that she’s now finally been reunited with her mother.   And … seriously?  Obviously, Cathy had to die in order to remain true to the spirit of Wuthering Heights but did she have to commit suicide and, even more importantly, did the film have to suggest that she was better off having done so? *SPOILER ENDS*

Finally, of the many actors to have played Heathcliff over the years, Andrew Jacobs was not exactly the most convincing.  He came across as being more petulant than passionate.

“Oh my God!  Just like me!”  Moments

Oh, I totally related to Cathy.  I always do.

Lessons Learned

Avoid the ocean at all costs.

Shattered Politics #36: The Godfather, Part II (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


Godfather_part_ii

Believe it or not, The Trial of Billy Jack was not the only lengthy sequel to be released in 1974.  Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II was released as well and it went on to become the first sequel to win an Oscar for best picture.  (It was also the first, and so far, only sequel to a best picture winner to also win best picture.)  Among the films that The Godfather, Part II beat: Chinatown, Coppola’s The Conversation, and The Towering Inferno.  1974 was a good year.

Whenever I think about The Godfather, Part II, I find myself wondering what the film would have been like if Richard Castellano hadn’t demanded too much money and had actually returned in the role of Clemenza, as was originally intended.  In the first Godfather, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda) were Don Corleone’s two lieutenants.  Tessio was the one who betrayed Michael and was killed as a result.  Meanwhile, Clemenza was the one who taught Michael how to fire a gun and who got to say, “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”

Though Castellano did not return to the role, Clemenza is present in The Godfather, Part II.  The Godfather, Part II tells two separate stories: during one half of the film, young Vito Corleone comes to America, grows up to be Robert De Niro and then eventually becomes the Godfather.  In the other half of the film, Vito’s successor, Michael (Al Pacino), tries to keep the family strong in the 1950s and ultimately either loses, alienates, or kills everyone that he loves.

During Vito’s half of the film, we learn how Vito first met Clemenza (played by Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea).  However, during Michael’s half of the story, Clemenza is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we’re told that Clemenza died off-screen and his successor is Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo).  All of the characters talk about Frankie as if he’s an old friend but, as a matter of fact, Frankie was nowhere to be seen during the first film.  Nor is he present in Vito’s flashbacks.  This is because originally, Frankie was going to be Clemenza.  But Richard Castellano demanded too much money and, as a result, he was written out of the script.

And really, it doesn’t matter.  Gazzo does fine as Frankie and it’s a great film.  But, once you know that Frankie was originally meant to be Clemenza, it’s impossible to watch The Godfather Part II without thinking about how perfectly it would have worked out.

If Clemenza had been around for Michael’s scenes, he would have provided a direct link between Vito’s story and Michael’s story.  When Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) betrayed Michael and went into protective custody, it would have reminded us of how much things had changed for the Corleones (and, by extension, America itself).  When Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) talked Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) into committing suicide, it truly would have shown that the old, “honorable” Mafia no longer existed.  It’s also interesting to note that, before Tessio was taken away and killed, the last person he talked to was Tom Hagen.  If Castellano had returned, it once again would have fallen to Tom to let another one of his adopted father’s friends know that it was time to go.

Famously, the Godfather, Part II ends with a flashback to the day after Pearl Harbor.   We watch as a young and idealistic Michael tells his family that he’s joined the army.  With the exception of Michael and Tom Hagen, every character seen in the flashback has been killed over the course of the previous two films.  We see Sonny (James Caan), Carlo (Gianni Russo), Fredo (John Cazale), and even Tessio (Abe Vigoda).  Not present: Clemenza.  (Vito doesn’t appear in the flashback either but everyone’s talking about him so he might as well be there.  Poor Clemenza doesn’t even get mentioned.)

If only Richard Castellano had been willing to return.

Clemenza_and_Vito

Clemenza and Vito

 

But he didn’t and you know what?  You really only miss him if you know that he was originally meant to be in the film.  With or without Richard Castellano, The Godfather, Part II is a great film, probably one of the greatest of all time.  When it comes to reviewing The Godfather, Part II, the only real question is whether it’s better than the first Godfather.

Which Godfather you prefer really depends on what you’re looking for from a movie.  Even with that door getting closed in Kay’s face, the first Godfather was and is a crowd pleaser.  In the first Godfather, the Corleones may have been bad but everyone else was worse.  You couldn’t help but cheer them on.

The Godfather Part II is far different.  In the “modern” scenes, we discover that the playful and idealistic Michael of part one is gone.  Micheal is now cold and ruthless, a man who willingly orders a hit on his older brother and who has no trouble threatening Tom Hagen.  If Michael spent the first film surrounded by family, he spends the second film talking to professional killers, like Al Neri (Richard Bright) and Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui).  Whereas the first film ended with someone else closing the door on Kay, the second film features Michael doing it himself.  By the end of the film, Michael Corleone is alone in his compound, a tyrant isolated in his castle.

Michael’s story provides a sharp contrast to Vito’s story.  Vito’s half of the film is vibrant and colorful and fun in a way that Michael’s half is not and could never be.  But every time that you’re tempted to cheer a bit too easily for Vito, the film moves forward in time and it reminds you of what the future holds for the Corleones.

So, which of the first two Godfathers do I prefer?  I love them both.  If I need to be entertained, I’ll watch The Godfather.  If I want to watch a movie that will truly make me think and make me question all of my beliefs about morality, I’ll watch Part Two.

Finally, I can’t end this review without talking about G.D. Spradlin, the actor who plays the role of U.S. Sen. Pat Geary.  The Godfather Part II is full of great acting.  De Niro won an Oscar.  Pacino, Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire were all nominated.  Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale all deserved nominations.  Even Joe Spinell shows up and brilliantly delivers the line, “Yeah, we had lots of buffers.”  But, with each viewing of Godfather, Part II, I find myself more and more impressed with G.D. Spradlin.

Sen. Pat Geary doesn’t have a lot of time on-screen.  He attends a birthday party at the Corleone Family compound, where he praises Michael in public and then condescendingly insults him in private.  Later, he shows up in Cuba, where he watches a sex show with obvious interest.  And, when Michael is called before a Senate committee, Geary gives a speech defending the honor of all Italian-Americans.

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

But the scene that we all remember is the one where Tom Hagen meets Sen. Geary in a brothel.  As Geary talks about how he passed out earlier, the camera briefly catches the sight of a dead prostitute lying on the bed behind him.  What’s especially disturbing about this scene is that neither Hagen nor Geary seem to acknowledge her presence.  She’s been reduced to a prop in the Corleone Family’s scheme to blackmail Sen. Geary.  His voice shaken, Geary says that he doesn’t know what happened and we see the weakness and the cowardice behind his almost all-American facade.

It’s a disturbing scene that’s well-acted by both Duvall and Spradlin.  Of course, what is obvious (even if it’s never explicitly stated) is that Sen. Geary has been set up and that nameless prostitute was killed by the Corleones.  It’s a scene that makes us reconsider everything that we previously believed about the heroes of the Godfather.

For forcing us to reconsider and shaking us out of our complacency, The Godfather, Part II is a great film.

(Yes, it’s even better than The Trial of Billy Jack.)

 

Shattered Politics #31: The Godfather (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


Godfather_ver1

“I got something for your mother and Sonny and a tie for Freddy and Tom Hagen got the Reynolds Pen…” — Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) in The Godfather (1972)

It probably seems strange that when talking about The Godfather, a film that it is generally acknowledged as being one of the best and most influential of all time, I would start with an innocuous quote about getting Tom Hagen a pen.

(And it better have been a hell of a pen because, judging from the scene where Sollozzo stops him in the street, it looked like Tom was going all out as far as gifts were concerned…)

After all, The Godfather is a film that is full of memorable quotes.  “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”  “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  “It’s strictly business.”  “I believe in America….”  “That’s my family, Kay.  That’s not me.”

But I went with the quote about the Reynolds pen because, quite frankly, I find an excuse to repeat it every Christmas.  Every holiday season, whenever I hear friends or family talking about presents, I remind them that Tom Hagen is getting the Reynolds pen.  Doubt me?  Check out these tweets from the past!

[tweet https://twitter.com/LisaMarieBowman/status/411891527837687810  ]

[tweet https://twitter.com/LisaMarieBowman/status/280387983444697088 ]

That’s how much I love The Godfather.  I love it so much that I even find myself quoting the lines that don’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things.  I love the film so much that I once even wrote an entire post about who could have been cast in The Godfather if, for whatever reason, Brando, Pacino, Duvall, et al. had been unavailable.  And I know that I’m not alone in that love.

But all that love also makes The Godfather a difficult film to review.  What do you say about a film that everyone already knows is great?

Do you praise it by saying that Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Marlon Brando, John Cazale, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda, Alex Rocco, and Talia Shire all gave excellent performances?  You can do that but everyone already knows that.

Do you talk about how well director Francis Ford Coppola told this operatic, sprawling story of crime, family, and politics?  You can do that but everyone already knows that.

Maybe you can talk about how beautiful Gordon Willis’s dark and shadowy cinematography looks, regardless of whether you’re seeing it in a theater or on TV.  Because it certainly does but everyone knows that.

Maybe you can mention the haunting beauty of Nina Rota’s score but again…

Well, you get the idea.

Now, if you somehow have never seen the film before, allow me to try to tell you what happens in The Godfather.  I say try because The Godfather is a true epic.  Because it’s also an intimate family drama and features such a dominating lead performance from Al Pacino, it’s sometimes to easy to forget just how much is actually going on in The Godfather.

The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone Family.  Patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) has done very well for himself in America, making himself into a rich and influential man.  Of course, Vito is also known as both Don Corleone and the Godfather and he’s made his fortune through less-than-legal means.  He may be rich and he may be influential but when his daughter gets married, the FBI shows up outside the reception and takes pictures of all the cars in the parking lot.  Vito Corleone knows judges and congressmen but none of them are willing to be seen in public with him.  Vito is the establishment that nobody wants to acknowledge and sometimes, this very powerful man wonders if there will ever be a “Governor Corleone” or a “Senator Corleone.”

Vito is the proud father of three children and the adopted father of one more.  His oldest son, and probable successor, is Sonny (James Caan).  Sonny, however, has a temper and absolutely no impulse control.  While his wife is bragging about him to the other women at the wedding, Sonny is upstairs screwing a bridesmaid.  When the enemies of the Corleone Family declare war, Sonny declares war back and forgets the first rule of organized crime: “It’s not personal.  It’s strictly business.”

After Sonny, there’s Fredo (John Cazale).  Poor, pathetic Fredo.  In many ways, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Fredo.  He’s the one who ends up getting exiled to Vegas, where he lives under the protection of the crude Moe Greene (Alex Rocco).  One of the film’s best moments is when a bejeweled Fredo shows up at a Vegas hotel with an entourage of prostitutes and other hangers-on.  In these scenes, Fred is trying so hard but when you take one look at his shifty eyes, it’s obvious that he’s still the same guy who we first saw stumbling around drunk at his sister’s wedding.

(And, of course, it’s impossible to watch Fredo in this film without thinking about both what will happen to the character in the Godfather, Part II and how John Cazale, who brought the character to such vibrant life, would die just 6 years later.)

As a female, daughter Connie (Talia Shire) is — for the first film, at least — excluded from the family business.  Instead, she marries Sonny’s friend Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo).  And, to put it gently, it’s not a match made in heaven.

And finally, there’s Michael (Al Pacino).  Michael is the son who, at the start of the film, declares that he wants nothing to do with the family business.  He’s the one who wants to break with family tradition by marrying Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), who is most definitely not Italian.  He’s the one who was decorated in World War II and who comes to his sister’s wedding still dressed in his uniform.  (In the second Godfather film, we learn that Vito thought Michael was foolish to join the army, which makes it all the more clear that, by wearing the uniform to the wedding, Michael is attempting to declare his own identity outside of the family.)  To paraphrase the third Godfather film, Michael is the one who says he wants to get out but who keeps getting dragged back in.

And finally, the adopted son is Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).  Tom is the Don’s lawyer and one reason why Tom is one of my favorite characters is because, behind his usual stone-faced facade, Tom is actually very snarky.  He just hides it well.

Early on, we get a hint that Tom is more amused than he lets on when he has dinner with the crude Jack Woltz (John Marley), a film producer who doesn’t want to use Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) in a movie  When Woltz shouts insults at him, Tom calmly finishes his dinner and thanks him for a lovely evening.  And he does it with just the hint of a little smirk and you can practically see him thinking, “Somebody’s going to wake up with a horse tomorrow….”

However, my favorite Tom Hagen moment comes when Kay, who is searching for Michael, drops by the family compound.  Tom greets her at the gate.  When Kay spots a car that’s riddled with bullet holes, she asks what happened.  Tom smiles and says, “Oh, that was an accident.  But luckily no one was hurt!”  Duvall delivers the line with just the right attitude of “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”  How can you not kind of love Tom after that?

And, of course, the film is full of other memorable characters, all of whom are scheming and plotting.  There’s Clemenza (Richard S. Catellano) and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), the two Corleone lieutenants who may or may not be plotting to betray the Don.  There’s fearsome Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), who spends an eternity practicing what he wants to say at Connie’s wedding and yet still manages to screw it up.  And, of course, there’s Sollozzo (Al Lettieri, playing a role originally offered to Franco Nero), the drug dealer who reacts angrily to Vito’s refusal to help him out.  Meanwhile, Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) is busy beating up young punks and Al Neri (Richard Bright) is gunning people down in front of the courthouse.  And, of course, there’s poor, innocent, ill-fated Appollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli)…

The Godfather is a great Italian-American epic, one that works as both a gangster film and a family drama.  Perhaps the genius of the Godfather trilogy is that the Corleone family serves as an ink blot in a cinematic rorschach test.  Audiences can look at them and see whatever they want.  If you want them and their crimes to serve as a metaphor for capitalism, you need only listen to Tom and Michael repeatedly state that it’s only business.  If you want to see them as heroic businessmen, just consider that their enemies essentially want to regulate the Corleones out of existence.  If you want the Corleones to serve as symbols of the patriarchy, you need only watch as the door to Michael’s office is shut in Kay’s face.  If you want to see the Corleones as heroes, you need only consider that they — and they alone — seem to operate with any sort of honorable criminal code.  (This, of course, would change over the course of the two sequels.)

And, if you’re trying to fit a review of The Godfather into a series about political films, you only have to consider that Vito is regularly spoken of as being a man who carries politicians around in his pocket.  We may not see any elected officials in the first Godfather film but their presence is felt.  Above all else, it’s Vito’s political influence that sets in motion all of the events that unfold over the course of the film.

The Godfather, of course, won the Oscar for best picture of 1972.  And while it’s rare that I openly agree with the Academy, I’m proud to say that this one time is a definite exception.

Film Review: Blood Ties (dir by Guillame Canet)


So, there’s this fucking movie called Blood Ties and it’s about a lot of fucking guys who live in fucking New York City in the fucking 70s and they’re all kind of a bunch of fuck-ups but they all know how to fucking use the word fuck as both an adjective and an adverb.  That’s the main impression that I took away from Blood Ties, a film that feels a lot like a mash-up of Place Beyond The Pines and every Martin Scorsese film ever made.

The year is 1974.  After serving several years on a murder conviction, 50 year-old Chris (Clive Owen) has been released from prison.  Chris’s transition back into society is a bumpy one.  For one thing, his ex-girlfriend (Marion Cotillard) is now a prostitute and refuses to let Chris see his children.  Though he gets a new girlfriend (Mila Kunis), he still finds himself struggling to hold down a job and he soon finds himself tempted to once again pursue a life of crime.

What might make that difficult for him is the fact that his younger brother, Frank (Billy Crudup), is now a cop with an old school porn star mustache.  Frank makes little secret of how much he resents his older brother and it isn’t long before the two of them are constantly fighting.  However, Frank has problems beyond Chris.  For one thing, he’s romantically pursuing Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), despite the fact that he earlier put her husband, Anthony (Matthias Schoenaerts), in prison.

In order to keep their dying father (James Caan) happy, Chris and Frank try to put aside their differences.  However, when Frank sees Chris fleeing from the scene of a robbery, it becomes harder and harder for him to ignore his brother’s activities.  Meanwhile, Chris has to decide whether or not to potentially sacrifice his freedom to keep his brother safe from a vengeful Anthony…

When Blood Ties was originally released at the beginning of the year, I considered seeing it but — for some reason — I ended up seeing The Legend of Hercules instead.  (Don’t you hate it when that happens!)  And I have to admit that I had forgotten about Blood Ties until I discovered that we were getting EPIX for free this holiday weekend.  Blood Ties is one of the films that’s currently showing on EPIX and, when I saw it was available, I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to see A Most Violent Year but until that opens up down here in Dallas, why not watch another violent New York period piece?”

And so I watched Blood Ties and … well, bleh.  Actually, bleh may be too harsh of a judgment.  The film is full of fun period details and Billy Crudup gives a really good performance as Frank.  There are some well done action scenes and I appreciated the fact that, for the most part, the film did not try to make violence look glamorous or fun.  The film has a great soundtrack though, for the most part, most of the songs here can also be heard in a countless number of superior Scorsese films.

But, ultimately, Blood Ties is never as good as you want it to be.  The film’s plot is about as predictable as can be and, far too often, scenes that start out interesting quickly degenerate to various characters standing around and yelling at each other.  And while that may often be what happens in real life, it still doesn’t make it particularly interesting to watch.  And then you’ve got poor Clive Owen, a good actor who is seriously miscast here.  Casting Clive Owen as a streetwise New York gangster is a bit like casting Ray Liotta as a member of the Queen’s Guard.  It just doesn’t work.

For those of us hoping for a great New York City crime epic — well, we’re just going to have to keep hoping that A Most Violent Year turns out to be just as good as everyone says it is…

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