A Movie A Day #279: The Ambulance (1990, directed by Larry Cohen)


Josh Baker (Eric Roberts) is an extroverted artist for Marvel Comics who meets Cheryl (Janine Turner) while walking around New York City.  Josh and Cheryl hit it off but when Cheryl suddenly collapses, she is picked up by a mysterious ambulance.  When Josh goes to the hospital to check on her, he is told that Cheryl was never brought in.  Soon, Josh discovers that people all over New York have been put into back of the ambulance and have never been seen again.  Unfortunately, nobody believes Josh.  Not the veteran NYPD detective (James Earl Jones) who Josh approaches with his suspicions.  Not the staff of the hospital.  Not even Stan Lee!  The only people willing to support Josh are an elderly investigative reporter (Red Buttons) and an inexperienced detective (Megan Gallagher).

Yes, Stan Lee does play himself.  While he had made a few cameo appearances on television and had previously narrated a French film, The Ambulance was Stan Lee’s first real film role.  Josh works at an idealized version of Marvel Comics, where the artists are well-paid, no one is pressured into producing substandard work, and Lee is an avuncular father figure.  It is the Marvel Comics that I used to imagine working at when I was growing up, before I found out about what actually happened to artists like Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, and Steve Ditko.

Idealized though it may be, the Marvel connection is appropriate because The Ambulance is essentially a comic book adventure.  It does not matter how many times Josh gets hit by a car or falls out of a window, he always recovers in time for the next scene.  When Josh does discover who is behind the ambulance, it turns out to be a villain who would not be out-of-place in a Ditko-era Spider-Man story.

The Ambulance is another one of Larry Cohen’s New York horror stories.  Like most of Cohen’s films, it is pulpy, cheap, and entertaining.  Eric Roberts is as crazy as ever and the movie is full of good character actors like James Earl Jones, Red Buttons, Richard Bright, and Eric Braeden.  The Ambulance may be dumb but it is always entertaining.

 

 

Shattered Politics #53: The Godfather Part III (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


GodfatherIII2

Well, it’s come to this.

First released in 1990, The Godfather Part III was nominated for best picture (it lost to Goodfellas Dances With Wolves) but it’s got a terrible reputation.  Over the past two weeks, whenever I’ve mentioned that I was planning on reviewing The Godfather and The Godfather Part II for this series of reviews, everyone who I talked to mentioned that they loved the first two Godfather films and that they hated the third one.  Quite a few, in fact, suggested that I shouldn’t even bother reviewing the third one.  In their eyes, The Godfather Part III was like that one cousin who you know exists but, because he got caught cashing your grandma’s social security check, you never send a Christmas card.

But you know what?

It was never even an option for me to skip reviewing The Godfather, Part III.  First off, I’m a completist.  It’s long been my goal to review every single best picture nominee and, regardless of how much some people may dislike it, that’s exactly what The Godfather Part III is.

Plus, I love the Godfather movies.  I’m a fourth Italian (and, much like the Corleones, my Italian side comes from Southern Italy) and I was raised Catholic.  Let’s face it — The Godfather movies were made for me.  Even Part III.

So, with all that in mind, I recently sat down and rewatched The Godfather Part III.  And I’m not saying that it was an easy film to watch.  It’s a flawed film and those flaws are made even more obvious when you compare it to the previous two Godfathers.  It’s hard to follow up on perfection.  And I have to admit that, even though I had seen Part III before, I was still expecting it to be better than it actually was.  I had forgotten just how many slow spots there were.  I had forgotten how confusing the plot could get.  I had forgotten….

Okay, I’m really starting to sound negative here and I don’t want to sound negative.  Because I like The Godfather, Part III.  I think it’s a good but uneven film.  Some of my favorite films are good but uneven…

But this is a Godfather film that we’re talking about here!

The Godfather Part III opens in 1979, 20+ years since the end of the second film.  Tom Hagen has died off-screen (booo!) and Michael (Al Pacino) is nearly 60 and looking forward to retirement.  He’s handed the Corleone criminal empire over to the flamboyant Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna).  Michael has finally become a legitimate businessman but he’s lost everyone that he loved.  Kay (Diane Keaton) has divorced him.  His son, Anthony (Franco D’Ambrosio), knows that Michael was responsible for killing Uncle Fredo and wants nothing to do with the family business.  Instead, Anthony wants to be an opera singer.  Meanwhile, his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) is headstrong and rebellious.  (Or, at least, she’s supposed to be.  That’s what the audience is told, anyway.  None of that really comes across on the screen.)

Now, the first two Godfather films featured their share of melodrama but neither one of them comes close to matching all of the schemes, betrayals, and plots that play out over the course of Godfather, Part III.  Let’s see if I can keep all of this straight:

As the film opens, Michael is receiving an award from the Vatican.  Kay, who is now married to a judge, shows up with Mary and Anthony.  Michael is obviously happy to see her.  Kay glares at him and says, “That ceremony was disgusting!”  (Damn, I thought, Kay’s suddenly being kind of a bitch.  Fortunately, later on in the movie, Kay’s dialogue was both better written and delivered.)

Then, Vincent (Andy Garcia) shows up!  Vincent is one of those handsome, sexy gangsters whose every action is followed by an exclamation point!  Vincent is Sonny’s illegitimate son!  He wears a cool leather jacket!  He openly flirts with his cousin Mary!  He has sex with Bridget Fonda!  He kills Joey Zasa’s thugs!  He convinces Michael to mentor him!

And, as soon as Vincent enters the film, suddenly every scene starts to end with an exclamation point!

And then, Michael goes to Sicily!  He gets swindled by the corrupt Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly)!  He gets targeted by a corrupt Italian politician!  He confesses his sins to Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone)!  Lamberto later becomes Pope!

Meanwhile, Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) is conspiring to kill Michael!  Because that’s what elderly Mafia dons do!  And then Kay, Anthony, and Mary all come to Sicily!  Anthony is going to be making his opera debut!  And soon Vincent is sleeping with Mary, even though they’re first cousins!

And even more people want Michael dead and I’m not really sure why!  Everyone goes to the opera!  We sit through the entire opera!  Meanwhile, enemies of the Corleones are killed!  And some Corleones are killed!  And it all ends tragically!

Okay, I’m starting to get snarky here and it’s probably getting a little bit hard to believe that I actually do like The Godfather, Part III.  And, as much as I hate to do it, there are a few more flaws that I do need to point out.  Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite directors and she has really pretty hair and we both have similar noses but …. well, let’s just say that it’s probably a good thing that Sofia pursued a career as a director and not as an actress.  Reportedly, Sofia was a last minute pick for the role, cast after Winona Ryder suddenly dropped out of the production.  It’s not so much that her performance is terrible as much as it’s not up to the level of the rest of the cast.  Watching this Godfather, you’re acutely aware of how much of what you’re seeing on screen was determined by Sofia’s inexperience as an actress.

And then there’s that opera.  Now, I know that I’m supposed to love opera because I’m a girl and I’m a fourth Italian.  And I do love big emotions and big drama and all the rest.  But oh my God, the opera at the end of the movie went on and on.  There’s only so much entertainment you can get out of watching actors watch other actors.

But, at the same time, for every flaw, there’s a part of the film that does work.  First off, the film itself is gorgeous to look at, with a lot of wonderfully baroque sets and scenes taking place against the beautiful Italian landscape.  Al Pacino brings a very real gravity to the role of Michael and it’s fun to watch him trying to win back Diane Keaton.  (In those brief scenes, The Godfather Part III almost becomes a romantic comedy.)  Talia Shire is obviously having a lot of fun playing Connie as being a Lady MacBeth-type of character.  (In fact, they needed to give Connie a film of her own where she could poison anyone who get on her nerves.)  And Andy Garcia does a great job as Vincent.  You watch him and you never have any doubt that he could be Sonny’s son.

The Godfather Part III may not live up to the first two Godfather films but what film could?

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.