4 Film Reviews: Bridge To Silence, The Chocolate War, Kiss The Bride, Wedding Daze


Last week, I watched six films on This TV.

Which TV?  No, This TV!  It’s one of my favorite channels.  It’s not just that they show a lot of movies.  It’s also that they frequently show movies that are new to me.  For instance, last week, This TV introduced me to both Prison Planet and Cherry 2000.

Here are four other films, two good and two not so good, that This TV introduced to me last week.

First up, we have 1989’s Bridge to Silence.

Directed by Karen Arthur, Bridge To Silence was a made-for-TV movie.  Lee Remick plays Marge Duffield, who has a strained relationship with her deaf daughter, Peggy (Marlee Matlin).  After Peggy’s husband is killed in a traffic accident, Peggy has a nervous breakdown.  Marge and her husband, Al (Josef Sommer) take care of Peggy’s daughter, Lisa, while Peggy is recovering.  However, even as Peggy gets better, Marge still doesn’t feel that she can raise her daughter so Marge files a lawsuit to be named Lisa’s legal guardian.  While all of this is going on, Peggy is starring in a college production of The Glass Menagerie and pursuing a tentative romance with the play’s director (Michael O’Keefe).

Bridge to Silence is one of those overwritten but heartfelt melodramas that just doesn’t work.  With the exception of Marlee Matlin, the cast struggles with the overwrought script.  (Michael O’Keefe, in particular, appears to be miserable.)  The film’s biggest mistake is that it relies too much on that production of The Glass Menagerie, which is Tennessee Williams’s worst play and tends to be annoying even when it’s merely used as a plot device.  There’s only so many times that you can hear the play’s director refer to Peggy as being “Blue Roses” before you just want rip your hair out.

Far more enjoyable was 1988’s The Chocolate War.

Directed by Keith Gordon, The Chocolate War is a satirical look at conformity, popularity, rebellion, and chocolate at a Catholic boys school.  After the manipulative Brother Leon accidentally purchases too much chocolate for the school’s annual sale, he appeals to one of his students, Archie Costello (Wallace Langham), to help him make the money back.  Archie, who is just as manipulative as Leon, is the leader of a secret society known as the Vigils.  However, Archie and Leon’s attempt to manipulate the students runs into a roadblack when a new student, Jerry Renault (Illan Mitchell-Smith) refuses to sell any chocolates at all.  From there, things get progressively more complicated as Archie tries to break Jerry, Jerry continues to stand up for his freedom, and Leon … well, who knows what Leon is thinking?

The Chocolate War was an enjoyable and stylish film, one that featured a great soundtrack and a subtext about rebellion and conformity that still feels relevant.  John Glover and Wallace Langham both gave great performances as two master manipulators.

I also enjoyed the 2002 film, Kiss The Bride.

Kiss The Bride tells the story of a big Italian family, four sisters, and a wedding.  Everyone brings their own personal drama to the big day but ultimately, what matters is that family sticks together.  Directed by Vanessa Parise, Kiss The Bride featured believable and naturalistic performances from Amanda Detmer, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Brooke Langton, Monet Mazur, and Parise herself.

I have to admit that one reason why I liked this film is because it was about a big Italian family and it featured four sisters.  I’m the youngest of four sisters and, watching the film, I was reminded of my own big Irish-Italian family.  The movie just got everything right.

And then finally, there was 2006’s Wedding Daze.

Wedding Daze is a romantic “comedy.”  Anderson (Jason Biggs) asks his girlfriend to marry him, just to have her drop dead from shock.  Anderson’s best friend is afraid that Anderson will never get over his dead girlfriend and begs Anderson to not give up on love.  Anderson attempts to humor his friend by asking a complete stranger, a waitress named Katie (Isla Fisher), to marry him.  To everyone’s shock, Katie says yes.

From the get go, there are some obvious problems with this film’s problem.  Even if you accept that idea that Katie would say yes to Anderson, you also have to be willing to accept the idea that Anderson wouldn’t just say, “No, I was just joking.”  That said, the idea does have some comic potential.  You could imagine an actor like Cary Grant doing wonders with this premise in the 30s.  Unfortunately, Jason Biggs is no Cary Grant and the film’s director, comedian Michael Ian Black, is no Leo McCarey.  In the end, the entire film is such a misjudged failure that you can’t help but feel that Anderson’s ex was lucky to die before getting too involved in any of it.

Music Video of the Day: Nothing To Believe In by Cracker (1996, dir. Samuel Bayer)


Today’s Harry Dean Stanton video is doubly-sad. That’s because we not only have the recently departed Stanton.

We also have Justin Pierce four years before his suicide. You would know him from Kids (1995).

Talia Shire shows up in the video as well.

I don’t know anyone else in the video other than lead-singer David Lowry. Thank goodness for Wikipedia. I knew of Cracker because of the song Low. I knew of Camper Van Beethoven because of the song Take The Skinheads Bowling. But I would have never noticed that Lowry fronted both bands even though it’s obvious to me now listening to this song and Take The Skinheads Bowling.

I wish I could at least find out who this lady is…

that is doing her best Rob Halford.

Heading Out To The Highway by Judas Priest (1981)

She is prominently featured, but all I could find is that Harry Dean Stanton did two more music videos than I originally thought. It never fails. I’ll do them as well.

The video was directed by Samuel Bayer of…

Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana fame. Did Lowry ask for the Cobain treatment? In addition, I know Bayer directed Bullet With Butterfly Wings one year prior to this one. Still, was Goth-Stanton something people were clamoring for?

I mean he looks like Lars Ulrich in Until It Sleeps.

Until It Sleeps by Metallica (1996)

Yes, that one was also directed by Bayer. And if you are thinking he probably directed some videos for Garbage and Hole based on the woman I couldn’t identify, then you’d be right.

The casting director on this one was Crystal Lujan. Her music video credits alone are close to 100. She has done some acting too. I guess she was one of the cult members in that unfortunate Clive Barker movie with Scott Bakula, Lord Of Illusions (1995).

Enjoy!

Harry Dean Stanton Retrospective:

  1. Heart Of Stone by Dwight Yoakam (1996, dir. Dwight Yoakam)
  2. Sorry You Asked? by Dwight Yoakam (1996, dir. Dwight Yoakam)

The Measure of a Man: The Life and Career of Rocky Balboa


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Have you heard the rumor?

Rocky Balboa, also know as the Italian Stallion and the former heavyweight champion of the world, is going to die.

2013Rocky_SylvesterStallone_PA-14110031250713At least that is what some people think after reading the official plot synopsis of the upcoming boxing film Creed.  Here is the press release from MGM and Warner Brothers:

From Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures comes award-winning filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s “Creed.” The film explores a new chapter in the “Rocky” story and stars Academy Award nominee Sylvester Stallone in his iconic role. The film also reunites Coogler with his “Fruitvale Station” star Michael B. Jordan as the son of Apollo Creed.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) never knew his famous father, world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, who died before he was born. Still, there’s no denying that boxing is in his blood, so Adonis heads to Philadelphia, the site of Apollo Creed’s legendary match with a tough upstart named Rocky Balboa.

Once in the City of Brotherly Love, Adonis tracks Rocky (Stallone) down and asks him to be his trainer. Despite his insistence that he is out of the fight game for good, Rocky sees in Adonis the strength and determination he had known in Apollo—the fierce rival who became his closest friend. Agreeing to take him on, Rocky trains the young fighter, even as the former champ is battling an opponent more deadly than any he faced in the ring.

With Rocky in his corner, it isn’t long before Adonis gets his own shot at the title…but can he develop not only the drive but also the heart of a true fighter, in time to get into the ring?

Sylvester-Stallone-creedMany have interpreted that to mean that, while training Adonis, Rocky will be battling cancer.  With the exception of the first one and Rocky V, every installment in the Rocky franchise has featured a character either dying or coming close.  Since Paulie will apparently not be appearing in Creed, that leaves Rocky himself as the most likely candidate to tragically pass away before or after the big fight.  In death, Rocky would not only pass on his legacy Adonis Creed but Sylvester Stallone would pass on the Rocky franchise to Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan.

With his days possibly numbered, I decided to take a look back at Rocky Balboa’s amazing career.

Rocky (1976)

Sylvester Stallone was just another out-of-work actor when, one night in 1975, he saw a little known boxer named Chuck Wepner go 15 rounds against the reigning heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali.  Inspired by the fight, Stallone wrote the first draft of Rocky in three days.  When he sold his script, he did so with one condition: that he be allowed to play Rocky Balboa.  You know the rest of the story: Directed by John G. Avildsen, Rocky became a huge box office hitwon the Oscar for best picture of the year, and made Sylvester Stallone into an unlikely star.

618_movies_rocky_10Rocky Balboa is an aging boxer and a collector for Philadelphia loan shark, Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell).  The current heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), is scheduled to fight a match in Philadelphia in honor of America’s bicentennial.  When his opponent injures his hand, Apollo decides to give a local boy a chance and the unknown Rocky gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the title.  Nobody gives Rocky a chance, except for Rocky.  With the help of grizzled trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and alcoholic best friend, Paulie (Burt Young), Rocky prepares for the fight.  After a training montage (the first of many) that ends with Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rocky shocks everyone by going the distance against Apollo.  Though he loses by a split decision, Rocky wins both his self-respect and the love of Paulie’s sister, Adrian (Talia Shire).

Rocky holds up as one of the best boxing movies ever made and it set the standard by which almost all future underdog sports movies have been judged.  Rocky may have ended with Rocky ready to take off his gloves and concentrate on his life with Adrian but the box office demanded that Rocky get another once-in-a-lifetime shot.

Rocky II (1979)

The first Rocky may have ended with Apollo saying there would be no rematch and Rocky replying that he did not want one but the film’s box office success said otherwise.  In Rocky II, Apollo is stung by criticism over how he nearly lost his first fight against Rocky and demands a rematch.  At first, Rocky refuses but, with no prospects and a wife, son, and alcoholic brother-in-law to support, Rocky finally agrees to a rematch.  What follows is largely a repeat of the first film, except this time Rocky has a lot more fans following him through the streets of Philadelphia during his training montage and Rocky actually wins the fight, becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.

rocky-ii-1979-01-gThe best thing about Rocky II is that it fleshes out the character of Apollo.  No longer is he just the cocky villain from the first film.  Instead, he is revealed to be a proud man, a fierce competitor, and a worthy opponent. Though he may lose the final fight, Apollo regains the respect that he sacrificed as the end of the first film.

Rocky II is also notable for being the first film in the franchise to be directed by Sylvester Stallone.  Stallone would direct all of the subsequent installments, with the exception of the John G. Avildsen-directed Rocky V.

Rocky III (1982)

mr-t-plays-clubber-in-rocky-iiiRocky III has the best opening of the franchise.  While Rocky does commercials and trades jokes with Kermit and Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show, Clubber Lang (Mr. T) relentlessly trains and savagely knocks out every opponent that he faces in the ring.  The premise of the first two films has been reversed.  Now, Rocky is the overconfident champion who does not take his latest fight seriously while Clubber Lang is the challenger who is hungry for victory.  Clubber has the “eye of the tiger” and is determined to win.  Rocky is busy doing charity events with Hulk Hogan and bailing alcoholic freeloader Paulie out of jail.

Rocky III features the first death of the franchise, when Clubber shoves Mickey so hard that Mickey ends up having a heart attack and dying almost immediately after Clubber defeats Rocky and becomes the new heavyweight champion of the world.  As if Rocky needed another reason to demand a rematch, Mickey’s death makes it personal.  Unfortunately, Rocky has lost his hunger.  He no longer has the eye of the tiger.

Fortunately, Rocky’s former rival, Apollo Creed, is there to help him get it back.  Taking over as Rocky’s trainer, Apollo gets the former champion back into fighting shape.  This means that it is time for a training montage!  This one ends with a great moment in bromance history as Rocky and Apollo embrace while jumping up and down in the ocean.

2009654-rocky_iii_l_oeil_du_tigre_1983_07_gRocky III ends with what may be the best fight in the history of the franchise.  It is also the only fight to be shown straight from beginning to end, without jumping to future rounds.  From the start of the fight, it is obvious that Clubber is stronger than Rocky but, taking a page from the rope-a-dope strategy that Muhammad Ali used on George Foreman in Zaire, Rocky knows that Clubber is so aggressive that he will tire himself out before the end of the fight.  Once Clubber has exhausted himself, Rocky sends him down to the canvas.

At the end of the film, Rocky and Apollo square off one last time to see who is truly the best boxer.  The film ends before the first punch is thrown and we never find out who won.  I like to think that it was Apollo, if just because I know what is going to happen to him in Rocky IV.

Rocky IV (1985)

Ivan_kills_ApolloHaving defeated every contender in the U.S., it only made sense that Rocky’s next opponent would come from the evil empire itself, the Soviet Union.  But before Rocky could battle Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), someone had to die.  This installment’s sacrificial victim was none other than Apollo Creed.  Apollo dies in the ring, beaten to death by the robotic Russian.  Of all the deaths in the Rocky franchise, Apollo’s was the most shocking and the most traumatic.  After Apollo falls face forward onto the mat, his body is still twitching even as Ivan says, “If he dies, he dies.”

Knowing that he should have been in the ring instead of Apollo, Rocky challenges Drago to a rematch, to be held in Moscow on, of all days, Christmas.  Leaving behind his mansion, his son, and his robot (yes, Rocky owns a robot in this one), Rocky goes to Siberia and that means that it is time for a training montage!  While Drago trains with machines and shoots steroids, Rocky trains by chopping wood and running in the snow.

lXRPTbIt’s a tough fight.  At first, Drago does not even seem to feel Rocky’s punches.  The Soviet audience (including someone who looks a lot like Mikhail Gorbachev) chants Drago’s name.  Just like in Philadelphia, Rocky refuses to go down.  The crowd starts to chant Rocky’s name.  When Drago’s manager demands that he win the fight in the name of communism, Drago shouts that he does not fight for the Soviet Union, he fights for himself.  Finally, with seconds left in the final round, Rocky knocks Drago out.

Lundgren_Ivan_DragoAs a bloody Drago looks on, Rocky literally wraps himself in an American flag and gives a speech.  Rocky thanks the Americans and the Soviets for supporting him and then says, “”If I can change, and you can change, then everybody can change!”  Gorbachev stands and applauds.  Is it just a coincidence that, four years later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended?

Rocky IV may be the best remembered of all of the Rocky films.  Ivan Drago was Rocky’s greatest and most imposing opponent and it is not surprising that, despite killing Apollo, he still has a strong fan base.  Unlike Clubber Lang, Ivan is a cold and methodical machine.  Rocky’s improbable win over him is not just a victory for America but a victory for humanity as well.

Rocky V (1990)

Is Rocky V canonical?  A lot of fans consider this to be the weakest film in the franchise.  Despite writing the film’s screenplay, Sylvester Stallone reportedly hates Rocky V and ignored it when he made Rocky Balboa.

rocky-5Rocky V starts with Rocky retiring after being told that his battle with Drago has left him with permanent brain damage.  Paulie, proving once again that he’s the worst best friend that anyone could hope for, loses all of Rocky’s money.  Rocky, Adrian, and Rocky, Jr. (now played by Sage Stallone) move back to the old neighborhood.  Following in the footsteps of Mickey and Apollo, Rocky trains a mulletheaded young boxer named Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison).  Instead of a training montage, we get a fight montage as Tommy becomes a champion but rejects Rocky’s management and signs with Don King George Washington Duke (Richard Gant).  Tommy and Rocky eventually face off in a street fight.  Originally, the plan was for Rocky to die at the end of the fight but, fortunately, someone in production realized that nobody would want to see Rocky Balboa beaten to death by Tommy Morrison.

551-3Tommy Morrison was a real-life boxer.  Rocky V was his only film role and he’s almost too convincing as the dim-witted Tommy Gunn.  In the real world, Tommy Morrison was suspended from boxing in 1996 when he tested positive for HIV.  He spent the rest of his life loudly insisting that the test was a false positive and trying to make a comeback.  He was 44 years old when he died of AIDS in 2013.

Rocky V suffers because Tommy Gunn and George Washington Duke cannot begin to compare to great Rocky opponents like Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago.  However, Rocky V does feature one of the franchise’s best endings.  Rocky and Rocky, Jr. jog up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and, father and son together, they finally decide to enter the building and discover what’s inside.

Rocky Balboa (2006)

After the critical and box office failure of Rocky V, it seemed like Rocky Balboa had retired for good.  However, after 16 years of well-deserved retirement, Rocky followed the path of George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Riddick Bowe and decided to make a comeback.

guide_cemeteryAs Rocky Balboa begins, Rocky is a widower and owns an Italian restaurant named Adrian’s, where he spends most of his time telling patrons stories about his fighting career.  He is estranged from his son, who now wants to be called Robert and is played by Milo Ventimiglia, but Rocky still has his best friend Paulie.  If not for Rocky, Paulie would probably be living in a cardboard box.  After a computer simulation suggests that Rocky, in his prime, could have defeated the reigning heavyweight champion, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), Rocky comes out of retirement for one last fight.  With the help of Apollo’s former trainer, Duke (Tony Burton), Rocky proves that he can still go the distance, even though he ultimately loses the fight in a split decision.

At the start of the film, Adrian has been dead for four years.  However, her ghost haunts the film.  Rocky regularly visits her grave and the film ends with him at her grave and saying, one last time, “Yo Adrian, we did it.”  Stallone may be the battered face of the Rocky franchise but Talia Shire was the heart.  Though she’s only seen in flashback, Rocky Balboa is a tribute to the way that Talia Shire brought Adrian to life.

Sentimental and nostalgic, Rocky Balboa felt like the perfect way to end the franchise.  However, Rocky will be returning for at least one more fight when Creed is released on November 25th.

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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)


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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.

What Lisa Watched Last Night: Rocky (dir. by John G. Avildsen)


A few days ago, I set the DVR to record the 1976 Best Picture winner Rocky off of TCM.  Last night, I finally got a chance to sit down and actually watch it.

Why Was I Watching It?

I’ll be honest here and admit that I wasn’t watching it because I’ve ever had any great desire to see this movie or, for that matter, any other Sylvester Stallone film.  (Though, for the record, I thought the Expendables was vaguely entertaining.)  However, this being Oscar season, my mind right now is pretty much dominated by 1) a mental list of all 493 best picture nominees and 2) an obsessive need to see every single one of those films. 

And since we’re focusing on reviewing best picture nominees this month, I figured why not take this opportunity to watch Rocky.  After all, I thought, this is the film that managed to win best picture over Network, Taxi Driver, and All The President’s Men.  How bad can it be?

What’s It About?

So, there’s this guy named Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and he’s got to be the nicest Mafia goon alive.  He spends his time collecting debts for the local loan shark (played by the Maniac himself, Joe Spinell) but he refuses to break anyone’s thumbs while doing so and even offers up helpful advice like, “Yo, you got to start thinking.”  Spinell’s all like, “Rocky, why aren’t you breaking anyone’s thumbs?” and Rocky says he doesn’t want to and Spinell’s all like, “That’s okay,” because oddly enough, Joe Spinell is the only guy in the Mafia who is nicer than Rocky.

Anyway. Rocky is also a boxer who fights “bums” (as his trainer Burgess Meredith is fond of bellowing) and who is sweetly courting Adrian (Talia Shire), a shy girl who works in the local pet store.  Adrian’s brother (played by Burt Young) is named Paul but since everyone in the film is Italian, he’s called “Paulie” instead.  (I can say this because I’m a fourth Italian and if your name is Paul, I’m going to call you “Paulie” whether you like it or not.) 

Anyway, there’s another boxer (played by Carl Weathers) and he’s named Apollo Creed.  Apollo is the champ because when you’ve got a name like Apollo Creed, you better be the best or else you’re just going to look silly.  For publicity reasons, Apollo gives the unknown Rocky the chance to fight him for the championship.  Apollo is expecting an easy fight but he hasn’t taken into consideration that Rocky is not only willing to run every morning but he’s willing to run up steps as well!

What Worked?

(WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.)

The love story between Rocky and Adrian was kinda sweet, largely because Talia Shire and Sylvester Stallone both had a very genuine chemistry and Shire gave such a good performance that Stallone (who spends most of the film coming across like a parody of a method actor) gives a better performance when he’s sharing the screen with her.  I spent a lot of this movie rolling my eyes at just how shamelessly manipulative it was but I have to admit that the final scene — with Adrian going “I love you, Rocky,” and a bloody and kinda gross-looking Rocky replying with a heartfelt, “I love you!” — brought tears to my multi-colored eyes.

What Didn’t Work?

Rocky has got to be one of the most shamelessly manipulative films ever made.  Director John G. Avildsen (who won best director while Martin Scorsese wasn’t even nominated for Taxi Driver) pushed every obvious button and used every technique at his disposal to force the audience to root for Rocky.  Hence, we get the famous training montage set to soaring music and the subtle appeals to racism that are inherent in the portrayals of Apollo Creed and his entourage.  Admittedly, one reason that a lot of these scenes fell flat is because I’ve seen them duplicated in thousands of other sports films.  I know its possible that the reason I’ve seen them duplicated is because of Rocky’s success but still, it doesn’t make those scenes feel any less obvious and vaguely silly.

Do you know how sometimes you just watch a movie and you go, “There is absolutely nothing in this movie for me to relate to and I really should be watching the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills right now?”  Well, my reaction to Rocky wasn’t that extreme but it was pretty close.  I watched this film — which I’ve seen described as one of the most emotional films ever made — feeling oddly detached from everything I was seeing on-screen, my attention only being held by a clinical fascination concerning just how shamelessly manipulative this film was.  Try as I might, I simply could not get emotionally invested in what I was watching.  Some of that, undoubtedly, has to do with the fact that I’m not into sports films in general.  However, I think most of it comes down to the fact that I have a vagina and, quite frankly, the appeal of Sylvester Stallone is lost on me.

Speaking of the appeal of Sylvester Stallone…

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments:

None.  It’s rare that I say that because I can usually find a way to relate any movie I see to my life but Rocky was just too alien to me.

Lessons Learned:

Best is a subjective term.