Saturday, February 11, 2012

One Last Furtive Look Around

12,717 minutes
212 hours
8.83 days

That’s the amount of time it takes to watch AFI’s 2007 list of the "100 greatest American films." Last night I watched the final film on the list, "Citizen Kane," up on the big screen at the Egyptian Theatre. See? There's my ticket stub and everything. Of course, for me, just watching the movies was the tip of the iceberg. I have spent the last two years of my life devoted to watching, absorbing and discussing these films, and now that the final film has faded out and my final article has been written, I can safely say that it was time very well spent.

I started on the journey hoping to learn just as much about myself as a filmmaker as I would learn about the craft of filmmaking itself, and in that respect I also believe I succeeded. I hadn’t seen every movie on the list, and many of the ones I had seen had long since begun fading from my memory. For me, the most amazing thing that the American Film Institute represents is that it bridges the gap between honoring the past and what has made filmmaking America’s greatest, most influential art form while training the next generation of filmmakers…the ones who it will honor years from now. It’s a beautiful circle, one which I was honored to be a part of for two years and, hopefully, will one day be part of its legacy. I must also point out that my education at AFI was worth every penny, and has earned its reputation as the world's best film school thanks to its fantastic faculty, staff and selection of Fellows.

I write this because the thing that I believe more than anything else about filmmaking is that, to move the medium forward, you must first understand its history and what has made it work to this point. Filmmaking has always, and continues to, represent the most important and emotionally genuine aspects of our culture. If you do not make an honest attempt to study and invest yourself in the men and women who kept it alive through the decades, then you are an idiot. You can learn everything about how to write a scene, stage a scene, direct actors, work a camera, hold a boom mic, edit coverage…but without inherently understanding what makes the final product transcendent, you are doomed to failure.

So should everyone who wants to make movies watch the AFI Top 100? Of course.

But is the list really the Top 100 movies? Of course not.

In the first place, the list only covers American films and, really, any list of great films that lacks “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is incomplete. “Sight & Sound” does a survey of directors and critics every decade to find the top films from all over the world, but those lists are faulty as well.

That is because every list, no matter how many people have added or subtracted to it, is essentially subjective and must inherently evolve with time. Not just because new films are being released every week, but because we aren’t the same people, the same country, the same world as we were yesterday, or last week, or last year. I’m lucky enough to love every genre of film, but to others, genres like horror and science fiction could never be transcendent enough to be considered an art form. That thought is just ridiculous, of course—just because you don’t like something does not mean that it does not exist or deserve validation.

Before writing this epilogue, I examined my prologue…the first article setting down the ground rules of the project. I wrote that I would explore whether any given film from the list deserved classic status, inclusion and then, every few articles, I would offer up a suggestion for another film that could serve as a replacement. Whoops.

I don’t think what I wrote there was wrong-headed, because I understand where I was coming from, but that was before I actually started. Now that I’m finished watching all 100 films, I can say that each one deserves its classic status. Did I dislike some of the movies? Of course. Are there many movies that I believed should have been ranked instead of ones that actually made the final cut? Duh. And yet…and yet each film on the list is important. Is special. I might disagree with its inclusion, but I understand why each film was chosen. If I hadn’t watched every movie on this list, I would have been missing out on a significant part of our culture. It was an honor to watch every film…even “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Another decision I made early on was to watch each movie fresh. I would do absolutely no research on the film, filmmakers, the history of the project, its critical acclaim, its awards or its impact on society before watching the movie and writing my article. If possible, I wouldn’t even read the back of the DVD box. And I can legitimately write that my choice was exactly the right decision. It gave these films that mystique that would have been lost had I known all the nuts and bolts going in. I have been studying those nuts and bolts for the past two years at AFI and, frankly, wanted an escape to view the movies like they were meant to be seen: As their own entity. Had I known how the actors seemed to make tracks in virgin sand in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the magic would have been lost. Had I known Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh hated one another, I would have been watching for that on the screen instead of being swept away in their love story.

Reading critical analysis of the classics today is like reading a history lesson. “This scene is important because it is the first time this camera was used and this nod has significance because the filmmakers hated one another and were threatening to kill one another in their sleep.” It’s almost as if modern critics are using all the histories, intricacies, battles with studios, battles between cast and crew and censorships to qualify the movies as classics. Hell, 2/3 of the critical essays I read about these films (after seeing them, of course) were more about their making than the movies themselves. That’s not how it should be. The best movies are classics not because of the circumstances they are made…but because they are great movies. After being mired in so much talk, talk, talk about the “how,” it was refreshing to watch the movies purely and ask myself “why.”

Even though I know they aren’t the actual Top 100 films because there can never be a definitive list, the AFI list still has vital importance, because it represents 100 reasons to fall in love with film. It also represents a means to introduce you to hundreds of other important, great films (American and otherwise). Because I watched these movies I am now a huge fan of Chaplin, have tracked down most of Wilder’s movies, discovered a love for David Lean’s Dickens adaptations and his great “Summertime,” feel like I’ve finally understood what Stanley Kubrick’s appeal is…and that’s just from the top 25. Now I can’t imagine my life without “Modern Times” and “The Last Picture Show,” two films I had never seen two years ago.

Use this list as a launching point to discover other amazing movies, shorts, television, filmmakers. Expand your knowledge. Grow. And if you make it through these 100, promise me you’ll watch “East of Eden,” “Notorious,” “The Great Dictator,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Uninvited,” “Witness For the Prosecution,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Exorcist,” “Kill Bill,” “The Muppet Movie,” “Room With a View,” “Night of the Hunter,” “Superman,” “The Verdict,” “Remains of the Day,” “Alice Adams,” “Casino Royale,” “The Thin Man,” “A Star is Born,” “Horror of Dracula,” “The Color Purple” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “The Haunting,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “Limelight,” “Touch of Evil,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Funny Face,” “The Untouchables”…and I’m sure that’s only scratching the surface.

What’s next? This isn’t the end. I want to dive into television next, but more on that later.

One final triumph: Through watching this list, I know for a fact that I became a better writer and filmmaker, consistently holding myself to a much higher standard than I did before I started.

Thanks for reading,
Robert Taylor
February 11, 2012

Citizen Kane

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 1
Year: 1941
Writer: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles
Director: Orson Welles
Star: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore

As a viewer, the more you invest yourself in “Citizen Kane,” the more rewarding the film becomes. On a level of pure entertainment, it is smart and rewarding…but there’s so much more to tear into. No matter how many times you see it, you pick up on new bits, question your old opinions and urgently try to put together just who the hell Charles Foster Kane really is. Of course the entire point is that there’s no way to truly know, but that doesn’t stop us from trying anyway.

The film is ostensibly all about Kane (Orson Welles, also the co-writer and director), but is really more about how his “friends” and “colleagues” interpreted him. No one, of course, really knows who a person is—even that person himself. Everything we think or speak about a person is tainted by our own sets of morals, opinions, rose-colored glasses, grudges, emotional attachments or detachments, likes, dislikes, failures, successes…the list could go on and on. But of course it is. Everyone’s got an angle. After Kane’s death, we watch “reliable” newsreel footage of his life and, after it finishes, its viewers complain that it needs a point-of-view. Yup, an angle. A Reporter (William Alland, never clearly seen during the movie) is sent to discover the truth behind the last thing Kane said: “Rosebud.” Of course, this Reporter has apparently never read his A.P. Stylebook, because he keeps referring to “rosebud” as Kane’s final words, not word, but that’s beside the point.

The Reporter reads the memoirs of Kane’s deceased guardian Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris in flashbacks), Kane’s manager Bernstein (Everett Sloane), his former friend Jedediah (Joseph Cotton), his ex-wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) and his butler (Paul Raymond). How reliable are any of these people when speaking about the man who had such a huge impact on their lives? I’d say “not very.” Each seems to approach their story with their opinions long in place and tells the story more for themselves than for Kane.

The most trustworthy seems to be Bernstein, who provides us with the greatest, most insightful passage ever placed on film. Before he begins his recollections of Kane, he tells the Reporter this:

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.”

The dialogue from the script by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles isn’t overly showy. Just the opposite, in fact. And Sloane doesn’t overact the moment and turn it into “his big scene.” In any modern movie this moment would be the equivalent of an actor’s “Oscar reel moment,” and they more often than not take you completely out of the film. And yet here it works so beautifully. Don’t we all have that girl on the dock somewhere in our lives? Entire movies (several of them on the top 100) are based on this idea, but all Mankiewicz and Welles needed was a simple paragraph of dialogue. I can never watch the scene without getting covered in goosebumps.

We watch the flashbacks on several levels. The first is the simple informational level—trying to understand what those being interviewed thought made Kane tick. The second is to see if they support or contradict what others say about him. The third is to carefully watch point-of-view and see how often it’s broken. And the fourth, of course, is to question everything we are being told and create our own opinions about just how polluted the stories really are.

The first two are what any viewer would do. The second two are part of the reason “Citizen Kane” has endured as a masterpiece. I have to admit, I hate it in flashbacks when point-of-view is entirely disregarded and, even though one person is telling his or her version of events, we enter omniscient perspective. Here it would be easy to call the point-of-view breaks a flaw, but it’s really not. It’s another layer of the onion. Because instead of seeing it as a structural problem, you can view this as insight into the character speaking and an extension of what he or she thought Kane’s life must have been like outside of their relationship. Or you could interpret it as the person telling stories he or she has heard dozens of times and now assumes it to be fact.

This goes hand-in-hand with the fourth, which is something every reporter or investigator must do in his research. And since the Reporter is a proxy for our perspective, Mankiewicz and Welles invite us to go as deep as we like into the film. Each flashback has its own perspective, its own tone…and its own measured reliability.

The first flashback comes from Thatcher’s memoirs, recounting the moment he took Kane from his parents to the moment Kane was forced to sign over the power of his empire. The tone here is one of flustered judgment. Thatcher actually breaks the fourth wall at several points when he turns to camera and rolls his eyes or drops his jaw at the things Kane has the audacity to do. This flashback is also the only one where Kane volunteers his opinion of himself, told to Thatcher as he signs over control of his empire:

Kane: “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”
Thatcher: “Don’t you think you are?”
Kane: “I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.”
Thatcher: “What would you have like to have been?”
Kane: “Everything you hate.”

Bernstein is in the room as well, but never mentions it during his recollection, something I found odd since it seemed like such a momentous way to sum up a life. Is Thatcher reliable here? I don’t think so. I think that he manufactured most of this conversation in his mind to make it more of a triumph for himself, especially that last little exchange.

As I wrote earlier, the most reliable perspective seems to come from Bernstein, though his stories are colored with sentimentality for the “good old days.” This is underlined by his first break in point-of-view, when Kane arrives at the Inquirer. We see it from Kane’s perspective with Jedediah, both full of hope for the future…Bernstein arrives moments later on a furniture truck. It’s obvious Bernstein feels that Kane was a great man, but is it to the point where he idolized him and stopped questioning his choices? The painting of Kane we see over Bernstein’s fireplace seems to support that theory.

The most substantive of the flashbacks (and also the most problematic) comes from Jedediah. He introduces himself as the closest thing Kane ever had to a friend, so when there are huge breaks in perspective during his memories we assume it is fine since he probably heard them from Kane himself. But how much to accept? Was Kane’s second wife Susan really as simple minded as she is introduced to be here? And did the face-off between Kane, his two loves and his rival for office really go down like that? The problem is that Jedidiah’s character seems more interested with moral codes and, from his perspective, the slow rot of Kane’s soul than with Kane’s actual personality. Jedidiah gives many speeches to Kane and assumes many moments of meaning…but he’s completely drunk in those scenes so how can he reliably remember what he says? The older Jedidiah probably just remembers, “That’s the night I really gave it to him!” and blurs the story accordingly, ironic considering what he claims to stand for.

Perhaps the one genuinely true moment in the flashbacks comes during Susan’s flashback. After she has made her opera debut to scathing reviews, she is screaming at her husband when he receives a letter from Jedidiah…one with a list of promises Kane made when he first took over the Inquirer. The list was introduced in Bernstein’s flashback, underlined in Jedidiah’s and paid off here. Susan has no reason to care about the importance of the note, so it comes off as perhaps the only fact in a story compromised from every angle.

Susan’s point-of-view seems fairly reliable, mostly because she doesn’t seem like the type of woman who is smart enough to weave tales like Jedidiah could. But I must make note of two fascinating moments where her reliability is called into question. The first is on a picnic where she finally stands up for herself to Kane, her face unwavering against him even after he has bullied and punched her. We see her face strong, but on the soundtrack is the sound of a woman crying desperately. Perhaps she’s lying that she was strong here when, in fact, she just disintegrated into the crying mess we see in every other scene? The second is when she is about to walk out on Kane and his final plea is that “You can’t do this to me.” Susan replies thusly:

“I see. So it's you who this is being done to. It's not me at all. Not how I feel. Not what it means to me.”

I doubt Susan could have ever put two and two together like that. Is it something someone told her when she was telling the story after the fact…and now she’s adopted it into the story itself? I think so.

Finally is the butler. He’s being paid $1000 for his information, so of course he would embellish to make it more dramatic. Would Kane have really destroyed every object in his wife’s bedroom? Again, I think not.

Of course, there’s no way to tell whether or not I’m right or if I’m hopelessly wrong in my opinions and suspicions. And that’s the fantastic thing about “Citizen Kane”…no matter what perspective you come at the story from, you are guaranteed to be both right and wrong. Welles gives us two iconic visual metaphors for the man. In the first he’s speaking beneath a gigantic sign of his face, in essence dwarfed by his own legend. The second is when he walks past two facing mirrors and creates a thousand versions of himself. Both make you understand the man without knowing him, if that makes any sense.

Everything here is one shade of grey or another. Even the opening and closing, told from God’s point-of-view, are questionable. After all, no one actually hears Kane say “Rosebud.” We see a nurse enter seconds later, and the Butler claims he was there, but from our perspective he dies alone in an empty room. When he says the word, we see him through the snow of the globe he is holding. Did he really say it, or do we as an audience need a puzzle to solve and are given one, faulty and empty as it may be?

Much of what I’m written could be considered problematic for a lesser movie, but considering the work of those behind the camera, I’m guessing all of this was taken fully into consideration, and made that way because it made the story more fascinating. It’s not an “easy” movie…it’s one that is unafraid to challenge you every step of the way.

This unsolvable labyrinth of storytelling is supported by some of the most breathtaking, memorable visuals in the history of film. Moments that would be throwaway in any other movie are here given weight and heft thanks to Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland finding new angles and perspectives to shoot everything from. They even go so far as to shoot the entire movie in deep focus…that is, everything in every shot is fully in focus. Besides giving viewers so much more visual candy to play with, it underlines the message of the movie: “Look deeper.” Search the corners of every frame for clues and insights into this guy and what he stands for.

How can you forget the introduction to Susan’s character? The camera is outside a building, cranes up and onto the roof, through the sign, twists and moves down through the window to find her drunk and desperate below. And then there’s her opera debut, where the camera moves ever upward, past the hanging sets and sandbags to find two stagehands seemingly hundreds of feet over the stage, one of which holds his nose in judgment. And, of course, Xanadu itself, which appears equal parts science fiction, medieval castle, horror movie and doll’s house…but, most importantly…empty.

And then there is Welles.

It’s astounding to me that this is his only film in the AFI Top 100. Of course, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is overlooked simply because it was hacked up by RKO, but where is the definitive crime movie “Touch of Evil”? And then there’s “The Stranger,” “The Trial,” “The Lady From Shanghai,” “Chimes At Midnight” (unseen by me and most in America), “Othello”…all gifts to filmmaking from a filmmaker who so often had to edit his vision. This is the one time we got to see his vision unhurt by studios who thought they knew better. I also must note that his movie “Mr. Arkadin” (which, generously, is one of his lesser works) is a weird remake/revision of “Citizen Kane.” It focuses on a man trying to put together the facts of another man’s life, but in that film the man being researched is still alive and desperate to learn the truth about himself.

Yes, to me “Citizen Kane” was rightly placed at the top of AFI’s Best American Film list. It’s a movie so great that even its flaws have warped into its blessings. You could watch this movie a hundred times and still find new things to love about it. You could think you’ve finally discovered all its secrets and then discover something that makes you question everything. Now that’s what I call a masterpiece.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Godfather / The Godfather Part II

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 2, 32
Year: 1972, 1974
Writer: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola (adaptations), Mario Puzo (novel)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Star: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan (“The Godfather”)
Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton (“The Godfather Part II”)

The first miracle of “The Godfather” is not that we come to care deeply for its characters, but that we care about them in the first place. They are, after all, essentially horrible people who torture, murder and maim to ensure their power. And yet here is a story so well told on every level that the viewer cannot help but engage himself fully. I disagree with every decision Michael Corleone makes over the course of this movie, but I understand them and ultimately sympathize with him.

The film tells the story of the dying away of one generation of a mafia family bleeding into the maturation of the next. The central figure of the dying generation is Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the Godfather of the title, and the at-first-unwilling man at the center of the new is his son Michael (Al Pacino). Both men have their own set of rules and morals and, as the film progresses, the two value sets begin to mix and corrupt one another. The screenplay is by Mario Puzo (based upon his novel) and the film’s director Francis Ford Coppola and it is ingenious in the way it invites us slowly but seductively into its world. We go in with our own opinions about the mafia, but as film progresses, it slowly argues for our sympathies and, by the halfway point, wins them.

Just look at the way Puzo and Coppola structure and pace the emotional arcs of the characters. The movie opens with the wedding reception of Don Vito’s daughter Connie (Talia Shire). We see the “family” as just that—a family. Our first introduction to Michael is with his date Kay (Diane Keaton), who knows nothing about Michael’s history or mafia ties. Kay is our real eyes into the family, but more on her later. After Michael tells Kay the lengths his family goes to, he assures her: “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.” This intrinsically puts us on Michael’s side and we remain there as he begins to fall back into the dirty work of the Corleone’s.

Even as he does that, we still understand and care. After all, the first thing he does is save his helpless father’s life after an assassination attempt. How can you not identify with that? He takes vengeance for the attack by killing two men. I don’t agree with it, but understand his anger and can only imagine how I would react if someone tried to harm my mother. He is exiled to Italy and only returns to America after his wife and brother Sonny (James Caan) have been murdered, and by that point the spiral into corruption is perfectly set-up. And we really liked his brother, who was gunned down “Bonnie and Clyde” style on his way to rescue his pregnant sister from her abusive husband.

This leads into another reason why the film works so perfectly: The world is completely closed. Martin Scorsese must have modeled his classic “Goodfellas” (also on AFI’s Top 100) on this same idea. Every character we meet and interact with (beside Kay and Michael’s first wife) is either a member of the Corleone family, a rival to their family or a person in awe of their power. With no voice of reason saying “Hey guys, maybe you shouldn’t murder a bunch of dons during a baptism because it’s in pretty bad taste and you might end up in hell for it,” we question the morality of it less. As stated previously, they have their own codes and values which are set up clearly in the very first scene, and on those terms “The Godfather” plays completely fairly.

Coppola has made a career of painting outside the lines, and his use of the large and talented acting ensemble here is rivaled only in his other work. Pacino is the heart of the movie and gives a fascinating, multi-layered performance, but those around him are just as mesmerizing. I’m also amazed that, after all the lampooning, Brando’s performance still holds up as well as it does.

But it’s the smaller performances I want to focus on. Though the movie is filled with memorable scene after memorable scene, one could argue that the two most iconic moments in the film are the horse head in the bed and the “Leave the gun. Bring the cannoli,” murder. Neither involve the main cast and the movie is better for it because it underlines that the mafia is, in fact, a complete world. The Corleone’s have their interests in everyone we meet, but they exist and are human beings as well. This “spreading the wealth” approach (sadly almost abandoned in current cinema) is a trademark of Coppola. Look at most of his major work and the first scene you think of won’t involve the film’s headliner. When I think of “Apocalypse Now,” I immediately think of Robert Duvall wanting to go surfing. When I think of the undervalued (and ripe for rediscovery) “The Cotton Club,” I think of the scene where of Fred Gwynne breaks Bob Hoskins’ gold watch. When I think of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” I think of Sadie Frost in that funereal dress, her face white with death.

Now more about Kay. As I wrote earlier, she is the fresh eyes that represent us, always just outside the Corleone family and never able or willing to take that final step, even after she marries Michael. She appears to be a strong woman from the beginning, and yet the final scene of the movie is her believing Michael’s lie that he had nothing to do with the death of his brother-in-law. Does it make her look gullible for buying into his lies and, by extension, his sins and corruption? Of course. But then again, haven’t we, as the viewers who have deemed this one of the masterpieces of all film, done the same thing?

"The Godfather Part II"

Here’s a Catch-22 if I’ve ever seen one: In devoting a third of “The Godfather Part II” to flashbacks that track the rise to power of Vito Corleone, writers Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, who also directed, insert in the film a flaw that can’t help but hurt the pacing and build of the other story they want to tell: Michael Corleone’s embracing of power in exchange for the final vestiges of his soul. And despite creating that problem, this sequel/prequel simply would not work without them. The movie needs to show Vito’s humanity (well, “humanity”) in direct juxtaposition with Michael’s inhumanity for the impact to be deeply felt.

Vito’s story begins with the murders of his father, brother and mother at the hands of one of Italy’s wicked dons. He travels to America, grows up to look a lot like Robert DeNiro and, frustrated with the mafia presence in his slice of New York City, decides to take things into his own hands.

Michael’s (Al Pacino again) story begins with a celebration of the first communion of his son. He’s still married to Kay (Diane Keaton), but things between them are icier of late. After an assassination attempt, Michael goes to great lengths to uncover the turncoat in his family while also securing a big business deal in Cuba and being investigated by the government. Phew. The suspects include his brother Fredo (John Cazale) and even his underboss Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall).

At some point in the movie, Pacino’s eyes completely drain of emotion and go dead, and they stay that way in virtually every other scene (the one exception is his fury at learning Kay had an abortion). How could this man we saw courting Kay and smiling widely at the wedding reception that opened the first film have turned into this soulless monster? If Kay is indeed our eyes into the world and the Corleone family, then she becomes just as suspicious and horrified of Michael as we do early on.

Vito sensed something in Michael that reminded him of himself, and yet the man we see before us has embraced all the unseemly horrors of the mafia and forgotten entirely the lessons and charity his father showed. After Sonny was murdered in the first film, Vito took the step to end the cycle of revenge instead of just wiping out everyone who had set their sights on his family. It seems Michael cannot comprehend this.

I write those statements not as a criticism, but in admiration that Puzo and Coppola could tell this story so unflinchingly. We inherently knew where this was heading from the middle of the first film, and the murders Michael oversaw at the climax of that film confirmed it, but here the two show just how far he’ll fall on this journey. There’s a beautiful, heartbreaking scene that takes place after the Corleone matriarch has passed, where Michael’s sister Connie (Talia Shire) gets on her knees and begs Michael to see Fredo (the man who betrayed him) again. Michael seems touched and embraces his brother once more, and we dare to hope, even though his dead eyes tell us we should know better, that he can change. And then the movie climaxes with Fredo being shot while Michael watches.

This is all very Shakespearean, and Coppola wisely knows that even in the most dire of his tragedies, there must always be some form of light to distract us (even momentarily) from the descent into hell. This can sometimes be a supporting character who ultimately becomes a hero (“Macbeth”), a comic-relief character (think of Falstaff) or some really dark humor (Tamora eating her sons in a pie in “Titus”). Puzo and Coppola supply us with Vito, brought wonderfully to life by De Niro in a performance that doesn’t strive to mimic Brando’s work but instead capture the spirit. Vito isn’t exactly a saint, but in comparison to Michael he might as well be. He murders a don who is the bane of the community and steps into the role, genuinely trying to do good for those who need his help. Of course, in the end he returns to Italy to exact a really nasty revenge on the man who killed his family, but the next moment is of Vito and his family on a train, together and loved. It was revenge, yes, but the story ends with the hope that Vito would grow into the man we meet at the beginning of “The Godfather.”

The screenplay is excellent, with many wonderfully written scenes and enough callbacks to the original (both subtle and blatant) to give us real impact from these characters’ journeys. And yet neither mini-film could exist on its own. The false optimism at the end of Vito’s story would ring false, and Michael’s story would be too oppressive for us connect emotionally.

Watching the movies back to back, I can’t help but be a little let down by the scope of the movie. I’m sure the budget for this movie was much higher than the original thanks to all the praise and box office and Oscars and prestige and stuff, but I can’t help but feel all the add-ons are a little…off. The original seemed epic despite taking place mostly in dimly lit offices, restaurants and back-rooms. It went “big” only twice, with the wedding (which was juxtaposed with the intimacy of Vito’s office) and our first view of Michael in Italy. In Michael’s story there’s a communion party (a parallel to the wedding in the original), multiple parties in Cuba, a riot scene for good measure and Senate hearings. In Vito’s story there’s the arrival in America, the introduction of his neighborhood, a parade and other large street scenes. Perhaps the most telling example of this is that Michael’s office has a huge window that overlooks a lake. Where are my beloved Venetian blinds? I truly missed the intimacy of those smoke-filled rooms, and think many of those parties and parades could have been excised without losing much from the final product.

The heart of the movie comes when Fredo, thinking Michael has forgiven him, explains to Michael’s son how to fish. He tells about how his father took the boys fishing, and no one caught a bite except for him. The way he describes it…you inherently know it’s the proudest moment of his life, even though it was decades prior. For that small scene, our hearts break for Fredo and we completely understand what it must have been like for him in a family that included stronger, smarter men like Vito, Sonny and Michael. Without this scene, his death at the end means nothing and Michael’s descent is just that. But, because of this scene and because we like Kay so much, the film is a tragedy. The two movies connect so well in telling a complete story of how a good man can be corrupted absolutely, even with the best of intentions. It tells its story, manages to affect us even though we know it shouldn’t, and in the end resonates deeply. What more could you want?

My Score (out of five): “The Godfather” - *****
“The Godfather Part II” - ****

Friday, February 3, 2012


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 3
Year: 1942
Writer: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch (adaptation), Murray Burnett, Joan Alison (play)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Star: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains

Everyone knows the old quote Howard Hawks used to describe a good movie: “Three great scenes. No bad ones.” “Casablanca” is a movie with a seemingly endless amount of great scenes and not a bad one anywhere to be found. I suppose that’s why it’s almost at the top of AFI’s list, and why it’s so easy to fall in love with. Here is a simple story, extremely well told, where every minute or two you smile with recognition as you see a classic moment and realize what made it so special and perfect in the first place.

We open in the title city, a place where everyone seems eternally stuck, hoping to escape to America away from Nazi forces. The only one who doesn’t seem to want to leave is Rick (Humphrey Bogart). He owns a bar where everyone finds themselves every night, good or bad, poor or rich. One night, Rick’s lost love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into the bar…with her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), and it just happens that he’s enemy number one for Nazi officials, who are desperate to find a reason to arrest him and take him to a concentration camp before he can get to America. Though the movie isn’t a thriller, it involves one hell of a McGuffin: To get out of Casablanca, Ilsa and Laszlo need “letters of transit,” impossible to get, and Rick just happens to have what seems like the last two in the city.

It may seem as if the movie is purposely manipulative just by reading the synopsis, but it never seems forced or overwrought when you are watching it. That begins with the casting—has there ever been another movie where the cast is, as a whole, so uniformly perfect for their roles? Bogart, known for his tough guy roles, plays another one here…but we get to see him fall head over heels for Ilsa and lose her in flashback, so instead of just being a dick we understand his pain. And Bergman was never lovelier, and the way she plays the small intricacies of the love triangle she is at the center of would have been lost on a lesser actress. That lesser actress would have simply been making love to Rick with her eyes from moment one, but Bergman rightly plays it cooler. Henreid is great at playing the straight man, interesting enough to be the hinge the story moves on but not engaging enough for us to root that he sticks with Ilsa.

And then there’s the supporting cast, filled with character actors doing their very best to steal scenes. Claude Rains gives the performance of his long and celebrated career as the sort-of-bad/sort-of-good police captain who gets all the best zingers (he shuts down Rick’s bar because of gambling while being handed his roulette winnings). Conrad Veidt is menacing as the one genuinely bad guy in the movie (the Nazi insignia is the first hint), and then there’s S.Z. Sakall and Dooley Wilson as Rick’s trusted confidants and employees. The film throws a nice twist early when Peter Lorre shows up as an oily ne’er-do-well. We assume he’ll stick around to make trouble throughout the film, but then is grabbed and we learn later he’s murdered, a true shock considering we expect someone like Lorre to have more of a fundamental role. Though the love triangle is the film’s center, it’s a fuller, better movie because the supporting cast help to paint in the edges.

Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch’s screenplay takes variations on scenes that seem long familiar, shine then and reverse our expectations until they seem genuinely new. I want to cite examples, but I could literally pick any scene in the film. Okay, fine, let’s talk about the moment Ilsa finally caves and admits she still loves Rick. When she enters the scene Rick (and we) knows she just wants the letters of transit, they play a mind game and Rick tries to give her the cold shoulder once too often, so instead of trying to seduce him she pulls a gun on him.

Rick’s character arc is so very inspired. This woman he once loved who left him for reasons unknown has returned. Now he’s cold and can’t open up…and because of that won’t give her the letters. To finally do the right thing, he must admit to himself that he does still love her…but by doing that he’ll lose her forever. It’s a fantastic Catch-22 where, even though we know it’s an inevitable ending, it still affects us deeply. After an hour-and-a-half of bluntly stating that he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone, he makes her get on that plane even though, let’s face it, there’s no real reason she couldn’t stay in Casablanca with him. But he knows it would kill her, and he’d rather die himself than see her suffer.

Director Michael Curtiz filmed the movie in a straightforward, understated style…and thank God for that. Yes, there are the shadows of a noir, but another director would have either exploited the thriller elements or emphasized the romance. That would have been a mistake. Curtiz simply let the film be what it was instead of forcing it to be a cookie-cutter studio picture, and the results give “Casablanca” all the more power. I must ask a silly question about the atmosphere he creates, though. Why is there a searchlight constantly searching the streets of the city? What are they looking for, exactly?

And then there’s the music. I prefer Max Steiner’s score in this film to his more lauded work on “Gone With the Wind”…there’s just something about the way he incorporates the song “As Time Goes By” into the score subtly while still creating several other themes that are just as timeless (seriously, I didn’t mean it as a pun). Then again, I’m always a pushover for the Henry Mancini style, where the entire score for a movie is built out of a single song (for example, “Moon River” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”).

I also adore how this movie seems built on fate, both in the storytelling device of having Ilsa walk into Rick’s bar after all these years, and in how it seemed like all of these Hollywood workhorses (who had worked with just about everyone) finally came together for this specific project.

I would also like to note that you, dear reader, should be very proud of me for not inserting endless examples of the classic quotes from the movie, about ten of which have become so well-known they have become part of public consciousness. And, really, there were a ton of opportunities. Especially here, at the end of the article. But I’m not going to do it…but if I did, you know which one I’d choose.

My Score (out of 5): *****