Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Yes, Virginia: Good Things Come in Threes

Revisiting The Godfather: Part III
Paramount // 1990 // 169 Minutes // Rated R

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Author’s note: I gallantly stepped in to review this DVD when my predecessor vanished mysteriously during a business appointment in the meat-packing district. Yeah, and it turns out this picture is a helluva lot better than I recall thinking on opening day, Christmas 1990.

“All the power on earth can’t change destiny.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot

Vowing to take the family business legit, mafia godfather Michael Corleone seeks redemption in a business deal with the Catholic Church, realizing too late that the Vatican is as rife with corruption as organized crime. The film was savaged upon its original release almost 19 years ago, but time has a way of altering critical opinion. Today Part III can be seen as a fascinating but flawed coda to an absorbing, richly metaphoric and compulsively entertaining trilogy about the rise and fall of a mafia family in 20th century America.

Plot of Plenty…
Amassing incredible wealth from mob-owned casinos in Las Vegas and other criminal enterprises, Don Corleone (Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman) resolves to atone for his sins, including the murder of his brother Fredo. Michael gives $100 million to the church. With the help of a corrupt cardinal, he buys a controlling stake in Immobiliare — an international venture-capital consortium that is minority-owned by the Vatican. Vincent (Andy Garcia, The Untouchables) lurks on the fringe of the Corleone family, convinced that protecting their interests means clinging to the old ways of theft and extortion, backed by violent death. Vincent is the bastard son of Michael’s brother Sonny, who was machine-gunned to death at a toll booth 30 years ago. Michael’s naïve daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) falls hard for Vincent, though he rebuffs her, knowing the Don would not approve. The family, including Michael’s conniving sister Connie (Talia Shire, Rocky, and with opera glasses, above right) and his ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton), travel to Rome, where Michael will conclude his nefarious business and celebrate son Anthony’s premiere as an opera singer — all during a particularly savage performance of Cavalleria Rusticana.

The Corleone saga moves at a studied pace to an inevitably tragic conclusion, as Michael confronts his fate and faces divine punishment beyond the endurance of any man, no matter how evil.

Whew. That’s a lot of plot.

Historical Context and Significance
More than 14 years after The Godfather: Part III set a box office record for a Christmas Day premiere, and four years after the pricey DVD boxed set of the Godfather trilogy originally hit store shelves, Paramount Pictures released Part II and Part III as individual DVD titles (Keaton and Pacino flank George Hamilton during a night at the opera, left). The milestone original film, which established director Francis Ford Coppola as a formidable filmmaking talent, was issued as a separate DVD in 2004, shortly before Marlon Brando died. For film lovers who could not or would not buy the boxed set, the option of purchasing separate titles was long overdue. Now the only incentive to buy the box is the supplemental disc of extra features missing from these individual DVDs. For some consumers, this may not matter.

Coppola hasn’t had a hit in years. That’s why in late 2008 he went back to the editing suite, tinkered with the coloration and sound of his masterpiece trilogy and, by Gawd, Paramount soon after released a restored, director-approved, super-whoopie, definitive Godfather trilogy set, billed as a restoration. Fans of the film got the real bill, what by now is at least the fifth release of this seminal trilogy if we count VHS editions.

Nearly 19 years since the released of Part III, critical consensus remains virtually unanimous: It is the weakest of the Godfather films. In 1990 much of the vitriol (and it was considerable) centered on the thespian limitations of then 18-year-old Sofia Coppola, the director’s daughter (right, with Andy Garcia). Critics were not kind to her performance then, and time has not altered anyone’s judgment. She remains an amateur devoid of presence or conviction. While this child of a cinematic dynasty would evolve into an infrequent director and Oscar-winning screenwriter, anyone who saw her Academy Award acceptance speech for Lost in Translation witnessed proof positive that Sofia Coppola is a dull, inarticulate woman whose family name has clearly done more for her film career than any innate talent she may possess.

With that venom out of the way, let’s look at the uphill battle this unfairly maligned film received in 1990. Just by virtue of being a Godfather film meant expectations were running well beyond anything a mortal could deliver, even a master filmmaker like Coppola.

Part III also had serious competition on its initial release. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was an unexpected dynamite blast of energy and exuberance that reinvented the crime film while besting the French New Wave directors at their own stylistic game, albeit three decades later. The Godfather: Part III is positively stately, even sedate, when contrasted with the snap-crackle-pow of Scorsese’s kinetic vision of organized crime. Comparisons between the two films may have been unfair, but they were inevitable. Francis Ford Coppola had always taken the Godfather mythos quite seriously, but by 1990 he had confused solemnity with ominous foreboding. A generation had come of age since the original Godfather films were released, and audiences were ready to embrace the jittery, live-wire assault of Goodfellas. Never a director known for his sense of humor, Coppola remained mired firmly in the past, in both his material and his technique.In the end, as far as Oscars were concerned, it didn’t matter. Though it seems inscrutable today, Dances with Wolves would win Best Picture for the year Part III and Goodfellas were released.

Film lovers who keep up with cinema lore also know that Coppola signed on for Part III because he needed the money to keep his Zoetrope Studios alive after the 1988 commercial failure of Tucker: The Man and His Dream. And that Coppola lost a fight with Paramount to name the film The Death of Michael Corleone. And that Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now) wanted too much money to reprise his role as concigliere (mafia lawyer) Tom Hagen, so Coppola killed off the character before Part III begins. And that Pacino wanted so much cash up front that Coppola threatened to open Part III with Michael Corleone’s death, and Pacino ultimately backed down, accepting a lesser fee. The same savvy viewers will also know that editing continued right up to the drop-dead point for striking and distributing prints to the premiere. So what does it all mean? All of these factors suggest that Part III was a work in progress rushed into theaters to meet contractual obligations.

None of this detracts from the fact that Part III is solid entertainment, a seriously good film, albeit a flaw in the cinematic jewel that the Godfather trilogy represents. There are only a handful of American films so poignant, produced so gorgeously, directed so brilliantly, that any films that attempt to remake or expand them will inevitably bring disappointment. The Godfather and its 1974 sequel are among the former — Best Picture winners that paint the death of the American dream in allegorical tableaux of greed, treachery, violence, and fate. And, it comes as no surprise, Part III is among the latter. Given the economic exigencies behind this final production, it is perhaps a small miracle of modern cinema that Part III turned out so good.

Coppola even remembered to include oranges, the presence of which always signifies imminent death in a Godfather film. Rich in detail and situation, the film falters on a convoluted script that tries too hard to condemn the governing powers of the Catholic Church. Left to its own devices, the church would ultimately condemn itself, as revelations of sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by bishops have proven. Give Coppola credit for penning an ambitious and controversial script with Godfather novelist Mario Puzo.

The acting by the principals — Pacino, Shire, Keaton, Garcia, and Eli Wallach (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) as a wily, aging Don — is always competent and often inspired. Their interpretations suggest a logical evolution of the characters from the earlier films (Wallach’s Don is a new character in Part III). Secondary players like lawyer George Hamilton (Love at First Bite), newspaper reporter Bridget Fonda (A Simple Plan), and crime lord Joe Mantegna (Searching for Bobby Fischer) come off more as texture, as fleeting plot devices, than real human beings. Fonda is in the film no more than 10 minutes during the first act, then vanishes like a virgin on prom night. As Tom Hagen’s son, John Savage (The Deer Hunter) portrays a young priest in a glorified cameo. He’s around for three scenes and delivers a like number of lines. Who knows what was left in the chaos of the cutting-room floor as Coppola & Co. struggled to deliver a final cut to Paramount under an impossible deadline? But this is less a criticism of the actors’ work than it is of the overreaching and complicated script.

Gordon Willis’s cinematography is beyond reproach, captured in shades of burnt sienna and golden, autumnal hues, complemented by Dean Tavoularis’s achingly beautiful production design. Coppola’s direction is tight and purposeful; his primary misstep was the sentimental casting of his daughter in a key role originally intended for Winona Ryder (Girl, Interrupted), who bowed out during preproduction, allegedly due to exhaustion. As an infant, Sofia Coppola had appeared as Michael Corleone’s nephew in the famous baptism scene. Portraying a squalling babe in arms was precisely suited to her talents at the time. Casting her in Part III was the director’s supreme hubris, an act of nepotism that audiences would not forgive. During the film’s initial run, Sofia Coppola’s final scene was reportedly greeted at some screenings with cheers, hoots, and a smattering of applause. These were not compliments.

Part III climaxes with the signature montage of the trilogy: a massacre of villains in novel and excruciatingly violent ways. Juxtaposed with Pietro Mascagni’s exquisite opera, this sequence was obviously intended to finish the greatest trilogy in all American film on a high note — and very nearly succeeds, were it not for Sofia Coppola’s inappropriate and utterly unconvincing line readings at the vital climactic moment.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The DVD is virtually flawless. Video and audio are sterling. Coppola’s running director’s commentary is insightful, if occasionally bitter, especially when he recalls the harsh critical treatment of his daughter. This commentary track appears to be identical to the audio recording that accompanied the disc in the original boxed set.

The Contrarian View
Extras are limited to Coppola’s commentary track. Given the wealth of supplemental material that came in the boxed set, Paramount is just being cheap to omit added-value content with these individual titles. Sure, a bare-bones disc may help hold down the price, but the boxed set has been on the market so long that any profit it was going to earn has long since been booked. Here’s hoping Coppola pocketed some of that cash, as he perpetually needs it.

The Godfather: Part III is a fascinating but flawed conclusion to one of the greatest achievements in American film. Michael Corleone’s final moment is deeply moving, even if it did not become the cinematic iconography that Coppola undoubtedly intended.

Better than most movie lovers probably remember, the picture improves on repeat viewings. See it again.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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