Seeing Through the Robots: How to Watch Science Fiction

Science Fiction films have forever been a part of cinematic history. Indeed, some of the most celebrated films of all time fall into this other-worldly genre. Beginning with early masterpieces like the short film A Trip to the Moon (France 1902) there has been a never-ending acceleration into technology, creativity, and of course the future.

For my viewing selection I watched (and I wish I would have had time for more) the following films: Metropolis (1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the first and second original Star Wars films (1977-80), Blade Runner (1982), Terminator 2: Jud

gment Day (1991), Gattaca (1997), Dark City (1998), and District 9 (2009).

Science Fiction (or SF) is an extremely important genre, not only for its robust role in what Langford calls Hollywood’s “lucrative summer market” but for the technical advancements and creative places and opportunities it opened and created for all of cinema.

I enjoy SF, and to be honest most of my favorite films have hints of SF imbued into them. I think this is due to the fact that SF to me is the genre that can’t stop its influence upon everything around it. As Brian Regan jokes about cranberries, they’re in everything. Cran-apple, cran-grape, etcetera. And like a cranberry, SF is incredibly versatile, with its elements showing up in every film type imaginable. From serious adult drama like this year’s Inception to children’s films like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) to western-action-comedy spoofs like the up-coming Cowboy’s and Aliens (2011).

Langford writes: “SF has a good claim to be considered the first distinctively post-classical Hollywood genre, and as such occupies an important place in industry history.” (2005 pg. 184) But as I’ve already pointed out above SF is a long-lived genre. Metropolis (Germany 1927) one of Ufa Studio’s greatest claims to fame still shows its traces in films like Gattaca (1997) or The Island (2005). Both films are cautionary towards the philosophical and moral implications of a society that is controlled by technology and divided by superfluous social classes. So the messages of SF films have changed little compared to the technology they present (both in production and story).

Film poster for Metropolis

Image via Wikipedia

So, although as Langford excellently argues that SF has seen leaps and bounds of growth since 1977’s Star Wars the true beginnings of the genre are old. The genre has moved from fantastic dreams of the future of space exploration, to mutated monster attacks like Godzilla (1954), to alien invasions throughout the 50’s like The Thing From Another World or The Day the Earth Stood Still (both 1951) or War of the Worlds (1953). And we have achieved a high-budget, star-powered and very diverse genre that uses infinite tools to express simple human truths.

But to avoid too broad of strokes when defining the genre it is important to note the characteristics that do help distinguish a sci-fi film from a simply a film with technology. Of course technology plays an enormous role, often times it is depicted as the malevolent force as in 2001: A Space Odyssey (2968), The Matrix (1999), or the Terminator (1984-2003) series, warning of the problematic possibilities of over-advancing technologies and the obsoletion (the making of something to be obsolete) of humanity. Other times technology plays a neutral role merely providing a context for other commentary as in Back to the Future (1985) or the excellent District 9 (2009) which gives a powerful depiction of apartheid and civil war and racism.

When talking about the distinguishing factors of SF, Langford begins to unravel his own argument as he explains that SF is lacking any consistent iconography. He breaks down setting, dialogue, and stories. He explains that the locations aren’t as identifiable or consistent as in Westerns, and the dialogue isn’t as placing as the gangster genre, because SF could be anywhere at any time. Sure there are “robots and rocket ships and death rays” (Langford 2005 pg. 186) and endless supplies of electricity (SF is, after-all, a genre that driven by comic book and pulp heritage), but there are also the SF films that work into the spiritual or super-natural aspects. Films like: Dark City and the Star Wars series both deal with inner forces of good and evil used to control the physical world. They just happen to be set in futuristic space-travelling times of powerful alien civilizations.

Perhaps the most identifying mark of science fiction is the “future”. And this “futuristic” setting is what has centralized the genre’s growth and change over time. Langford explains that science fiction never evolved at all. Saying in a sense, that we were always expressing the same things, we only improved upon on our ability to visually articulate them. He uses the example that our present technology has caught up to what early science fiction fantasized about. In turn we dreamed bigger. “SF has been and continues to be a recombinant genre.” (Langford 2005 pg.185) We achieve and then go back to the basics of imagination and stretch things further still.

One of my best-friends, whom I consider an excellent and born story-teller, has this remarkable ability to give hypothetical situations to prove points in arguments of any kind. And while my inevitable defeat may be frustrating, it’s part of what I love about him as a person. Say, as we recently were, we’re talking about whether you can be elitist without being arrogant. It’s a complicated question, but he makes it simpler by creating a hypothetical. A pretend civilization somewhere along the Amazon River maybe, a group who doesn’t have the exposure to see what is good or bad or excellent to be critical of their consumption. All this and more to prove his point. It’s elaborate and maybe excessive, but simply it works. It communicates so effectively a truth. Humility and elitism don’t mix; but even that sentence feels as though it awaits a challenger without some sort of tangible defense. Some elaborate situation.

Langford I think misses his own point as he trails off into amazement during his case study of The Matrix, when he finally agrees with another film writer, Scott Bukatman’s, idea that the ultimate goal of SF is to fight for the utopian promise of ultimate human society. This is not the point of SF, but rather to make profound truths about people and life clear through any means possible to use the hypothetical to say something that otherwise falls on deaf ears.

Langford nearly touches it just pages earlier when he writes of the need for basic human spirit or almost anything pre- or trans-technological as a solution to the narrative crisis: “Most famously, in Star Wars Luke Skywalker must learn to ‘trust the force’: only by turning off his sophisticated targeting mechanism and channeling the mystical animistic power that in the film’s mythology binds together the living fabric of the universe can Luke destroy the Death Star….The entire code of the Jedi Knights is founded on this conviction of the fundamental inadequacy of mere technological mastery.” (Langford 2005 pg.199) Doesn’t sound like looking for the ultimate human society to me at all. It sounds more inwardly focused.

For as long as SF can speak its simple wisdom it can be a powerful communicator. And will be an ever-changing genre, which is constantly pushing the boundaries of technology and creativity in the art of film-making. But most importantly for us viewers and critics and students of film, is a need to look at the movies with an investigative eye. To see through the robots and special effects and time travel to absorb a real meaning. To realize that even when we search the far galaxies for villains and heroes our  solutions still return to the core human needs of love, companionship, and adventure.

A Treasure Map to Understanding the Action Film

An archeologist treasure hunter, a vacationing cop, and the son of a powerful intergalactic war-lord–what do they have in common? Well as Indiana Jones, John McClane and Luke Skywalker very little, but as action heroes nearly everything. The action film is one of the most modern and important genres in both contemporary Hollywood and world cinema. The origin of the action blockbuster is difficult to pin down, since as Langford writes: “In one sense, of course, every motion picture is an ‘action’ film.” (Langford 2005 pg.237) Meaning simply that scenes of action are used in every genre and in every decade of filmmaking, but I quickly want to cover this point and move away from it. The action genre is big, really big, and it is “ruthlessly colonizing” every other genre. Now that I’ve said that let’s leave it. Because, more importantly I think it also unwittingly has spoken volumes for all of movie-dom, identifying the most central and profound desires of both movie goers and movie makers.

For my action exposure I watched (in order of release): The Great Train Robbery (1903), The General (1927), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Seven Samurai (1954), all four Indiana Jones films (1981, 1984, 1989, 2008), Die Hard (1988), Eraser (1996), The Dark Knight (2008), The Good the Bad and The Weird (2008) and Gamer (2009). I’m glad for an opportunity to cover action films; it’s probably my number two genre (unless you can count Penelope Cruz movies as a genre?). But I would like to clarify ahead of time, (I understand this is assumed and redundant) that this was my watch-list not my exposure, and I will be referring to more films than this.

The most important aspect of action films, over character development, storyline, location, and often times even above overall quality is the action sequences. Buildings, cars, bridges, people, anything really, being blown up, lit on fire, demolished, squished, shot, stabbed, or otherwise destroyed in some spectacular way; shootouts, chases, falling, jumping, climbing, swimming (drowning) and of course hand to hand combat are all mandates of action films and they are often shown to us with slow motion, fast motion, animatronics [Jaws (1975)] and CGI [from Star Wars (1977) to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), which even used reverse slow-motion for many effects].

I am a strong advocate for the non-realistic action films. I go into them already knowing that they are impossible and silly. So I enjoy the humor of the action more than the believability of a well scripted fight scene, like being shot once and being down for the count. An action scene like the last battle in Seven Samurai is entertaining to me, and I’m very involved in the outcome yet, more for the characters and the livelihood of the village than for the actual fighting. Whereas take a movie like The Punisher (2004), where the premise, revenge for the death of a man’s wife and child, I couldn’t care less about (And why not? The writers didn’t.), but I find the action sequences equally inducing of a stare-lock on the screen. There is a scene in The Punisher where Frank Castle (lead character) is fighting this enormous assassin, I mean this guy is big, in a tiny-little apartment. He stabs the guy, but the knife doesn’t go deep enough through the body-builders muscles to do any major damage. They have a slapping contest, and shortly afterward they play catch with a live grenade before Castle hides in a bathtub from the explosion. It’s wonderful. It’s silly, and impossible and wonderful.

Just four years after The Punisher, action sequences have been taken to such impossible extremes that the audiences’ believability of a scene isn’t even considered. Take the fourth Indiana Jones film for example. Indiana survives a nuclear bomb while hiding in a refrigerator. The fridge is hurled miles away from the blast; and if that isn’t preposterous enough, Indy is also involved in a point-blank shoot-out using machine guns mounted to the top of SUV’s that are driving along a cliff in the middle of the jungle while having a sword vs. whip duel with a Nazi on the hood of the vehicles moving 60 MPH. . .and monkeys are driving one of the cars! Monkeys! AND NO ONE IS INJURED!

I like this (with Indiana Jones, I expect it). I am riveted by the implausibility and absurdity of these images I’m seeing. So the fact that the narrative is not advanced or a point is not made is excusable. Fortunately  there is another side to action films. Underneath the kung-fu and rooftop leaping there are still stories. And the very best action films have them.

Langford writes that we should call action “action melodrama” (Langford 2005 pg.236) because of the often simple and familial, domesticated plots. With the motivation for many heroes being revenge for or protection of a family member or love interest, I would agree with him that this may be a “profitable” way to view the genre.

As action films have changed (their evolution very similar to the real world’s progression of weaponry) their budgets have become larger and larger. Often the summer action blockbuster is the studio’s biggest payout and these “silly vehicles” have become the winning rides for big money. The term blockbuster referring to the amount of cash a film generates.

Yet, on a deeper level of change, action films have learned something. The “hard action” films of the 70’s and 80’s with stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Shwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Jean Claude Van Damme, even (some) Bruce Willis, have been substituted for an action film that holds a message. Sure we still have Jason Statham and Gerard Butler making excessive (both excessively violent and moronic) movies like the Crank series or 300, Gamer (which I shouldn’t have wasted time on) and (action/thriller) Law Abiding Citizen (2009). But we also have another set of movies emerging, a set of more purposeful action films.

Where the melodrama is more subtle, albeit the same stereotypes and techniques (slow-motion and CGI) are being used, there is an allegorical tone. Films like Avatar or District 9 (both 2009) or Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) are great examples of exceptional action-like tropes and profound philosophical and allegorical stories. The shoot ‘em up film is still out there (Literally, Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) with Clive Owen, don’t bother!). But Hollywood is also producing action films that have something deeper to them. Even exploitative films like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series proves, upon further inspection, a constant homage to historical action films.

This, I think, is the key to watching action in our current time. Look deeper. Look past the stereotype characters and see if there is a meaning. See if there is a moral to the story. Is it just action for the sake of action? Or is there something to it? Avatar’s eco-friendly message of equality and respect helped carry it to its current position as the highest grossing film of all time ($1.95 billion). The Lord of the Rings didn’t stack audiences and fans into theaters based solely on action either. Although there are superb combat sequences and ground-breaking CGI in every one of the films, the sacrificial and redemptive story of Frodo Baggins is what makes the movies worth spending 9 hours on.

I love the way that Langford ends his chapter. In his case study of Armageddon and Deep Impact, he beautifully words his point: “Thus the ostensibly super-social—the sacrifice of the one for the many—is reoriented to the supremely personal: it is as if Armageddon, having thrown every effect bar the kitchen sink at the audience over the course of its 2 hr. 24 min. running time, can conceive of no more spectacular effect—no phenomenon of more global or even cosmic significance—than the death of its own star.” Wow.

What a point, huh? If given an unlimited budget, talent and spectacle, it ultimately will be worth less than one man sacrificing for many. As a Christian, I find this moving and very gratifying. That you can show all the fighting and struggle and chases and impacts and explosions you want, but in the end there must be something worth fighting for. And the reason goes beyond the macho “hard action” films, it goes beyond disaster epics, it goes beyond the swashbuckling romances and the jungle adventures to finally remind us that all the people we passed along the way are people. And that they matter.

I don’t intend to diminish the genre. I find the ridiculous action sequences very enjoyable and I will watch a film just for them. After-all I own the Hellboy and Brendan Frasier’s Mummy movies. But the action blockbuster, if it’s going to mean anything, it is meant to show us the diamond in the rough, to show us heroes who we can be and who we can’t be and to entertain at all costs. And this is what we most deeply desire in films: to engage in the spectacular. To see what we might be. Not simply to be in location and on-scene but to feel spectacular for having actually done it and sometimes just for having been a witness.

The Hobbit starts production in Feb!

WB and MGM gave Peter Jackson the green-light to begin as soon as next February! The Hobbit tells the story before Lord of the Rings, of how Bilbo Baggins comes into possession of the one ring.

Read the full story off

From Caution to Anti-hero

One of my favorite lines from any movie is in the opening scene of Goodfellas. Ray Liotta’s character, Henry, slams the trunk on a body that his two “wiseguy” friends had just shot and stabbed dozens of times. It freeze frames on a look of pure complicity. The voice-over kicks in. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.”

The gangster genre is hands down my most beloved movie genre. I took the time to watch both The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) as a sample of the “classical” period and even developmental stage of the genre. And then watched again all three Godfather films, On the Waterfront, Pulp Fiction, and, as I write, I’ve got Goodfellas going in the background.

As much as I could ramble about my love for this particular style of anti-hero, I know the purpose of a genre study is to understand that particular genre’s development. To understand what defines it, what makes it work, why it has lasted, who likes it and most of all what it means. So I will try not to be melodramatic.

The gangster genre is an old genre. However, it didn’t have distinctness until the introduction of sound. Criminal based films of the silent era couldn’t personalize the crooks enough for us to like them. It was simply too difficult to get an audience behind a “bad” character as the hero of the story without being able to hear that persons voice. But once our gangsters could talk they proved to be the most charming baddies imaginable.

This is something that is very characteristic of the genre, even from the ‘30s. Dialogue. Gangster films are characterized by their language. Gangsters, at least the cool ones we all like, are often (but not always) flippant, over-confident, hot-heads. They say things that sound really fun to say. Like: “Say, hello to my lil’ friend!” (Scarface 1983) or “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” (The Godfather 1972) or “Hamburgers. The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast,” (Pulp Fiction 1994). Without this dialogue Gangster films wouldn’t be what they are. The language is vital. Which is why I disagree with the Langford’s argument that silent era films “used a different, rather than simply an inadequate, ‘language’ to articulate the experience of urban modernity.” (Langford 2005, pg. 137) I would agree you could call The Great Train Robbery (1903) a crime film, but it certainly is not a gangster film!

The language (and even the sounds of inner-cities and guns firing) helps to set up this world of the gangster. I do appreciate how Langford begins his approach to the genre by explaining that we as film-goers have been trained to know when we see “gangster shit,” (term courtesy of Quentin Tarantino). We learned how to recognize the rules to the gangster’s world.

We understand that police and the judicial system are incompetent or nonexistent. We don’t expect consequences from outside the mob or mafia. We recognize, without being told, that we will have to adopt certain slang to understand the characters’ speech. We tolerate that they have sick senses of humor, and if all of these things work the right way, we even participate.

Both The Public Enemy and Scarface (’31/’32) begin with an indictment to the audience. It is an explanation, and sort of a roundabout way of saying “don’t buy into it.” The messages from the studios say things like: “this is not meant to glorify crime, but to depict it accurately and condemn it.” Glorify crime? It seems so backward. How could crime accidentally be glorified?

Langford wrote something that struck me personally. He wrote: “…the genre has influentially been read as an allegory of both the allure and the potentially catastrophic consequences of untrammeled individualism.” Wow. I felt like he was pointing a finger. As a young man who watches many movies (probably too many) I found myself taken aback, that I had missed this ruse.

Because when I read it, I instantly recognized it as truth. All of my favorite gangsters Henry from Goodfellas or Michael from The Godfather or even Tony from Scarface are all perfect examples. As Warshow’s argument (1975) states: “to the American audience the gangster is an exemplary and admonitory figure of fatally overreaching ambition.” But I had missed it.

I understand now that in their pursuit of power and control they lose everything. But how misleading that exciting journey could be I never quite pinned down. I find it strangely amusing that Hollywood went from caution to apology but then back straight to anti-hero. In the early stages of the genre we were warned about and even detested the characters and their crimes. But the detestable characters still had fans.

The lifestyle appeal of this extreme individualism is what has kept it alive through every phase of economic and social change in the US. Everyone in our country has bought into the idea that things can get better for them if they… You fill in the blank. It’s the American dream to be successful and powerful. But as I said the gangsters were presented as cautionary figures.

Quickly, to be ethical we almost entirely stopped making gangster films in the late thirties after their great success. What did we do instead? We made them undercover police, spies, double-agents, tough-guy detectives. They did all the same things except we labeled it as “good”. Movies like G-Men (1935) or Bullets or Ballots (1936).

But that was short lived. And soon we turned back to gangsters with a stronger emphasis on the mob, beginning in the late ‘40s–the more organized the better.

Movies like On the Waterfront combined that sense of lavished individualism with the surrounding organized crime necessities. Creating an irony that is what our greatest gangster film, The Godfather, explains beautifully. Langford says it well: “Typically, the gang itself is both indispensible and a burden, even a threat, to the gangster: he needs the support of his soldiers, and it is by his ascent from the ranks that his self-assertion is measured; yet the gangster knows only too well how dangerous it is to rely on any ties, even those of blood.” And later: “The gangster film implicitly ironises its subject inasmuch as it stresses the self-sufficient individual the gangster desires to be and insists he is, yet—precisely because he is a gangster—he can never become.” (Langford 2005, pg. 142)

Langford calls film gangsters a “contradiction of radical autonomy and dependency.” I’d like to use the metaphor of a peacock here. Don’t laugh yet, hear me out. Peacocks are the only loose animal (bird or otherwise) in the zoo. But they are still in the zoo. They have this incredible freedom that the other animals don’t have to walk around where they please. Yet they are completely dependent on the system for protection from those other animals and people.

Gangsters are like this. They believe in this fake autonomy, this false sense of power and control which will ultimately betray even the greatest and most powerful gangsters. Even Don Michael Corleone is fooled by this. So why does Hollywood love so much this disillusionment of the American dream?

Gangster movies are often retro-fitted. They’re set decades before they are made. They talk about “the good old days,” the days when getting away with crime was easy. I think of last years’ Public Enemies (2009) with Johnny Depp. I don’t remember the exact line, but it was something like: “That’s why they won’t catch me. They have to be at every bank at all times, I can be at any bank, at any time, and anywhere.” And that’s the same fraud of omnipotence and omniscience that tricks all our anti-hero gangster favorites. It’s the ease of becoming a criminal and doing it successfully that generates the appeal for such a wicked route to the American dream’s fulfillment.

The moral value in early gangster films was that eventually these full-steam ahead bad guys, would be convicted and change. That first started with The Public Enemy character Tom Powers who nears redemption at the end of the film, continuing in movies like The Godfather: Part II and III, and Blow (2001) also Johnny Depp. But more often than not, our gangsters die alone, powerless, and as violently as their vicious rise to power often deserved. For every one redeemed character there are dozens of examples of to-the-teeth gangsters who go down blazing.

Gangster films are precious to me. They are some of the most intricate and most stylized films ever made. I have grown accustomed to the dark humor, the language (both verbal and metaphorical) of the environments these people dwell, and have been both shocked by their audacity and moved by their weaknesses. And I occasionally see in myself and in many of my friends that enjoy similar films and characters, many of the same habits of individualism and self-centeredness that the gangsters unwittingly and foolishly pride themselves on.

Thankfully the police in my neighborhood are very good at their job. I only kid, but the fast-talking, quick-way-up fast-way-out lifestyle is what I believe makes the genre so watchable. It’s what makes the characters so lovable, when they don’t deserve it all. It’s like Langford said: “It’s the only genre that’s named after its protagonist.”

The Godfather: Part III (2 of 4)


Eleven years after part II, Coppola finished his Godfather films with the last chapter in Michael Corleone’s life. Nominated for seven Oscars without a win, the third and final installment of the Godfather saga is substantially weaker. For many familiar with the lore of the Godfather films, or simply those with movie-geek friends, you’ve probably heard something like: “Just don’t watch the third one.” I don’t think the third movie is a bad movie, it’s just unnecessary, and really it leaves our character Michael in the same state he was at the end of film two.

In further attempts to legitimize the family business, Michael, now old and gray, makes an incredible donation to a charity he has created in the name of his father The Vito Corleone Foundation. He officially opens the foundation with a generous deposit of $100 million. The money garnered from his life-time of ambitious underworld activities. The casinos and illegal business sold or handed off and his debts paid,  Michael considers himself semi-retired and out of the gangster world.

But his violent past is not easily concealed or forgotten. So when Michael makes a deal with the Vatican. He will eliminate the 700 million dollar deficit in their budget, and in exchange become the leader and large share holder of the Vatican’s eight billion dollar world-wide real estate company, Immobiliare.

Holding back his retirement and retribution from his past is his nephew Vincent (a bastard son of Santino), played by an excellent Andy Garcia. Vincent wants to “preserve the family”, and achieve the power that Vito, his grandfather, once had. In a mix of care, necessity and sadness Michael takes Vincent under his wing as his protegé.

When all of Michael’s old criminal friends are massacred at a dinner, via a helicopter-machine-gun surprise attack (the third film got classier what can I say…) Vincent takes the initiative and “hits back”. On the person responsible, Joey Zasa. As both his uncle and his grandfather did, Vincent begins his rise to power with a murder, a single violent and vengeful murder. The cycle begins again.

Michael, devastated by his past sins, especially what has happened to his family, immediate and extended, finally confesses his wrongs and repents, vowing to redeem himself if the Lord would only give him the chance.

Michael ultimately gives over power as Godfather to his nephew making him Don Vincent Corleone. Under the singular condition that Vincent give up his love and not pursue Michael’s daughter Mary (Yes, his first cousin. Michael thought it was wrong too).

The greatest moment is a close up of Michael. Everything he has done has earned him only death and suffering for his entire family and everyone he loves. Searing, crying and screaming do nothing–he is completely muted.

The problem with Part III is not the acting, or the pace, or the editing, or the lighting, or the landscapes (which are incredible!), or even the inclusion of far more profanity than the other films combined (it was the ’90s). The problem with Part III is it’s mind-numbing over explication. If you understood nothing from the first two films (and you’d best give up movies altogether if you sat through 6 hours of the story and it breezed over you) the third film will explain everything. The characters literally sit and dialogue through their feelings of the last 30 years of their lives. It’s atrocious. It is an absolute horror. These actors who delivered passion and emotion and excellence in two masterfully scripted and directed and cast pieces of cinematic history are forced to patronize the viewers.

This is the epitome of my frustration and it is a trend becoming more common in Hollywood today. I end here with a small redemption of Part III, by saying that the last half hour of the film does encroach on the same menacing and unpredictable magic that drove the first two films toward their pinnacles. It is the end of a saga and as the end of every film, or film series, we love–it is bittersweet.

Is the third installment in the saga forgivable? Could Sohpia Coppola be any worse? Is Andy Garcia more intimidating than his uncle and grandfather? Comment in the sidebar!

<——    Over and Up


The Godfather: Part II (4 of 4)

“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!” –Michael Corleone

Almost as quickly as The Godfather was recognized as a masterpiece, Paramount wanted more from Coppola. An amazing change of mind on Paramount’s part after much real-life drama with Coppola during the filming of the first movie. Coppola had put so much effort into the first film, that he needed complete control over the sequel. So Paramount gave him that–complete artistic power (and large percentages of the profits). It was the offer he couldn’t refuse, if you will. The result? Part II won even more Oscars than its predecessor bagging six including Best Picture and Best Director, and even challenged a masterpiece in its achievements.

The movie actually tells parallel stories. One, a prequel, the story of Don Vito Corleone’s rise to power upon first coming to America. The other a continuation of Michael’s descent into destruction caused by the organized crime world.

Robert De Niro, who won the Oscar for his supporting role, plays the young Don Vito. The film tracks him quickly from  his boyhood through the birth of his youngest son Michael before trailing off. The two time-lines are inter-cut through specifically identified defining moments in both the father, Vito, and the son, Michael, as they grow their power. Killings and deals are viewed back and forth–an obvious allusion to the similarities in their lives.

As promised to Kay, Michael is attempting to make the family business legitimate. But the five years have passed, in fact it’s been seven, and the “family” is still criminal and driven by violence. Michael’s casinos and hotels are doing well, but the FBI and state governments are tightening their grip. Through an old business connection to his father Michael joins forces with a Jewish hotel and casino/club owner, Roth, in Havana, Cuba.

While dodging assassination attempts and stepping further into the control of even more profitable enterprises, Michael gets caught in an investigation by a federal committee to expose him as the head of the Corleone crime organization. His freedom protected only by the brother of an old Italian gangster formerly employed by his father.

Back home, his family life dwindles quickly as he suffers a betrayal from his older brother Fredo, a divorce from his wife and the loss of a child from an abortion. The movie ends as he keeps his unspoken promise to Fredo and makes the call necessary for his own brother’s murder.

The Godfather: Part II is every bit as good as the first film. Its detail is truly remarkable. Characters that were vivid and fleshed out in The Godfather are real in comparison. The greatest agony of the power gained by Michael and the flashbacks to his father’s early days are cyclical displays of evil. The paths the father and son choose ultimately lead to death, and maybe not physical death. But the death of relationships, of marriages, of brothers, of friendships and of families entirely. The loyalty that Michael and his father so strongly desired is the one thing they can’t gain, even among their own bloodline.

The same praises could be sung of all the technical achievements of the first film. The tone and consistency in the color-schemes, sets and costumes is unsurpassed. There are as many, if not more, memorable scenes as the first film: the New Year’s party in Havana, the lake where Fredo is killed, and the towel-wrapped pistol of Vito’s first merciless assassination and seizing of power all the way through his roof-top disposal of the gun smashed into pieces.

The movie’s greatest mark of accomplishment is that in all that happens, all the twists and betrayals and murders and dysfunctional family dynamics, it never looses sight of its application. Every sculpted scene in this gangster movie landmark is a working illustration towards the absolute and terminal depiction of the loneliness profited from greed. Maybe Matthew 16:26 could have given insight to the Corleone family had their religious spurts been more than a façade. “For what does a man profit, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

Which do you think is better, The Godfather or The Godfather: Part II (and why)? Who is the better Don Vito, Brando or De Niro? Which was the better era for organized crime Vito’s or Michael’s? Comment in the sidebar!

<—–Over and Up


The Godfather (4 of 4)

“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 American masterpiece of crime The Godfather is one of the most acclaimed movies of all time. Winner of three Academy Awards including Best Picture  (nominated for 11) and landing at the #2 spot for AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies, this movie is truly an epic above the rest. Staring Marlon Brando, Al Pachino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton among others, the cast is an essential who’s who of now notorious gangster movie actors. With exceptional performances come unforgettable scenes and The Godfather is simply full of them.

For those unfamiliar with the story, The Godfather is about an Italian-mob family, the Corleone family, who is struggling to maintain power as the world changes around them. The head of the family is Don Vito Corleone, played by Brando. His sons Sonny (Caan), Fredo (John Cazale) and adopted son Tom (Duvall) are all in the business with their father. Vito’s youngest son, Michael, has just returned from WWII and wants nothing to do with the family “business”–at least initially.

Don Vito Corleone is an old-fashioned man, he is fine dealing with booze, women and gambling, but doesn’t want his crime syndicate to turn to drugs. So, when another Italian-mob family head asks for his political influence to protect a new drug cartel along the east-coast, Don Vito turns him down. In response, the angered Sollozzo, working for the Tattaglia family, puts a hit out for Don Vito.

The failed attempt on his father’s life pushes Michael too far, and as revenge for his father’s attempted murder he insists to his older brothers that killing Sollozzo (along with a crooked police chief) is the only way to ensure his father’s safety. The murderous act officially brings him into the underworld of the Italian mob.

After the killings, Michael is exiled to Italy where he waits two years before returning to his aging father and accepting the role of Don for the Corleone family, promising to make the family business legitimate in five years. Ultimately Michael seizes power back for the family by knocking off every other Italian mob-boss in New York and a casino owner in Vegas.  

The Godfather, by combining an incredibly involved plot and masterful production technique, became the new perfection of cinema. It has story, heart, conflict, relevance and above all family.

My favorite scene is when Michael shoots Sollozzo in the diner. I know what’s going to happen and every time I watch it I’m still tense. It is a perfectly acted scene with coverage most directors can’t imagine getting.

When most people think of gangster films, this movie or at least characters like these are the very first thing anyone thinks of. The irony of the gangster life is perfectly depicted in this film. The gangster is a dynamic and persuasive character, the climax of individualism, yet ultimately he must rely on others (the family or the gang) for his power. What makes the gangster so strong initially, his selfish individualism, always begins his undoing.

Full of memorable and conflicting characters and presented in a style now definitive of the genre, The Godfather is an absolute must see.  But this, although wonderful, is not a movie everyone will love. It’s long and violent and brooding and forces empathy from the viewer onto despicable characters. It is also the best gangster film ever made and arguably one of the best movies in history. So, it’s more than worth trying to stomach for those unsure.

We all know deep down crime doesn’t pay, but doesn’t this family make it look appealing? What’s your favorite Godfather moment or quote? Comment in the sidebar!

<—— Over and Up