The Deer Hunter


Are you talking to me?

Are you talking to me?

(1978) Drama (Universal) Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren, Shirley Stoler, Rutanya Alda, Pierre Segui, Mady Kaplan, Amy Wright, Mary Ann Haenel, Richard Kuss, Joe Grifasi, Christopher Columbi Jr., Victoria Karnafel, Jack Scardino, Joe Strnad, Helen Tomko. Directed by Michael Cimino

Waiting for Oscar

1979 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actor – Robert De Niro
Best Supporting Actress – Meryl Streep
Best Original Screenplay – Michael Cimino, Deric Wasburn, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker
Best Cinematography – Vilmos Zsigmond
WINS – 5
Best Picture
Best Director – Michael Cimino
Best Supporting Actor – Christopher Walken
Best Sound
Best Editing

Ritual are an important part of life. We mark various rites of passage – birthdays, weddings, funerals – with rituals whether we label them such or not. Rituals give our lives a sense of constancy, a feeling of continuation and connect us to past, present and future.

Mike (De Niro) is a Pennsylvania steelworker on his last day before joining the army with his buddies Steve (Savage) and Nick (Walken). Steve is also getting married to Angela (Alda) who is pregnant but not by Steve. The wedding is a traditional Russian Orthodox ceremony followed by a traditional raucous Russian reception. Nick proposes to his girlfriend Linda (Streep) and the next day the three friends, joined by their friends Stosh (Cazale), John (Dzundza) and Axel (Aspegren) go hunting for deer. Mike tells the group about his “one shot” philosophy of hunting.

Next it’s off to Vietnam. The three men are sent their separate ways but against all odds are reunited unexpectedly during an attack on a village which the NVA has occupied. Unfortunately, the attack fails and all three men are captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp.

They are tortured by sadistic guards and forced to play Russian roulette against one another. Mike manages to outwit his guards and shoots them, allowing the three men to escape. By chance an army helicopter finds them but only Nick is able to board it. Steve, who is badly injured, floats down the river and Mike goes after him to rescue them. He manages to carry Steve to safety.

Nick becomes involved in underground Russian Roulette parlors in Vietnam while Mike goes home. Embarrassed by the fuss everyone makes over his return, he tries to locate Steve. Eventually Mike locates him in a local veterans hospital. Mike is eager to go back to Vietnam and find Nick whom he is certain is still alive and whom he promised he wouldn’t leave behind in that country. All three men will eventually return home in their own way but none will come back the same as when they left.

In many ways, this is as powerful a movie as you’re likely to ever see. Cimino, definitely inspired by the scope and grandeur of The Godfather, seems to want to make a movie that explores America’s mixed emotions about the Vietnam war. Cimino wants to make an adult epic, one with plenty of symbolism and foreshadowing. While I can applaud his ambitions I do believe his reach exceeded his grasp.

This is a movie that dwells on minutiae. It comes to the point – and surpasses it – of being cinematic babble. The wedding sequence that takes place over the film’s first hour (!) is a good 45 minutes too long. While it’s supposed to establish what the men are giving up and leaving behind, at the end of the day I don’t think all of this is necessary to the story. Worse yet, Cimino and his co-writers create lapses that sacrifice logic for emotional power. For example, the Russian roulette sequences which are at the heart of the film – what captor would give his captive a loaded weapon? That’s why there are no recorded instances of American POWs being forced to shoot themselves as is depicted here. Why wouldn’t you shoot your captor if you were going to do that?

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some powerful performances to be observed here. De Niro was in his heyday, on a string of roles that established him as one of America’s best actors in the 70s and 80s (and of course all the way through until now) and his work as the film’s moral center garnered him yet another Oscar nomination. Streep, already with two Oscar wins to her credit, was luminous as Linda while Walken established his career with a searing performance that would win him Oscar gold.

Ultimately what undoes the movie is its lack of focus. I’ve watched the movie several times and each time I try to find what it is that has so engrossed people whose opinion I respect and who consider this one of the best movies ever made. Each time I come away unable to find that same level of respect, although there is some. Ultimately I am let down by this film, one which in trying to be realistic, symbolic and thoughtful falls into the abyss of being none of the things it tries to be. In my opinion, this is the most overrated Best Picture winner of all time.

WHY RENT THIS: Some powerful performances by some of the best actors of the time whose careers received big boosts from this film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overblown, overrated, overly long wedding sequence, full of plot holes and inconsequential business.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some extremely intense situations and images, war violence, language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cazale was in the final stages of cancer when filming began and due to his weakened condition, his scenes were filmed first. When the studio caught wind of his condition, they put pressure on Cimino to replace the dying actor but Meryl Streep put her foot down and threatened to leave the production if Cazale was removed. He died shortly after filming was completed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Unbelievably, nothing but the usual suspects.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Platoon

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar concludes!

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The Godfather Part III


Just when I thought I was out...

Just when I thought I was out…

(1990) Drama (Paramount) Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia, Talia Shire, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Sofia Coppola, George Hamilton, Bridget Fonda, Raf Vallone, Franc D’Ambrosio, Donal Donnelly, Richard Bright, Helmut Berger, Don Novello, John Savage, Franco Citti, Mario Donatone, Al Martino, Vittorio Duse, John Cazale. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

“Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.” 16 years after the second part of the trilogy comes the conclusion, although Coppola prefers to think of it more as an epilogue. Coppola also wasn’t particularly eager to make this film but with his production company having serious money issues he went ahead and did it anyway.

Using real life events surrounding the Vatican Bank and the short reign of Pope John Paul I, Coppola weaves a tale that involves Michael Corleone (Pacino) – now a legitimate businessman, still fighting to keep his family out of the old family business. His nephew Vincent Mancini (Garcia) the illegitimate son of Michael’s brother Sonny and his sister’s friend and bridesmaid Lucy Mancini, has an issue with Joey Zasa (Mantegna) who runs what used to be the Corleone family in New York. Michael doesn’t want to get involved but reluctantly does so at his sister Connie’s (Shire) urging.

Michael has made at least an accord with his estranged wife Kay (Keaton) to let their children go their own way so that Anthony (D’Ambrosio) is free to pursue a career in opera rather than become the lawyer his father desires him to be. Mary (Sofia Coppola) is also free to pursue Vincent although Michael disapproves of the union. And despite Michael’s attempts to remain legitimate, his past will come back to haunt him in a big way.

Whereas The Godfather was operatic in tone, The Godfather Part III is more soap opera than opera. Daddy Coppola is masterful at weaving multiple storylines into a crescendo, bringing them all together in a terrifying violent coda. He still shows that ability here but this script simply doesn’t have the power that the first two movies did.

Still, this movie has Pacino at the top of his game and while he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work here he richly deserved one. Here Michael is aging and his vitality is ebbing from him. He speaks in a gravelly voice roughened by time and tears, stooped with the weight of all his misdeeds. He may have gone legitimate but he still carries his sins like anvils around his neck. The eyes of Michael Corleone are haunted by demons so horrible that thee and me could never imagine it. It is in the eyes that Pacino’s performance truly becomes masterful.

He has some help. Talia Shire, often overlooked in the first two movies becomes a black widow here. Connie Corleone sits in the shadows, weaving her webs, Michael’s feminine support but also the demon of his lesser nature. She is the siren call of the Mafia life, the life Michael has struggled so hard to get away from. Her machinations are central to the movie’s plot and help Shire give the performance of her career.

Garcia who was so memorable in The Untouchables channels James Caan here playing his bastard son with explosive violence and yet the cool and snake-like intelligence of a Corleone. You can see Sonny in the son but that isn’t all Vincent is. Garcia imbues him with loyalty and malevolence, violence and cleverness but also love and respect. In many ways Pacino and Garcia have taken the roles of Brando and Pacino from the first film, allowing Michael to go full circle.

Sadly, Sofia Coppola – an excellent director – doesn’t fare as well as an actress. It’s not that she doesn’t have talent in that department – she actually delivers a decent performance. Unfortunately, the role and the situation both call for something better than that. She’s a housecat among lions, having to put her performances up against some of the best in the business and by comparison suffers badly. She doesn’t really have the screen charisma developed to give the role what it really deserved – a performance that forces the audience to care about the character. We kind of do but not enough by the end of the final reel. She was perhaps unjustly excoriated by critics and audiences alike which effectively ended her career as an actress which in a way is a good thing – we’ve gotten some pretty damn good movies from her as a director perhaps as a result. Still, I can’t help but wonder how well she would have developed as an actress had she not been kicked around so much in the press which surely soured her on pursuing acting at all.

There are other problems with the movie as well – the convoluted story line, Paramount’s inability to let Coppola make the movie he wanted (among other things they wouldn’t pay Duvall a salary akin to what other actors in the film were making so Coppola wound up being forced to write the character of Tom Hagen out) and perhaps most importantly the movie simply wasn’t able to hold up against two all-time classics. That’s not to say that The Godfather Part III is a bad movie – far from it. Part of the problem is that expectations are sky high after the first two. If There hadn’t have been the first two movies of the series, The Godfather Part III taken by itself probably would be remembered with far more fondness.

It is worth seeing as a closing chapter in the series although there has been talk on and off over the years of a Godfather Part IV but if there is it is unlikely Pacino or Coppola will be involved. With author Mario Puzo – very much Coppola’s muse when it came to these movies – passed away, it isn’t likely that another Godfather movie will ever capture the lightning the way the first two movies did. When you take the three films as a whole, it is as epic a saga of an American family as has ever been made. There hasn’t been it’s like before and there never will be again. While the third entry in the trilogy may be something of a disappointment, it is still a good movie if you avoid comparing it to the first two which is admittedly hard to do but if you are able to do it, you’ll enjoy this movie more.

WHY RENT THIS: Closure. Pacino is mesmerizing as always.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really hold up to the other two films in the trilogy. Story often confusing and Sofia Coppola’s performance isn’t up to scratch.

FAMILY VALUES:  More than its share of violence (some of it bloody) and foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Godfather trilogy was the first to have all three films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The Lord of the Rings trilogy later duplicated the feat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $136.8M on a $54M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Saving Mr. Banks

The Godfather Part II


A picture of corruption.

A picture of corruption.

(1974) Drama (Paramount) Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire, John Cazale, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo, G.D. Spradlin, Richard Bright, Gaston Moschin, Tom Rosqui, Bruno Kirby, Frank Sivero, Morgana King, Francesca de Sapio, Mariana Hill, Dominic Chianese, Troy Donahue, James Caan, Abe Vigoda. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

It is rare enough that a movie with the quality and the impact of The Godfather gets made. It is rarer still that a movie that prestigious has a sequel made. And for that sequel to be as good if not better than the precursor, well that’s a very lonely group.

But that’s exactly what Francis Ford Coppola did when he made the second installment of what would turn out to be a trilogy. The story is told in two distinct segments that are alternated in the original cut of the film between young Vito Corleone fleeing from Sicily from a corrupt Mafia don who’d murdered his father over an imagined slight. Young Vito (De Niro) marries and tries a life of the straight and narrow but poverty and corruption conspire to draw him into a life of crime at which he excels. The other segment is that of Michael, now head of the family, brokering a deal with Jewish gangster Hymen Roth (Strasberg) in Cuba while dealing with betrayal from a source unexpectedly close to him.

Coppola deftly weaves the two stories together and although they are essentially unrelated, the flow of the movie is never interrupted. It’s a masterful job of directing and editing and a tribute that we as the audience are never disappointed when one segment ends and the next one begins. We are equally drawn to young Vito and the older Michael.

Pacino, reprising his role as Michael Corleone and without Marlon Brando to upstage him, turns in what is largely considered the defining performance of his career. The corruption of Michael is growing as his desire for power and to retain it at all costs slowly warps his soul. It’s absolutely masterful as we see Michael turn from soft-spoken war hero to cold, calculating monster in the course of two films.

There are some powerful scenes, such as one before a Senate subcommittee on organized crime in which one of Michael’s capos are due to testify against him. The mute confrontation between Frankie Pentangeli (Gazzo) and his brother is as powerful a moment as has ever been recorded in cinema.

The question of whether the sequel is better than the original is one that rages fairly passionately within the film buff community. There are plenty who argue that the first is the best; there are just as many who argue just as vehemently that the sequel outdoes the original. For my own part, I think that both movies are nearly equal in cinematic excellence. My own personal preference leans towards the first Godfather however – by just a hair.

So do you need both of these films? Absolutely. Separately they are both magnificent films that should be in every film lover’s collection. Together they constitute one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of the movies. They remain today as they were 40 years ago enormously influential not only on the gangster genre but on cinema in general. This, like the first film, is one you’ll want to see many, many times and will pick up something new that you didn’t notice before each time you see it.

WHY RENT THIS: Another must-see for everyone who loves movies. A rare sequel that is as good as the original.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find the violence off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES:  More than its share of violence (some of it bloody) and foul language. There is also some sensuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first sequel to win a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.0M on a $13M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Out of the Furnace

The Godfather


Marlon Brando teaches Al Pacino how to make an offer nobody can refuse.

Marlon Brando teaches Al Pacino how to make an offer nobody can refuse.

(1972) Drama (Paramount) Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, Al Martino, Ruby Bond, Morgana King, Lenny Montana, Simonetta Stefanelli, Alex Rocco, John Martino. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

There are a number of film buffs in the world who would say that The Godfather is the greatest motion picture ever made and they’d have a pretty compelling defense of their assertion to offer. There’s no doubt that the movie is a cinematic classic, if not the very best then for sure among them. This movie which had a good deal of trouble getting made and saw production nearly shut down at least twice had to overcome incredible odds just to make it in front of the camera at all.

The Godfather is cinematic opera, passionate and full of tragedy and triumph. Certainly it had its share of controversy – there are Italian-Americans even today who feel the movie reinforced negative stereotypes about the Italians as Mafiosi, largely violent and criminal minded with all of the women being tramps or mamas. It’s not exactly a fair complaint but there is some merit to it.

That there were (and maybe still are) families like this is certain. However, the Corleone family has influenced nearly every crime family depicted on the big screen and small ever since – there would be no Sopranos without them. However not every Italian family has interests in illegal gambling, black market sales and prostitution. It is only a small number that do but there is something fascinating about them. Perhaps it’s that fierce devotion to their families which in their cases comes with a healthy “up yours” to everyone else’s family. As Don Vito himself explains, their family is merely providing a service. Things people want and maybe even need. In a just world, these things would not be illegal. However, they are and so it falls to the bold and the strong to provide them. At least, that’s how I think he justifies what he does.

This is a cast that comes together only once in a lifetime; Brando as the wily and powerful Vito Corleone who plays him with an odd vulnerability that shows through unexpectedly; Caan as the hotheaded Sonny who is as ruthless as he is fiercely devoted. Pacino as the coldly logical Michael, a war hero who didn’t want to be part of the family business until circumstances dictated otherwise. Keaton as Michael’s WASP girlfriend who acts as the audience surrogate, an outsider allowed access to a dangerous and fiercely private world. Cazale as Fredo, the oldest brother and the weakest. Duvall as the consigliere, the legal arm of the Corleone family and often the voice of reason. Castellano and Vigoda as the underlings, genteel and sweet old men on the outside but killers on the inside. Martino as the Hollywood star who the Don owns. Rocco as Moe Green, the Vegas casino owner who discovers he’s not as powerful as he thinks he is. Montana as the fearsome Luca Brazzi.

There are so many memorable moments in this movie that it’s impossible to even list them all. Murder and mayhem discussed at the family dinner table. Scenes of incredible violence and incredible tenderness. Tragedy on an operatic scale and triumph on a lavish scale. The montage of murder during the christening of Michael’s godson and nephew is perhaps the best scene in any movie ever. It’s so well-choreographed and so well-directed that you can only sit back breathlessly and admire it. There have been numerous attempts to duplicate it but none have ever even come close.

If you haven’t seen this movie – and chances are you have – this should be the next one you make a point of renting or streaming. If you love movies, I’m officially giving you the excuse you need to revisit it. Either way, you owe it to yourself to spend an evening with the Corleone family. Pass the marinara.

WHY RENT THIS: A must-see for everyone who loves movies. One of the best (if not the best) of all time.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find the violence off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of bloody violence, foul language, sexuality and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is actually a town in Sicily called Corleone and Al Pacino’s maternal grandparents actually emigrated from there. However by the 1970s the town was too developed to be used in a 1940s period so filming set in Corleone was actually done in the village of Savoca, outside of Taormina.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $245.1M on a $6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen Kane

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Homefront