Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Godfather, Part II

Originally Written & Posted at Epinions.com on 4/6/06 w/ Extensive Revisions & a New Conclusion.


For many movies, especially franchises. Sequels are often done to either cash in on a previous film's success or in continuation with a story. Yet there are some sequels that are even better than the original film in terms of its storyline and character development. One such film that had a rare sequel that didn't just surpass the original film on some levels but also equate the film in terms of its theme and approach to storytelling. That film was 1972's The Godfather based on Mario Puzo's novel and in 1974, came a spectacular sequel that told the rise of a man turned mob figure and the dark descent of his successor simply titled The Godfather, Part II.

Again based on the novel by Mario Puzo, The Godfather, Part II tells two different story. One being Don Corleone's arrival to America as a child after being on the run from mob figures in Sicily where later on, he rose to power as a mob figure of his own while balancing his work life with his devotion to his family. The other story picks up where the last film took off as Don Corleone's successor and youngest son Michael takes over the family business and moves them to Las Vegas where he loses sight of what his father's values and insightful tactics towards business. Directing the film for this sequel is Francis Ford Coppola, who also directed and co-wrote the first film. Teaming with Puzo again for the script. In their approach, the theme again is family where the story moves back and forth in time from how Don Corleone takes care of his family and the people around him and how Michael Corleone corrupts himself into destroying everything around him.

Returning to the fold from the first one are Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale along with flashback cameos from James Caan, Gianni Russo, and Abe Vigoda. Also in the film are Dominic Chianese, G.D. Spradlin, Bruno Kirby, Gastone Moschin, Michael Vincente Gazzo, Joe Spinell, Mario Cotone, Lee Strasberg, and Robert de Niro as the young Don Corleone. The Godfather, Part II is a sprawling, heartbreaking epic drama that in undoubtably one of the finest films of American cinema.

It's the early 1900s as a young mute boy named Vito Andolini (Oreste Baldini) is at the funeral for his father in Corleone, Sicily.  When a revenge attempt on the town's don Francesco Ciccio (Guiseppe Sillato) has failed as well as an attempt to spare Vito's life by his mother (Maria Carta).  Vito secretly flees on a ship to America where he's re-named Vito Corleone.  Some years later in New York City, Vito Corleone is a family man with a wife (Francesca de Sapio) and young boys at the time.  Yet, he has issues with the way people are treated by the town's Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) who forced Vito's grocery boss to fire him.  After befriending a man named Clemenza (Bruno Kirby), they join forces as they also take in another young man named Tessio (John Aprea) to stand up against Fanucci.

After defeating Fanucci, Vito Corleone becomes a mob leader of his own but with more compassion as he helps the little people of Little Italy.  With their olive oil business being their front and becoming a success, it was a chance for Vito to return to Sicily to settle some business.

In the 1950s, Vito Corleone's grandson Anthony Corleone (James Gounaris) is taking his first communion in front of his parents, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). A party happens in their lake home near Las Vegas where Michael and his family are celebrating with his sister Connie (Talia Shire) and her new husband Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue), his older brother Fredo (John Cazale) with his wife Deanna (Marianna Hill), and their mother (Morgana King).  Also in attendance are Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin), Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese), and an old friend named Frank Pentageli (Michael Vincente Gazzo) as they came to discuss some business with Michael.  Though Michael's business dealings bring discomfort to Kay, it doesn't dampen the night.

Later that night, an attack occurred at the home of the Corleones where Michael and Kay were nearly killed.  Realizing he's a possible target for another mob boss in Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), Michael turns to family friend and former consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) to be in charge with Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui) and Al Neri (Richard Bright) as assistants.  Michael goes to Miami with Busatta (Amerigo Tot) to meet with Roth, who had an old business relationship with Vito.  The meeting has Michael suspecting Pentageli who has his own issues with the Rosato brothers (Carmine Caridi and Danny Aiello) as a meeting with them almost became fatal until he's saved by Willie Cicci (Joe Spinell).  Back in Las Vegas, Hagen is called Fredo's brothel place where he finds Geary in trouble as Hagen offers to help.

Michael joins Roth to Cuba for some business only to have second thoughts about the ongoing Cuban Revolution.  Michael calls Fredo to help as he reveals that Roth was the one who assassinated him.  He plans revenge on the ailing Roth by getting Busatta to kill him while Michael attends a party with Fredo, Geary, and Johnny Ola.  It is there Michael finds out some awful truths as he returns to Las Vegas learning that Kay had a miscarriage while Hagen tells him that he is to go on trial against the U.S. Senate.  Though Geary was willing to help Michael and Willie Cicci, the Senate are trying to go after Michael with Pentageli as the big witness to testify against him.  With Fredo returning home to Las Vegas, Fredo reveals his frustration towards Michael along with information about the trial.  While Michael decides to keep Fredo at bay, he finally gets Pentageli to commit perjury to win.

Though Michael won his case, his relationship with Kay has suffered forcing the marriage to dissolve following an ugly secret.  With his mother dying and Connie pleading to Michael to forgive Fredo for what he's done.  Michael gives in to Connie's pleas but his plans for some unfinished business leaves Hagen alienated and disillusioned despite choosing to stay at Michael's side.  Even as it became clear for those who were close to realize how far Michael has descended.

It's a rare feat for a film sequel to outdo the first one. With the case of The Godfather and the sequel, it's even rare to match it up where neither top each other but are equal in what both films are trying to say. With The Godfather, it's a thematic film about family in the world of crime and how an old man tries to run his business as just a business and not bring anything personal to the game. With Vito Corleone trying to protect his family and wanting a better life for them while not getting his sons too caught up in personal matters in the mob game. The ending in the first Godfather with Vito Corleone's death only reveals in the way Michael Corleone runs the business only to lose sight of himself and what his father stood for. There, it sets up the idea of what becomes the center-point of The Godfather, Part II.

The second film is clearly darker in one of its stories where the overall part of the film is very tragic. It remains a family film but one where the family disintegrates. The credit for this complex, parallel world of the young Vito Corleone and an older Michael Corleone in the 1950s goes to the team of the book's novelist Mario Puzo and co-screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola. The story in many ways is a classic rise-and-fall story but its approach of a man's rise and his son's downfall only gives the story of the Corleone family more intriguing and heartbreaking at the same time. It shows the similarities and difference of the way Vito and Michael Corleone deal with their business and family.

While Vito's story has its share of brutality and violent moments, it's only because he was forced to see violent acts as a child and tries to ignore it. Yet, when he’s a man trying to make a simple, decent life only to be pushed away by another power-hungry mob boss. He is forced to go into a life of crime to do right not just for himself but for his family. Unlike Don Fanucci and Don Ciccio, Vito doesn't make his presence known nor does he act like the big-shot of the town. Instead, he tries to help the little people while wanting to not make them feel that they'll be in trouble if they do something wrong. Still, Vito's act of violence was only personal in order to have some emotional closure. Yet, his act only helps him gain a status as a respected mob boss who doesn't like to cause trouble. Another side of him is the way he deals with his family and how he cherishes them where all of his qualities are passed down to his three sons.

In Michael's part of the story, it starts off with his cold-hearted way he deals with business as he reveals to Senator Geary that they're both corrupt in every way. His emotional take on business only leads him into this downward spiral where in the end, he alienates nearly everyone around him to the point that he becomes paranoid. The hit on him confirms his paranoia while he ends up trusting no one, not even himself. Michael, in the end, becomes as cold-hearted and ruthless than his father was when his father rarely showed that part of himself. The result of the decisions he made, the way he's corrupted himself, the way he deals with his own family, and how he tries to distance himself in the way his father does thing would only begin to haunt him in the years to come.

If the film's script in all of its dramatic elements and complex structure is filled with amazing moments, Coppola's sprawling direction takes it to new heights. The scene where Vito Corleone plans to assassinate Don Fanucci is one of the best presentation with images of a parade, a play, and the street with Fanucci walking around on the street. Coppola brings a vision that is unique in its two parallel storyline by going for a wide-open look of Sicily and old New York in the Vito Corleone sequence. His vision of Michael Corleone's world from Miami, Cuba, Vegas, and Washington, D.C. is a little bit bleaker. Coppola also heightens the emotions and tragic nature of the film that really becomes hypnotic to watch in every way and form, especially a classic scene of Michael and Fredo discussing Fredo's frustration. The way Coppola composes tragedy is very prominent throughout the film, especially in the film's flashback ending of Michael recalling his own ideal innocence which was far removed from the cold nature that he is in the late 50s. It's truly some of the best directing ever done in film.

Helping Coppola in his sprawling vision is Gordon Willis, who also shot The Godfather. The famed cinematographer brings the same, unique, sepia-like vision of orange throughout the entire film where in the Vito Corleone sequence, the film has a distinctive look that is classical. The look of the first film is given more coverage where the exteriors of Sicily is beautiful to look while the New York scenes reveal a lesser, color feel. The interiors are given an idea of intimacy with little lighting other than a light bulb or a candle to feel the look of the times. The Michael Corleone sequences has more color yet the feel of the looks is even bleaker as the colors began to decay within the story as the feel of the film looks less and less colorful. Willis' work in the series is wonderfully distinctive in its authenticity and atmosphere.

Helping Coppola and Willis with that look is Coppola's longtime collaborator Dean Tavoularis. The production designer creates a look of the film that is authentic to the period that the differing stories are in. From the poor yet simple look of Little Italy in early 1900s New York to the lavishness of Las Vegas, Tavoularis, along with art director Angelo P. Graham and set decorator George R. Nelson, create an atmosphere that plays to the feel of the film that is wonderful to look while enclosing the worlds that the Corleone men are in. Helping out with the costume design of the film is Theadora Van Runkle who captures a wonderful, flashy look of the Las Vegas, 1950s sequence of the film while giving a wonderful look to the Don Fanucci character with his white suit. Editors Barry Malkin, Richard Marks, and Peter Zinner do great work in not just giving the film a nice pacing feel but also the presentation sequences for the Don Fanucci assassination scene and the classic climax of Michael finishing his plans. Longtime Coppola collaborator Walter Murch does great sound work in capturing the tone of the film in its atmosphere.

Composers Nino Rota and Coppola's father Carmine do great work in not just the familiar themes of the film but also playing the tension of the film. While Carmine brings out more innocent moments of the film, Rota's music balances it with his dark, sprawling arrangements. The music of the film portrays the film's tragedy and disintegration of Michael while building up the innocent hi-jinks of Vito Corleone. It's the music of Rota and Coppola that stands out among the many classic films scores.

Finally, there's the film's amazing ensemble that features several famed cameos and small appearances. There's early performances from the likes of Danny Aiello as one of the Rosato brothers, Bruno Kirby as a young Clemenza, Harry Dean Stanton as an FBI agent protecting Pentageli, and former teen idol Troy Donahue as Connie's new husband, whose real name is Merle Johnson. There's also early performances from two of Coppola's children, Roman as a young Santino and Sofia as a girl on a boat arriving to America. There's also some great cameos from Roger Corman as a Senator, Gianni Russo as Carlo in a flashback, Abe Vigoda as Tessio, and a fantastic flashback performance from James Caan as Santino.

Smaller performances from Joe Spinell as Willie Cicci, Amerigo Tot as Michael's Miami bodyguard, Frank Sivero as Genco, John Aprea as a young Tessio, Richard Bright as the brooding Al Neri, Tom Rosqui as Rocco, and Morgana King as Mama Corleone along with Francesca de Sapio as the young Mama Corleone and Maria Carta as Vito's mother. Gastone Moschin and Guiseppe Sillato are great as the dons that Vito Corleone despises while Oreste Baldini is great as the young Vito Corleone. Future Sopranos star Dominic Chianese is excellent as the sly Johnny Ola while G.D. Spradlin is wonderful as the corruptive Senator Geary who ends up pledging loyalty to the Corleone family. Michael Vincente Gazzo is wonderfully hilarious as the angry, frustrated Frank Pentageli whose loyalty for the Corleone family is shaken when he believes he is tricked. Pentageli is an interesting, complex character of a man who wants what is promised to him only to realize that the old days of Mafia is dying.

While Talia Shire's role as Connie is small, her performance as Michael's frustrated young sister is one of the most memorable. Notably for Shire's plea to take care of Michael where eventually, she becomes his only family ally who is forced to realize about the family business. Diane Keaton gives an even better performance in her role as Kay whose understanding about the mob and family begins to confront Michael's ideas of family. Keaton's performance is amazing to see a woman who realizes the dangers that she's living in and how it affects her own children as she is saddened at who Michael has become. Lee Strasberg gives an amazing performance as a version of Meyer Lansky in the role of Hyman Roth. Strasberg's masterful performance reveals an ailing man who is hoping to retain the power and presence that he wanted for so many years despite his attempt to try and con Michael out of his money. Strasberg is great in his role.

The best supporting performance is the late John Cazale in the role of Fredo. Cazale brings all sorts of sensitivity, heartbreak, and frustration into a character who is so complex and emotionally that anyone can relate to him. Cazale steals the show from everyone including Al Pacino in a classic scene about Fredo being stepped over. Cazale exudes all sorts of emotions into the role that it's one that is extremely memorable. It's even sadder that Cazale would later die in early 1978 despite being in five films, all of them considered to be classics. Robert Duvall is also great in the role of Tom Hagen who plays the role of a moral conscience who does everything he can to protect Michael and the family only to find himself alienated. Duvall brings the role of a man who sees the old ways being crumbled down into something more violent and ruthless as his own conscience comes to question despite his loyalty to Michael. Duvall is great in the role as he is one of the reasons why The Godfather series is a defining moment in cinema.

Robert de Niro gives a great performance in the role of young Vito Corleone as a man who tries to live a simple life only to find a better life in the world of crime but remain a simple man. While de Niro's performance is mostly done in Italian with little dialogue, the performance is amazing since it has the same wit and charm that Marlon Brando brought in the previous film. Instead of imitating Brando, de Niro brings his own wit and quiet acting into the role as he gives the Vito Corleone character which makes the man more innocent despite his deeds. Al Pacino gives a classic performance in the role of Michael whose development from young idealist wanting to stray from the mob into a dark, mob leader is amazing to watch. Pacino's cold stare and his eerie performance is very haunting and sad as the man from the first film is gone and has become a darker, paranoid man. Pacino sells the performance in every way as he has great chemistry while bringing the right approach to parallel the performance that fellow actor Robert de Niro gives.

When the film was released in late 1974, months after Coppola released his paranoid thriller film The Conversation. Not surprisingly, The Godfather, Part II became another huge box office success which eventually won six Academy Awards for Art Direction, Film Score, Adapted Screenplay for Puzo and Coppola, a Supporting Acting win for de Niro who was going up against co-stars Gazzo and Strasberg, Directing for Coppola, and Best Picture. Nearly 30 years after the release of the film, The Godfather, Part II remains a very popular film along with The Godfather as both films are often hailed as gangster classics. For Francis Ford Coppola, his work with The Godfather series wasn't done as in 1977, he released a TV-miniseries edit of the film with extra footage that didn't make it to the final cut which was somewhat successful despite its chronological approach.

The Godfather, Part II is definitely one of the best films ever made from Francis Ford Coppola.  Armed with amazing technical work by its crew, wonderful music by Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola, and a phenomenal ensemble cast.  Though it's not easy to say whether it's as good or better than its predecessor, it's one of those films truly defines the idea of what a great sequel can be.  Even as it has a narrative structure that is unique about the way men ran things back in the early 20th Century and in the second half.  In the end, The Godfather, Part II is a masterpiece from Francis Ford Coppola.

Francis Ford Coppola Reviews: Dementia 13 - (You're a Big Boy Now) - (Finian's Rainbow) - (The Rain People) - The Godfather - The Conversation - Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now Redux - One from the Heart - (The Outsiders) - Rumble Fish - (The Cotton Club) - (Peggy Sue Got Married) - (Garden of Stone) - (Tucker: The Man & His Dreams) - New York Stories - The Godfather, Part III - Bram Stoker's Dracula - (Jack) - (The Rainmaker) - (Youth Without Youth) - (Tetro) - (Twixt)

(C) thevoid99 2011

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