An Offer You Can’t Refuse

ImageFew would refute that Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Saga is essential viewing for anyone even remotely interested in film–from cinéastes to the most casual of filmgoers. Epic storytelling, stellar acting from legends of the industry, a riveting and oh so subtle musical score, and countless memorable scenes and dialogue gems–“Leave the gun, take the cannoli,”–are just a handful of reasons why these remain some of the finest motion pictures ever made.

Writing about the trilogy’s (and, yes, the often ridiculed third installment is included as possibly an unnecessary follow-up but an interesting chapter to the story nonetheless) importance in the pantheon of motion pictures seems pointless since, after all, what else can be said. Luckily a new gorgeously restored edition of the three films was recently completed and the end result,The Godfather-The Coppola Restoration, is the best reason to relive the Corleone family experience.
Films are always being released and re-released on DVD in various incarnations–Special Edition, Ultimate Edition, Anniversary Edition, etc, etc. The Godfather films are no exception having been already released on DVD twice prior to this, once as a bare-boned first time on DVD trilogy release, and then later as individual Widescreen versions featuring coveted commentary tracks from Coppola. The Coppola Restoration is a horse of a completely different color. 

Film restoration (and ultimately preservation) is one of the main advantages of modern technology and the advent of DVD and now Blu-Ray high-definition discs. Companies like the Criterion Collection or Janus Films have been cleaning up and re-mastering films for years now providing viewers with a new and fresh way of reliving the classics. Sometimes a restoration is as simple as digitally re-mastering the sound, cleaning up the original film stock of scratches and other imperfections, other times (as is the case with tackling The Godfather) a painstaking rejuvenation of the original horribly weathered film negatives is required to recreate and enhance the initial viewing experience. 

ImageThe first two Godfather’s original film negatives had been processed and re-processed countless times over the years mainly due to a high-demand for the film and countless shoddy VHS releases. Unlike modern film stock, which has a life of up to 500 years if store properly, the first two Godfather installments were shot with negatives highly prone to deterioration, mainly seen in the film’s use of color and shade. Add this to the fact that entire sections of the film had been missing or too dire to repair without extensive care and expert precision.

The six-year undertaking for the new releases was overseen by Robert A. Harris, a veteran film historian and preservationist whose focus is in large-scale restoration projects of the epic classics of the 1950s–most notably seen in the beautifully restored version of Lawrence of Arabia and Vertigo. He meticulously went over each of the film’s stills the way a photographer touches up every shot. With an epic motion picture such as The Godfather Harris had to go through roughly 250,000 individual stills, removing even the tiniest of imperfections and digitally restoring the film’s look.

The most noticeable improvement made to first two films (Godfather Part III was shot using more modern film stocks and thus required minimal work for the restoration) is in the film’s one-of-kind use of color, a distinction often lost on home video. Much of both films are shot inside dark interiors–most notably seen in the dark den where Marlon Brando’s Don Vito takes meetings during the first film’s opening wedding scene, and a similar dark office where Al Pacino’s Don Michael holds meetings during his son’s christening in Part II. The characters of The Godfather Saga are almost always looming in the shadows. In Part I the vibrant and joyous opening wedding scene is juxtaposed with the gloomy, dirty “business” meets being held in secret. The Godfather films have always been about two worlds–family in the traditional sense and family in the Cosa Nostra, business sense (this is also the core of David Chase’s “The Sopranos”)–and the use of dark colors is as crucial to telling the story as the characters themselves. Light and dark, good and evil, family and FAMILY, all are important themes throughout the saga, with color and lighting serving as a tool to help convey these messages.

For the restoration Harris, in collaboration with Coppola and the film’s original Director of Photography, Gordon Willis, brought the luster of the film’s original dark colors to the forefront, duplicating if not improving on the films’ original look and feel upon their initial 1970s release. The tense Italian restaurant hit in the first film and the various scenes set in revolutionary Cuba in Part II jump off the screen. Similarly Michael Corleone’s physical deterioration (most notably with the dark bags under his eyes and his battered facial structure) over the course of Parts I & II is a testament to how crucial color and lighting are to a film’s overall atmosphere. His physical appearance in Part III is now a legendary big studio Hollywood horror story with Coppola pushing to have an older Michael Corleone with the appearance of a beat up baseball glove, while the studios pushed for a more handsome modern day Al Pacino. 

While the technical feats underwent for this release is reason enough to revisit these crowning cinematic achievements (and possibly the best reason to get into the high definition television and DVD arena) the content of these films should not be overlooked. 

The great films are the ones that we watch over and over and with every viewing a more rewarding than the previous. Revisiting a film like The Godfather is a reminder of not only why these films are as renowned as they are but also of the film’s subtle moments of brilliance. There’s the use of fruit, particularly oranges, throughout the saga foreshadowing the demise of individual characters and ultimately the family. The films deal with the American dream, romanticized at first but ultimately show with consequence. The films are ripe with an affectionate level of humor, as seen with aforementioned “take the cannoli,” breaking the ice on what was otherwise a brutal execution scene or the nervous and almost childlike Luca Brasi. Even the morning rise of the unlucky Hollywood producer with the even more unlucky prize horse carries a level of dark humor, not to mention serving as a reminder to who these people truly are.

Then there’s the final flashback sequence in Part II in which the entire family gathers for Don Vito’s surprise birthday party. The playful jokes between brothers, the larger than life character of Sonny, and, yet again, more oranges carefully placed in the background, all serve as a subtle reminders of the stories main theme–family is important to these characters but a life of crime ultimately leaves you alone with one’s regrets and ponderings. Had Part III remained solely a dream among avid fans, this closing dinner scene, in which we see the early (and in Mike’s case the most uncorrupted) nature of the characters is displayed (a great scene at showing the truly questionable side of Tom Hagen, portrayed as fairly benign throughout the films), would have been the perfect closer to this epic piece of cinema. 

While DVD is the primary place to find the new restored Godfather films, a number of select theaters around the country, including Chicago’s legendary Music Box Theater, will be screening newly restored 35mm prints of the first two films for a limited time. While seeing these resurrected editions is worthwhile by any means possible, viewing this film as it was intended, in a large dark theater, amidst other viewers and with a sound system that can really give the film’s memorable score the acoustics it deserves, is the best way to experience Coppola’s masterpiece. 

One would hope that the time and care spent restoring these immortal film classics will be used for other film gems wasting away in the big studio vaults (and there are apparently many) each waiting to be revamped and rediscovered by a modern audience. For those not alive during The Godfather’s original 1972/74 releases, seeing the immaculate version Coppola and crew envisioned for the film is an experience that anyone with a love of film should take part in.

When Great Actors Make Bad Choices

Al Pacino has a new film out. It’s called 88 Minutes, and the gripping premise is as follows: a gifted forensic scientist (a post “hoo-ha” Al Pacino) is given 88 minutes to live by a copy-cat serial killer who calls him up on a cell phone. From what I hear it’s not very good.

Later this summer Pacino will star alongside fellow veteran actor, Robert De Niro in Righteous Kill.Here the two play cops who must track, yet another serial killer. Oh and the film also stars 50 Cent. This film was directed by the same genius behind 88 Minutes. Why shed light on these two upcoming routine sounding genre flicks? Simple. They’re proof that two more acting legends may be letting their careers go down the drain.

Why do some of greatest living actors continue to make such poor project choices? How come we have to endure a piece of crap like Meet the Fockers from the same guy who gave audiences Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, or the young Vito Corleone? How is it someone like Pacino who stretched his acting abilities to just about every angle imaginable in his hey-day could sign on for a film like Gigli

Why do some of best continue trade away their rich careers for mediocrity? This is by no means a new topic of discussion but it still remains a curious one. 

There is no denying that even the finest of actors have ups and downs in their careers–the occasional flop or poor decision is to be expected. Still some, like the pair mentioned above, can’t seem to climb out of their current slumps and are in serious threat of becoming has-beens. Sure some people claim that actors like De Niro are just trying to have fun in their later years–opting for the less challenging roles instead of the gigs that truly test one’s acting chops. The problem with this argument is it seems like taking the easy way out. 

The best of the best are the ones who took the chances, stretched their acting range, and devoured the roles they were handed. Orson Welles was still testing his abilities both as an actor and a director in his later years. As did Henry Fonda, whose later work complimented his age and maturity as an actor perfectly. Then you have a legend like Marlon Brando whose later work was a bit of a train wreck (does anybody remember his laughable turn in The Island of Dr. Moreau in which he is carried around like a God with a creepy mini-midget by his side)

Consider a lineup from arguably the greatest era of filmmaking, the late 1960s through the 1970s. When surveying the list of greats to come out of this epoch–Pacino, De Niro, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, for example–it’s difficult to pick one with a near flawless record. With the exception of maybe Meryl Streep, who even after 50+ films continues to tackle new and exciting roles, many of these actors are struggling to find their place in the new generation of filmmaking.

Some have switched gears to fluffy comedic roles and popcorn flicks while others can’t help but revisit the same character or method and are on the verge of typecast. Below is a short list of three greats whose reputation since the new millennium is at risk thanks to some particularly bad and uninspired project choices. 

Robert De Niro: To be fair De Niro was maintaining a respectable career through the 1990s. His work with Scorsese is now legendary (GoodfellasCasino, even a juicy scene stealer in Cape Fear), he was collaborating with rising directors (Tarantino’s Jackie Brown), and even managed to do some smart big budget flicks (Backdraft perhaps). Then came Analyze This, without a doubt the beginning of the end for one of our finest actors. It’s not that Analyze This (That) or later Meet the Parents are bad comedies it’s just that De Niro is better suited for something smarter, rather than films that focus on feline breast milk jokes. Take for example the satirically brilliant Wag the Dog, or his early comedic work in films like Brazil!The King of Comedy and even Midnight Run.
Possible Resurrection: De Niro needs to collaborate with some serious up and coming directors. While another project with Scorsese would also be suitable, it would be interesting to see what De Niro could do under someone like P.T. Anderson or Christopher Nolan. Ditch the bad comedies and even worse thrillers and focus on the roles that matter.

Al Pacino: Unlike De Niro who hasn’t starred in a truly outstanding film since maybe 1997s Wag the Dog or ‘98s Ronin, Pacino has turned in a couple truly memorable roles in his A.A.R.P years. His turn in Mike Nichol’s wonderful Angels in America adaptation as Roy Cohn was Pacino at his best. Add this to 1999s The Insider, a thrilling look at ethics in journalism, and a riveting take on Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and you have a veteran who still has some tricks up his sleeve. Then there was the virtual supermodel disaster, S1m0ne, or two completely overly acted performances in Any Given Sunday (loud, angry football coach) and The Devil’s Advocate (loud, angry Devil). 
Possible Resurrection: Pacino’s biggest problem is he’s become accustomed to playing, well, Pacino. In his earlier years he was a master at tackling out of character roles–the homosexual bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon, the multi-dimensional Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy. Even his vibrant role as gangster villain, Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty’sDick Tracy was a fun character to watch on screen. Pacino’s last truly fascinating role was in the little seen film People I Know, in which his subdued performance was a complete 180 to everything he’s done in recent years.

ImageJack Nicholson: It could be said that Nicholson is at the point in his career where people know what to expect from him. Similarly to Pacino most of his recent roles show Jack playing Jack. With the exception of two performances dealing with trials of aging and retiring a life long lived (About Schmidt and the equally if not better and underappreciated film, The Pledge), Nicholson hasn’t really done anything recently that matches his range in the early stage of his career. His take on Frank Costello in The Departed was fun to watch but ultimately seemed way over the top, even for Nicholson (his bizarre cocaine sex scene was particularly ridiculous).
Possible Resurrection: It could be Nicholson is close to film retirement, following in the footsteps of greats like Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Warren Beatty, all of which chose their later roles sparingly and with care. One last triumphant performance could maintain his legendary status. Please just not another Adam Sandler flick. 

One could argue that unlike someone like Beatty or Newman, who starred in only a handful of films in the past twenty years, actors like Pacino or De Niro are more concerned with trying as many different roles as they can. In reality they seem to be recycling more of the same. Clint Eastwood is in the midst of a very strong late career both as an actor and a blooming director. He’s choosing his work wisely and isn’t afraid to branch out (his two Iwo Jima films were very well executed). 

I look at some of the best younger actors working today and I wonder how their careers will be in their later years. Christian Bale has shown that he has a knack for not only crowd pleasers (Batman Begins, 3:10 to Yuma) but also more challenging roles (The Machinist, I’m Not There) but will he be able to maintain his momentum and maturity as an actor into his twilight years?

Perhaps some of the actors mentioned earlier still do have it in them and are just waiting to unleash another monumental performance. If this is true than all I have to say is, the sooner the better. 

Short but Sweet: Acting Careers Cut Short

This past week was marked with tragedy in the entertainment world. Heath Ledger’s untimely departure may be one of the most saddening and strange Hollywood deaths in recent years not only because of its unexpected nature but also the fact that Ledger had an extremely promising future ahead of him. To be fair the start of 2008 seems to have been tainted with tragic events. The overlooked passing of former child actor Brad Renfro, an equally talented actor who unfortunately made some poor choices in life, is as disturbing because one can’t help but wonder what might have happened had both these actors lived on.

Both deaths were startling, Ledger’s holding the most shock value since there were few, if any, warning signs, and seemed so unfair since the two actors were still in the process of establishing their legacies. While I was watching the news coverage of Ledger’s passing I started to think of other great actors whose promising careers were cut short and who will forever leave admirers wondering about what might have been. Ledger’s career could probably be compared best to River Phoenix, the young child star who ditched the pretty boy pop film roles in lieu of more daring performances in films like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho or The Mosquito Coast.

Then there is the classic tale of James Dean, a rebel who died at 24, or tragic comic departures such as John Belushi and Chris Farley. Still the one tragic loss that I was reminded of and continues to be overlooked time and time again is that of one John Cazale, undoubtedly one of the finest characters actors to come out of the finest cinematic decades, the 1970s.
Cazale only made five feature films in his short career, all of which were either Oscar best picture winners or contenders, and still hold the ranks as some of the greatest American films ever made. He is probably best known for his tragic performance as the weak Corleone brother Fredo in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, the latter featuring one of the most chilling and memorable kisses ever seen on celluloid.

Getting his start in theater, Cazale jumped onto film scene after landing the Godfather role after his longtime friend Al Pacino snagged the film’s coveted lead role. He would later work with the Godfather auteur, Francis Ford Coppola, in 1974s The Conversation, as Gene Hackman’s witty surveillance assistance. After his scene stealing performance in the second Godfather outing, Cazale shared the screen yet again with Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece, Dog Day Afternoon, as the dimwitted but empathetic bank robber, Sal Naturile. It was Afternoon’s riveting performance that potentially could have launched him into leading man role but sadly his next film, Michael Cimino’s equally lauded epic, The Deer Hunter, would be his last.

While his performance in Hunter as small town Pennsylvania laborer Stan “Stosh” is minor compared to the film’s trio of stars–Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and the rising Meryl Streep, who, it should be noted, was engaged to Cazale during the film’s production–his character was key to establishing the converse worlds portrayed in the film. The scenes building up to certain characters’ departure to Vietnam and their return home convey more than any other war film the thin line between war and home, heaven and hell as seen through the eyes of those who have witnessed battle.

He also managed to provide a bit of comic relief in the film, most notably seen in the film’s introductory wedding ceremony crescendo in which his inebriated and jealous character hits his date for dancing with another man instead of actually socking said male. Later during an intense scene involving a revolver he shares a moving scene with De Niro’s scarred Vietnam vet, Mike.

Sadly Cazale was diagnosed with bone cancer right before filming commenced on Hunter and despite his ailing health he completed production, encouraged by Cimino, his friends and Streep. He would pass before the film’s release and sweep at the 1979 Academy Awards.

It’s hard to say where Cazale’s career would have gone had he not succumbed to cancer. While for the most part his roles were bit or character in nature, Dog Day Afternoon, being the exception, his scene stealing moments proved that he had potential to being a leading man. His role as Fredo was pinnacle for the Corleone family story and his tragic portrayal of Pacino’s partner in crime in Afternoon was ripe with empathy and a level of camaraderie that no doubt reflected the two actor’s true relationship. Pacino who got his start in theater alongside Cazale, often referred to the actor as “my acting partner.”

While Cazale may not have been as young as Ledger (he was 42 when he died) or many other actors who passed too premature, his departure felt all the more tragic because of the brevity of his acting career. Still his legacy is forever eternalized in five masterpieces. It’s been just shy of 30 years since Cazale passed away and while his films are still adored by many I believe he deserves a spotlight for his stellar performances, especially for those who may not know about this wonderfully gifted actor.

Brad Renfro will be remembered best for his breakthrough performance in the Grisham to screen film, The Client, opposite Susan Sarandon, but check out his daring roles in Larry Clark’s Bully or Apt Pupil, not to mention a small but comical part in Ghost World.

Ledger was just starting to explore his acting range but luckily he left behind one role that will no doubt define his short career. The shy but deeply complicated character, Ennis Del Mar, in Brokeback Mountain is the kind of role that takes courage but is also a true actor’s dream. And Ledger nailed it. With The Dark Knight just around the corner, a supposed spooky take on joker that apparently sent shivers down the spine of his co-stars, including Sir Michael Caine, there is one more possible masterpiece left to add to Ledger’s short canon.