Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Essentials- "The Godfather Part II" (1974)

The Essentials- #57

The Godfather Part II
A few weeks back, I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” my personal favorite gangster movie. Despite my feelings toward “Goodfellas,” I do not want you to think that I don’t like the “Godfather” movies at all. “The Godfather” is a brilliant saga, full of engrossing and memorable characters. It is boldly told by a master filmmaker. I even dig the third entry in the saga, the entry that was pretty much panned by the rest of the world, though I will admit that it is the weakest of the entries. I may prefer other gangster movies to it, but there is no doubt that “The Godfather” changed cinema forever, changed the way we view gangster movies, changed would could be done with genre and it would be unfair to not say that “The Godfather” set the bar for the future of the genre forever.

My favorite entry is “The Godfather Part II,” I love it for many reasons. I love that the film feels like a continuation of the story being told in “The Godfather.” Too many times in the sequel-world, the best thing a second film can muster is the treading of water, bringing back the familiar so harshly that it feels redundant. With “The Godfather Part II,” I can hardly call it a sequel; I feel it is a bit unfair to refer to it as a sequel. I think putting the ‘Part II’ in the title is almost perfect. This is a full-blown continuation of the story we left off from back in 1972. There is much more that the audience gets opened up to that it is truly excellent.

When we meet Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in this second part, he is vigorously expanding his power. Las Vegas has become a huge beacon of the Corleone mafia, and Michael is planning to expand his empire internationally. (i.e. Cuba). But Michael faces several challenges, both personally and professionally. His criminal empire is being threatened by both the authorities and his criminal rivals; his own brother is even trying to undermine his power. Not only that, but his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) is planning to leave him. The emotional toll on Michael is professionally displayed by Pacino. There is a very good reason why Pacino became the poster child for gangster movies, he set the style and tone for mob bosses onscreen forever. I love how the line “That is my family Kay, it’s not me” line echoes throughout this entire second part of the saga and how it haunts every story beat involving Michael. Michael makes compelling choices in this movie, and it’s amazing how deeply the drama effects the audience, thanks to Al Pacino.

Not only is “The Godfather Part II” an exploration of Michael’s soul, but we also learn how his father, Vito (played by Robert De Niro) came to power in the first place. We learn Vito’s true name and how he became a Corleone, we learn why he had to leave Italy, we learn how he ended up in the New York City slums and how he relished his chance for power. Vito’s story is handled vividly and authentically, even if it is a little bit romanticized. There is a sense of realism that grips the whole journey of Vito Corleone and it is quite hypnotic. The work by Robert De Niro is equally brilliant and I find it hard to decipher who steals the show between Pacino and De Niro. It is also interesting to learn that neither actor got to know each other on set. I love how the detail of old New York is handled, and calls to attention the great work to put together such believable sets. I find it equally interesting how young Vito’s story closely parallels that of Michael’s story. We see how both of these men lost their souls to the power of the mafia, and the result is quite heartbreaking to realize.

The rest of the cast is solid. The work by Diane Keaton is some of the very best work of her career, and I do include her work with Woody Allen in that line-up. She is both compelling and sweet as Kay and it shows how great of an actress Keaton is. John Cazale’s work as Fredo, the older brother of Michael, is possibly the most challenging role in the entire script, and Cazale creates a human and natural person out of the Fredo character. Robert Duvall is once again perfect as Tom Hagen. Talia Shire’s work as Connie Corleone is quite different from her work in the first film. I felt that Connie has really grown as a person after what happened to her in the first film and the transformation was mesmerizing.
I continue to love the musical score by Nino Rota and as crazy as this may sound, I can’t help but feel like the musical score is a character itself. Nino’s chilling score is powerful reminder of music and how it can elevate a scene. Sometimes, the right music can transform a movie from very good to great, and such is the case with “The Godfather Part II.” The score hauntingly parallels the actions of the characters. It is a truly piercing piece of music.

So “The Godfather” saga may not be “say all, be all” of the genre, like so many seem to claim. But that does not change the fact that it is a magnificent piece of storytelling, something that was very important to the world of cinema. Something that definitely transformed the way I intake film, it’s a great movie, plain and simple.  

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