Thursday, March 31, 2011

Godfather Part III

Coppola, 1990, 170m 

The film came seventeen years after part 2 and twenty years have advanced in the story. A tense, furrowed and diabetic Michael Corleone desperately seeks to erase the past and buy respectability for the family. The series could well serve as a model for the depth of in-family ties, with the scepter of fratricide thrown in. The film starts with a ceremony where the Vatican confers a distinction on him in return for a donation of a hundred million (dollars, of-course). But then he is tied up in the knots of the past and the harder he tries and the higher he goes the dirtier and messier it gets. He is haunted by the murder of his elder brother which he ordered. His wife Kay has been separated since long.

The chain of evil and corruption leads right up to the papacy and the poisoning of a newly elected pope. This is yet another feast of killings, each served with the love , artistry and craftsmanship of a master chef. The movie is further spiced with a love interest in the infatuation of Michael's daughter Mary, played by Coppola's daughter Mary, for her ultra-violent first cousin and future Don Vincent. All three films break free from the dark brown interiors which set the pervasive mood, with tracts in the beauty and charm of the sun drenched Sicilian landscape, with it's quaint and weathered villas and timeless gardens and vineyards, a land of olives and tomatoes.

The film is marked with pageants and ceremonies like the first two. The murders, mostly of rival crooks, are events of victorious jubilation, to the accompaniment of music, fireworks and crowds. Murder in Coppola's films is cathartic more than foul, nor really so serious, any more than in Hitchcock or Agatha Christie. Michael's remorse seems comical at times (like a poor cousin of Macbeth) as though the movie had tired of it's own genre.

On the whole, comparisons aside, the film is an engrossing conclusion to the series. Unfortunately there does not seem room for yet another sequel, although the movie does leave a third generation Godfather , the illegitimate son of the late headstrong Santino of Part 1, whose temper cost him his life, on the loose. But if ever there were to be one, I'm sure it would do well, since the Corleones are as addictive as Harry Potter.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Apocalypse Now

Coppola, 1979, 147m

The Vietnam war was a while ago and this film does not arouse the sense of immediacy it might have done in it's time and place. At best it is a lecture on the gruesomeness of war. The brilliantly colored photography captures the grandeur of the natural landscape. However, the continuous and prolonged scenes of villages on flame, the rattle of machine gun fire and swarms of helicopters swooping like birds of prey becomes tedious. The human story is weakly developed and one is held captive by the expectation of Brando's appearance at the end which proves the greatest disappointment. He is a bloated Godfather (a role which may have clung to him) who is scarcely visible, more comical than charismatic, as he is supposed to be. His speech expressing his admiration for the grit of the Vietnamese (mutilation of children inoculated by the Americans) makes them look perversely barbaric more than heroic. The film appears to be wallowing in narcissism in it's heavy tone  of contrition. The repentance seems weak and watery for an outsider. For all it's visual splendor, the film is lacking in substance and is quite burdensome.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Godfather Part I (or just Godfather)

Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, 177m

The story of Vito Corleone, the first Godfather, unforgettably played by a hardly recognizable Brando, has become part of folk-lore and lexicon. Often classed as one of the best ever, I can at least say it had me glued for three hours, in my third viewing over the years. It is thriller-noire, a dark, brooding, elegantly violent, solidly constructed chunk of celluloid. To compare it with Part 2 is unnecessary since they are very different kinds of movies. The canvas of 1 is tightly knit and is confined to the bloody feuds of the "five families" who control the illegal businesses. Part 2 is more ambitious in it's portrayal of the immigrant's experience as it takes us across several generations. 2 is a vivid picture of the rich complexities that constitute the US.

The palette is sepia and it is a film of darkness and golden brown. Nina Rota's melancholy score goes well with the lives of these very human creatures eking out their own survival and ambitions in the crevices of society. The Don yearns for the day when the family will buy it's way to the daylight of legitimacy, maybe even become Senators. Michael wants to steer clear of the family business, but destiny sucks him into becoming it's most ruthless practitioner. This is Brando's film, even though he is on the screen only for a few small intervals. He rarely shows emotion (twice, in fact, to chastise his godson Johnny and eldest son Santino). His voice rarely rises above a purr as he straightens his hair in a contemplative gesture, a picture of leashed power. He does not directly order a single killing. He even has the magnanimity to forgo revenge for the brutal assassination of Santino, in the larger interests of "business" and the safety of his youngest son Michael, his ablest offspring and successor to be. One of the most dramatic sequences is the Summit where the bloody lords of the gang-world assemble to negotiate a truce and settle the differences around the narcotics trade. Another memorable sequence is the Don's grief when he learns of Santino's killing, his veins bursting as his lips spread out in a silent sob. Or the glad smile bursting through his semi-consciousness when Michael tells him that he will hereafter be part of the family business. And the heart attack that strikes him down finally as he childishly plays with his grandson.

It is difficult to lay one's finger as to where the magic of the movie lies. Perhaps the dish of violence has been served with refinement and artistry without passing judgement. The characters ring true and authentic and it shows us the world in all it's complexities which goes beyond simple categories and descriptions. Perhaps it is a a voyeuristic delight to gain admission into an inaccessible world, like the British aristocracy.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Godfather Part 2

Francis Ford Coppola, 203m, 1974

The Godfather trilogy is about a family of Mafia moghals spanning several generations and sprawling across different countries and continents. This second part of the series, like the first, won the Academy Award for Best Film. It is a human drama of epic proportion and whoever compared it to a Shakespeare play had a point. Although it belongs to the gangster genre, in essence it is an inspired study of human nature and destiny. This world of mobsters is a very human world, where family bonds are paramount, with a rigid code of loyalty, honor and revenge.

The movie intertwines two stories. The first tells us what happened before part one, titled simply Godfather-how Vito Corleone, played as an aging Don by Brando, and portrayed as a young man in part two by Robert de Niro, became what he was. Part one tells us about the final chapters of the mature Don's life, after his power and empire are already established, his death and the succession of the business to his youngest and ablest son, Michael, played by Al Pacino. (The movie will not make sense without seeing the first part).

Godfather II starts in Sicily when Vito is nine and his family is wiped out in a vendetta, and his hasty and furtive transportation to America. In several episodes, we see his ascension by virtue of courage, intelligence and charisma into a charming, successful and ruthless power of the underworld. In parallel, we trace the fortunes of his successor, Michael. The "business" expands as the chain of bloodshed continues. Michael becomes more and more ruthless and at the end of the film, we find him grim and unhappy on his throne, his own family blown to pieces, ambition still unsatiated. Like Shakespeare's tragedies both parts one and two conclude with the screen littered with a pile of corpses.

It is a film with many dimensions and hard to encapsulate in a paragraph. It is a tragedy of ambition, power and family relations. It is also quintessentially American and depicts the underworld with love, admiration and acceptance. For America has grown out of wilderness and it's past has not been entirely idyllic. The savage murders interspersed with Catholic iconography shows the criminal world as a familiar habitat well integrated into the social system perhaps with it's own functions and contributions. There seems more homeliness than strangeness about the ways, norms and customs of this world. It is an established sub-culture. As they say America loves her gangsters.

Coppola has a sense of dramatic grandeur of mixing the sacred with the violent. Vito's first murder is celebrated with a grand fire work display as crowds swell in the illuminated New York streets. It is the casting of the die, a coronation, and a coming of age. In part one, the baptism of Michael's first son in a grand church ceremony as the organ churns sublimely, and his succession to the blood red worn out seat of power was interspersed with a macabre chain of killings to eliminate each of the enemies of the Corleone dynasty. If the Corleones did not have the destiny to be rulers of the criminal world, they may have been something great, and Coppola sees the grandeur in this saga of human ascent and decline. Perhaps the film is about love for the canvas of America. The Godfather series is an epic in three Acts and America in all it's largeness is it's grand theme.

One of the best sequences depicts the nine year old Vito's arrival in America. On a magenta tinted screen the Statue of Liberaty swings into view-the first step into a new world. Like Shakespeare, Coppola mixes murder, poetry and drama in a heady celebration of life.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Black Swan

A hallucinating ballerina mutilates herself with a sharp edged object and thereafter delivers an outstanding performance as the villainous Black Swan in Swan Lake. Maybe the director needs to have done the same because wings of any description is precisely what the movie lacks.

A virile teacher/ballet-company director is a hard taskmaster who uses unnecessarily convoluted and unconventional tactics, mostly of an erotic nature, to get the kind of transcendent performance he has in mind. He starts off as a leering Dracula/Don Juan/Rasputin but gives the audience a smile in the final shot to reassure all he was just a nice guy trying to be helpful all this time. But the film itself hardly takes off from ground level and is mired in excesses of different kinds from start to end. Throw in substance induced hallucinogenic experiences, banal routines of sexuality of both shades, blur the lines between reality and delusion, and make the plot sufficiently ambiguous to give food for mental mastication on the evening after and you have the kind of pseudo sophisticated potboiler which will keep the cash boxes jingling with music rivaling that of the great Tchaikovsky. It is not worth the effort sifting reality and hallucination because it's celluloid anyway. This is the profundity of the spirit starved affluent masses, the kind of conjuring trick which surveys will reveal as commercially safe in these confabulated times, a clever Hollywood masala. A redeeming feature is the snatches from the ballet itself.

This is a very ordinary movie, one more from the assembly line, with little shelf life.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Reflections on Life, Death and Love: Ingmar Bergman and Erland Josephson

This 52 minute interview of the the two lifelong friends and collaborators in cinema and theater was filmed for TV in 1999. Bergman was 81 and Josephson 75 at the time. The title is pretentious since the subject matter is predominantly the amorous side of their lives. Bergman had around half a dozen marriages, affairs with all his film heroines, and sired numerous offspring, all graciously looked after by their mothers, who, according to him, were equally accommodating not to complain about him to the children. At the end of the day, he emerges as quite a family man, a doting grandfather and great grandfather, easier than being a parent. The last of Bergman's marriages (to another Ingrid, not the actress) lasted twenty four years, and seems to have been the real thing, whatever that means, which his celebrity status probably merits, ending in her death at an early age, leaving him very forlorn. "I was continuously in love since I was fourteen. It started with my puritanical mother, with whom no overt expression was permitted, except when I was sick, so naturally I was sick often, which she, being a nurse, saw through easily." After Ingrid's death, he gave in to his natural propensity for solitude. He refers briefly to the inconveniences of aging, like taking minutes to put a button. We learn little about the wellsprings of his creativity, except perhaps his obsession with Strindberg, whose entire work he devoured at an early age. Professionally, he was focussed, disciplined and tyrannical. About death, he has little to add, except not being too scared. A salacious 52 minutes, worthy of Playboy.

Click HERE for the text of the interview. The video on Youtube is HERE.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Germany Year Zero

Roberto Rossellini, 70m, 1948

The opening credits include the following statement: "When ideologies distance themselves from Christian morality and piety, the very foundation of human life, they become criminal folly."

This timeless film is set in post WW2 Berlin, bombed and disfigured beyond recognition. The Americans have occupied the country and people live perched in the skeletal remains. Tenacious life is crawling out from the burrows. Trams resume . People wage a grim struggle in a period of shortages and inflation, as currency is replaced by barter. Hitler is already a distancing memory in the excruciating priorities of survival, even as  Nazi memorabilia fetches a modest price. A gramophone record of the late Fuehrer's speech plays shrill, ludicrous and ghostly in an abandoned ruin.

Like the previous film, this too starts and goes on laboriously till it reaches it's shattering climax. Rossellini reportedly said, only the climax, where the boy protagonist wanders in delirium in the hollowed out upper storeys of a building, interested him. Since this is a film worth watching, the plot details are better omitted. Rossellini is a passionate, humanistic and inspired film maker. This is one more heart rending portrayal of perilous childhood to place besides Ray, de Sica, Kiarostami and Tarkovsky.

Thanks are due to Nathanael Hood for introducing this director.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Rome, Open City

Roberto Rossellini, 1945, 105m, Italy

World War 2 was a long time ago, and I set out on this film without much enthusiasm. Who has heard of the Italian Resistance to a Nazi Occupation? Historical complexities apart, this not so easily watchable film which drags laboriously for the first hour builds up to an unforgettable and powerful human drama.

Rome is occupied and the populace responds in different ways to the continuing traumas. Manfredi is a Communist and leads a section of the resistance movement. A priest acts as an intermediary conveying messages. Manfredi and the priest are finally captured and finally tortured and shot respectively without breaking. The film realistically depicts the inherent spiritual flame capable of inspiring many others. Extremes of adversity bring out the best and worst, both courage and cowardice. The movie was made immediately after the liberation of Rome and is an impassioned statement of the eternal brutality of war made in the heat of the moment. It has a documentary feel and texture. It is truthful and the voice of a people.

The film probably needs a second watch to appreciate the realistic details of the place and time which have been captured so well in the bleak black and white cinematography. The iconic still above shows the female lead Pina (played by the charismatic Anna Magnini) just before she is shot while running towards her just arrested fiance.

Bosley Crowther's Review