Monday, 18 August 2014

The Godfather: Part II Review

Mixing two storylines in different eras together is daring. That is even without considering the monumental success of The Godfather as a film. It sits proudly on many a critical list and even more of people’s list, but there still rages debate on which is better: the first or the second. The first excels as a straightforward film with incredible performances, directions and especially cinematography. The opening shot of the first film as it slowly zooms out of a pleading man’s face is outstanding, one of the most interesting film openings in history and, sadly, if made now, would be cut to deaths. The Godfather: Part II succeeds by not trying to replicate the success of the first. It, instead, tries to completely outdo its predecessor with an ambitious two-hander between the 1920s and 1958 – a prequel-sequel.

 The Godfather: Part II succeeds by not trying to replicate the success of the first. It, instead, tries to completely outdo its predecessor with an ambitious two-hander between the 1920s and 1958 – a prequel-sequel.

It is hard to pinpoint where the success comes from in the first, because it is one of those rare instances where everything works together. Director working with the material, the actor living the characters, and that cinematography from the legendary minimalist Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis. Paramount were keen to replicate that by bringing back Francis Ford Coppola. Oddly enough, considering the success of the first – artistically and commercially – he was not that interested in returning to the Italian-American world. Then they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. For $1m (a considerable sum for a director, especially in the ’70s), 13% of the profits (the first made over $100m) and complete artistic control. What director could resist that?
Teaming together again with Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo brought his book to life. With full artistic control and feeling completely invincible, Coppola decided to do Vito Corleone’s backstory but without leaving that final shot hanging, showing Michael’s full descent into the mob boss role, legitimatising himself as a corrupt business. What is even more daring is that it gathered together two of the best actors working at the time. Now it’s the stuff of dreams: Al Pacino with Robert De Niro (ignoring Righteous Kill, of course). But they do not even share any screentime. After Mean Streets, people were making claims that De Niro could be a young Brando so he went off to play young Brando. This segment is similar to the first, showing the rise of Michael to a Don, but the rise for Vito was purposeful and earned; Michael’s rise was out of necessity and obligation, far away from his early ambitions.

The Godfather: Part II even borrows from the thriller genre, wrapping a series of clues as Michael progresses which leads to that heartbreaking final scene.

The Godfather: Part II even borrows from the thriller genre, wrapping a series of clues as Michael progresses which leads to that heartbreaking final scene. Tension is gained more than the average thriller through the careful build-up of sequences, like the one that breaks the film into its second part if you’re watching the early DVD release. Coppola’s dedicated universe expansion is so epic and operatic that it could not be contained to a single disc. Though its running time may feel excessive to some, it is revelling in the drama of the characters that audiences fell in love with back in 1972. Trusting the audience to love the characters, their complications and allowing them deep exploration of their inner machinations. It damns the criminal world without going into overdrive of creating caricature criminals or showing them meeting their ‘deserved’ demise.
It has had the loving label of ‘the greatest sequel ever’ for years. In a decade where sequels are released weekly, that title becomes more and more prestigious as time goes by. And as time goes by, these two films do not age. They are timeless classics that co-exist yet could exist separately from each other. It is difficult not to mention one without the other, whether complimenting both or debating which is better. The truth is they are both classics, they are both incredible pieces of cinema that came from a fantastic time in Hollywood cinema where directors had more control over their products. Careful thought has gone into constructing a sequel that echoes the first film with many reoccurring motifs and themes. Power is corrupting. Vito’s rise to power is through corruption. Michael’s rise into the legitimate brings more illegality than before. The Godfather: Part II is a magnificent follow up to an outstanding film, that is somehow standalone yet connected, expanding and borrowing from the first’s artistic brilliance while carving its own legacy.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Joe Review

Born from indie roots with his debut feature George Washington, moving into mainstream comedy with Pineapple Express and The Sitter, then back to indie again with Prince Avalanche and now another offering, Joe. David Gordon Green is a director that’s films really do cause some head-scratching. How does one move so effortlessly between such different films? Although his broader films are just that, they lack the intimacy or perhaps the signature touch of Green, his latest two haven’t. Joe is a good combination of director and material, putting his authorial stamp on an adaptation. Teaming together with regular cinematographer Tim Orr, reigning in a snake wrangling Nicolas Cage and employing the youthful Tye Sheridan alongside first-time or lesser known supporting actors, give this a real world feel while achieving a cinematic grittiness that keeps it atmospheric. It is first important to pay respect to Green’s directorial style. He found a talent in homeless man Gary Poulter (Gary’s father, Wade aka G-Daawg). A talent sadly extinguished a few months after filming completed.

Saying that Joe - as IMDb does – is about teenage boy Gary (Tye Sheridan) finding an unconventional role model in ex-con, Joe (Nicolas Cage) is perhaps slightly misleading. It’s more about a man trying to suppress his past self, although his past life proves purposefully provocative, while trying to prevent the young boy Gary turning into a replica of himself. Its narrative isn’t strict but it is escalating, all the while maintaining itself as a character piece – finding a star in villainous Gary Poulter as Wade. Through a bizarre job of poisoning trees to make room for strong pines, means following Cage and co. through a beautifully bleak forest, shot with much love by Tim Orr. Joe leads to all the places that a backwater, stale town filled with violence and alcoholism would, but the locations only help speak of the characters’ moral sensibilities, their problems, troubles and prepare us for their choices later on in the film.

In other hands, it would be easy for the director to take a more cynical outlook by shooting it in extra-bleak mode with a side of depression. Green manages to find levity without softening the impact of the more serious or sinister moments. There’s a brevity to the characters – with an exception with one who repeats his past like a Purple Heart instead of a weakening battle scar. Much is said with framings going from cluttered to bare. Its fractured editing style leads to some poetic moments through creative ingenuity – like the scene of the burnt down house in Prince Avalanche, a balance of collaboration (suggested by the editor) and auteurism (realising it’s a perfect fit for his sometimes ethereal style).

Performances are universally fantastic. Nicolas Cage plays it in a more harmonious way, distancing himself from the exaggerated performances that made him an internet meme. Here, he is quiet, contemplative, morally grey until he isn’t. His moments of losing it are never excessive. Completely earned and, again, understated. Early on, you feel reminiscent of Jeff Nichols‘s Mud when you hear the premise but this is a different beast – a vicious beast with violent undertones throughout. Though Ellis was a characterisation of childhood innocence and wonderment, Gary is one of a far more fractured home that uses violence to solve its problems, yet is committed to leaving it behind to never become like his father. Wade, as said before, is magnificently played by Gary Poulter who the audience will hate but that’s a testament to the late-actor’s work. The rest of the supporting cast are all universally great. They make this town seems almost like a dystopia – void of intelligence but filled to the brim in problems.

If perhaps you wondered where the indie director went, looking for something a little more serious or poetic than Your Highness, then this is the Green you will love. Joe is filled with his indie sensibilities, its meandering plot, twisted characters and non-professional actors putting in better than most performances. The only downfall of Joe is that moments of it are masterful but with a few inconsistent scenes and on-the-nose moments not fitting of its style or tone, it falls short of being a masterpiece. It is still a great film, really up there for the year. It has a fitting mood throughout, its subtlety may increase on rewatches. It is unfortunate that a few scenes weaken a film close to immortality in the annals of film history as a must-see masterpiece. It is still an important film to watch to feel the magic of its best moments.