Thursday, May 23, 2019

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: THE GODFATHER PART II

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo who will live in Israel in their twilight years if Israel will take them.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: Our All Pacino series continues with the iconic follow-up to The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 crime epic, The Godfather Part II. Al Pacino returns as Michael Corleone, the ruthless Don of the Corleone crime family. After surviving an assassination attempt, Michael keeps his friends close and his enemies closer as he meticulously weeds out who was behind the attempt and who from his family is the traitor that assisted. Meanwhile, Kay (Diane Keaton) grows increasingly appalled at Michael and what he’s become. The film is intercut with the story of a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) and his rise to power in New York after immigrating from Sicily decades earlier. Pacino is supported by an expansive ensemble cast including Robert Duvall as family lawyer Tom Hagen, John Cazale as feeble Fredo Corleone, Talia Shire as the erratic Connie Corleone, G.D. Spradlin as corrupt Sen. Pat Geary, Michael V. Gazzo as Corleone Family underboss Frank Pentangeli, and Lee Strasberg as criminal mastermind Hyman Roth. The Godfather Part II was nominated for 11 Oscars and won six, including Best Picture, Best Director (Coppola), Best Supporting Actor (De Niro), Best Adapted Screenplay (Coppola and Mario Puzo), Best Art Direction, and Best Score.

A movie like The Godfather Part II is difficult to tackle since there’s so much to say on one hand and on the other hand everything has already been said about it. Going with my first gut impression, I’ll start by saying that this was my first viewing where I preferred it to the original. I saw The Godfather Part II for the first time when I was about 17 years old and I remember not liking it much on the initial viewing. I got lost early and grew restless not knowing what was happening. It took a second try for me to warm up to it, which was a shocker to me then because I adored The Godfather right away. The Godfather Part II is a more complex movie and requires your full attention and familiarity with the major players before you fully grasp everything that’s happening. It’s easy to be honed in on Pacino and Cazale’s characters because you’re familiar with them already, but Strasberg and Gazzo’s great new additions are very layered and you need the full context of their relationship to the story to get everything out of it. Nevertheless, this viewing was something else. I was glued to the movie this time in a way that I haven’t been before. The difference was that I really focused on the chess game between Pacino and Strasberg and how everything fell into place around them. Normally, I’m comparing the De Niro half with the Pacino half, showing how one man was enriched by his power and another was corroded. Watching this theme play out is still terrific, but it wasn’t my biggest takeaway like it usually is. This just shows what a great movie The Godfather Part II is -- you can get something different from it during each viewing.
Rob: I’ve never been able to decide whether I prefer Part I or Part II, and that’s probably because I almost always watch them together. To me, it’s always been one story. I think Part II might be the bigger achievement, though, given its historical context and influence on future sequels and franchises. It’s hard to deny the power Marlon Brando and James Caan wield in Part I — the soft paternalism and rolling swagger that contrast so beautifully with Pacino’s cold calculation — but I get lost in Part II in a much more profound way. It’s looser, grodier, and stickier around the edges than the original. Like you said, though, the labyrinthine plot takes some getting used to. I can’t say I understand every nook and cranny of Part II, even after 20+ years of watching it, but it hardly matters in the moment. Each viewing is just as engrossing as the last.

Speaking of which, I was happy to have this opportunity to check out the Coppola Restoration Blu-ray, which I got for Christmas last year but hadn’t yet watched. It looks great. Through Gordon Willis’ lens, the shadows and film grain have a texture that I never appreciated on previous home video releases. I know this is a common refrain among cinephiles, but the film just glows. It reminded me how much I need to see one of these on the big screen.

Adam: That’s funny. I watched my DVD from 2000 and it looked like shit. I remember buying the box set at Circuit City with a personal check back in college. I need to see The Godfather Part II in a theater and/or upgrade to Blu-ray. I know it will be a Fathom Events screening later this year, so maybe then.

Rob: I thought we could start by talking about how Al’s portrayal of Michael Corleone has evolved since the first film. Did you notice anything in particular?

Adam: Well, I —


Adam: I —


Sorry. You were talking.
Adam: My biggest takeaway from Pacino in The Godfather Part II is how magnetic he is going against most of what makes him Al Pacino. Michael Corleone is a husk of a man in this film -- all paranoia and vendettas -- and when you think of Pacino in films like Sea of Love or Danny Collins, even Dog Day Afternoon...all that shagginess and gruff likability is gone in this film. It’s right for the character, of course. I guess it’s his stillness (#Wishmaster) throughout much of the film that registers most for me. Speaking of performances, did you have one or two favorites? I’ve always been partial to Michael V. Gazzo, who I think nearly steals the movie. For a supporting character, his arc is incredible. It doesn’t hurt that he looks like Dennis Franz. I also really enjoy Lee Strasberg in the film. That moment where he justifies trying to murder Pentangeli by comparing it to Michael’s order to kill Moe Greene (Hyman Roth indicates without saying that he knows it was Michael) is such a wow moment. How the hell did Francis Ford Coppola make this movie when he was just 35 years old?

Rob: Lee Strasberg is so, SO good. I love how Roth is constantly throwing in anecdotes about Vito whenever he talks business with Michael. Obviously, he’s trying to endear himself to the younger man, but since we’re seeing Vito’s backstory, it also forges a connection with the audience and makes Michael’s decision to destroy Roth that much colder. You mentioned Pacino’s stillness in the role, and it’s incredible that he can covey an icy resolve while still using many of the same expressive tics we see in other performances. You see this most in the “You can never lose your family” scene with his mother (Morgana King) and in the “You broke my heart” scene with Fredo (John Cazale). His vulnerability is boiling just below the surface. He’s trying to hide it, but it’s clearly behind his eyes and bursts out when it becomes too much to manage.

You mentioned Michael V. Gazzo’s amazing performance as Frank Pentangeli, and I also have to point out Gastone Moschin as the slimy Don Fanucci and Leopoldo Trieste’s hilarious bits as the groveling Signor Roberto. According to Coppola, Trieste’s trouble with the door in that scene is real — if you look closely, you can see the other actor inserting and removing a bolt to prevent it from opening. Lastly, there’s Robert De Niro. My favorite part of this performance is that he’s not doing a Marlon Brando impression. There are clear parallels, but he’s making the role his own. Brando’s Vito is settled, confident, and regal. De Niro’s is more wiry and contemplative. He’s figuring things out and taking risks. It’s wonderful.

One other detail I love is when Italian-speaking actors will throw in bits of English to punctuate or exaggerate a line. My favorite is De Niro’s “I’ll take care-a-everything” when he’s explaining his plan to young Clemenza and Tessio (Bruno Kirby and John Aprea).
Thinking about The Godfather Part II, I’m always looking for the differences in leadership styles between Vito and Michael and how they influence their relative successes and failures. Vito’s a cunning leader, but he’s also warm and trusting when given the chance. Michael seems to have seen that as a weakness, which drives him further into isolation. Which Corleone do you think was the better leader?

Adam: This almost feels like a trick question because it’s clearly Vito (to me at least). Michael doesn’t get it. He’s such a cold-blooded killer that you wonder how he was ever a civilian or what he was like as a Marine. Vito had the “man of the people” quality that Michael either doesn’t have or has no interest in exhibiting. He’s like a power-mad CEO, emperor or politician more than a Don. The Godfather Part III clumsily expands upon this with all of The Vatican elements. It’s an unruly blend of perceived respectability and utter corruption and immorality. Do you think Michael, by the end of Part II, still thinks he’s doing what’s best for the family? Or do you think he’s consciously self-destructing because he knows there’s no going back?

Rob: I think his decision to kill his brother shows that he can no longer tell the difference. That final shot of him sitting alone seems to illustrate his defiant contentment to do his job at any expense, sort of as if he was convinced his soul was worth sacrificing in service of his family’s empire. But part of the tragedy of his character — and elegance of the writing — is that it’s impossible to judge his level of self-awareness. It’s an interesting parallel with the flashback scene, actually, where he announces his intentions to serve in the Marine Corps after Pearl Harbor to the objections of his family (save Fredo, of course). It’s almost like he decided way back then that he would serve the Corleone family even if it drove him from them. We’ll probably talk more about this when we discuss Part III, but I agree that he “doesn’t get it,” that he sees the “how” but not the “why.”

Adam: Michael has a black & white quality to his decision making that’s closer to the evil Dons Fanucci and Ciccio (the ones in Sicily and New York that the Young Vito murders) than his father. It’s kind of ironic. Young Vito would probably have had cause to kill Michael Corleone if they weren’t related and they were in the same multiverse.

Rob: Ohhh, you dig on Multiverses? What do you think of the evolution of Connie (Talia Shire)? Her self-destruction is meant to illustrate the power of Michael’s cruelty (namely his murder of her husband, Carlo), but I’ve read some criticism recently that equated her character’s “mistreatment” with that of Diane Keaton’s Kay — essentially that the only two meaningful female characters in the franchise are relegated to broken and shamed background players. Maybe we should hold off on that until Part III, as well?
Adam: Yeah, say what you want about Part III, it gives Keaton and Shire the most to do. Connie at the end of Part II is suuuuper creepy to me. It feels almost incestuous (besides her and Michael never becoming actual lovers). She’s Kay’s understudy as the mother of Michael’s children. It doesn’t feel like a brother-sister relationship anymore at the conclusion of Part II. The more I think of it -- between Pentangeli’s monologue about the Roman Empire, Connie and Michael’s new dynamic, and Michael’s power grabbing -- The Godfather Part II is very much a “modern-day” equivalent to Roman history/mythology.

Do you have any other favorite moments or characters you want to highlight? I have two. The first is the score by Nino Rota, which is on my Mt. Rushmore of film scores. The themes he uses for the 1958 Michael-driven sequences are exquisite and mix all the right emotions (paranoia, sadness, anger etc.) for those stretches of the film. I also love Richard Bright as Al Neri, Michael’s top “button man”. He looks like former Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Rob: The score is wonderful, of course, and I’m especially fond of the moment we hear the guitarist playing a version of the Godfather theme on the steps behind the young Corleone family after Vito murders Don Fanucci. I also want to mention G. D. Spradlin as the corrupt and bigoted Senator Pat Geary. His switch from total contempt for Michael to helplessness under the weight of his power is an exceptional illustration of how influence can be bought for the right price. His long monologue about the glory and patriotism of Italian-Americans is totally hilarious, given his circumstances. I love the way he mispronounces “Corleone.”

This was great! What are we doing next week?

Adam: Next week we’re back with May Discoveries. I have zero so far. Wish me luck between now and next Monday. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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