In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola crafted what is still, 36 years later, the quintessential mob movie with “The Godfather”, a film so crammed with staples of the movie mafia genre that one seeing it fresh today might mistake it as being wholly derivative. But then, this was the film that created all of the gangster cliches. What’s so astounding in watching it again now in 2008 is just how timeless a work of art it remains. Since the film is set in such a distinct and defined period in time, it has managed not to age a single day since its original release. Marlon Brando’s Oscar-winning performance as Don Vito Corleone is so powerful and authoritative, in fact, that it overshadows all others that have come in its wake. James Caan’s Sonny is as passionately hot-headed today as ever, and watching him again in the film makes me wonder why his career wasn’t even more successful than it ultimately was. And then there’s Al Pacino. In what I consider to be the performance – and, indeed, the role – of his career, Pacino plays the ill-fated Michael with so much restraint and barely-contained intensity that he somehow manages to carry virtually the entire emotional weight of the trilogy on his shoulders, even with some of the finest actors and performances in history surrounding him on all sides. The cinematography is possibly even more impressively subtle in its execution looking back on the film today than it was when it was initially shown.
There have been far more discussions these days about the role of composition in storytelling, and it’s hard to watch “The Godfather” (or its sequels) without appreciating the role of visuals to pull its audience into the narrative, right from the very first shot. Speaking of narrative, not much can be said about any of the Godfather films that hasn’t already been said a hundred times over, but for what it’s worth, the first film could be seen as the second act of a three-act play. Brando’s Don Vito heads the Corleone family, one of the most powerful crime families in New York. His three sons (Michael, Sonny, and Fredo) all bring wildly different sensibilities to the table, with the reluctant and calculating Michael ultimately taking over the reigns toward the end of the film. In a nutshell, that is the main plot of this three-hour epic. What makes it watchable despite its running time and relatively straightforward storyline are the aforementioned excellent performances and the almost endless nuances to be savoured from them upon each and every viewing. Michael’s slow transition from the son who wants no part of the family business to one of a cold, manipulative Don who will stop at nothing to secure and cling to his power is gradual enough over the film’s running time to be wholly convincing and terrifying, an idea expounded upon in the second act.
The Godfather Part II
It’s quite obvious right from the start that “Part II” is a more personal film for Coppola. It’s much more an art house picture than the first installment, and yet it somehow retains just enough of the successful ingredients of the audience-pleasing first to once again attract mainstream appreciation while satiating the appetites of those who craved a more thoughtful, cerebral second entry in the series. The film is ingeniously inter-cut between a turn-of-the-century young Don Vito (pursued my a local chieftain in Sicily and eventually ascending to power in New York City) and the increasingly splintered psyche of a 1950’s Michael, now ascending to ever-greater levels of power, paranoia and corruption. Again, there are subplots and double-crosses enough here to fill up several more films, but it’s the performances that sell the production. Robert DeNiro somehow channels the feel and weighty presence of Marlon Brando, even though he bears little resemblance to the actual actor. It’s inspired casting that won DeNiro a well-deserved Oscar. Pacino is once again marvelous as Michael Corleone and plays him this time as someone so bent on obtaining and maintaining power and control that he eventually gains both at the expense of his family and perhaps even his own humanity. By contrasting the two men, Coppola sets up a chilling commentary on two vastly divergent paths toward a shared goal and how one path leads to prosperity and the other self-destruction.
These are lofty themes to be sure, but the film is still easily accessible to those who choose to see it simply as a continuation of the Corleone family’s story. For me, it’s the film’s apparent ease with working on those two very different levels that has made it the enduring classic that it is today. The second entry also takes a perfectly self-contained film in Part I and expands and enriches it by effectively presenting not only Act III, but Act I as well, making it perhaps the first “prequel” ever made. I can’t think of a single other movie that manages to both logically advance the story of the first film and also enrich the original with a back story that gives it more meaning than before. The second film, in effect, works effortlessly to bookend the first on both sides. The two together are an intimate, provocative, and ultimately devastating portrait of the Corleone family’s rise and fall.
The Godfather Part III
Francis Coppola considers “The Godfather Part III” his epilogue to the trilogy. As such, I’ve always felt that the film garnered far more hatred from film buffs over the years than was warranted. Set in the late 1970’s, the film forgoes the flashback structure of “Part II” and again adopts the linear structure of the first film. Focusing on an aging and haunted Michael, “Part III” is its own entity, both as a film and as it relates to the Corleone story. Setting the film so far from the second (a move that more or less reflected the real time differential between film entries) helps lend more credibility to the change in Michael than most people like to admit. This is a man who has now lived with the ghosts of his past for over two decades. He’s seen the consequences of his actions and the loss of nearly his entire family. His priorities, motives and methods are, accordingly, very different in this installment than in the last. Sophia Coppola plays Michael’s daughter and has received endless criticism for her lack of acting ability, but I personally found her slightly unsure and awkward portrayal of Mary more than a little fitting for the immaturity and naivete required of her character.
If anything, it certainly does nothing to take me out of the film. More impressive is Andy Garcia as Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent. As Garcia says himself in one of the extras, the character was conceived as having the calculations of Michael, the hot-headedness of Sonny, and the warmth of Fredo. Vincent is anxious to take over the family business just as Michael pries with equal force to legitimize the operation. The plot here is perhaps the film’s weak point, as the convoluted ring of corruption between the mob and the Vatican is never fully explained. Michael attempts to align the family with those he perceives as above such corruption, but even his good intentions prove too late to save a soul he relinquished long ago. I’ve always rather enjoyed “Part III” and find it a fitting end cap to an astoundingly tragic and beautiful series of films. To call a trilogy about a mafia family “tragic and beautiful” is no small compliment (this isn’t exactly a genre that graciously lends itself to artistic flourish), but the entire Godfather collection is a series of films to be treasured. And I do hope that the reputation of this film will continue to grow (as it has in recent years) as more time passes. Pacino, in particular, is truly phenomenal in this final film, with his bravura performance in the final sequence being, for me, one of the most memorable moments in film history.
Video: How does it look?
As anyone reading this is no doubt aware, “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” have never looked very good on home video. In fact, that’s a pretty drastic understatement. Virtually all of the previous releases of the films, be it on the various laserdisc versions back in the 1990’s or the more recent DVD box set, have been extremely disappointing, ugly affairs that showed off pretty much every video issue imaginable. They were overly dark (even for inherently dark films), sported detail that was fair at best, contained a distracting amount of artifacts, showcased variant black-level issues, and even threw in a little edge-enhancement for good measure. Though these films will likely never look as though they were filmed yesterday (short of corrupting the source with excessive amounts of DNR and unwanted digital manipulation), this new AVC presentation (each film with is on its own BD-50) is nonetheless quite revelatory in its own right. Those used to the dirty, dingy quality these films have always displayed at home will undoubtedly find the most to appreciate here. Artifacts have been nearly (if not completely) eliminated this time around, and the contrast has been given a boost for a much “warmer” feel in general (more on that in a moment).
Fine detail is vastly improved over any previous version of the films, and black levels are thankfully deep and dark, with not a single waver into gray or blue to be found, even in the trilogy’s numerous, previously problematic fades. The edge enhancement that plagued the previous DVD has been fully eradicated here. These improvements, while perhaps small on a point-by-point level, have a cumulative effect of giving the entire saga a fresher, cleaner, and more refined look and feel. I was lucky enough to see “The Godfather” when it was re-released in theaters several years ago, and I remember being impressed at just how much a decent presentation managed to transform the experience of watching the film. This Blu-ray release finally does that experience justice in a home environment. While none of the films sparkle with that HD clarity that comes from newer features, those expecting that are quite frankly being unrealistic. These movies aren’t exactly new, and though they aren’t top-tier demo-worthy presentations, kudos must go out to Zoetrope Studios and Robert Harris for staying true to the spirit of what a good restoration is supposed to be without resorting to the evils of DNR. Grain has been meticulously and gloriously preserved here, yielding a surprisingly film-like appearance. A side-effect of this is, of course, a softer-looking image than on some HD titles. The source materials, for all the obvious work done to them, are still not in the best condition, and some scenes do betray this fact. Take, for example, the scene in the first film in which Michael greets Kay after returning from Sicily. This scene definitely looks sub-par, but then, that’s the nature of the beast, and the new HD presentation does reveal the limitations of the material in similar moments throughout the trilogy. Conversely, the many of the scenes of the Italian countryside are much more well-defined and lifelike.
Now, admittedly, there have been some rather obvious liberties taken here with the color timing, most noticeably on “The Godfather Part II”. For example, the scene in which Michael testifies before the committee is now awash with sepia tones that are almost overwhelming if you’re not expecting the change from previous home video versions which employed a more natural scheme. Also, the contrast (as I mentioned) has been pumped up substantially in several sequences which lends to a hotness in the image that was never there before. No doubt this was an artistic decision, and I will not question Coppola’s visual judgment in this review. Suffice it to say that hardcore purists may take issue and might want to give this set a rent if they think it may be a deal-breaker. For me, it was not. In my opinion, the numerous benefits of the new restoration far outweigh any questionable, revisionist color timing decisions. This is unarguably the finest presentation of the Godfather films ever released and, barring a miracle, I can’t imagine this series looking any better than it does in this collection.
Audio: How does it sound?
As impressive as the video is in “The Godfather Collection”, the audio honestly impressed me even more. This isn’t an “impressive-sounding” mix per se, but again, those used to the previous releases will certainly notice a definite difference in overall fidelity, clarity and ambiance in these new TrueHD soundtracks. Again, as with the video, the third film sounds the “best” of the three, but boasts the least amount of overall improvement. Take the attempted assassination scene in “Part II”. Watching the scene on this Blu-ray is like seeing it – and hearing it – for the very first time. I was literally jarred out of my seat the first time I watched the scene. The gunfire is now just as jolting and loud as it should be, with directionality and ricochet effects that cascade all over the sound field. No doubt, this is how the scene was intended to sound. It’s as surprising an audio experience as the scene is from a storytelling standpoint. But then, that’s what I find so wonderful about the mix on all three films: they compliment the onscreen action impeccably. The quieter scenes, though mostly dialog-driven, have a fullness to them that simply wasn’t there before, and I never got the impression (as I always have before) that the sound was either tinny or limited in dynamic range.
Words and sound effects are equally intelligible, and there’s an air of atmosphere that now fills the proceedings through the employment of lossless audio that is more a visceral perception than a definite, technical aspect of the sound itself. All in all, this is an absolutely top-notch effort (especially for the two films that originated with mere mono mixes). Now, again, these movies will never sound like the best demo discs out there, and they’re not meant to. But as with the video, the audio presentations here are nothing if not respectful of the respective films they support. The best accolade I can bestow upon the new audio is that they never sound forced or gimmicky in the slightest bit. It’s instead as if the saga was always meant to sound this way. Even the purists should find something to admire in the faithfulness afforded here to the original source tracks. Having owned all three films on VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray, I can say with assuredness that you have never heard this trilogy sound this clean and natural. Excellent.
Supplements: What are the extras?
New to this Blu-ray set are four featurettes, all presented in HD. The first, “The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t”, is an extremely interesting piece, though the focus is decidedly more directed toward the atmosphere in Hollywood at the time of the first film’s release than on the actual making of the film itself or on the difficulties associated with it. “Godfather World” is an entertaining if unremarkable featurette on the cultural influence of the Godfather films. Of note is that both of these first two pieces feature an extremely impressive line-up of participating actors and directors. The third featurette, “Emulsional Rescue: Revealing The Godfather”, is an excellent look at the restoration work that went into making this presentation possible. This is a very informative piece that is worth watching for anyone with even a passing interest in film restoration and the massive efforts that go into a package like this and into rescuing films so precariously close to being lost forever. The final HD featurette revolves around Coppola’s relationship with Paramount Pictures and his fight to retain final cut rights on the first film. It’s a very informative piece on the way Hollywood works. I certainly found it interesting to see how the powers that be had almost no conception – or at least appreciation – for the epic scale on which the director has working. There’s also a new “Family Tree” feature included that gives you a nice breakdown of all the actors / characters and their respective real-world and fictitious biographies. The “Four Short Films on The Godfather” section is probably the weakest part of the new supplemental package, being just a conglomeration of various interview and outtake segments that don’t really amount to anything cohesive. Fans will likely view this one once and then never touch it again.
Those of you who invested in the original Godfather box back a few years ago on DVD (likely the vast majority reading this review) can safely retire your old collection. The Blu-ray includes each and every extra that graced that collection, here dubbed the “2001 DVD Archive”. You’ll find everything in the same exact format as before here (unfortunately, right down to the SD resolution). First and foremost, the three feature films all retain the same excellent commentary tracks from the original DVD release. Coppola isn’t the most engaging speaker (I’ve always found his voice more than a little lethargic), but I doubt if anyone would dispute that he gives us a veritable treasure trove of intriguing information on each of the movies. It’s not easy to talk for over nine hours, but these are fine commentary tracks that are must-listens for those who haven’t done so already. First is “The Godfather Family” documentary, the obligatory extra that’s been included with these films ever since the VHS and laserdisc sets which debuted years ago. It’s a very good documentary in its own right, chronicling the making of all three films (with a bit of an emphasis on the third). One thing I really enjoyed about this doc was how much time is spent on Coppola’s explanations on what is going on in Michael’s head by the third film and how that informed the direction of the plot. Most people picking up this set will no doubt be familiar with this piece, so I won’t spend much more time on it, but if you haven’t given it a chance, it’s worth “A Look Inside” (I couldn’t help the pun).
Next up are the original featurettes that graced the old DVD box set (“Locations of the Godfather”, “Francis Coppola’s Notebook”, “The Music of the Godfather”, “Puzo and Coppola on Screenwriting”, “Gordon Willis on Cinematography”, and the original 1971 making-of EPK piece). The titles of these featurettes are fairly self-explanatory, and you get more or less what you would expect from each of these fairly brief segments. A few storyboards for Parts II and III are included in the extras, as is a rather exhaustive “Galleries” section (which is itself broken down into sub-categories). The theatrical trailers for all three films are here, too, as well as what I personally consider the best feature of all: the additional scenes. Having owned the laserdisc release of “The Godfather Trilogy (1901-1980)”, I can safely say that the *only* thing preventing me from giving this set my absolute highest, unqualified recommendation is the exclusion of the extended, chronological version of the films which incorporated all of these sequences back into the films. I know that most fans tend to disagree with me on this, but I very much enjoyed that alternate and substantially lengthened presentation of the Godfather saga and would likely re-buy the set yet again just to have that version of the trilogy. One or two of the scenes from “The Godfather Saga” and/or “The Godfather Trilogy” chronological releases are still missing from this archive, but nearly all of them are here, though sadly none have been restored as the main features have. An alternate opening to “The Godfather Part III” is also contained within the additional scenes section. This is one exemplary extras package for one exquisite collection, and though I do have to subtract just a half star grade for the omission of my beloved 1901-1980, I could not recommend this set any more highly to fans of either this series or of filmmaking at its most masterfully poignant.