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The Godfather and The Godfather Part II have become such cornerstones of cinema that it is almost impossible to know how film history and American culture would have developed without them. The films, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and adapted from Mario Puzo's landmark novel, are perfect and capture everyone at their absolute best. Both won multiple Oscars, including the 1972 and 1974 Best Picture awards and have been immortalized in the US Library of Congress. They are masterpieces that force the audience to feel empathy for a family of criminals. We see the rise and fall of the Corleone family, from 1901 to 1959, all in the span of over six hours.
The first film, released in 1972, centers on the story of the transfer of power, as the health of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) deteriorates and Michael (Al Pacino), his youngest son, takes power. Michael, a war hero, spent his early life devoted to staying out of the family business, with Sonny (James Caan) being next in line to take over the family. After Vito turns down an opportunity to get into the drug trade, he becomes a target and is nearly killed in a hail of bullets. Sonny takes charge, but Michael puts it on his own shoulders to avenge his father's death, hatching a plan to go right after the head of the family that attacked Vito. After succeeding, he hides out in Sicily, discovering his family's roots and falling in love with a woman who is killed by one of his bodyguards. Meanwhile, Sonny is killed in a barrage of bullets. When Michael finally returns, he takes control of the organization, while his father acts as his aide. As he begins moving operations to Las Vegas, Vito dies in 1955. Michael takes full control of the Corleone family, leading straight into Part II.
Less than three years later, Coppola, Puzo and most of the cast got back together for Part II, which details the family's fall from grace. It is a much darker film, as Michael continues to bring the family down due to his desire for revenge. He tries to distance himself from his father's ways, but consistently proves that he is more like Vito than he wants to be. This point is driven even further by Puzo and Coppola's idea of juxtaposing it with the story of young Vito (Robert De Niro) and his life in Sicily and New York. The audience learns of Vito's actions that help build the intricate system we see in the first film. While they strengthen the family in the '20s, they lead to its downfall in the '50s.
The acting in the first two is as perfect as it gets. Marlon Brando's performance as Vito has eclipsed his many great roles, earning a well-deserved Oscar. Al Pacino is at his best as Michael, showing off just how great an actor he is. While his finest moment might be Part II as a whole, my personal favorite moment of his comes in the first film. The shot of Pacino listening to Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) just before he is set to assassinate the two is stunning. Watch Pacino's eye movements and the clenching of his teeth. It tells you everything going through his head, as he weighs the consequences of what he is about to do. Now, that's acting. Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Talia Shire and Robert Duvall also pull off brilliant performances.
In 1990, Paramount released The Godfather Part III, which has been hit hard by critics since its release. The film flashes forward to the '70s, where Michael has moved back to New York and has tried to establish the organization as a legitimate business, but old habits die hard. While many focus on Sofia Coppola's horrid performance as Mary (and believe me, it is horrible), the film does have its merit. Pacino is great, even if it does seem like he's over acting at some points. Andy Garcia, who plays Sonny's illegitimate son and is set up by Michael as his successor, got the supporting Oscar nomination he deserved. Still, the story itself is far too convoluted and impossible to understand without seeing the first two films. It does work as an epilogue, but anyone going into it expecting it to be as good as the other films will be very disappointed.
The Godfather films were restored in 2008 and the Blu-ray set was among the first major box sets released on the format. Paramount's collection includes all the great material from the 2001 DVD set, plus some 2008 featurettes that drive home the films' importance. The first two films are available separately, but the third is (thankfully) only available in the set.
Calling The Godfather and Part II influential films is like calling the sky blue. They are films that have changed the way gangster movies are made and the way stories can be told. While Part III may add nothing to the perfection of the first two, it is an interesting addition to the saga, that you can always ignore. The Godfather changed Hollywood, ringing the final death knell for the studio system and one that continues to ring today.
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
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