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Our reviews of The Godfather Collection (published October 9th, 2001), The Godfather: Part II (published July 4th, 2005), The Godfather: Part III (published July 4th, 2005), and The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration (Blu-Ray) (published September 29th, 2008) are also available.
"It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business." -Michael Corleone
Over 35 years after its release, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (based on Mario Puzo's bestselling novel) remains one of the most influential and legendary films in history. And its two varying quality sequels are, whatever their flaws, worthy of respect. Previously released in a 2001 deluxe box set, the full trilogy has been reissued with newly remastered video and audio.
Facts of the Case
The Godfather: Part II
The Godfather: Part III
The line of dialogue quoted above represents the heart of what these three films are about. It explains the constant self-rationalizations gangsters use in The Godfather and its sequels, when embarking on often bloody and cold-hearted behavior. The irony, of course, is that like most self-rationalizations, it's all a lie. In the world of The Godfather, business and personal concerns are so deeply intertwined that every action a character takes becomes magnified in importance. If everything the gangsters did was just business, people would accept lucrative payoffs and buyouts. After all, money is cheap and there's clearly plenty of it to go around. No, the Godfather trilogy is really about the price that is paid when greed and ego collide, when violence is the only way to solve disputes because of a misguided sense of violated honor. As the trilogy progresses, this self-delusion gradually costs Michael his honor, his family, and his soul.
The Godfather makes this explicitly clear, when Michael calmly explains to Kay (the WASPy outsider clearly meant to stand in for much of the audience) that his father is just like any other businessman who accumulates wealth and power. In the same film, however, when Michael eventually does become the new head of the family, it isn't because of money. He's had access to all of the family's wealth for years, and yet he's spent the first part of his life strenuously avoiding it and everything they stand for. Why turn now? Because he makes the fatal mistake of believing that the only way to avenge betrayal is with violence. After much bloodshed, even Vito—for all his ruthlessness—decides to settle for peace, but Michael instead becomes more unforgiving. The last scenes, in which Michael finalizes his control of the family and punishes his enemies, are some of the most chilling in cinematic history. It's not just because Michael betrays the good man he was at the beginning, but also because he even betrays his father's wishes for peaceful accommodation. At this point, Michael's cunning selfishness—which becomes even more pronounced in later films—is seen for the first time. It's this depiction of corrupted honor that has given The Godfather more cultural resonance than any other gangster film. The portrayal of a man who pays for his father's sins, by becoming an even more unrepentant sinner, fit in perfectly with the cynical times during which the film was made, and carries even more weight today.
By Part II, Michael's descent into evil becomes a bastardization of that same quote. For Michael, everything is business, including what is supposed to be personal—his family. Feeling himself surrounded, he treats everyone as a potential enemy. Michael becomes incapable of distinguishing his loved ones from his genuine enemies, such as the cunning Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg, Going in Style) and corrupt Senator Geary (G.D. Spradlin, Apocalypse Now), both of whom are looking for any weakness on his part. Having reached the pinnacle of success, Michael has become colder and crueler than ever, a version of his father without those moments of compassion and humanity. In the end, he defeats his enemies. But the last shot, showing Michael contemplating his kingdom, could in no way be considered triumphant. Contrast this with the story of how young Vito begins as a poor Italian immigrant and learns to use violence and guile to rise to power. This section of the film has always been controversial. Some critics felt it's too slow and distracts from the main story. Indeed, though it's rich in atmosphere and the performances uniformly excellent, the flashback lacks the drama of the main storyline. We already know that Vito is going to turn to crime and become a warlord, so there is no tension, especially when compared to wondering if Michael really is—slowly but irrevocably—turning into a monster. Still, these scenes are so well-done that it's hard to fault them much, and some viewers might find them a welcome respite from Michael's increasingly dark and claustrophobic scenes. Part II lacks the narrative drive of The Godfather, which is why it's not necessarily easier to buy the claim that it's better than the first. But it is a worthy successor and—in its best scenes—can cut even deeper and harder than the original did.
By the time of Part III, Michael is an old man grasping for a redemption that's hopelessly out of reach. Of course, it's out of reach because Michael has been living his lie far too long. This is why one of the film's most famous quotes—"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!"—is so ironic. Nobody is pulling him back in. He's putting himself back in, but is too old to recognize how ineffectual he has become. Coppola has said this is possibly the most personal of the three Godfather films for him, and it's easy to see the parallels between the aging Michael—who feels imprisoned by his past—and Coppola. It's also not an accident that one of the key themes is the rise of a new breed of selfish young thugs, represented by Vincent and his nemesis, Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna, The Rat Pack); gangsters who know little and care even less about the old Sicilian ways Don Vito tried to instill in Michael. By making Michael seem old and out of touch, Coppola made the film as personal as he could, but by the same token it's also easy to understand why Part III was received so poorly upon its release. However, when seen in context with the other two films, Part III makes more sense. Michael's deterioration becomes a logical result of his destructive past. The Vatican bank plot—which seemed initially talky and convoluted—can now be understood as a companion to Senator Geary's story in Part II about how the higher the Corleones climb in power, the more corruption they encounter. One aspect, unfortunately, is never going to age well. Sofia Coppola's performance isn't good and will never be good but, without the hype of the film's initial release, it's easier to overlook. Besides, most of the rest of the cast—especially Garcia—acquit themselves well enough to make up for it. Part III isn't the Godfather film many were hoping for, but that doesn't mean it isn't thoughtful and fascinating in its own right. It deserves to be reappraised, and this new box set should help to do just that.
So what exactly is The Coppola Restoration? For this edition, the first two films were painstakingly restored and remastered, correcting flaws in the negative and cleaning up what many felt were some rather substandard transfers on previous DVD releases. The differences are noticeable. Here is a screencap from the 2001 DVD of the first film:
And here is a screencap of the same scene from the new remastered print:
Clearly, the colors are more vivid, the image is brighter without sacrificing the film's original dark look, and much of the excessive grain and noise has been eliminated. The new 5.1 mixes, by contrast, don't really sound that much different. The explosions and gunshots are just as loud, and the dialogue is just as audible. The only noticeable distinction is that there is a bit more ambient noise on a few scenes, such as when Michael and Kay go Christmas shopping. Otherwise, the audio improvements are nowhere near as dramatic as the video, despite being top-notch 5.1 surround mixes. The third film was not restored, only remastered, as it was the most recent and therefore in the best shape. Also included on this set are the original mono mixes for the first two films.
All of the extras from the 2001 box set have been ported over. All three films have commentary by Coppola, and all are worth hearing. There are a few gaps here and there, but Coppola has plenty to say about how these films were made, the themes and ideas he drew upon, and how he views the audience response to each. These are a must for fans. On the first extras disc, the key feature is "A Look Inside" (73:24), a montage of interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and even screen tests from over the years. It's packed full of fascinating minutiae and also worth watching. There are several brief but informative featurettes addressing specific topics about the films. "On Location" (6:56) follows production designer Dean Tavoularis, as he visits some of the film's shooting locations. "Francis Coppola's Notebook" (10:12) examines how Coppola, when shooting the first film, ignored the screenplay and instead assembled an annotated notebook using pages from Puzo's original novel as his shooting guide. "Music of The Godfather" consists of audio and video interviews with composers Nino Rota and Coppola's father Carmine, who wrote and conducted the scores for all three films. "Puzo and Coppola on Screenwriting" (8:07) is a look at how Puzo wrote his novel and how he and Coppola adapted it for the screen. "Gordon Willis on Cinematography" (3:45) is an interview with Willis, who shot all three films and who discusses how he came up with their unusual look. "Behind the Scenes 1971" (8:58) is an old promotional film shot before The Godfather's release. It's a nice historical curio. There are 30 deleted scenes, almost all of which—except for the alternate opening to Part III—were seen when the first two films were edited together into a miniseries for TV. None are essential, but all are interesting and some clear up the fates of a few minor characters. The "Galleries" section contains clips from the Academy Awards, taken from when the first two films won several Oscars, including Best Picture for Part II. There are theatrical trailers for all three films, and an intro, recorded by Coppola in 1974, shown when The Godfather aired on network TV. Finally, the disc is rounded out by storyboards, photo galleries, text bios, a Corleone family event timeline, and a "Corleone Family Tree" giving biographical information on several important characters.
For this edition, a whole new disc of extras has been prepared, although most are only mildly interesting. "Emulsional Rescue: Revealing The Godfather" explains how the first two films were painstakingly restored in 2007 for this edition. It's extremely technical, so casual viewers might find it less enthralling than film enthusiasts. "Godfather World" (11:20) examines the trilogy's influence on pop culture, through interviews with filmmakers, TV writer/producers, and actors. "The Godfather on the Red Carpet" (4:04) consists of interviews about The Godfather with cast and crew at the premiere of Cloverfield. Unless you're a huge Cloverfield fan, feel free to skip it. "When the Shooting Stopped" (14:19) is a look at the critical and commercial reaction to the trilogy. It's actually the most informative of the extras on this disc. "The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn't" (29:46) retells many of the stories about the tumultuous conditions of making The Godfather. It rehashes much of what's in the earlier documentary and commentaries, although there are a few bits of new information here and there. Finally, there are four very short films: "The Godfather vs. The Godfather: Part II," "Clemenza," "Cannoli," and "Riffing on the Riffing" (7:14). These address some minor trivia related to the trilogy and are pretty dispensable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There has always been one constant criticism of the Godfather series that's hard to refute: The films do, to a considerable degree, glamorize and ennoble the Mafia. It's no accident that even an unrepentant real life thug like Sammy "The Bull" Gravano once remarked that every hoodlum he knew loved the films. The Godfather in particular paints the Corleones as the only recourse for justice, since the law is ineffectual or even corrupt. It's obvious, to intelligent viewers, that as the trilogy progresses the Corleones' violence corrodes the family and comes back to destroy them. But the films' depictions of the Corleones as frequently more honorable than any other characters can sometimes be problematic. This doesn't diminish the films' quality, but is a criticism viewers should keep in mind while watching.
Is The Coppola Restoration worth it? The above images tell the story. These films have never looked better, and probably can't. Yes, it's frustrating these restorations weren't done for the original 2001 DVD release, but when you see just how vivid and clear the first two films look, all will be forgiven. The Godfather films are an essential part of any classic film collection, and this new set is the best way to see them.
Unlike Sal Tessio, Paramount is let off the hook for old time's sake and for finally releasing these films with the care they deserve. The Godfather trilogy itself is 100% not guilty.
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