Monday, August 29, 2011

Seamless Sequels Without The Spark: The Godfather, Part II Leaves Me Less Impressed.

The Good: Decent acting, Great DVD bonus features
The Bad: Character conflicts/developments are actually minimal, Plot has largely been done before
The Basics: The Godfather, Part II might be the only sequel to win Best Picture after its predecessor won, but it is more a tired continuation of the original than something new.

The Godfather, Part II, for those who do not know, holds a distinction that no other movie holds at this point. It is the only movie that is a sequel to a film that won the Best Picture that also won the top Oscar prize. While there have been a few oddities as far as winners for Best Picture goes, there are few noteworthy films that have Best Picture trivia that have less going for them than The Godfather, Part II. While this is the only sequel to win following the first film in the series winning, there are far better sequel movies. Sequels that hold their own with the original or are even better than the first film in the series, like The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!) or The Dark Knight (reviewed here!) are not unheard of. But in the case of The Godfather, Part II, writers Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola (who also directed and produced the film) created an extension of the first film which is so closely mirrors the look and feel of the original that one feels more like they are watching some alternate take of the original.

With most movies, it is tough for me to nail down a precise moment when I opt not to recommend the film or I decide that it is not quite the work I thought it might have been at moments I was enjoying it. This is not the case with The Godfather, Part II. Instead, the moment Michael Corleone belts his wife, Kay, across the face, I decided that this was not a film I was going to recommend or one that I was particularly enjoying. I went into The Godfather, Part II blind, so I was actually quite excited to see Robert De Niro playing the younger version of Vito Corleone. But my pleasure at the inspired casting dissipated the longer the film went on and I was left feeling what many people feel when they watch a sequel; that the memory of something great has been brought down by prolonging it.

Now the godfather of the Corleone family, Michael Corleone is extorted by a U.S. Senator when he wants to expand his family's gambling interests in Las Vegas. As Michael confronts the legitimate business interests that have lined up prevent him and his family from taking more of an interest in gambling, he finds himself the target of an assassination attempt. Dealing with Hyman Roth, with whom his father did business despite distrusting, Michael soon begins to suspect that the hit on him came from within the family and it becomes quite clear that his brother Fredo is deeply involved in the conflicting interests in Las Vegas.

As Michael works to go legitimate, save the family business and retain the power his family has accrued over the past fifty years - with the aid of Tom Hagen, his consigliore - the film presents the life story of Vito Corleone, from his younger years in Italy (in the village of Corleone) to his emigration to the United States. Vito's story is told as he arrives in New York and slowly builds power in the community. Starting with helping out a woman who is being evicted for having a dog, Vito becomes more of a powerhouse by refusing to take guff and by doing what others will not to take power.

The mirroring stories are shown with the same sense of color and depth as the original film The Godfather (reviewed here!). This is, in part because Coppola and Puzo wrote and directed the original as well as this sequel. In many ways, The Godfather, Part II continues the story of The Godfather and the characters and their backstories are very much considered assumed knowledge by the producers. So, for example, elements like the climactic scene of the film mean absolutely nothing to people who have not seen the first film. Because the some of the characters in that final scene were only in the first film, the significance of it is only truly realized by those who know the story of all of the characters involved.

What the movie does well - which is why it took me so very long to decide that I did not actually like the film - is both continue the story of the Corleone family and Michael's consolidation of power and casting. When Robert De Niro appeared on screen as the younger Vito Corleone, I instantly saw the resemblance to Marlon Brando's iconic character from The Godfather. De Niro confirms what everyone knows now about him; he is a master actor with a great physical presence and his ability to mimic the mannerisms and even vocal tones of Brando. But the brilliant aspect of De Niro as the younger version of Vito is that he plausibly builds the character from a child into a young man who slowly becomes authoritative and reasons out how to get what he wants from life and those around him.

But beyond that, the movie is remarkably disappointing for those looking for a fresh cinematic experience. While the casting of De Niro is brilliant initially, the mirroring stories start with clear labels of the time and place. As the movie goes on, The Godfather, Part II drops the labels, but the color palate between both times is so remarkably similar that it takes a few moments for the viewer to realize when they are in the story being told. What doesn't help is that Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are frequently made to look like one another and this makes figuring out when one is in the story a bit more difficult.

But more than having real character development in the Michael Corleone plot, The Godfather, Part II simply rehashes much of what viewers have seen before. Michael is slow-burning, but lacks anything to set him apart from the other Corleones. At this point, he is simply a wannabe Vito. As well, he illustrates some of the traits - like smacking around his wife - that he has previously despised. As a result, it becomes quite easy to not care about large chunks of the film. Similarly, while seeing Vito's rise to power is interesting, because viewers who have seen The Godfather know how his story ends, the process is distracted from being truly engaging by the cutaways to Michael's story. As well, peripheral characters like Tom Hagen do not develop or evolve at all in this film.

On the two-disc DVD, The Godfather, Part II is presented with a commentary track and in widescreen format. There may be additional bonus features on newer DVD releases, but the two-disc version is fairly spartan. The film is also not cleaned up ideally for DVD and there were several points in the movie - not correlating to time periods - where the print looked grainier than others.

As far as those who love great drama, The Godfather, Part II is liable to disappoint. There are moments that the film is engaging and the Senate hearings into the Corleone family are different, but for the most part the movie feels like a familiar character study with some scenes we have not seen before. And, considering I'd already sat through three hours of this family doing similar things, this movie just seemed more redundant than incredible.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project online here! Please check it out!]

For other films with Robert De Niro, please check out:
The Untouchables
The Deer Hunter


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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