Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Godfather, Part III

Few people have much good to say about The Godfather Part III (1990). Despite generally positive reviews and several Oscar nominations, it became an instant joke, decried as the textbook useless Hollywood sequel. Francis Ford Coppola's last visit with the Corleones is badly misjudged, an overstuffed grab bag of ideas good, bad and inexplicable.

It's 1979, and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) finally prepares to legitimize the Corleone family. Having become a philanthropist and legitimate businessman, he looks to purchase the Vatican-based Immobiliarie corporation. Yet a coterie of Vatican officials, Italian politicians and bankers stand in his way. In America, he faces challenges from family associate Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) and hood Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna). Dragged back into crime, Michael enlists help from Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), Sonny's illegitimate son, to check these rivals - yet he's upset when Vincent romances his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola).

Godfather III was a paycheck job for Coppola, but one can't claim it's a lazy film. If anything it's overambitious: Part III's top-heavy with story. The Godfather had a compact narrative; Godfather II interweaves historical events with Michael's dissolution, then added an ingenious flashback structure. In contrast, Part III crams threads haphazardly together: Michael's atonement, his son (Franc D’Ambrosio) becoming a singer, Vincent's rise and romance with Mary, the Vatican Bank, war with Joey Zasa, Pope John Paul I's ascension. Part II has several storylines but never feels cluttered; Part III is a mess.
Coppola and Mario Puzo also add countless unnecessary characters. Don Altobello is another long-lost Corleone friend making trouble; Joey Zasa, a John Gotti caricature more annoying than deadly. George Hamilton replaces Robert Duvall as consigliere, a major miscalculation. The Vatican plot introduces a half-dozen characters who hover sinisterly around the periphery. Helmut Berger's slimy banker crops up at random intervals. Coppola makes a big deal introducing an Italian politician (Enzo Robutti) with Mob ties, then forgets him until the ending.

Too bad also that Coppola's direction is uncharacteristically excessive. Part III features a helicopter massacre more befitting Lethal Weapon, killing more people in five minutes than the first two films combined. Vincent murders Joey Zasa in a similarly over-the-top horseback chase. Even the inevitable climactic montage is botched, inexplicably dragging over ten minutes. Lacking the visceral impact of Part I's baptism scene, it doesn't even work as the slow-burn suspense piece Coppola intended. It's a routine action movie with Coppola grace notes.

Defenders suggest viewing Part III as a standalone film, but this is impossible: Coppola includes clips from the previous films, and brings even minor characters like Johnny Fontaine and Enzo the baker out of mothballs. Not since Jaws the Revenge's finale has a sequel so shamelessly invoked its predecessor. In fairness, Godfather III's redeeming qualities mostly come from familiar elements, namely Al Pacino.
Michael's evolution from naïve war hero to ruthless Mafioso cast the series as a tragedy. While Michael never wanted to be a criminal, the job fit his personality traits (ambition, single-mindedness, devotion to family) perfectly. Having lost his father, brothers and wife in previous films, he makes an earnest attempt at atonement, becoming a philanthropist and trying to reconnect with Kay (Diane Keaton). Godfather III's best scene has Michael confessing to a sympathetic Cardinal (Raf Valone), laying bare decades of guilt and self-loathing. Michael bemoans his ensnarement in crime, but it's a trap of his own making: even now he can't shake its consequences.

Al Pacino plays this beautifully. By this point, Pacino had become a throaty, screaming caricature but keeps his Scarface tendencies in check. He opts for restraint, puzzling over his own failures, his inability to escape the past, a man haunted even in success. Pacino sells this with angst suggested through pained delivery and brooding focus, making Michael a truly sympathetic monster.
Series veterans Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and Richard Bright do nice work, with Shire especially impressive as the Mob princess-turned-Sicilian dragon lady. Andy Garcia is all violent rage and focused charisma, a compelling counterpart to Michael. Eli Wallach is wasted, while Joe Mantegna rehearses for The Simpsons' Fat Tony. Sofia Coppola's performance is notoriously bad; she can't read lines to save her life. Raf Vallone's virtuous Cardinal steals every scene, a compelling character sidelined by an overstuffed script.

After 170 minutes of miscalculation, Godfather III ends perfectly: Michael experiencing the ultimate tragedy, then himself dying alone and forgotten. It's such a harrowing scene that it almost makes up for the mess preceding it. Almost, but not quite.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Southpaw

No subgenre's more predictable than the boxing movie, and Southpaw (2015) has no surprises. Antoine Fuqua's latest is an R-rated Rocky, revisiting old clichés with a violent edge. Only Jake Gyllenhaal's nervy performance saves it from the summer scrap heap.

Pro boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) has gone undefeated, his quick temper and resiliency serving him well in the ring. Not so much in real-life: a confrontation with rival Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) leads to a fight where his wife's (Rachel McAdams) accidentally killed. This sends Billy into a downward spiral of drugs and violence, culminating in a fight where he assaults a referee. Losing his daughter (Oona Laurence) to Child Services adds insult to injury. Helped by retired trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), Billy struggles to rebuild his career and life.

Fuqua and writer Kurt Sutter lace Southpaw with every imaginable cliché. We're treated to a fighter's fall from grace, soiling humiliation and tough redemption. He's aided by stock figures like a gruff trainer and understanding social worker (Naomie Harris), while struggling to connect with his daughter. Naturally, it all comes down to a climactic fight that goes all 12 rounds, presaged by Rocky-style training montage. Fuqua's direction is bracing and frenetic, matched by Eminem's pulsing, violent soundtrack (backed by James Horner). But the film's other dearth of originality makes it hard to engage.

Having slowly grown into a great actor, Jake Gyllenhaal gets another fine performance. Unexpectedly tough and physical, Gyllenhaal plays Ben as slow-witted, violent-tempered and extremely flawed. After Nightcrawler's creepy sociopath, here's a very damaged character who's likeable underneath the raw emotional wounds. Gyllenhaal speaks in low, almost damaged voice and muted gestures, alive only in the ring: he's a beaten man before the tragedies start piling up. It's a one-note character made compelling.

Forest Whitaker does well in the Burgess Meredith role, dispensing tough love and sage wisdom in equal measure. Naomie Harris and 50 Cent are cardboard cutouts, better at least than Miguel Gomez's preening monster. Oona Lawrence is precocious without testing the audience's patience. Rachel McAdams knocks her brief role out of the park; her twenty minutes' screentime casts a shadow over the entire film, a mission well-accomplished.

Is Southpaw worth seeing? Less demanding viewers can enjoy the kinetic fight action and the story's redemption arc, even if they've seen both before. Jake Gyllenhaal garners no complaints from me. Yet by offering nothing new, it's disappointingly disposable.

Friday, July 31, 2015

State of Siege

Costa-Gavras is an equal-opportunity antiauthoritarian. After Z (1969) attacked Greece's slide into reactionary dictatorship, he excoriated Communist repression in The Confession (1970). Then there's State of Siege (1972), fictionalizing the murder of CIA operative Dan Mitrione. It's a topical drama that hasn't dated, exposing hard truths about American foreign policy.

In Uruguay, the revolutionary Tupamaros kidnap and execute American citizen Phillip Santore (Yves Montand). He's lionized as an American hero, his death an atrocity; yet as a bureaucrat with USAID, how did he deserve such attention? Flashbacks depict Santore as America's imperial fixer, helping overthrow leftist governments in Brazil and the Dominican Republic before moving to Uruguay. Under his guidance, Uruguayan authorities unleash death squads who kidnap, torture and murder their exponents indiscriminately.

Costa-Gavras enlists Franco Solinas, screenwriter for The Battle of Algiers, which explains the focus on urban warfare and enhanced interrogation. (Siege also repeats Algiers' device of playing revolutionary communiques over scenes of repression.) The Tupamaros are chic hustlers in trench coats and ponchos, chirping that their robberies are "expropriation" and voting on their hostages' fate. Despite their amateurish methods (hijacking dozens of cars for a kidnapping), they're well-organized enough to threaten Uruguay's government.

State of Siege occasionally recaptures Z's grotesque humor: the blustering ministers, policemen smashing courtyard speakers blaring revolutionary ballads. But the anger overwhelms humor, rather than complementing it. We're treated to graphic torture sessions (electrodes to genitals, yikes!) and wholesale massacres of dissidents, capped by a student radical's assassination in broad daylight. By kidnapping Santore, the Tupamaros expose a rotten nexus of Uruguyan fascists and foreign manipulators.

But State of Siege emphasizes that Uruguay's oppression isn't homegrown. America uses aide organizations to smuggle military advisers into Latin America, dominating regional infrastructure while cataloguing natural resources. Government meetings are controlled by American diplomats and corporation heads. One scene depicts the School of the Americans, where dictators in training learn about torture. If Solinas leans towards Marxist dialectic, the message is sound. Under the guise of anticommunism, Cold War America encouraged violence and repression throughout the Third World.

Costa-Gavras provides striking direction, relishing long takes that show Montevideo reacting to police crackdown. From the opening, panning across bare mountains to the clogged cityscape, to the tense, intricate kidnappings, every set piece plays with clockwork efficiency. Pierre William-Glenn photographs exteriors with a striking bluish tinge that gives an air of unreality, contrasting with the city's grotesque modern style. Ironically, most of State of Siege was filmed in Chile, months before Pinochet's coup d'état.

Yves Montand he sputters anticommunist platitudes and implausible denials with weary resignation, suggesting an amoral professional rather than fanatical oppressor. It's a brilliant subversion of his previous Costa-Gavras roles: a man of integrity, playing for the wrong team. Renato Salvatori (Burn!) plays a credibly venal bureaucrat moonlighting as an assassin. German actor O.E. Hasse (Decision Before Dawn) plays an intrepid journalist who pokes holes in the official story.

Today, only the most naïve could find State of Siege shocking. In the '70s, Americans were just waking up to their country's Cold War moral compromises. The countries on their receiving end, of course, knew all along.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Terminator

James Cameron scored his breakthrough hit with The Terminator (1984). Besides putting Cameron and star Arnold Schwarzenegger on the map, it remains one of the '80s best action movies.

Future Earth is torn by conflict between machines and mankind. Two parties go back in time to 1980s Los Angeles. One is the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a cyborg assigned to murder Sarah Connor (Michael Biehn), mother of future resistance leader John Connor. The other is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a resistance fighter sent to protect Sarah. A running battle rages through Los Angeles and beyond as Sarah and Reese try to defeat the indestructible robot.

More than anything, The Terminator is a successful genre hybrid. Besides the obvious science fiction elements, it has the moody style of film noir and the decay of a '70s urban drama: garbage-littered, crime-ridden LA seems more dystopian than the skull-strewn future. It also resembles a high-caliber slash movie, from its implacable antagonist to the virtuous heroine outlasting her horny friends. Somehow, Cameron fits these disparate elements together into a near-seamless vehicle.

Cameron carefully builds suspense and atmosphere, then unleashes the expertly-staged action. Things escalate quickly from an early foot-and-car chase to the Terminator's assault on a police station. The latter scene seems transplanted from a horror film, less thrilling than horrifying: dozens of cops blast the Terminator with shotguns and assault weapons, without leaving a scratch. The Terminator's impregnability becomes terrifying: after being shot, crashed and immolated, he returns as a metal skeleton. Compare the sequels, where he comically knee-caps cops while tossing lame quips.

Terminator pits its cyborg against down-to-earth protagonists. Kyle's blandly heroic, with some traumatic flashbacks to spice his character. Sarah's a more relatable heroine, a clumsy waitress who unwittingly embodies the world's fate. The two cops (Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen) protecting Sarah take the Terminator threat seriously; they just can't imagine an indestructible robot. Cameron and Gael Ann Hurd draw these characters between commendably economical storytelling. Even the obligatory sex scene serves a plot purpose.
Made on a modest budget, Terminator impresses visually. Despite some clunky effects in the future scenes, the main effects work through minimalism. Arnold gets impressive make-up to show Terminator's degeneration and damage; a photo-real puppet's used for a few key close-ups, and stop-motion for his metallic incarnation. Terminator 2 appeared after a revolution in visual effects, with CGI that's still jaw-dropping. But the original's minimalism holds up well, bolstered by Cameron's direction and Brad Fiedel's iconic synth score.

Though Arnold Schwarzenegger made his star turn in Conan the Barbarian, this is his signature role. Schwarzenegger exudes ice-cold menace and physicality that dominates the screen. Nobody's ever called Arnold's a great actor, but it takes a special kind of star to sell an emotionless cyborg. While Schwarzenegger's self-effacement served later roles well, he's much better as a straightforward stone killer.

Michael Biehn is likeable but lacks the charisma to carry the picture. That chore falls to Linda Hamilton; her Sarah evolves credibly from hard-luck ingénue to tough, canny survivor. By the second film, she'll evolve into one of cinema's iconic action heroines. Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen provide Terminator's few glimmers of humor; Earl Boen's obnoxious therapist graced the first two sequels. Bill Paxton gets wasted in the opening scene.

With thirty years' hindsight, The Terminator's main virtue is its straightforwardness: little humor and just one portentous monologue, focusing instead on action, atmosphere and characters. Terminator 2 upped the action and effects, but also the goofiness and pretentious ponderings on Man's fate. Terminator 3 is a bad joke, while Terminator Salvation is barely a poor man's Transformers. I haven't seen the new excretion with ancient Arnie, but I'm dubious.

Monday, July 27, 2015

New article: On Herbert Selpin and Joachim Gottschalk

New Sound on Sight piece, a coda to our previous Nazi viewings. Here you'll read the stories of Joachim Gottschalk and Herbert Selpin, two German film artists murdered by the Nazis. There are worse things than bad reviews.

Some interesting movies to review in the coming days. Don't touch that dial.