Tagged Crime

Creature Feature-Crime Mix & Match: Larry Cohen’s Q THE WINGED SERPENT

Only Larry Cohen could give us a crime film mixed with a creature feature that sees a giant dragon-like creature terrorising The Chrysler Building.

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SURVEILLANCE Twists Through Labyrinthine Crime-Horror

Jennifer Lynch walks a different path than her director father, although it's one that is similarly weird. Morbid fascination is clearly a Lynch family trait.

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Paranoid Power Rules in ANIMAL KINGDOM

Based on a real life family of robbers in Australia, this film dives deep into crime and the paranoia associated with a family where even the bonds of blood can't guarantee safety.

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WE OWN THE NIGHT Examines a Family’s Violent Intersection at the Edge of Criminality & Law

This film never gets the credit it deserves. But it's one of the best post-2000 crime-thrillers out there, directed/written by the one and only James Gray.

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Animal Factory Reveals the Machinery Within the Beast of a Flawed Prison System

Animal Factory. 2000. Directed by Steve Buscemi. Screenplay by Edward Bunker & John Steppling; based on the novel by Bunker.
Starring Edward Furlong, Willem Dafoe, Danny Trejo, Mark Boone Junior, Seymour Cassel, Mickey Rourke, Tom Arnold, John Heard, Chris Bauer, Rockets Redglare, Jake La Botz, Mark Engelhardt, Edward Bunker, Victor Pagan, Ernest Harden Jr., Afemo Omilami, Michael Buscemi, J.C. Quinn, & Steven Randazzo. Animal Productions LLC/Arts Production Corporation/Franchise Pictures.
Rated R. 94 minutes.
Crime/Drama

★★★★1/2
POSTER
This is my favourite of Steve Buscemi’s work as director. His others, specifically Trees Lounge, are good. Animal Factory is great; an almost perfect work of prison cinema. Perhaps it’s because of the intense, raw subject matter. Edward Bunker wrote the screenplay based on his own novel, also based on his own life in the prison system. Most people know Bunker from his work on Straight Time, as well as his acting gig in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Before his acting and screenwriting career, Bunker dealt in everything from drugs, bank robbery, and extortion to various armed robberies over years. His insight into the world of prison life is what informs all of the emotional connection and intensity of Animal Factory. After Bunker started earning money from the movies he realised that his criminal life had been precipitated by bad circumstances, by the failure to make honest money, and other such things, so he was able to leave a life of crime behind.
In that same vein of circumstances we find ourselves in San Quentin, as Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) is sentenced for a minor bit of drug possession and intent to sell. After arriving at the big house he eventually meets an older, more experienced and hardened convict, Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), who takes the boy under his wing. They develop a genuine friendship. Yet Decker is forced to fight against the waves of injustice, the threats to his physical safety and to his manhood, all the while questioning if anybody is really his friend after all. Most interesting is the way Bunker’s screenplay allows Buscemi to look at a genuine snapshot of what it’s like to actually live behind bars. So many prison movies and television shows augment the reality, which is enjoyable. What we really want to see is something that dissects the prison system, a film and a story that gets under the skin of those who often look at American jails as “just fine” or whatever other nonsense they sell themselves to sleep at night. Animal Factory is a searing hot prison movie, one of my favourite in the genre. The performances and the story are what makes this so worth it. Right until the end you’ll find the characters are what root you most in the heaviness of the life these men lead.
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The title of the film plays directly into its thematic intentions. Ron Decker goes into prison a young, inexperienced man that got a bit too deep in the world of dealing marijuana. A guy who was likely never violent in his life. However, behind bars the other world into which he falls head first necessitates a violent attitude. Almost becoming victim of a brutal rape (several times), getting slashed with a razor, all these sorts of events start to wear down the morality of the young boy that first went through the prison gates. Bunker’s novel and subsequent screenplay examine how people become a product of the system, how young men wind up in a place where the waste of society gets tossed and is allowed to infect them. Yes, people deserve to pay for their crimes. But a guy like Decker, in for dealing weed, or someone who stole a car or robbed a liquor store without hurting anybody, does not belong in a place where lifers can (and will) abuse, rape, and possibly kill them. It isn’t right. In turn, those same semi-innocent young people that come in contact with a life of crime then go on to transform into animals in their own right. By the time Ron will make his way out of prison he’ll be stained, the imprint of criminality branded upon his brain and soul and on his every thought, every action, every move from there on in. These are the sad, hard realities of prison: not everyone in there actually deserves to be, nor do they need to be subjected to the harshness of serving time alongside men doing a life sentence, never to see the light of day again. Those dangerous men influence so much and so many others outside of themselves – often, their victims end up victimising others, and the criminal cycle goes on rambling.
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How can anybody fault this movie for its acting? So many excellently on the nose performances. Let’s start with the ever wonderful Mickey Rourke, a man who no matter how bad will always charm me. Luckily, he puts in plenty of solid work here, as he does in many other roles. As Jan the Actress, a gentle transvestite soul locked in the clink, Rourke does a great job in the short time the character appears onscreen. A memorable performance out of a group of them. Seymour Cassel, a veritable classic of independent American cinema, is a proper lieutenant-type, one who is strict but has a slightly relaxed relationship with a guy like Earl Copen. Another guy who makes his character memorable enough within a short period of time. Then there’s the awesome supporting roles out of guys like Mark Boone Junior and Danny Trejo, the latter of whom serves as co-producer and has actual experience in the American prison system (in some of the hardest prisons like San Quentin). MBJ is always a nice addition, a fun character actor whose presence is welcomed amongst the already interesting cast of characters. Trejo helps give the film an authenticity, as he’s got the walk, the look, the insight to make his character Vito so real in a casual way.
Furlong does well as Ron. It’s mostly Dafoe who proves his worth as the foundation of the film. His performance contains some of the hallmarks of the typical prison veteran. Many times he’s completely unexpected, an absolute enigma. But it’s in that we discover Earl is just like Ron, probably why he took on the kid so quickly, so easily; and particularly once we realise he’s not playing Ron and doesn’t plan on raping him or anything of the sort. Earl Copen is a man that ended up in the system, became a product of it, then perpetuated his stamped role in society to the bitter end. Dafoe is an interesting actor I’ve always loved. Here, he proves himself every bit deserving of consideration for one of the greats in his generation.
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I love this film. Back in 2001 I was almost at the end of high school – I remember picking Animal Factory off a shelf in my local Allan’s Video rental store. The first watch I was sold. Awhile later I found the VHS being sold off; evidently not a popular item there. So I snatched that bad boy up. This is one of the VHS tapes I nearly wore into dust, as I’d watched it too many times to count. Because as far as prison films go, this is one of the grand daddies of them all. Dafoe and Furlong, as well as a cast of other fine actors, make the characters believable, instead of a bunch of literal animals like we so often see in other similar stories. These are genuine human beings with aspirations and dreams, even if they’re skewed or altered by the perversity of the American penal system warping the concept of any American Dream they might see as possible. Nevertheless, Buscemi and Bunker together show off a side of prison life we’re not always privy to in fiction. By doing so, certain issues about the justice system, the various injustices which it inflicts on those who enter it, come to light and are magnified for us to watch – in entertainment, in horror, in a shock that actually isn’t all so shocking because of how desensitised society is nowadays (the fact it isn’t might also be shocking in its own right). You can’t ask more of a film concerning prison than for it to delve into the social implications of the system itself. Far as I’m concerned, Animal Factory is a perfect indictment of how we treat the lives of men deemed guilty and shipped to prison where they’re packed in like sardines and forgotten about until their next court date.

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Carnage Park: A Scary Slice of 1970s Americana

Carnage Park. 2016. Directed & Written by Mickey Keating.
Starring Ashley Bell, Pat Healy, James Landry Hébert, Michael Villar, Bob Bancroft, Larry Fessenden, Andy Greene, Alan Ruck, Graham Skipper, & Darby Stanchfield. Diablo Entertainment.
Unrated. 90 minutes.
Action/Crime/Horror/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER
Ever since seeing Ritual, I’ve been hooked on Mickey Keating. His directing and writing are a sight for sore eyes in the world of indie cinema. These days there are lots of talented people coming out of the independent scene. But Keating has an old school sensibility, a practical effects-driven manner of taking on horror specifically. The way he directs has a wonderfully rock n’ roll-style feel. The atmosphere of his movies is always wildly palpable, no matter what the ultimate main genre. Most recently Keating wowed me with Darling; a trip down the rabbit hole of guilt, murder, shame, and more.
Carnage Park does not come with anything overly original. It’s the way in which Keating gives the material over to us that’s exciting. Best of all, like Darling and its Roman Polanski vibes, this movie – via Keating admittedly – is fashioned after the Sam Peckinpah, machismo-filled 1970s films about dangerous men running wild on the fringe with guns and knives and big steel balls. At the same time, the movie switches genres, transforming from action-thriller into something more horror oriented as the various characters collide out in the eponymous park.
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The opening sequence, while deranged in its own right even in comparison to what comes later, is a lot of fun. It has an energy that kicks the story off right. We get a taste of Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy) right off the bat, then it switches into us spending time with Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hébert), his soon to be dispatched buddy Lenny, and the kidnapped Vivian (Ashley Bell) in the trunk of Joe’s car. Keating keeps the pacing solid, moving fast. Everything gets really interesting then once the different characters come together, and the movie shifts gears.
Isolation is the key here. Under the cinematography of Mac Fisken the desert looks like a gaping, open wound, a vast and dry sore in the earth. Watching Vivian try to make her way through the large lot of privately owned land is akin to somebody wandering a giant hedge maze, but instead of any hedges it’s all sand, shrubs, rundown billboards, so on. The isolated hills in between which Vivian finds herself lost are so huge and far reaching that it’s impressive the way Fisken and Keating create a claustrophobic sense of that isolation. Like The Thing or any similarly remote set script, Carnage Park takes us out into the open while simultaneously bringing us deeper into our own minds, into the head of Vivian who’s faced with outrunning a maniac in the vast desert.
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What I love is that this story Keating draws out, the characters and their respective plots, is all a disturbing little slice of Americana from the late ’70s. The unstable Army veteran at the centre of it all, Wyatt, has so clearly been affected negatively by the war. Meanwhile, his brother is the local sheriff, whose ideas about his brother seem pretty clear despite what he tells himself, and especially despite anything he admits to knowing. Within these two characters there’s wrapped a whole bunch of socioeconomic significance, as we consider everything from the dishonesty of those charged with serving and protecting, to the right of land owners in America (in certain states) to shoot anyone that comes onto their property, to the concept of all those men coming back from Vietnam, devastated emotionally and mentally, not receiving any proper care other than some cash and a pat on the back. Instead of a simple setup of a madman with no backstory there’s the fact Wyatt has been psychologically traumatised in the war, which sort of ups the ante on the usual scenario. Watching the various, hideous bits of American life unfold out across the sprawling hills on Wyatt’s property is a tense nightmare that’s hard to predict re: where it may head next.
The performances really help sell the whole thing. Bell does a nice enough job with her character, especially considering all the back and forth moments we see, going from being Scorpion Joe’s hostage to being at the fingertips of a demented ex-soldier, to the shocking scene where she stabs the wrong person than who she intended. She does well showing us the breakdown this woman experiences while going through the most trying day of her life. But best of all, Pat Healy – the god damn man, as far as indie movies are concerned. He’s been in lots of stuff, though never better than when working on something daring, something small, things like Cheap Thrills and The Innkeepers, among more. As Wyatt, we see him become a truly scary individual. At first you almost don’t know if he’s going to be some kind of anti-hero, the sort we’d expect out of a neo-noir-Western hybrid like this becomes now and then. Then when it’s becoming clear that Wyatt is the big evil in the situation there’s a feeling you start to get each time his eerie, smiling face comes into the frame that tells you: this guy is bad, bad, bad news. This is a great role, one that might end up as a load of generic garbage were it left to a less talented actor. Rather, Healy gives us lots to enjoy, as he touches all corners of the spectrum, creeping about, charming a little, and above all else terrifying his victims.
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I do prefer other Keating films about this one. However, Carnage Park is a good time; through and through. The performances are one thing. The adrenaline pumping pace is what kept me glued. I can sit through all sorts of films, but a great effort usually has me consistently stuck to each scene, wondering where exactly things are about to move. Not once did I know for sure where the plot might go, or which characters would go on to survive. The ending didn’t totally eclipse me in any way. Still, it is a fantastic finish to a nicely executed bit of indie cinema. Whereas other filmmakers could have gone in vastly different directions throughout, Keating sticks to his old school style, his simple though beautiful way of directing. This way nothing strays too deep into familiar territory so as to bore the viewer. Ultimately, the cat-and-mouse thriller that frames the entire film is jammed full with suspense and the tension you’ll feel is like a chokehold. Keating takes you into the darkness fully, never once really letting you go. Take the ride, even more so if you dig his other directorial efforts. This one is yet another top notch instance of his talents.

Green Room: The Fallacy of White Nationalist Unity in Violent Awe

Green Room. 2016. Directed & Written by Jeremy Saulnier.
Starring Anton Yelchin, Patrick Stewart, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner, David W. Thompson, Mark Webber, Macon Blair, Eric Edelstein, Michael Draper, Andy Copeland, Brent Werzner, Lj Klink, Kasey Brown, Taylor Tunes, & Imogen Poots.
Film Science/Broad Green Pictures.
Rated 14A. 95 minutes.
Crime/Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
POSTER Jeremy Saulnier blew the majority of us away wildly with his downhome revenge flick Blue Ruin, a story that takes revenge out of the hands of men with particular sets of skills and an almost invincible superheroness before placing it in the hands of regular people, those who aren’t skilled or experienced with weapons, murder, or anything of the like. The whole thing was an exercise in spectacular acting, directing, and writing, all combining to make Saulnier’s talent undeniable.
Going with another contained, small plot, Saulnier now gives us Green Room – the story of a punk band named The Ain’t Rights, consisting of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Reece (Joe Cole), Sam (Alia Shawkat), and Tiger (Callum Turner), who end up trapped in a backwoods music venue after one of them witnesses a horrific killing and at the mercy of a gang of neo-Nazis led by the quietly explosive Darcy (Patrick Stewart). Similar to his previous directorial effort, Saulnier shows us a slice of real life. For all its wild elements, Green Room feels honest. It gives us the world of a punk band and juxtaposes their freedom/fun loving lifestyle with that of some real, serious, scary dudes whose lifestyle is anything but loving, in any way.
But perhaps my favourite element? While the friends in the band, as well as club regular Amber (Imogen Poots), all band together in unity, the supposedly strong group of white nationalists does the opposite and starts crumbling within. Amongst all the suspense and tension, in between the bloody bits of horror and the deepening criminal aspects of the screenplay, there’s a great comment on the nature of these neo-Nazi groups, how they’re only bound together by a collective feeling of being lost and that there’s nothing really keeping them glued. And that their ideology, for some, is a thin veil. Once the blood starts flowing, for some of these guys, the less committed to their ’cause’, all bets are off.
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Something I love is that Saulnier is able to capture the life of the band so well. From the gig posters to the slumming on the road to the sticky situations they find themselves in. Even the little jokes amongst the band and their respective personalities all make these characters feel genuine. I’ve played in bands since I was about 13 years old. Never went on a tour, though we did travel a few times throughout the years with a couple of the different ones I was in, both singing and playing guitar, sometimes only one or the other. And the feel of this band is super honest. They remind me of myself, of people I knew while playing, of promoters and fellow musicians and the people out of the community. So when they first step into the world of the neo-Nazi group and their club it’s more than just culture shock, you feel a palpable air of danger. You feel afraid for these people. More than that they have the balls to play a song by the Dead Kennedys with a chorus that goes something like this: “Nazi punks, nazi punks, nazi punks fuck off!” So further than feeling any fear, you also get the idea that these are immature young people colliding with a world of which they have no real clue. Much like many of us would say these white nationalist types are a bunch of idiots, likely inbred and whatever else, this band doesn’t respect the fact these are serious, dangerous people. The writing of the characters and the setup of the burgeoning intensity of what they’re about to experience is what makes the film so strong immediately. Within twenty minutes you’re not simply interested in the characters, their band, as well as the creepy neo-Nazis circling around them, you also land right in the boiling pot and sitting in the hot seat with our reluctant protagonists.
A little bit I loved – when the band and Amber decide to try fighting their way out, before they do everyone recounts their truthful Desert Island Band: Reece says Prince, Sam says Simon & Garfunkel, Tiger sticks with The Misfits (good lad), Pat still can’t answer, and Amber joins in with Madonna and Slayer. Awesome moment that was so well placed, so well written. An amazing, brief scene.
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All the way through I enjoyed the cinematography, courtesy of Sean Porter. In the early scenes there are some moments of beautiful Malick-like nature shots, particularly when the band is pushing their van out of the field into which it ploughed the night before. But all the interior stuff is great, too. When we move into the various locations the band moves through on their journey there’s a dark and edgy quality that makes you feel as if you’re gradually being sucked into oblivion. Inside the white nationalist punk club there’s a fog-like, hazy atmosphere that you can almost smell and touch. It makes you feel as if you’ve walked right into hell. For instance, as The Ain’t Rights play away, rocking out, there’s a horde of white supremacists moshing, their symbols and insignia waving around like banners in the crowd, and it’s a simultaneously gorgeous and eerie sight to those few moments.
And then there’s the violence. Oh boy. I’ve seen some nasty, gory shit in my time; 4,200 films deep, about 1/3 of those horror. But Green Room‘s brand of violent, criminal horror is exciting because there are two elements at play: the band (though punks they represent pacifists who are only inclined to defend themselves against violence) v. the white supremacists (these guys use violence for fun and to subdue those they feel are threats or obviously are different than them). So what I find great is that the band, these mostly peaceful people who just want to rage onstage with their music, is put in a position where they’re forced to go a violent route in order to save themselves, and literally to save their lives. Instead of some kind of revenge-style thriller where we see a bunch of people do violence against neo-Nazis, Saulnier allows us to indulge in the revenge movie tropes without having this sort of preachy element where he’s saying “Look how these white people are better than the hateful ones” and effectively allows us to indulge in that scenario without pandering too much to the saviour in us moviegoers. Furthermore, it’s funny I’ve seen a review state that while the movie has good backwoods horror elements that are actually well executed, there’s a lack of human element within the screenplay. I found exactly the opposite. Quickly, we almost feel like the 5th member of The Ain’t Rights, and once that first act of violence (we actually only see the aftermath of that one) comes down there’s a terrible sense of watching people we care for already in a terrifying situation.
Some bloody highlights: Pat gets his arm torn apart while trying to hold the door closed in the greem room, looking like an actual wound from an ER photo; the arm break on Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) looks so nastily real before Amber opens him up like a deer, also awfully realistic. Later when the band starts escaping and they’re each subjected to different methods of violence, there are a number of gritty scenes that come down and shock you; not because of the blood or gore, but rather these moments are cloaked in darkness, the ugliness concealed just beneath. In their distinct ways every scene containing bloody action comes off with an awe all its own.
My favourite? When Daniel (Mark Webber) is behind the bar, that entire sequence is absolute insanity – that’s all I’ll say, for those who’ve not yet seen the film.
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Green Room is a fantastic dose of crime-thriller mixed with backwoods horror, on top of that using minimal locations – mainly the punk club – to bring maximum suspense and tension to the forefront. There’s a great screenplay, first and foremost, which Saulnier crafts wonderfully. Though the band is the focus of everything, the disintegration of the white supremacists is key to the plot. Because, as I said in the intro, The Ain’t Rights and Amber, and Daniel later, come together as one, a unified whole; without any extremist ideology backing them, but only the desire to survive against extremists. On the opposite side are the white nationalists, led by Darcy, who are dishonest with one another, hiding secrets and true intention, and eventually they come to a point where their own ranks disintegrate because of their lack of unity. So, yes, this is an enjoyable piece of nasty horror that plays well in the world of genre film, but it also has things to say, it isn’t all about extreme violence and the ugly world of neo-Nazis.
Under everything, Green Room is a taut and exciting thriller that feels different than most of the other similar films out there. Saulnier proves once again he’s able to take something familiar, turn it into his own vision, and keep us interested in the underbelly of American culture – that one where bloodshed, violence, murder plays out in forgotten places, where human life is disposable, where the will to survive is only trumped by the gruesome passion to kill. Moreover, Saulnier exposes the brotherhood of white supremacy, not by making fun or mocking. He opens up the idea of white nationalism and its idea of brotherhood and unity by showing how easily it falls apart under pressure; where you’re only as good as your last murder, otherwise you’re only taking up space. Up against a group of punk rockers inexperienced in the ways of violence, these neo-Nazis discover music keeps people together far better than any right-wing (or ultra-left) ideology ever could. At the same time, those same rockers ultimately must become just like those violent extremists in order to make it out alive.

The Godfather: Part II Redefines the American Classic

The Godfather: Part II. 1974. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Screenplay by Coppola & Mario Puzo.
Starring Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo, G.D. Spradlin, Richard Bright, Gastone Moschin, Tom Rosqui, Bruno Kirby, Frank Sivero, Francesca De Sapio, Morgana King, Marianna Hill, Dominic Chianese, Joe Spinell, James Caan, Abe Vigoda, Danny Aiello, & Harry Dean Stanton. Coppola Company/Paramount Pictures.
Rated 14A. 202 minutes.
Crime/Drama

★★★★★
POSTER
The first Godfather film was being received so positively even before it hit theatre that the studio greenlit a sequel quickly. This surely gave Francis Ford Coppola not only the money and freedom to keep doing what he saw fit with the story, but it likely also instilled him with some degree of confidence. Rightfully so. As I’ve said in my other review, the first movie is an American classic, a masterpiece of crime cinema and a giant of artistic, studio filmmaking crossed into one package. This sequel only builds upon all that momentum and all that dark beauty. The screenplay that Coppola and Mario Puzo manage to twist around through two separate time periods – the life of a younger adult Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) after he left Sicily as a boy and came to America, one of the huddled masses that entered through Ellis Island; then there’s the personal and professional troubles of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) having now taken his place as Boss of the Corleone crime family. Again, it’s a powerhouse of cinematic technique and writing. On top there’s the delicious cherry of a crackerjack performance out of Pacino and De Niro, all in the same damn film. How can it get any better?
The answer is, it can’t. Not really. Because there are only so many Godfather: Part IIs that are going to happen. There are other perfect movies out there (I consider this perfect, by the way). This one takes the cake. I have other favourites, but this is a genuine work of art that will last in the collective consciousness of film lovers worldwide, until there’s no such thing as consciousness any longer. Coppola redefined the classic film he’d put out a couple years earlier by making it even better through the sequel. I can’t think of many movies that are so well written and executed on all ends. So many beautiful shots, perfect scenes, the capable eye and blocking of Coppola… it’s hard to figure out what’s most enjoyable.
One thing’s for sure: this is the greatest sequel of all time, one of the greatest films period.
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Let’s talk of oranges again, shall we?
When Michael meets with Johnny Ola (the fantastic Dominic Chianese), the latter actually brings an orange. From Miami, Ola says. An ominous gift in the world of Coppola’s notorious crime family and their shady business. This should be our first inkling that something’s wrong with Ola, or that something is eventually going to go wrong involving him. Later, this is all confirmed when the plot plays out down in Havana. Ola also wears plenty orange, if that’s not enough to convince you of a foreboding death.
Another instance of the infamous orange omens comes in the younger days of Vito. When he drops the talk of making Fanucci an offer, one he can’t refuse, there’s a stand with oranges on it behind him. After Vito gives Fanucci money, the greasy extortionist grabs himself an orange before getting popped with a couple bullets; perhaps the strongest one of the entire series.
Apart from oranges there are so many iconic scenes and shots that it’s hard to talk about even half of them. Certain moments stand out, though. Near the end when Michael tells Fredo – “You broke my heart” – and gives him the kiss of death, I love how it’s all set against this New Year’s Eve party, such a happy, joyous celebration, and then in the midst is this really deadly confrontation between brothers. Subtle, quiet, yet deadly. Consequently the shot later when Fredo is taken out for a boat ride is a serene and beautiful moment, if not a dark one. Most of the amazing parts during The Godfather: Part II are not the action, the guns, they are the more subdued and gentle shots. That being said, one of my absolute favourites is the sequence where Vito takes care of Fanucci; everything from how it looks and sounds and feels, to the manner in which Vito carries out the deed, wrapping his gun, unscrewing the light bulb, and the gruesome shooting of Fanucci. There’s something for everyone, in the sense there’s drama, great looking cinematography, violence. All turned into a masterpiece by the hand of Coppola.
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Once again there’s an immersion in the Italian-American Mafia lifestyle. We have this ridiculously massive celebration for Michael’s little boy and his First Holy Communion. Yet it’s tradition. The Italians are proud of their heritage. Sure, it’s funded by mob money, but they’re celebrating religion, faith, all that. And I think the greatest part about those opening scenes with Michael, the big party, is how they’re all juxtaposed with meeting Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) and his disrespect for the Corleone family, as well as Italian-Americans as a whole. Seeing such a beautiful, if not outrageous, celebration of culture and heritage followed by a dose of white American bigotry, it’s almost shocking at first. However, for all the mafioso stuff, the Corleones and many of their associates are atypical gangsters. Particularly compared to lots (/most) of the gangsters that came before these two movies. This is why getting a look at Vito in his early years, to the early days of his own family burgeoning in New York City right near the tail-end of WWI in 1917, is a super important aspect to the screenplay. This movie wouldn’t be near as powerful were it a simple sequel. Instead, Coppola mixes a prequel element into his story, which allows us to see the simple family man Vito was at the start. Before any of the gangster lifestyle and the illegal business.
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Effectively, Coppola and Puzo give us a window into why these men do what they do. In the first film it was more a broad look at these people as more than mafia stereotypes. Here, we explore exactly how these men start out on the path with the Black Hand. Vito’s tale is a microcosm of the Italian-American Mafia experience. In that Vito only became what he was due to the fact he and many others around the neighbourhood were being extorted by Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin in a properly despicable performance you can’t forget). And in the Italian-American community at the time, there wasn’t much reliance on the police, so where could a person turn in a city where they were all but forgotten? Vito simply stepped up and took a position that afforded him respect, power, and above all a means to provide for his family AND his community. You will likely never agree with the mafia life, nor do I. Although it’s easy to understand, especially in the early 20th century when so many Italian-Americans were being mistreated, forgotten, left out (purposely along with other cultures), and all around discriminated against.Pic2Vito is so wonderfully written. De Niro is a large part of why the character works on screen. But it’s undeniable the writing makes him a human being, alive off the page. One worth of empathy and the sympathy of others. Just the power of that scene where he’s being let go, reluctantly, at his job is enough to create the depth of his character. Most importantly, we see how Vito became a loved leader. Never mind fear. Vito has the power of faith in him as a leader, something others see and of which they take notice. His kind heart is evident from the start; his boss tries to give him some food as a token of appreciation after having to let him go, Vito won’t even take it. He has a sense of pride along with the warmth, a willingness to never let anybody have to take care of him. His principled way of living is clear so fast. This is a brilliant component to the performance of De Niro, he at once gives his own performance while calling us back (or forward depending on how you see it) to Marlon Brando and his older Vito Corleone. Certain aspects of Vito’s personality ring loudly through De Niro, ones that we can likewise pick out from the first film and Brando’s performance. Not only the voice. There’s the way Vito works from his heart and from his mind and always on principle, which De Niro shows us at the root, from where it originated.
On the opposite side there’s Michael. He is a completely different type of man, and therein lies the ultimate distinction between Vito and his son – Michael can never be Vito. He never had to haul himself up with absolutely nothing. The generation of men that came over to Ellis Island from the old country in Sicily were faced with building their entire life up. Vito chose the life of the gangster because, in the end, it was really one of the only things available to him. Otherwise, he might have been in service to some greasy, corrupt guy like Fanucci. Instead he decided to turn himself into a man completely on the other end of the spectrum, a tough and powerful and dangerous man, though one with a code of honour and a sense of respect for others around him (so long as the respect is returned). Michael simply falls into the troubled game of the American Mafia, murdering his way to the top, then he questions why danger has come to his door, constantly, threatening both him and his family. Someone like Vito didn’t deserve any of what came to him. He only did it for his family. Michael does all this for his family, but unlike his father none of it is by necessity. It isn’t until The Godfather: Part III does Michael realize the error of his ways and tries to repent. On the one hand, Vito never had to repent because he never did anything that you can truly call underhanded. Illegal business doesn’t mean immoral. On the other, his son Michael has done immoral, terrible things. Just consider what he does to Fredo (John Cazale). Despite all the dumb Corleone brother does and lets happen to the family because of his careless actions, he’s still Michael’s brother. And for him to do that to Fredo speaks to his character. You’d never see Vito do that. He’d maybe send him away, somewhere far nobody would ever find him, something other than death. Michael proves the difference between himself and his father with deafening finality via this act.
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I could say plenty more about this classic. This is one perfect piece of cinema. It’s fine if you don’t agree. On a technical level, I don’t see how you can’t call this a work of art, of mammoth proportions. If ever epic were a label suited for a film, The Godfather: Part II deserves it, every step of the way. Pacino and De Niro go back, forth with their acting talent, as the screenplay moves us from focus on a young Vito Corleone working his way into the business because of necessity, to his son Michael Corleone at that age later having essentially fallen into the grasp of the crime family business and becoming a totally different, more brutal person than Vito ever was, even at his worst. I’m always amazed at the power of this movie each time I see it. Never changes. Coppola is a master. He could make 100 shit films, and I’d still call him that for this film alone, let alone the trilogy as a whole. He deserves the label for making a work of art out of the crime genre, allowing a different perspective on Italian-American mobsters other than what the mainstream media offered up to that point. Not meant to change any perceptions, this sequel expands upon a look at the Corleone family, specifically Michael, and how absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The Godfather: A Definitive American Classic

The Godfather. 1972. Directed & Written by Francis Ford Coppola; based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name.
Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, & Rudy Bond. Paramount Pictures/Alfran Productions.
Rated 14A. 175 minutes.
Crime/Drama

★★★★★
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The Godfather is one of the rare films I believe is better than its source material. I read Mario Puzo’s novel a long time ago when I was about eleven or twelve years old, one weekend as I was in the woods hunting and fishing with my grandfather and uncles. It captivated me every waking moment when I wasn’t busy hauling gear or casting a line. The violence and sexuality and the raw language of Puzo struck me. Something I never forgot, as a reader and as a young man who eventually went on to become a published author himself. Part of reading that novel always stayed in my mind. Then when I’d finally seen the movie adaptation not long after it made me understand there was a way for film to improve upon its origins. Francis Ford Coppola and his ambition made this into a worthwhile project. As is evident, he’s a director that never backs down. Many of his choices throughout the production weren’t exactly what the studio and producers imagined, everything from the dark, shady look of the cinematography to the casting of Al Pacino. Luckily, Coppola’s iron will seems to eternally capable of winning out, and we’re left with his choices. Undeniably the best ones possible. Not every last classic of American cinema is as classic as the critics and audiences who love it want us to believe. That being said, certain classics are considered exactly that for a reason.
The Godfather nails every last bit what it aims to do. There’s not a single moment of bad acting, nor is there ever a misstep in the way its shot. If this were made like every other picture at the time, the end product wouldn’t be near as fascinating. Rather for a movie that’s considered classic, as if to signify it’s part of a type or a set of movies from that era that are alike in some way, this one is very much different from other films from the 1970s. Coppola dared to take on a dangerous story, one that accentuated the underworld of Italian-American crime while taking a legitimate look at the real people caught up in its Black Hand. Further than that he didn’t settle for making a blockbuster that appealed to the specific demographics Paramount Pictures had in mind. He came out with something more visually beautiful and intricate than an average Hollywood picture. This let the whole film industry and its varied audiences know that even the major studio productions can keep their artistic heart without being an independent project. Forever, I’ll consider Coppola – for this and Apocalypse Now particularly – a reason for why directors can still be artists within a studio system.
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Let’s talk about oranges! We’ve all heard about this one, so take a deeper look.
First scene is between Tom Hagen and Jack Woltz, a bowl of them sits at the table. This is the first sinister event where the oranges give us a foreboding look at what may soon come. Of course, we know what ends up in Woltz’s bed not too long after. A gruesome scene. This sets up the whole element of oranges signifying something bad about to happen, which extends through the film, as well as its sequels. One of those nice little pieces of symbolism that makes this movie feel more akin to great literature than great movies, though it’s clearly one of the latter above anything else.
Second scene comes just prior to Don Corleone being gunned down in the street. He goes to buy some fruit, oranges to start, and this ominously lets us know there’s about to be a tragedy.
I love that Coppola decided to use this little system because it gives the whole thing greater depth, along with the good writing in general and the nicely fleshed out characters. In every way, the director makes sure this becomes more than a big studio picture with dollars in its eyes. Best part is that the orange symbolism goes on throughout the trilogy, not only a part of this first film.
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The cinematography from director of photography Gordon Willis is all around fantastic. As is the editing. These aspects collide in such a perfectly classical way. Francis Ford Coppola exerts such great, effective control as director, which is in part due to him taking on the screenwriting duties, as well. The look of the scene where Don Corleone is gunned down has to be one of the best in the entire trilogy. Without a doubt. The darkness almost seems to encroach the sky, as the deadly scene commences. Then the overhead shot of Vito being shot, falling on the car, the guns going off, it’s so effortlessly gorgeous and well blocked that you know how everything is laid out came about meticulously. Some shots can appear accidentally. This is not that type, whatsoever. One example of the eye Coppola has for framing. That’s a reason why the overall film is so damn good. Every bit of the darkened camera work, the shadowy lighting, all those thoughtfully considered shots and the precise blocking, it all makes this better than any average big budget adaptation of a novel. The directorial choices out of Coppola are impeccable. Not every director can block well enough to make it evident. A guy like Coppola does so to a point of feeling like a theatre director, making his shots stand out at all angles.
So much acting talent to take in. Even during the most seemingly insignificant moments and scenes this whole cast makes everything interesting, at times powerful. Partly Coppola, through the original writing of Puzo, is able to convey gangsters in a more three-dimensional view than they’d ever been seen before onscreen. Gangsters have been around the Hollywood stories since as early as films were being made. Yet this movie takes us further into the psychology of these men. You don’t always agree with the way these characters act, nor that they’re so involved in such dastardly criminal activity on many levels. Although you will find yourself a little more informed, at least in the way they do things. The characters themselves and the performances take us into the human beings behind the business. Again, these actors won’t make you necessarily empathise, but they will always, always keep you hooked to the story and the intensity of the plots.
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Above anything else, The Godfather is entertaining. The characters and the plot, every inch of the story rivets the audience. Marlon Brando is at the pinnacle of his career, no matter what other great, epic roles he’s taken. Likewise, James Caan and Al Pacino are both fantastic in their respective roles as the Corleone brothers; distinct personalities, each part of the same crime family and subject to its effects, so while they feel real different they are also just like real brothers. Add to these lead actors guys like Abe Vigoda, Richard S. Castellano and others only round out the cast making the story rumble right off the page. Oh, and Robert Duvall can never be forgotten. He crafts Tom Hagen into just as classic a character as the rest, often overlooked simply because of the other star power bursting through the screen.
If you don’t dig this movie, that’s fine. You cannot, however, claim this is not a classic. And not a perfect one. There are so many amazing aspects to The Godfather, from the powerful acting to Coppola’s adaptation of Puzo to the downright saliva-worthy cinematography. Each time I watch it, and until this writing it’d been a good seven or eight years, there’s a new love I find somewhere between those luscious, dark frames, all the brooding Pacino looks and the well delivered dialogue. This is one movie that will never fade in its awesomeness. Until the end of time it’ll remain one of the greatest in cinematic history.