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THE GODFATHER: THE COPPOLA RESTORATION
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia, Sofia Coppola
Director:  Francis Ford Coppola
Audio:  Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Length:  549 Minutes
Release Date:  September 23, 2008

"I believe in America."

The Godfather was both a cinematic landmark and a cultural phenomenon.  As a film series, it built upon age old movie gangster traditions and spun them into new, dynamic, and dramatic directions.  It brought us face to face with a family who lived, loved, fought, and carried on a criminal organization together.  As an audience, we had never gotten so close to such larger than life figures, nor seen them so much for what they really were behind the muscling and posturing.  We couldn't help but like what we saw in spite of ourselves, and when it came time to continue the story of the Corleones, we were always ready for the next chapter.

It introduced a whole new lexicon into our vocabulary, chiefly owing to Marlon Brando's legendary performance (an inimitable one, to be sure, but it hasn't stopped multitudes of would-be godfathers from trying).  It did not celebrate the Mafia, or even try to sympathize with it.   Author Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola saw their characters as family first.  What they did for a living was strangely secondary, although it was always ready to intrude with a dramatic twist that altered the course of both the story and its characters. 

Now, these beloved movies have finally made their way to Blu-ray courtesy of Paramount and the approving eye of Francis Ford Coppola.  The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration is an impressive box set, beautifully brought back to vivid life and as generously created as any of the Don's magnanimous deals.  With all three movies included, plus an extra disc just for features, it's definitely one movie fans will cherish.

The Godfather ****

The Godfather is a true American epic of filmmaking, filled with unforgettable characters, a story that unfolds with undeniable breadth and darkness, and a visual style that would practically define a decade's cinema.  It bridged the gap between the Mafioso movies of old with the likes of James Cagney into the modern world of pictures like GoodFellas by bringing us deeper and closer to an American crime family than had ever really been depicted on the screen before.

A lot of credit should go to author Mario Puzo, whose best-selling novel gave the Corleones to American culture, but director Francis Ford Coppola turned a brilliant story into a movie of mythical proportions.  His fluid visuals, tight editing, and understanding of his characters made the motion picture a landmark.

It is a film about love, family, honor, betrayal, and more, but for my money, the central theme was always the sins of the father.  In a picture filled with pivotal moments, none is as enthralling nor devastating as watching Michael Corleone's (Pacino) eyes near the end, as he accepts the duties of godfather to his sister's child...his lips repeat vows of renouncing evil, while masterful editing shows us at the same time the acts of violence being carried out at that very moment by his order.  Between the cutting and Pacino's performance, I've often sworn you could look into Michael's eyes and see his soul leaving him at that very moment.

Michael was the son who wasn't supposed to follow in the family business.  His father, Vito (Brando) knew it, as did his real brother Sonny (Caan) and adopted brother Tom Hagen (Duvall).  Michael fought in World War II and was a decorated soldier.  He was beloved by his father, who purposely tried to keep Michael out of his affairs and clean.

But like the saying goes...the sins of the father visit the heads of the son.  When Vito is brutally gunned down in a dispute over drugs, Michael is the only one "clean" enough to settle the family business and eradicate the men who committed the deed.  His meeting in the restaurant with the men is just another one of many brilliant set pieces that has become synonymous with the film itself.  From that moment on, violence becomes a real and very integral part of Michael's life...he fears it, then he accepts it, until at last, he wields it.

The dispute is over the introduction of narcotics dealings into the Mafia.  For Don Vito, and indeed for all the Corleones, a turning point is being reached.  Vito, despite his family position, has a moral code...he prefers to stick to gambling and liquor.  Drugs, he philosophizes, will be the downfall of the families. 

He was right, but it wasn't the advice other Dons wanted to hear, not when so much money was available to be made.  By the end of the picture, the handing of the torch from the old Don Vito to the new Don Michael is more than a family transition...it is the closing of one chapter in American crime history and opening a new one.

This film is electrifying from beginning to end...every frame fascinates in spite of all we know about organized crime.  In Coppola's eyes, we very rarely are looking at a criminal organization.  We are looking at a family.  There's a strange mix in how titillating the power seems, especially in the famed opening wedding sequence where men beg for favors of Vito in his shadowy office (the obvious Frank Sinatra clone especially), and the paranoia that goes with it.  These are people who have to look over their shoulders every day of their life and sleep with one eye open.  The film's surprising sequences of violence startle, but they prove a point:  in this kind of life, you never know when it's coming.  Or where it might be coming from.  It's a seductive world, from a cinematic point of view...it may not be the kind of life we'd really want to live, but we gladly give ourselves over to it for a few hours with the knowledge that we can walk away safely at the end.

Marlon Brando's performance has become the stuff of legends over the years, and quite possibly the most parodied one as well.  But there's something to be said when an actor is so viable in a role that even countless imitations don't derail the potency of the original.  His Oscar, though refused, was certainly well deserved.  But he was backed by an incredible supporting cast, all young, edgy and enthusiastic:  Caan as the bad-tempered Sonny, Duvall as the calm, smart Tom, and especially Pacino, whose Michael undergoes the most complete, startling and unforgettable transition over the course of the movie's three hours.

The cinematography of Gordon Willis is absolutely integral to the picture:  his choice of tones and use of shadow and light immediately instill the film with a feeling of nostalgia.  It is essential in making us think fondly of the characters despite their deeds...there is a sense of time-gone-by that most period films don't really achieve; a sense that what we're witnessing on screen could very well be our own memories.

All of these elements combined helped Francis Ford Coppola cultivate the gangster film that would forever change the way mainstream culture perceived the Mafia.  The Godfather is dynamite entertainment from beginning to end...a classic study of love, fear, loyalty, betrayal and crime...all in the family. 

The Godfather Part II ****

If there was one drawback to the critical and cultural success of The Godfather Part II, it's that the film became Hollywood's Holy Grail for sequels...argue with any producer that sequels rarely live up to the quality of original productions and usually weaken rather than strengthen established story lines and characters, and they inevitably point to Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar winning triumph as proof it can be done.  As Michael Corleone would say, "Nothing is impossible."  As his top man would clarify, though, "Difficult, but not impossible."  The fact that no other sequel has come close to striking gold twice the way this movie did in over a quarter of a century is proof enough.

Part II is such a beautiful, brilliant film in its own right that I even hate to use a stigmatized word like "sequel" to describe it...but that's what it is, even down to Coppola's personal insistence that the picture bear no other title than the very simple, very distinct The Godfather Part II.

It's a sequel with merit because both Coppola and author/co-screenwriter Mario Puzo had more story that was worth telling.  We left Michael Corleone (Pacino) at the end of the first movie having traded in all his once youthful ideals and ambitions to take his place on the throne, so to speak.  In the second part, we follow not one, but two stories that play against each other in such paralleled harmony that no medium outside of motion pictures could have given it the depth of drama, scope and intelligence that it required.

Story one follows Michael leading his family and business into some changing times.  He faces new challenges, new decisions, new opportunities, and new heartaches in the 1950s.  He tastes the bitter seeds of inter-family betrayal and the failure to keep his own family together, with wife Kay (Keaton) growing more and more apart from him.  He had promised her in the first part that the Corleone family would be legitimate within five years...the fact that the second part takes up seven years later is one indication that Michael has lost his original way.

The second story actually flashes back to the rise of young Vito Corleone (De Niro, stepping comfortably into the role made famous by Marlon Brando as an older man).  Vito, as a boy, escapes to America to flee from a Don who murdered his entire family.  When he reaches the shores of the United States, the Statue of Liberty looms large and welcoming...yet we know we are about to follow Vito's path down the dark side of the American dream.

The narrative juxtaposition between the story lines lends emotion and thoughtfulness to both.  Seeing Michael's modern feud with his older brother Fredo (Cazale) is more haunting next to images of them as children under the protection of their father Vito.  Vito's guts, determination and eventual successes almost seem to create a legacy that Michael can't quite live up to, even though no one expects him to try.  It is something for the audience to consider; not the characters.

The Godfather Part II takes us on a historical journey through some of the key moments of the American underworld, including family business that goes terribly awry in Cuba with the outbreak of the revolution, the Senatorial hearings that would try to bring down the Mafia's most powerful families, and again, in a flashback, a consideration of the bombing of Pearl Harbor (which happens to coincide with Vito's birthday) that leads to young Michael's decision to leave college and join the Marines.  His adopted brother, Tom Hagen (Duvall), chastises him.  "Your father has big plans for you," he says. "Many times, I've talked to him about your future."  "I have my own plans for my future," Michael replies. 

The flash forward to the final shot of a sober and sad Michael is the very image of the best laid plans gone to waste.

The Godfather Part III ****

It is the year 1979, and we've come to visit the Corleone family for the final time. 

The Godfather Part III is an integral part of the entire saga...so much so, that it cannot stand on it's own, yet when viewed as a whole with its prior installments, seems like a chapter the story cannot do without.  The parallels come full circle.  In II, we see both Godfathers, Vito and Michael Corleone, in their prime...both men lean and hungry and unafraid.  In Part III, we see Michael (Pacino) as we saw Vito in the original; on the other side of life, faces ravaged by their deeds, shadows of what they once were, remembering what was most important to them but lacking the ability to preserve them.

Decades after promising his then wife Kay (Keaton) that his family would go straight, Michael finally seems on the verge of making it happen.  The Corleones, under his direction, have forgone their interests in gambling and other shady enterprises, and as the picture opens, the one time Don is even being given an award by the Catholic Church for his humanitarian enterprises.  Later, we a large sum of money "charitably" changing hands between the family and the Church.  Money can buy just about anything, including respect...but as these films have shown time and time again, the sins of the past always return.

The Corleone family has outlived its ability to function.  Those lucky enough to live to old ages like Michael either try to hang on or let go, and neither seems possible.  Michael chose his destiny a long time ago, and that destiny has dictated his life ever since.  Even older, frailer and weakened by diabetes, he will once more have to face the consequences of his lifetime of choices.

His future is represented by two characters:  his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola), who may be the living symbol of everything decent he's ever tried to be, and his nephew Vincent (Garcia), the hot-headed bastard son of his brother Sonny, who, unlike Michael at his age, wants everything that being a Corleone means...with a vengeance. 

Two characters, two distinct and different futures.  Only one will carry on the family name, and providence itself may choose what Michael's ultimate legacy will be.

Pacino, who has made Michael his own since the early 70's, is in absolute top form.  We see every year of the decades of Michael's life that was not shown on screen between parts II and III.  As an actor, he feels Michael's pain, qualms of conscience, and flashes of strength...his performance creates some of the film's most lingering images.

Garcia has made a career out of playing fierce-tempered Italian American characters, and there's a reason for it:  he's great at it.  His role as Vincent is probably his most memorable one since The Untouchables.  As for Sofia Coppola, enough has been made of her father's decision to cast her despite not really being an actress.  She has proven where her true talents lie as writer and director of the brilliant The Virgin Suicides.  Winona Ryder, the original casting choice, might have given the role more impact than she...I think that's enough said.

The real star of the picture, of course, is Francis Ford Coppola, who once again creates the world of The Godfather that audiences know by heart.  It is less enclosed than before; time has a way of making the cracks show in just about everything.  The Corleones couldn't keep the outside world away forever.  But their world still exists, from the whispered order to the surprising acts of violence that shatter the silence and remind us all that these are characters we saw choosing their fates many years back...and now their fates are coming to collect.

The finale in Sicily, which pays homage to Coppola's own baptism massacre sequence of the first film, shows perhaps the last remnants of the Corleone family under Michael's control staking one last claim as Michael's son makes his operatic debut.  Sicily was where Vito Corleone was born, and it is here that Michael has his last moment of triumph...a triumph that is short lived, as once again, dominos he set in motion as a young man continue to topple, and despite the man he once was, his power cannot stop the events he set in motion. 

The Corleone family will continue, of course, but so will the weakening we've witnessed with the passage of time.  It will be a shell of its former self.  Vito built an empire, and Michael ran it to its fruition.  What Vincent will inherit will be the mere remnants of a kingdom...perhaps a reminder about what becomes of all those who live by the sword.

Video ****

Paramount has done a most impressive job with what has to be one of the most difficult series of films to create transfers for.  One must bear in mind when watching the distinctive look that Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola strove for...it's somewhat unnatural, often with warmer hues like yellows dominating scenes, lots of shadow, purposefully masked images (faces and such), creating a sense of timelessness, isolation and nostalgia.  Sometimes what you see looks soft and with slightly murky detail...it's meant to be that way.  The look of the film serves the storyline, and this anamorphic transfer serves the look.  Part II looks absolutely incredible, with more vivid detail and contrast throughout, and the final chapter rounds it out.  Seeing these classics in high definition is truly like seeing them for the first time...an absolute marvel of a job.

Audio ****  

The use of TrueHD sound really makes these masterful films come alive, starting with the haunting, memorable music from both Nina Rota and Carmina Coppola, which are amongst the most recognizable scores in movie history.  Dialogue is cleanly rendered, and the action makes for some impressive dynamic range, particularly in the third installment.  The gunplay gives the surrounds and subwoofer signals more function.  Overall, thoroughly impressive.

Features ****

The most prized of all the included extras for me are the Francis Ford Coppola commentary tracks...what movie lover wouldn't want to hear this legendary director to discuss three of his most prolific films in depth?  He doesn't disappoint, with a straightforward narrative style that's filled with details on both technical and philosophical levels, as well as peppered with good stories along the way.  You'll hear, for example, about some of what made the first film a difficult experience for him.  Later, he'll tell about how he was finally convinced to return for the second part, despite major initial reluctance.  Film students and casual observers alike are liable to learn plenty from what Coppola has to say.

The remaining features are all on the fourth disc, including some all new extras for Blu-ray mastered for high definition.  "The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn't" looks back at a changing Hollywood in which The Godfather very nearly never made it.  "Godfather World" looks at the continuing influence of the movies on cinema and pop culture.  "When the Shooting Stopped" looks at the artists who contributed to the picture in post production.  "On the Red Carpet" asks other stars and artists candidly for their reactions to the film.  "Emulsional Rescue" talks about bringing the film back to life through extensive restoration efforts.  Finally, there are four short featurettes on the movie, including how parts I and II stack up, and the famous cannoli line.  These extras include interviews with Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Robert Evans and many more.

The other extras are all from the original DVD collection release, starting with extensive behind-the-scenes extras, including a look inside the Godfather family, pieces on location, the music, Coppola and Puzo on screenwriting, Gordon Willis on cinematography (short but great), a production featurette from 1971, plus a look at storyboards from the first two films and Coppola's own notebook.

The additional scenes are extensive and well indexed...34 in all, broken down by time periods in the family chronology.  For added insight, a timeline is included as well, so viewers can track the history of the Corleone family in American with just a few clicks.  Some of the extra scenes were part of The Godfather Epic, which presented the first two films in chronological order with some bonus footage.  Others are merely deleted or altered scenes.

There is an interactive family tree that allows you to follow the Corleone genealogy, and keep track of your favorite characters,  There are also some photo galleries, talent files, trailers for all three films (none of them particularly good, actually), and a section on "Acclaim and Response"...you get to see footage of some of the movie's Oscar night triumphs, as well as listings of all awards and nominations, and Coppola's own special introduction for the first ever airing of The Godfather on network television in 1974.

Summary:

The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration is everything Blu-ray fans could want and more...three indelible films with beautiful new anamorphic transfers and uncompressed 5.1 mixes, with commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola and an entire disc containing arguably the year's most complete, extensive and valuable extras package.  It is indeed, by any definition, an offer you can't refuse.

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