Sunday, November 9, 2014

Film Review: The Godfather Part III

"The Godfather Part III"  *** (out of ****)

Director Francis Ford Coppola concludes one of the greatest American film trilogies in cinema history with "The Godfather Part III" (1990).

"The Godfather Part III" was released 16 years after "The Godfather Part II" (1974) and was eagerly awaited by the public, though director Coppola hesitated to revisit the world of the Corleone family. Coppola had very bad memories of his time working on the first "The Godfather" (1972) film because he clashed with the studio and producers over casting decisions and control of the film.

I remember when "The Godfather Part III" was released. As a child I felt I was witness to something historical and epic. A "Godfather" film was going to be released during my lifetime. I wasn't born when the first two films were released in the 1970s but now I would have an opportunity to see a "Godfather" movie in a theatre.

Unfortunately "The Godfather Part III" was not able to live up to the expectations audiences had for the movie. Some consider the movie a complete failure. That is too strong a position in my opinion. It is true this is a minor effort. It is the weakest of the three films but it is not a disaster. It is not an embarrassment for Coppola or the actors involved in the movie.

The film has its defenders however. The late film critic of the Chicago Tribune and television, Gene Siskel, placed the movie on his annual "top ten" list back in 1990. His partner, the late film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, also gave the movie a thumbs up on their TV show. In fact, Ebert even gave the movie a higher star rating than he did "The Godfather Part II".

The movie went on to win a total of seven Academy Award nominations including best picture, best director (Coppola) and best supporting actor (Andy Garcia). Making all three movies Academy Award nominees for best picture Oscars. The first two films won the award and were well deserved. This time around I feel every nomination for this movie was not justified. "The Godfather Part III" was simply not good enough to warrant a best picture nomination. I can only believe the Academy nominated the film out of respect for Coppola and the success of the first two films.

Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, "The Godfather Part III" takes place in  1979. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has retired from the mafia. He has made good on his promise to his now ex-wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) as the Corleone family is now involved in legitimate business. Michael spends his time doing charity work and has started the Corleone Foundation which is run by his daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola).

Besides this we also learn Michael does not have a good relationship with his son, Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio), which was hinted at in the second film. Michael had plans for Anthony to become a lawyer and possibly work for him one day. Anthony however has no interest in law and has decided to drop out of law school and become a singer instead. Afraid to tell his father, Anthony has his mother, Kay, deliver the news to Michael and ask for his permission.

We also learn Tom Hagaen (played by Robert DuVall) has died since the last film (this was due to salary negotiations. DuVall demanded more money to appear in the movie) as a result the character B.J. Harrison (George Hamilton) was created and deals with the legal end of the Corleone Foundation. We are also introduced to Tom's son Andrew (John Savage) who has become a priest.

"The Godfather Part III" now juggles two competing storylines; has Michael Corleone really gone legitimate? And there is a sub-plot dealing with the Corleone family doing backdoor business deals with the Vatican and an international real estate holding company - Immobiliare. Michael makes a deal to help cover up financial problems the church has in exchange for buying their stake in the real estate company.

The over-arching theme in "The Godfather Part III" is redemption, which is fitting since the Catholic church is so prominent in the story. Michael looks back on his life and regrets many of the decisions he has made, especially ordering the death of his brother, Fredo (John Cazale) in "The Godfather Part II".

Viewers could sense these feelings in Michael in the second film as that movie was about how the choices we make in life define us. We could see Michael struggling to do the right things but the wheels have been set in motion and there is no way to stop it.

That continues in part three and leads to the famous line of dialogue delivered by Michael, "just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in". Can Michael ever escape the Mafia? Is it really possible to leave that life behind? Even when he says he tries to, the world around him won't let him. As he deals with the church he finds back-stabbing and manipulation. He may want to follow the straight and narrow path but the world is not comprised of people who want to do the right thing.

What makes "The Godfather Part III" a less interesting film compared to the previous two is, for me, the characters aren't as interesting this time around. There was greater complexity in the first two movies. Michael felt like a developing character, growing and struggling to find his place in the world and how to deal with his power. There is a struggle presented in this movie but it is not as powerful as in the first two movies. You almost get the feeling Puzo and Coppola just wanted to end this series and weren't looking to add any depth. It is as if they decided when writing the screenplay, "lets just really limit our focus here with Michael and have all signs point in one direction and not add any new human or character development. We know where we want this all to end and lets get there fast." That, for me, lessens the experience. The movie has no ambition.

Another thing that hurts the movie - the acting. Within the first two movies we had Pacino, Brando, DuVall, Cazale, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert De Niro, Lee Strasberg and Sterling Hayden. This time around we have George Hamilton, Andy Garcia, Sofia Coppola and Joe Mantegna. You could argue they are talented but they are not at that iconic level of those other actors (of course, neither were some of them when those movies were first released). Adding "heft" this time around is Eli Wallach as Don Altobello, an old friend of the family. New movie, new actors, new characters, it all gives the movie a different vibe.

When you mention the acting in the movie, some were and still are quick to criticize Sofia Coppola as being the weak link. I disagree. She is no better or worst then anyone else in this movie, She fits right in this movie because no one impressed me acting wise, so it is silly to only pick on her. Is Sofia Coppola a great actress? No. Did anyone in this movie standout by delivering a truly effective performance? No. Pacino is memorable, I guess, to the degree Michael Corleone has been the focal point in all three movies, but, it is not Pacino's best role, as great an actor he is.

Though, to criticize the actors alone is not fair. Again, we must go back to the screenplay. Nothing new is being attempted here. The movie is getting by on nostalgia for the first two movies. Many clips from those movies are presented here to help show the full spectrum of Michael's life. The screenplay doesn't seem to be very demanding on the actors.

Even with these criticisms I am recommending the movie. Why? The movie only fails when compared to the first two movies. It doesn't reach for a level of greatness. If we were to view this as a stand alone movie, audiences and myself, may not be so tough on it. As a movie fan there is a level of interest to revisit these characters and to see how Coppola wanted to treat them. What did he see in store for them.

"The Godfather Part III" is a technically well made movie. The actors do what they can. The cinematography is adequate. The musical score by Carmine Coppola is nice. A very pretty love theme was composed, "Promise Me You'll Remember" and was nominated for best song. But there is nothing to get excited about and that's the problem. Everyone hits their marks, the actors are in focus but it doesn't amount to much.

Those that love the first two movies will want to see this movie for "closure" but there is a reason it is widely regarded as the weakest of the three films, mostly because it is. "The Godfather Part III" is a well made movie. It is not a complete failure. I am not sorry the movie was made. I just wish Coppola had a little more ambition for the story. The best comparison I can make is, it is like watching a young child play piano. They read the sheet music. They hit the right notes. They play the piece properly at the correct tempo but there is no heart. No passion. That's "The Godfather Part III". Well meaning, adequately made, but no passion.