Film Reviews

Taking the Gun and Leaving the Cannoli: Finding what’s wrong in The Godfather Part II (1974)

As is wont to happen when you start a new job and are surrounded by new co-workers, I found someone almost as much into film as myself. And so we bounce back and forth throughout the week. What do you like, what do you not, did you see this. What’s your thing. And that’s when he hit me with a stunning assertion: The Godfather Part II was not a good movie.

As any good Redditor would, I asked for proof. And thus, like the President in Corman’s Death Race 2000 he sent me...this…

Please feel free to read the above articles. I might note that Ebert had a stellar career and he would re-watch films and write new reviews and being a man who recognized when he was wrong he often changed his reviews when he saw things he didn't see the first time or admitted some oversight. It takes a true critic to be flexible with art. I loved Patrick Nagal when I was a kid. Now I think he’s shit.

Reading through the reviews, I found myself at first puzzled, then agreeing, and in the last review, laughing hysterically. I typed out the response below and when I was done (not in a slow work day, mind you) I found it so worthy I decided to make a blog out of it.

And so I give you...this...

"Not that it matters, but I found a remarkable amount of holes in these reviews. As I go through them, keep in mind the following points:

1       Although the Godfather Part II was a ‘sequel’ it also was a ‘prequel’ due to half the film being in flashback. This was at a time before ‘Jaws’ made sequels profitable, and thus unless you were watching B-movie horror shows (Bride of Frankenstein, Abbot and Costello meet Dracula) the audience was simply not used to sequels, and this was a sequel and a prequel at the same time.

2       And although the Godfather Part II was a pretty expensive film at the time, it was made by one of the most famous auteurs ever to have any money, Francis Ford Coppola, who essentially shot a 40 million dollar movie as if he were still in UCLA Film School, and this makes the structure of the film very deviant for the time. Reading the first article by Robinson honest to goodness makes me remember of those poor fucking souls who walked out of Pulp Fiction and asked me on Monday “did I miss John Travolta coming back to life?” Robinson actually admits, after a narrative paragraph at the beginning shot, that he is confused who the little boy was, even though he is called ‘Vito’ and later ‘Corleone’ at Ellis Island. This is lazy viewership.

3       In that Coppola is an auteur, I’m sure you’re deft enough to understand that he made unbelievably high tier films at a time when the auteur theory was under attack. Pauline Kael, whom I hate with every inch of my cinema loving soul, was the founding influence of film analysis after the death of the twin super star movie-social columnist elites Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Kael spent her life watching films “only once” and attacking the French auteur theory so savagely it actually destroyed careers and legends (Orson Welles to name one). If you read any book of Robinson or Ebert’s fantastic ‘Life at the Movies’ they praise Kael and everything she did for them, which was make sure that watching movies could be a job. I say this because auteurism, in its greatest extent, would deny that, Pulp Fiction for example, was Quentin Tarantino’s movie. That it could, in fact should, exist without him. In this mode of thinking, the Godfather Part II could exist in a universe without Coppola. And that notion is fucking insane.

But on to the reviews and the strangeness within them:

1)      Robinson actually complains about the setting being ‘too well done.’ The setting which inspired Scorsese’s Five Points in ‘The Gangs of New York’ and more recently Spielberg’s Brooklyn Bridge neighborhood in ‘Bridge of Spies.’ Too well done. Then you’ll never be satisfied. He ends the article by commending the films’ look but says he feels like he looked at family snapshots in the wrong order. This is amazing because that’s what Coppola did to plan several shots. So the effect was there, he just didn’t appreciate it because it looked…too nice. Strange for a reviewer of Hollywood film.

2)      I didn’t read the ’08 4-Star Ebert article because I wanted to stay contemporary. It’s hard to look at modern reviews of older films. I do it a lot. So I went back to 1974 to see Ebert’s review – a masterful criticism, surgically explaining the problems of the film:

“Coppola was reportedly advised by friends to forget the Don Vito material and stick with Michael, and that was good advice. There’s also some evidence in the film that Coppola never completely mastered the chaotic mass of material in his screenplay. Some scenes seem oddly pointless (why do we get almost no sense of Michael’s actual dealings in Cuba, but lots of expensive footage about the night of Castro’s takeover?), and others seem not completely explained (I am still not quite sure who really did order that attempted garroting in the Brooklyn saloon). What we’re left with, then, are a lot of good scenes and good performances set in the midst of a mass of undisciplined material and handicapped by plot construction that prevents the story from ever really building.”

This is the problem in a nutshell, and if you watch the Godfather Part III you’ll see all of these problems simply enhanced by another 40 million dollars. The ’08 review (which I read much later) makes sense as most things roll forward with either gaining impressiveness or gathering ire. I have to forget that I’ve seen Part II possibly 60 or 70 times, possibly since the age of 10 or so. Distance is hard.

3)      Canby, a Kael-worshipper who probably REDACTED, starts his review by insulting Coppola personally, laments the absence of Brando, then fails to adequately describe the structure of the film and this I take back to point 2 above. Remarkably, the point of the film (Michael’s failure to become anything like his father) which Ebert nailed in one sentence, Canby misses as “spiritually desperate,” and while he focuses on bad dialog, he glances over racism, the stand in for Meyer Lansky (in fairness, everyone misses Lansky), Ebert’s point on the garroting, and instead proves he has no understanding of the film as a whole.

This is not my first trot with Canby. The man is vacuous. I would pull his reviews in film school and show them to the class so we could have a good laugh. This man saw the final shot of Michael in the end of the film contemplate his whole life as a failure and called that evidence that the film, and Coppola, is “spiritually desperate.” When I read that, I had to re-read it, because I thought he was calling Michael spiritually desperate, and that kind of makes sense. But if you go over it again, he calls the whole movie a desperate attempt to be something. Kind of funny, since this film is immortal, and no one knows who Vincent Canby is except laughing film students.