Saturday, April 14, 2012

March 2012

     After a delay of over three months because of the director’s obsessive editing and re-editing and unending battles with studio bosses, “The Godfather” was released to theaters on March 15, 1972. Originally envisioned by Paramount Studios as a B-level mob picture, the film became an immediate hit, breaking box-office records and quickly become an integral part of popular culture.

     The next spring, the period piece was nominated for 10 Oscars and won three, for best picture, best actor for Marlon Brando and screenwriting for director Francis Ford Coppola and the source novel’s author Mario Puzo.

     In the 40 year since, “The Godfather” has only grown in stature and acclaim and is now widely acknowledge as the greatest American film of the last half century (though I might argue for “The Godfather, Part II). Few films have ever been referenced as often in other films or on television or have remained on the radar of multiple generations of filmgoers.

         Lines such as “he sleeps with the fishes,” “we’re going to the mattresses,” “leave the gun; take the cannolis,” “this is business, not personal” and “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” are likely to show up anywhere—from a bad TV sitcom to a New Yorker feature on pop culture.

     I’m not sure how my times I’ve seen the film in these 40 years—I’m guessing around 20—but for this anniversary, I watched it while reading along in “The Annotated Godfather” by Jenny M. Jones. In addition to the screenplay, it offers behind the scenes notes, production details and explanations of how the scene evolved from page to screen. Here are a few observations and nuggets of trivia about this landmark movie:

      Undertaking: One of the film’s most memorable performances is given by Salvatore Corsitto as the funeral director Bonasera, who pleads for justice from Don Corleone for the rape of his daughter. He was chosen from a casting call for the role yet held his own in the opening scene with the legendary Brando. He is the first to call the Don “Godfather” and intones the prophetic opening lines of the film “I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” His only other credit is as a waiter in a 1973 Larry Hagman TV film, “What are Best Friends For?”         

     Spousal newcomers: Playing Tom Hagen’s wife Theresa is Tere Livrano, who was a music editor for Paramount. Her only acting credits are in the three “Godfather” films. Also making her acting debut was Morgana King, a jazz singer, who plays Mama Corleone.

     Perfect coincidence: The day that Coppola filmed the scene in which Sonny has sex with Lucy against a door while the wedding is going on downstairs, Sofia Coppola was born in a nearby hospital. In “Godfather, Part III,” Sofia plays Michael’s daughter Mary, who has a relationship with Vincent (Andy Garcia), the son born of that extra-marital affair.

     You couldn’t do that today: That’s a real horse’s head (from a pet food slaughterhouse) in studio chief Woltz’s bed.

     Italian food: Richard Castellano’s Clemenza not only instructs Michael on how to make spaghetti sauce for 20 and exit a restaurant after killing two men, but he improvises one of the film’s most memorable lines. After Rocco kills the traitor Paulie in the car, Clemenza’s line is “Leave the gun.” He added “take the cannolis,” referring to the box of Italian pastries his wife asked him to pick up.

     Casting problems: Robert De Niro was originally cast as Paulie but dropped out for a larger role in “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” Of course, if he had played Paulie he could never have played the young Don Vito in “Godfather, Part II.” Singer Vic Damone was offered the role of Johnny Fontaine (based on Frank Sinatra) but turned it down because he felt the film was “anti-Italian” and the pay wasn’t high enough. Al Martino turned out to be a poor second choice, struggling through his scene with Brando.

    Writing help: Coppola turned to an old friend, screenwriter Robert Towne, to create a scene between the aging Vito and his son Michael, back from his Sicilian exile and taking control of the family. The director realized that he had no extended scene between the old and new Don. The scene, shown right before Don Vito dies while playing with Michael’s young son, has the Don lamenting: “I never wanted this for you….I thought that—that when it was your time, that—that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something.” Towne stayed up all night writing the scene and then watched as they filmed it the next morning.

    Cutting room: There were two deleted scenes I wish Coppola could have left in. The first is the hospital death scene of his consigliere Genco Abbandando. It’s not crucial in this film, but when we see the flashbacks to the Don’s early days in “Godfather, Part II,” he’s the guy who is Vito’s first friend, both working at Genco’s father’s olive oil company. The company remains the Corleone’s “legitimate” business during the time of “The Godfather.” The other is a scene in which Sonny tells his mother that his father has been shot. I always found it odd how the Don’s wife never gets a chance to show her emotions in the film. While the women were always secondary in that society, it would have made the compound seem more like a home if there were more scenes with Mama Corleone. (She also had a scene in which she comforts Keaton’s Kay about “the life” which was also cut.)

     Now I get it: I never completely understood the dialogue that Michael speaks during the baptism scene that is so brilliantly intercut with the killing of the heads of the rival mob families. When the priest addresses him, he’s actually asking questions of the newborn. So when the priest says “do you renounce Satan?” and “will you be baptized,” Michael answers for his sister’s young son (played, of course, by Coppola’s newborn, daughter Sofia).

      I could write forever about this movie and its sequel, but I’d rather have you stop reading and watch it yet again. Writing, acting, directing, photography (by the brilliant Gordon Willis) and production design have rarely come together on film at such at high level while telling such a sweeping story of the American experience.

    What begins as a straight-forward dispute between a married couple sets off a series of events that explores the struggle within Iran between a modern, secular society and one based on religion and traditional values.

    The movie opens with a long, single shot of the couple, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), as the wife explains to the unseen judge (and the camera) why she seeks a separation from her husband. She hopes to leave the country with her family, but Nader refuses to leave his Alzheimer’s-stricken father and their 10-year-old daughter won’t leave without both parents.

     I don’t know much about internal Iranian politics, but I would be surprised if the decision between staying and supporting your homeland or leaving for greater freedom and financial rewards in the West isn’t an extremely sensitive and complex topic. As much as this is a story of a family at a crossroad, it also wrestles with the cultural conflicts of a nation at a crossroad.

      Writer-director Asghar Farhadi, who received international recognition for “About Elly” in 2008, doesn’t hurry his story or overdramatized the events, but their impact become evident when, after a dispute with his father’s caretaker, Nader shoves her out the door.

     The next thing you know, the caretaker brings Nader to court, claiming he pushed her down the apartment building stairs causing her to miscarry. To make matters worse, her beleaguered husband is shocked to discover that she was working for Nader without his knowledge. Nader faces murder changes, which hinge on whether or not he knew the caregiver was pregnant.

   The insightful, pointed dialogue and low-keyed, perfectly calibrated acting keep this fascinating study of a country facing “separation” from becoming didactic.

     The film—even as the case between Nader and the caretaker and her husband goes back and forth—never loses it focus on the dynamics of his family. The sensitive, perceptive daughter (played by Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter) see that the case will also finalize the relationship between her parents (her mother jumps back into the picture once Nader is accused o murder) and her relationship with her father.

      I can’t say for certain that “A Separation” deserved the Oscar that it won since I haven’t seen the other nominees, but it was the best 2011 foreign-language film I’ve seen. It also makes me want to see Farhadi’s previous films, as he is clearly an exceptional, thoughtful filmmaker.

        Like “The Descendants” and “Carnage,” “A Separation” examines the importance we place on family and how we balance their needs with the desire to maintain our integrity, loyalty and self worth.

BRIDESMAIDS (2011) and BAD TEACHER  (2011)
      “Bridesmaids,” sophomoric, bombastic and determined to be offensive, was lauded by critics and filmgoers for giving women the chance to be crude and stupid. What a breakthrough.

      Who wouldn’t be proud to join the legacy of “American Pie,” “40 Year Old Virgin” and “Hangover” and discover that you too can be as ignorant and gross as any man? y, “Bad Teacher” offers a similar palette of stupidity and crudeness, but at least it wasn’t offered up as an Oscar candidate.

       The saving grace of “Bridesmaids,” a nonsensical story about a bride’s best friend feeling left out of wedding plans, is Melissa McCarthy’s Megan. Her unique view of the world and supreme confidence despite her size brings a legitimate comic edge to what is otherwise a pained attempted to combine lowbrow comedy with a story of fragile female friendship.

      Kristen Wiig, a “Saturday Night Live” performer, plays Annie, who finds herself in a secondary role when her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph, also of “SNL” fame) becomes engaged. It is not the fiancĂ© that pushes her aside, but his haughty sister Helen (Rose Byrne), who suddenly becomes Lillian’s closest friend. Things go from bad to worse for Annie as she desperately tries to reassert her place in the pre-wedding planning. The insanity culminates in a long, drug- and alcohol-fueled incident on a plane ride to Vegas.

    That the screenplay (by Wiig and Annie Mumolo) was nominated for an Oscar indicates the pressure Academy voters felt to be more “inclusive” (along with the uproar that it wasn’t among the best picture nominees). I’m baffled by this push to make the Oscar nominations look like the box office Top 10. Once a year, can’t the industry take a break from rewarding their ability to find the lowest common denominator in its chase for box-office gold and give a nod to the few quality films Hollywood produces each year? That more was written about the absence of “Bridesmaids” from the best picture list than the complete lack of recognition by the Academy for the year’s one great film, “Melancholia,” says it all about the state of Hollywood priorities and mainstream movie coverage.

      “Bridesmaids” is only marginally better written than the equally low-rent “Bad Teacher.” In fact, Cameron Diaz’s title character comes off as more of a real person than anyone in the “Bridesmaids” cast other than McCarthy’s Megan.

      As a newly minted high school teacher, I hoped that “Bad Teacher” would offer me some insight into how to survive the profession without really trying. The film never gets beyond middle school teacher Elizabeth (Diaz) sleeping in class while she shows movies to her students. Even a beginner like me didn’t need to watch this film to learn that old trick of the trade.

      The real reason this film was made (and the only reason anyone would watch it) was to let 39-year-old Diaz strut around in sexy outfits, showing off her “hotness.” It’s not that I object to this opportunity to admire the sexy Diaz, but isn’t that what the Internet is for?

      As if the screenwriters were taking requests from the audience, the “plot” involves Elizabeth stealing school funds to pay for her breast implants.

       Justin Timberlake plays the devoted, innocent new teacher who turns the heads of Diaz and her hated rival (Lucy Punch), causing a catfight in the race to his bed that makes women look even worse than in the repulsive “Bridesmaids.”

       The cast also includes Jason Segel, giving a nicely textured performance as the sensible gym teacher, and the always hilarious John Michael Higgins as the principal.

      Despite my hopes that “Bad Teacher” could aid my progress in the education system, it turns out that it only raised Ms. Diaz’s position on the hottest actress list and reestablished cutoff jean shorts as an important fashion statement. Which, all in all, isn’t a bad recommendation. 

RANGO  (2011)
      It is the rare computer-animated film that keeps my interest beyond the first 30 minutes—at the point where plot and characters should be evolving into something beyond cute and clever but rarely do. But this homage to the Western movie clichĂ© of the mysterious stranger arriving in a dusty, down-on-its-luck town to save the day turns out to be an exception to the rule.

       The film from Nickelodeon is a smartly written, amusingly illustrated action comedy that would have been just as successful if it had been done with real actors in real settings. Johnny Depp brings his quirky intonations to the title character, a pretentious lizard who finds himself in the middle of the Nevada desert desperate to find water. A chance meeting with a feisty, somewhat disturbed girl (Isla Fisher) leads him to the town of Dirt (where else would you look for water?) The lizard, utilizing his self-styled acting skills, invents a character for himself—a legendary gunfighter named Rango—and soon finds himself appointed sheriff.

     The town is filled with all sorts of critters turned into cowboy-town stock characters, written and animated in ways that make them both amusingly fresh and comfortably familiar. Among the familiar voices of these characters are Bill Nighy, Ray Winstone, Alfred Molina and Harry Dean Stanton.

     Directed by Gore Verbinski of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and written by John Logan, whose credits include “Gladiator” and “The Aviator,” James Ward Byrkit and Verbinski, “Rango” will keep any movie lover happy with the constant reference to other movies, most notably the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood cycle of Spaghetti Westerns, “Chinatown” (Ned Beatty does a marvelous John Huston) and “Apocalypse Now.”

     There’s a wonderfully realized scene near the end when our hero, temporarily defeated in his quest to bring a regular supply of water to Dirt, comes face to face with the “spirit of the West”—riding in a golf cart, of course. A mystified Rango asks him if they’re in heaven and the spirit snarls (Clint-like) back: “If we were in heaven, we’d be eating Pop Tarts with Kim Novak.” It’s that kind of culturally in-tune yet completely absurd dialogue that makes “Rango” one of the most entertaining pictures of 2011.

     Is there any place more ominously beautiful than a dark, deserted office lighted only by the glare from computer screens?  It’s the primary setting of this contemporary horror picture, capturing the hushed, nourish atmosphere of this financial thriller.

      With low-level techs speaking in barely understandable lingo and their bosses only half explaining their thinking, the script forces audiences to work hard to keep up, but it’s worth the effort.

     The film kicks off with a very familiar scene: a human resources team comes marching into an office and begins summoning employees into the meeting room. One of those being laid off is Eric (Stanley Tucci), who keeps mentioning that he’s in the middle of something important and then, on the way out, hands one of his employees a flash drive, warning him to “be careful.”

       Working late while his co-workers are out partying (celebrating, I guess, that they survived the cuts), Peter (Zachary Quinto, best known for his Spock in the recent “Star Trek” reboot) is thunderstuck by what he discovers Eric was working on. Within hours, the bigwigs of the company (played with slick arrogance by Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker and Demi Moore) have been called in to deal with the unpleasant news Peter’s number crunching has revealed—the first crack in the housing market crash.

      Making his feature debut, writer-director J.C. Chandor earned a well-deserved Oscar nod for the screenplay of this little-seen gem. He manages to make the dialogue between these insiders believable—filled with vague short-hand and profane disregard for the real victims of their risky gambles—yet still understandable to those lacking an MBA.

        Quinto, Spacey, as the beleaguered office manager who maintains a sliver of integrity, and Irons, the CEO who has none, all give thoughtful, confident performances that add authenticity to the film’s hopeless, cynical tone.

      You might hesitate to spend 90 minutes with these mostly unpleasant, ruthless characters whose primary skill seems to be the ability to manipulated numbers to make themselves tons of money, yet “Margin Call” offers an unfettered look at the type of irresponsible decisions that plunged the nation into a financial firestorm. It’s a story we all know about, but this drama gives you a rare ground-floor perspective that’s extremely eye opening.

     While the horrors that took place in Europe during World War II continue to be part of the political dialogue and education of Western society, Japanese atrocities are largely forgotten in the West.

     Lu Chuan’s evocative chronicle of what’s become known as the rape of Nanking—when Japanese troops took over the Chinese capital in 1937—will leave you horrified at the incomprehensible disregard for human life that flows to the surface when fear and hatred consume a people.

    Brilliantly shot in black and white (by Cao Yu), the picture opens as Japanese troops enter the city, fighting off the last of the Chinese resistance and then go about pillaging and destroying (much of it to relieve the soldiers’ boredom) the city and its people.

     Despite the unavoidable one-sided aspect of the film, the filmmaker doesn’t depict all the Chinese as innocents—a main character (Fan Wei in a memorable performance) hides behind his position as the assistant to a Nazi military advisor (Germany, Russia and the U.S. all had advisors playing roles in the fight between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung before the Japanese invasion). His relationship with a Japanese officer (Hideo Nakaizumi) leads to a beautifully subtle and hopeful ending to this grim film.

    “City of Life and Death” is at its most heartbreaking when the remaining Chinese women are gathered in a church and told that 100 of them must “volunteer” to become prostitutes for the Japanese soldiers. Facing unthinkable degradation, many women stepped forward rather than see younger girls become victims. It is one of the countless offenses in this shockingly brutal war that cause many Chinese to still hate Japanese.

      The writer-director tells this sad chapter in humanity as matter-of-factly as possible, without turning it into a finger-pointing rant or an unwatchable exploitation. I can offer no higher praise than to say the film could be considered the “Schindler’s List” of the Chinese-Japanese war. Amazingly, this is just Lu’s third feature film, following “The Missing Gun” (2002) and “Mountain Patrol” (2004).

CORRECTIONS:  In last month’s posting, I reversed the Los Angeles Police Department motto; it is “To Protect and to Serve.” I also left the faulty impression that the majority of Angelinos were Latino immigrants. Latinos are the dominate race in the city, yet that number also includes those whose families have lived in the area for generations.