“The Godfather Part III” (1990) dir. Francis Ford Coppola

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A lot of people vehemently dislike this movie and I can’t really understand why. Is it as good as the first two “Godfathers”? Absolutely not. Is Sofia Coppola’s performance as Mary Corleone so bad that it brings down the entire picture? OK, it’s not what I’d call a good performance, but it certainly doesn’t sink the picture. I am prepared to defend this film, but please allow me a minute to put on my hardhat and my trashcan lid as a shield before I proceed …

Incidentally, there will be spoilers aplenty, so if you’ve never seen any of the “Godfather” movies, stop here, bookmark this page, watch all three, and then return to review my twelve-cents worth.

OK, first off, even under the best conditions, it would have been exceedingly difficult for Francis Ford Coppola to top, let alone match, the first two “Godfather” films. They are considered two of the best movies ever made and some would argue that there was really no need for a Part III, as Part II ends with the moral and spiritual death of Michael Corleone, a dramatically appropriate ending, considering how Michael started off idealistic and had to destroy his soul (specifically ordering the death of his brother) in order to stay in power. When you add the fact that Paramount gave Coppola an extremely short time period to get “Godfather III” made and in theaters by Christmas Day 1990, you can begin to see where some of the problems started. Adding insult to injury, the original actresses hired to play Mary Corleone, Michael’s daughter (Julia Roberts and Winona Ryder) had to back out for reasons best left to internet rumors, so Coppola had to act fast to cast the pivotal role.

Let’s get the Sofia Coppola issue out of the way first. Coppola hired his daughter to play Mary, who had little to no acting experience. The choice has been considered foolhardy by many. However, if you listen to the audio commentary on the DVD for “Godfather III,” you’ll understand why Coppola felt this story was so personal to him and that his reasons for casting his own daughter made a certain artistic sense to Coppola. Objectively, Coppola’s artistic sense has been … well … bats–t crazy from time to time … but he has pulled magic out of disaster many times in the past. It was a huge artistic gamble that many people believe didn’t pay off … including myself. But … it’s also what makes Coppola … Coppola. The man has absolute conviction in his own heart, soul, brain, and balls. He has never played it safe and that’s why he will never be dismissed as an artist, despite his missteps.

Sofia’s performance is considered one of the most legendary “bad” performances in movie history. Which I believe isn’t fair. No, it’s not a good performance, but it’s certainly far from the worst in movie history. When you consider that she’s acting against the likes of Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Eli Wallach, Andy Garcia, Helmut Berger, etc., her performance can’t help but suffer in comparison. Plus, the role of Mary is an extremely difficult part and I’m not convinced Julia Roberts or Winona Ryder would have done much better at that time. Yes, they were technically better actresses than Sofia, but I can’t imagine either one of them pulling this role off at that point in their careers. People openly laugh at Sofia’s “valley girl Mafia princess,” but I also cringe at hearing Roberts’ pretentious deliberate way of speaking, in addition to Ryder’s mixture of earnestness and snarkiness that was her style at the time. Maybe someone of the caliber of Jennifer Lawrence or Emma Stone could have pulled it off, but it was not an easy role by any means. So, let’s cut Sofia some slack.

With that out of the way, many people complained about the convoluted plotting regarding the Vatican, conspiracy theories behind the death of Pope John Paul I, etc. To which I would respond, THAT folks, is my cinematic wheel house. I LOVE conspiracy movies and while “Godfather III” is not as good as Oliver Stone’s “JFK” or Costa-Gavras’s “Z,” it comes pretty damn close. This is one of the best conspiracy films ever made and I love how Coppola threw all kinds of paranoid religious, criminal, and political conspiracy theories into the hopper here.

This is a very flawed movie, but I think it’s a worthy companion film to the first two “Godfather” films. As Coppola has asserted, the main story is “the death of Michael Corleone.” It’s about a man who has made many horrible choices in his life and desperately wants to make amends as he enters the last years of his life. But despite his good intentions, the totality of his bad choices can not be overcome and it leads to more misery and despair. I also like the fact that the more he has tried to enter “respectable” society, “respectable” society is just as vicious and nasty as the one he’s trying to leave behind (i.e. the Vatican corruption angle).

This is a very good film and one that I will always enjoy watching. The scene I’ve included here is the ending, which is one of the saddest endings of a film I’ve ever seen. Pacino’s anguish in this scene breaks my heart every time I see it, especially since I’ve become a father. It’s so good in fact that I wanted to beat the crap out of some snarky idiots at a college screening back in the day who laughed their asses off because Sofia didn’t act her death scene in the same way Meryl Streep would have. Pacino’s performance is so good, so real, so f–king raw in here that if you’re going to let Sofia’s not-so-great performance ruin it, then you’re one of those unfortunate a–holes who prides themselves more on being clever and ironic than someone who appreciates something real.

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“Cruising” (1980) dir. William Friedkin

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One of the most controversial films ever released by a major Hollywood studio (in this case, United Artists), “Cruising” was definitely the wrong film at the wrong time. Released in 1980, the film is about a detective, played by Al Pacino, who goes undercover into the gay leather S&M subculture to find a killer who is stalking and killing people who are part of the scene. As the film progresses, Pacino’s character becomes more distraught and disturbed by what he’s finding. Pacino’s character is not only discovering things about himself he doesn’t want to admit, but he may also be losing his sanity in the process.

OK, based on the above description, my plot description reads like some retro gay-panic cautionary tale penned by someone like Jerry Falwell. Given the fact that in 1980, there were very few films with positive gay role models, it’s easy to see why gay people were outraged by this film.

However, after over 30 years of a much more diverse representation of the homosexual community in media, the complexities of this film are more apparent and it can now be viewed a lot more objectively.  I don’t believe this film is saying that anyone who hangs around homosexuals will suddenly become gay and insane.  “Cruising” is a character study of one man, who was probably not stable to begin with, being overwhelmed by what he’s supposed to investigate.  If you watch carefully, Pacino provides many clues to his character’s internal demons early on, without explicitly calling them out.  That is the work of a fine actor.

“Cruising” contains one of Al Pacino’s best acting performances and it was right before “Scarface” turned him into one of cinema’s most overbaked hams.  This is not to say Pacino delivered a bad performance in “Scarface” or in other films since then.   It’s just that this is one of the last times Pacino didn’t chew the scenery.  From what I understand, Pacino has refused to discuss this film at all.

Director William Friedkin has never been one to shy away from troubling material or to leave audiences feeling uneasy when they leave the theater. Even his most popular films “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” don’t have tidy conclusions. “Cruising” is no different. While it’s understandable why someone may not like “Cruising,” the film shouldn’t be dismissed as the homophobic (or homophilic) garbage the critics of the time alleged.  The film is brilliantly directed and edited.  The sound design alone (where you can hear leather and chains throughout the entire film) is enough to be very unnerving.  There’s also an overwhelming sense of dread that permeates the film.  Had it been released in the mid-1980s or beyond, everyone would say the film was a metaphor for AIDS.

The film also contains some excellent supporting performances from Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Joe Spinnell, Don Scardino, Powers Boothe, and Mike Starr.  It also has one of the first punk soundtracks on a major studio film, featuring songs by Mink DeVille, the Germs, and Rough Trade.  Jack Nitzsche does another fine and effectively creepy score.

If you’re curious about “Cruising,” be warned that the film contains some very disturbing graphic violence.  In addition, the film does very explicitly show the gay leather S&M underworld of the late 1970s.  It barely squeaked by with an R-rating in the permissive late 1970s and I’m sure it would have a hard time now.

“Cruising” also inspired James Franco’s recent film called “Interior. Leather Bar.”  Co-directed by Franco and Travis Mathews, the film attempts to chronicle the explicit footage that was cut of “Cruising” and has been subsequently lost.  It’s telling that a major Hollywood star being involved in a film like this gets no more than a shrug these days.  Especially when he’s the lead in an upcoming hyper-expensive Disney fantasy film.

Probably the most bizarre footnote is that Steven Spielberg was attached to direct “Cruising” at one point in the early 1970s.

“I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale” (2009) dir. Richard Shepard

Not many people remember the late actor John Cazale by name.  But you would instantly recognize him by the amazing characters he played (Fredo in the first two “Godfather” films; Sal, the quiet, but scary bank robber in “Dog Day Afternoon”; and Stan, the loudmouth macho-wannabe ne’er do well in “The Deer Hunter”).  He was only in five feature films, before he died tragically of bone cancer in 1978.  But every one of the films he was in (“The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “The Conversation,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “The Deer Hunter”) was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, three of which actually won the top award.

“I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale” is an-all-too-brief, but great documentary about one of the best character actors in film history.  The fact that so many great actors (Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, etc.) made it a point to be interviewed for this film is a testament to Cazale’s legacy.

Trivia note: the film was released by the late Adam Yauch’s (MCA of the Beastie Boys) fantastic indie studio Oscilloscope Laboratories.