I want to start this off by giving everyone a piece of advice. If you’re asked to review The Godfather DVD Collection, consisting of The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Godfather Part III (1990) and a disc of extras, don’t give yourself an arbitrary deadline of two weeks to finish. It seems like plenty of time, I know, but it’s really not. First you have to watch all three films, which clock in at just over nine hours. Then you need to watch them again with the Francis Ford Coppola commentary. At this point you look at your nine year old daughter and say things like “don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again…ever” or walk into work and say “this…is the business…we chose.“ Finally, after the 18 hours spent on the movies themselves, you spend an additional three plus hours going through all the extras on the bonus disc. It’s not for anyone with an actual life. Fortunately, I don’t have one of those.
In addition to the overall ratings given at the beginning of “The Movie” review section, I have given each of the three films a separate rating.
The Godfather - 5 Stars - Widely acknowledged, and rightly so, as one of the greatest films of all time. Writer/Director Francis Ford Coppola and Writer Mario Puzo create an epic American family business story; the family business just happens to be crime and murder. The movie made stars of most of it’s young actors including Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duval, and James Caan. It also resurrected Marlon Brando’s career, giving him a role that won him an Oscar and generated one of the most overly quoted lines of all time. But is it really that good?
Yes, it actually is. In 1945, Don Vito Corleone (Brando) is at the height of his criminal empire. He protects and expands his “family” through a mixture of intimidation, courtesy of his son, Sonny (Caan) and his capo regimes Tessio (Abe Vigoda) and Clemenza (Richard Castellano), and brilliance, aided by his adopted son, Tom Hagen (Duvall.) The only person not marching to the Don’s tune is his favorite son, Michael (Pacino.) Michael joined the Marines during WWII over his father’s objection and is back with a WASP girlfriend, Kay (Keaton.) Michael has announced that he will never join the “family business.”
Because of Don Vito’s old fashioned views on drugs, he is the victim of an attempted assassination. In an effort to protect his father, Michael moves ever more tightly into the family web, ultimately taking over the business and showing himself to be even more ruthless and cunning than his father. Coppola starts a theme in this movie that carries into the two sequels, that family is more important than anything. The film is very bloody, but is boosted by excellent acting, stunning cinematography, and an eye for period detail that borders on obsessive.
The Godfather Part II - 5 Stars - A rare case where a sequel matches (and in the minds of some exceeds) the original. Coppola had full control due to the success of the first picture and put together an ambitious parallel structure showing the continuation of Michael’s (Pacino) leadership of the family in 1958 against the transformation of Vito Corleone (played as a young man by Robert De Niro) from grocery clerk into the feared and respected Godfather in the early 1920’s. Not only is it impressive to run the two stories intercut, showing how many of the same factors motivated father and son, but Coppola filmed everywhere, Lake Tahoe, New York, Sicily, Miami, and Cuba (actually the Dominican Republic.)
The theme of family still takes center stage. In the early section, Vito uses violence, intimidation, and theft to protect his family and make a better life for them, not beholden to any man or institution. In the later section, Michael takes this idea to the extreme. In effect, he is slowly destroying his family in his attempt to protect it. His desire to put the family first causes him to hurt the people he is supposedly protecting and results in nothing short than the loss of his humanity.
The Godfather Part III - 3 Stars - It‘s very easy to turn any review of this film into a chance to bash the performance of future Lost in Translation director Sophia Coppola as Mary Corleone. So, since it’s so easy, I’ll take my whacks. She’s terrible. She ruins every scene she is in because she is a complete block of wood. There is a reason that no one besides relatives have ever hired her to act. In the commentary track, Francis Ford Coppola says that he is glad he has this “home movie” of her at the age of 18. That’s really what it is, something he and his family can enjoy, since the rest of us non-family members must suffer through her incompetent line readings. It wouldn’t matter so much if she was given the small roles Coppola usually hands out to relatives, but Mary is a key element in the film. The elder Coppola spends a good portion of his commentary for this film decrying the criticism she was subjected to in reviews and articles after the film was released. He has no one to blame but himself.
That said, she doesn’t sink the film by herself. In fact, it’s not a bad overall movie, just not on par with the first two installments of this trilogy. It’s 1979 and Michael (Pacino) is attempting to go straight. Moving out of gambling and other underworld pursuits and trying, through a complicated deal with the Vatican Bank, to take over a corporation that controls real estate world wide. I swear, I’ve watched the movie numerous times and I still don’t totally understand this part of the plot. But no matter, the goal is to become legitimate and possibly atone for the past. As Michael has aged, he begins to wonder if it is even possible to redeem himself. Are his sins too great? Is it simply too late? He suffers mentally and physically for his crimes as his family struggles to stay afloat against their even more powerful enemies.
The movie’s weaknesses are not just Sophia Coppola’s performance but the overly complicated plot, the difficulty in making Michael’s emotional turmoil real to the audience, and the lack of some key figures like Robert Duvall, who asked for a salary that Coppola wouldn’t meet. He was replaced by George Hamilton. That’s right, Robert Duvall was replaced by George Hamilton and the guy who played Father Guido Sarducci on Saturday Night Live. Andy Garcia joins the family as Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent (remember the scene in the first movie with Sonny and Lucy in the bathroom at Connie’s wedding? Well, he apparently wasn’t wearing a condom.) Since Michael is wrestling with his conscience, it’s up to Vincent to give the movie the violent retribution that fans of the first two movies expect.
Altogether, it’s a bold attempt to end the films with Michael shooting for a redemption that he might be too far gone to obtain. It also makes deep statements about family and the impact our actions have on others. Garcia’s performance is superb. But it just has too many weights holding it down from being a great film. Ending up as a slightly bloated near miss.
These movies are arguably the greatest trilogy of all time. Only The Godfather Part III slips slightly and even then, it's a satisfactory attempt at making a bold statement. The first two movies are classics. Because Coppola used the same actors (even in small roles) and most of the same crew, the three movies fit together in tone, look, pacing…..really every important way. Not only that, but they are damn entertaining to boot. And I got through the entire review without quoting THAT line, which I think is pretty impressive.
The extras, except the commentaries, come on an separate disc, only available in the complete Collection. This is one benefit of buying the set over individual films. Yes, you may be stuck with The Godfather Part III, but you do get a lot of extra goodies in exchange. The look of the film is pretty good, although there are specific scenes, especially in the first two films, where the picture is scratchy for a few moments. It looks like the quality of the film had already deteriorated some prior to the transfer to DVD. It does not have a pristine restored look.
Commentary by Francis Ford Coppola - Director/Writer/Producer Coppola provides brand new commentaries for each of the movies. He has a friendly engaging manner when speaking and does a nice job of avoiding long gaps in his commentary, which sometimes afflicts other commentaries I’ve heard. He also gives interesting insights to the overall themes at work in the three movies and some of the behind the scenes activities that formed the pictures and specific scenes. That said, his main drawback is a tendency to repeat himself in each of the three commentaries. In The Godfather, his almost being fired is mentioned numerous times. Certainly he made decisions based on that reality, but after awhile you want to shout “ok, we get the point, tell us something about THIS scene, will ya!” In the second movie, his main point of repetition can be paraphrased as “wow, this picture certainly was ambitious, what were we thinking, jeepers.” I’ve heard Coppola has a pretty big ego and it slips out here more than in the other two.
The commentary for the third movie could be considered the most interesting since it is typically the least well known film and also the most confusing plot-wise. Coppola provides a lot of insight into what he was trying to accomplish and the motivations of Michael Corleone in this film. Since the film itself didn’t do a great job of getting this across, it does help. Coppola’s repetition point on this one is his daughter Sophia’s performance as Mary Corleone. Let’s face it, he’s her daughter. He loves her very much and it shows, but now was really the time to just say that he made a mistake. Instead, he says that she is so great in the picture because she is so “real.” Real? In some scenes the four and five year old kids playing Corleone family grandchildren gave better performances. This was a girl in way, way over her head ,but her dad can only praise her work and criticize assistant directors who “rushed her” into a scene before he had a chance to prepare her. Unless his preparation included the words “stop sucking so badly, you’re killing my movie” I don’t think it would help.
Overall, the commentaries do what any good commentary should do, inform and entertain. For anyone not a complete Corleone family freak, they are gold mines of interesting information. I do wish they had provided commentaries by other participants. Where are Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, maybe James Caan or Robert Duvall? How about Cinematographer Gordon Willis or Production Designer Dean Tavoularis? There are so many aspects of the movies that Coppola doesn’t cover since he can’t cover everything, so why not give someone else a chance.
Behind The Scenes - There are nine separate items in the Behind the Scenes section.
“A Look Inside” - This is a 73 minute documentary from 1991 about all three movies. Since it was produced around the time of the release of The Godfather Part III, that movie gets a bigger portion of the discussion than is probably warranted. Almost every key actor except Brando is interviewed along with Coppola and other behind the scenes people. The documentary also shows parts of some of the screen tests of actors who got the parts as well as Robert De Niro trying out for Sonny and Martin Sheen trying out for Michael. I’m surprised they didn’t include a separate section with ALL the screen tests in full, since they ended up shooting almost every working actor at the time. A good overview of The Godfather movies and phenomena.
“On Location” - Production Designer Dean Tavoularis, who worked on all three films and won an Oscar for his work on The Godfather Part II, goes back to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and discusses the streets used for various scenes in all three movies. It is very interesting to see what types of things they did to make the period changes and why it was better to shoot on location rather than on the back lot. The section lasts about seven minutes.
“Francis Ford Coppola’s Notebook” - When Coppola got the job to make the first film, he read through the book and made notes. He then pasted the notes onto regular paper and made further notes which he kept in a notebook. Coppola shows the notebook and explains how it was more critical to him than the shooting script for tone, ideas, pitfalls of each scene. The section is about 10 minutes.
“Music of the Godfather” - This includes a section on composer Nino Rota, who did the score for the first two films, and one on Carmine Coppola, who did incidental music in all three films and the score of the last film. The section on Rota is based on a tape recording Coppola made in 1972 when he met with Rota to discuss the music. It’s really hard to hear what they are saying, so turn on the subtitles for this one. The whole thing lasts about six minutes.
“Coppola and Puzo on Screenwriting” - Pretty much what the title says. The two spend about six minutes discussing their writing style and how they worked together. Puzo also discusses his plan for a fourth movie that would focus on Sonny and the Corleone rise to power in the 20’s and 30’s. It sounds pretty good but Puzo died in 1999 making the chances for a fourth film pretty remote.
“Gordon Willis on Cinematography” - An interesting section where Willis discusses the overall look of the three movies and acknowledges that some of the scenes may have been too dark, especially in the second movie. This section is not quite four minutes.
“Storyboards Part II” - A slide show of storyboards showing the killing of Don Fanucci. Interesting but a little annoying since you have to click through the slides.
“Storyboards Part III” - These storyboards are set to dialogue and script cues read by off camera voices. The move at an automatic pace. Two scenes are shown. The attempted murder of Vincent in his apartment and the medal ceremony of Michael. I like seeing behind the scenes stuff like this.
“The Godfather Behind the Scenes 1971” - A nine minute film shot during the production of the movie with scenes from the film and interviews with most of the actors (except Brando.) Has some historic interest since it is from that period.
Galleries - There are five separate items in the Galleries section.
“Trailers” - There is one trailer for each movie. Each runs about three or four minutes. The trailer for the first movie is the most fascinating to watch, since it is primarily a succession of still images from the film, rather than actual scenes. I don’t know if that was a style for the era or that the book was so well known that they felt just showing the pictures would trigger people.
“Photo Gallery” - Still pictures from each film. There are quite a few behind the scenes pictures but also a lot pictures that are really fun to look at, like “family” photos of different Corleone family units.
“Rogues Gallery” - Can you say padding? About seven photos of some of the “bad” guys like McCluskey, Solozzo, Luca Brasi, that guy who followed Michael around in The Godfather Part II. Easily could have been included in the above gallery.
“Acclaim and Response” - This includes slides of the Oscar nominations and wins for each film and also shows the acceptance speeches for four of the wins from the first two films (although sadly not Brando’s Best Actor win.) The 1972 show is funny to watch because you think Coppola has the world’s ugliest tuxedo (it’s green) and then Albert Ruddy runs up to collect his Best Picture statue in a shiny brown thing that he clearly stole from Huggy Bear. There is also a brief video of Coppola presenting the 1974 television showing of the first movie. He explains briefly some of the cuts he made from the movie to tone down the violence.
“DVD Credits” - They had to put these somewhere, so here they are. Make sure you click through to the end of the credit lists, since a modern day mafia family pays tribute to the Corleones in a special “Easter Egg.”
Family Tree - These are slides of the Corleone family tree which shows everyone’s relationship to everyone else. Hey, Michael and Fredo are BROTHERS! Nothing you couldn’t figure out by actually watching the movies.
Filmmakers - Slides of the main creative people and their biographies.
Additional Scenes - Contains about 35 additional scenes, primarily from the first two movies. The last movie only has one deleted scene included, which seems odd. Most of the deleted scenes here were included in the The Godfather Saga which showed on TV in 1977 and has been available on VHS for many years. Some fill in plot points that weren’t critical but add some texture to the movies. Before each scene is a helpful summary of where the scene would have been inserted in the final film and some context.
There is a lot of extra material. I believe the technical term is a "butt load". The material does what good extras should do, deepens your understanding of the movies you are watching and gives you a sense of what went into making them the classics that they are. These are major historical films done by a brilliant but sometimes erratic director at the top of his skills. The DVD set is a strong presentation of this important artistic work. Plus, there are lots of killings.