(On Cable TV, December 2018) Being right doesn’t mean much when you’re late, and unfortunately that’s the first conclusion I get from watching Finian’s Rainbow, an old-fashioned musical that has the right moral values about racism but the rotten luck of making it to theatres one year after movies such as In the Heat of the Night and Guess who’s Coming to Dinner completely changed the Hollywood conversation about racial injustice in the United States. As New Hollywood was remaking the film industry in a far different image, Finian’s Rainbow was torn between new issues and old-fashioned style, featuring no less than Fred Astaire singing and dancing about racial injustice while dealing with a meddlesome leprechaun trying to get its gold back. Yeah… I’m not making this up. It’s a musical in the purest tradition of the form, but it would have been so much better had it been made ten years earlier. Astaire isn’t bad, but he looks truly old here—I mean: he never looked young even when he was, but here age has visibly caught up to him, and his great dance routines look almost dangerous. Petunia Clark is fine as his daughter, but much of the comedy and remarkable performances come from other players (including Tommy Steele as a hyper-caffeinated leprechaun) in this bizarre southern state/Irish-mythology mash-up. The film’s message against racial discrimination goes through an incredibly racist character being magically transformed into a black person (hello blackface) in time to travel with a small group of singers—the song is great (“The Begat”), but everything leading to it has issues of some sort. Plus, it’s directed by none other than Francis Ford Coppola. Finian’s Rainbow, as you can guess, is a strange blend—sometimes great, sometimes endearing, sometimes dumbfounding and sometimes uncomfortable. It’s certainly interesting, but I’m going to stop myself from calling it a must-watch.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) I’m glad I saw Rumble Fish shortly after The Outsiders. Those two movies will forever remain a curio pairing of teenage dramas made back-to-back by writer/director Francis Ford Coppola, with much of the same cast and crew. But while they share themes and settings, they couldn’t be more different in execution, as The Outsiders plays everything straight, while Rumble Fish allows itself fanciful impressionistic segments that truly set it apart from the genre to which it belongs. From splashes of colour in an otherwise black-and-white film, to literate references, a very stylized fight, an out-of-body experience, unnatural skies and a noir aesthetics borrowed from German expressionism. The plot is almost inconsequential to the various moviemaking flourishes, but there’s still a heartfelt brother-to-brother relationship at the heart of it all. All of this being said, I still can’t quite commit to liking the film. On the other hand, I found it far more interesting than The Outsiders, and I’m far more likely to revisit Rumble Fish in a few years than most of the more ordinary films of its period.
(On TV, July 2017) It’s no exaggeration to say that the best thing about this film is the cast list. Consider a Coppola film featuring Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Emilio Estevez and Tom Cruise. No wonder it still regularly plays on TV even thirty-five years later. Alas, the actual film itself feels underwhelming. While a good character study of late-sixties teenagers, The Outsiders feels rote and dull compared to other movies tackling the same topics. Some of the plot points feel needlessly melodramatic, while the overall pacing of the film feels dull. The cast is very young, so seeing even famous names is more interesting than satisfying. (Many of them have very small roles too—if you’re hoping for a big Tom Cruise performance, for instance, you will have to make do with only a few moments.) While The Outsiders definitely has some historical curiosity, I found the film a chore to get through, even considering the cast list.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) My expectations were pleasantly exceeded by this Dracula’s grandiose and overdone take of Bram Stoker’s classic. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the film’s blend of pre-digital special effects, unabashed naughtiness, over-the-top direction (thanks to Francis Ford Coppola), melodramatic acting and scenery-chewing restlessness made it feel remarkably fresh even twenty-five years later. Adapting the epistolary Stoker novel will always be difficult, but Dracula gives it a spirited go, with a blend of various techniques to evoke the letters of the original, operatic visuals, dramatic dialogue and go-for-broke modernity. The special effects are made even better by the lack of a digital safety net, but Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins provide all of the film’s spectacle via consciously overdone acting. The film has far more sex appeal than I’d expected, laying bare the Victorian metaphors and double entendres that were in the novel, and making good use of Winona Ryder and Sadie Frost. (Plus, hey: an early role for Monica Bellucci.) The sour note here remains Keanu Reeves, earnest but sleepwalking though a role that demanded far more energy. Still, this Dracula is a lot of fun in its own devilish way, and it’s this eagerness to be as flamboyant as possible that makes the film still well worth seeing a quarter of a century later.
(On DVD, December 2009) This “Part III” has a bad reputation only when it’s compared to its two classic predecessors. While it’s pretty good filmmaking, it’s just not up to the standards set by its prequels. It’s not bad when considered as a straight-up epilogue, but then it runs into the vexing issue of being nearly three hours long, which really isn’t appropriate for the type of story it tries to be in the Godfather universe. Part of the problem is that by going to Italy and spending a lot of time dealing in Vatican business, The Godfather III gets farther and farther away from the all-American core that made the success of the first two films: The issues get more abstract and diffuse, and the plot seems to over-complexify itself. There is a noticeable lull near the middle of the film, and all of it contributes to the feeling of an overlong experience. Acting-wise, it’s Al Pacino and Andy Garcia’s show: Sofia Coppola may be the most attractive performer in the entire trilogy, but her much-derided performance, all mushy-mouthed and indifferent, is another of the reasons why she’s become a far better director than actress. More happily, though, the film works more often than it doesn’t, and while some elements that made the first film now feel familiar (the opening celebration/introduction scene; the final operatic barrage of violence), it’s handled with a lot of lavish skill by director Francis Ford Coppola. Conventional wisdom is correct: Not a bad film, but a let-down compared to its lineage.
(On DVD, December 2009) I may not entirely agree with assessments that this sequel is superior to the first film (which seems just a bit more focused that the follow-up), but there’s no denying that the two Godfather films feel inseparable: The first flows into the second one with fewer differences than one would expect, and the second one actually makes the first one feel even better when taken together. Once again, a really young Al Pacino runs the show, although he’s joined (in entirely separate sequences) by an equally-young Robert de Niro. Acting both as a prequel and sequel to the original, this “Part II” creaks at more than 200 minutes: the entire prequel alone could have been spun off in its own film. The Godfather II itself has the feel of a vast epic, with multiple plot lines, grand lavish scenes (including another lengthy party sequence that acts as essential scene-setting), multiple locations, a bit of historical drama and a large cast of characters all headed for destruction. Even then, there’s a lot that simply isn’t shown, and when the film ends, it feels as if it does so a few scenes too soon. It’s the nature of the charm of the films that betrayal and violent death is always somewhere in the assumed background of the character’s action: one wrong answer and goodbye! What may be The Godfather II’s most astonishing achievement is that it actually makes its predecessor even better, by presenting a story with even-bigger implications, digging into the characters and tying off a few grander arcs. This is big, big-scale filmmaking by Francis Ford Coppola, and it’s a bit of a shame we don’t get such movies anymore.
(On DVD, December 2009) It’s easy to think that you know The Godfather without having actually seen The Godfather: Few movies have become as integral to American pop culture as this one: You have seen the parodies, heard the references, watched the rip-offs, caught bits and pieces of the TV broadcasts, maybe even played the video game. But nothing replaces a good lengthy sit-down with the film from beginning to end: Clocking in at slightly less than three hours, The Godfather is a sumptuous piece of work. Finely mastered, superbly written and featuring a cast of characters that directors would kill for (most notably an impossibly young Al Pacino), it remains an impressive piece of work even after nearly forty years of cultural impact. Although the innovation of presenting gangster protagonists can’t be properly felt now compared to 1972, The Godfather keeps making an impact through sheer film artistry: All the pieces selected by director Francis Ford Coppola click together in a satisfying fashion, and the much-quoted segments only add to the film. With a large cast of character and a story that sprawls over a decade following WW2, the script makes few concessions to inattentive viewers. (It also takes risks that would doom other films, such as setting much of its first half-hour at a wedding reception.) Most curiously, it’s also a film that feels more rounded by its equally masterful sequel. Why is it that they don’t make movies like that anymore?