Caesar Must Die (2012)

aka Cesare deve morire

2016 #77
Paolo & Vittorio Taviani | 74 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | Italy / Italian | 12

Caesar Must DieOn the surface, this is a documentary about the inmates of Rome’s high-security Rebibbia prison — many of them with mafia connections — putting on a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. However, it becomes clear fairly quickly that it’s all been staged, which is only more apparent when you learn some behind-the-scenes details (at least one prisoner had been released years earlier and returned to participate in this project).

The question becomes: is that a problem? Because while it isn’t a documentary, it also is a documentary. These are real prisoners putting on a real performance, as they do every year (indeed, it was a previous production that inspired this film’s existence). Even if what we’re watching isn’t literal documentary footage, it’s surely been inspired by real experiences and conflicts, then re-worked into movie form. So it blurs the line between fact and fiction, which is also thematically appropriate: these criminals, some of them murderers, are now playing the parts of murderers in a fiction, and seeing reflections of their own lives in Shakespeare’s centuries-old text.

I don’t know if this gives us any particular insight into the minds of mobsters, or if the mobsters’ experiences bring a new perspective to Shakespeare, but it seems clear that being involved in the project has given new insight and perspective to the prisoners’ lives. For us as viewers, perhaps that suggestion about the power of art to improve anyone’s life — or to provide an escape or solace when in grim situations — is illumination enough.

4 out of 5

The Godfather (1972)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #39

An offer you can’t refuse.

Country: USA
Language: English, Italian & Latin
Runtime: 175 minutes
BBFC: X (cut, 1972) | 18 (1987) | 15 (2008)

Original Release: 24th March 1972
UK Release: 18th August 1972
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront, Apocalypse Now)
Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface)
James Caan (Rollerball, Misery)
Robert Duvall (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Network)

Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now)

Mario Puzo (Earthquake, Superman)
Francis Ford Coppola (The Great Gatsby, The Conversation)

Based on
The Godfather, a novel by Mario Puzo.

The Story
1945: Michael takes his girlfriend to his sister’s wedding, where she’s introduced to his family, including his father, Vito — the Don of New York’s Corleone crime family. Over the next decade, decisions made by the family lead to escalating gang war, and just as he thought he was out, Michael is pulled in to the family business.

Our Hero
A good college kid who dropped out to fight in World War 2, Michael Corleone has distanced himself from his family’s criminal activities… until a series of events find him drawn inescapably in.

Our Villain
According to the AFI, Michael is the 11th most iconic villain in film history. Of course, he winds up a Mafia Don, so he’s hardly a good guy in the traditional sense, but we’re surely on his side, at least throughout this film. Even in that context, I think you could argue the titular Godfather himself, Don Corleone, is the villain: his one son who tried to escape the life of crime is pulled into it after a string of poor choices and unfortunate incidents land the family in trouble.

Best Supporting Character
James Caan is Vito’s hot-headed eldest son, Sonny, heir apparent to the crime empire. Unfortunately, that very hot-headedness is liable to leave the position open…

Memorable Quote
“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” — Clemenza

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” — Don Corleone
(According to the AFI, this is the second best movie quote ever.)

Memorable Scene
The opening is the perfect scene-setter for the movie. On the day of his daughter’s wedding, Don Corleone hears requests for favours. One man asks for retribution against men who assaulted his daughter, which he has been denied by the legal system. Corleone questions why the man didn’t come straight to him, but ultimately grants the grovelling father his wish. Here, the film has established its pace, its tone, and themes of family, respect, and the important point that these criminals think of themselves as the honourable ones.

Write the Theme Tune…
Italian composer Nino Rota composed the majority of the soundtrack (Carmine Coppola contributed some music), including the famous main theme. Apparently a Paramount executive described Rota’s score as too “highbrow” and urged it be ditched, but Coppola won out. Considering the music’s subsequent fame and familiarity, I think we know who was right.

Technical Wizardry
The dark but amber-tinged cinematography by Gordon Willis is gorgeous. It’s stuff like this that high definition was made for.

Making of
Cinematographer Gordon Willis insisted that every shot represent a point of view, placing his camera around 4ft off the ground and keeping the angle flat. Coppola persuaded him to do a single aerial shot, in the scene when Don Corleone is gunned down, by telling Willis that the angle represented God’s perspective.

There’s a first time for everything…
According to IMDb, “Coppola turned in an initial director’s cut running 126 minutes. Paramount production chief Robert Evans rejected this version and demanded a longer cut with more scenes about the family. The final release version was nearly 50 minutes longer”. Studios love extended cuts for DVD these days, but choosing to take up more time in theatres? Not bloody likely.

Next time…
Debate rages as to whether sequel The Godfather Part II is an even better film. Either way, it was the first sequel to win Best Picture (and still one of only two). In 1977, Coppola edited the two films together in chronological order, along with some deleted scenes, to form The Godfather Saga miniseries, aka The Godfather: A Novel for Television. (Although it’s not been released on home media since VHS, it has been repeated on TV in HD, meaning copies can be… acquired.) Over a decade later, Coppola turned his duology into a trilogy with The Godfather Part III. Although generally reviled whenever it’s spoken about, it has a not-bad 7.6 on IMDb and was also nominated for Best Picture, as well as six other Oscars. (Part III was later added to the chronological cut to make The Godfather Trilogy: 1901-1980.)

3 Oscars (Picture, Actor (Marlon Brando), Adapted Screenplay)
8 Oscar nominations (Supporting Actor (James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino), Director, Costume Design, Sound, Editing, Score)
1 BAFTA (Music)
4 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Marlon Brando), Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Costume Design, Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Al Pacino))

What the Critics Said
“It seems that the first question everyone asks about The Godfather is concerned with Marlon Brando’s interpretation of the title role. That is the way the movie has been programmed and promoted: Brando, Brando, Brando, and more Brando. The word from advance hush-hush screenings was wow all caps and exclamation point. […] So to answer belatedly the first question everyone asks about The Godfather: Brando gives an excellent performance as Don Vito Corleone [however,] though Brando’s star presence dominates every scene in which he appears, the part itself is relatively small, and there are other people who are equally good with considerably less strain, among them the extraordinarily versatile James Caan as the hot-headed, ill-fated Sonny Corleone, Richard Castellano as the jovially gruesome Clemenza, and Robert Duvall as Don Vito Corleone’s non-Italian consigliere, Tom Hagen.” — Tony Ortega, The Village Voice

What One Single Critic Said
“I don’t see how any gifted actor could have done less than Brando does here. His resident power, his sheer innate force, has rarely seemed weaker. […] Al Pacino, as Brando’s heir, rattles around in a part too demanding for him. James Caan is OK as his older brother. The surprisingly rotten score by Nino Rota contains a quotation from “Manhattan Serenade” as a plane lands in Los Angeles. Francis Ford Coppola, the director and co-adapter (with Mario Puzo), has saved all his limited ingenuity for the shootings and stranglings, which are among the most vicious I can remember on film. The print of the picture showed to the New York press had very washed-out colors.” — Stanley Kauffmann, New Republic (the one and only critical review on Rotten Tomatoes)

Score: 99%

What the Public Say
“Few people could have anticipated during the course of adapting Mario Puzo’s best-seller The Godfather to the big screen that it would become a lasting legacy in cinema. Forty-plus years have passed since its theatrical release, yet it stands the test of time as not only one of the greatest depictions of a crime family, but as one of the best films ever made. […] That lasting popularity isn’t a fluke; the Godfather films stand the test of time because these aren’t just movies, they’re cultural touchstones.” — Colin Biggs, Movie Mezzanine


Has it really been almost eight years since the IMDb Top 250’s unshakeable #1 was usurped? The Godfather sat pretty at the top of that user-voted ranking for the best part of nine years, its balance between critically-acclaimed filmmaking finesse and quotable gangster machinations almost perfectly calibrated for that website’s prevailing demographic. (It’s since settled at #2, hardly a failure.) It’s not just IMDb users, though: The Godfather places 6th on the latest iteration of The 1,000 Greatest Films, the as-near-to-definitive-as-you-can-get poll-of-polls compilation. It’s for the same reasons, really: The Godfather combines thriller elements and striking violence with a strong understanding of character and a believable exploration of organised crime, a world as fascinating as it is morally repulsive, for a whole that is as artistically accomplished as it is palatable to the mainstream.

Sky Movies Select are showing the complete Godfather trilogy today from 4:30pm.

Next… you know the name, you know the number — it’s #40.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

2015 #3
Jim Jarmusch | 111 mins | TV | 16:9 | France, Germany, USA & Japan / English & French | 15 / R

Ghost Dog: The Way of the SamuraiWhen it comes to hitman movies, I’d’ve said there’s Léon and then there’s everything else. Now, I’d happily slot Ghost Dog in that gap.

This idiosyncratic drama-thriller sees reclusive samurai-inspired mob assassin Forest Whitaker hunted by his employers after a hit goes wrong (through no fault of his own). A sometimes funny, sometimes contemplative, sometimes innovatively violent movie, there are parallels with Léon, especially when Whitaker befriends a young girl, but it remains its own beast.

A somewhat meditative pace will kill enjoyment for some, but, for me, it’s perfectly balanced on the line between indie drama and crime actioner.

5 out of 5

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai placed 17th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Eastern Promises (2007)

2009 #32
David Cronenberg | 97 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Eastern PromisesArguably most famous for his horror films of the ’80s (though a couple of his ’90s efforts could stake a claim), director David Cronenberg widened his appeal somewhat with the excellent crime thriller A History of Violence. Here he reunites with star Viggo Mortensen for another grim tale, switching the bright searing heat of the American Midwest for the rain-drenched nighttime streets of our fair capital.

Despite some similarities in plot and theme, Eastern Promises failed to engage me in the same way as the earlier effort. Perhaps this is because it plays tag with its central character, beginning with Naomi Watts’ do-gooder nurse before shifting focus to Mortensen’s mafia chauffeur with nary a blink. It’s an unusual transition, and consequently it’s hard to tell whether it’s skillful writing or a fortuitous accident that it comes off seamlessly. One theoretical screenwriting argument would have it that the film is actually all about Christine, the baby, and that’s why it works, but that feels a little too pretentious to engage with now.

Tied around the baby’s fate, screenwriter Steven Knight factors in some appropriately dark elements, like white slavery or the relocated criminal underworld that currently operates in the UK. Though these are handled with a certain amount of care, they’ve been covered in greater depth elsewhere (the excellent miniseries Sex Traffic, for example) and here are reduced to pawns in a different tale. This isn’t necessarily inappropriate, but remembering the detail from other such dramas can leave the topics’ inclusion here feeling lightweight.

Elsewhere, the screenplay suffers from some awkward dialogue exchanges and barely credible logic contrivances being used to jump-start the plot. Most of these come from Watts’ character, who seems too competent for much of the film to pass off as a naïve fool at its start. This may be Watts’ fault, playing her as intelligent when a naïve approach might render her actions more believable, but it seems cruel to lay the blame with her as she’s very strong all round. Armin Mueller-Stahl also gives his typically accomplished turn in his typically key supporting role.

Mortensen’s Oscar-nominated performance is the focus, however. Apparently thoroughly immersed in the role, he gives a distinguished performance throughout and is central to what are by far the film’s most memorable moments: a nude steam baths fight, which has become justifiably infamous (I suspect for the “nude” part, but it’s the “fight” that deserves it), and a game-changing twist, that I sadly had ruined in advance, though there are plenty of clues scattered along the way.

By its end, Eastern Promises has the feel of the first part of something bigger: while the story of the baby is resolved, many others are left open. Unresolved threads aren’t always a problem, but it feels like Cronenberg has more to say in this world. So it’s nice to know a sequel is possibly in the works, because Eastern Promises has the potential to be a Hobbit to some Russian mafia epic’s Lord of the Rings. On the other hand, a similarly low-key follow-up would be just as appropriate.

Though it failed to capture me as much as A History of Violence, possibly due to too-raised expectations, Eastern Promises has the potential to grow with repeated viewings. And either type of continuation would be most welcome.

4 out of 5

Unfortunately, plans for a sequel ultimately fell apart in 2012. Some more details can be read here.

Goodfellas (1990)

2007 #123
Martin Scorsese | 139 mins | DVD | 18 / R

GoodfellasThese days perhaps even more praised than Taxi Driver, Goodfellas tells the true story of Henry Hill’s 25-year career as a gangster.

It’s certainly a notable achievement on virtually every level, which are too numerous to list here. The use of popular music struck me especially though, creating a sense of time (and never too obviously) while also complementing the visuals in its own right.

In the lead role, Ray Liotta seems to have been underrated, lost behind the top billing of De Niro and the award-winning craziness of Joe Pesci. He carries the film, with a performance that isn’t showy but is perfectly pitched.

I didn’t fall in love with the film as so many seem to have, but I also don’t think there’s really any denying its worthiness for full marks.

5 out of 5

A new, restored Blu-ray of Goodfellas is released in the UK today, 25th May 2015.