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Godfather II

Remember when Heat came out? Everyone was so excited about the diner scene, because it would be the first time Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro would share the screen, and the scene actually was one of those few things in life that lived up to the hype, with both bringing their A game.

The movie that whet everyone’s appetites for that scene came 20 years earlier and is our penultimate entrant in the My Year with Oscar project, 1974’s Godfather II. Though some sequels had been nominated in the past (such as Bells of St. Mary’s, the sequel to Going My Way) but this is the first that actually won. It also is consistently mentioned on the list of best sequels of all time, which it undeniably deserves, and the list of sequels that are better than the original, which does not, but more because the original is a masterpiece than because of anything lacking with this one. It certainly is better than the other two sequels that won best picture, Silence of the Lambs and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

This movie continues the theme in the first movie of Michael trying to live up to his father. Here Vito is gone, but we see him in flashbacks, played by DeNiro, as Michael struggles to keep the empire Vito built from falling apart. While in the first movie the relationship between father and son is played out by Vito giving Michael advice, here there is more subtlety. With Vito gone, Michael goes to those who knew him, like his mother, to ask about what the old man might have done. Even when he doesn’t want that advise, people constantly bring Vito up, saying the old man would have done this or that.

For DeNiro, the task was seemingly a monumental one. He had to take a role made famous by Marlon Brando just two years earlier, and add depth and background to it. In the flashback scenes we see how Vito became the Godfather, and thanks to DeNiro, we see some of the mannerisms, and especially speech patterns, that the entire world came to know in the first movie.

The flashbacks are a wonderful way to fill in the blanks of Vito’s earlier life, to see how he became the man he was in the first movie, but they happen infrequently. A vast majority of the movie is spent on Michael's story line, first dealing with the attempts on his life from Hyman Roth, then trying to get past a Senate hearing and deal with the destruction of his marriage. The Vito story line often takes a back-seat, with long stretches where we stay in the 1950’s and never venture back. The other issue I have is that there seems to be little connection between the flashbacks and the rest of the movie. When we transition from one to the other there is not any commonality between what father and son are going through at that particular moment. I would have liked to have seem some sort of link there, even if that meant further disrupting the chronology. I also would have liked to see more flashbacks, and apparently there were more at one point, but preview audiences were confused by the whole thing so many of them were cut out.

The plot twists here are excellent as well. For one extended stretch we see Michael meeting with Roth, then with Frankie Pentangeli, telling each one something different and leaving the audience with no idea what side he’s on. And once all is revealed, the movie does not fall into the trap so many others have, of the plot twist rendering the previous actions of the characters nonsensical.

From the standpoint of cinematography, the movie remains true to the original, keeping the vibrant colors of the party scenes (both the New Years Eve party in Havana and the first communion scene here rivaling the wedding scene from part I) as well as recreating the darkness of many of the other scenes (often making them too dark, like one scene where Fredo and Tom are seen only in silluette while the background is lit). The thing with the oranges is back as well, and I think the filmmakers were very cognizant of the orange-foretells-death running gag of the first. They even throw in a false appearance of an orange, when Vito is not charged for one by a street vendor after becoming the Don and no one dies right afterwards.

There was one other nominee that year that stands out as a marvelous piece of film making, the Jack Nicholson crime drama Chinatown. Not nominated were two great comedies, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, both staring Gene Wilder. However the two comedies are both uneven in places, and not up to the level of Godfather II. Chinatown meanwhile is a great film, and in any other year would have been a good choice, but it too is not quite up to par with Godfather II, despite some great plot twists and Nicholson being up to his usual excellence. So we have a sequel winning best picture, and richly deserving it.

And there is one more movie left in our journey. See you later for that one.

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