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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the most disturbing and frustrating aspect of reviewing film on home video is that almost everything I get my hands on has already been critiqued, and often by better and more astute writers. This is hard enough with recent releases, but proves almost overwhelming when it comes to a popular catalogue release, and they don’t come much more popular than The Godfather Trilogy. What in the hell can I say about two of the most celebrated and influential films of all time, or their generally disliked sequel that hasn’t been said? Nothing really. I’ll make it short.

Godfather Trilogy
The first question that comes to mind is one that has followed the film for years, and one that becomes more and more relevant with each passing year—is The Godfather an overrated film? Well, from the point of view that many consider it the best film of all time, yes, it is somewhat overrated. But realistically speaking, all hyperbole aside The Godfather is one of the best films of all time, so the extent of the overratedness is pretty minimal. For the record, I’m slightly more fond of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas myself.

Re-watching the film again I’m reminded that it isn’t the pompous wall of intellectual hobnobbery that its preceding reputation suggests. The film is smart, and lends itself to different readings, but it isn’t steeped in self important metaphor as some of us may remember. Factually, a solid half of the film’s appeal is in its pulpy anachronisms, and its focus on plain and simple storytelling. All three films are remembered as long, but the first episode moves the story from point to point without wasting screen time one listless or episodic narration, unlike many of its followers, specifically Godfather III and Brian DePalma’s Scarface. The pieces fit together, and unlike the effort of putting together Ikea furniture, the viewer isn’t left with any extra bits.

Godfather Trilogy
The Godfather is nearly equal parts larger than life opera and intimate family story, which ensures that the more symbolic and thought provoking bits aren’t coming from a place beyond the layman’s understanding. The film’s enduring popularity likely has more to do with its accessibility in spite of its intelligence. Melodrama can be ridiculous, and intimacy can be aggravating, but Coppola and his more than capable cast (who I really don’t need to praise specifically, it’s a given) find a balance between the styles. It seems to me that the big schism between those that ‘get’ the film and those that simply enjoy watching it as a piece of entertainment is the ending, and the viewers' understanding of the tragedy that closes out the film. It’s not a happy ending, guys; it’s a very, very sad ending.

This brings us to The Godfather Part II, the alpha and omega of film sequels. The same question applies here: is the film overrated? Is this really and truly the best sequel of all time? It’s definitely one of the best, but how does one realistically compare The Godfather Part II to Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, Toy Story 2, Dawn of the Dead or Aliens? The truth is you can’t, but you can appreciate the (then) original take on a sequel that Coppola presented. The film fulfils all the requirements of a good sequel—a bigger budget, an upped ante, the characters we know are taken to hell and back, and the story is different but not unrecognizable. Coppola’s innovation was telling two giant stories, separated by a large chasm of time in the same film. Even more innovative is the fact that the two stories don’t even line up—Vito’s story sort of leads into the first film, and Michael’s story picks up where the first film left off.


Godfather Trilogy
To bring Coppola back to the series the producers gave him the budget and freedom to make the film he wanted. This freedom, and the fact that the director didn’t really even want to make the film in the first place, likely led to such a rich and experimental production, and with the exception of perhaps Empire Strikes Back there haven’t been many filmmakers given this much leeway with sequel material. In many ways The Godfather Part II may be the superior film of the series. The only regrets I find looking back with the most critical eye I can muster (strangely enough this film and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America have sort of been hammered into one mega film in my brain), is that the sequel loses some of the original film’s pulpy lustre, and replaces it with semi-conceited tone. I wouldn’t call it pretentious, because Coppola gets away with every inch of melodrama (the last act is still heart wrenching), butt-numbing length and indulgent photography. I’ll use the less risible ostentatious.

And then there’s the much maligned third film. Here I’ll ask the opposite question: is Godfather Part III as bad as everyone says it is. No, of course it isn’t, but it isn’t exactly a good film either. Coppola’s third Godfather, like The Phantom Menace, mostly suffers because of the impossible precedent set by its predecessors. There was simply no way that the Francis Coppola of 1990 was going to be able to create art at the level of the Francis Coppola of the 1970s, and to this day the anti-hype has not died down a whole lot, but like The Phantom Menace, the anti-hype isn’t unfounded.

Godfather Trilogy
Most of the problems have been well documented. The basic plot is bland. Often it appears that Coppola and Puzo aren’t so much missing the point of their first two films, but missing out on what made those films so perfect. Godfather II was the apex of film sequelization because Coppola went out of his way not to make the film the studio wanted, but this time the beats are so rhythmic one can almost set their watch to them. There isn’t really anywhere to take the characters after the second film, and the script struggles to discover new leafs to turn over while still hitting all the studio mandated ‘exciting’ action beats. The direction is lazy, as are the returning actors. The new additions, including the consistently disrespected Sofia Coppola, are only as weak as their co-stars, who just don’t seem to care.

But it isn’t all a lost cause. Coppola’s stylized violence is at its most arresting, perhaps ever. The eyeglasses murder and bullet-thru-the-hand shot are unshakable, and the helicopter scene is pretty spectacular from a ‘pure film’ standpoint. Eli Wallach’s rather broad performance as Don Altobello is expectedly great, even among this relatively muddled cast. The Vatican stuff is a cool and ballsy bit of script addition, revealing at least a smidgen of integrity on the part of Coppola and Puzo. And the gut-punch of the tragic finale hasn’t lost its edge over the years.

Godfather Trilogy

Video


This is, without a doubt, the best these films have looked since they were first released, but they do show their age. The Godfather features all those famously deep and dark nearly sepia browns and golds, and some sequences on this disc are purely breathtaking. The depth of the blacks is almost impossibly bottomless, and thanks to increased definition they now stand in better contrast to the rest of the frame. Even the relatively decent looking DVD release featured loss of definition in the darkest of scenes, creating basically a flat black image with the slightest highlights. Don’t get me started on the pan and scan VHS releases and TV versions. This isn’t to say that Coppola and Gordon Willis’ high contrast, noir inspired imagery is lost in high definition. The sepia browns and golds are even and as natural as can be expected from such a stylized pallet. And against these browns, golds, and blacks are dashes of bright red, orange, and green cleanly and fully bouncing off the screen.

Details are sharp compared to previous releases, but not compared to some similarly aged films on Blu-ray ( 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind spring to mind). The problems mostly arise from the age of the stock, the deep darkness of the frame, and possibly the stock itself (sometimes older, non-anamorphic, spherical 35 mm lacks super high detail, though I don’t pretend to have even a working knowledge of such things). The frame is consistently grainy as well. Comparing the Blu-ray to the DVD I can plainly see that the dark blacks and blues get away cleanly this time around, but dark oranges and flesh tones are swimming with grain, and even a little bit of green and red noise. The New York, Vegas and Hollywood stock footage peppered throughout the relatively cheaply made film now stands out as limited in detail with blown out whites. The bright daylight scenes are in shocking contrast to the majority of the film, and feature greater details, and more impressive contrast levels. Roughly speaking, it ain’t perfect, but it’ll do, especially when considering what Coppola and Willis’ intended, which was an aged look.

Godfather Trilogy
The Godfather Part II is mostly more of the same. The grain is still pretty thick, some of the browns are still a little noisy, and the details aren’t quite razor sharp, but it still looks damn nice, and as the director and DP intended. A few things I notice that are specific to the second film include minor frame shifts and shakes (mostly in outdoor shots), and a little more colour correction. The former item is regrettable, but the latter is very intriguing. Coppola and Willis pushed the sepia tones further in the second film (because they were allowed to), and the final effect is somewhat extreme, but fitting. My DVD and widescreen VHS copies are sizably more yellow then this new hi-def transfer, which is more golden, almost orange. This applies at an even more extreme degree to the Vito scenes, which are also a little grainier, and a little less detailed. I never noticed before, but Willis uses wider lenses and broader focus during many of the old world scenes, creating a flatter look in comparison to the more three dimensional ‘50s scenes.

The Godfather Part III is the most sharply detailed and generally clean in the collection, but for an assemblage of rather unfair reasons. First off, it’s a much newer film, and as such features less print damage (this is the only film in the new release that doesn’t feature the ‘Coppola Restoration’ tag). Then we must take into account the more modern look of Godfather III. Though the deep blacks and sharp edged silhouettes are still around, the super saturated golds and browns aren’t taken to nearly as stylish extreme. This more natural look assists the details, and begets more differing hues than the other films. Textured film grain is still pretty thick, specifically in scenes with lower and less specific lighting, but part three is never as noisy as the other two. One thing that’s always bothered me about the widescreen releases of Godfather III is that the framing has always appeared a little too tight. I wonder if 1.66:1 wouldn’t perhaps have been a better option.

These screen caps are taken from my old DVD release. These are no way representational of the new transfers. If you want a rough idea as to what the new transfers look like take one of these caps, stick them in Photoshop, and crank the yellow and red about half way higher.

Godfather Trilogy

Audio


The Godfather is as audibly subtle as suspense driven horror film, revelling in relative silence for minute after tension wracked minute, then bursting with the rough pops of gunfire and breaking dishes. Mostly this Dolby TrueHD track is similarly centred in its aural focus to the DVD release, but there are a few spiffing sound effects moments, and a very strongly represented score. The dialogue is a little inconsistent, sometimes suffering a little reverb, other times blurting a hair of tinny distortion, but it’s all understandable, even the whispery quiet moments. The surround and stereo channels come to surprising life with the presence of stuff like rolling thunder and screaming street trains. Additions like these and moving cars reveal a robust bass track, and though minimal the surround effects work directionally.

The Godfather Part II is mostly more of the same, but with the benefit of a larger budget. The sound design of the second film is more brash and assured. The attempt at murdering of Michael at the beginning of the film is another prime example of Coppola’s suspense wracking sound design, and the bombast of the Tommy gun fire is a fantastic aural attack. The Cuba sequences, including the inside and outside New Year’s celebrations, and the street revolts, are the closest the disc gets to reference quality surround and bass. The dialogue is still a little flat and tinny, but the overall ambiance is more lively and realistic.

Godfather Trilogy
Godfather III, being the newest and slickest of the collection features the most impressive TrueHD soundtrack. The same strengths and most of the same weaknesses apply, but at it strongest this is the most aggressive of the collection. The big scene for audio fury is, of course, the helicopter attack, which pulls the same old trick of sucking the majority of the ambient noise out of scene before unleashing the loudest, multi-channel explosions. The rumble of the approaching helicopter takes the LFE for a little trip, leading up to rotating blades fill that fill the rear channels, and a barrage of bullets and ricochets flying around the room.

Nino Rota’s vigorously gloomy and chunky score is fully and warmly represented on both the first and second film’s soundtracks. The surround representation of the music is more intricate than that of the sound effects. The strings and brass blast in a rather wall like fashion from the left and right, while the mandolins, clarinets, and guitars are delegated to specific channels. In the case of the second film the effect is even richer, and the bass even fuller. Carmine Coppola’s third film score doesn’t actually show up the first two on this collection, which isn’t to say the mix is any less effective.

I do have a problem with all three discs’ subtitles, which had to be manually turned on during the scenes with Italian dialogue (it’s the sixth subtitle track, by the way). The font choice, however, is very classy. Font choice is something I forget is possible to get out of Blu-ray.

Godfather Trilogy

Extras


Paramount has some new extras for fans to sink their greedy little teeth in to, but they’ve also included everything that adorned the original DVD release, so you can give that old hunk of non-hi-def junk to your little sister or something (kidding, kidding, I still love DVD).

All three films start with Coppola’s commentary tracks from the DVD release. The tracks are still fully formed, still stimulating, and still substantially listenable, but are a little bit unessential given the depth of the original and the new HD documentaries. If you’re like me, and you’ve already seen these films a dozen or so times, the tracks make for an entertaining alternative to listening to the same old dialogue and music, no matter how brilliant it may be. You’ve got to respect the man’s ability to sit and talk to himself for nearly nine hours.

The new extras, which are all in HD, start with ‘The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t’. If you’ve missed out on the book and film versions of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls (which you shouldn’t), you’ll find a lot to learn about the 1960s and ‘70s, and their effect on film. Later you’ll learn a bit about the painful birth of the original film. The second half of the doc is devoted to different points of view on the film’s genius, and a brief comparison to the more two-dimensional gangster films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. The oft-told story is told through a series of interviews, behind the scenes footage, archive photography, and film footage. Coppola and Robert Evans are of course present, but so are Coppola’s American Zoetrope co-founders, including George Lucas (whose THX had just about killed the fledgling studio), and some other friends of Zoetrope like William Friedkin and Steven Spielberg. The doc steals some ace footage from The Kid Stays in the Picture, but we can forgive it, because Evans’ side of the story couldn’t be told more effectively. Most of us already know this story from books, articles, other documentaries, and the commentary tracks, but despite its brief length (only thirty minutes) this doc is an entertaining retelling and the celebrity recollections (from Alec Baldwin, all the way to Trey Parker) are quite satisfying.

Godfather Trilogy
‘Godfather World’ is another collection of celebrity recollections on the films, and their effect on pop culture. Featured with the interviews are a series of clips from stuff like The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Sopranos, SCTV, You’ve Got Mail, Analyze This, and commercials. This eleven minute extension of the previous doc, is very amusing, though I personally can always use more Sarah Vowel and Guillermo del Toro.

‘Emulsional Rescue’ (almost twenty minutes) is concerned with the restoration of the first two films, which were apparently in terrible shape due to too many years of misuse, and too many prints made from the same negative. The new colour timing on this release is apparently much truer to Coppola and Willis’ intent, and closer to the theatrical look. It’s all a bit technical, but the commentators with their diagrams are pretty good at talking to us laymen without treating us like idiots, and they explain the digital photography better, and in less time than most books I’ve read. The volume of work put into the project does make one appreciate these new hi-def transfers, and every one of their ‘imperfections’, as do the comparisons to the original VHS releases (which always looked terrible).

‘…When the Shooting Stopped’ is another extension of the ‘The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t’ concerned mostly with the editing and scoring processes. This mostly pertains to the producer’s original disdain for the first film’s epic length and music. Steven Spielberg’s thoughts on the editing of the first two films are provocative, revealing perhaps a deeper understanding of Coppola’s filmmaking than I think even Coppola holds. From the music side there’s some interesting focus on the horse head scene, which was apparently culled from two cues by editor Walter Murch. This fourteen minute featurette is the first in the set to feature any footage from the third film.

‘Godfather on the Red Carpet’ is a sort of frivolous, four minute segment of interviews from the Cloverfield red carpet featuring a bunch of relatively recognizable J.J. Abrams actors ( Cloverfield, Lost, and Star Trek). Kind of cute, but really uninspiring as a follow-up to the previously fascinating new extras.

Godfather Trilogy
Then things get a little odd with a section called ‘Four Short Films Based on The Godfather’, which is really just four more featurettes made by the same people, and featuring the same interviewees. ‘Godfather vs. Godfather II’ speaks for itself with its title. ‘Riffing on Riffing’ is a few minutes with Richard Belzer quizzing some other actor (he was named in the first doc, but I can’t find it) on quotes from the film. ‘Cannoli’ is a brief exploration of the famous line ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli’ with Coppola and Sarah Vowell (who wrote a book with that line as the title). ‘Clemenza’ is Coppola’s explanation as to why the character Clemenza was missing from the second film. The section runs a little over seven minutes, and the last two items are covered in the commentary.

Next we have an interactive family tree, which features a small biography of every major character in the Corleone family, and a small biography of the actor or actors that played them in the film. This is augmented by an interactive crime chart, featuring all the major gangsters, their vital stats, their ‘rap sheet’, and many also feature their own rivals and associates sub-menu. The new extras are completed with a wedding album featuring stills from the first film’s wedding scene.

Then we’ve got the original 2001 DVD release extras, which is all presented in the same standard definition 1.33 aspect ratio. Behind the Scenes starts with ‘A Look Inside’, a look back with the filmmakers and actors over the entire series, though most of the interviews are taken during the making of the third film. A lot of the behind the scenes footage is taken from the part three time span too, but there are also snippets of screen tests and behind the scenes discussion from the first film. It’s a good doc, and the new material doesn’t directly cover too much of the same ground (though the commentary does), so it isn’t made dispensable in this new release. Watch the whole one hour and thirteen minute thing just for Robert DeNiro’s screen test for Sonny Corleone.

‘On Location’ is a seven minute look at the locals of the second film, including behind the scenes footage from the filming and a look at the current block. This is followed by a ten minute exploration of Coppola’s notebook, which he assembled to gather his thoughts on the original novel when he was given the job of adapting it.

‘Music of The Godfather’ is divided into sections for Nino Rota (score) and Carmine Coppola (traditional music, score for the third film). Rota’s section is made up of an audio tape of his piano demos recorded by Coppola, set to scenes from the film. Carmine’s section includes a video interview and conducting footage from 1990, along with footage from the ‘Coppola scene’ from movie two, and dialogue from Francis Coppola.

Godfather Trilogy
The rest of the behind the scenes section is completed with Coppola and Mario Puzo chatting about the screenwriting process, Gordon Willis chatting about cinematography, storyboards from the second and third films, and a 1971 EPK. There are also sections for filmmaker biographies and extensive image, Academy Award footage and trailer galleries. The whole thing comes to a head with no less than thirty four deleted scenes from all three films (only one from part three), presented in chronological order of events. The scenes are preceded by a title card describing their intended place in the film, and are presented only in non-anamorphic, standard definition 1.33:1 full frame.

Overall


It’s The Godfather, I don’t expect my words to deter anyone from buying it. The new extras are a fine edition to the old extras, and the A/V has been thoroughly overhauled. Some viewers may be disappointed in the lack of detail and ‘cleanliness’ in the new transfers, but the colour correction almost makes for an entirely new viewing experience for those of us that weren’t old enough to see the first two films in theatres. Also, sometimes we need to appreciate the look of film stock, and learn to appreciate intended looks. My final A/V scores are in comparison to all other hi-def releases I’ve seen on this set, not DVD quality or filmmaker intent. And all you people that keep complaining about the missing chronological version of the films, no one involved with the films ever liked that version. Give up the dream.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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