The Godfather Part III (1990)

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One of the most underrated movies of all time, The Godfather Part III is the perfect conclusion to a perfect trilogy. It’s rare for me to use the sentimental in a positive context, but I must do so with this movie. The first two Godfather movies show what makes the Corleone family tick. Family is the center of that. The Godfather introduces us to the Corleone’s highly developed but horrendously perverted and violent concept of family loyalty that they are all so strictly devoted to. The Godfather Part II tells us what happens when this vision of family isn’t honored. The Godfather Part III shows us how the Corleone family rebuilds and redefines its concept of family after so much of that self-perception was destroyed through the actions Michael found necessary in Part II against the very family he was supposed to lead as its godfather.

Michael’s children are grown, and of course, Kay left him in Part II. The rebuilding of the Corleone concept of family all starts with an attempt to rebuild his relationships with his kid, and even reconcile to some degree with Kay. He has tried to go legitimate. His business includes no crime of his own doing or ordering, but the rest of the family and the family’s allies have to much control that doesn’t allow him to stay legitimate for long. But while legitimate, he has his daughter (played wonderfully by Sophia Coppola) fully convinced that he’s always been a humanitarian and not a gangster. But his son has bad memories and is harder to convince. Though he’s willing to have a relationship with his father, he’s not willing to work with him no matter how legitimate that work might be.

But because the Corleone family is a dynasty of murder and corruption, it’s impossible for attempt Michael makes to rebuild his family to not equate a rebuilding of that crime dynasty. So he laments “just when I thought I got out, they drag me back in.” The juxtaposition between these two restorations is perfect irony. Michael’s good motives for the health of his family are genuine and inspiring while all serving as a backdrop for the evil he’s still responsible for whether he wants to be or not.

When confronted by a priest who knows the Corleone past but not of Michael’s direct involvement in it, he asks Michael if he wants to confess. Michael’s response to the priest and his meditation on his own regrets that we get to see right after tie together the whole brilliant trilogy in a very beautiful way. As we see Michael’s regrets we see that is, maybe for the first time in his life, finally being real with himself about how evil he is, how much harm he has caused other people, and the hypocrisy between how he presents himself and his family as a revered member of various Catholic charities and who he knows himself to really be. He and his whole family are given a chance at redemption, and the way Michael responds to that chance is what makes The GodfatherThe Godfather Part II, and The Godfather Part III one perfect masterpiece.

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List: True Crime in the Movies

Turner Classic Movies is spotlighting films about real life crime in their programming this month. So, responding to that, here are my picks for the best films about true crime that I know.

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10. Goodfellas (1990)

The real life Wiseguys and Henry Hill’s decent into the underworld through his friendships with the other Wiseguys.

 

9. Psycho (1960)

While many details are changed, Norman Bates is a version of the real life murderer Ed Gein who committed his crimes in a small Wisconsin town between 1954 and 1957.

 

8. The Informant (2009)

Mark Whitacre was deeply involved with corrupt business politics and a lot of fraud and money laundering. Though he was far from innocent, he knew how to use all the ways to use his knowledge of corruption and truth to protect himself from the consequences.

 

7. Bugsy (1991)

The birth of Las Vegas through gang activity led by Bugsy Siegel.

 

6. The Joker Is Wild (1957)

Frank Sinatra gave his best performance ironically as a performer who couldn’t sing. Joe E. Lewis had been a great singer whose gang affiliations once funded his career and then ended it when he wasn’t willing to continue following their demands. His former partners cut his throat so he couldn’t make money singing for anyone else. Becoming a comedian and leaving his gang life, the realities of the life of crime he left behind are always with him.

 

5. Badlands (1973)

Kit and Holly are versions of the real life murder/romance spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in 1958. Though Bonnie and Clyde broke a lot of ground cinematically, Badlands tells its story in a far darker way that feels much more real.

 

4. Compulsion (1959)

Along with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope from a decade earlier, Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion recreates, though with different names, the case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

 

3. M (1931)

Peter Lorre’s Franz Becker is based on the real life child murderer Peter Kürten, and the investigator is based on Berlin detective mastermind Ernst Gennat.

 

2. On the Waterfront (1954)

A real Waterfront Commission existed. All the major characters in the movies are based on real people. Terry (Marlon Brando) is based on the whistleblower Anthony DeVincenzo. Father Barry is based on a real waterfront priest, Father John Corridan. And the mob boss Johnny Friendly is based on Michael Clemente.

 

1. In Cold Blood (1967)

Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Truman Capote’s book follows every moment of the events that led up to the heinous Perry Smith/Dick Hickock murder of a rural Kansas family.

7th Heaven (1927)

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Along with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, F.W Murnau’s Sunrise, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, and the first movie to ever with the Academy Award for Best Picture, William A. Wellman’s Wings comes another classic from the first great year for movies and very possibly the best year for movies to date. At the end of the silent era, 1927 was also the year of The Jazz Singer but even though it was the first talky it barely mattered in comparison to the silent powerhouses of 1927.

Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven visually transports us to a seedy Paris neighborhood. The frankness of the subject matter is unparalleled for 1927 and for many years after as the Hayes Code would prevent intelligent portrayals of themes it found indecent for many years. Seventh Heaven is one of the movies that probably paved the way for the code but proves the silliness of it. The Hayes code did not like the topics of abuse, prostitution, and atheism, all of which are at the center of this beautiful film, but the topics are dealt in a way that demonstrates exactly what moral decency is, something that code could never dream of.

Chico likes to call himself “a very remarkable person.” But he work in a sewer, barely makes enough money to live on, desires to be married but has no prospects, and is not well liked by the people around him because his “very remarkable person” schtick is pretty much just cockiness. He claims to be an atheist, yet he blames God for his lot in life claiming that he is entitled to such much better since he is a “very remarkable person.”

He does do one very remarkable thing. He rescues a girl from a horrendous situation where she is physically abused by her sister and forced into prostitution. He saves her life and then regrets it because his good decision gets in the way of his own self-centered plans. He often encounters a priest who doesn’t do much preaching to him. He just helps Chico evaluates how he thinks. He helps Chico see that he isn’t really an atheist, and he confronts him with the truth that his problems are his own fault, not God’s. But he’s also not quite as selfish as he’s convinced himself, as he really does care for the girl who has inconveniently entered his life. Through this relationship, he’s constantly confronted with questions of how he sees himself and how he sees God.

What starts of as pity for her the girl makes him ask the big theological question of why good things happen to bad people. If God really exists (and Chico’s pretty convinced that he does, even though he says otherwise), then he must not care at all about this girl, and that he just let her be abandoned and abused. When she attempts suicide, he seems just as convinced as she does that there’s no real hope for her, that nobody cares, and all he comments on when he saves her is that he didn’t want her using his knife. But this pity and anger against God gradually changes as develops into one of the most romantic films ever made.

The relationship between Chico and Diane is the first kind of heaven Chico experiences. That’s what the title refers to. As he learns to respect the lives of others, he becomes able to love Diane and ultimately himself. 7th Heaven is a picture of a spiritual awakening that unfolds gradually, casually, and believably. It couldn’t be farther removed from the stories produced by Christian companies that shove transformation and religion in their viewers faces in ways that even the most devout Christians can’t take seriously (only people who approve of these films’ not-so-Christian evangelical propaganda fall for that insanity). It wrestles with the deep theological questions that plague all people at some point in their life. It never reaches for easy answers or tries to explain away the harsh realities of life with some canned false hope.

7th Heaven shows both a spiritual journey and a lovely romance. Both of these aspects of the film are life-affirming but based in reality. They give a picture of what the filmmakers think love is supposed to look like without ever minimizing its power that is often activated by grief and sacrifice. But they are never over-the-top. They are never in-your-face. 7th Heaven can be appreciated by people of all faiths or no faith. But just like the priest who works with Chico, it will leave everybody asking big questions that might just require some changes in life. And that is definitely a wonderful achievement that Frank Borzage reached in one of the greatest of all silent films.

List: Countercultural Classics

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Throughout September, Turner Classic Movies is having a spotlight each week on films that represent countercultural phenomena of the 1960s. I love that idea, but I’m not limiting my list to movies from or about the 60s. These are movies from all film eras representing an individual’s or small group’s involvement in a much bigger countercultural movement. Those movements are parts of very different dominant cultures (both real and fantasy cultures) as well, unlike the American focus of TCM’s spotlight this month. So, here are the greatest countercultural films of all times.

 

10. Conrack (1974)

A white teacher accepts a job on a South Carolina island community  in the 1960s that is entirely black except for the mailman. Separate but equal is no longer law, but this island has no choice but to be separate. The teacher’s job is much more than just teaching but helping the whole town see that there is life outside their island and more importantly pushing those off the island to see that there’s life on the island, to respect that life, and to give them the same opportunities that the white people on the mainland have. Pat Conroy created a countercultural movement built on love and equality that most of the mainland wouldn’t get behind.

 

9. The Motorcycle Diaries (2006)

Depicting an early part of Che Guevera’s life when he was still a young doctor, we follow him and his friend on a trip they took that helped to form many of Che’s convictions and philosophical beliefs. Through that we get to see the very start of his movement.

 

8. The Robe (1953)

It’s hard for Americans to think of Christianity as ever being a countercultural movement, but The Robe reminds us of what its earliest existence was like. When its main character, the fictional character Marcellus Galio (Richard Burton) confronts the very real, very mad Caligula, we are confronted with the truth of how deeply the faith offended the world it developed in.

 

7. Holiday (1938)

George Cuckor’s romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant may seem like a strange film to call a countercultural classic. But the family that the movie is about represents a very rigid devotion to American capitalism. The break from that rigidity that the couple in the movie seeks reflects a lot of what was seen in America after WWII, growing and becoming the most prominent in the hippy movement. Back in 1938, this movie shows characters who wanted to identify themselves by who the are rather than by what they do, the very heart of American counterculturalism. So I thought it important to include this movie here as it predates all these movement and so may have even played a role in some of them.

 

6. Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

Just as a young couple begins a romantic relationship, the girl is promised by tribal leaders as a sacrifice to the gods. The couple’s fight against tradition does not get a whole lot of help, but the help they do get creates a small movement to stand against the murderous tradition and to protect their love.

 

5. Freaks (1932)

The types of people rejected from “normal society” that found themselves in the freak shows of circuses create a rebellion in Tod Browning’s compassionate film that, despite the title, allows us to see them as people not freaks. Their movement is a movement against discrimination and stereotype and for inclusion. “Gobble gobble munch munch. Gobble gobble munch munch. We accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us.”

 

4. Loving (2016)

The Lovings, as the couple whose case ended all American laws opposing interracial marriage, never fought their battles for themselves alone. Mildred, as played by Ruth Negga, expresses hope that everything they go through will help others. Richard, played by Joel Edgerton (in last year’s best acting performance) is much quieter in how he fights the fight, but his fight is also for much more than his own family and even bigger than the struggles other families in similar situations. His fight is for the very concept and reality of love itself. And of course their struggle did create a movement in court and in all society that helped make it so interracial marriage in general would not stay a countercultural movement as it was for them..

 

3. Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

“Sugar Man” Rodriguez wrote and performed brilliant Bob Dylan-esque folk music in the 1960s and 70s that was a very important part of a countercultural movement, just not the one he knew about. His music and lyrics fit his own time and location in Detroit very well, his own desire for a countercultural movement that he never saw come to fruition. What he never imagined was that copies of his music serendipitously became popular in South Africa and influenced the anti-Apartheid movement. Getting to see “Sugar Man” perform in South Africa many years later once he finally realized that he was a star is one of the most inspiring scenes in film history in this monumental documentary.

 

2. Easy Rider (1969)

This one goes without saying, and is obviously why I picked the picture I did to introduce this list. Breaking away from hippy culture Wyatt and Billy create a counter-countercultural movement. Their movement includes mostly drug dealers, and while they claim to share ideals with the hippies are actually ruining the hippy movement and falling much more in line with the darkest side of American capitalism that they’re supposed to resisting. The hypocrisy of their movement makes for a profound view of counterculturalism.

 

1. Woodstock (1970)

And the documentary Woodstock is the most profound of all film views of counterculturalism. Far more than a concert film that shows the events of those days of the festival, Woodstock encompasses the hippy movement, and in many ways Woodstock is the hippy movement.

Notorious (1946)

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Identity and guilt are common themes in Alfred Hitchcock movies, and especially in his romances. Of course Hitchcock was the master of suspense. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone call him a master of romance, but he was. Olivia De Havilland’s character in Rebecca needed to come to terms with her own identity as separate from the identity of the titular character for the sake of her marriage. Gregory Peck’s character in Spellbound needed to confront guilt from his past and learn to identify himself as his doctor and eventual lover does so that their romance can be what they want it to be.

In Notorious, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is an alcoholic with a reputation for sordid sexual behavior. The movie opens with her father accused of treason against the U.S. for Nazi espionage. The people she surrounds herself with makes her look like she’s involved in the same criminal political activities as her father. But Devilin (Cary Grant) knows better. He’s the only person who knows her, even before he’s met her thanks to his own expertise in espionage.

Once they meet, they fall in love very quickly as people in 1940s movies usually do. Fast as is it, though, it is real. We know it’s real, but it’s harder for them to convince each other that it’s real. Alicia tries to change her ways. She desperately wants to change her ways. But she depends on him to see her as a different person than she was in the past before she really believes it herself. He wants her to change just as desperately as she does, and he knows that he loves her but he’s not sure if he believes her. Is her change really an act of love or is it just a momentary whim?

As they fall in love, they know they’re going to be working together, but they don’t know that her espionage work will be of a sexual nature. This work brings in all the suspense that Hitchcock is known for, but the heart of this story is not the criminal justice work they do but the way the work tests their love. She has to learn to accept herself as a person capable of loving and worthy of receiving love. She needs to stop identifying herself by the guilt of her past and become transformed by love. He needs to do the same thing as far as she’s concerned, he needs to learn to see her first as the woman he loves rather than the woman he knew her to be in the past.

Watching Alicia and Devilin struggle to make their romance work is a thriller in itself. Of course I’m thankful to Hitchcock for all the spy-related plot twists, the discovery of war crimes, and all the revelations that come as their investigation goes on. Every second of Notorious is intense and gripping, but none of it would work if it weren’t for Alicia’s transformation, essentially a spiritual journey that’s necessary to make their romance work. Whether or not Devilin believes Alicia at any particular moment determines whether or not he steps in to protect her from some of the most dangerous circumstances that she has no control over. Hitchcock was at his most brilliant when he tied together thrilling, romantic, and spiritual themes all into one perfectly composed masterpiece like Notorious.

 

Other Alfred Hitchcock movies I’ve reviewed: Rebecca (1940); Saboteur (1942); Shadow of a Doubt (1943); Psycho (1960)

List: The Films of Jennifer Jones

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Jennifer Jones is Turner Classic Movie’s star of the month. I haven’t seen a whole lot of her films, but here’s the list of those I have with my grades for her acting and only her acting, not the movie as a whole.

 

The Song of Bernadette (1943) A+

Playing a teenager in the beginning stages of the events that would lead to her eventual sainthood, Jennifer Jones beautifully captures her character’s innocence and conflict between the church and her own experience with the divine.

 

Duel in the Sun (1946) F

Playing a character who is supposed to be part Native American, Jennifer Jones certainly didn’t look the part, but that was the least of the problems with her acting. Experiencing her mother’s horrendous murder by her father, she acts more like she’s inconvenienced than any kind of grief or trauma. The character isn’t intended to be such a brat but that’s how se comes off in Jennifer Jones’ hands. After her brilliance performance in The Song of Bernadette, she showed how great she can be, but in Duel in the Sun she showed how clueless she can be to any real human emotion and experience.

 

Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953) C-

As she showed a complete lack of empathy towards the victim she played in Duel in the Sun, she lacked any sense of of passion, desire, or lust playing the wife of indiscretion. The movie was about as boring as they come but at least her performance didn’t involve the racism so prominent in Duel in the Sun.

 

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) B+

And finally things got a lot better for Jennifer Jones’ career in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, but nowhere near her spectacular performance 10 years earlier. With all the potential of being a pathetic soap opera and just as racist as Duel in the Sun, Jennifer Jones’ performance is exactly what prevented those potentialities from becoming a reality for this movie. She takes us into her romantic passion, her suffering, her grief, and her love letting us feel with her and for her. Everything she lacked in the last 2 movies I mentioned, she makes up for here.

 

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

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Vincente Minnelli’s classic movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis follows a family at the turn of the 20th century beginning at the end of the summer, right around Labor Day. It opens with the title song saying “meet me at the fair.” All are excited about the knowledge that the World’s Fair will be in their home town of St. Louis at the end of the year. Following the family from Labor Day through their experience at the fair right after Christmas, we take a delightful journey of Americana nostalgia, probably the best trip like this the movies have ever given us.

Films in the 1940s and 50s with this type of nostalgia tended to be either patriotic sap or nationalistic propaganda. But Meet Me in St. Louis takes us to a different world altogether. Yes, it’s supposed to be America at the turn of the century, and many parts of the movie are easy to accept as the way life was then. But there’s an equal amount of oddity that keeps the movie from going over any sentimental edge. It’s that oddity that makes this movie so special.

The main oddity is Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), a four-year-old girl who’s as macabre in the way she talks as she adorable in the way she looks. I heard Quentin Tarantino call this his favorite movie on an episode of “Under the Influence” on TCM. For him to say that about an Americana family musical would sound very weird, but once you’ve heard Tootie talk, it’s hard not to think about committing murder while eating a tasty burger. The first time we see Tootie she’s singing an obscure hymn from several centuries earlier for the funerals of children who died of the Black Plague. It was obscure long before the turn of the 20th century, so before Google made us able to research these things instantly, somebody would have to be completely obsessed with death and dying to even know this hymn, and Tootie certainly is. The hymn became slightly less obscure when people in the 1940s wanted to know what Tootie was singing, and the answer to that question shows just how twisted this little mind is. She built a cemetery for dead dolls. When trying not to get in trouble, she quickly changes the subject to something that involves blood. She gleefully talks and sings about the most cheerless realities of existence, all with a joyous gleam in her eye.

Over the four months that we get to follow this family, we join them in every holiday they experience. Thanks to the dark goofiness of Tootie, the best of course is Halloween. The traditions that Tudi and her sister take part in probably have no basis in reality. This is one of the great joys of Meet Me in St. Louis, we’re taken to a specific place at a specific time in history, and it all seems pretty believable for the most part except for some of Tootie’s excursions, but we don’t need to know or care if these traditions had any basis in reality. We get to know and love the family so much that we believe these are their traditions, and that’s all that matters.

September may seem way to early to start thinking about holidays, especially when this is the movie that introduced the world to the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but it starts right in the season we’ve entered as the time for as sense of excitement for all that the rest of the year holds. Without ever wandering into ungenuine   sentiment, Meet Me in St. Louis is a great film about family and tradition, odd enough to stay constantly entertaining and hilarious but holding dear the joys, hopes, and promise that can come through family, holidays, and tradition.