Reviews by Steven Lewis
There are some movies that are not merely “overlooked” but have actually been BRANDED: popular and/or critical opinion has placed a scarlet “B” over their video box, and viewers are appropriately wary of even giving them a try. Below are three movies that, in my estimation, deserve rescue from the cinematic scrap heap that they’ve been consigned to. Classics? Perhaps not. But considerably better than their rep, and worth at least a look-see by the discriminating cinephile.
THE GODFATHER: PART III
This thing has become something of a whipping boy for sequels (particularly threequels) over the years, and I just don’t feel it’s warranted. OK, biases right up front: the first Godfather is my favorite film of all time, while the second one I find generally opaque, hard to follow, and largely unnecessary. Within that context, Part III is not any more “necessary” (“The Godfather” being a film of such stand-alone power that it requires no sequel), but if it was a saga the studio was determined to make, then I find this film a much more worthy wrap-up to the series than the second one ever was. It teems with all the elements that make the Godfather saga so engrossing: strong characters, shadowy back-room negotiations, elaborate plotting and double-crossing, shocking yet fantastically orchestrated violence and, finally and most memorably, an operatic finale which is a masterpiece of cross-cutting between organized ritual (in this case, an opera) and acts of murder. If the film sags around the edges, well – that’s entirely appropriate too, since Michael Corleone, its lead character, is himself now aging and frail. It is as if each of the Godfather films takes its cue from Michael’s metabolism: the first is full of zest and youthful exuberance, the second is cold, hard and steely, and the third is creaky and totters on the brink of collapse. Many take this as a fault of the film, when really it is the perfect mirror of the soul of Michael himself. As such, the weariness which pervades the entire story is poignant and heartbreaking, not the result of bad filmmaking.
The acting is all first rate, as is expected by now in a Godfather film. As Sonny Corleone’s bastard son Vincent Mancini, Andy Garcia makes a strong impression and the push-pull between he and Pacino – the young hothead vs. the wisened and calculating veteran – gives the film its edge, and its unique place in the Godfather canon. It is slightly unbelievable that Michael would have no one else to turn over the running of the family to besides Vincent, a tangential relation at best, but since it works dramatically you tend to overlook the flaw in logic. Likewise, the scenes between Michael and Kay carry a special charge; though written near the level of soap opera, the fact that it is actually Pacino and Diane Keaton sitting across from each other, and that we have shared so deeply in their history together, breathes a curious kind of nobility and sadness into them. Like everyone else, I missed Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, but even his absence serves, in an ironic way, to underline the theme of Michael drifting toward the end of his life, losing all his associations along the way; the loneliness and solitariness which enveloped him by the end of the second movie have not gone away, and his attempts to fight against and deny this fact is what gives his character real tragic dimension here.
OK, just a word on Sofia Coppola as Michael’s daughter Mary. No, she’s obviously not a trained actress and her readings are a little flat, but you know what? It doesn’t make that much difference. Her character exists more as a symbol to Michael of innocence and incorruptibility than as a true three-dimensional personage. As such, she at least has the right look and feel – I can imagine her as Pacino’s daughter in a way I don’t think I ever could have bought Winona Ryder (who was originally to play this role). What I’m saying here is that, while she’s not great, she does what she needs to do and she in no way sinks the film – if for no other reason than that her screen time isn’t large enough to do so.
All in all, this is a first-rate film, with a plot line that is at times admittedly hard to follow, but not nearly as much as the one in Part II. And this one has a better cast of characters: just think of it, the Corleones getting into business dealings with the Vatican! The audacity of this storyline alone should make it beloved to all true Godfather fans. And some of the violence here – including the helicopter assault in Atlantic City, the murder of Joey Zasa on the streets of Little Italy, and, most notably, the new and wildly unexpected use found for a pair of reading glasses – is as brilliant and memorable as anything in the first film, and supersede the second one entirely. In short, “The Godfather, Part III” makes a great wrap up to the entire saga, and earns its full place in the family history; it’s no mere footnote, but a great and satisfying film all its own.
When I first saw this movie, at the time of its initial release, I really liked it a lot. I didn’t necessarily buy it as the “definitive Gen-X movie” or anything, but it still offered up a feast of pleasures: Wynona Ryder (who I don’t normally like) at her sexiest and most appealing, a quirky and irreverent script, a GREAT soundtrack, and the projection of a real “lived-in” feel amongst the main group of friends. Their hanging-out and their conversations with each other felt very genuine and unforced, and reminded me of times I’d spent with my own friends. People who criticized the film – and there were many – for “just showing young people sitting around” forget not only how much of life (even the enjoyable parts) is spent doing nothing particularly momentous, but equally how difficult it is to capture that elusive, just-sitting-around quality on film. Heck, I even thought Ethan Hawke was terrific (although this was due more to my inability to get over the fact that it was the same actor who played the nervous, uptight kid in “Dead Poet’s Society”).
Looking at it today, though. . . . well, I still like it, but I can see more clearly a lot of its flaws and why many people (particularly those of my age group, i.e. the Gen-Xers) didn’t like it. It is a bit too self-important, and many of its moments feel forced. The romantic triangle aspect of the movie seems more like a gimmick to propel the action than as an idea anyone could seriously get behind. I’m still totally captivated by Ryder in this movie (weird, because I almost never care for her otherwise), but it feels wrong that she should end up with EITHER of these two guys. Hawke and she have a believable and appealing chemistry, but he’s really too much of a poster boy for Slacker-hood to be taken seriously as a romantic prospect. And Ben Stiller as the corporate yuppie is just too dweeby and annoying. His performance is the big weak link in the movie; he takes what could have been (and seems written as) an interesting, double-edged character of personal charm but deep insecurity, and turns him into a one-dimensional nerd whose tics and mannerisms grow increasingly more grating.
And yet, there’s just too many good things in this movie to write it off. The scenes with John Mahoney as the daytime talk show host – hilarious! Ryder’s conferences with her clueless parents (I love when her mother, played as a perfect ditz by Swoosie Kurtz, lovingly calls her daughter “sugar booger”); any scene with Janeane Garofalo or Steve Zahn in it (this movie introduced me to both these actors, and I’ve enjoyed them more and more ever since); and, most memorably, the hilarious butchering that Ryder’s student film receives at the hands of the MTV-like cable channel that Stiller works for. That scene makes me laugh uncontrollably every time I see it. It demonstrates Ben Stiller’s greatest ability as a director: a profound media savvy and an ability to satirize not only television, but any form of pre-fabricated culture. His jaundiced yet playful eye takes in everything from “Melrose Place” to psychic hot-lines, Gap outlet stores and 7-11 Big Gulps and posits them as the type of cultural detritus that, for good or bad, a generation has come to view the world through. Nothing as coherent as a “statement” comes out of all this, but the film does provide an enjoyable fun-house mirror through which a certain segment of the population can find itself reflected, if perhaps imperfectly.
So, yeah, not the film to end all films (and the worse for sometimes looking like that’s what it’s trying for), but certainly good for a few self-referential chuckles, and an appealing (if a bit slovenly) cast of characters to spend the evening with.
Ok, here’s one movie whose “Bad” status is undoubtedly warranted. “Neighbors” is, without a doubt, the worst film I have ever seen in my entire life – and yet, it’s awful in such a particular, peculiar way that it’s almost worth seeing anyhow. This film is terrible, but unlike your average, run-of-the-mill bad film, this one is actually fascinating. I saw it on TV late one night and I was absolutely mesmerized. Usually, when a movie doesn’t work, you can at least see what the filmmakers had in mind, and then can assess where it went wrong (weak concept, poor script, actors weren’t the right ones for the roles, etc.). But here, I have no idea – I mean absolutely NO IDEA – what the makers of the film were going for in the first place.
I mean, OK, John Belushi is this very repressed and conservative guy and these “wacky” neighbors move in next door and shake his life up. So you assume the film is after some sort of satirical vision – maybe even some dark exploration of the underside of suburbia (which the odd camera angles, creepy music, and general “Twilight Zone” photography seem to accentuate). But the neighbors’ “wackiness” is utterly without context – they just perpetrate one unlikely act after another (usually some kind of sadistic prank on Belushi) for no real reason and to no ultimate goal. There’s no internal consistency to the way any of the characters behave, so that you’re never on any firm ground in knowing either what’s going to happen next – or in caring about it anyway. Watching this movie is like watching a car wreck – and then seeing the people involved get back into their vehicles, start them up, and proceed to wreck into each other again and again, for ninety minutes. It’s so absurd. Just when you think the film can’t get any worse – more cruel or pointless – it does. Again and again, for ninety minutes, it keeps one-upping itself in dreadfulness.
I have my own special theory about this film. I maintain that it wasn’t made to entertain at all. It was made with the specific intent of having its financial backers shit bricks and squirm in their seats. I can just see Belushi and Aykroyd as they watched the suits at the studio viewing the final cut of this movie for the first time, giggling proudly to themselves and saying “Ha! I dare you guys to actually try and MARKET this turd!” And, I have to say, when I imagine the movie in that context, it does make me laugh – because it has been so thoroughly devised as to appeal to absolutely nobody! It is purely bad through and through, and whenever something even threatens to get interesting or to make sense, the film zigs off in yet another pointless, non-sequitur direction. As such, it achieves a purity of badness which is totally unique: every single moment – not just the film when taken as a whole, but every SINGLE FUCKING FRAME of this turkey – is bathed in the putrid stench of awfulness.
Since first seeing it, I have turned some of my friends on to this movie, and amongst ourselves we have devised a new film rating. If a movie is just bad, that’s one thing – but if it’s ‘Neighbors’ Bad, then it’s something entirely different. A movie that’s ‘Neighbors’ Bad is one which looks like it’s actually working harder to be awful than it is to be good (and I’m excluding purposefully “camp” films here) – one whose plot is almost indecipherable, whose events and characterizations are completely random, and again and again frustrates any expectation at arriving at any sort of meaningful conclusion, even a silly one. Not many films like this exist (thankfully), making “Neighbors”, at least for me, a bizarre and perverse sort of pleasure.
If any of the foregoing analysis makes sense to you or strikes any kind of chord, you may want to check “Neighbors” out just for the novelty of it; for certain, it will be one of the most singular movie experiences you’ll ever have. But if you do so, for God’s sake make sure you have a legitimately good movie ready to put in right afterward – believe me, after seeing “Neighbors”, you’ll need it!
“Reality Bites” is available on DVD, “The Godfather, Part III” is available on DVD & Blu-Ray. Good luck finding “Neighbors”.