Sequels are almost impossible to take seriously – especially if the original film was both a commercial and critical success. Often, the stress of making the sequel just as good as or better than the original will create a great big mess on the screen. Filmmakers try too hard to get that special feeling or aura that surrounded the first success and end up copying what made the original so good in the beginning. But copying is not moving forward. Copying is not original. Copying is boring. That is why sequels often fail. The Godfather, Part II was not a fail. When critics and the general public have a hard time trying to list The Godfather, Part I or The Godfather, Part II as the better of the two films, you know that this sequel was one of the few that worked.
It worked because Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo came up with the brilliant idea to combine a sequel and a prequel together. At the outset, this could have been a colossal disaster. Would audiences take to the concept of going back in time, then moving forward again and again? Yes. You would also think that with the many changes of time and place within the film, from Vito’s life to Michael’s life, that the film would lag. It doesn’t. By going back and forth between the two, Coppola leaves you wanting more, to see what happens – but then we leave Vito’s life and continue Michael’s life – a brilliant tactic.
I’ve said that The Godfather, Part I was one of the best screenplays ever written. The sequel is equal in that regard. Al Pacino again delivers a great performance – even better than in the original because we see his character going through intense emotional upheaval. He definitely carried this film. His loss of the Oscar for Best Actor was a surprise. Robert De Niro is at the height of his talents as the young Vito. Even Diane Keaton (so irritating in the original) is true to her character, even if she says Michael, Michael, Michael again and again and again. Talia Shire is also allowed to expand on her character. In fact, all of the characters are going through so much upheaval that all of the actors are given a great chance to show off their acting chops.
By a nose, I’d give The Godfather, Part II the edge over the original. There are just too many subtleties that make it a better film. If Part II just slightly better than Part I, then Part II is easily one of the greatest films ever made.
When a screenplay is written as well as this one is, you instantly get the feeling that the events that are transpiring on the screen actually happened. Of course, they did not, but that is what happens – you get lost in the story so much and it is told so well that during the film, it’s as if you are witnessing a real crime family’s life story. There are very few films that have this aura about them. What is equally fascinating is that the story is not overly complicated – it flows so naturally and so easily that you become engrossed in the film without realizing it. That is not to say that The Godfather, Part I is a simplistic film – far from it. It’s the storytelling that is the star of the film. The only other film that has this same magic is the greatest of them all, Citizen Kane.
It is perhaps only fitting that The Godfather, Part I and Citizen Kane regularly top the list of any reputable Greatest Films of All-Time list. They are two of the greatest screenplays ever written. It is also no coincidence that they are written in a biographical style with a central character larger than life and his trials and tribulations as the main backdrop of the film. As books, biographies (and autobiographies) are often really good reads. As films, they work sometimes, but often do not. The trick is to craft a screenplay with carefully placed plot points that may seem small, but are really the backbones of the film.
When you have scenes from a film parodied to death decades after the film was released, you know that you have created something special. Whether it is Marlon Brando’s performance, the scene in the Italian restaurant, the scene at the toll booth or the scene in the tomato garden, these scenes are parodied because they are so well put together.
Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and all the actors who played the mafia families were brilliant. Of course, they had great material to work with.
Along with Clockwise, this is John Cleese’s greatest film achievement. This film had Cleese’s trademark dark humour in every corner and in every scene. Even the slightest jab or dialogue was a major laugh (“Oh, do shut up Portia!”). In that same scene when Kevin Kline’s character Otto fumbles with a made-up name (Mr. Manfredjinsinjin), Maria Aitken’s character Wendy repeats it as a straight line and it’s simply brilliant. Things like this hide in every nook and cranny of A Fish Called Wanda so much that if you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss some of the great lines and dark humour.
John Cleese took a chance with him playing the straight man, unlike his other over-the-top bizarre characters he has played throughout his career. This job falls to Kevin Kline who delivers one of the funniest supporting characters in film history. He rightly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. In fact, all of the actors had great material to work with – assembled from the minds of Cleese and director Charles Crichton. You simply couldn’t go wrong with a script that brilliant.
A Fish Called Wanda is one of the greatest comedies of all-time and it stands apart in modern film as an example of great comedy that often can’t be repeated or modelled after because the original script was so strong. It is one of those unique screenplays in that the characters act individually, but come together collectively in the end. It is during their individual pursuits that their characters and the humour really shines. A prime example of this is Michael Palin’s character Ken inadvertently killing the dogs of his target instead of the target. The scenario is warped, but it is so cleverly written that you end up being drawn into the humour of Ken’s grief.
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