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The Godfather on Blu-ray is an offer serious film mavens can’t refuse.

It’s Not Personal, It’s Strictly Business

In a word: Yowza!
In a word: Yowza!

Why is this release of The Godfather so significant? To put things in perspective, when adjusted for inflation it’s estimated the first Godfather still has about $30 million more in the box office till than The Dark Knight. That’s a staggering amount of dough for a three-hour, R-rated, violent, tough-talking gangster movie first released in 1972. In going back and painstakingly restoring the first two movies, it ensures these treasures of American cinema that have so engrained themselves in American pop culture will be around for generations to come.

When director Francis Ford Coppola was first approached about the Godfather project, he agonized over whether he should take it or not and questioned some of the sleazier material in Mario Puzo’s source novel. It was George Lucas who encouraged his friend to take the gig by framing the opportunity as a lifeline, a way of keeping his American Zoetrope, independent film dream alive.

The end result led to an unprecedented reaction critically and financially, with the first two movies both earning the Best Picture Oscar and the third receiving a Best Picture nomination. In short, Coppola achieved what eludes most filmmakers: The ultimate mix of art and commerce.

That success raises the question: Could the Godfather movies be made in today’s Hollywood and succeed to the same degree with today’s audiences? Given the increasingly disposable nature of movies, a virtual revolving door of entertainment options gunning for the Number One spot in the Monday morning box office reports, the answer seems to be an increasingly resounding “no.”

Based on Coppola’s running commentaries, the moviemaking process is either incredibly disheartening and frustrating with all of the political maneuverings or exceedingly exciting and full of possibilities. Either way, after Coppola regales the listener with his stories, it’s clear The Godfather movies are nothing short of miraculous.

Just When I Thought I Was Out, They Pull Me Back In

Informed by stories from true-life Mafioso activities and interwoven with tidbits from Francis Ford Coppola’s own family history, The Godfather series is a sprawling epic that moves between New York City, Sicily, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and Atlantic City. At its core, it’s about Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and the change in path his life takes after rivals try to murder his father (Marlon Brando).

Seeking revenge, Michael is pulled into the family business and away from the more honorable life his father hoped he would pursue — a life involving military service and an Ivy League education.

Part II follows a magnificent dual storyline that tells of Vito Andolini’s journey to America and donning the name Vito Corleone (with Robert DeNiro assuming the role made famous by Brando) while simultaneously tracking the progress of Michael and his efforts to move the family business into more respectable terrain. It’s an incredible piece of storytelling that satisfied Coppola’s pre-existing desire to tell a father-son story, tracing each character’s activities at the same age, while ultimately proving to be a more-than-worthy follow-up to 1972’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture.

Some 15 years after the release of The Godfather Part II, Part III picks things up in relatively contemporary times (1979) as Michael negotiates with the Papacy and struggles to rebuild tattered familial relationships. As with any sequel released so long after the original episodes, Part III had to struggle with enormous audience expectations while still satiating the artistic and storytelling needs of Coppola and Puzo. Its climactic conclusion, featuring the opera Cavalleria Rusticana, is in its own right a fantastic cinematic work. Put side by side with the other two movies, newly restored to their old glory, Part III deserves another look by those who quickly dismissed it upon its release.

Through it all, soak up the radiance of the young cast with names that still loom large in today’s Hollywood: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Robert DeNiro, Talia Shire (pre-Rocky), and Diane Keaton (pre-Annie Hall). Also reconsider the “controversial” casting of Coppola’s daughter, Sofia, in Part III. She’s really not that bad in the role of Mary Corleone. And, of course, there’s the legendary, late Marlon Brando.

Blu-ray Extras

Yowza! This set is loaded with almost five hours of supplemental content on Disc 4, plus some “at-your-own-pace” text-based materials. On top of that are the Coppola commentaries, accounting for an additional nine hours of Godfather nirvana.

Virtually indispensable are Coppola’s commentary tracks. Originally included on the 2001 release, they are terrific and serve as prime examples of what running commentaries should be about: The moviemaking experience and the conflict between the creative process and studio politics that somehow, almost magically, defy the odds and create significant pieces of popular culture. Coppola runs through all aspects, from the odd minutiae of how the studio wanted a full title for the first sequel, preferring not to call it simply The Godfather Part II, to the reversal of views on Part III, wherein Coppola wanted it to be titled The Death of Michael Corleone while the studio insisted it simply be called The Godfather Part III. Conflicts over casting, locations, themes — virtually every aspect of the production is recalled by the director. The commentary on each movie is a must for those who have attended or ever desired going to film school.

While there are a slew of new features produced specifically for this release, Paramount wisely also included all the goodies from the 2001 DVD set. In short, it’s a treasure trove and, in actuality, a lot of the new content takes a back seat to the richness of the older material.

The best part of the new content is seeing Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Walter Murch, and Steven Spielberg, buddies who went to the head of the world’s film class in the 1970s, discuss the making of the Godfather movies. It’s unfortunate Martin Scorsese, from that same class and the director Coppola initially lobbied Paramount to direct Part II, isn’t included in the interviews, especially considering the career he’s made out of mobster movies.

At the top of the list of the new content is Emulsional Rescue: Revealing the Godfather. Spielberg recalls Coppola writing him, upon Paramount’s acquisition of Dreamworks SKG, requesting help to get the restoration of The Godfather moving forward. What followed was a worldwide search for film elements to build out the “perfect print.” Watch and learn, dear viewers.

Another juicy one is The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t. It’s a “modern old school” reunion with Coppola, Murch, Lucas (the founders of American Zoetrope) and Spielberg discussing the angst in making this movie. On the other hand, the inclusion of South Park creator Trey Parker talking about the significance of these movies waters things down. Sure, South Park’s a Paramount property, but get Parker outta there.

There were so many challenges, differing opinions, and episodes of head-butting that it’s a miracle The Godfather turned out the way it did. No wonder Coppola looks back rather unhappily at all the heck that went on as he attempted to change a potboiler that became a global bestseller into — ironically enough — something more literate and reframe it as a metaphor for capitalism. The casting, the locations, the time setting — everything Coppola wanted — was under fire and he had to fight every day to get the movie made the way he wanted it.

… when the shooting stopped is another informative piece, this time focusing on the editing and scoring of Part I, particularly the horse’s head scene, before moving on to cover Part II and Part III.

Fairly disposable is Godfather World, which examines the impact of the movies on pop culture. On topic are The Sopranos, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and, yeah, more South Park. It’s good to see Stevie Van Zandt discuss his Sopranos character, but this one’s mostly best left for a dirt nap.

There are also “Four Short Films on The Godfather” which vary from highly derivative to worthwhile. On the derivative side is GF vs. GF Part II, which features comments from film critic Kenneth Turan, Sopranos creator David Chase, Sarah Vowell (comedienne and author of Take the Cannoli), actor John Turtorro, and others as they discuss the first two movies.

Riffing on the Riffing is totally derivative, it’s simply a collection of bits with Richard Belzer and Seth Isler quoting the movies. Fahgeddaboudit.

Cannoli, on the other hand, is a nice little piece wherein Coppola recalls his father bringing home the cannoli and a “no cannoli for you”-type episode in the Coppola family household. As it turns out, the infamous line, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” was actually improvised on-set.

Clemenza is another decent short in which Coppola explains the reasons behind the off-screen death of Clemenza.

On the text side, The Family Tree is exactly what the title implies and it branches out to information about each family character and sub-branches to information about the actor or actors who played the character. It’s an excellent piece of work.

Also excellent is the Crime Organization Chart, which features 19 Corleone Family members. The details include things like their rap sheet, which lists their crimes, manner of death, and famous quotes. There’s also information on 18 “Rivals & Associates.” This is the kind of value-added material that’s always fun to go back and leisurely sift through in bits and pieces.

There’s also Connie and Carlo’s Wedding Album, which is a quality, albeit short, collection of stills from the wedding party in The Godfather, all done up like an actual wedding album.

At the bottom of the list of the new features is The Godfather on the Red Carpet, which is a self-serving collection of red carpet interviews with young, fresh-faced talent from recent and upcoming Paramount releases, including Cloverfield and Star Trek 11. Yeah, they’re talking about The Godfather, but this piece deserves to sleep with the fishes.

That’s just the new stuff. There’s also the whole 2001 DVD Archive. In many respects this content is more valuable and worthwhile, particularly in terms of the vintage footage on tap, than the new materials.

A Look Inside is an excellent 75-minute documentary loaded with vintage behind-the-scenes materials. Another effective little documentary is The Godfather Behind the Scenes: 1971, made by a film student while the movie was in production in New York.

Here’s a brief rundown of the other shorts:

Francis Coppola’s Notebook — reveals Coppola’s Godfather “bible,” his meticulous guide of hand written notes about the novel, which in many respects proved more valuable on-set than the screenplay itself.

Coppola & Puzo On Screenwriting — interviews with Coppola and Puzo as they discuss their tag-team approach to their adaptations. There’s also a tantalizing little bit as Puzo enthusiastically talks about his thoughts on The Godfather Part IV. Unfortunately, Puzo died in 1999 with the screenplay only half-written.

On Location — production designer Dean Tavoularis revisits the movies’ Lower East Side of Manhattan filming locations.

Music of The Godfather — very good shorts about Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola.

Gordon Willis On Cinematography — exactly what the title implies and another valuable piece to watch for those confused about the art of film.

Additional Scenes / Godfather Chronology is a collection of 33 deleted scenes covering the saga from 1901 to 1958. Each scene includes introductory text that sets the stage and details where the scene would’ve been included in the feature film. There’s also an alternate opening for The Godfather Part III. The footage is good to see, but all the clips from Part I and Part II are in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Acclaim & Response includes fantastic vintage Oscar footage from 1972 and 1974 with the acceptance speeches for Best Screenplay and Best Picture (1972) and Best Director and Best Picture (1974). It’s quite obvious Coppola is a much more detailed screenwriter than he is speechwriter. That, no doubt, plays to his overall gentle and humble nature. Along the same lines, there’s a classic bit of old-school TV, the 1974 Network TV Intro in which Coppola comments on his supervision of the revisions made to The Godfather in order for it to be shown on TV, including the re-editing of questionable scenes. Of course, viewer discretion was advised.

Awards & Nominations lists all the Academy Award nominations and wins for the three movies.

Also on tap are trailers for all three Godfather movies, nicely presented in the full 1.85:1 format, as well as a Photo Gallery of production, behind the scenes, and promotional stills and a Rogues’ Gallery of minor character photos.

There are also galleries of storyboards from Godfather Part II and Godfather Part III as well as text bios of Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, Gordon Willis, Dean Tavoularis, Nino Rota, and Carmine Coppola.

One thing that might be considered an omission: There’s a neat timeline of the entire Godfather saga on the Godfather’s Web site. It would’ve been a nice addition here, but given the sheer volume of material already included, it’s not worth upsetting the Godfather over it.

A quick note about the art of packaging: A little promotional booklet is included on the outside of the box. With a wee bit more thought, they could’ve trimmed the booklet down to actually fit inside the box after the package is unwrapped.

Blu-ray Exclusives

There are none, but the new supplemental content is presented in high definition.

Picture and Sound

There’s a lot to appreciate here.

The easiest is the audio. Listening to the first two movies remastered and rejiggled from their original mono tracks to full Dolby TrueHD 5.1 is a revelation. Sure, there are a few points along the way where the audio falters and things don’t match up quite right, but we’re talking about 36-year-old movies here, not something fresh from this summer’s cinema. So, from the goose-bump-inducing opening strains of Nino Rota’s score, to the quiet discussion between a patron and the Godfather all the way through the operatic finish of The Godfather Part III, the audio upgrade is a real treat.

The audio options are English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, English Mono (on the first two movies, for the purists), French 5.1 Dolby Digital, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital.

Not as easy — for some — to appreciate, but much more significant, is the image restoration of Part I and Part II. This is where it’s important to understand film. This isn’t a discussion about “movies,” it’s about the physical medium called “celluloid.” For those who “demand” their high-definition video be the equivalent of the air-brushed perfection of a Playboy bunny, you’ve got to get a handle on what you’re supposed to be seeing.

The promise of Blu-ray, as written ad nauseam here and elsewhere, is to replicate the theatrical experience of the film’s presentation. Film has grain and filmmakers can exploit it to evoke emotion, atmosphere, sensation, mood — any number of things. Grain is good. Grain can be your friend. The promise of Blu-ray is not to erroneously, passionlessly remove grain. The promise of Blu-ray is to preserve it. As Shakespeare might say, the grain’s the thing.

On this Blu-ray set, Gordon Willis’ blacks are as black as pitch. And, as with the opening sequences of The Godfather, the picture instantly shifts from the darkness of the Godfather’s office to the brilliant bright sunlight of the great outdoors. Does the picture become washed out when the movie moves outside? Or is it recreating the borderline bleariness of a bright summer day sans sunglasses?

Choose wisely. Pick the latter.

Listen to Coppola’s terrific commentaries and watch Emulsional Rescue, the restoration documentary, for an understanding of what the original presentation, 36 years ago, was like and what they wanted — and needed — to accomplish with this restoration.

Subtitles on the feature films are available in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. (Mamma mia! No Italiano!)

Subtitles on the supplements are available in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

How to Use This Disc

Watch Emulsional Rescue then get immersed in the Godfather’s world. For those who’ve ever wanted to attend film school, listen to Coppola’s commentaries.