By Marc S. Sanders

Rocky is a story about a bunch of losers.  It really is. It’s actually a film that does not represent or follow the standard ho hum formula that so many other well-recognized sports films that are so familiar, since it premiered on screens in 1976. 

If you examine Rocky, what you’ll find is a story about a boxer by the name of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone in a role that broke through everything for him), who is not shown doing much boxing or even training.  Instead, the southpaw boxer known as The Italian Stallion, is displayed as a heavy collector for a loan shark in and around the south side of a dirty Philadelphia.  Early on in the film, Rocky delivers monies to the loan shark and his driver asks Rocky “Did ya get the license plate?”  Rocky asks for what, and the driver snaps back with “For the truck that ran over your face.”  It’s delivered with a little humor but it’s also sad.  Is there anyone to uplift poor Rocky’s spirits?  His one-time trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), kicks him out of the gym because he’s tired of Rocky at age 30 wasting his life with the scum of the streets.  Rocky lives in a filthy apartment barely making scratch from underground fights.  About the only redeeming quality Rocky seems to show is his tender loving care for his two turtles, Cuff and Link.  So, it is surprisingly charming when he sweet talks a mousy, petite woman named Adrian (Talia Shire, truly in an underrated performance) for a date. 

Adrian is also a loser, or at least she’s treated like one by her brother, Paulie (Burt Young).  He’s constantly putting her down for her looks and lack of men in her life and any other opportune moment he can find.  It’s the only way that Paulie can build confidence in himself; by putting his sister down.  Beyond that, all he has going for him is his job in the meat locker.  His one dream is for Rocky to give him a job working for the loan shark.  Such aspirations.

By luck, Rocky is called upon by the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), to fight him in the ring.  Anyone else would jump at this chance.  For Rocky, it’s just a way to earn a fast $150,000 and use his face as a punching bag for Creed on live television.

All of these characters within this circle come out of their shells once Rocky is given the opportunity of a lifetime.  The first win for Rocky is when he wins over Adrian on an adoring, near penniless date when he takes her ice skating on Thanksgiving night.  They’re only given ten minutes to skate together.  The transition thereafter is quite revealing.  Director John G. Avildsen transforms Adrian’s appearance by removing her ugly glasses and hat.  Rocky is pleasantly surprised by the red winter coat she wears later in the picture.  Adrian becomes more talkative and expressive.  Initially, she couldn’t even look Rocky in the eye.  When Rocky gives her a shout out at a press conference on TV, Adrian laughs and cuddles up next to Rocky.  Someone has finally treasured her and she adores it so appreciatingly.  Shire really demonstrates a nice character arc, where she comes out from under the strong arm of her brother to find her independence and make choices for herself.  An amazing scene occurs near the end between Shire and Young.  The pent-up frustration the siblings have for one another finally boils over.  This scene is what won both of these actors their Oscar nominations.  It’s a moment in all of the Rocky films that doesn’t get enough recognition.

Mickey is the one who gives tough love to Rocky.  He shares with Rocky his own battles in the ring during the first half of his near 50 years in boxing.  All of the blood and sweat didn’t amount to much beyond the gym he has for the local fighters.  What he earned as a fighter was a cauliflower ear and no family except the poor kids who go in and out of his southside gym.  Now he has a chance at the big time and he has to win over Rocky’s affections so that he can train him properly for the fight that’s coming up.

The biggest loser of course is the title character.  Credit must first go to Stallone for an outstanding insightful script that looks much deeper than any of the numerous sequels that followed this film.  The original Rocky is not about punches.  The script eventually transitions into determination with Rocky giving a sorrowful monologue to Adrian acknowledging he’s a loser with no chance at beating Creed.  At the very least, all he wants to do is settle for going the full 15 rounds with the champion and never falling down on the mat for a count of 10.  Only then can Rocky triumph with a personal victory.

Rocky won the Oscar for Best Picture and Avildsen won Best Director in 1976, beating out incredible films like Network, Taxi Driver and All The President’s Men.  I’ve thought about this endlessly over the years.  Why did it win?  I mean look at the competition it had.  The script for Network is one of the most admired and amazing scripts in Hollywood history; now it’s regarded for how prophetic it has become.  The other two films gave brutally honest, yet cynical portraits of the lack of innocence in the United States.  These other films rightfully question if America is the greatest and most thriving country in the world.  Just writing this, I think I answered my own question, though I will endlessly ponder anyway.  Rocky is the one positive entry of nominated films that year.  Rocky Balboa put aside the differences he had with others and overcame the adversity of those that would antagonize and guide him down the wrong paths. 

It’s totally cliché now to say this but Avildsen’s film, Rocky, is an awe-inspiring triumph.  It’s still okay to identify the picture as such, because it was the first to do what only so many imitations thereafter tried to duplicate.  The outcome of the fight within the film was not about winning the belt and the fortunes of money.  It was a breakthrough from a wasted life – the life of a loser; the lives Rocky, Adrian, Paulie and Mickey were all sadly living before the chance opportunity of supporting one another came to pass.  As Bill Conti’s unforgettable soundtrack closes out the picture, you are not just crying for Rocky and Adrian as they profess their love for one another in the middle of a crowded boxing ring.  You are crying because you realize you can believe in changing your life with will, stamina, endurance, personal strength, confidence and then…finally…love.


By Marc S. Sanders

Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo finished out their Corleone trilogy in 1990 with The Godfather Part III. Not so much a sequel, this third film feels more like an epilogue jumping towards Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) elder years as the Don of the most powerful Mafia family in the late 70s/early 80s.

Michael seems exhausted with his rule as he suffers from diabetes as well as remorse for his past sins; especially feeling the guilt of ordering the execution of his brother Fredo.

Still, he is drawn to crime, but on a more sophisticated and righteous nature by taking advantage of the Roman Catholic Church. Michael intends to purchase the powerful bank associated with the church but that’ll have to fall in line with the Pontiff’s agreement. It doesn’t help that the Pope is in failing health. The setup of all this lends to another grand opening where Michael earns a prestigious award from the church in the same tradition of an austere celebration of many guests that lend to character set ups for the film. A Godfather movie is not a Godfather movie without a grand reception to open the film.

The most interesting character is Michael’s nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia), a fierce hot head like his father Sonny. He wants to work for Michael desperately while fending off a street hood boss (Joe Mantegna). An older don also comes into play by the great character actor, Eli Wallach. Diane Keaton as ex-wife Kay is also here but more or less to quietly bicker with Michael. Sister Connie is here, too, with Talia Shire. The Connie character always changes from each movie. Here she’s a deadly black widow. There’s also Michael’s daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola, contrary to popular opinion, I insist she’s very good in the role). Is Mary a legitimate cover for the family as the spokesperson for a fundraising effort? Is the possibility of Vincent and Mary (as cousins) getting intimate a terrible risk?

I like this film and hold it in high regard. Namely because Coppola and Puzo took an approach straight out of the news when there was an embezzlement scheme occurring within the Vatican bank. The problem for many I believe was that the plot of this grand scheme was not flashy or bloody enough, even if a participant is revealed to be hanging from a London bridge with fraudulent receipts falling out of his pockets…which actually happened in real life.

The film allows many opportunities for Michael to allow his anguish in guilt to flow. Fans grew used to a fierce Michael Corleone from the first two films. The elder Michael here would rather not get involved. Hence the introduction of Garcia’s character. He’s very good in the role. Yet there’s not much dimension to Vincent. He’s a scary violent guy, and a contradiction to what Michael seeks. Yet, thats about all there is. I would have wanted more dimension to this role; the guy destined to carry on the reign.

Sofia Coppola is fine in her part and undeserving of the lashing she received upon the film’s release. She’s Michael’s young daughter; a young adult dangerously close to the fray. The one innocent constant within the family. For me, I found a dramatic stake in her character.

The ending is very powerful. Slowly methodical as the family assembles in Sicily to see Michael’s son’s stage opera debut. There are elements that are consistent with the other films’ endings, but this violent conclusion comes with quite a shocking result. I was really moved by it.

Coppola didn’t measure up to the first two films with this effort. I agree with that. Still, The Godfather Part III is worthy of holding its place in the saga. It carries the traditions of the prior films in set up and music and operatic narrative. Be patient with its slow pace because I think the ending will grab you.


By Marc S. Sanders

The first film to use the number 2 (or Roman numeral II, in this case), in its title and the first sequel to win Best Picture is Francis Ford Coppola’s continuous adaptation of Mario Puzo’s Corleone family legacy in The Godfather Part II. It is worthy of all of the accolades it collected as an individual film. Yet, it does not best the first film.

Unlike the 1972 classic, Part II does not provide much character arc for anyone. We’ve already seen Michael (Al Pacino, silently ferocious here) change from good college boy and war hero to the evil puppet master Mafioso he eventually became. This film shows him exercising his threateningly murderous deeds as he works in conjunction with a sly Nevada Senator, a Jewish Miami mob boss (an excellent performance from Lee Strasberg) from the time of his father’s reign, and another mob guy from New York (Michael V Gazzo). We get a whiff of all these guys early on during a commencement celebration for Michael’s son. Coppola keeps this a running theme of grand openings in all three films. It’s a great method of introductions each time.

Following the party, an assassination attempt is brought against Michael. But who did it? Problem is this is where the foundation of the film is not so strong. It’s never really made clear who betrayed Michael. That’s a little bothersome.

Coppola depicts another storyline altogether with the early 20th century origin of Vito Corleone flawlessly played by Robert DeNiro who hardly speaks any English while communicating in a Sicilian variant of Italian. Young Vito immigrates to America following an escape from the Sicilian Don that murdered his family. In New York we witness his rise to power. Famed Cinematographer Gordon Willis washes out these flashback images to enhance a pictorial history accompanied by Angelo P. Graham’s art direction of early brick and mortar architecture and the muddy streets of early Little Italy, New York. It’s a time travel back to a historical age. It’s magnificent.

Back in the 1950s, Puzo and Coppola bring authentic fiction to real life history as Michael considers a go at a business enterprise in Cuba. However, will the rebellion uprising interfere with his plans, and what will it cost him? As well, there’s a great sequence where he has to testify before a congressional hearing in response to suspicion of criminal activities. Coppola used the infamous McCarthy hearing footage as inspiration for this predecessor to what C-Span would eventually look like.

Yet, there’s another story to become involved with as Michael must contend with his dim witted older brother Fredo. John Cazale is superb as the guy who wanted more but was limited by the influence of competing factions and his loyalty to his brother. Pacino and Cazale always had great chemistry together. A great conversation moment occurs in the third act following a terribly surprising twist. One of the best scenes in the film occurs on the porch of the Corleone compound.

More story elements come into play as Michael attempts to balance his married life with Kay (Diane Keaton). She’s pregnant again. Yet, what will that mean for the future of the family?

The sequel to The Godfather assembles another stellar cast. So good, that the film garnered three Oscar nominations in the Supporting Actor category alone (DeNiro, Gazzo, Strasberg) as well as a nomination for Pacino as Best Actor and Talia Shire (Supporting Actress) as Connie, Michael’s sister. That nom left me a little dubious only because there’s not much material for Shire to play with here.

Coppola’s detail is at the top of his game again. The film, like the first, feels like a true life biography.

Puzo offers heartbreaking moments, most especially in the film’s shocking end which leads to a flashback assembly of characters from the first film. That scene alone plays as a great reminder of what Michael once was before becoming the hideous monster that closes the story. Puzo’s whole Godfather franchise hinges on well defined, crushing tragedy.

The Godfather Part II is nothing short of mesmerizing and wholly engaging. You can watch it over and over again. It’s layered in rich storytelling and narratives that provide endless amounts of material for a family meant to be mired in secrets, deliberately hidden in the dimly lit rooms that Willis photographed.

It’s a treat to be the fly on the wall wherever Michael and his family move to next.


By Marc S. Sanders

Probably the greatest character story arc in all of film is of Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather based upon Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel. (The film is a thousand times better than the book.)

Michael is the youngest of three sons intended for a legitimate life separate from his Mafia family. The masterful opening sequence of his sister’s lavish wedding show him courting his eventual wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), and never feeling proud of the actions of his notorious father, Vito (Marlon Brando), nor his brother Sonny (James Caan) or their consigliere, Tom (Robert Duvall). He’s an innocent war hero in uniform with an open mind of an untarnished future. It is only when bad blood circumstances are tested that he feels forced to strike with the same intent that the Corleone family is infamous for.

Coppola presents quiet, subtle moments of expression in Pacino on camera. You see the change in Michael sneak up on you and you see a character develop into something else entirely. What starts as a false impression to appear as if he’s carrying a gun in his pocket, soon after leads to murder, by means of nothing personal but “strictly business.” From there, he retreats and hides until he is blessed with carrying on an evil legacy.

Yes, the first chapter in the operatic trilogy of crime, is mostly known for a grandstanding performance by Marlon Brando but the story relies on Pacino as Michael. Michael Corleone at least must be one of Al Pacino’s greatest roles. He arguably has one of the most impressive resumes in all of film. Here is where it jump started.

The direction by Coppola is a film student’s required studying. With Puzo’s script, the best idea was to open the film with a wedding. As the film offers so many characters and much back story among all of the guests, the interaction and workings of the family are efficiently condensed into this 25 minute opening sequence. Don Vito meets with people needing favors while outside the home, the crew is dancing, doing their jobs and minding who is watching. By the end of this opening you have a full grasp of the family tree and who works for who and what their characters are like. Sonny is the hot head. Michael is the innocent. Fredo (the middle son played by John Cazale) is not doing much but being a cut up, Momma Corleone is the valued matriarch and Tom is the well managed advisor. You even get a glimpse of some “very scary guys,” some competing hoods, who’s cheating on who, and some people who need help with citizenship and film casting.

Art direction from Alex & Dean Tavoularis is magnificent, depicting a post WWII New York, and a historical Sicily stagnant in open plains, romance and murderous pasts.

The cinematography is better today than it was originally. Gordon Willis returned decades later to (for lack of better word) lighten up the picture. The interiors remain dark in secret and comfort, but the characters are more illuminated. The Blu Ray restoration is a fantastic return to the classic film and its two sequels.

The Godfather is endlessly quotable and never dull no matter how many times you watch it. Puzo’s screenplay plays like the biography of a real person and family, much like his adaptation for the screen of 1978’s Superman: The Movie. It is an American classic rich in a history we believe has been told and carrying on the tradition over the course of a 10-12 year period.

I return to praise Pacino to remind you how his appearance even changes as he gradually builds his strength and accepts his title of Don. I feel like I’m looking at two physically different people from the beginning in his Marine uniform with boyish looks, to his independent walkabout way during his Sicily retreat, to a more broad shouldered, slicked back hair, dark suit tailored appearance during the film’s third act. It’s an uncanny transformation that is built on performance and expert direction and writing from Coppola and Puzo. I still get chills as Michael in his college boy sports jacket volunteers himself to satisfy a family vengeance. Coppola zooms in on him slowly as he sits in a leather arm chair, arms at his side, legs folded. We are seeing a new man in charge for the first time. It’s chilling.

The Godfather is one of the greatest pictures that will ever be made. It’s a perfect chemistry of technical achievement, attentive storytelling and sensitive, yet powerful performances from probably the best cast ever assembled.

I’m amazed that I know of some friends who still have yet to see it.

The Godfather is the film that everyone should see before they die.