“I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale,” Ctd.

The documentary, produced by Brett Ratner, aired tonight on HBO.

The film begins as an homage but quickly becomes an all-out lovefest. It is, however, a lovefest that cinephiles (especially those of us who can, and will if you ask, recite The Godfather by heart) will relish watching.

The talking heads of the film—which include F.F. Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Gene Hackman, and Meryl Streep, among others—say nice, unremarkable things for the most part. There are a few moments of insight and analysis. Those unremarkable things the talking heads say (“He brought such emotion to Fredo…” “He’s very intense, but…nervous“) are made remarkable by the worthwhileness of the subject matter. As I wrote when I posted the trailer, there needs to be more documentaries like this. There’s a lot more Johnny Cazales who need rediscovering. Go get ’em HBO.

Michael Phillips is on it. He uses the opportunity to zing our well-intentioned producer:

The HBO doc is presented by “Rush Hour” auteur Brett Ratner, one of the doc’s producers. When Ratner is allowed to opine onscreen, the viewer is tempted to add his own rejoinders. Of “The Godfather Part II,” Ratner says: “I could watch that movie over and over and over again….” Yes, you could, apparently without learning a thing from it to apply to your own work. Oh, well. Forty minutes isn’t much, and Cazale’s keen-minded improvisatory methods are barely touched upon. But Cazale’s understanding of the underdog, the also-ran, shines through.

Ouch! Now Phillips isn’t wrong, but, I mean, ouch! It’s true: Ratner’s bearded visage appears in the midst of gushing-but-earnest remarks by some of Cazale’s contemporaries—Streep, de Niro, Hackman, Lumet…Ratner? Yes, yes, you got me Michael Phillips. I was thinking the same thing, pretty much. That Brett Ratner? The guy whose work operates well below the aesthetic standards of Cazale’s films, whose own movies seem to fly in the face of the very nuanced, inspired moviemaking that Cazale symbolizes? Yeah, that guy.

But it seems that Phillips enjoyed the documentary more then I did, referring to it as “compelling.” I didn’t find it so compelling, per se. I thought it was undercooked. There’s a lot of territory about Cazale and his work that was not mined. Taking the time to tease out some of that material would have made a film that was twice-as-good. I mean, in a film that purports to “rediscover” a long overlooked and unduly obscure gem of an actor, that’s a major flaw, no?

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