An Offer You Can’t Refuse #19: Scarface (dir by Brian DePalma)


“Hello to my little friend!”

Hi, little friend….

BOOM!

The 1983 film, Scarface, is a misunderstood film.  As we all know, it’s the story of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), who comes to Miami from Cuba along with his friend, Manny (Steven Bauer).  In return for murdering a former member of Castro’s government, Tony is given a job working for Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia).  When it becomes obvious that Tony is becoming too ambitious and might become a threat to him, Frank attempts to have Tony killed.  However, the assassination attempt fails, Tony murders Frank, and then Tony becomes Miami’s richest and most powerful crime lord.  Soon, Tony is burying his face in a mountain of cocaine while making deals with a sleazy Bolivian drug lord named Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar).  Tony also marries Frank’s mistress, Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfieffer), though it’s obvious from the start the the only person that Tony truly loves is his sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).  Anyway, it all eventually leads to a lot of violence and a lot of death.  Even F. Murray Abraham ends up getting tossed out of a helicopter, which is unfortunate since his character was a lot of fun.

Scarface is a famous film, largely because of Oliver Stone’s quotable dialogue and the no holds barred direction of Brian DePalma.  However, I think that people get so caught up on the fact that this is a classic gangster film that they miss the fact that Scarface is also an extremely dark comedy.  It satirizes the excess of the 80s.  Once Tony reaches the top of the underworld, he becomes a parody of the nouveau riche.  He moves into a gigantic house and proceeds to decorate it in the most tasteless way possible and there’s something oddly charming about this crude, not particularly bright man getting excited over the fact that he can finally afford to buy a tiger.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene where Tony rants while lounging in an indoor hot tub while Elvira languidly snorts cocaine and complains about the crudeness of his language and, at that moment, Scarface becomes a bit of a domestic comedy.  Tony’s reached the top of his profession, just to discover that it takes more than a live-in tiger and a wardrobe of wide lapeled suits to achieve true happiness.  So, he ends up sitting glumly in his office with a mountain of cocaine rising up in front of him.  “The world is yours” may be Tony’s motto but it turns out that the world is extremely tacky.  For all of his attempts to recreate himself as a wealthy and sophisticated man, Tony is still just a barely literate criminal with a nasty scar and a sour disposition.  The only thing he’s gotten for all of his ruthless ambition is an order of ennui with a cocaine appetizer.

I’ve always found Brian DePalma to be an uneven director.  He has a very distinct style and sometimes that style is perfectly suited to the story that he’s telling (i.e., Carrie) and sometimes, all of that style just seems to get in the way (i.e. The Fury).  Scarface, however, is the ideal story for DePalma’s over-the-top aesthetic.  DePalma’s style may be excessive but Scarface is a film about excess so it’s a perfect fit.  For that matter, you could say the same thing about Oliver Stone’s screenplay.  Stone has since stated that he was using almost as much cocaine as Tony Montana while he wrote the script.  The end result of the combination of Stone’s script, DePalma’s hyperactive direction, Pacino’s overpowering lead performance, and Giorgio Moroder’s propulsive score is a film that feels as if every minute is fueled by cocaine.  It’s not just a film that’s about drugs.  It’s also a film that feels like a drug.

Scarface is a big movie.  It runs nearly three hours, following Tony from his arrival in the United States to his final moments in his mansion, taking hundreds of bullets while grandly announcing that he’s still standing.  (Even after all of the bad things that Tony has done — poor Manny! — it’s impossible not to admire his refusal to go down.)  It’s also a difficult movie to review, largely because almost everyone’s seen it and already has an opinion.  Personally, I think the film gets off to a strong start.  I think the scenes of Tony ruthlessly taking control of Frank’s empire are perfectly handled and I love the scenes where Pacino and Steven Bauer just bounce dialogue off of each other.  They’re like a comedy team who commits murder on the side.  I also loved the “Take it to the limit” montage, which belongs in the 80s Cinema Hall of Fame.  At the same time, I think the final third of the movie drags a bit and that Tony’s sudden crisis of conscience when he sees that a man that he’s supposed to murder has a family feels a bit forced.  It also bothers me that Elvira just vanishes from the film.  At the very least, the audience deserved more of an explanation as to where she disappeared to.

But no matter!  Flaws and all, Scarface is a violent satire that holds up surprisingly well.  Al Pacino’s unhinged performance as Tony Montana is rightly considered to be iconic.  Pacino’s gives such a powerhouse performance that it’s easy to forget that the rest of the cast is pretty impressive as well.  I particularly liked the wonderfully sleazy work of F. Murray Abraham and Paul Shenar.  That said, my favorite character in the film remains Elvira, if just because her clothes were to die for and she just seemed so incredibly bored with all of the violent men in her life.  She goes from being bored with Frank to being bored with Tony and how can you not admire someone who, even when surrounded by all Scarface’s excess, just refuse to care?

Scarface is an offer that you can’t refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface (1932)
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.
  18. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Cinemax Friday: Stranger By Night (1994, directed by Gregory Brown a.k.a. Gregory Hippolyte a.k.a. Gregory Dark)


Detective Bobby Corcoran (Steven Bauer!) is a cop with an anger problem.  Whenever he and his parter, Troy Rooney (William Katt!!), catch a criminal, Bobby just loses control.  Since, for some reason, they seem to catch a lot of criminals on rooftops, this often leads to Bobby threatening to throw someone over the edge.  Even when his boss, Detective Larson (Michael Parks!!!) tells Bobby to stop trying to kill all of the suspects, Bobby still struggles to control his rage.  He’s seeing a Dr. Anne Richmond (Jennifer Rubin!!!!), a psychiatrist, about his anger issues but since their sessions usually get interrupted by bouts of soft-core, saxophone-scored sex, it is debatable how much time they actually spend digging into the roots of Bobby’s problems.

Bobby also suffers from frequent blackouts.  While he’s unconscious, he’s haunted by black-and-white memories of his abusive father (J.J. Johnston) beating up his mother.  When he wakes up, he’s often in a different room from where he blacked out.  Anne says that Bobby must be sleep-walking.  Bobby says that he’s not sleep walking because he’s stubborn and doesn’t feel safe letting anyone into his mind.  Lately, whenever Bobby passes out, a prostitute ends up dead.  An unknown killer is stalking them and chopping off their ears.  Bobby, with his anger issues and his dislike of prostitutes, is an obvious suspect.  Is Bobby the killer or is he being framed?

Stranger By Night‘s credited director is Gregory Brown, who is better known as Gregory Dark.  Dark is one of the best-known of the directors who specialized in erotic thrillers in the 90s.  Dark was responsible for some of the classics of the genre but, unfortunately, Stranger By Night is not one of his better efforts.  The action frequently drags and, with the exception of Bobby’s black-and-white flashbacks, Stranger By Night has none of Dark’s usual visual style.  The film looks and feels flat and the plot is never feels as involving as it should.  The discovery of the killer’s identity inspires not shock but an indifferent shrug.

On the positive side, it’s got a cast of skilled genre vets and all of them do what they can to elevate the material.  William Katt is jittery and frequently funny while Jennifer Rubin, who deserved to have a much bigger career, is as sultry as ever.  (Rubin brought both intelligence and sex appeal to almost every role that she played and it made her one of the best genre actresses around.)  Steven Bauer, another actor who probably deserves a bigger career than he’s had, does a good job in the lead role.  Bobby isn’t always a likable character and Bauer doesn’t try to make him one.  On the other hand, it’s frustrating that Michael Parks does not get to do much, other than frown.  There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a film that doesn’t take full advantage of the casting of Michael Parks.

Stranger By Night does seem to have a serious subtext.  It tries to deal seriously with how Bobby’s abusive childhood has scarred him and there’s a lengthy scene where Bobby finally talks to his aged father.  The scene is played straight and it’s not the sort of thing that you’d normally expect to see in a direct-to-video erotic thriller.  (It’s a good example of what set Gregory Dark apart from some of the other directors churning out these type of films in the 90s.)  For the most part, though, Stranger By Night is a forgettable trip to the world of late night Cinemax.

Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia (2009, directed by Tim Matheson)


After 40 years of war, the Colombian military and FARC, the cocaine-funded guerrilla insurgency, are finally meeting to discuss peace.  A group of Navy SEALS, led by Lt. Macklin (Joe Manganiello), have been sent into the Colombian jungle to secretly keep an eye on the peace talks and make sure that things don’t get out of hand.  However, as soon as they arrive, the conference is attacked by yet another group of terrorists.  Led by Alvaro Cardona (Yancy Arias), this third group kills the leaders of the Colombian military and FARC and attempts to frame the entire attack on the SEALS!  Now, Macklin and Carter Holt (WWE superstar Mr. Kennedy) are trapped behind enemy lines.  With the Colombian military, FARC, and Cardona after them and the CIA disavowing any knowledge of their existence, the two SEALS have to rescue a captured comrade and prove their innocence before all of South America plunges into war.

This film, which features Keith David recreating his commanding officer role from Behind Enemy Lines II: Axis of Evil, is a standard action movie.  Some of the action scenes are exciting but all too often, BEL: Colombia is done in by its own low budget.  This is especially obvious when the SEALS are parachuting into the jungle and the cheap green screen effects make the movie look like an old 80s tv show, with the SEALS clumsily superimposed over a picture of the sky.  Watching that scene, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the original Magnum P.I. or Simon and Simon suddenly appeared as a member of the team.  Even Jessica Fletcher wouldn’t have been out of place.

On the plus side, the acting actually isn’t bad and Cardona has a little more depth than the usual action movie villain. This is really not the type of film that you would expect to be directed by Otter from Animal House but Tim Matheson doesn’t do a bad job.  Again, the low budget hurts but he gets some decent performances and he shows that he can adequately handle an action scene.   BEL: Colombia isn’t terrible but it’s still not hard to feel that it would have been better if it had been made in 1988 by Chuck Norris and Menahem Golan.

A Movie A Day #263: Running Scared (1986, directed by Peter Hyams)


Running Scared is weird but good.

Ray Hughes (Gregory Hines!) and Danny Costanzo (Billy Crystal!!!) are two tough detectives in Chicago.  All they want to do is three things: retire, open a bar in Florida, and bust Chicago’s most ruthless drug dealer, Julio Gonzalez (Jimmy Smits).  Their captain (Dan Hedaya) wants them to leave for Florida as soon as possible but they are determined to take down Julio first.’

There are two strange things about this otherwise formulaic crime film.  First off, the two tough cops are played by Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal.  According to the film’s Wikipedia page, director Peter Hyams realized that Running Scared‘s plot was nothing special so he decided that the only way to make the movie stand out was by doing it “with two actors you would not normally expect to see in an action movie.”  The other strange thing is that Hyams’s gambit worked.  Gregory Hines may have been best known as a dancer and Billy Crystal as a comedian but both of them were surprisingly believable as Chicago cops.  Running Scared is actually one of Billy Crystal’s best performances.  For once, he’s believable as being someone other than a version of himself.  Even his frequent one liners seem like something that a detective would say instead of Crystal recycling punch lines from his act.  Whether they are chasing down perps and firing their guns at a moving vehicle, Hines and Crystal are never less than credible as action stars.  Lorenzo Lamas has got nothing on the team of Hines and Crystal.

Predictable though it may be, Running Scared is one of the better late 80s cop films.  The action scenes are exciting and Hyams does a good job capturing the grittiness of Chicago.  Jimmy Smits is a good villain and Joe Pantoliano, Steven Bauer, and Jon Gries all shine in supporting roles.  Keep an eye out for the always underrated Darlanne Fluegel, playing Danny’s ex-wife.

A Movie A Day #257: Gleaming the Cube (1989, directed by Graeme Clifford)


Brian Kelly (Christian Slater) is a California skater with a rebellious attitude and an adopted Vietnamese brother named Vinh (Art Chudabala).  When the movie starts, all Brian cares about is not selling out and finding empty pools to skate.  He even hires an airplane to fly him and his friends over Orange County so they can get a bird’s-eye view of the layout.  Vinh is more worried about his job with the Vietnamese Anti-Community Relief Fund.  The fund has been set up to send medical supplies to Vietnam but, when Vinh comes across a discrepancy in the shipping records, he realizes that something else is going on.  When Vinh turns up dead in a hotel room, everyone else may believe that it is suicide but Brian knows that his brother was murdered.  With the help of his fellow skaters and a sympathetic cop (Steven Bauer), Brian sets out to bring his brother’s killers to justice.

I was surprised when I watched Gleaming the Cube because it turned out to be much better than I was expecting.  The movie is justifiably best known for its skating sequences, which were shot by Stacy Peralta and which featured pro-skaters Mike McGill, Rodney Mullen, and Gator Rogowski doubling for Slater in some of the film’s more spectacular stunts.  (Tony Hawk plays one of Slater’s friends.)  Slater, himself, learned how to skate for the movie and looks far more comfortable and natural on his board than Josh Brolin did in Thrashin’.  Beyond the spectacular skating, Gleaming the Cube is energetically directed and surprisingly well-acted.  A pre-stardom Christian Slater gives one of his best and most natural performances as Brian, playing the role without any of the tics or affectations that later came to define his career.  Of its type, Gleaming the Cube is a classic.

A Movie A Day #29: Boss of Bosses (2001, directed by Dwight H. Little)


bossWho was the boss of bosses?  According to this movie, he was Paul Castellano.  A cousin-by-marriage to the notorious crime boss Carlo Gambino, Castellano grew up in New York City and first became a made man in the 1930s.  After four decades of loyal service, Castellano succeeded Carlo as the boss of the Gambino Crime Family.  As portrayed in this movie, Castellano attempted to keep the Gambinos out of the drug trade and tried to steer both his biological and his crime family into legitimate businesses.  However, not everyone appreciated Castellano’s vision of the future and, in 1985, he was assassinated on the orders of his eventual successor, John Gotti.

Considering that this biopic was made for TNT and was directed by Dwight H. Little (who was best known for directing films like Halloween 4 and Free Willy 2), it’s probably not surprising that not a single mob cliché goes unturned in Boss of Bosses.  At first, I had a hard time accepting Chazz Palminteri as Castellano because Palminteri sounded exactly like Joe Mantegna voicing Fat Tony on The Simpsons.  Once I got over the vocal similarities, I saw that Palminteri was actually giving a very good, noncartoonish performance as Castellano but the film itself never convinces us that Castellano was anything more than a forgettable placeholder between the reigns of the legendary Gambino and the flamboyant Gotti.

Boss of Bosses, which is also known as Godfather of New York, is currently available on YouTube.

Shattered Politics #69: Traffic (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


Traffic2000Poster

I have mixed feelings about Steven Soderbergh.  On the one hand, his talent cannot be denied and you have to respect the fact that he’s willing to take chances and make films like The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant.  On the other hand, he’s also the director who has been responsible for overrated messes like Contagion and utter pretentious disasters like Haywire.  And it doesn’t help that Soderbergh’s fanbase seems to be largely made up of the type of hipsters who end up leaving comments under the articles at The A.V. Club.  Some people mourned Soderbergh’s retirement.  Personally, I think he made the right decision.  He retired before his misfires ended up outnumbering all of his masterpieces.

The thing about Soderbergh is that his good films are so good that it makes it all the more frustrating to watch his failures.  If Soderbergh was just your typical bad director than a film like Contagion wouldn’t be as annoying.  But this is the man who also gave us Traffic!

And Traffic is a very good film.

First released in 2000, Traffic attempted to deal with the American war on drugs, a war that the film suggests might not even be worth fighting.  (Full disclosure: I support the legalization of drugs and, for that matter, just about everything else.  And yes, I am biased towards films that agree with me.  So is every other film critic out there.  The difference is that I’m willing to admit it.)  Traffic won four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Benicio Del Toro.  It was also nominated for best picture but lost to Gladiator.

Traffic tells three, barely connected stories.  Each story is given its own distinct look, feel, and color scheme.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to film’s visual scheme, it ultimately works quite well.  Though all of the film’s characters share the same general existence, they live in different worlds.  The only thing linking them together is drugs.

Judge Andrew Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a judge on the Ohio Supreme Court who has recently been named as the new drug czar.  However, while Judge Wakefield is going around the country and talking to politicians (Harry Reid shows up playing himself and is just as creepy as always), his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is dating Seth (Topher Grace) and getting addicted to cocaine and heroin.  When Caroline run away, Judge Wakefield recruits Seth and, using him as a guide, searches the ghetto for his daughter.

The Wakefield scenes are bathed in cold and somber blues.  They’re beautiful to look at but, in some ways, they’re also some of the weakest in the film.  The whole plotline of Caroline going from being an innocent honor’s student to being a prostitute who sells her body for heroin feels a lot like the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice.  At the same time, it’s interesting and a little fun to see Topher Grace playing such a little jerk.  Grace gets some of the best lines in the film, especially when he attacks Wakefield’s feelings of smug superiority.

In the film’s second storyline, two DEA Agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) arrest drug trafficker Eddie Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer).  Eddie works for the Ayala syndicate and, once he’s arrested, he turns informant.  Drug lord Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is arrested.  While Carlos sits on trial, his pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and his sleazy business associate (Dennis Quaid) struggle to hold together the business and find a way to kill Ruiz before he can testify.

This storyline is filmed in bright and vibrant colors and why not?  The Ayalas are rich and, unlike the Wakefields, they don’t feel the need to hide their material wealth.  This is actually probably my favorite storyline, largely because it’s the best acted and the most entertaining.  Miguel Ferrer, in particular, steals every scene that he’s in.  The scene where he explains the economics of being a drug trafficker is fascinating to watch.

The Ayala storyline may be my favorite but the film’s most thought-provoking storyline is the third one.  Taking place in Mexico, it stars Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, a casually corrupt police officer who gets recruited to work for General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who is heading up Mexico’s war on the cartels.  Following the orders of Salazar, Javier captures assassin Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who is then savagely tortured by Salazar until he turns informer.  Javier comes to realize that Salazar is actually working for one of Mexico’s cartels.  When he decides to inform on Salazar, he puts his own life at risk.

The Mexico storyline is also the harshest and visually, it reflects that fact.  The heat literally seems to be rising up from the desert and the streets of Tijuana.  It takes a few minutes to adjust to the look of the Mexico scenes but, once you do, they become enthralling.

And Traffic, as a film, is undeniably enthralling as well.  Soderbergh deftly juggles the multiple storylines and brings them together to create a portrait of a society that’s being destroyed by the efforts to save it.  Hopefully, if Soderbergh ever does come out of retirement, he’ll give us more films like Traffic and less films like Contagion.