Friday, December 10, 2010

Scarface (1983) * * * *

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Starring: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer, Robert Loggia

A few years back, Brian De Palma, the director of Scarface, was approached to remaster the film's score to include modern day hip-hop songs which glorify the gangster lifestyle. Why? Because many hip-hop artists (and let's face it, gangsters) patterned themselves around Pacino's Tony Montana and his seemingly extravagant lifestyle. De Palma refused this idea because his ideas for Scarface are less superficial. All you need is just a little insight to realize that De Palma isn't glorifying Montana's life, but instead shows how it can suck to be the king, especially if you are paranoid and hooked on cocaine, which is the drug you sell for a living. De Palma's Scarface is brilliant because it is about how absolute power absolutely corrupts and ultimately destroys.

Scarface is a movie about surface and how seductive it can be. As the film opens, Pacino's Montana arrives in Miami after being released from Castro's Cuba. He was a prisoner in Castro's jails and immediately makes waves with immigration due to his bravado. It doesn't take him long to fall in with drug dealers and the criminal element, which suits him fine because his goal is power and the luxuries that a cocaine millionaire can afford him. He ingratiates himself with Miami kingpin Frank Lopez (Loggia), who has a leggy blonde named Elvira (Pfeiffer) who catches Tony's eye. It doesn't much matter to Tony that she doesn't seem to like him. She is but another luxury that he desires.

Soon enough, Tony craves for more than just being second fiddle to Frank and cuts side deals with a South American drug lord named Sosa (Paul Shenar), who is much more merciless than Frank. When Frank finds out about Tony's side deals, he attempts to have him killed, but fails. This sets up a virtuoso scene in which Tony gets rid of Frank and usurps power. This was what Tony was working toward, but he finds that such luxury comes with fear that it will all go away.

We soon see Tony living a giant mansion with all of the latest security gadgets to protect him, but he seems more like a prisoner. He can't go out without bodyguards and fears constantly that he would be ripped off or killed at any minute. Another wrinkle is the arrival of his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio), whom Tony has incestuous feelings for and does his best to keep other men out of her life. With all of this to juggle, it comes as no surprise that Tony becomes hooked on his own product to the point that he keeps a mound of coke on his desk for him to dig into like a bowl of M & M's.

The score that De Palma was approached to change was done by Giorgio Moroder, whose synthesizer-laced score underlined the very vision De Palma wanted to create: the appearance of flash and style with none of the substance. To change this in any way would've been detrimental to the film's themes. There is no attempt at glorification here, just a look at what would be a tragic life.

It's difficult to discuss Scarface without discussing Pacino. He is an iconic actor of many depths. Any one scene in the film can suggest bravado mixed with loneliness and fear. Cocaine fuels the outer bravado while trying to quash the inner demons. How does the coke ultimately make Tony feel? Like George Carlin said famously, "Cocaine makes you feel like having more cocaine." But Pacino plays each scene with boundless energy. He's eminently watchable, especially as he self-destructs in the chaotic final scenes.

So why would gangsters and hip-hop artists want to emulate Tony Montana when they should see him as a cautionary tale? Because they simply see the superficial and nothing else. They see Montana as a powerful man who takes what he wants and kills anyone who gets in his way. But what they fail to see is a man who can't enjoy success and its spoils. Perhaps it's because he chose to wrong field to be successful in. It's not a profession with a long shelf life, except maybe for Frank Lopez, who seemed to stay ahead by "flying straight" as he puts it or at least having some ability to enjoy his money, despite how he got it. 

Scarface was written by Oliver Stone, who specializes in movies with tortured protagonists who consistently battle themselves. His and De Palma's vision was certainly the correct one. Had Scarface been just a tale of the rise and fall of a drug dealer, it wouldn't have worked so well. But with Pacino, Stone, and De Palma all on the same page with their vision, Scarface is masterfully done. 10 years after this film, De Palma and Pacino teamed up for Carlito's Way, Carlito could've been been an older, wiser Tony Montana if a.) he lived that long and b.) had any insight into himself. Carlito's Way itself was a great film and in a way it serves as a companion piece to this one, if Tony would've allowed himself any moment of soul in the quest to rule the world that would eventually crush him.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Sure Thing (1985) * * * *

Directed by: Rob Reiner

Starring: John Cusack, Daphne Zuniga, Anthony Edwards, Tim Robbins

At one point (many years ago), The Sure Thing was my favorite movie. Period. I would rent it weekly at the video store and make sure that each of my friends watched it so that they would love it like I did. Their reaction was much more tepid than mine. I'm sure they liked it, thought of it as a sweet romantic comedy, and moved on with their lives. Something about The Sure Thing really stuck with me. At the time, it idealized romance for me. Since the plight of the characters was so touching, I started to believe that every couple should start out disliking each other at first point and fall in love after a series of misadventures. Wouldn't it be more fun that way? I also waited impatiently for a sequel. After all, this wouldn't be the last I ever see of Gib and Allison, would it?

As it turns out, love is a lot simpler without all the drama. It's very difficult to have someone overcome that bad first impression of you and if a girl doesn't like you, it means she doesn't like you and isn't holding a secret crush on you because she fears rejection or something else. And biggest lesson learned of all: You can't make someone love you. Even knowing all of this now, I still believe The Sure Thing contains delightful material and remains a sweet, touching comedy.

In the age of the Internet and cell phones, it would be very difficult to make this sort of film today. This is a film that really only could've been made in the mid-80s and remaking it today would take away its unique approach to teenage love. The plot is certainly as timeless and retread as any other road romantic comedy. College freshman Walter "Gib" Gibson (Cusack) is a likable guy who doesn't take his studies as seriously as his social life. This catches up with him and because he's failing English, he persuades an attractive classmate (Zuniga) to tutor him in English.  It turns out he's not as interested in English as he is Allison and Zuniga invites him to get out of her life.

Fast forward to Christmas break. Gib is invited by his high-school buddy Lance (Edwards) to come to his California college over break to meet and get lucky with The Sure Thing (Nicolette Sheridan-looking foxy in a white bikini). This propels Gib into action and he hitches a ride with a nerdy couple and, of course, Allison, who signed up for the ride to visit her long-distance boyfriend in California. Because Gib and Allison didn't care for each other in the first place, it comes as no surprise that their constant bickering gets them thrown out of the ride.

Together, they have to hitchhike their way to California, meanwhile getting to know each other and eventually fall in love by the time they hit California.

I'm certainly not giving away something plotwise that wouldn't be figured out quickly.   But The Sure Thing works better than most teen romantic comedies of the time (and today) because the leads are human.   They are insecure, likable, interesting, charming, and we care about them.  They are not 30-somethings pretending to be teenagers (like in Porky's).   They also don't seem to know everything about sex at the ripe old age of 18 either.     All of this was refreshing then and comparing to teen romances of today, this is refreshing now.

Director Rob Reiner was just starting out in film directing when making The Sure Thing. It was his follow-up to This Is Spinal Tap and box-office smashes like A Few Good Men, The Princess Bride, and The American President were still ahead of him.    Here he shows a deft comic touch and a knack for moving things along.   There isn't slapstick or gross-out humor, but comedy that comes from the characters' personalities and their unusual situation.    Such humor comes out in the scene in which Gib and Allison are caught in the rain and come across an abandoned trailer attempting to seek shelter in it:

Gib (banging the door lock with a rock). It's important that THIS place has an airtight security system...IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE!!

Allison: I have a credit card

Gib: (slowing up the banging of the door) Credit cards work on a totally different kind of lock. Oh, you have a credit card.

Allison: Oh, but my Dad told me specifically that I can only use it in case of an emergency.

Gib: Well, maybe one will come up!

The two don't shout at each other and no one breaks something or slips in the mud.  It actually works to get a laugh and succeeds.   The film is very much like that.   It takes the road less taken, which is great. 

Dead Poets Society (1989) * *

Directed by: Peter Weir

Starring: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard

 Dead Poets Society is meant as a deep film in which students at a stuffy prep school are taught to be themselves through an unconventional teacher and a love of poetry. Throughout the film, I keep expecting more.    When the film was over, I couldn't help but think, "Is that it?"

There are a couple of issues at work here that prevent Dead Poets Society from being successful. One is its star, Robin Williams, who for the most part isn't playing "Robin Williams" here, but a thoughtful young man who wants the best for his students. However, in a few scenes, Williams (as Professor John Keating), is allowed to lapse into his standup persona and it undermines the goodwill built up earlier.    He is introducing Shakespeare to his class and cracks them up with impersonations of Marlon Brando and John Wayne playing Shakespeare characters. Why was this necessary?    Did director Weir believe that audiences weren't ready for a shtick-free Williams? There are a few more scenes like this and it made me realize that Robin Williams was there on screen, not necessarily John Keating.    By the way, for a great shtick-free Robin Williams performance, see Good Will Hunting.

Second, a great deal of time is devoted to the Dead Poets Society, which the students learn Keating formed when he was a student at their prep school.    What do they do at their meetings? Well, the students read some poetry, dance, drink, and repeat those actions.   These scenes are formless, shapeless and don't really amount to anything.   Reading poetry is really not cinematic.   Throw in a campfire and some oddball behavior and you really have something non-cinematic.

Finally, Dead Poets Society doesn't succeed in reaching its ultimate goal, which is to move the viewer as these kids transform before our eyes from stuffy prep school kids into remarkable, independent individuals. This idea culminates in the final scene, in which Keating, thrown out of school for being held responsible for a student's suicide, gathers his personal items and is saluted by the students who all stand on their desks shouting, "O Captain, My Captain" (the Walt Whitman poem the students study earlier in the film).   If having the students express their own individuality was Keating's goal, he failed. Shouldn't each student say farewell in his own way rather than each standing on his desk?   That would drive the point home a lot more poignantly.

The film's screenplay won the Original Screenplay Oscar, which baffles me.    It beat out Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, which movingly and boldly told two dovetailing stories of the belief that we live in a Godless universe.  Dead Poets Society is a film of missed opportunities and good intentions.   It simply doesn't develop enough to be the thoughtful and stirring film it wants so desperately to be.