Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s reimagining of Howard Hawks’ prohibition-era gangster epic replaces the grime of old Chicago with the neon glitz and kitschy glow of 1980’s Miami and sets the scene for one of the most unique gangster movies of them all. Drop Al Pacino into the lead role of Cuban exile come narcotics trafficking kingpin and you can add “most explosive” to that accolade too. Pacino inhabits the gnarly skin of Tony Montero like few actors could or have as he steels the screen with his presence. An unpredictable concoction of balls to the wall attitude and psychopathic viciousness that bubbles to the boil around five minutes in and continues that way until the movie’s gargantuan close. Though everyone else falls in his frothing wake, there’s a lot of fun in their performances from Tony’s partner and incorrigible ladies-man Steven Bauer, to his reluctant self-hating wife Michelle Pfeiffer, to Robert Loggia’s weak-willed mob boss desperately trying to keep his insanely ambitious young charge on a leash.
Much has been made of this remake’s audacious production design and it’s usually this aspect that most detractors set their sights on. But regardless of criticism, there’s no denying that Scarface is its own film. Moreover, the truth is that, alongside Giorgio Moroder’s amusingly profound score, De Palma’s vision goes so far beyond cheesy that the movie exists in a fascinating kind of hyper-real haze of meta-gangsterism. And as is the case with every one of that director’s 1980’s movies, that’s exactly the point! Scarface isn’t a straight gangster narrative even though its works brilliantly as such, nor is it an action film even though its littered with sublimely staged (not to mention rather grisly) set-pieces that dwarf most of that decade’s best. Scarface is a twisted fairytale of greed and ambition funnelled through the intense personality of one of cinema’s most powerful actors at the height of his powers. Through this vessel, Stone’s crazy but endlessly quotable dialogue bristles with the megalomanic intention of a coke-fuelled tyrant and again, like all De Palma’s movies from around that time, it thus becomes a statement on the state of contemporary cinema itself. That it’s a riveting blast to experience just makes it all the more remarkable.
Rating: The Good – 77.7 Genre: Comedy Duration: 103mins Director: Michael Lehmann Stars: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty
“Dear diary, my teenage angst bullshit has a bodycount.” Recent addition to the school’s most popular clique, Winona Ryder, is growing ever wearier at the inane conventions of her new friends, three preppy girls all named Heather. In steps Christian Slater, a proactive cynic whose extreme reactions to the superiority complexes of the chosen few are the source of the some shockingly funny moments.
Like all great black comedy and unlike so many recently failed attempts, the darkness in Heathers is effortless and so the comedy is viciously hilarious. Daniel Waters’ delicious script is driven by a playful yet unyielding focus that slices fantastically at the indulgence of the high-school movie genre and indeed society’s broader indulgence of the precious order that its middle class teenagers had so mercilessly forged in the 1980’s in particular.
Ryder has never been better and for those who’ve only seen her Dracula-type performances, they should take a look at this. For such an acerbic story, she brings a level of reality and even warmth to the role that serves to make her incredulous narrations and interactions with the various characters all the funnier. Slater is at his best too, his slow burning charisma making him the perfect choice to play the self-anointed social equaliser. His character becomes both Waters’ main vessel and his target as he slowly works his way through the equally self-anointed social elite. Michael Lehmann’s directing is adequate but a little uninspired, which is actually quite a shame because this movie would otherwise be damn near perfect.
Rating: The Good – 83.6 Genre: Crime Duration: 122 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson
Michael Mann’s seminal crime thriller focuses on James Caan’s master thief who, in an effort to attain the family he always wanted, eschews his independence and reluctantly agrees to work for a crime king-pin (Robert Prosky) only to find himself locked into an interminable contract. Caan rated this as his best performance outside of Sonny Corleone and he is utterly mesmerising as the balls-of-steel Frank who is willing to sacrifice everything rather than lie down for anyone. Prosky is immense as the old mobster who can switch from genial father-figure to ruthless monster at the drop of a hat. Thief has all the trademarks of the great Mann films. The ultra-real dialogue, the technical proficiency of the criminals, a subtle yet powerful score (courtesy of Tangerine Dream), and slick night time shots of Chicago’s mean streets. Moreover, Mann’s films are often based on the study of obsession and disciplined dedication to one’s craft and nowhere is this better realised than here. The set pieces are as innovative and disciplined as we’ve come across and when combined with the searing performances and inspired dialogue, it becomes truly captivating. Thief is a crime classic and arguably one of the genre’s greatest representatives. It achieves a gritty realism that movies of that genre are always in search of but rarely attain.
Rating: The Good – 83.1 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 99mins Director: Joel & Ethan Coen Stars: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya
The Coen Brothers’ debut and arguably their signature film stars Ray Hedaya as a wealthy but jealous bar owner who hires a seedy private detective (M. Emmet Walsh), firstly, to confirm that his younger wife (Francis McDormand) is having an affair with his employee (John Getz) but eventually, to kill them both. As you’d expect from the Coens, there are lots of ins and lots of outs in this story and, combined with the seductive dialogue, it makes for a compelling modern film noir that ranks among the best of the genre. Appropriate also to the genre is Barry Sonnenfeld’s atmospheric photography and the way in which the wider setting (in this case Texas) becomes a character in the story in and of itself (ditto Carter Burwell’s seeping score). The cast are uniformly excellent with McDormand, Walsh, and Hedaya being particularly memorable. Hedaya for his part has never been better and would easily run away with the film if it wasn’t for the caliber of his co-stars. Blood Simple is as atmospheric as movies get and there isn’t a single feature of the production that a movie buff wouldn’t relish. Most importantly, however, is the fact that it’s an electric story with more twists and turns than a bag full of corkscrews.
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: Romantic Comedy Duration: 113 mins Director: Mike Nichols Stars: Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver
Of its time but in the best ways possible, Mike Nichols’ Working Girl is a superior rom-com starring Melanie Griffith as an ambitious secretary who, on discovering that her ruthless boss (a delightfully obnoxious Sigourney Weaver) has stolen her idea for a lucrative merger, assumes the role of an executive to close the deal herself. Along the way, she inevitably falls for the man helping her to put it together (Harrison Ford in top comedic form) while evading any and all situations that might disclose her real identity to him and everyone else. Working Girl achieves that priceless balance between the drama and romance by laying out a well developed plot and seamlessly weaving it with the various romantic angles. Nichols compensates for Griffith’s acting limitations by setting a comedic tone just wacky enough to forgive her flat delivery but not so much that it detracts from the relative sophistication of the story. Ford greatly assists him in this endeavour as he demonstrates, yet again, his impeccable timing and instincts for light comedy while Weaver proves equally critical with a brave and perfectly judged turn that she uses, like Ford, to coax the best out of Griffith. Nichols composes the entire thing with polish and remains master rather than victim to the business and fashion cultures from which so much of the humour is derived but the jewel in the movie’s crown is undoubtedly Kevin Wade’s witty screenplay that Ford in particular has a ball with. All that plus an electric Alec Baldwin as Griffith’s old squeeze, and some glorious cameos from Oliver Platt and Kevin Spacey ensure that Working Girl sits right at the top of that era’s genre offerings.
Rating: The Good – 67.1 Genre: Thriller Duration: 128 mins Director: Roger Spottiswoode Stars: Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris
Slightly above average war-drama from Roger Spottiswoode and starring Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, and Joanna Cassidy as war correspondents who rush from one third world country to another in order to get the scoop on the latest skirmish between despot and the poor. Landing in Nicaragua in time to document the final days of the Somozoa regime, the three find themselves caught up in a love triangle, bombings, and the political machinations of spies and government officials alike. Not quite as subjective and daring a film as Missing or as cavalier a film as Salvador, Under Fire falls in between as a safer and more mainstream examination of the South American political climate of the 70’s/80’s. That said, it’s an interesting story with solid performances and some decent action thrown in to boot.
Rating: The Good – 89.4 Genre: Jidaigeki, Drama Duration: 162 mins Director: Akira Kurosawa Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken’ichi Hagiwara
Uniquely stunning psychological drama about a lowly thief and uncanny double for one of feudal Japan’s most powerful daimyos and his inwardly crushing effort to assume the place at the head of that great Lord’s armies after the latter is secretly assassinated. Akira Kurosawa’s lesser known masterpiece translating as “The Shadow Warrior”, is a soulful examination of character backdropped against starkly visceral concepts of death and afterlife set amidst some of the best choreographed action sequences on Kurosawa’s CV. Tatsuya Nakadai turns in yet another mind-blowing central performance as both the mighty General Takeda Shingen (known as “the Mountain) and his eventual impersonator, seamlessly deconstructing both his characters so that their boundaries ultimately phase in and out much like the film’s wider treatment of life and death, reality and unreality. As is usually the case with Kurosawa’s feudal epics, the story is overflowing with rich support players brought to life by a splendid cast with the boisterousness and social deference that has defined the quintessential jidaigeki performances. The historical context tantalises Kurosawa’s corporeal tome as the fascinating intrigue of the era imbues the plot with a steady drama. In place of a building tension in plot, the inner journey of Shingen’s “Kagemusha” takes centre stage crystallising in emotionally punctuating moments that exhibits the best of both Nakadai and Kurosawa’s crafts. Shinichirô Ikebe’s haunting score and/or the diegetic sounds of the various battles’ creakings become the glue to these moments leaving Kurosawa’s audacious vision to actualise around them in a manner not easily forgotten. One moment in particular, a mesmerising depiction of the Kagemusha finally “becoming” “the Mountain” in front of his troops and enemy alike, is a perfect coalescence of these smaller workings of genius and this master director’s unmatched broad visual aesthetic. Kagemusha nearly didn’t happen as Toho Studios ran into financial difficulties during production but thankfully George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola stepped in and convinced 20th Century Fox to finance the remainder of the shoot. It’s no small thing to say that despite their own monumental achievements, that assistance still counts among their most important contributions to cinema.
Rating: The Good – 74.9 Genre: Action, Comedy Duration: 126 mins Director: Martin Brest Stars: Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto
About as much fun as you can have watching one guy drag another cross country, Midnight Run is a minor triumph on the résumé of Robert De Niro who stars as a bounty hunter attempting to bring in Charles Grodin’s crooked accountant while being pursued by the mob, the FBI, and a competing bounty hunter. The movie is chockfull of motley characters played with an abundance of personality (not to mention a generous comedic license), from Yaphet Kotto’s testy FBI agent, John Ashton’s indefatigable pain-in-the-ass bounty hunter, to Dennis Farina’s hilariously baleful mob boss who spends most of the movie threatening his hapless goons with various forms of highly imaginative corporal punishment. De Niro embraces the easy comedy of George Gallo’s classy screenplay and drives the movie with an acerbic moxie but, despite a well balanced chemistry, Grodin (along with Farina) steals the show with his usual combination of dry warmth and laconic delivery. Martin Brest directs it all with an understated panache adding little touches here and there that contribute richly to the overarching sense of fun – such as Robert Miranda’s big lug of a henchman mock boxing with Richard Foronjy as the latter pleads with Farina over the phone for forgiveness. Everything skips along to Danny Elfman’s mirthful score in an unapologetically lighthearted style but there’s enough drama wrapped up within Gallo’s neat plot to justify Midnight Run’s status as one of the 1980’s best comedy thrillers.
A wild and trippy furlough into the LA night as envisaged within the quirky mind of John Landis at the height of his powers. Jeff Goldblum stars as an aerospace engineer suffering from insomnia, marital discord, and a general malaise. Michelle Pfeiifer is the confident and plucky damsel in distress who jumps into his car on lonely sleepless night only to see them both pursued by a peculiar group of foreign gangsters led by the director himself. Ron Koslow may have written this wonderfully off-kilter comedy thriller but make no mistake, it’s Landis’ world we are thrown into where the ride is as enjoyable as it is unique. The variety of peripheral and support characters is a treat to behold as are their various realisations at the hands of a brilliantly counter-intuitive cast of actors (David Bowie’s bizarre hit-man alone makes this one worth the watch). But paramount among the movie’s virtues is the foundation in which the plot is rooted. Convincing the audience to tag along on such a meandering journey isn’t simply about ingeniously engineered set-pieces (which Into the Night offers in spades) but a weight of reality that could see a normal Joe’s life shunted into hyper-reality. Like Scorsese did that very same year in After Hours, Landis places huge faith in his leading man’s ability to strike a paradoxical balance between delicacy and sturdiness. And in achieving that, Jeff Goldlum becomes the rock against which the delightful insanity can repeatedly crash. If anything, Landis ups the ante on Scorsese by adding a similarly finely tuned lead performance into the mix which not only bolsters her co-star’s but offers the madness a second pillar to rest on. Pfeiffer is nothing short of exquisite in a feisty reformulation of the femme fatale trope adding as much solidity as she does intrigue. And it helps not a little that her and Goldblum click like few male-female on-screen partnerships have! It’s all wrapped up in a rather pretty package too as Landis and his director of photography Robert Paynter shoot it in the soft night glow of 1980’s L.A. and soundtrack it to Ira Newborn’s equally contemporaneous (not to mention sumptuous) electronic score. A must see!
Rating: The Good – 88.9 Genre: Comedy Duration: 98 mins Director: Harold Ramis Stars: Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield
If Caddyshack was merely a reflection of the sum of its parts, those parts (top comedic actors, original premise, tremendous script, outstanding soundtrack, and a great comedy director) are of such high quality that the film would still rank as a comedy classic. However, the film transcends the sum of those parts to become one of the most enjoyable movie watching experiences. Set in the hilarious Bushwood Country Club, the movie follows its caddies, the rich eccentrics they caddy for, and the various staff including its unstable groundskeeper as they go about their ridiculous daily business. Michael O’Keefe is perfect in the lead as the likable but cheeky Danny Noonan but this movie is as much if not more about the supporting cast of comedic heavyweights. Ted Knight is a riot as Judge Smails, Rodney Dangerfield finds the perfect vehicle for his unique brand of humour (“hey lady, you wanna make 14 dollars the hard way?”) while Chevy Chase’s Ty Webb is Chase at his skewed and improvisational best. Best of all though is Murray as the deranged groundskeeper Carl. This is easily one of his best performances and one of the most off the wall eccentric characters you’ll find in any film. From his “kill all the golfers” line to “you wore green so you could hide” Murray will have you howling with laughter for the full 90 mins and beyond. The quantifiable magic that occurs when every aspect of a movie comes together in perfect harmony is something we rarely encounter in life so let’s just be eternally thankful that Caddyshack is with us. “In the words of Jean Paul Sartre: au revoir”.
Rating: The Good – 64.4 Genre: Comedy Duration: 111 mins Director: Herbert Ross Stars: Michael J. Fox, Helen Slater, Richard Jordan
A big slice of 80’s nostalgia has bright eyed Michael J. Fox moving to the big city intent on making his fortune. Stuck in the mail room of his uncle’s corporation, he assumes the role of an executive, gets involved with his uncle’s wife and his mistress, and battles a hostile takeover. It’s the type of wacky plot you’d expect from such a vehicle but thanks to great casting and fun directing, it survives the inevitably lame jokes that were a hazard of the era (after all, this was the period of burgeoning pop culture references). Fox was at the height of his powers and in full-on cheeky charm mode. The arch scene-stealer himself, Richard Jordan, is delightfully lecherous as his uncle, Helen Slater is the softly lit 1980’s feminine ideal, while Margaret Whitton has a blast as the insatiable “Aunt Vera”. Of course, these comedies were a dime a dozen in the late 80’s but few had such a complementary cast of talented actors. Moreover, director Herbert Ross keeps them busy with one elaborate not to mention energetic comedy set piece after another. Whether it’s Fox speed-changing from mailman to executive, generally evading detection, or whether it’s the four main players tiptoeing from one bedroom to another in pursuit of a midnight rendezvous, you’ll find yourself smiling along for the duration. More than that, if you grew up on these movies, the whole thing immerses you in a warm hazy nostalgia that’s simply irresistible.
Rating: The Good – 84.4 Genre: Crime, Drama Duration: 167 mins Director: Sidney Lumet Stars: Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach, Richard Foronjy
Sidney Lumet’s second instalment in his unofficial trilogy on NYPD corruption is his most excavating and downbeat – and that’s saying something given the first was Serpico! Treat Williams stars as a narcotics detective who volunteers to help a task force take down a litany of crooked cops by wearing a wire and acting as general go between. The only condition: they overlook any wrongdoing perpetrated by him and his partners. However, after the initial adrenaline rush, he starts to see the toll his work is taking on his family and partners and ultimately his own wellbeing. Things get worse when the federal government take over and draw him into a seemingly endless series of cases culminating in the prosecution of his old partners.
Prince of the City is a dark and pensive thriller that almost incidentally seems to serve up some of the best cop to cop drama this side of the French Connection. The gritty one-on-ones, the back-of-diner meets, the greasing of stoolies all reek of so much grimy reality that the audience would be forgiven for feeling like they were the ones putting themselves in the crosshairs. With so much wiretapping going on, it gets to feel like we ourselves are listening in on the dirty deals, the hits, and the extortion (a device Lumet had used before in The Anderson Tapes), where every conversation is a lesson in the actuality of crime. Shooting the movie in much the same style as he did with Serpico, Lumet uses his flat palette of colours to starkly enhance the inward loneliness of his central character’s existence. And armed with such material, Williams is stunning, the perfect embodiment of anxious inertia and frenzied exhaustion. Among others, Lindsey Crouse as his wife and Jerry Orbach as his partner pitch in with some terrific supporting turns but this is Williams’ vehicle from start to finish.
At over two and a half hours long, this one requires much investment but even a moderate love for the great crime dramas of the 70’s & 80’s will elicit that naturally. That it feels like a slog for the audience (albeit a welcomed one) is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement, however, for it mirrors profoundly the tortured commitment of his central protagonist.