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 – 83.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 95mins Director: John Flynn Stars: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes
As good a thriller as the 70’s offered up, Rolling Thunder is damn near perfect. The ever cool William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones play two POW’s who, after returning home, find life as torturous as their imprisonment was. Things get steadily worse for the hard boiled Major Charles Rane (Devane) when his wife and son are murdered by a gang of home invaders who also take his hand. Devane gives a smouldering performance as a man who has “learned to love” torture as a means to surviving it. A young Tommy Lee Jones is sensational as the equally stoic Johnny who ultimately helps him to exact his revenge. John Flynn allows this masterpiece to develop at its own pace building the film not around the inevitable action but rather the drama that comes with a man who is pushed to the brink but never breaks. The parallels between Rane’s time in captivity and the life he has returned to are repeatedly drawn but never explicitly so, ensuring that the viewer discovers something new on each viewing. Thus, the more one watches this gem the better it gets. “Let’s go clean ‘em up”.
Rating: The Ugly – 66 Genre: Action Duration: 92 mins Director: Louis Leterrier, Corey Yuen Stars: Jason Statham, Qi Shu, Matt Schulze
A meticulous driver and all-action bad-ass in the form of Jason Statham transports illicit cargo around the French countryside but gets sucked into a people trafficking racket when he breaks his own rules and looks inside the package. Written and produced by Luc Besson but directed by Louis Leterrier, The Transporter still bears all the hallmarks of the legendary director’s most enjoyable work. An action comedy with a quirky energy that flirts with the laws of physics and slaps a couple of charming characters right in the centre. Statham delivers the goods in more ways than one with his usual mixture of suave wise-cracks and kickboxing acrobatics and Qi Shu makes for a worthy co-star as his endearing yet unintended sidekick. The plot is daft as a brush and you may even struggle to recall what the whole thing was about but with two strong leads, a considered screenplay, and more breathless car-chases, bullets and grenades, and kicks and punches than you can keep up with, The Transporter will race into the good graces of even the most cynical of movie fans.
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 – 78 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 120 mins Director: Tony Scott Stars: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Brad Pitt
Tony Scott’s finest hour came when he purchased a young video store clerk’s script and executed it with much of the panache and dry wit that the same clerk would soon become renowned for. It tells the story of a geek-come-wild boy Christian Slater who falls in love with prostitute Patricia Arquette, kills her slightly deranged pimp, accidentally steals his cocaine, and then attempts to sell it to some rich Hollywood producer before the coke’s real owner, mob boss Christopher Walken, tracks him down with prejudice.
True Romance quickly became a cult classic because it cut across genres with the same audacity as Reservoir Dogs did. Colourful characters posing hip monologues, an unlikely romance at the center that flavours the entire movie with an essential unreal vibe, and more fists and guns action than you can shake a stick at ensures that the entire caper is bags of unpredictable fun and looks a treat too. With the verve that Scott’s movies were always reaching for coming pre-loaded with Quentin Tarantino’s white hot script, the former commercial director softens his touch and lets the dialogue do the talking. Free from intrusive editing and over the top score, his consistently outstanding scene composition is finally given the room to breathe and the time to be appreciated. Smokey slats of light grace everything with a cosy noir-esque ambiance, perfectly backdropping the lyricism of Tarantino’s words and the enthusiastic performances that bring them to life.
In that last regard, Slater has never been better and he shares a magnetic chemistry with the even better Arquette. Walken is Walken (in the best way possible), Hopper is in fine form as Slater’s estranged father, Oldman is forgivably over the top as the crazed pimp with an epic inferiority complex, and Brad Pitt is a riot as Slater’s L.A. stoner buddy. However, in one of the smaller parts, it’s James Gandolfini who nearly steals the show as the very real (in a wonderful contrast to practically everything else) and very scary enforcer. The last word should go to Hans Zimmer though who, on his own, seems to give this movie a tenderness that raises it above your standard actioner. Okay, not quite in his own, Scott, Tarantino, and Gandolfini helped, a lot.
Rating: The Good – 87.6 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 86 mins Director: Joseph H. Lewis Stars: John Dall, Peggy Cummins, Berry Kroeger
One of the all time great films noir, Gun Crazy or “Deadly is the Female”, as it’s also known, stars John Dall and Peggy Cummins as a husband and wife sharpshooter, turned stick-up team who, piece by piece, unfold a romantic tragedy across the American Midwest. Joseph H. Lewis’s masterpiece was revolutionary for myriad reasons but most notable among the trails it blazed were the technical innovations of the movie’s shooting and its unflinching account of a homicidal woman and her guilt ridden husband. Lewis improvised a number of unique methods with which to stage and capture the various heist sequences including an early use of insert cars and modified camera cars. A solitary process shot that captures the couple’s dreamlike honeymoon is all we get in the way of rear projection, a magnificently symbolic contrast to the down and gritty life of crime that was to follow. In addition to such technical mastery, Lewis brings all his know-how to bear on the movie’s aesthetic, rendering this one of the more beautifully shot noirs. A relative abundance of daylight sequences would appear to belie the genre’s more typical remit but they serve here as a conceptual contrast as powerful as any amount of shadow or key lit faces (though there’s plenty of those too). What stirs most effectively however is the simple tale of desire and morality that’s spun at the film’s core. Cummins’ Laurie cuts a sinister strip through the film and while Cummins is more than adequate in the role, it’s (then blacklisted) Dalton Trumbo’s writing that largely plumbs her murky depths. Dall’s is the more tragic character and an extended introduction of him and his childhood makes him resoundingly sympathetic before we ever lay eyes on the actor himself. Armed with some heart wrenching dialogue and thrillingly shot set pieces, Gun Crazy ever develops a subtle power as it moves through the reels, so much so that its wonderfully staged finale will linger as long in memory as the outlaw mythology it so deftly taps.
Rating: The Good – 88.4 Genre: Crime Duration: 89 mins Director: Johnathan Glazer Stars: Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane
This British gangster movie stars the daddy of British geezer-actors Ray Winstone and a barely recognisable Ben Kingsley giving the most intimidating and ferocious performance this side of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Winstone plays the retired thief enjoying life with his wife in their Spanish villa. Kingsley plays the nutter sent to bring him back to London for one more job. Winstone has never been better while Kingsley simply burns a hole in the screen. This was Jonathan Glazer’s feature debut and it’s fair to say that there have been few more stunning. A deft blend of comedy and intimidation plus all the energy and innovation of a Tarantino or Scorsese at their most daring, the only question you’ll be left with is why he didn’t go on to become one of the industry’s hottest properties? Sexy Beast really does have it all, visionary directing, great cast, delicious script, beautifully shot, razor-sharp comedy, and a sensationally clever metaphorical double bluff just in case you weren’t already impressed.
Rating: The Good – 79.8 Genre: Drama Duration: 110 mins Director: George Lucas Stars: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Harrison Ford
For those who (somewhat understandably) used the most recent Star Wars films as reason to doubt George Lucas’ talent as a director, this is one of two films they should watch that will assuage any such doubts (the other being THX 1138). An ode to the 1950-60′s cruising generation, American Graffiti follows a group of friends the night before two of them are due to head off for college. Lucas knits each of the scenes together with a medley of era-specific rock and roll hits which are intermittently punctuated by local radio pirate Wolfman Jack and he quite brilliantly uses the radios of passing cars, restaurants, gas stations, etc to ensure the soundtrack is a constant feature of the background. The fun of the evening’s adventures are had in a series of cracking set pieces ranging from drag races to that now classic liquor store robbery. On the acting front, all acquit themselves admirably with Richard Dreyfuss and Paul Le Mat scoring particularly well. Dreyfuss brings a lot of depth to his character and taps that ever present ability to strike up immediate chemistry with a variety of on-screen partners. On the other hand, Le Mat quite simply gives us one of cinema’s coolest characters as king of the strip John Milner. Unmissable.
Sidney Lumet’s second collaboration with Sean Connery was for this inspired & subtly satirical story of surveillance, perception, & a recently paroled thief’s last big job. Connery is that thief and he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself in what must be one of his best roles. His character is proud and tough but generally good-hearted and you can’t help but weight in behind his optimism and certainty that he’s masterminded the perfect heist. The team he assembles are just as interesting with Christopher Walken’s electronics expert & Martin Balsam’s camped up merchandise valuer being the picks of the bunch.
The Anderson Tapes is imbued with that peculiar 1970’s paranoid vibe but there’s a much more light-hearted, satirical, and even comical sentiment insinuated into the narrative and in particular into those surveillance sequences which recurrently punctuate it. It makes for a highly original movie and one that has really been under-appreciated in terms of the subtle undertones Lumet and co. bring to the party.