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 Ugly – 64.5 Genre: Thriller Duration: 99 mins Director: Tom Holland Stars: Timothy Hutton, Lara Flynn Boyle, Faye Dunaway
Daft as a brush but forgivably sardonic, Tom Holland’s The Temp is a fast and loose thriller about an executive’s beautiful but sinister assistant whose recent arrival coincides with a number of accidents that move both her and her increasingly suspicious boss up the ladder. Timothy Hutton is the beleaguered exec, Laura Flynn Boyle, his self-appointed but apparently unstable cat’s paw while Faye Dunaway and Oliver Platt play their cut throat co-workers. With its unpredictable plot and outlandish progression, The Temp scores for its sheer uniqueness but with the writer-director of the quirky Fright Night pulling the strings, it’s also a riot of rather well disguised black comedy too. Contrasting dark tones of paranoia with over the top villainy, there’s barely a scene that won’t elicit a crooked smile. However, so unorthodox is its execution that the sarcasm is perhaps too well disguised. As often as not, the movie comes across as a tad unsure of itself and even erratic. In these moments, it can let the audience slip through its fingers despite the best efforts of Hutton and co. In the end, it all unravels rather resoundingly but, at the very least, it maintains its eccentricity.
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 – 77.1 Genre: Drama, Satire Duration: 102 mins Director: Mike Nichols Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Mike Nichols turns his prodigious talent for satire to Aaron Sorkin’s clever adaptation of the true story of a Texas congressman’s attempts to secure the covert military funding that would ultimately tip the balance of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tom Hanks as the unorthadox good-time politician and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his irreverent CIA adviser form one of the best on-screen partnerships in recent decades as they bat Sorkin’s indignantly funny dialogue back and forth while Julia Roberts and Any Adams help to fill out the support roster intelligently rising to the spirit of Sorkin and Nichols’ storytelling as they go. The movie that unfolds is a delight of sardonic wit in both its writing and directing but, in typical Mike Nichols fashion, it effortlessly doubles as an engrossing political drama by perceptibly accounting for geo-political implications and character development alike. Sorkin’s feisty screenplay zips along at its usual pace but Nichols knows exactly when to channel that momentum or temporarily contain it so that its energy is maintained without dumbing down the drama. Unsurprisingly, Wilson comes out smelling like roses but only because Hanks and co. know exactly how to turn those warts into beauty spots and so, like the man himself, Charlie Wilson’s War charms its way into the audience’s hearts.
Rating: The Good – 88.1 Genre: Comedy, Romance Duration: 112mins Director: George Cukor Stars: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart
Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart form a golden trio for this definitive comedy of manners. Hepburn is the iron clad “goddess” with an inside made of bronze, Grant is the ex-husband who resurfaces on the eve of her next marriage to one of the “new money”, and Stewart is the working writer sent to cover the wedding for a celebrity gossip magazine. The three way relationship is bang on perfect thanks to the three titans of cinema and the deliciously worded back and forths present in Donald Ogden Stewart’s magnificent adapted screenplay and Philip Barry’s original play.
Hepburn is immense as the quick witted socialite, Tracy Lord, who has learned to repress her more compassionate side. In any other movie, she’d own the entire thing but with Grant and Stewart in top form they share the spoils equally. Grant is at his most charming as C.K. Dexter Haven and, while only really coming to the fore in the second hour, he’s responsible for most of the film’s emotional thrust. As the one more responsible for the movie’s straight comedy, Stewart’s Macaulay Connor is the perfect foil for Tracy’s playful cynic and indeed the funniest moments are the product of their dynamic. There’s a fine support cast on show too with John Halliday in great form as Lord senior.
George Cukor does an exemplary job in coaxing the drama from the more constrained parameters of the stage and onto his luscious monochrome while simultaneously keeping the quick repartee as the primary driver. The Philadelphia Story is one of those rare immortal comedies in that it’s lost none of its sophistication as the years go by. In fact, with the relative dumbing down of the modern romantic comedy, it has only grown in stature.
Rating: The Good – 84.1 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 99 mins Director: Stephen Chow Stars: Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen
Nothing will prepare you for the breadth of imagination, style, emotion, fight choreography, and just plain good story telling that Kung Fu Hustle serves up without interruption for 95 minutes. Writer/director/star/stunt man Stephen Chow is the best kept secret in the world of martial arts movie making. With his mind-boggling talent, he should be held in the same esteem as Quentin Tarantino but few outside the fans of the genre are aware of just how good this guy is. Chow leads the cast as a petty criminal determined to make a name for himself in a world of quirky yet powerful gangsters. However, things take a turn for the surreal when circumstances bring him to a tenement block on the outskirts of the city where the inhabitants are protected by an overbearing landlady and her husband, a couple who have more to them than meets the eye.
Chow’s characters inhabit a strange Kafkaesque world of Eastern noir where the traditional martial arts concept is injected with steroids. Super-fighters emerge when you’re least expecting it and do battle in some of the most innovative showdowns the medium has offered. This is the essence of a martial arts movie, a celebration of bold concepts, graceful momentum, and some thunderously good fight scenes. Surprisingly however, the story is just as good. Chow’s character is truly hilarious as he bumbles through the early scenes but undergoes real change as the story progresses. The film comes alive when the camera is on him and we’re rooting him for him all the way. There’s even a romantic angle thrown in that works a treat, allowing Chow to tie the whole thing together in a most satisfying fashion. There’s nothing about this masterpiece that isn’t fresh and inspiring and it’ll have you laughing and exhilarated from the first frame to the last.
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 – 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 – 78.2 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 134 mins Director: Hark Tsui Stars: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan
Epic martial arts adventure starring Jet Li as the famous warrior Wong Fei-Hung who becomes embroiled in the intrigue of foreign powers and local corruption as he attempts to protect his homeland and traditions from their destructive influence. The outright strength of this magnificent piece of cinema is the tapestry of plots and stories it weaves into the central narrative not to mention the chorus of martial artists that intermittently set the screen alight. The result is a sprawling extravaganza of martial art drama. Hark Tsui brings an unabashed grandiosity to the film with striking cinematography and balletically choreographed action. James Wong’s magnificent score tells the story on its own level while Marco Mak’s editing whisks the audience along to the melodically unfolded action. As imaginative as the wire-work action sequences are there’s a slightly anaemic quality to their thrust which is a common problem with the flying style of fight movies. But what is lacking in oomph is made up for in artistry as Li, Biao Yuen, and company put on a masterly exhibition of on-screen action gymnastics. Within this, Li makes for a strong lead and catches the dramatic qualities of the famous leader admirably. Like the life and personality that Hark breathes into his epic saga from behind the camera, his lead actor and the remainder of the cast ensured that Once Upon a Time in China became much more than just another Kung-Fu flick.
Rating: The Good – 68.5 Genre: Crime, Comedy Duration: 90 mins Director: Jonathan Sobol Stars: Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon, Jay Baruchel, Katheryn Winnick
Kurt Russell might not be the box office draw he once was but he shows no sign of losing his irascible charm and overall screen presence. Case in point is Jonathan Sobol’s modest crime caper The Art of the Steal. In it, Russell stars as Crash, a thief turned stuntman who after being betrayed by his conman brother (an equally evergreen Matt Dillon) reluctantly agrees to run one last scam with him. Enter a “Leverage” style team of forgers and thieves and a slickly realised heist corkscrews its way to the close. It’s a pleasantly satisfying affair as the chemistry between Russell, Dillon, Jay Baruchel, and Kenneth Welsh proves amusing at times and laugh-out-loud hilarious at others. Nothing new is offered in the way of style or story but, Sobol confidently handles the basics while Geoff Ashenhurst’s editing gives the plot a coolish gliding quality which makes the whole thing very easy to watch. Struggling at the production level, the film could look a lot better but by living up to Sobel’s unpretentious yet funny screenplay, The Art of the Steal will endear itself to most.
Rating: The Good – 67.8 Genre: Romantic Comedy Duration: 95 mins Director: Frank Coraci Stars: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Christine Taylor
Down and out and recently left at the altar 1980’s wedding singer, Adam Sandler, befriends a sweet co-worker in the form of Drew Barrymore as she herself prepares for her wedding. Naturally, a guilty love blossoms as the jilted crooner attempts to pick up his life and nab the girl from her ridiculous Miami Vice obsessed fiancé. Rom-coms may be the most feebly represented of US movies, 80’s retrospectives may fall flat on their face more than any other nostalgia comedies, and Adam Sandler tends to hit or miss at a ratio of 1:4 but this one manages to defy all three trends. The low key self-deprecating humour of Sandler’s character seems to suit his screen presence better than most of his roles and he very much drives the comedy from every angle with boyish charm and bone-dry delivery. Barrymore too is perfectly cast as the girl of his dreams, in who’s mouth, butter wouldn’t melt and the chemistry between the two leads is palpable. The 80’s gags are gentle but for the most part will bring a smirk to your face, there are a few hilarious musical contributions from Sandler, and the soundtrack nails the era with affectionate humour. All that and a couple of show stopping cameos from Steve Buscemi and Jon Lovitz as a miffed best man and rival wedding singer respectively render The Wedding Singer a thoroughly satisfying 90 minutes.