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.
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!
A retired drug dealer (Mel Gibson) is caught between his romantic feelings for a restaurant owner (Michelle Pfeiffer), loyalty to an old drug dealing king-pin from Mexico (Raul Julia), and his life-long friend who leads a narcotics task force (Kurt Russell). Written and directed by the one of the great 70′s writers Robert Towne, Tequila Sunrise was a big hit on its release due to the big names attached to the project. It has since been pigeon-holed by many as nothing more than a piece of 80′s schmaltz but in reality it’s an original and clever thriller driven by the three excellent central performances of Gibson, Pfeiffer, and Russell and the equally excellent supporting performances of the late greats, Julia and JT Walsh. The well balanced script gives each of the leads their fair share of time on screen (with Russell and Julia in particular standing out) and the various cross-over relationships are terrifically realised thanks to the easy chemistry they all share. Moreover, there isn’t a word of dialogue wasted in what is in general a very functional script. The soft sun-lit scenes ensure that the film looks great and there are the deftest touches of film noir in Towne’s use of shadows. More obvious is his immaculate staging of practically every scene, Being an 80’s film, there’s lots of sax heavy score that bears a sultry swing that compliments the movie’s visual profile. Of course, it inevitably hits some cheesy notes at certain points in the film particularly in the final scene which, on a whole, is pretty much Hollywood of the time at its most self-indulgent. However, it’s a small quibble for an otherwise solid thriller from an era that specialised in that genre.
It’s too bad that Christopher Nolan’s much hyped Batman films have given a whole new generation of kids the wrong impression on what to expect from a Batman film. Nolan attempted to bring Batman into the real world by asking the question: what if there really were superheroes? This is laudable, though not original, and there’s no doubt that Nolan does it well (Okay, in The Dark Knight he did it well). But in the final analysis, the very idea of a Batman is cartoonish, unrealistic, and from the point of view of the real world – just plain silly. As such, the idea of Batman is best explored in a comic book film. That is, a film where the world and its inhabitants are caricatured. That’s crucial because a caricature would never dream about questioning the validity of a man who dresses up as a bat because in his exaggerated world, where the laws of logic only tenuously apply, Batman makes perfect sense. A more realistic character, however, would laugh himself silly if a man dressed up as a bat took it upon himself to start fighting criminals. Burton understood this but he also understood the yearning for Batman (the most serious of superheroes) to be a little more gritty and real than the rest of the bright-tight wearing lot. And in attempting to be true to both ideals, he gave us the two most spellbinding superhero films ever.
Batman is a tour-de-force of production design, direction, acting, and in particular screenwriting. Batman Returns doesn’t have the masterfully lyrical dialogue of its predecessor but it does have a more mature and sombre screenplay. Its main characters (Batman, Catwoman, Penguin, and Max Shreck) are fascinatingly realised and brilliantly performed and Danny Elfman’s score is a darker and more seductive version of his seminal 1989 score. Where Batman Returns exceeds the quality of that first film is in Burton’s sublimely executed vision. Batman Returns is quite simply one of the most visually stunning films ever made, a film which is immersed in the expressionism genre where set-design, darkness, and shadow take on a life of their own. However, Burton goes one step further by marrying this expressionism with the comic-book genre in as honest and as uncompromising a manner possible. Thus, the bright colours of the Penguin’s circus army and giant plastic duck mobile and the gaudy decor of Max Shreck’s office are set against the impossibly black background of Gotham city to tremendous effect. One will be utterly spellbound if they let themselves take in what Burton serves up here.
Thankfully, the story has the legs to compete with this visual spectacle mainly thanks to the quality of the characters and actors on show. Danny De Vito is perfect as the maniacal Penguin, and Christopher Walken gives us perhaps the most enjoyable comic book villain outside of either Nicholson or Ledger’s Joker. Michael Keaton is superb as Bruce Wayne and Batman both, balancing the different sides to his character with aplomb. Of all those who have played Wayne, his is easily the most spot-on depiction of a disturbed billionaire recluse with a dark penchant for vengeance. The show stopper is of course Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. She is simply incredible as the feline killer blinded by mad rage and that moment when she, Batman, and the Penguin finally meet is not just a testament to her presence but to the quality of the entire project for in that moment we have the essence of Batman Returns. Boom!