Category: Mobsters


KingOfNewYork1

Plus or minus 5 movies (I think I might have forgotten to put a handful on my big list of all of my review scores), this will be my 448th review. That’s a lot of movies in the last three years. And, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned having reviewed nearly 450 films, it’s that there’s a depressing homogeneity to the vast majority of movies. The stories are nothing more than a variation on a theme, the details never vary too far, and years of watching movies have trained you to guess every twist and turn. Silver Linings Playbook was one of my favorite films of 2012, but even it is a conventionally structured romantic comedy that just happens to change up all of the details to beautiful effect.

But, occasionally, movies come along that are truly their one. There are few coming-of-age films as beautiful and insightful as Life of Pi. There are few American comedies as riotous and “screw-the-rules” as Wet Hot American Summer. Charlie Kauffman’s entire ouevre is one-of-a-kind, but when Being John Malkovich came out, it was one of the most revolutionary films of the already revolutionary 90s. 1990’s King of New York is far from a great film, but it’s dedication to pure style and its glorious subversion of the 80s crime picture make it one of the most memorable and unique crime films of the 90s.

KingOfNewYork2

After serving years in prison, powerful New York City drug lord Frank White (The Dead Zone‘s Christopher Walken) is released into his beloved city and his only goal is to make up for lost time. With a primarily African-American gang, Frank White isn’t your tpical 80s/90s crime boss. He’s a committed community activist that is willing to spend $16 million of his own cash to build a children’s hospital, and (mostly) he only resorts to violence when people aren’t willing to play ball with him in a civilized and cooperative manner. But, if you’ve pissed off Frank White, prepare to die in a hail of bullets that would make John Woo jealous.

Frank doesn’t have much trouble consolidating power back under the umbrella of his organization upon his release from prison. When tasked with violence, his men (including a young Laurence Fishburne who was still calling himself Larry at the time) are more than up to the task. Frank’s troubles come from a group of overzealous cops who are willing to get their hands as dirty as Frank in order to bring him back under the heel of the law. And when Frank’s men walk away clean from a clear murder conviction, the cops decide vigilante justice is the only answer.

KingOfNewYork3

The number of great character actors in this film besides the always mesmerizing Christopher Walken is ridiculous. King of New York predates Boyz N the Hood by just one year, and it’s astounding to see Laurence Fishburne in a role that is less Furious Styles and more Ice Cube’s Doughboy on PCP. Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito has one of his more recognizable non-Do the Right Thing roles as another of Frank’s henchmen, and although he isn’t in the film very long, it blew my mind to see such a young Steve Buscemi as a technology-minded henchman.

And, the cops are another Who’s Who. David Caruso (Session 9) steals the show as Dennis Gilley, one of the cops who is most hellbent on bringing Frank in by any means necessary. Between this and Session 9, I was reminded how great he can be in eclectic character roles, and it was a shame he had to waste years of his life on a network crime procedural. Wesley Snipes isn’t given much to work with as another of the rage-fueled cops, but there’s a scene where he’s arresting Laurence Fishburne where Fishburne threatens to “slap the black off” him and Snipes’s reaction is priceless.

KingOfNewYork4

Christopher Walken is absolutely transfixing as Frank White. There are many things that make King of New York such a unique and “different” film, and Walken’s take on Frank White is chief among them. Moving beyond Walken’s unique diction and the phrasing of his sentences with the deep, pregnant pauses, Walken’s Cheshire cat grin and electric magnetism make it clear why all these gangsters would want to work for him. But when the role calls for it, Walken flips the switch and White becomes an explosive outlet for violence. Frank White is like “What if Tony Montana were actually an interesting character?”

King of New York is “urban” to its core. The hip-hop soundtrack is always spot-on; there’s a scene where Schooly D’s “Am I Black Enough For Ya?” is played where the Public Enemy-esque political lyrics and hard-pounding beat perfectly fit the bloodbath that’s about to arrive. And while there are moments where Fishburne’s Jimmy Jump seems like a Run DMC stereotype, the movie’s urban sensibility is always played with tongue slightly in cheek. And in a decade where crime movies were either white mobster films or black “gangsta” movies, it’s so god damned refreshing to find a film that is both.

KingOfNewYork5

King of New York‘s cinematography is also neo-noir perfection. Whether it’s capturing the neon-streaked lights of late 80s/early 90s New York or following Frank and his crew through their criminal enterprises, King of New York is a beauty to behold. On the other hand though, the film also knows not to take itself too seriously. Too many “crime epics” think they’re high art (*cough* Scarface *cough*); King of New York knows it isn’t and plays its hand accordingly. There’s a moment in the film where Frank backs down a group of thugs on the subway that exists just to show what a bad-ass Frank is, and the film is better for it.

If you’re wanting deep characterization or a serious commentary on urban crime, look elsewhere; Baby Boy this ain’t. When King of New York first came out, it was a critical disaster because of its over-the-top “glorification” of crime (that’s not really what the film does though), and if you like your films centered in reality, King of New York is going to disappoint. But for those with a taste for films with the touch of a true auteur’s style, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is one of the most memorable and entertaining crime dramas of the 90s.

Final Score: B+

 

Advertisements

KillingThemSoftly1

2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford remains one of the most under-appreciated Westerns of the last decade, and were it not for it’s semi-bloated final act, it could have been one of the true masterpieces of the decade (visually, it remains a work of genius despite its narrative missteps). With just that film (I’m yet to see 2000’s Chopper),  director Andrew Dominik asserted himself as one of the true artistic visionaries working in the modern cinema field, and his visually resplendent work harkens back to other celebrated filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson or Terrence Malick. Combining slower-paced epic crime yarns with cinematography that is simply stunning, Andrew Dominik  is making movies unlike anything else being created right now, and while 2012’s Killing Them Softly ends on a too obvious note, it is an incendiary work from one of Hollywood’s most promising talents.

Born out of what can only be described as unchecked fury with the American psyche and cultural/economic/social institutions that allowed the 2008 economic crisis to occur, Killing Them Softly is Andrew Dominik’s fiery reaction to greed, capitalism, and our culture of cruelty and exploitation. While some were bothered by the “anvilicious” nature of the films political message (click on that link, if you need the phrase explained to you), I applaud a modern director actually trying to make a political statement when ironic indifference seems to be the critical vogue these days. Taking place in the days leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Killing Them Softly mixes in a large amount of speeches and news reports from the financial crisis during the more quiet moments of the film, and by the film’s end, the criminals, robbers, and murderers at the heart of the film become inseparable from the robber barons who wrecked our nation’s economy.

KillingThemSoftly2

After being egged on by his boss, Johnny Amato (The Sopranos‘ Vincent Curatola), small-time hood Frankie (Argo‘s Scoot McNairy) teams up with his heroin-addicted friend Russell (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Ben Mendelsohn) to rob a mob-ran poker game organized by pathetic criminal Trattman (Smokin’ Aces‘s Ray Liotta). They think they can get away with the crime because Trattman robbed his own game years earlier and drunkenly admitted to it without any consequences. Though the robbery goes right according to plan, Russell’s big mouth eventually draws attention to their exploits and mafia hitman Jackie (Moneyball‘s Brad Pitt) is called in to take care of the problem. With the “assistance” of depressed, whore-chasing fellow hitman Mickey (The Sopranos‘ James Gandolfini), Jackie does what he does best. Clean up messes.

Just like The Assassination of Jesse James, this is a very “talk”-y movie. Probably even more so than Jesse James. But, unlike your average crime film (even some of the better ones), you actually feel like you know the people driving the action of the film. When Russell inevitably fucks up and blabs about the crime, it doesn’t seem unexpected (while the reveal of the situation avoids predictability through how well-shot the scenario was). While the entire film carries an air of tragic inevitability, it works within the context of Dominik’s work. As our nation’s economy is crumbling around these men, it makes perfect sense that the once mythologized criminal underworld would lose its sheen and glamour. In fact, much how Jesse James deconstructed the classical American Western, Andrew Dominik takes a bazooka to the tropes and mythic stature of the American crime film.

KillingThemSoftly3

Brad Pitt continues his remarkable transition into one of the most respected acted talents of his generation. It was obvious as far back as 12 Monkeys and Fight Club just how talented he was, but in recent years, the man has undergone a career renaissance (thanks in no small part to mostly consistently excellent career choices, though I am nervous about The War Z), and more than almost anyone else, he is a massive A-List star who seems to spend as much time in indie-ville as he does more mainstream affairs. His Jackie is a terrifying creation of greed, professionalism, and absolutely no remorse. Yet, thanks to the strong writing and Pitt’s subtle performance, he is a fully-dimensional create and more than just a commentary on the cultural forces that would produce a man like him.

I’m going to keep this review short. I’m going to see Aziz Ansari tonight (!!!) at the Creative Arts Center here in Morgantown. He’s doing a stand-up show. My sister got tickets for free, and I drove her around town when she needed something, so she’s giving one of her free tickets to me. It should be a good night since I like Aziz’s stand-up and I also love Parks and Recreation (a show I began watching after this blog stopped reviewing television). If I have one major complaint about Killing Them Softly, it’s Brad Pitt’s final speech which I understand sums up all of the themes and anger of the film. But it’s also so mind-numbingly obvious and apparent that it’s an insult to the audience’s intelligence. Otherwise, the film continues to paint Andrew Dominik as one of the most intriguing and rising talents in the industry.

Final Score: A-

 

TheDeparted1

Not since my review of No Country for Old Men early in this blog’s existence have I reviewed a film that I have such complicated feelings toward. Much like that particular Coen brothers film, The Departed was the movie where Hollywood royalty (in this case Martin Scorsese) finally took home the big prize. Yet, just like No Country for Old Men, there is a sizable portion of that director’s fan-base who feel Scorsese was rewarded for the wrong film. I consider myself to be a bit of a Scorsese buff, and I can name around five of his films that I think are better than The Departed and quite a few films from 2006 that were more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar (Pan’s Labyrinth, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Children just to name a few). That’s not to say this isn’t a good movie. It is, in fact, a great film (that far exceeds it’s source material, Infernal Affairs). It just has enough flaws to keep it from reaching the top-tier of Scorsese classics.

You do have to give The Departed and Martin Scorsese (as well as screenwriter William Monahan) credit for something though. The Departed (alongside Peter Jackson’s re-imagination of King Kong) has become the standard by which any future remake has to be judged. Current readers will know I reviewed Infernal Affairs last week, and I found it to be an all-style/no-substance affair. That was actually my primary complaint about The Departed for years although upon more recent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the subtext the film contained. And despite The Departed‘s occasional slightness, it expands and broadens every aspect of Infernal Affairs. Characters that were broad generalizations are given life and depth, and with the exception of Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone, Boston has rarely felt this alive in cinema.

TheDeparted3

With many added characters and a geographical facelift, The Departed is a very Irish-American take (coming from the ultimate Italian-American film-maker, Martin Scorsese) on the Hong Kong action of Infernal Affairs. Irish mafia king-pin Frank Costello (Chinatown‘s Jack Nicholson) runs the Boston underworld, and it puts him right in the sights of Massachussetts State Police Captain Queenan (Catch-22‘s Martin Sheen). Queenan runs the Undercover Department of the Special Investigation’s Unit, and along with his assistant Dignam (The Fighter‘s Mark Wahlberg), he hires Billy Costigan (Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio), a State Police cadet, to go undercover and infiltrate Costello’s organization. At the same time, Costello has Colin Sullivan (Margaret‘s Matt Damon) joining the Massachusetts State Police where he quickly climbs the ranks and becomes Costello’s mole in the police. And it’s not long before both Costigan and Sullivan have to hunt each other.

Where The Departed really sets itself apart from Infernal Affairs (besides the better cast, better direction, better editing, etc) is that beneath the cat-and-mouse game at the heart of the film and the violent crime action is a tale about identity, redemption, family, and being something more than fate decides you should be. The obvious theme to discuss is identity and how men and women who go undercover as cops often risk becoming the very people they’re trying to hunt. That was all of Donnie Brasco, and The Departed makes it so much more compelling. Maybe it’s cause DiCaprio handles the terrain better than Johnny Depp (more on DiCaprio shortly), but the dramatic thrust of the schizophrenic state Billy Costigan always had to place himself in was what kept the tightly wound crime thriller glued together.

TheDeparted4

To me, any discussion though of the film’s merits have to begin and end with Leonardo DiCaprio’s fearless performance as Billy Costigan. He got his Oscar nomination that year for Blood Diamond, but it should have been for this film, and honestly, he was just as good as Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. This was a career-defining performance from Leo, and much like Robert De Niro before him, this was the film that cemented him as Scorsese’s new acting muse. Billy Costigan demands that Leo can reach every spot on the emotional continuum and often flip between them instantly. And not only does Leo do this, he nearly sets a new bar for masculine vulnerability. There is an emotional nakedness that Leo taps into for some of the most important scenes of the film, and it is rare to see a male actor display so much of his soul in a performance.

The rest of the cast was wonderful as well, and it’s honestly impossible to pick favorites. It’s kind of ridiculous that Mark Wahlberg got an Oscar nomination when Jack Nicholson and Alec Baldwin didn’t (as they both gave more interesting performances) though Marky Mark did do a good job in his spot. This was not one of the definitive performances of Matt Damon’s career, but he channeled the smugness and confidence that someone like Colin Sullivan would need to reach the top. Martin Sheen shined as the paternal Captain Queenan (even though he couldn’t always keep up the Boston accent). Some have accused Jack Nicholson’s performance of being too hammy, but I’m pretty sure it was intentional, and it added to the flamboyancy of the Costello character. And as the shared love interest of both Costigan and Sullivan, Vera Farmiga brings her own vulnerable sexuality to the equation as a psychiatrist.

TheDeparted5

And, in classic Scorsese style, The Departed is a technical movie fan’s dream. There are issues I take with the direction (more on that later), but mostly, Scorsese proves again and again why he will be forever remembered as one of the most important figures in American cinema. Whether it’s the lighting, the quick cross-cutting, the not-so-subtle religious iconography, or the graphic, stylized violence, The Departed feels like a Scorsese film through and through, and after the decade spent the better part of the decade exploring more serious affairs like The Aviator and Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s return to his organized crime roots was certainly a breath of fresh air to his legions of fans. The Departed runs two and a half hours long, which is about thirty minutes too long for this story, but it took Scorsese’s steady hand to make that length bearable and consistently fun.

However, that doesn’t erase the fact that the film is too long. And while the pacing remains generally propulsive, there are moments where it lags, and I don’t just mean that it slows down to focus on characters. That’s fine. But many of the moments where the film tries to develop the Colin Sullivan character feel less well-realized than the other moments in the film, and unlike Infernal Affairs (where the dirty cop was just as interesting, if not more interesting than the undercover cop), Sullivan just never reaches the dramatic heights that Costigan finds. The sections where the film alludes to his sexual dysfunctions are especially poorly done and just don’t hit with me. Also, Infernal Affairs has a better ending than The Departed. I don’t want to ruin either film’s ending, but if you’ve seen both, I’m not sure if it’s possible to feel that Scorsese’s ending didn’t dilute the powerful nature of the other film’s climax.

-

I’ll draw this to a close (this particular review keeps reminding me that I should start taking notes as I watch movies I plan on reviewing like I did in the past) and leave with these parting thoughts. The Departed is a great film and one of the definitive crime epics of the 2000s. Sadly, the competition in that particular category wasn’t as fierce as it was in the 90s and 70s. And Martin Scorsese is such a storied director with such a sizable library of classic films (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, etc) that The Departed ranks somewhere alongside Hugo in a list of his great films that just aren’t as legendary as his definitive works. Still, for fans of Scorsese and fans of crime movies in general, The Departed is about as can’t miss as they come.

Final Score: A-

InfernalAffairs1

It is rare for an American remake of a film to be remotely as good as the foreign film it’s based on, let alone be better. Let Me In is one of the only ones I can think of off the top of my head and it still isn’t the instant classic that Let the Right One In has become in my mind. Usually, American remakes dial down any sexual or disturbing content (barring violence) that made the original stand out, and because they almost never improve upon the original piece in any way, they are simply redundant at best and bastardizations at worst. With that said, am I a terrible person for thinking that The Departed is vastly superior to Infernal Affairs, the 2004 Hong Kong film it is based on?

I watched Infernal Affairs for my film studies class (where we’re watching nothing but gangster movies) and we’ll be watching The Departed next week (although I watched that film last semester during that several month hiatus where I wasn’t reviewing movies to work on my screenplays). And other than the film’s ending (no, I won’t spoil it for anyone. don’t worry), I’m not sure if I can name a single area where Martin Scorsese’s remake isn’t simply a much better product than this film. From the script, to the characters, to the direction, to the editing, to the cinematography, Infernal Affairs has now become in my mind the go to example of how a good story can become a great film when given to the right hands.

InfernalAffairs2

I will give the film credit for coming up with the clever story that is at both the heart of it and The Departed (although the latter so greatly expands on the themes and the characters that this film almost just seems like a sketch in comparison). Two different men are chosen to go deep undercover into the organizations of their boss’s biggest enemies. Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau) is hired by the Triad to infiltrated the Hong Kong Police Department while police cadet Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung) infiltrates the Triad. And as each goes deeper and higher into their undercover ops, their job becomes to find out who the mole is in their ranks.

And that’s really it. I’m going to keep on bleating on about how much better The Departed is than this film, but I’ve always thought of The Departed as one of Scorsese’s slightest films. It’s one of his films that relies the most on style over substance, but if The Departed is slight, Infernal Affairs is just anorexic. Although the film is a terrific example of non-stop intelligent pacing (the film really manages to ratchet the tension up and never let up right out of the gates), the characters are paper-thin, and you are given absolutely no reason to care about anyone involved. And when characters die or are betrayed or reveal shocking allegiances, none of it matters because you don’t feel any emotional attachment to the individuals involved.

InfernalAffairs3

The direction and editing of the film though are what lead me to think of this film as being so amateurish (although I suppose any movie would pale in comparison to something Martin Scorsese touched). The opening sequences of the film are an endless stream of cross-cuts which lend no sense of direction or meaning to the story and it took me far too long to even realize what was happening and who was good and who was bad. And the film employs so many cheesy scene transitions and unnecessary expository flashbacks (not to unseen events in the film but things that have already happened once already) that you begin to feel like the director doesn’t trust the audience’s ability to keep up with the action on scren.

I’m going to keep this review short and sweet. I enjoyed Infernal Affairs, and maybe, if I hadn’t seen The Departed first, I would have liked it a lot more. As it stands, Infernal Affairs is a good movie with a great concept, and it took a more talented creative team to really bring fruit to the story. If you like foreign cinema, it’s certainly a must see, and if you’re a big fan of its American successor, it’s interesting to see just how many of the scenes were lifted straight from this film. But ultimately, it’s just a serviceable action thriller.

Final Score: B

 

DonnieBrasco1

Before I went on my extended hiatus for this blog (as I was writing Aftertaste through the six or so drafts that I’ve written of my first screenplay), one of the things that I was doing with this blog was taking fairly extensive notes on a tiny little notepad so that my reviews on here could be more detailed and specific. It was a trick I had learned as a music journalist because during Bonnaroo, I realized that after seeing twenty or so bands, I’d hardly be able to remember which songs the bands had played if I didn’t take notes about it let alone awesome specific moments from any given concert. And that translated well to movies. For whatever reason, I’ve stopped doing that after I decided to go back to this blog and start reviewing movies again (though I haven’t abandoned my screenwriting. I finished screenplay #2, Thursdays, about three weeks ago, and I started screenplay #3 last night). And after sitting through the good but mildly forgettable Donnie Brasco last night (as well as my recent string of finding myself getting hazy on the details of films I really enjoyed because I had to wait so long to review them), I know I need to get the notepad out again.

Perhaps my disappointment with Donnie Brasco lies with the simple fact that I can name two films that do the two main themes of the film so much better than this film does. The film is both a crime procedural as well as a study of how undercover cops often face the peril of “becoming the mask” they wear to stop crime. Of course, the modern film that has more or less set the non-The Wire standard for crime procedurals was Zodiac and there were simply times where Donnie Brasco felt like it was playing hard and loose with the actual facts of the case (and apparently, the ending definitely stretched the truth), and Leonardo Dicaprio set the gold standard for undercover cop performances in The Departed (which I’ll be watching in a week or so for my film studies class. and this week, I should be watching the film it’s based on, Infernal Affairs). Thank god that Lefty Ruggiero was such a compelling figure that could carry the film on his shoulders.

DonnieBrasco2

Donnie Brasco is a loose adaptation of the real life story of Joseph Pistone (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas‘s Johnny Depp), an undercover FBI Agent tasked with infiltrating the Bonanno crime family in the 1970s. Working under the alias of Donnie “the jeweler” Brasco, Joe befriends the low-level and all-around loser mafia hit man Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (The Godfather: Part II‘s Al Pacino). Lefty wants to believe he’s a big shot, but he isn’t. He’s barely an earner, and it’s heavily implied that he might not even be a “made man.” But after Donnie earns Lefty’s trust by telling Lefty that a diamond Lefty scored is a fake, Lefty takes Donnie in as his mentor and quickly begins to personally “vouch” for him with the other mafiosi. And thus begins a years long deep cover operation that will ultimately lead to convictions against over 100 members of the Bonanno crime family.

However, Joe/Donnie’s life is more complicated than just trying to infiltrate the mob and to climb up the ranks in order take down as many mobsters as he can (though the film shows many moments where Donnie’s cover gets a hair-breadth away from being blown). Joe begins to lose himself in the identity of Donnie Brasco, and the constant demands of his job requires him to spend months at a time away from his wife (Cedar Rapids‘ Anne Heche) and kids. Donnie also knows that when he’s finally pulled out of the case and his identity as an FBI informant is revealed, it will surely mean the death of Lefty who Donnie has begun to legitimately care about almost as a father figure. Although Donnie loathes the violence and crime that these men live in, after spending so much time with them, he has begun to identify almost as much with his alter-ego and his “partners in crime” as he does anyone in the real, legal world.

DonnieBrasco3

This was one of Johnny Depp’s first real “grown-up” roles, and, you know what, it’s really nice to see Depp in a non-crazy person role every now and then. It reminds you what a hell of a talented actor he is even when he isn’t playing a Jack Sparrow type or any of his other famous crazy person roles. Although it’s not as great as Dicaprio in The Departed, Johnny Depp really loses himself as a man that’s being torn apart by the competing forces in his life. And he (and the writers) aren’t afraid to paint Joe/Donnie in an increasingly unsympathetic life as the violence and madness of the mafia world begins to seep in to his home life. Depp has to go to some really dark places in this role, and when the role calls for shocking moments of brutality or for Depp to snap out against his wife, he re-inforces just how how far gone Joe has gotten lost as Donnie.

However, Pacino makes this movie. It isn’t just the fact that Lefty is the most interesting part of the film (although more on that later); it’s how deflated and pathetic Pacino can make Lefty and then shift on a dime to show the false swagger Lefty wants to have. This particular 50 film block for my blog has been really Pacino heavy (to wit: Donnie Brasco, Scarface, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Godfather: Part 1 & 2 ) and when I give away my superlatives for this set, there’s a really good chance that Al Pacino is going to be making around three or so appearances. It’s kind of crazy. He wasn’t in a single movie that I reviewed for the 300 films before this set, and now he’s just dominating the field. And while Lefty isn’t as great as Ricky Roma or Michael Corleone, he is such a massive subversion of the glamorous mafioso type (and against the sort of cocky psychos Pacino began to play) that it proves yet again that Pacino is simply one of the greatest actors of all time.

DonnieBrasco4

There were other great supporting performances in the film. Anne Heche shined as Joe’s abandoned and long-suffering wife. Michael Madsen was sufficiently menacing as Sonny Black, one of Lefty’s capos whose whirlpool of violence continues to suck in Joe/Donnie. And Zeljko Ivanek brought his patented brand of slime and bureaucratic sleaziness as an FBI field manager who didn’t seem to care too much about Donnie’s safety. I’ve reached the 1000 word mark so I’ll draw this review to a close so maybe I can do a little screenwriting of my own this evening. If you like crime and ganster movies, Donnie Brasco is very good if not especially great. Other than the tragic and doomed Lefty, I never generated a real emotional connection to any of the action on screen. It just sort of washed over me. Maybe that’s just me though, and everybody should definitely give this movie a try.

Final Score: B+

 

TheGodfatherPartII-1

We’re going to start out with a quick discussion of Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari grading protocol before this review because it bears on my opinion of this film and how it strays slightly from my usual behavior. The Godfather: Part II marks my 317th movie review for this blog. Out of those 317 films, 16 films will have received the illusive score of “A+” (The Godfather: Part II is about to become movie #16 in that list). Generally, the films that receive this score either leave my intellectually breathless (Synecdoche, New York, 8 1/2, Persona) or they leave me emotionally devastated (The Tree of Life, Winter’s Bone, Glengarry Glen Ross). Occasionally though, films will come along that just such perfect, flawless, and thrilling demonstrations of masterful cinematic technique that there is no other score you could possibly hope to give them. Chinatown or Ran are clear examples. The Godfather: Part II is one of the most technically superb films ever made and one of the true masterpieces of the 1970s (and all of American cinema) and simply superior to its predecessor.

Expanding on every theme of The Godfather: Part I while upping the ante in the tragedy department tenfold as well as shoveling more dramatic irony than one would think humanly possible into a film (though at three and a half hours, I guess you have plenty of time to put as much in there as you want), I think it might be fair to say that The Godfather: Part II could be the greatest American epic of all time. Throw in the fact that these films (particularly this entry) are much lighter on actual violence than people seem to remember and that becomes all the more impressive. Yet, in all of American cinema, the exploration of the destruction of one man’s soul, integrity, basic human decency, whatever you want to call that last shred of “goodness” in our hearts, has never been put on more fuller display than in The Godfather: Part II.

TheGodfatherPartII-2

Set a few years after the end of the original film, Part II finds the Corleone family migrated to Nevada where Michael’s (Al Pacino) plans to get an early foothold in the Las Vegas casino business have borne marvelous fruit. Alongside strong-arming a U.S. Senator who wants to squeeze the Corleones for a gaming license, Michael’s life is complicated by the arrival of Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), a Corleone family capo who is feuding with the New York based Rosato brothers. The problem is that the Rosato’s are allied with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and Johnny Ola (The Sopranos Dominic Chianese), Miami gangsters who are involved in a lucrative business deal in Cuba with Michael. When a botched assassination attempt on Michael in his own well-guarded compound awakens Michael’s vengeful side, Michael will stop at nothing to get revenge on those who could have harmed his family even if it ultimately means he destroys his family in the process.

Alongside the story presented in the late 1950s about Michael’s attempts to root out the rat in his family and protect his interests at all costs, the film also flashes back to the turn of the 20th century where you see the humble origins of Michael’s father Vito (Wag the Dog‘s Robert De Niro) from an exiled Sicilian boy to one of the most powerful gangsters in America. Born Vito Andolini, Vito has to flee his hometown of Corleone where a local mafia Don has a price on his head. He takes a boat to America (where he takes the name of his hometown) and after a run in with a local racketeer heavy, Fanucci, Vito quickly amasses power and respect in his community. In fact, there’s almost a victorious, triumphant feeling to the tale of Vito (although with the ultimate price his criminal activities cost his family weighing over every second) but I’ll have more to say about that important bit of ironic dichotomy later.

TheGodfatherPartII-3

As stated before, The Godfather: Part II (particularly when taken in conjunction with the first film) is a classical tragedy on a Shakespearean scale. Michael Corleone is a tragic hero to rival Hamlet or Macbeth. Here is a man who over the course of these two films starts out with at least somewhat noble intentions (and ultimately this film answers my concerns about the flimsiness of Michael’s transformation in the first film). He wants to protect his family. He wants to avenge the attempted murder of his father. He wants to provide for his screw-up siblings. But, by being so excellent at the business he was born into (but didn’t want anything to do with), Michael ultimately tears his family apart (and spoiler alert), he even orders the cold-blooded murder of one of his own siblings because the sibling betrayed him. He loses his wife Kay (Manhattan‘s Diane Keaton) and everyone is terrified of him. Yet, Michael rarely acts out of a place of pure selfishness (though he certainly ceased to be a good guy a long time ago) and he always thinks he’s doing the right thing, and it’s what makes Michael one of the greatest characters in movie history.

And compare that to the path Vito travels over the course of two films. Michael ultimately proves to be more effective as the head of the family. He makes the Corleones more wealthy than Vito could have ever imagined. But Vito achieved a modest success without alienating and ruining his family. The only casualty that Vito’s family ever suffers (besides his own near death at the hands of Solazzo in the first film) is Sonny (James Caan) but that was also about half Sonny’s fault. Yet, his sons (and daughter Connie [Rocky‘s Talia Shire]) wind up so disconnected from each other as a family that an avalanche of tragedy faces the family once Vito finally dies of a heart attack. Vito doesn’t have the same ice in his vein as his son that Michael thinks he needs to keep the family safe, but ultimately Vito proved to be a more moral man (in his own odd way) than his son transformed himself into being.

TheGodfatherPartII-4

It’s hard for me to name a way in which this film isn’t vastly superior to The Godfather: Part I, but let’s start with the performances. Al Pacino’s Michael in this film is not just the best performance of Pacino’s career (managing to even eclipse Glengarry Glen Ross for me) but arguably one of the most important of all time. This film was only made two years after the first film, but Pacino makes Michael seem decades older and more world-weary. Part of it is the excellent make-up he wears (you see what he usually looks like in the flashback that closes out the film), but you see just how dead inside Michael becomes over the course of the film. It’s one of those performances that can’t really be appreciated without seeing the other film, but Pacino is so great at losing himself in Michael’s emotional turmoil and decay, but he still finds the right moments to explode when he needs to, like when he discovers that Fredo (Jon Cazale) has betrayed him or that Kay has had an abortion.

De Niro so totally nails the mannerisms and vocal affectations of Brando’s Vito that it’s one of the all-time great cinematic impersonations although you also just have to savor the chance to see De Niro when he was so young and untested really exploring the palette of emotions and styles that would go on to define his legendary career. But like Joseph Gordon-Levitt simply became Bruce Willis in Looper, De Niro becomes Brando and it’s a sight to behold. Other stand-out performances from the film include Jon Cazale’s timid and naive Fredo, Diane Keaton’s abandoned Kay, Lee Strasburg’s scheming Hyman Roth, and, of course, the drunken and put-upon Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Pentangeli.

TheGodfatherPartII-5

There’s a moment late in the film that to me sums up not just the story strengths of the film or the acting strengths (though it contains some of the best moments of both) but just the attention to visual detail and the exceptionally strong direction that Francis Ford Coppola lends to the crown jewel in his career as one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history. Michael has brought Fredo back to his estate after discovering in Cuba (after a drunken Fredo lets slip that he knows Johnny Ola) that Fredo was the one to betray him. Although he initially wanted to forgive Fredo, Fredo’s unwillingness to take responsibility for what he did (by trying to blame Michael for treating him like a child) has finally pushed Michael over the deep edge. Michael essentially tells Fredo that he is now nothing to him. And it is so cold, that ice literally comes out of Michael’s mouth as he’s giving this speech. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for how cold and uncaring he’s becoming and it’s one of the defining moments of the film and Coppola’s career.

I could write 2000 more words about everything I love about this film, but I’d like to actually watch a movie today (or maybe get started on my third screenplay so I can rack up a hat trick of unpublished works) so I’ll draw this to a close before this becomes an academic essay on the cinematic import of this film. The Godfather: Part II won Best Picture and Best Director at the 1974 Academy Awards. It shouldn’t have. Chinatown and Roman Polanski should have, but if any film was going to beat Chinatown, I’m okay if it’s this one. Whereas the first film falters under the weights of its own ambitions, The Godfather: Part II not only meets those high standards, it exceeds them in every way. That a film that is three and a half hours long was able to carry my attention for every second of its running time should speak volumes to why this is one of the greatest films ever made.

Final Score: A+

BlackRain1

Ridley Scott is one of Hollywood’s most hit-or-miss directors. For every Blade Runner or Thelma & Louise, he makes a Hannibal or Black Hawk Down (seriously Black Hawk Down is awful). Although even his worst films are visually dynamic and interesting movies; sometimes, he just gets bad scripts to work with (or the studio meddles too much with his final product, ala the underrated Kingdom of Heaven). I think the man just doesn’t know what movies to pass on. Or perhaps it’s just an ability to constrain himself in his films. Anyways, his 1970s to early 90s productions were generally pretty great, and for a very 1980s style action flick, 1989’s Black Rain was a compelling, smart, and stylish action thriller with just enough original gimmicks going for it that you didn’t care that the story followed a fairly predictable path.

Nick Conklin (Fatal Attraction‘s Michael Douglas) is a semi-dirty cop with the NYPD. With a penchant for fast motorcycles, Nick is also under investigation from internal affairs for skimming money off the top of a drug bust. When he and his partner Charlie Vincent (The Untouchables‘ Andy Garcia) bust a Japanese crime lord for murder, they are tasked with escorting him back to Japan. However, the crime lord’s associates pretend to be cops and help the crime lord escape at the airport. Now, it’s up to Nick, Charlie, and Japanese inspector Masahiro (Ken Takakura) to recapture the criminal Sato  and get at the heart of a Yakuza-fueled gang war that is tearing the Osaka criminal underworld apart.

BlackRain2

I thought I was going to have trouble buying Michael Douglas as a bad-ass biker cop with an attitude. He’s such a stereotypical Hollywood pretty boy (not an insult. just a fact), but then I remembered that Romancing the Stone existed, and his turn as the cocksure Nick was a pleasant surprise. Douglas has just the right sensitivity to make the character more than just a one-note caricature of arrogant American swagger, and a natural chemistry arose between him and Andy Garcia as well as Ken Takakura. Andy Garcia brought the necessary comic relief to the movie and provided one of the film’s most memorable sequences when he and Ken Takakura did a Ray Charles number at a karaoke bar. I’m unsure if Ken Takakura is a native English speaker, but regardless, he also turned the initially unsympathetic Masahiro into a three-dimensional figure as well.

It’s odd (knowing my usual tastes in movies) that I truly enjoyed Black Rain as much as I did. There was nothing especially insightful about the film. But, the way that it painted the differences in demeanor between the brash hotshot New York detective and the traditional, group-oriented Japanese inspector was something that hadn’t been overdone to death yet at the time, and most films of the same ilk that I’ve seen since don’t do it half as well. As someone who’s lived abroad, the film captures quite well how easy it is to get lost in other cultures and the clashes that can occur when two very strong-willed people/groups collide. Ridley Scott’s direction is also great. Like his whole ouevre, Black Rain is gorgeous to look at, and when the story hits more predictable lulls (cop says he can’t help Nick. comes back to help Nick at key moment, etc), you can always count on the film grabbing your attention visually.

BlackRain3

I’ll keep this review short cause this isn’t exactly an art-house piece. If you’re looking for a really fun and smartly made movie that you can watch and not have to think too much during, you could do a lot worse than Black Rain. Michael Douglas continues to solidify his reputation in my mind as one of the great stars of the 80s and 90s, and I’ve always wondered why Andy Garcia didn’t become a bigger star. The only thing about this film that makes me sad (besides a certain decapitation scene… poor guy) is that it reminds me how great Ridley Scott can be when he isn’t trying to be Mr. Highbrow. With the exception of Blade Runner and maybe Alien, he’s not actually talented enough to be Mr. Highbrow. But, when he’s making great, crowd-pleasing popcorn pictures like Black Rain, he hits ’em out of the park.

Final Score: B+

 

TheGodfather1

It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed a film that is almost without fail always counted among the top ten films ever made. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever reviewed a film this universally acclaimed. 8 1/2 is probably the closest contender if we throw foreign films into the mix. Chinatown is probably pretty high up there but only among more serious movie types (although you could say the same thing about 8 1/2). I just looked at the list of every single movie I’ve reviewed for this blog (I keep one along with the scores I gave them for my own clerical purposes), and absolutely no film I’ve reviewed is as much of a cultural touchstone as 1972’s Francis Ford Coppola opus, The Godfather. It’s the #2 highest ranked film on IMBD.com (narrowly behind The Shawshank Redemption). It is one of the most celebrated and beloved films ever made. It’s influence is immeasurable. But, it’s not quite perfect.

Thankfully, it is about as close to perfect as you could wish while still recognizing the film has one troubling flaw which distracted me for the film’s entire second half. Perhaps, it’s because the film is so well-loved and so highly considered that I was extra attentive to any flaws that I could find in the film. I’d like to believe I wasn’t going out of my way to look for things that I disliked in this movie, but there’s always a chance that I was doing it subconsciously. But I had so much trouble believing a fundamental transformation of the film that I was drawn out of the technical wizardry that Francis Ford Coppola (and cinematographer Gordon Willis) were using to wow me. Perhaps, I’m ill-suited to analyze the motivations and competing urges that seemed week and artificial to me, but the spiritual downfall of Michael Corleone still seems poorly developed.

TheGodfather2

A generations-sprawling epic (particularly when the later two films are taken into consideration), The Godfather is ultimately the tale of the Corleone crime family. Starting on the day of his daughter’s (Rocky‘s Talia Shire) wedding in the mid 1940s, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is presented as the head of his powerful crime family. With the help of his sons, the hot-tempered Sonny (James Caan), the incompetent Fredo (John Cazale), and the adopted Tommy (Robert Duvall), Vito runs gambling and prostitution circuits in the New York area. Vito’s son Michael (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino) is a war hero that wants nothing to do with the family business, but when a rival family nearly murders his father, Michael takes it upon himself to run the Corleone family even if it means losing his soul in the process.

At nearly three hours long, The Godfather is a multi-layered, complex epic in every sense of the word so I fear to spoil too much about the plot. Although at the same time, this movie is 40 years old now. It’s not like there’s anybody reading this blog who is still yet to see this movie. Or at least I hope not. What I was trying to get at before though is that there is a sweeping grandeur to the film which is based off of Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name (Puzo also helped to write the screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola). The film falters on occasion but you can’t fault it’s ambition. The Godfather is as much about the price of family and how familial loyalty can undo us as it is a detailed look at the mafiosi in the 1940s. The attention to rich characterization and a bird’s eye view of the most intimate secrets of this family is what made The Godfather such a revelation upon its release.

TheGodfather3

Much like Glengarry Glen Ross, this is truly an actors’ film. The ensemble casting is pretty superb (if not quite as seamlessly fluid as Glengarry) and it ranks among the best-cast films in cinema history. Brando won the Best Actor Oscar at the 1972 Academy Awards (though he declined it because of how Hollywood was treating Native Americans… long fucking story), and while I don’t actually consider Vito to the be the male lead of the film (that’s clearly Michael), it’s still a stunning performance. And it was probably Brando’s last great role. This was one of Pacino’s first big roles, and it was obviously what catapulted him to become the film legend he is today. And this is pre-crazy Pacino. It is a wonderful, restrained, subtle performance that helps makes Michael’s self-destruction far more believable than the script which rushes it despite the movie already being three hours long. The film didn’t nab three Best Supporting Actor nominations for nothing.

It’s also an incredibly directed and indelibly shot film. The film was shot by the “Prince of Darkness” himself, Gordon Willis. He earned the nickname because of how he flaunted the then conventional rules of how much light needed to be in any given scene. But it’s the same dark, moody atmosphere and half-lit room and deals that makes so much of The Godfather‘s visual appeal. This is a film where the mood of any given shot or scene is nearly as important as the actual on-screen dialogue and action. In fact, The Godfather is full to the brim of semi-lengthy sequences without dialogue (or without pertinent dialogue) and Coppola and Gordon Willis are able to evoke so much emotion just from the visual composition of a shot.

TheGodfather4

And as far as direction goes, is there a better example of cross-cutting in the history of the medium than the famous baptism scene? Michael has finally taken over as the head of the Corleone family and intercut with images of the baptism of his sister’s newly born child, we see Michael’s associates brutally eliminating in one fell swoop anyone who had the temerity to cross or betray Michael’s family. That mixture of the sacred and profane is one of many things that made Coppola such an accomplished director. That moment has become a bit of American iconography. So much so that when it’s played with in The Godfather: Part III, you’re reminded why that film is so f***ing awful compared to the first two entries.

My only significant complaint about The Godfather (which is why I’ve ultimately always considered The Godfather: Part II to be a better film) is sadly, as I’ve said, tied straight to the major character arc that Michael undergoes. His steady transformation from the good-natured, straight and narrow son who doesn’t want to be involved in his family’s criminal underside into a ruthless and merciless crime boss is a shift that I just can’t buy. Much like Anakin becoming Darth Vader in Star Wars, the leap here seems hard to grasp. Although the film plays it out as Michael’s steady descent into hell because he’s trying to protect his family, Michael seemed so pure at the film’s beginning that the movie doesn’t do enough justice showing him being torn about the terrible things he does. He simply does them and there seems to be no psychological afterthoughts as to the terrible things he proceeds to commit.

TheGodfather5

If the rest of the film weren’t so masterfully constructed, acted, and conceived, that flaw would be much more detrimental. Thankfully then, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a masterpiece in virtually every other respect and it remains an important hallmark of American cinema. My inability to connect with the transformation of Michael Corleone ultimately keeps this film from perfection (and therefore from receiving my illusive top score of an “A+”), but it takes a special kind of movie to keep me engaged for three hours and The Godfather never loses the audience’s focus for a second. I ultimately don’t consider this film to be in my Top 10 Greatest Films of all time, but if you even have a passing interest in movies, The Godfather is simply one you can’t miss.

Final Score: A

 

Scarface1983-1

After two movies in as many weeks, it might be too early to say that Brian De Palma is a hack of a director, but that’s where my heart is beginning to lean. In my film studies class, just one week after watching the 1932 Scarface, we watched the De Palma helmed remake (which was itself only a week or so after I happened to watch De Palma’s later film The Untouchables). Regular readers know how much I disliked the Howard Hawks Scarface, and as my gut memory was telling me, Brian De Palma’s version isn’t much better. A gory and expletive filled ride into the cocaine crime glory days of the 1980s, 1983’s Scarface is as hollow as Tony Montana’s heart.

Take Tony Camonte, make him Cuban, and have his business be cocaine instead of booze, and you get an idea of the kind of man that Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is. Fresh off the boat from Cuba, Montana is a career criminal that has his eyes set on capturing his slice of the American dream, even if it means killing scores of men to get to the top. With his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer), Tony works his way up the cocaine business, first under the tutelage of Frank Lopez (Big‘s Robert Loggia).  Tony’s take-no-shit attitude and almost psychopathic fury make him a natural player in the cut-throat world of the booming cocaine explosion.

Scarface1983-2

But it’s the same qualities that make Tony such a natural as an enforcer and paid tough that prove to be what propels him to the top of the business and then cause his ignominious downfall. Tony quickly falls for Frank Lopez’s beautiful wife Elvira (The Age of Innocence‘s Michelle Pfeiffer), and when he sees the chance to stake out on his own with the help of a true Bolivian drug lord, Tony plants the seeds of a massive drug empire that Frank Lopez could barely imagine. But his insane jealousy surrounding his sister Gina (The Color of Moneys Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and his own perverse code of ethics prove to be his undoing.

I’m a big Al Pacino. Along with Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, he’s easily one of the greatest actors of his generation. And it pains me to say that Scarface is one of the worst performances of his entire career. Maybe it’s the god-awful Cuban accent (which sounds so unnatural coming from his mouth) or the way that Pacino’s usual explosive intensity seems so artificial. Nothing about Tony Montana, from the performance to the writing, feels natural or realistic. There are small moments here and there where Pacino is able to remind you why he’s one of the greatest actors of all time, but he spends too much of Scarface chewing up the scenery without revealing any of Tony’s depth.

Scarface1983-3

And the supporting performances are equally atrocious. Robert Loggia has proven himself time and time again to be one of Hollywood’s most capable intimidators (just watch Lost Highway if you need proof of that), but his Frank Lopez seems to be a soft balloon and not always in the intentional sense. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio wowed so much in The Color of Money which makes Gina’s vacuity in this film that much more disappointing. Steven Bauer finds the cocksure swagger that makes Manny such a ladies man, but much like Pacino, he ultimately reduces the character to a tired racial stereotype.

The film’s best aspect is the killer score and a sense for the fashion and visual dynamics of the early 1980s which it managed to both represent as well as ultimately shape because of the film’s huge influence on how the 1980s are perceived. The period songs that are used in the soundtrack are in fact so great that Grand Theft Auto 3 had a 1980s station that played nothing but songs from this movie’s soundtrack and Giorgio Moroder’s score was a beautiful evocation of the sun-soaked Miami that became Tony’s cocaine playground. Throw in the bright colors and pastels of the film’s costumes and sets, and the movie just feels like an archetype of the 1980s.

Scarface1983-4

Much like The Untouchables, Brian De Palma just over-directs virtually every sequence of the film with unnecessary frills and flourishes that don’t enhance the viewer’s interaction with Scarface but rather remind you that you’re watching a nearly three-hour bloated bit of cinematic artifice. Although I distinctly remember enjoying De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie, both Scarface and The Untouchables paint De Palma as a man who is unwilling to put even the most basic of trust in to his script and his storytelling and that he must instead beat the audience over the head with over-the-top visual stimulus.

De Palma’s Scarface is at times a nearly scene-for-scene remake of the original. Oliver Stone wrote the script for the film (I can only imagine how much better this film would have been had he directed it) and so it will occasionally contain a bit of the political commentary that Stone later became known for, but De Palma sucked the life out of any intelligence the script might have originally had by shooting it with such a blunt and merciless style that is devoid of either cinematic poetry or cinematic truth. The movie tends to be shockingly violent and crude almost only for the sake of being shockingly violent and crude without any message to back it up.

Scarface1983-5

All of those major complaints aside, Scarface is still visceral and stimulating enough to keep you engaged for its nearly three hour long running time. Had a more capable director been at the helm and had the excess fat been cut, this could have been a great film. As it is, Scarface is a fun reminder of the excess of the 1980s and perhaps the shallow soullessness that defined a decade when Ronald Reagan was president and cocaine was king. This is not a film that deserves to rank aside the all-time great crime classics, but if you don’t find yourself roused by its explosive finish, you should probably get your adrenal gland checked.

Final Score: B-

 

Scarface (1932)

Scarface1932-1

It’s three weeks into my gangster movie film studies class and I’m already tiring of the genre. Throw in the fact that next week’s film is the 1980s remake of the movie I’m about to review (and a film that I think is super over-rated) and, well, to quote G.O.B., “I’ve made a huge mistake.” Perhaps, it isn’t the gangster genre itself that I’m tiring of though, and maybe this weariness I suddenly feel towards the genre is just directly related to how little I care for the film that I watched a couple days ago (and only now found the time to review), 1932’s Howard Hawks’ “classic” Scarface. With the exception of Paul Muni’s deliciously theatrical performance and occasional moments of shocking violence and action (for a film from the early 30s), I found Scarface to be a tired, cliche-ridden (though it probably made many of the cliches), somewhat racist and overblown picture lacking the fun energy of The Public Enemy or White Heat.

Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola) plays Tony Camonte, the tough-talking, sadistic, Italian stereotype gangster at the heart of the film. After murdering his old boss at the behest of ambitious crime boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), Tony, the scar-marked psychopath, slowly gains power and respect in the criminal underworld which he lords mercilessly over civilians and criminals alike, including his kid sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) who Tony sees as his own personal property. As Tony’s ambitions rise and he starts to fall for his boss’s girl (Karen Morley), it’s only a matter of time til Tony Camonte tries to take over the rackets as his own boss. But will his greed and insatiable lust for violence prove his downfall?

Scarface1932-2

Paul Muni is almost the film’s only saving grace and even he takes his portrayal to cartoonish heights. Unlike James Cagney, who could take a psychopath like Cody Jarret or Tom Powers and make them feel human, Muni and the film’s writing turn Tony into a caricature. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t fun to watch him do his thing though. He’s flamboyant, seductive, and able to flip from charmer to brutal sadist at a switch. The xenophobic, racist writing at the heart of the film can be blamed for most of the deficiencies in Muni’s performance but he’s certainly no Cagney and this performance doesn’t reach the high mark he set later with The Life of Emile Zola. Karen Morley also had some good moments as the femme fatale whose affection Tony desperately seeks.

Sadly, everything in the film features the same heavy-handedness that defined Tony’s characterization. Every character feels like a sad racial stereotype of Italian-American’s in the early 1900s. At one point, a cop even comes out and says that most criminals of the time were foreigners. The film reeks of xenophobia and racism. At least, Tom Powers and Cody Jarret weren’t tired racial stereotypes. Although the worst offender in this department was Tony’s mother who can only be called whatever the Italian equivalent of “blackface” would be. There’s no subtlety in the film although that was never Howard Hawks’ strongsuit or Howard Hughes (who produced the film). They just want to beat you over the head with the violence, crime, and sex and not leave any room for character development or interesting social commentary.

Scarface1932-3

Still, despite its egregious shortcomings, Scarface had its moments where everything seemed to click. When they allowed Paul Muni to menace and terrify, the film moved in the right direction. Particularly, when it explored his borderline incestuous relationship with his sister Cesca, Scarface brought something new to the table that other films weren’t handling much better. And, when it could temper its own excesses and overblown caricatures, it was a legitimately entertaining film that simply suffered from a fatally flawed structure holding those good pieces together. At the end of the day though, Scarface is held up as one of the defining films of the gangster movie genre. I honestly can’t figure out why, but if you consider yourself a student of the art, it’s probably worth a look or two. Just don’t be surprised when it hasn’t aged well.

Final Score: C+