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Days of De Palma (Part 5): Scarface (1983)

And so at last we arrive, in my journey through the films of Brian De Palma, to one of his films which I had already seen: Scarface. I watched this film several times back when I was in college, though I don’t think I’ve seen it much, if at all, in the last decade.

Just as I felt that Blow Out (click here for my review) was a large leap forward for Mr. De Palma from his earlier films, Scarface represents another huge jump in his prowess as a filmmaker.  Of all the De Palma films which I have seen so far, Scarface is the one that has aged the best.  There are a few moments when the somewhat over-wrought soundtrack dates the film, for me, but otherwise this movie feels just as vital and dynamic as a film made this year, rather than one that is almost three decades old.

Scarface is a live-wire of a film — a visceral, go-for-the-gut primal scream of a movie, filled with all the passion and excesses of it’s main characters.  But for a film that was shocking at the time of its release for its graphic violence, I must say I found Scarface to be the most restrained of all the De Palma movies I have watched so far, at least until the lunatic orgy of violence at the film’s climax.

Scarface, restrained?  OK, I realize that might seem to be an absurd comment, but hear me out.  Yes, Scarface is incredibly violent.  But my major complaint about Mr. De Palma’s films so far in my viewing project has been that there has been so much extreme content (mostly of the sexual/nudity variety) that seemed totally gratuitous to me.  I think those films would have been stronger films had some of the gauzy shower scenes, for example, been cut out, because those scenes just make me laugh or shake my head, pulling me out of the movie I was watching.

But in Scarface, I don’t feel the violence is gratuitous, at least not until the very end.  Let’s take one of the film’s most shocking scenes: Tony Montana’s botched money-for-dope exchange in a Miami hotel room which results in a bloodbath.  When I think of Scarface, I think of this scene even more than the “say hello to my little friend” climax.  It made an enormous impact on me when I first saw the film, and even knowing exactly what’s coming when I watch it now, I still find it to be incredibly gripping — tense and horrifying.  It’s terribly violent, but let me make two points.  One, the scene is not actually as on-the-screen gruesome as you might remember.  … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Insomnia (2002)

There’s no question in my mind that Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors working today.  There’s only one of his films that I haven’t seen (his first — Following — and I do hope to remedy that situation soon), and I have thoroughly enjoyed every other movie he’s made.  His worst film is probably Batman Begins, and I think that’s a pretty damn good film!

Contrary to my previous statement, my sense is that the general consensus about Mr. Nolan is that Insomnia, his follow-up to Memento, is his weakest film.  But I remember enjoying Insomnia back in 2002, and I really loved it when watching it again on blu-ray last week.

Insomnia is a remake of a 1997 Swedish film of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgard and directed by Eric Skjoldbjaerg.  I’ve never seen the original Insomnia, though I understand that it’s pretty well thought of.  I realize that, had I seen it, it’s possible that I might be as dubious of a remake as I am of the recently-released re-do of Let The Right One In (the new American version is titled simply Let Me In).  But having not seen the original, I am free to judge Mr. Nolan’s version exclusively by its own merits — and it’s quite excellent.

Al Pacino plays beleaguered L.A. homicide detective Will Dormer.  The L.A. police department has been rocked by allegations of misconduct, and Dormer believes that the I.A. investigators are ultimately after him.  In the midst of that, Dormer and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) are dispatched to a tiny Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a teen-aged girl.  Heading up the local investigation is a young, well-meaning cop named Elie Burr (Hilary Swank).  She clearly worships Detective Dormer, and he seems to appreciate her enthusiasm.  But the case is a difficult one, and Detective Dormer soon finds himself stymied by his main suspect, a local author named Walter Finch (Robin Williams).  As the film progresses, Dormer gradually unravels, his struggles with the case exacerbated by his persistent insomnia (caused perhaps by the fact that, because of how far North as the Alaskan town is, the sun never sets during this season — or, perhaps by Dormer’s growing guilt over the mistakes of his past and a terrible event that happens soon after arriving in Alaska).

This was a high-profile role for Hilary Swank, coming as it did not long after her Academy Award-winning role in Boys Don’t Cry (1999).  Ms. Swank is solid if unspectacular in the film.  The real superstars of Insomnia are Al Pacino and Robin Williams.

Though unquestionably one of the greatest actors of our time, I’ve often felt that … [continued]

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Third Prize is You’re Fired: The Films of David Mamet

As I’ve mentioned once or twice in recent posts, over the past few weeks I’ve been making my way through a whole slew of films by one of the best writers working in the film industry today: David Mamet.  Mamet’s works are always known for their intricate plots — many of his films revolve around some sort of con.  He is also known for the distinct style of his dialogue — a fast-paced back-and-forth, rat-a-tat rhythm that, in the hands of a talented actor, is pure gold.

After purchasing Redbelt on DVD, I decided to go back and revisit several earlier Mamet works.  This is in no way a complete trip through Mamet’s work.  In fact, let me first start by telling you a bit about two films which I didn’t re-watch this past month.  Not because I didn’t care for them — quite the opposite.  These are two of my favorite films, and they’ve been in my DVD collection for years.

Glengarry Glenn Ross (1992) — Unlike all the other movies that I’m about to list, this film was written by Mamet but directed by someone else: James Foley.  But like all the Mamet-directed films, the appeal is not due to the directing.  Its the acting, and the beautiful, beautiful words.  (Can you believe I’ve just described as beautiful the incredibly curse-laden dialogue in this film??)  Take a gander at this cast:  Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and let’s not forget Alec Baldwin.  Baldwin is in only one scene, but he gives possibly the greatest movie monologue of all time.  There are more memorable lines in his one scene than there are in most entire films.  (One of my favorites: “Only one thing counts in this world: get them to sign on the line that is dotted.”  And, of course, there’s the title of this piece.)  The film follows one night and one morning in the lives of a group of real-estate con men.  Many have described it as a modern Death of a Salesman, and I’m not one to disagree.  Jack Lemmon’s sad-sack Shelley “the machine” Levine is such an iconic character he’s even been written into The Simpsons (as the hapless loser Gil).  Al Pacino is the man that Shelley was twenty years ago — a young, slick salesman at the top of his game.  (“You ever take a dump made you feel like you’d just slept for twelve hours?”)  Ed Harris is the angry and profane Dave Moss.  (“What is this, courtesy class?”)  Alan Arkin is the quietly despairing George Aaronow.  (Are we just talking about this or are we talking about this?”)  And Kevin Spacey is the man in … [continued]