SCARFACE (1983)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Brian De Palma

Written by: Oliver Stone

Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Paul Shenar, Robert Loggia, Miriam Colon, F. Murray Abraham & Harris Yulin

1983’s SCARFACE is one of the most famous gangster films of all-time. Stemming from Al Pacino’s inspiration to remake the 1932 gangster classic of the same name (which was loosely based on Al Capone), this brutal gangster flick delivers a whole lot of well-worn clichés in a shiny cinematic package. However, this three-hour predictable rise and fall of a Cuban “political refugee” turned drug kingpin sticks out for three big reasons: style, violence and an unforgettable character brought to the screen by Al Pacino (who had already left his mark on the crime genre as Michael Corleone in the first two GODFATHER films). SCARFACE is far from the greatest mob epic around, but still holds up as an entertaining gangster flick in spite of its many faults.

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The year is 1980 and the place is Miami, Florida. Antonio Montana (Al Pacino) is a Cuban refugee who’s been sent to a refugee camp with his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer). Desperate to secure their green cards, Tony and Manny agree to take on a job as hired guns. However, this murderous act is nothing new to Tony. It becomes very clear that he had a checkered past in Cuba and has come to America to get what he believes is coming to him: the world. As Tony becomes involved with shady individuals and sticks his nose (literally) into the cocaine business, he works his way up the ladder for small-time mob boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). Soon, Tony’s ambitions force him to go his own way. Along this vicious path of blood and powder, he falls in love with coke-addict Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), partners up with feared kingpin Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) and tries to maintain a skeleton of a moral compass. However, Tony forgets that what goes up must come down.

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The best quality in SCARFACE is Al Pacino as the titular drug kingpin. Pacino’s performance as Tony Montana manages to be over-the-top, comically entertaining, and intensely frightening all at the same time. Many lines of dialogue would not be particularly memorable if not for the thickly-accented, furious way that Pacino delivers them in the film. Regardless of how familiar these gangster tropes may seem (they were already well-worn at the time of this film’s release), Pacino’s captivating portrayal of a fiery-tempered scumbag kept me watching out of sheer fascination with this character. Montana is a hot-headed, loud-mouthed, power-hungry asshole and the audience isn’t necessarily supposed to root for him, but rather watch his rise to and inevitable fall from power.

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In this regard, Oliver Stone’s screenplay feels unbalanced. We are shown far more of Tony’s rise to power as opposed to his bullet-ridden fall from grace. The screenplay goes to the trouble of including two family-oriented scenes purely for a tragic pay-off during the story’s final act. A good scene would have been great if more attention had been paid to this subplot. The film also sets up a defining moral compass for Tony late into the story which feels a tad half-assed in regard to every violent act we have been shown up to that point. In a way, a seemingly out-of-nowhere good deed feels contradictory and cheap, serving only to further his downfall. Finally, two key rules are set up in advance for Tony…which he will obviously break later on. Still, these rule-breaking bits are rushed. At least Stone’s screenplay goes to the trouble of setting up these details up in advance, whereas other lesser gangster films wouldn’t even bother to put that effort in.

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However, SCARFACE really drops the ball when it comes to the side characters. Michelle Pfeiffer was relatively unknown at the time of this movie’s release. Both Pacino and De Palma fought against her starring in the role of Elvira…and this may have contributed to her muted role as a paper-thin love interest. Elvira’s obligatory romantic subplot functions on a surface level of Tony falling head over heels for her and then abusing their relationship. As a result, Pfeiffer doesn’t make much as an impression thanks to her weak character and the romance being mainly reduced to a handful of brief scenes. Steven Bauer’s Manny isn’t much of a character either and comes off like a walking plot device. The same can be said for Tony’s mother and sister. Finally, the other gangsters seem like cardboard cut-outs. The only exception to this is Paul Shenar’s Sosa, an antagonist who seems off like a James Bond villain that specializes in smuggling cocaine and elaborately executing those who screw him over.

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In spite of its many problems, SCARFACE’s sheer style and brutality make it stick out in an overcrowded genre of gangster flicks. You’ve seen money laundering in mob movies before, but have you seen it executed with a cheesy 80’s montage set to the song “Push It to the Limit”? That happens in this film and it’s hilarious. The soundtrack and score add entertainment to the clichéd proceedings, especially when paired with lots of glamour and glitz. Tony’s lavish lifestyle seems great…until you remember how he’s acquired it. The film’s bloody carnage isn’t on display from start to finish, but is executed in brutal spurts of violence. Chainsaws, hangings from helicopters, and an iconic final stand-off stick out as some of this movie’s most memorable moments. Also, the chainsaw scene had a few folks running for the exit upon this film’s premiere.

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SCARFACE has left a legacy for three reasons: style, violence, and Pacino. Style keeps the clichéd proceedings entertaining, in spite of their one-note nature. This film’s violence was shocking at the time of its release and still comes off as pretty damn brutal from a modern stand-point, even lending itself to a very fun video game sequel SCARFACE: THE WORLD IS YOURS (which is basically GRAND THEFT AUTO with Tony Montana). Finally, Pacino is captivating as a loose cannon who rises in the ranks and ultimately keeps you guessing as to when his short fuse will burn out. If you like the crime genre, then you kind of have to see this movie just to say that you’ve seen it. SCARFACE is heavily flawed and has its far share of cardboard-thin clichés, but still holds up as an entertaining iconic gangster film.

Grade: B

SNOWDEN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Sexuality/Nudity

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Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone

(based on the books THE SNOWDEN FILES by Luke Harding and TIME OF THE OCTOPUS by Anatoly Kucherena)

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans & Nicolas Cage

I’ve been looking forward to SNOWDEN for a while now. Though director/writer Oliver Stone has suffered a mediocre slump in his output, this controversial story seemed like the kick in the pants that he needed to reinvigorate his filmography. This movie was originally supposed to be released on Christmas 2015, but for some reason it was delayed until May 2016, until it eventually was postponed until September. SNOWDEN has finally hit theaters with minimal promotion, mixed reviews, and a handful of screenings per theater. There’s a positive side to this though. My Tuesday night showing was sold-out and audience word-of-mouth has been extremely positive. Remarkably, this biopic doesn’t choose a side in the conflict, but rather presents points that Snowden might be a hero, a traitor, or a bit of both. This political thriller leaves that aspect for the viewer to decide.

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In June 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) leaked classified documents to the press that exposed government surveillance programs that infringed on the civil rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. This led to treason charges and a hot debate over security vs. freedom that still hasn’t fully been resolved in the public eye. This film spans from 2004 to 2013 in showing Snowden’s injured exit from the military, experience in the CIA, relationship with his girlfriend, and time in the NSA that ultimately pushes him to sacrifice everything to deliver information to the public.

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Whether you think he’s a traitor who deserves execution or a hero who should be celebrated, this film presents itself as a balanced character study of Edward Snowden. Though I’ve seen reviewers claim that this movie merely rehashes real-life events and nothing more, I wouldn’t consider that to be a negative when the events are incredibly interesting and troubling. This cinematic version of Edward Snowden is grounded on a human level thanks to a heavily developed relationship with his opposites-attract photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven himself to be an excellent actor in the past and that certainly doesn’t change here as he becomes Edward Snowden. From the mannerisms to the distinct way of speaking, I forgot that I was watching Levitt. He’s that good. Shailene Woodley (who’s had dramatic ups and angsty downs) gives her best work to date as Lindsay Mills. The quality performances don’t end with those two though, because Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, and Zachary Quinto are great as three journalists with Snowden confidential info. Scott Eastwood shows up as a temperamental NSA employee. Timothy Olyphant plays a smarmy CIA agent. Rhys Ifans shines as Snowden’s mentor and “friend,” which makes later scenes even more intense to watch. Finally, Nicolas Cage delivers his best performance in a decade with five minutes of screen time as a CIA instructor.

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SNOWDEN’s narrative is non-linear, opening with 2013’s fateful meeting of journalists and then flashing back to 2004. The film progressively shifts between Snowden’s interviews with the three reporters back to his progress through the CIA and NSA. This makes for a captivating experience as Stone is cramming nine eventful years into just over two hours. It’s also interesting to watch the past timeline catch up with the 2013 wraparound. Though Oliver Stone’s visual style can occasionally be a bit much (did we really need a lovey-dovey scene projected onto Snowden’s hotel window?), SNOWDEN also weaves in actual footage and news clips. There are clips of both current presidential candidates voicing (unsurprisingly) negative opinions about him, pieces of actual news stories from the leak and Obama’s reactions to the fallout. Be sure to stay through the first half of the credits for extra tidbits.

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Though it also functions as a dramatic biopic, SNOWDEN plays out like a paranoid thriller that’s made even more intense by this story being factual. We’d be naïve not to think that the NSA is still up to stuff and that we’re still being watched on a daily basis. However, Stone’s film wisely presents fuel for both sides of the argument. There’s talk of the modern battlefield being everywhere, but also about the sacrifice of freedom for security. It’s a huge gray area with no easy answers and the film doesn’t choose a side. Instead, Oliver Stone’s return-to-form is sure to keep you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled, could inspire new feelings towards one of America’s most controversial figures, and may make you paranoid enough to put a Band-Aid over your webcam.

Grade: A

SAVAGES (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal and Grisly Violence, some Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Drug Use and Language throughout

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Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow & Oliver Stone

(based on the novel SAVAGES by Don Winslow)

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro & John Travolta

SAVAGES sounds like it has all the makings of a stellar crime-thriller. Controversial director Oliver Stone is behind the camera and using ingredients of drugs, violence and gangsters all blended into a film that could have and should have been great. In a sad turn of events, SAVAGES is not great. It’s not even good. Instead, this is an utter disappointment that suffers from a mixed bag cast of characters and messy pacing in spite of stylish sensibilities. This is a basic, run-of-the-mill kidnapping thriller.

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Chon and Ben are two dope-dealing best friends who share the same girlfriend, Ophelia. A particularly unique type of marijuana has turned these up-and-coming dealers into wealthy criminals. Ben handles the peaceful business side of things, while Chon takes care of the violence that occasionally arises in their highly illegal line of work. Meanwhile, Ophelia doesn’t do much except for smoking weed, having sex and lying around in the sun. When Ben and Chon are approached by the cartel and a highly questionable business deal goes bad, Ophelia is kidnapped by cartel leader Elena and vicious enforcer Lado. Together, Chon and Ben must use their brains and brawn to take down the crazed cartel and save their mutual girlfriend.

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The cast of characters is a combination of good and bad. Benicio Del Toro is great as Lado, a fearless thug who delights in every single one of his sick actions. John Travolta also gives one of his better performances of the last few years as a crooked DEA agent. Even though he’s a minor character in the grand scheme of things, Travolta adds much-needed talent to this movie. Selma Hayek is only okay as Elena. She is an intimidating villainess at points in the film, but there’s also a forced attempt to flesh out her character as a loving mother struggling to have a relationship with her daughter. At least, Hayek’s cartel leader has far more development than any of the three protagonists. Taylor Kitsch comes off as a bland tough guy and Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays laughably silly hippie. Meanwhile, Blake Lively doesn’t do much save for play a damsel in distress, look pretty and give an irritating voice over throughout the film. The stuff she’s describing is happening right before our eyes too, so there’s really no need for it to begin with.

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Oliver Stone directs SAVAGES with style and a slick look. There are definitely well-executed scenes on display, but they’re bogged down with pacing that drags for too long before arriving at any of the exciting stuff. Since the characters aren’t well-developed to begin with, that leaves us with almost an hour of screen time before Ophelia even gets kidnapped. By the time that happens, one might expect the film to pick up drastically. You would be wrong, because the action scenes and revenge moments are few and far between. There’s an appropriately savage vibe to the violence on display (things get gory and downright brutal) which is a good thing given what this story is about. However, the conclusion is a huge cop-out! This felt like an ending that cheated the viewer in every possible way. The final moments are dishonest and out-of-place.

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SAVAGES might have been a great, rip-roaring thriller if it had the right script and cast behind it. Instead, this comes off like a pretty standard by-the-numbers B-flick that underwhelms. Style, gruesome violence, a few good scenes as well as Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta aren’t enough to save this film from mediocre writing, a really stupid ending, poor characters, and bland performances. SAVAGES is strictly a middle-of-the-road effort.

Grade: C

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