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

INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Destruction and Violence

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Written by: Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich

Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin & Vivica A. Fox

Though it’s simply a dumb popcorn flick, INDEPENDENCE DAY caused shock waves in the cinematic world that resonated years after its initial release. This summer blockbuster kicked off the “tradition” of tentpole movies being marketed during the Superbowl, also birthed a trend of large-scale disaster films and science fiction epics that took up theater screens through the late 90’s, and showcased groundbreaking special effects. Besides causing all of those latter effects, INDEPENDENCE DAY broke records and became one of the biggest movies of the 90’s (in box office terms). While the story is flimsy, the characters are thin, and there’s an undeniable cheesiness to the entire film, INDEPENDENCE DAY rocks in terms of entertainment and spectacle. I am surprised by how well it has stood the test of time. This is 145 minutes of pure fun!

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July 2, 1996. A massive UFO approaches Earth. As millions of Americans prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July and people around the world go about their daily lives, something very threatening waits on the horizon. The question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe has been answered in a massive way. A group of huge spaceships surround the world and it appears that these aliens don’t come in peace. Fiery craters erupt. Famous landmarks are reduced to ash. A large amount of the planet’s population is lost. Still, hope emerges when various individuals from different backgrounds come together to take these aliens down!

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Fighter pilot Steve Hiller (Will Smith) takes to the skies, while his girlfriend (Vivica A. Fox) and her son (Ross Bagley) make their way across a hopeless landscape of destruction. President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) attempts to do all he can with different tactics and combat strategies, but at the end of the day his inspirational words may be the most powerful weapons of all. Computer geek David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) desperately searches for a technological way to stop the spaceship’s powerful shields. Meanwhile, redneck Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) tries to keep his children safe. These characters will all encounter one another in different ways and they will have to face seemingly impossible odds if they wish to save the day…and Earth as we know it.

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Though it’s over two hours long, there’s hardly a dull moment in INDEPENDENCE DAY. The first scene kicks off with the massive approaching spacecraft and the President being informed about the extraterrestrial situation. Though the characters are mostly thin in that there’s a President, a geek, the geek’s ex-wife, a pilot, the pilot’s family, a drunken redneck, his family, and a few other side characters, there are moments that try to develop them further…even though these scenes mostly show how these people connect to one another. This large cast’s three main standouts are easily Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman. However, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid, Vivica Fox, and Margaret Colin all receive a substantial amount of screen time as well.

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During its slower scenes and so-so attempts at character development, INDEPENDENCE DAY remains entertaining thanks to a sense of humor and the impending threat of giant alien ships hovering over major cities. Once the action kicks in, the film has copious amounts of large-scale destruction, intense battles, and lots of alien lore. The film could have simply left its plot at aliens attacking the Earth and humans being unprepared…but still saving the day regardless. Instead, past urban legends, conspiracy theories, and strange occurrences in our country’s history serve as fun plot points.

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Director/co-writer Roland Emmerich wisely decides to keep the aliens in the dark for a majority of the film’s running time. We see lots of UFOs, but know little about their intergalactic inhabitants…until one annoying comic relief character pops in to throw a ton of exposition at the viewer. We’re about halfway into the action before we get a long look at one of these freaky tentacled beasties. Their appearance is reminiscent enough of the “little green men,” but also incorporates small creative details. There’s actually a jump scare in this movie that still holds up perfectly. Even after showing us the otherworldly menace, Emmerich doesn’t seem to revel much in the hordes of invading aliens. We mostly get glowing ships and flying spacecraft.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY weaves multiple storylines in and out of each other and thus creates a large-scale feeling, even if all of the main characters happen to live in one nation and the threat spans across the entire planet. There’s a definite patriotic feeling going strong through this movie and it revels in moments of people from different backgrounds uniting as one force. As cheesy as that may be, it’s something to be praised. Bill Pullman’s inspirational speech near the film’s finale still serves as a genuinely powerful moment in a movie that’s basically about aliens shooting green light at earthlings.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY has plenty of clichés and silly moments, but those ultimately become part of the fun. The characters are thin and the plot is predictable, but that doesn’t really matter when the entertainment factor is amazingly strong and the spectacle still wows audiences today. I happened to catch INDEPENDENCE DAY on the big screen right before its sequel and there were plenty of cheers, applause and laughs to be had from modern audience watching this film over two decades after its original release. The film is definitely flawed and far from perfect, but it’s so damn enjoyable that you might not even care. Simply put, INDEPENDENCE DAY is a silly B-flick that was given A-level spectacle and fun. There’s something oddly inspiring about that in and of itself.

Grade: B+

OLIVER & COMPANY (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

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Directed by: George Scribner

Written by: Jim Cox, Tim Disney & James Mangold

(based on the novel OLIVER TWIST by Charles Dickens)

Voices of: Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, Roscoe Lee Browne, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dom DeLuise, Robert Loggia, Natalie Gregory & Bette Midler

Right before the Disney Renaissance (involving mermaids, beasts and lions), OLIVER & COMPANY was one of many animated offerings from the trusted studio that seemed a little too desperate to forcefully win over young audiences. This film is retelling of Oliver Twist set in New York with a pack of dogs and a cat. That sounds like a creative enough idea, but the script is bogged down in bland characters and tries to pack the dialogue full of hip phrases. In particular, the character of Dodger (voiced by Billy Joel) comes off the generic cool character bound to win over kids. This 1988 animated film suffers from these flaws and more, but doesn’t necessarily do anything truly awful.

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Oliver is an orphaned cat on the streets of New York City. Scared and alone, he crosses paths with scarf-wearing street-wise canine Dodger. The tiny feline meets up with Dodger’s pack of dogs who are more than happy to take him in. This make-shift furry family is taken care of by the homeless Fagin (voiced by Dom DeLuise) who owes a lot of cash to vicious loan shark Sykes. On his misadventures with the gang, Oliver is taken in by a young rich girl, named Jenny. Split between two very different families, Oliver must choose who he’d rather stay with and the threat of Sykes hovers over the entire situation.

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The best thing I can say about OLIVER & COMPANY is that the two-dimensional animation looks very nice. It’s easy to forget how well old-school animation looks in these days of overly populated CG features. OLIVER flows well and the story itself isn’t bad. The writing just feels overly rushed and by-the-numbers. I’m sure there was the possibility of a great film inside of the premise, but this isn’t it. The overused hip sayings by Billy Joel’s Dodger quickly go from lame to annoying. Other characters range from comedic stereotypes (a pampered rich hound, a sophisticated English bulldog, and a Cheech Marin Chihuahua) to completely bland (protagonist Oliver, homeless Fagin, and especially the cutesy Jenny).

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Besides bland and forgettable characters, the musical numbers are also as bland and forgettable. Billy Joel’s “Why Should I Worry?” winds up being listed as the best (and catchiest) song, but I actually found it to be every bit as annoying, pointless, and worthless as the rest of the songs here. You’re likely to have them completely out of your head a mere hour or two after finishing the film. There’s not too much else to criticize or praise in OLIVER & COMPANY simply because the film isn’t horrible or great or even middle-of-the-road. I’d actually say it’s okay family movie. The goal is accomplished of entertaining children, but none of the magic that usually makes Disney just as (if not, more) entertaining for adults as they are for kids is present.

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OLIVER & COMPANY should have been way better than it wound up. It’s Disney doing Oliver Twist for crying out loud. If the movie didn’t spend so much time trying to be “cool” for the hip young crowd and more focus was placed on telling a creative story, then this might have been a real winner. In the end, OLIVER & COMPANY is a well-animated kid’s movie that seems tailor-made strictly for kids. I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy this one or even rent it. If it’s on TV and you’re curious, then you might want to give it a look (just over 70 minutes isn’t that long). Don’t expect a whole lot from it or anything close to the caliber of Disney films we’ve become accustomed to.

Grade: C+

THE BELIEVERS (1987)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: John Schlesinger

Written by: Mark Frost

(based on the novel THE RELIGION by Nicholas Conde)

Starring: Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, Harley Cross, Robert Loggia & Jimmy Smits

This is one of those films that has a fantastic premise, but squanders the promise away by not taking advantage of it. Based on a 1982 novel, THE BELIEVERS was a financial success, but critics and audiences said that it was an average cult-satanic thriller. I really was hoping to dig it a lot, but by the end of the film, I had to agree with the majority. This is just average at best. Topped with overacting, convoluted plot-twists and a lackluster ending, THE BELIEVERS falls short of being great or even good.

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Cal Jamison is a psychiatrist who has just suffered a terrible loss. His wife died in an accident involving some liquid and a faulty coffee machine. Trying to get a fresh start on life, Cal and his young son, Chris, move to New York City. His move coincides with the sacrificial deaths of young children. It appears that a cult is on the loose on New York and they’re eyeballing Chris as a potential sacrifice. Anybody who crosses them winds up being punished in some horrible way, which usually results in death or agonizing pain. Can Cal stop the cult? Will he save his child? Is Voodoo creepy as hell? Also, will you care about any of this by the time the overlong running time has concluded. The answers are: maybe, maybe, definitely, and probably not.

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One of the many flaws gracing this could-have-been-so-much-better film involves Martin Sheen’s acting. I really wish the director or any of the cast members told him to dial it back. He seems to overdo every emotion he’s trying to portray. When he’s curious, he’s REALLY curious. When he’s angry, he yells every single syllable with emphasis! I would say that there were other emotions involved, but aside from two scenes of sadness and one moment of love, those are the only traits of his character. So what about this angry/curious man’s young child. He’s one of the more annoying kid actors I’ve seen in cinema. Not quite to the level of Bob from HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, but very close! As far as the side characters go, they exist merely to further the plot along. This includes the love interest, the superstitious housekeeper, and Jimmy Smits in a brief role.

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As far as the script itself goes, there are a few good ideas at play. Some genuinely creepy scenes involve a growing zit that has a nasty surprise in store for a poor woman and Jimmy Smits’ demise is pretty damn gruesome. Things get bogged down in mundane details and some contrived plot twists that all lead up to an ending that gives new meaning to the phrase “over-the-top.” This is the only example of a film that goes from brooding occult thriller to 80’s action cheese in the final 20 minutes. It’s absurd and feels out-of-place. To make matters even worse, the epilogue feels tacked on and worthless as if the director was going for one last shock and failed.

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With all this complaining, one may think that I hated THE BELIEVERS. Actually, I thought the ritual ceremonies themselves and some of the atmosphere were great. The set design and cinematography were quite good as well. This is a professionally made movie that exhibits really solid filmmaking as far as style is concerned. Things begin to go sour where the bad acting and silly script are concerned. The film is too long as well. It’s nearly stretched out to two hours and there simply isn’t enough content to fill it up without dragging.

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In the end, THE BELIEVERS is a film that could use a solid remake to better all the qualities that just aren’t that good with this 80’s version. There are a few creepy moments and some very cool ideas, but for the most part, it’s a missed opportunity that could have wound up being a forgotten horror classic of the 80’s. I don’t feel bad about watching it, but I certainly won’t be revisiting THE BELIEVERS in the future.

Grade: C

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