Written by / 3/04/2016 / No comments / , , , , , , ,

UNPOPULAR TAKES ON BELOVED 'SCARFACE' & 'TRUE ROMANCE'

Firing away at a so-called Masterpiece Year: 1983
SCARFACE has… or had, since this post has been edited for a long time… returned to the theaters, mang. The one starring Al Pacino, written by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian De Palma...

And now can be viewed in all its glory, and flaws… As for the latter, and with the legacy of what’s considered a “timeless classic” supposedly on par with the THE GODFATHER, who knew there were so many downsides? During one important scene, bordering the first and second act, when Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who climbs from poverty and starts making loads of cash in the cocaine business, visits his mother, he offers money to her and Tony’s little sister. Mama refuses, saying the cash is dirty. At this point, not only does the dough seem clean as a whistle, and a damn nice gift, but we hardly experience Tony’s initial climb from the slums to a car dealership where a forty thousand dollar Porsche is an easy purchase…

Pacino Blasting
Other than the terrifically gruesome bloody chainsaw in the bathroom sequence, taking us back to the exploitation drive-in 70's era, there’s little suffering while Tony and his sidekick kick ass, revenge style… Our Cuban antihero goes from super poor to kind of wealthy to filthy rich in sporadic pockets, and we never fully experience the gritty innards of those pockets… The most important sections of the film seem to be missing… Although there are some amazingly shot moments, and intense rungs of the ladder of formidable success are shown, but much too quickly.

In one scene with Tony and his best friend Manny, played by super-stud Steven Bauer, resembling a guy who would make the cut in a SEXY GANGSTER CALENDAR, there's a terrific "hit" within the makeshift Cuban immigrant camp beneath a freeway.


Brian De Palma’s long-shot direction is suspenseful and follows his established haunting style, and is, for Tony, really the last dirty deed unless you don’t count a number of meetings with Robert Loggia’s Frank Lopez, an over-friendly fella who, like what occurs in anything Noir-related, is way too trusting with his trophy wife; and then he puts the Cuban scoundrel quickly into the biz with too much power up front: like he's begging to be replaced, in every category.

An important scene has Tony meeting in a lush nightclub office with the real head honcho in South America… Herein, an important heavy, Sosa, takes an instant liking to Montana’s street savvy knowhow, having found his man, and vice versa. And the soon to be Oscar winning F. Murray Abraham, as Omar (the Johnny Ola of the film), becomes a middleman that’s no longer needed. In fact, Montana connected so well with Sosa, even Loggia's Frank's days of reign are (predictably) numbered back home while his relationship with Michelle Pfeiffer’s pouting princess Elvira is also doomed.

SCARFACE poster
Thus, scenes where a blunt Tony tries melting Elvira’s cold heart provides some decent chemistry between the Cuban climber and the American trophy girl, but once they’re married we only get random jacuzzi-side arguments that lead nowhere. Why melt a witchy heart just to drown in her tedious cauldron… Where’s the passion? This after what feels like a music video with a horrendously dated 80's track (not even catchy or campy or even remembered) blares throughout: Viewing Tony’s progression into wealth and power… but that’s pretty much it. Imagine this wasted montage being taken apart and shown in actual scenes… two or three fleshed-out examples of Tony’s reign as bloodthirsty mobster would have made SCARFACE more like THE GODFATHER… that was the intention, after all.

Al Pacino
Oliver Stone is a good scriptwriter, but he simply didn’t have enough bloody fun here. From glossy 30’s style nightclubs to murky backroom deals, De Palma sets an ominous moody atmosphere, and Pacino goes overboard with genuine gusto. And yet, sadly, Stone’s story just isn’t centered enough for the fickle mainline to back up the direction and performances. Both Pacino (and the other cast members) and De Palma deserved much better.

Pfieffer’s sullen bitch aside, the real ingénue is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Tony’s vulnerable little sister, who literally goes from girl-next-door to coke-snorting whore within two scenes with very little in-between, and her budding relationship with Tony’s best pal Manny, who's been at his side throughout, results in a tragic, and unnecessary death...

Had Potential
For Manny, in his own right, has more potential than Tony… Not only is his accent much more realistic-sounding, he remains a hungry climber after Tony gets perched in his golden palace of coke-riddled paranoia… All leading to that famous “lil’ friend” ending, more like a frantic war film than an intriguing mobster flick. If only that spooky shades-wearing thug snuck in alone under the multi-camera security Tony set up to protect himself from outside adversaries. With so many soldiers running into the compound wielding machine guns, there’s no suspense (and De Palma worships Hitchcock) in the otherwise iconic, gun-blazing finale: perhaps the long, ponderous scenes of dialogue were being made up for with a bombastic conclusion.

If the movie provided enough slowburn, suspenseful action… like when Tony refuses to pull off a car-explosion hit to protect two children… SCARFACE would fit into the top shelf gangster canon. But from the bottom to the top of the world being Tony Manero’s, it all felt too easy, somehow. So the problem isn’t what’s there, but what’s left out.

True Romance cool poster
TRUE ROMANCE: There is simply no denying the terrific platform given to an ensemble cast of gritty character-actors, but the problem with Quentin Tarantino’s Tony Scott directed TRUE ROMANCE are the two leads… Christian Slater’s Clarence Worley and his gift-turned-girlfriend Alabama, played by Patricia Arquette, lack both chemistry and experience, seeming more like friends of the apartment-dwelling briefcase guys massacred by the following year’s PULP FICTION killers Jules and Vincent than anyone those particular bad boys would spend time conversing with, or admiring. Slater spouts pop culture diatribes – ranging from Max Julien to Carol Speed to Richard Pryor (THE MACK cast) to Sonny Chiba to Spider Man – like he’s just learned how while Arquette’s voice grates on the nerves, and beyond.

The Kids Aren't Alright
The plot is simple enough: After what was supposed to be a one night stand, Clarence falls so hard for Alabama that he decides to get rid of the person who makes her what she is, or what she used to be, a whore… And they eventually wind up with a ton of cocaine as mobsters and cops dog their heels. Backing up to an important scene, straight out of Woody Allen’s PLAY IT AGAIN SAM replacing Elvis with Bogart: Clarence, a hardcore Presley fanatic, has a hallucinatory conversation with The King (Val Kilmer), who suggests he follow through on a particularly violent urge…

Read This Book for TR
Though you’d think Elvis gave Clarence more than advice. Maybe a superhero pill since the transition from kung fu cinema fan/comic book seller to ultra violent pimp killer is so quick and unsupported, during the rest of the movie – where real adults take part in some intense interactions – our lovestruck Bonnie and Clyde seem like passengers in what’s supposed to be their very own ride.

Dennis Hopper
For cinema history’s sake, TRUE ROMANCE was the script Tarantino sold to give him the last-minute power to replace Monte Hellman as the RESERVOIR DOGS director. And on paper, ROMANCE is extremely unique and, most importantly, non-linear, an uncommon style before PULP FICTION paved the way.  So the mainstream Tony Scott put the story in order, threw in a glossy Aerosmith track, shoots Clarence and Alabama’s initial consummation like a steamy TOP GUN sex scene, and provides his usual choppy closeups resembling inserts in a grainy music video.

Gary in TREK
Not that TRUE ROMANCE doesn’t have value: The famous Dennis Hopper to Christopher Walken  “Am I Lying?” monologue  is good (for two characters we hardly know as the writing trumps the acting) and there’s a handful of fitfully edgy moments set within a sparse Neo Noir backdrop and yet, strangely enough, at times the retro-soaked Tarantino dialogue, not spoken on his own stage, feels more of a neurotic intrusion within Scott’s gritty template than the engine of a potential hot rod that, even after twenty long years, just can’t shed that new car smell.

TRIVIA: A friend and yours truly were talking with Gary Lockwood, an actor famous for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and who was already a science-fiction icon, having guest starred in WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE, one of Gene Roddenberry's best episodes from his original STAR TREK, and before that Gary played the lead in Gene's one season series THE LIEUTENANT, wherein Dennis Hopper appeared in a controversial episode concerning racial tension, featuring Dennis Hopper. Gary told us that he felt Dennis was basically a wannabe "Jimmy Dean" (your typical hyperactive method actor; plus the fact he co-starred in two Dean flicks) until he saw the "Am I Lying?" scene in TRUE ROMANCE, and then he (Gary Lockwood) realized the man could really act. Though perhaps he should re-watch... well... a number of movies, including APOCALYPSE NOW, HOSSIERS, OUT OF THE BLUE, and many others. But you just don't tell Gary what to do. He sort of owns the space around him.

MOVIE RATINGS:
SCARFACE: *1/2
TRUE ROMANCE: **
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