Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Scarface



Scarface (1983)
Starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfieffer, Robert Loggia, F. Murray Abraham, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Certain films permeate the pop culture consciousness so deeply that you never have to see them to know them. I was 13 and watching an episode of The Simpsons where Homer ends up in possession of a large pile of sugar. He becomes power hungry as the episode progresses and at one point says. “First you get the sugar. Then you get the money. Then you get…the women.” At the time I found the line hilarious and filed it away as simply something those clever Simpsons writers came up with. Years later I would learn it was reference to Brian De Palma’s trend setting foray into big budget Hollywood movies.

Its 1980 and Fidel Castro has opened up Cuba temporarily to send away those unwilling to conform to his particular brand of Communism as well as a large number of convicts. One of these convicts is Antonio Montana, a small time thug. Very quickly Tony and his pal, Manny come into the employ of Miami druglord Frank Lopez. Tony proves himself a tenacious and ambitious figure and it comes as no surprise that any gangster that crosses his path is in danger of his life. Tony weds his rival’s woman, sets his sister up with beauty salon of her own, and establishes strong ties to a Columbian cocaine grower. However, this film is based on the style of a Greek tragedy, meaning for every rung Tony climbs on the ladder of power he has that hard of a fall waiting for him when it all goes bad.

It’s incredibly interesting watching Scarface in the context of twenty-seven years after its release. Stylistically it bleeds the 1980s. It’s separated by De Palma’s last film, Blow Out, by only three years but the distance between the films feels like a decade. While Blow Out owed much to the paranoiac anti-establishment pictures of the mid to late 1970s, Scarface is a trailblazing film, inventing its own style as it goes. This is an even bigger accomplishment after De Palma was basically tagged as “the new Hitchcock” and produced films that were highly derivative of classic cinema. The choices De Palma makes firmly entrench this picture in a very specific time and place, and there is no way it could ever be called “timeless”. Choices of music and cinematography here basically invent the 80s aesthetic. Everything is neon and harsh and brutal, and underneath it all driven by greed.

The screenplay was penned by a 36 year old Oliver Stone (pre-directorial debut) and reflects a lot of themes he would further explore in his own films. Greed is the driving force here, just as in Wall Street. While Stone hits his criticism of American capitalism right on the nose in that picture, the commentary is much more disguised in Scarface. Tony’s story is the immigrant story; he comes to our shores and works his way up the ladder to become a rich and powerful man. Yet, that classic immigrant story is soaked with corruption and acts of vile depravity. While this picture is very much surreal in how it deals with its characters, its themes lie in utter truth. It’s interesting to note that Tony’s story, while very apropos looking back at the Miami drug trade going on in the 1980s, was also reflective of the Hollywood system and Wall Street, where cocaine was a daily part of life.

It’s not a surprise that this picture was incredibly divisive. The main character is a man who is a danger not because he is a physical threat, but because he is frustratingly stubborn. The power of his personality was bound to turn off audiences expecting their title figure in a mainstream film to be a protagonist to root for. Not once did I find myself wanting Tony to succeed. Instead, I found a character to root for in Manny and Tony’s sister, Gina. For De Palma, this film changed everything. The days of Hitchcock-ian pastiche were coming to a close, and now he was a golden boy amongst the Hollywood studios. However, he has one last major nod to his beloved influence in the form of Body Double.

Director in Focus will be back in two week with Body Double. Next week, get ready for a birthday surprise!

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Asian Cinema Month – In the Mood For Love



In the Mood For Love (2000, dir. Wong Kar Wai)
Starring Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung

In writing poetry or prose you have a toolbox called language. This toolbox contains things like grammar, syntax, meter, rhyme, etc. Film has a toolbox as well, but is much much larger. And the idea of having more to work with sounds like it would be easier than writing, however more does not equal easier. In the film toolbox you have elements like sound and images. And subsets of sound would be dialogue, character’s accents, soundtrack, sound effects, sound mixing. Under images we find art direction, costume design, lighting, and the most vital of all cinematography. For even the most seasoned artist, misusing these tools is an easy thing to slip up and do. With this feature from director Wong Kar Wai every single tool is used perfectly and produces a flawless example of how rich style can blend with very clear, stated substance.

The film opens in Hong Kong in 1962. Chow (Leung) is renting a room in an apartment building on the same day as So (Cheung). They pass in the hall, barely acknowledging each other. Cut to a few days later and they happen to both be moving in on the same day. Chow’s wife is seen only from behind, her face intentionally not revealed. So’s husband travels abroad to Japan almost every other week and is glimpsed in a similar fashion. The months roll on and both Chow and So become convinced that their spouses have begun an affair. Not knowing how to deal with this they attempt to recreate the circumstances that led their spouses astray with themselves to understand what happened.

The plot is very loose and is carried mostly by the atmosphere created by Wong Kar Wai and his cinematographers, Christopher Doyle and Pin Bing Lee. You rarely see cinema filmed so beautifully and with such delicate craft. I found this to be the kind of film where I don’t remember scenes of dialogue or action, rather I remember images like paintings. Chow sits over his typewriter working on a story and the smoke from his cigarette billows up above his head. The rich detail of every gray tendril of smoke is captured on screen and I felt excitement at such a profoundly beautiful image. The film’s simple theme (a longing tune played on violin) is used repeatedly in scenes where Chow and So are navigating past each other, both physically and emotionally. The camera peeks around door frames, into crowded rooms of neighbors gathered to play cards. We see Chow and So separated by these people who are caught up in raucous laughing, and the tension bleeds off the screen.

The film is able to convey the conservative social pressures of the time. Chow and So meet in his bedroom, merely to share food and must be cautious of Chow’s landlord. They are unable to touch, made clear in a scene where So reaches for Chow’s hand after being caught up in a rare moment of happiness and then quickly withdraws. The film is greatly concerned with absence: the absence of the spouses, the absence of companionship or love, the absence of the spouse’s full identities. A title card that introduces the film reads “the past was something he could see but not touch”, a phrase that sums up what this lush film is all about.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Nil By Mouth



Nil By Mouth (1997, dir. Gary Oldman)
Starring Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse

I didn’t plan it this way, but Nil By Mouth is the perfect co-feature for yesterday’s Harry Brown. Both films take place in the government funded estate housing and focus on some of the harsh and brutal realities of life there. While Brown goes for a more Death Wish, hyper-violent tone, Nil By Mouth is a documentary-like look at the people Harry so eagerly murders. The film’s violence is not constant but comes in explosive and jolting moments. Every thing orbits around a single act of violence that takes place in the middle of the picture.

Ray (Winstone) is an ox, a violent brute of a man who is having his second child with Valerie (Burke). He maintains a disinterested relationship with her, going out at night with his mates, ingesting all sorts of drugs, drinking copious amounts of booze, and soliciting women at seedy strip clubs. When Valerie stays out to play pool with friends, Ray explodes. Also living in this war zone is Billy (Creed-Miles), Valerie’s brother and Janet (Morse), Valerie’s mother. Billy is a heroin addict who is constantly borrowing money from his mom and sleeping on a roulette wheel of couches. Janet is a helpless figure, standing back and watching her children’s lives decay and, in Billy’s case, driving him to drug dealers’ houses so he can score.

The most obvious element that carries the film is Ray Winstone. I’ve seen Winstone in films like Sexy Beast and The Proposition and in both of those he plays more of the simmering, muted type. Here he is like a British Jake Lamotta, exploding but never in a showy way, more of a man who has never seen men react anyway other than with violence. There’s a moment in the film when he has a conversation with his best mate Mark and talks about how unloving his father was. This monologue lays it out on the table that these men exist in a cycle of brutality. Why should we expect them to know how to show affection or control their rage when they have never seen a man do so, and when they live in a world where you prove yourself through the violence you inflict on others.

Not to be overshadowed is Kathy Burke as Valerie. Burke knows how to tap into the working class up bringing of her character. Valerie knows that her safety is dependent on Ray’s presence. She overlooks his nightly outings and has a pretty strong suspicion he cheats on her with other women. Their relationship has come to the point where she simply doesn’t care. She is pregnant with their second child and states that she wanted to have another child, but didn’t want to find a different father. There’s no love for Ray, he’s just there. And Ray is with her so he has an anchor point to return to at the end of the night.

The film is soaked in profanity, but that is an accurate depiction of this world and the natural grammar of the place. I was reminded of Mike Leigh’s films about the English working class and how often they are cited as “brutally true to life”. They really have nothing on the grim reality of Oldman’s directorial debut. It’s not an easy film to watch. The accents are thick and require the American viewer to play close attention, and the subject matter is not pretty. However, we have to see the full view of these people so that we don’t slip into the Harry Brown mentality.

Newbie Wednesday – Harry Brown



Harry Brown (2009, dir. Daniel Barber)
Starring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Ben Drew, Jack O’Connell

In the States we call government housing The Projects, in the UK they have the Estates. This is setting of this bleak and tragic story of a man who is alone. The film doesn’t flinch from showing shocking acts of brutality and doesn’t raise up one figure as a champion over another. Harry does what he does, but why? The motives for the killing spree remain vague when you begin to examine things closely. Is it in retribution for his friend? Or is their something much darker going on?

Harry Brown, is ex-marine and pensioner living in the Estates. His wife is living in the hospital stuck in a catatonic state. He has one friend in the world, Leonard, whom he meets at the corner pub for a pint everyday. Leonard is fed up with the way drugs are sold openly and people like himself are harassed by the hoodlums that roam the estates. One morning, Harry wakes up to learn Leonard was found stabbed to death in a pedestrian tunnel. This seems to be the final straw for Harry and he embarks on a crusade to avenge his friend, killing young men where ever he goes.

The film eventually goes down a fairly predictable road with Harry’s action parallel by a police investigation about them. What is more interesting is all the subtext brought to the film, possibly not intentionally. There is a lot of work put into making the world Harry inhabits grimey and flithy and despicable. So we are naturally appalled by the various denizens he encounters. As an audience we are clearly set up to cheer for Harry and boo all those nasty villains (see Gran Torino). However, there is a moment near the end of the film where Harry asks a character to kill him. This immediately caused me to re-evaluate what had gone before. Here’s a man whose wife is gone and has just lost his best friend. He lashes out, presumably because he wants but he then wants to simply die at the end. His entire crusade was a nihilistic one. Harry lost all he loves and now he wants to explode, hitting what ever he can in his path.

If it wasn’t for Michael Caine this would have been a forgettable film. There is something about just his subtle looks that elevates the film. In one scene he sits across from a drug dealer whose girlfriend is overdosing on heroin. The slight glances and looks he makes around the room feed the audience tons of information. While Clint Eastwood seemed one note through Gran Torino, Caine delivers a multi-layered performance. Emily Mortimer is also wonderful as the detective in charge of Caine’s case. By the end, she’s the only virtuous character in the film. She has been devoted to her job and wants to solve the murders. However, we can see the world crumble around her.

Harry Brown definitely wants to be a lofty film, but its very much a continuation of the Death Wish premise. I admit there is some greater emotional depth here. The disappointment for me came from how undeveloped characters are. There is no motive for anyone save Harry and it left me feeling like the picture was very hollow.

Asian Cinema Month – Eat Drink Man Woman

All this month, in honor of Asian Heritage Month, I will be looking at some major films from the contemporary Asian cinema canon. While the term “Asia” can refer to areas as diverse as the Middle East, India/Pakistan, and the South Pacific, I will be focusing mainly on films out of China, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. In the future I definitely plan on having a month devoted to Middle Eastern cinema….maybe not so much India, just not a fan of their pictures, too many crazy musicals.



Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, dir. Ang Lee)
Starring Sihung Lung, Kuei-Yei Yang, Chien-lien Wu, Yu-Wen Wang

Mealtime is a proven way of bonding with others. Whether its over a campfire, at a booth in a diner, or around the family dinner table, the act of breaking bread with others unites people in a very beautiful way. Even many animals hunt and dine together in packs, with somewhat of an understanding of the bonding that occurs when they do. Ang Lee presents the story of how food and the act of eating cobbles together a group of disparate people into a family.

The film is set in Taipei, Taiwan and focuses on Chu, the partiarch of a family made up of three daughters. Chu’s wife died years earlier and now his three daughters live at home with him, each feeling the burden of watching after their obstinate and independent father. Every Sunday, Chu prepares a lavish feast of traditional Chinese cuisine, much more than enough for this small group. Chu has also unofficially adopted his middle daughter’s old schoolmate and her daughter. As the story progresses, his three daughters begin to find men with whom they contemplate leaving home for. In many ways, this story is a variation of Fiddler on the Roof, very much about family and tradition.

I really liked this film, much more than I anticipated. I’ve been sort of back and forth with Ang Lee (didn’t care for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but love Brokeback Mountain) so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this picture. I think Lee is best when he is dealing with small, character driven stories. The family surrounding Chu are very complex and real. There are no easy solutions and no acts of serendipity. The high drama you would expect from a Hollywood version of this tale is non-existent, yet there are emotional stakes. Chu has lost his sense of taste and so the act of preparing this meal has a deeper meaning to it. The eldest daughter is also a wonderful chef, but no thanks to Chu. He makes sure the kitchen is off limits to his children, so she learned from Chu’s best friend and fellow chef when she was a child.

The way Lee films the cooking sequences is an example of a director at their peak. Everything about the methodical ways Chu prepares his dishes and the care he puts into them is absolutely apparent. The flavor of the dishes comes through the screen somehow and you can feel the steam coming off the dumplings and rich flavor of the stews and steamed fish. If you were putting together a list of films about food, this one definitely make it high on the list.

There honestly wasn’t much about this film I didn’t enjoy. It’s a little over two hours, yet I was so engaged by it I never felt like checking the timecode to see how much was left. I was completely absorbed in the world and especially the characters Lee was presenting. While he has gone on to make bigger budget films, my hope is that Lee can always remain close to his early roots, making films that found their wonder in people, rather than effects.

DocuMondays – Tales From the Script



Tales From the Script (2009, dir. Peter Hanson)
Featuring Allison Anders, John August, Shane Black, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, Frank Darabont, Antwone Fisher, Mick Garris, William Goldman, David Hayter, Zak Penn, Adam Rifkin, Jose Rivera, Paul Schrader, Guinevere Turner

The documentary opens with Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Deep Impact) talking about leaving the studio commissary with a group of executives and one of them telling him his script was the best thing he ever read. Months later, Rubin was in the same commissary, leaving behind the same executives with  new writer and heard them say his script was the best they ever read. This anecdote sets the tone of the rest of the documentary which isn’t so much about screen writing as it is about the relationship between writers and the studios. This relationship is one in which the writer wants to accepted and the studio wants to get that script out of his grubby little hands and make it the movie they want to see.

The film is made up of interviews with a wide swathe of writers from mid-century pictures up to those of the last decade. To frame the segments of the documentary, scenes from popular films that revolve around screenwriters are used (Barton Fink, The Muse). The result is a very inside baseball type film that is definitely never going to appeal to a large audience. To people working in the film industry and movie nerds like myself, the picture is fascinating glimpse into the trials and travails of the Hollywood screenwriter. We get to hear from veterans such as William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, The Princess Bride) and Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Affliction) as well as young, but equally prolific writers like David Hayter (X-Men, Watchmen) and John August (Big Fish, The Corpse Bride).

I found it very interesting to hear the voices and see the faces of screenwriters of films I was familiar with. I have to say, most of the films represented here were ones I don’t care for, particularly Bruce Almighty and Click, but the writers definitely fit your expectations of them. One of the most fascinating interviewees was Guinevere Turner. She started out scripting the indie lesbian romantic comedy Go Fish and went on to pen a draft of American Psycho. Turner tells the story of working with Uwe Boll on Bloodrayne and learning that he was letting the actors make edits to her script. While this would drive most writers insane, Turner says she told herself to take deep breaths and that she hated the movie anyway.

The film fails to be a helpful guide to novice writers which is a shame. Goldman has become a sort of god of screenwriting and has numerous books on the topic. There’s some interesting comments on the “postcontent” era of films which might be useful, but overall its just an interesting curio that shows us where films are born.

Hypothetical Film Festival – Best Horror Remakes Evrrrrrrrrrrr!

With the remake of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street there is yet another horror film being “re-imagined” in theaters. But remaking horror flicks has been a mainstream trend since the 1960s and Hammer Studios buying up the Universal monsters. Here’s a film festival devoted to movies I think are the best among horror remakes.



Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979, dir. Werner Herzog)
Starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz

Acclaimed German filmmaker Herzog decided to remake F.W. Murnau’s vampire film, believing it to be the best film ever produced by a German director. The original silent Nosferatu was made as a result of the inability to get the right to the Dracula novel. Murnau makes a few tweaks, such a dehumanizing the title vampire lord even more. When Herzog’s version came long Dracula was now in the public domain so he was able to absorb more elements of it into the story. Certain scenes are exact recreations of the original silent picture but Herzog also develops the title vampire’s personality further, causing him to become a sad, pathetic figure more than a completely menacing inhuman monster. Also, there are few actors who were as prepared to play a ghoul as Klaus Kinski.



The Thing (1981, dir. John Carpenter)
Starring Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur

The original The Thing From Another World (1951) was directed by genre jumping master filmmaker Howard Hawks and reflected a post-Hiroshima fear of science. Carpenter’s remake was much more faithful to the source novel and included the element of the alien’s ability to mimic the cellular structure and appearance of living matter. Kurt Russell plays a member of an Antarctic science crew who encounter a husky running loose and its Norwegian science expedition owners trying to kill it. They learn quickly that the dog is a microbacterial alien species bent on wiping out all life on earth to appease its evolutionary directive. The film has some of gnarliest special effects ever put to film and creates a pitch perfect tone of paranoia.




Little Shop of Horrors (1986, dir. Frank Oz)
Starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Levi Stubbs

Director/producer Roger Corman is known by the loving term of “shlockmeister”, meaning he makes cheap, exploitative genre pictures that have total cult followings. His 1960 flick The Little Shop of Horrors was turned in to a stage musical in the 1980s and that was how we got this wonderful horror-musical-comedy. Moranis is Seymour, a plant store employee who discovers a strange plant that feeds on blood and flesh. He’s able to satiate with pin prick from his finger until the creature grows larger and he must resort to murder. The picture balances the right level of black comedy with a satirical commentary on early 1960’s America. Ellen Green is definitely the musical highlight of the film, reprising her role on the stage as Audrey. The special effects for the evil man-eating plant Audrey II are also wonderful, particularly its final “adult” form.




Evil Dead II (1987, dir. Sam Raimi)
Starring Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi

In 1981, Sam Raimi released cult favorite The Evil Dead and it opened doors for him to work on some slightly higher budget crime pictures. As the 80s came to close he accrued enough funding to remake this first great film. I know I was confused when I started watching this and realized it functioned as both a remake and a sequel to the first picture. The events of the original movie are retold in the first 20 mins while a new parallel story involving archaeologists is introduced. But all you really need to know about this one is that it has Bruce Campbell in it. And he gets a chainsaw hand. I mean the entire Spider-Man trilogy has nothing on that. This picture ends on a cliffhanger that leads into 1993’s Army of Darkness.




The Ring (2002, dir. Gore Verbinski)
Starring Naomi Watts, Daveigh Chase, Brian Cox, Amber Tamblyn

This remake is much better than its 1998 Japanese original. Here the city and atmosphere of Seattle are used to perfection without ever naming the city or making a spectacle of its skyline. Instead, the soaked, rainy, bleak tone of the region underscores the looming horror. A videotape is passed around and comes with the warning that anyone who watches it will die seven days later. It ends up in the hands of a Ruth, a woman working in the media. She watches the tape and is now in a race against time to figure out the origins of this phenomenon and possibly how to stop it. The picture is full of incredibly disturbing imagery and is able to use CG effects without feeling like we’re staring at a green screen. It also has one of the best twist endings and earns every second of it. They rarely make horror this enjoyable these days.