Say Hello to My Little Friend!

Scarface (1983) exemplifies the American dream. Nothing has received a bigger critical reevaluation than Scarface. At first it was hated for its excessive violence, profanity, and drug use. Scarface wasn’t even nominated for a single Academy Award. Acclaimed director Brian De Palma was actually nominated for a Razzie Award. So how did Scarface become one of the greatest gangster films of all time? I’m also turned off by its excess, but I understand why it resonates with so many people. Leading to countless pop culture references, a video game, and hip hop influence. Scarface is a remake that learns a lot from what came before. Gangster mainstay Al Pacino was drawn to the original, but writer Oliver Stone didn’t want an Italian mob picture.

The renamed Tony Montana became a Cuban refugee in 1980’s Miami. Alcohol prohibition became drug trafficking, but the American dream remained very much intact. Tony lives by “The World is Yours” as he goes from poor dishwasher without a green card to powerful drug lord. First he needs the money, then he’ll get the power, and then he’ll get the women. Pacino isn’t Cuban, but his exaggerated volatility makes Tony iconic. 2 hours & 50 minutes is more than enough time to take in the scope of his journey. Steven Bauer is the only Cuban to play Tony’s loyal friend Manny. The respectable Robert Loggia and F. Murray Abraham play their mentor Frank Lopez and his right-hand Omar. A relatively unknown Michelle Pfeiffer makes her presence known as Frank’s beautiful blonde trophy wife Elvira.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio similarly makes an impression with her film debut as Tony’s sister Gina. Their overprotective relationship is more screwed up, but not explicitly incestious. Scarface still pushes the boundaries even 5 decades after the original. There are several bloody shootouts, a torture scene involving a chainsaw, a record 207 F bombs, and mountains of cocaine. Tony becomes the bad guy when he seizes Frank’s position, marries Elvira, and offs anyone in his way. The more villainous drug dealer Alejandro Sosa turns on Tony after he fails to do a job for him. Tony gets high on his own supply and becomes increasingly paranoid. The explosive climax is a big part of cinematic history. As the coke fueled Tony Montana says the iconic phrase “Say hello to my little friend,” he lives long enough to hold off Sosa’s men. Scarface is a cautionary tale that takes an excessive lifestyle to its furthest extreme.

Scarface 1983

“Say hello to my little friend!”

Remake of: Scarface (1932)

The World is Yours

Scarface (1932) is the original gangster picture. Complete with old fashioned fedoras, striped suits, and Tommy guns. While not the very first, Scarface was influential in its own right. Of course I’ve already seen the 1983 remake, but I can still retroactively see the merit of the original. It similarly pushes the boundary on violence and the glamorization of crime. Produced by the Howard Hughes, Scarface faced lots of censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood. Until the movie became a scathing indictment of gangsters at the time. Specifically Al Capone who was currently in jail for tax evasion.

Scarface follows the Italian immigrant Tony Camonte as he rises in the ranks of the Chicago crime ring. He lives by the slogan “The World is Yours” and uses it to make reckless decisions. Having seen the remake, I was surprised with how much they were able to get away with in 1932. Shootings are at first veiled in shadow, but it all becomes clear when Tony gleefully fires on rival gangs with a newly acquired Thompson submachine gun.

Tony earns the ire of his boss Johnny Lovo when he starts messing with his blonde socialite girlfriend Poppy. The world is officially his when he bumps off Johnny for the top seat. Also intact is the uncomfortable relationship Tony has with his sister Cesca. His jealousy is made clear when he takes out his loyal coin flipping partner Guino Rinaldo. The climax isn’t coke fueled, but it is just as explosive when the police hold off a deranged Tony in his apartment. Scarface is a classic that made gangster flicks what they are today.

Scarface 1932

Tony Camonte uses a Tommy gun

Mickey & Mallory

Natural Born Killers is a more f***ed up version of Bonnie and Clyde. Although Quentin Tarantino wrote the story, director Oliver Stone made it his own. Natural Born Killers is one of the most controversial films of all time. Despite Tarantino disowning the project, the movie was a success. Leading to a disturbing rise in copycat crimes. Which is mostly why I’ve avoiding seeing Natural Born Killers for as long as I did. The extreme violence is disturbing, but it’s so frequent and exaggerated that I sort of became desensitized to it. Stone specifically wanted a movie that satirized the media’s glorification of crime in the 90’s. Natural Born Killers accomplishes that goal, but the visual style is just too much.

There are frequent cuts to black & white, red & green color palettes, animation, dutch angles, and bizarre imagery spliced with advertisements. It’s possible Stone wanted the audience to go as crazy as the criminal leads. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis go against type for the first time as natural born killers Mickey & Mallory Knox. Both became iconic for Mickey’s sunglasses and Mallory’s mullet. They’re a pair of romantic psychopaths who go on a killing spree and gain a devoted following along the way. I wouldn’t come close to calling them sympathetic, but they are both shown to come from abusive homes that led to their reckless disregard for human life.

Rodney Dangerfield also goes against type as Mallory’s abusive father in a segment parodying I Love Lucy. Robert Downey Jr. purposefully puts on an Australian accent as exaggerated true crime reporter Wayne Gale. Previous Stone collaborator Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t show up until the third act as an unhinged prison warden. The only connection to True Romance is Tom Sizemore playing a more depraved cop. Apart from maybe an Indian spirit guide, no one is likable in Natural Born Killers since we almost never get to know the victims. Natural Born Killers may have something important to say, but I’m too disturbed to listen.

Natural Born Killers

Mickey and Mallory Knox

I Haven’t Killed Anybody Since 1984

True Romance has Quentin Tarantino written all over it. After Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino quickly became a noteworthy filmmaker. Yet he chose not to direct his personal screenplay for True Romance. Maybe that’s why I’ve seldom heard about the movie. Top Gun director Tony Scott’s style can be seen, but all of the Tarantino motifs are unmistakable. There’s crime, pop culture references, liberal use of the “N” word, sudden violence, and an intense appreciation for the movies. Christian Slater plays comic book fan/Elvis enthusiast Clarence. He meets sexy call girl Alabama played by Patricia Arquette at a cheesy kung fu triple feature. They quickly develop a steamy true romance that leads to marriage and an unexpected crime filled life on the run.

True Romance has an all-star cast filled with major Hollywood celebrities, soon to be famous actors, and future Tarantino collaborators. Samuel L. Jackson is very suddenly killed off and Brad Pitt is a stoner left out of the action. Former Scott collaborator Val Kilmer plays an unseen Elvis mentor to Clarence. Although True Romance isn’t nonlinear like Tarantino intended, it does feel like a series of vignettes with many colorful characters involved. An unrecognizable Gary Oldman is an instant scene stealer as Alabama’s psychotic dreadlocks sporting pimp Drexl Spivey.

Clarence & Alabama end up on the run when they accidentally take his supply of cocaine. The mob starts hunting them, including Christopher Walken and a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini. The latter stands out in a rough fight with Alabama, but it’s Walken and Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s police father who have the most memorable scene. Hopper taunts Walken with his Sicilian upbringing and Walken makes Hopper the first person he’s killed since 1984. Clarence’s Hollywood friend, the police, mob, and potential coke buyers eventually get involved in a bloody shootout with a happier ending than you’d expect. True Romance could’ve been as big as Pulp Fiction, but I like it better as an underrated cult film.

True Romance

Clarence and Alabama watch a movie

No One Understands Him But His Woman

Shaft in Africa is practically a black Bond film. Since John Shaft is taken out of New York and sent straight to Africa. Despite Shaft in Africa being another sequel released the following year, Richard Roundtree is the only returning cast member. Now the director is British and the budget is so big that they can now afford the new location. Along with many supporting characters.

Shaft is pretty much turned into a spy complete with gadgets who must learn African customs in order to infiltrate a slave labor ring. It’s similar to Bond, but this is still an R rated Blaxploitation film. Shaft is completely naked when he faces an assailant with an African fighting stick. Violence is a bit more intense with Shaft’s enemies being more merciless than before. He tries to blend in, but his cover is blown several times. Until an explosive climax that brings Shaft and his ring of fellow laborers to France.

Nudity is also more graphic than before with women both African and white wanting to sleep with Shaft. Similar to the previous movies, but at least some of the actresses get more character development. Shaft in Africa sounds like the most exploitative Blaxploitation movie for its title alone, but the scenery change at least makes it more memorable than Shaft’s Big Score! Despite a number of book appearances, this was the original Shaft’s last big screen adventure. Aside from a short lived TV show, Shaft in Africa retired the icon in over-the-top fashion.

3. Shaft in Africa

John Shaft takes aim

Preceded by: Shaft’s Big Score!

Heโ€™s a Complicated Man

Shaft’s Big Score! will blow your mind. It’s basically the first movie, but with a much bigger budget. Since Shaft was a major hit that ignited the Blaxploitation genre. Richard Roundtree and the original director return with only a year between movies. Shaft’s Big Score! is a groovy sequel with much more action to turn John Shaft into a more hands on action hero. The main similarity is Shaft once again dealing with New York gangsters both black and white.

Shaft’s Big Score! refers to a large sum of money connected to the brother of his current girlfriend. When he’s killed, Shaft contacts his old gangster associates and investigates each gangs role in the matter. All the while continuing to be a sex machine to all the chicks. Pretty much every female character ends up naked at some point in the movie. Shaft’s Big Score may lack the raw sincerity of the original, but it makes up for it with large scale action sequences.

Most slow parts are at the beginning with the violence really kicking in near the end. Shaft engages in fist fights, has a cemetery shoot out, takes part in a car chase, a speedboat chase, and even shoots down a helicopter. It’s exciting, but not really enough to make the sequel memorable. They didn’t even have Oscar winner Isaac Hayes to score the film. So the new theme can’t really measure up. Shaft’s Big Score! does big things and scores some points for its efforts.

2. Shaft's Big Score!

John Shaft takes aim

Preceded by: Shaft & Followed by: Shaft in Africa

Can Ya Dig it?

Shaft officially marked the beginning of the Blaxploitation era. Since it’s Black History Month, I thought I’d talk about the original black action hero. John Shaft is a black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks. He is the man who will risk his neck for his brother, man. The cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about. This cat Shaft is a bad mother (shut your mouth), well you get the idea. He’s a complicated man, but no one understands him but his woman. Shaft is such a black icon that I was shocked to learn he was originally written as a white man.

The original novel depicted John Shaft as a white private detective, but all that changed when newcomer Richard Roundtree was cast in the part. Suddenly Shaft was a take charge leading man that African Americans could root for. Shaft was a dignified presence with a groovy afro and stylish turtlenecks draped in leather trench coats. The movie itself was very low budget, but so successful that it launched a whole line of movies with a mostly all black cast and crew. Although Shaft is actually a pretty slow building old fashion detective film.

John Shaft jokes around with the police chief, has a run in with some Harlem gangsters, and agrees to help find the big bosses kidnapped daughter. Starting a race war between her Italian mob kidnappers and the black men Shaft recruits from Harlem. All the while living up to his sex machine status by sleeping with women of any race. Shaft is actually pretty subtle for Blaxploitation. People won’t remember Shaft’s 1971 movie as much as his badass theme song. Isaac Hayes became the first black composer to win an Oscar with his Best Original Song winning “Theme from Shaft.” A hip composition with funky beats that build up to those iconic lyrics. All I can say is “Right on” Shaft.

1. Shaft

John Shaft takes aim

Followed by: Shaft’s Big Score!

I Coulda Been a Contender

On the Waterfront is one of the best contenders to win Best Picture. Really it was thanks to one of the greatest performances from celebrated actor Marlon Brando. A performance that earned Brando his first Academy Award for Best Actor. Thanks to his popularizing method acting in mainstream Hollywood. I’ll admit I didn’t know much about On the Waterfront outside of its iconic quote. Context makes all the difference, because On the Waterfront is so much more than that. It’s a multilayered character study set in the harsh Jersey docks on the waterfront. Nothing but mob controlled corruption and deaf & dumb longshoremen who don’t ask too many questions.

All that changes when well-liked dockworker Joey Doyle is killed. Setting off a chain reaction with simple pigeon loving former boxer Terry Malloy at the center of it. Sure he coulda had class, he coulda been a contender, he coulda been somebody, instead of a bum (which is what he is), but he sticks to his role. Staying out of ruthless union mob boss Johnny Friendly’s way. Which is difficult when his brother Charley is his right-hand. Terry’s mind starts to change when Joey’s sister Edie starts asking questions and they fall for eachother.

Eva Marie Saint made her acting debut and she’s so good that she earned an Oscar too. Edie brings humanity into the harsh setting along with tough priest Father Barry. When Terry pours his heart out, he makes the right decision to literally and metaphorically stand up for his fellow dockworkers. Testifying against the mob even if it means his life. I’m not an expert on unions or McCarthyism, but I could still feel the weight of every action. Additional wins went to Director Elia Kazan, Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Film Editing. On the Waterfront took a risk and came out on top.

On the Waterfront

“I coulda been a contender”

Accept No Substitutes

Jackie Brown is best described as Quentin Tarantino’s forgotten movie. Perhaps because it’s the only one that’s an adaptation. It’s based on a novel titled Rum Punch. Considering it’s sandwiched between Pulp Fiction and another iconic Tarantino flick, it’s not difficult to see why people overlook it. Even though it’s just as well made as the rest of his work. This time Tarantino chose to recapture the blaxploitation films of his youth. Hence his excessive use of the n-word. True to his career reviving talent, blaxploitation queen Pam Grier stars as Jackie Brown. As does the equally faded star Robert Forrester. Earning him his first Oscar nomination.

Samuel L. Jackson gladly returned to work with Tarantino. Other big names include Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda, and Michael Keaton. Together they form an odd ensemble with one common goal. Over $550,000 in cash. Grier is a middle aged stewardess who smuggles money for Ordell Robbie. Jackson is a gunrunner with long hair and a long stringy bread. De Niro is Ordell’s ex-con friend and Fonda is Ordell’s often barefoot beach bunny girlfriend. After being sent to and then released from prison, Jackie meets Max Cherry. Forester plays a bail bondsman that becomes smitten with her.

Most of the time the story plays out very casual. To the point I could hardly follow what was going on, but it made a bit more sense near the end. Jackie ends up playing several parties at once just to keep the money for herself. Ordell, federal agents (including one played by Keaton), and possibly Max. What really caught my attention was the climax. Which shows the perspective of each party before the double cross. Overall, Jackie Brown best displays Tarantino’s ability to take an existing work and make it his own.

3. Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown in a mall

Royale with Cheese

Pulp Fiction is Quentin Tarantino’s finest work to date. If there was any Tarantino flick I wanted to see the most, it was Pulp Fiction. Since it’s impact on pop culture is unmistakable. Although my brother watched it long before I did, I still chose to wait until I was older. Plus Reservoir Dogs is really the best way to be introduced to Tarantino. A lot of that film’s ideas were expanded upon in Pulp Fiction. Only with a far longer runtime of 2 hours & 58 minutes.

Pulp Fiction is meant to be a throwback to pulp magazines of a bygone era. As a precursor to comic books, they were known for their cheap paper, often crime filled stories, sensual artwork, and hard hitting dialogue. Hence the frayed edges on the poster. Just like the movie, pulp magazines would often contain multiple stories. Stories I can only talk about separately.

Prologue – “The Diner” – The opening is a heck of way to begin a movie. Similar to Reservoir Dogs, we open on a diner. The first characters we meet are Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. Previous collaborator Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are a loving small time criminal couple casually discussing why people don’t rob diners. So they do precisely that. Followed by an awesome guitar riff from “Misirlou.”

Prelude to “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” – Probably the most iconic segment is what immediately follows the title. As it features Tarantino’s best writing by far. There’s even a trunk shot. It’s here we meet the character’s that are arguably the stars of the ensemble. John Travolta reignites his fading star power as Vincent Vega. Who’s actually meant to be the brother of Vic Vega (Mr. Blonde).

Samuel L. Jackson propels his career as Jules Winnfield. Both play hired hitmen sent to retrieve a mysterious briefcase. But first they have serious discussions about McDonald’s in Paris. Like the fact that they call a Quarter Pounder a Royale with cheese. In the most well constructed scene of the movie, Jules and Vincent meet with an associate of their boss Marsellus Wallace. In what is easily Jackson’s best performance, Jules goes from eating burgers to getting frustrated to quoting Ezequiel 25:17 of the Bible.

“Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” – We then cut straight to Jules and Vincent, oddly dressed in casual clothing, delivering the briefcase to their boss. Who’s currently speaking to a boxer about throwing a fight. As previously stated, Vincent is tasked with keeping Marsellus Wallace’s wife company. Their “date” is the second most iconic part of the movie. As it prominently features a fresh-faced Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace. She’s more than just a sexy trophy wife. Mia has a lot of personality when attending a 50’s restaurant.

They discuss her failed TV pilot (Fox Force Five), $5 shakes, and uncomfortable silences. She also snorts coke right before they participate in a very memorable out of nowhere dance contest. But that’s not even the highlight of the evening. It’s Mia mistaking heroin for cocaine and Vincent getting help from his drug dealer played by Eric Stoltz. Who along with his wife, talks Vincent through sticking her heart with adrenaline. The scene is dark, yet somehow funny…

2a. Pulp Fiction

Vincent Vega (left) and Jules Winnfield (right) take aim

Prelude to “The Gold Watch” – The shortest segment occurs in a flashback. Which features the only scene with Christopher Walken. He’s a Vietnam War Captain telling a story to the child son of one of his deceased soldiers. The story is about a gold watch past down from generations since World War I. The monologue starts off dramatic, then it gets hilarious when it’s revealed where the watch had to be hidden. The scene is brief, but Walken sells it completely.

“The Gold Watch” – We then spring forward to the present day where the boy grows into Bruce Willis at the height of his popularity. The next character we meet is the previously seen boxer Butch Coolidge. We never see his fight, but he goes against Marsellus Wallace by not throwing it. Which puts him in direct conflict with the crime boss. After multiple mostly obscured scenes, Ving Rhames finally takes center stage.

Rather than leave town immediately, Butch is forced to return to his apartment to retrieve his precious gold watch. After his clueless Portuguese girlfriend forgets to pick it up. What follows is quite easily the most demented part of the movie. There’s an unexpected death, Butch literally running into Marsellus, and their fight spilling into the wrong store. By far the hardest scene to watch is everything that occurs when the two enemies are bound and gagged. At least a katana does the trick.

“The Bonnie Situation” – The following segment confirms that the whole story wasn’t told in chronological order. It’s also the funniest in the most twisted way possible. The segment goes back four segments earlier. Right after Jules delivers his Bible verse. Somehow one of the men hiding in a bathroom misses several shots to kill them. So they then discuss whether or not it was divine intervention. The greatest bit of dark comedy occurs when Vincent accidentally shoots the only surviving witness in the face.

So jules takes them to his friend Jimmie. Of course played by Tarantino himself. Delivering the n-word a shocking amount of times. He’s just concerned that his wife (who appears to be black) will show up any moment and see what’s happened. So a cleaner called the Wolfe shows up in the form of Harvey Keitel. He has them clean up the car and dress in dorky outfits. Which explains why they were wearing them in an earlier segment.

Epilogue – “The Diner” – Then the end becomes the beginning when we’re taken back to the diner that started it all. It turns out Jules and Vincent were dining there the same time Pumpkin and Honey Bunny were sticking it up. They collect wallets and hold everyone at gunpoint. All except Jules who sits there nonchalant while Vincent is in the bathroom. We then experience another Mexican standoff with a less deadly outcome. Since Jules gains a greater sense of purpose and decides to let the criminal couple go. They then depart, mysterious briefcase in hand.

In conclusion, Pulp Fiction is one of many great films released in 1994. Some would even argue it’s the absolute best. Quentin Tarantino displayed the full range of his storytelling abilities. By incorporating every bit of pop culture knowledge in his head. Along with all the blood soaked violence he enjoys. All to the tune of a hip soundtrack. He also built his own world full of Red Apple cigarettes and Big Kahuna Burger. This is also when we first see his weird obsession with feet. Since Jules and Vincent talk about giving foot massages and Mia’s bare feet are the first part of her we see. There’s also an intriguing mystery surrounding the film’s mcguffin. We may never know what’s in the glowing briefcase.

Sure parts of Pulp Fiction may go too far, but it’s all part of the experience. Which wasn’t too much for the Academy Awards. As it became the first Tarantino flick nominated for Best Picture. As well as Best Director, Film Editing, Actor for John Travolta, Supporting Actor for Samuel L. Jackson, and Supporting Actress for Uma Thurman. It only won for Best Original Screenplay. Understandable given it’s quotablity. With lines such as “Royale with cheese,” “Say what again!,” Zed’s dead baby,” and “I shot Marvin in the face.” As for the performances, I really believe Tarantino brings out the best in all of his actors. Even the ones who hadn’t done anything noteworthy in years. Pulp Fiction is Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus that every film buff should experience.

2b. Pulp Fiction

Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega dance