You and I and all those people out there with a vocal love of film have ruined it for everyone, pimping movies up, falling in love with mediocre films and championing them to near-legendary status. We’ve embraced turkeys, legitimized borderline movies, and elevated modest films in our favorite franchises above and beyond realistic standards. We’ve even embraced the films everyone likes, somehow adding a credibility to them that transcends the mainstream. Sacred cows, little flicks, and everything in between. It’s time we took a look inward and came clean with 25 movies we think need to be taken down a peg or two.
These are our four categories for this list:
These guys have had it too easy. Far too easy. Don’t believe the insane hype.
Good flicks that have gotten too damn big for their britches.
Asshole, you love this film for all the wrong reasons.
WHAT THE FUCK
Something went horribly wrong here and it’s carried over the the fans, who are blinded by shizer.
Your guide: Jeremy Smith
Its Legacy: Bolstered Brian De Palma’s bad-boy bona fides. Was resubmitted to the MPAA three times before its X-rating turned into an R. Gambling that no one on the ratings board, or at Universal, would know the difference, De Palma slipped his initial cut past the studio and into theaters across the country. Audiences were appalled, while the critics were largely indignant (even De Palma’s ardent defender, Pauline Kael, shrugged the film off as “limp”). Theatrical box office was solid ($45 million domestic), but the film didn’t eat into the pop culture until home video, where it was embraced as a sacred text by urban youths.
Why It’s Here: De Palma’s Scarface didn’t ruin hip-hop, but it took hold of many a talented artist (namely Nas) at a time when the art form could’ve segued out of its gangsta doldrums. I didn’t realize Scarface was holy writ amongst emcees until Flavor Flav started quoting the film near the end of “Welcome to the Terrordome” (“So long, Mel. Have a good trip.”). Then the Geto Boys caused a sensation with their self-titled debut LP, and wasn’t it a strange coincidence that their one of their members was nicknamed “Scarface”? A year later, Wesley Snipes’s Nino Brown was screening the movie for friends in New Jack City, and this was no longer an accident: Scarface wasn’t just a full-blown phenomenon in the inner city; it was a ruthless, rags-to-riches fable with a dubious moral (“Don’t get high on your own supply”). A film in which a Cuban exile fucks and kills his way to the top of the Miami cocaine trade only to get torn apart in a hail of bullets after inhaling enough blow to give Keith Richards mild heart palpitations. Oy. It’s 2008, and, last I checked, Scarface is still turning up in every rapper’s DVD collection on Cribs. This film is glamorous why? Is it the effective, but horrendously dated Georgio Moroder score? Al Pacino’s caricature of Latin machismo? De Palma’s sneering “allegory of impotence” (as Kael correctly pegged it)?
Scarface is a great satire, but as a celebration of a deviant lifestyle, it’s all wrong. The film seems to appeal to success-obsessed hip-hop artists because Tony Montana does not turn States’ evidence; better to die guns blazing (i.e. integrity intact) than limping into witness protection like Henry Hill in Goodfellas. I’d buy this if it didn’t entail murdering your best friend because he’s schtupping your kid sister (for whom you’ve some unresolved, highly incestuous feelings). Cinema is riddled with seductive, quotable villains (off the top of my head: Harry Lime in The Third Man, Lancey Howard in The Cincinnati Kid, Al Capone in De Palma’s The Untouchables), but Montana’s a pathetic shell of a man. He’s spindly, covetous and psychotic – and judging from Michelle Pfeiffer’s persistently disrespectful demeanor, he’s not exactly dynamite in the sack.
Then there’s this: Scarface ain’t exactly the most rewatchable movie ever made. You feel those 170 minutes, particularly the late second/third act (or, for the VHS generation, the second tape, right after the Goodyear Blimp spells out “The World is Yours”). Take it from a De Palma nut: I’d rather fire up Obsession, Body Double or, fuck, Mission to Mars than wade into Scarface; for all its peerless craft, it’s still a paean to wretched excess. As for fellas trying to flex, perhaps they should consider the true meaning of “Say hello to my little friend.” Montana’s overcompensating, boys.
A Moment of Piss: Don’t answer the door, Manolo!
These Ain’t Chopped Liver Alternatives: Scarface (1932), King of New York, Polanski’s Macbeth, E.T., Carlito’s Way.
Andre Dellamorte Agrees: My initial reactions to Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s bloated opus were that of contempt and disgust. Rarely have I had had such a vitriolic reaction to a film, but few movies have felt more like a wallow than the remake of Scarface. I’ve since come to appreciate it, not because I think it’s a great film (though expert sequences abound, natch), but because if someone were to make a time capsule of everything that was wrong and gross with America in the 1980’s they could do no better than to put this film on a loop. The film is gory – though as it must be noted, not as gory as some people think – unrepentant, and garish to the point of enjoyment. And in this misfire you really do get the feel of a cocaine binge. Had it worked it would have been the modern Godfather (which seems the intention), but Stone’s script is simply too dumb. the characters too shallow and De Palma plays it too straight down the stretch for it to achieve masterpiece status. Even Tony’s death is part of the ride, and so of course he he goes out in the most flamboyant way possible. But that’s what I enjoy about the film, it’s a gluttonous film about a bug of a character, who climbs to the top and falls to the bottom while only enjoying the taking of things, but not the having. It’s interesting to draw parallels to the similar Daniel Plainview, but in Scarface there’s no great insight into Al Pacino’s Tony Montana nor much modulation of character – which seems one of the few elements that keeps with the original besides the incest subplot (the film’s largest weak spot). That Tony doesn’t really change seems the point, but it makes me wish that De Palma was a little sharper about it. I would question the film’s cult appeal, but American gangsters – and wanna-be’s – have always embraced their cinematic better halves from Edward G. Robinson to The Sopranos, and Scarface was one of the first mainstream films about the drug game. The only thing shocking about Scarface making the impression it did is the length of its popularity. Better this than Belly, I guess.
Devin Faraci Disagrees: The story of the gangster is essentially tragedy. The best gangster movies are always about the rise… and then the fall. The problem is that most gangster films put all their energy in the rise and then make the fall sort of an afterthought, a motion to be gone through thanks to the legacy of the Production Code. What’s amazing about Scarface (well, one of the amazing things about Scarface) is how strongly it plays the downfall of Tony Montana. And make no mistake: the people who have embraced this film have embraced that part of it as well.
Hip hop has completely internalized the rise and fall aspect of the gangster story, and the best rappers alternate tracks about the high life with tracks about paranoia and defeat. There’s an understanding of the fate that awaits all gangsters, and there’s an acceptance. I find hip hop and country to be fascinating because unlike rock both the forms allow for wildly divergent sentiments: the country singer can have one song about booze and one night stands and the next about God, while the rapper can boast about his dope slinging skills before lamenting the destruction of the neighborhood and the deaths of friends.
Sure, it’s the venal aspects of Tony Montana that get the most attention – Oliver Stone, Brian DePalma and Al Pacino made the character too colorful for it to be otherwise – but it’s the final moments of Tony’s life that get the most respect. No one who loves the movie denies that Tony needs to die – he’s broken every single one of his own rules by the end and deserves what he gets – but they love the way he faces his end. Like soldiers in war, gangsters on the street know that they’ll one day die doing their job, and like soldiers at war they hope they’ll die well. Tony Montana dies well. In fact, he dies the best.
Obviously plenty of people in the hip hop world see Tony Montana the way that Bobby Brady saw Jesse James, but I think that the most talented in that community understand the meaning of the character and of his rise and fall. The reality is that no matter what DePalma thinks he intended, Scarface isn’t a cautionary tale about gangsters any more than Into the Wild is a cautionary tale about camping.