SCARFACE and UNITED 93 Blu-ray Reviews

     September 20, 2011

Brian De Palma’s Scarface is one of the most entertaining bad movies ever made. Overwrought, overacted (by Al Pacino, Michelle Pfieffer and Robert Loggia, among others), overlong, its indulgences make it the definitive 80’s movie par excellence. I kinda love it. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 dramatizes one of the most traumatic episodes in American history. What do they have in common? Violence, and the fact that Universal has issued both on Blu-ray. Check out our reviews for both on Blu-ray after the jump.

scarface-movie-imageWhen it comes to Scarface, I don’t know if it’s entirely successful – the love it gets has little to do with the filmmaker’s intentions. It’s like The Nightmare Before Christmas for gangsters. People have latched on to Al Pacino’s performance and the Tony Montana ethos. Countless rappers (including, obviously, one named Scarface) have borrowed from the film (Notorious B.I.G. rapped about how one should “never get high on your own supply”), and the quick rise to the top of the drug world… I mean this film is a cornerstone of the rapper’s aesthetic. To wit, one can’t enter a bodega/smoke shop without seeing some Scarface-related paraphernalia.

As for the film itself, there are some great sequences, and some of the most quotable dialogue in 80’s cinema, while Gorgio Moroder’s score and the accompanying soundtrack are the basis for every Grand Theft Auto game ever made. Pacino plays Tony Montana, who comes over from Cuba to Florida. An ex-con, he gets a green card if he kills a man, and such starts his descent into the gangster life. He makes contact with F. Murray Abraham, who gives work getting drugs from Columbians. Such leads to the second most famous set piece in the film, when Tony comes face to face with a chainsaw. This sequence – the entire deal with the Columbians – is top notch filmmaking, and arguably for the film’s first hour, you feel like you’re watching a masterpiece. The assassination in the Cuban refuge detainment center is immaculately staged, and Tony’s journey into the world is super sharp, with the neon glow of the early eighties, and the cocaine. Pacino knows this character is charming in a very uncomfortable way, and at first you might like him when he tries to show off and shows himself to be a rube.

scarface-blu-ray-cover-imageAlas, the film’s Achilles heel is its connection to the Howard Hawks/Ben Hecht original film, which the De Palma version borrows from in ways that sink the movie. Like in the original, Tony has a sister (played rather poorly by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and the sequences with her and Tony’s mom just suck the life out of the film. Any time Mastrantonio’s on screen the movie sucks. The film still has massive entertaining bits as Montana’s rise has him confronting his old boss (Robert Loggia) and stealing his woman (Michelle Pfiefer). But once he’s achieved everything, he turns into a shell, who’s constantly doing blow, and is generally unpleasant. And when he gets in legal trouble, and fails to assassinate someone, his number is up. It’s very hard for films like this not follow the rise and fall structure, but here – by the last hour, especially during the political assassination – you start to feel the length in a bad way.

Scarface is a great movie for people who don’t love movies, ultimately, and a fascinating one for those who do. It’s meant to be a down and dirty take on the Godfather universe, and that sort of works for the film, but its indulgences are its trademark. Perhaps in that way it is similar to the 30’s films that inspired it, but there’s something very obscene about the film in its tacky glit, which works well as an indictment of Reagan’s America. The first time I saw the film I felt overwhelmed in scuminess, and that sense of just dumpster diving with a character who is so anti-heroic (well he has one saving grace: he won’t kill kids) has never left me, especially because after three hours his death is a strange anti-climax that goes so far over the top that it outdoes White Heat, but without the gravitas. And yet the film is endlessly re-watchable in its camp and stum and drang. This may be minor De Palma, but the set pieces are so strong that it doesn’t matter that the film gets away from him a little. In some ways it reminds me of (the much lesser) Rob Zombie remake of Halloween – everything that’s good about it is what it does by making the characters and world its own, and every time it tries to do stuff from the original, it just falls a bit flat.

The Blu-ray is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 7.1 surround. A digital copy is also included. The transfer is okay, though it’s by no means perfect, and Universal would have done viewers a favor by making it a two-disc Blu-ray set, giving more bit space to the feature. There’s edge enhancement, and the upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray is noticeable, but isn’t revelatory. The film comes with a PIP option, which is made up of clips from the documentaries included with the film, and a scorecard that counts bullets fired and the number of fucks used in the movie in the movie. Extras recycled from the previous editions are the featurettes (from the laserdisc release) “The Rebirth” (10 min.), “The Acting” (15 min.), “The Creating” (30 min.), along with “The TV Version” (3 min.), and Deleted Scenes (23 min.). Second wave additions also included are “Making of Scarface: The Video Game” (12 min.) and “The World of Tony Montana” (12 min.), which features DEAs agents and magazine writers. New for this release is “The Scarface Phenomenon” (39 min.) which talks to fans like Eli Roth, Sen Dog, Keith Gordon, Ken Tucker and Antoine Fuqua (among others) to talk about the film.

The original film by Howard Hawks is also included with the Blu-ray (alas, on DVD) Though arguably both Scarfaces are neither of their directors’ best films, the original is slightly better (though very dated) by being a brisk 94 minutes. Its hoods are mostly Italian, and it has a similar story and was just as shocking in its day. Paul Muni stars as the titular character, who is just as loutish, but much more animalistic. He represents the new order, and it’s interesting to watch this and the remake and think how the idea of the wild and unrepressable more all-consuming up and comer takes over from the more polite and integrated figures of the past. In that way, Scarface taking on his boss is similar to the struggles of Avon Barksdale versus Marlo in The Wire. This is the oldest story, I guess. That film is Extras on that disc include an introduction by Robert Osborne (2 min.) and the alternate ending (10 min.), which has the main character tried and executed.

united-93-blu-ray-cover-imageUnited 93 was meant to be a document – much like Paul Greengrass’s earlier Bloody Sunday – that tries to not editorialize too much on the events at hand. What would appear on the outset to be a normal day is interrupted by a plane going missing off the radar, and then silent. Then something hits the World Trade Center, and it takes a couple minutes to figure out that it was a plane. Then the second plane hits and it’s apparent what’s up.

From there the film spends most of its final section with the passengers of United 93. They’re confronted with the fact that they have been taken hostage, but as news leaks to them through cell phones, they realize that the plane they’re on is meant to be used as a bomb.

The film tries to be as true and as apolitical as it can be about the events, and the people on United 93, and it eschews having any real stars (faces like David Rasche and Olivia Thrilby might be recognizable, but no one was a name player). Of course this is all done for verisimilitude, which is enhanced by having many of the air traffic controllers and regulators played by the real people (like Ben Sliney – who was the man who grounded all flights when he realizes what was going on).

I ended up watching the film for a second time on the ten year anniversary of September 11, and the documentary feel just sucks you in. There are no stupid arcs for characters, there’s no secondary love interest type nonsense. It’s just straight ahead, and the final moments of the film are cathartic, painful, and as powerful as anything committed to celluloid over the history of the format. There may not be a lot of re-watch possibilities for the film, and it may not be anyone’s favorite movie, but it’s a powerful document nonetheless, and still one of the best films of the last ten years.

United 93 is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) in DTS-HD 5.1 Surround. The presentation is perfect. Extras include a thoughtful commentary by Paul Greengrass, and two solid featurettes. “United 93: The Families and the Film” (60 min.) talks to family members of the victims of the accident and how they felt about the film and the cast members who played their family members. It’s strong stuff. “Chasing Planes: Witnesses to 9/11” (48 min.) talks to the air traffic controllers and military who were there on the day. “Memorial Pages” offers text information on the people on the plane, while “Twin Towers” (2 min.) is a trailer for a short documentary, while Flight 93 National Memorial (9 min.) talks about the memorial for the plane and its people.

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