RETRO REVIEW: “Mister Scarface” (1976)

“Mister Scarface” is very much a movie of its time. Inevitably some will read that as a criticism, and I understand why. Movies don’t always age well,. But it also seems that people’s ability (or in many cases willingness) to not only see past but admire a movie’s limitations, especially among today’s younger audiences, has waned. That’s a shame. But for anyone who loves genre history, genre filmmaking, and genre storytelling, there’s much to enjoy in this breezy Italian poliziottesco noir.

Poliziotteschi (also called Euro-crime and spaghetti crime) movies were born out of a consummation between the violent French crime films of the late 1960s, the quick rise of exploitation flicks, and the resurgence of mobster movies. They were also heavily inspired by Italy’s real-life political and social turmoil of the day. Cynicism and frustration was prevalent, and many filmmakers chose to express it in their work. Among them was director and screenwriter Fernando Di Leo.

“Mister Scarface” came near the end of Di Leo’s feature film career yet it very much falls in line with many of his previous crime movies. Written by Di Leo and Peter Berling, the story follows Tony (Harry Baer) who collects protection movie for a local mob ran by Don Luigi Cerchio (Edmund Purdom). Tony has grown tired of the small-time work. He’s ready to earn some real dough so that he can realize his dream of moving to Rio de Janeiro and living high with his brother Ric (Al Cliver).

After a powerful rival mob boss, known by the moniker Mister Scarface (a movie-stealing Jack Palance), knowingly cuts Luigi a hot check to cover his gambling losses, Tony sees an opportunity. While Luigi is hesitant about confronting Scarface, Tony convinces his boss to give him a shot, hoping it will move him up the gang’s ladder. He recruits Ric and Napoli (Vittorio Caprioli), one of Luigi’s enforcers. But rather than winning the boss’ trust, the trio puts Luigi in Scarface’s crosshairs which ends up triggering a violent mob war.

It may sound pretty by-the-book, but Di Leo packs quite a bit into the film’s taut 98 minutes. Minus a giggle-worthy exception or two, the script is pretty crafty in the way it immerses us into its Italian gangland. It’s done through a propulsive story that throws a few twists our way as it steamrolls towards an action-fueled showdown in an old abandoned slaughterhouse. It’s such a well-conceived and well-executed climax.

But Di Leo immerses us most through his characters. While none of them can be deemed “good people”, Di Leo’s affection for them is evident and infectious. Before long we find ourselves sympathetic towards this guy or rooting for that guy. Of course this is a gangster flick meaning many of them are going to die. And in several cases (to Di Leo’s credit) we actually care. A few really good performances help. Some of the acting is shaky (at best). But we get especially strong work from Purdom, Caprioli, and of course Jack Palance who exudes gravitas, swagger, and menace.

Admittedly, there are a few unintentionally funny bits that I couldn’t help but laugh at. Take Tony riding around the city of Rome in a red dune buggy (one that immediately called to mind memories of Hanna-Barbera’s Saturday morning cartoon “Speed Buggy” from the 70s). Not sure why they went with a dune buggy in the big city, but ok. And then there’s Tony’s fighting which is a funky mix of karate and interpretive dance. And his goofy banter doesn’t help.

Without question, the movie’s age and budget bleed through (in some instances more so than others). But in terms of genre and the filmmakers who helped shape them, “Mister Scarface” has all the savory poliziotteschi ingredients. It’s certainly not Fernando Di Leo’s best film, and it’s tame next his other mob movies such “The Boss” and “The Italian Connection”. But it’s such a fun watch, especially for those who not only recognize the history of genre filmmaking, but who also celebrate it.


REVIEW: “Marlowe” (2023)

When it comes to genre films (and in this case I use the term “genre” lightly), I’m a real sucker for classic noir. The ones with the cynical antihero protagonists (often hard-boiled private detectives), the simmering femme fatales, the seedy settings and even seedier side characters, the intricate crime-centered plots, the cool straight-shooting dialogue. It’s a “genre” that has mostly faded into the sunset, but that (thankfully) still pops up every now and then. Case in point: Liam Neeson’s new film “Marlowe”

Considering the trajectory of his career, it’s hard to imagine Neeson leading an old-school film noir. He certainly has the world-weary look and gravelly grumble. But seeing him in a rumpled three-piece suit and fedora, driving around 1939 Los Angeles in a Ford Coupe is an adjustment. Yet here he is alongside an intriguing cast that includes Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Danny Huston, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.

Directed by Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”) and written by William Monahan (“The Departed”), “Marlowe” is an adaptation of John Banville’s 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde. As its title gives away, the film’s lead character is none other than Philip Marlowe, the tough-minded wise-cracking private eye created in the 1930s by novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler. He’s appeared in several films throughout the years and has been played by such stars as Humphrey Bogart, James Garner, Elliott Could, and Robert Mitchum. Now Neeson gives him a whirl in what is the 100th film of the actor’s career.

Image Courtesy of Open Road Films

Set in Bay City, Los Angeles (inspired by Santa Monica in Chandler’s world), Philip Marlowe once enjoyed working as an investigator for the district attorney’s office. But that went south, and now he gets by as a self-employed private detective, often taking cases from the area’s wealthy and unscrupulous. Neeson turns out to be a pretty good Marlowe, blending in nicely with the terrific period production design and nailing the character’s look, demeanor, and pessimism.

One morning, Marlowe is visited by Mrs. Clare Cavendish (Kruger), a wealthy heiress who hires him to find her lover, a prop guy for Pacific Film Studios named Nico Peterson (François Arnaud). Mrs. Cavendish informs Marlowe that she’s married, and despite having an “understanding” with her husband (Patrick Muldoon), she prefers discretion. And just like that we have our femme fatale, a role that Kruger has a blast with.

Marlowe takes the case and immediately starts poking around. It doesn’t take him long to discover that Nico Peterson is dead – the victim of a hit-and-run outside the front gate of the Corbata Club, an exclusive members-only establishment managed by a suit named Floyd Hanson (a delightfully shady Huston). So with Nico dead, that means the case is closed, right? Not so fast. After Marlowe fills in Clare, she tells him she knows Nico has been pronounced dead by the authorities. But she claims to have recently saw him very much alive on the streets of Tijuana.

From there it’s all about putting together the many pieces of the puzzle as Jordan shuffles us from one person to the next, each with information to share. Some are reliable; just as many aren’t. They’re an interesting batch and everyone Marlowe meets gives him (and us) reasons to be suspicious. In addition to Huston’s Floyd Hanson, there’s Clare’s acerbic mother Dorothy Quincannon (Lange who’s great), a former movie star living off her former glory. There’s a gangster named Lou Hendricks (Cumming) and his loyal driver Cedric (Akinnuoye-Agbaje). And there’s Lynn (Daniela Melchior), Nico’s sister who’s caught between a rock and a hard place. They all speak in riddles and keep their cards close to the vest.

Image Courtesy of Open Road Films

And of course you have Clare herself who like all femme fatales has her secrets and is always holding something back. I enjoyed Kruger’s performance, but her relationship with Marlowe needs more sizzle. It’s mostly due to how Marlowe is written. Jordan and Monahan’s version is older, tired, and is feeling his age. “I’m getting too old for this,” he sighs after disposing of a couple of goons “Taken” style. It’s a profile that fits Neeson, but it inevitably tempers the sexual tension. Yet it’s kinda nice that we’re not force-fed some obligatory romance.

As for the look of the film, Barcelona and Dublin do a surprisingly satisfactory job filling in for Southern California. They may not capture the authenticity of something like “L.A. Confidential” or “Chinatown”, but they get the job done in large part thanks to DP Xavi Gimenez whose sun-baked vision of the Golden State is at times exquisite. Then there are his visual touches that are catnip for classic noir fans like me – the way the sun casts strips of shadow through window blinds. Or the bright glow of a neon sign reflecting off the rain-puddled pavement.

Those looking for a reimagining of Chandler’s world could very well leave disappointed. “Marlowe” isn’t meant to be some revisionist exercise in the mold of Altman’s “The Long Goodbye”. It’s more of an celebratory ode; a proudly unashamed pastiche rooted more in an obvious love for classic noir than some impulse to update it. Sadly, for that reason it’ll take some hits. But it turns out to be exactly what this sucker was hoping for.


REVIEW: “Maybe I Do” (2023)

For some it might come as a surprise, but romantic comedies aren’t just limited to sexy, super attractive young couples. I mean just because people reach a certain age doesn’t mean their relationships lose their richness or are any less complicated. With that being true, there are all kinds of senior stories to tell and senior perspectives to explore. Some movies have tried to fill that hole and missed mightily. The new film “Maybe I do” is what you could call a mild success. It’s a movie that not only represents older couples, but that actually does something interesting within its well-traveled genre.

Led by his experiences from stage, television, and film, writer-director Michael Jacobs steers a star-studded cast in this multi-generational romantic comedy about love, marriage, and all the sticky stuff in between. The ensemble alone is a good draw (especially for anyone above or approaching 50). But there’s also some good humor baked into the film’s undeniably goofy premise. It’s that humor, and Jacobs’ ability to create characters who are slightly more than cartoonish caricatures, that makes the movie work.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Michelle (Emma Roberts) and Allen (Luke Bracey) seem to be a perfect match. But the young couple have come to a critical point in their relationship. They are very much in love, and they can’t imagine being with anyone else. The problem is Allen loves things just as they are, while Michelle is ready to take the next step. Allen is afraid of losing what they have. Michelle sees marriage as the ultimate sign of commitment and feels it’s what they had been working towards.

After Michelle gives Allen an ultimatum, they each go home to their parents in hopes of sorting things out. And this is where the silliness kicks in. Despite their long and serious relationship (to the point of talking marriage), their parents have never formally met, even though they live in the same city. I say formally because both sets of parents are actually having affairs with each other, completely unaware that their kids are an item. So when Michelle and Allen decide to bring their folks together over dinner to help with their big decision, the film turns into a comedy of errors.

While the setup is undeniably corny, “Maybe I Do” never turns into the overly sentimental mush that many rom-coms do. Much of it has to do with Jacobs’ script. But just as important are the performances. Diane Keaton plays Michelle’s bubbly but lonely mother Grace, while Richard Gere plays her father Howard who shows all the signs of a later-life crisis. Allen’s barracuda of a mother Monica is played by Susan Sarandon, while William H. Macy plays his father Sam, a gentleman and a romantic at heart.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The four screen veterans handle the material like aces, navigating some first act cringe to really bring their characters to life. There’s no shortage of good on-screen chemistry between them, and some of the comedic timing is spot-on (mostly from Macy whose can deliver dry humor as good as anybody). And Jacobs does a good job giving each parent their own personality and perspective. It leads to some unexpectedly fun and witty exchanges. Not to mention it’s just plain fun to see Keaton, Gere, Sarandon, and Macy sharing a screen.

“Maybe I Do” doesn’t fully avoid all the rom-com trappings, and you really have no choice but to go with its far-fetched (and often glaringly convenient) scenario. How much mileage you get out of the film may hinge on how willing you are to accept the silliness. Yet there are things to like, from its fun and form-fitting cast to its cynical then surprisingly affirming view of relationships, old and (relatively) new. Best of all, it’s the kind of movie that should appeal and connect with audiences of all ages. And that’s not something you can say about most of today’s romantic comedies. “Maybe I do” hits theaters January 27th.


REVIEW: “Missing” (2023)

I went into the new tech thriller “Missing” without doing any research whatsoever. What little I knew came from one trailer and a TV spot. From that small sample, I immediately likened “Missing” to a spiritual successor to the 2018 film “Searching”. The similarities were impossible to miss. So I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to learn this is indeed a standalone sequel to “Searching”. The more you know…

“Missing” marks the directorial debut for Nick Johnson and Will Merrick. It’s written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, the duo behind “Searching”. Both films share a similar DNA. That is, their stories are told entirely through technology – phone calls, text messages, FaceTime, home movies, security cameras, web browsers, search engines, social media, etc. It’s quite the undertaking.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Remarkably, Johnson and Merrick (along with their superb editors, Austin Keeling and Arielle Zakowski) piece it all into a taut fast-paced virtual mystery that kept me glued to the screen. Woven into its genre movie fabric are themes of emptiness, regret, coping with loss, and mother/daughter relationships among other things. The movie doesn’t dig too deep into them, but the filmmakers give us enough to earn our emotional investment. That proves to be vital and a key reason why “Missing” isn’t just a “Searching” knockoff.

A really good Storm Reid plays June Allen, a rebellious 18-year-old who lives with her mother Grace (an equally good Nia Long). Life has been tough for June since losing her father to a brain tumor, and her grief has taken a toll on her relationship with her mom. As a result Grace and June have moved from San Antonio to Van Nuys, California in hopes of making a fresh start. Unfortunately, despite Grace’s best efforts, the tension between them has only gotten worse since going to the West Coast.

Lonely and needing some time away, Grace takes a trip to Columbia with her boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung). But when June goes to LAX a few days later to pick them up, they never get off their plane. June immediately starts trying to reach her mom, but neither she or Kevin answer their phone. She finds even more disturbing news when she calls the hotel in Columbia and discovers all of their luggage is still there. June knows something’s wrong, but what do you when you’re 1500 miles away and in another country?

Desperate and worried, June seeks help. But her search for answers is quickly slowed in a mire of government red tape. So using her own technological know-how, she does some cyber-sleuthing in hopes of piecing together what has happened to her mother. As the mystery unfolds, June is assisted along the way by a handful of characters including her mom’s lawyer friend Heather (Amy Landecker), FBI Agent Elijah Park (Daniel Henney), and Javier (Joaquim de Almeida), a low-rent TaskRabbit investigator on the ground in Columbia.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

There turns out to be a lot of moving parts, and they fit together pretty well. Meanwhile the story zips along at such a pace that we rarely have much time to sit and think, which is probably a good thing. And to keep things brewing, Chaganty and Ohanian throw several fun twists our way, especially early on. But the later twists push things a little too far. That’s when the story goes a bit bonkers and the tension moves from organic to more programmed.

At the same time, “Missing” has several small touches that land well. Take the tender moments where June watches an old video of her father (Reid sells them well). Or when the movie takes some funny jabs (and a few barbed ones) at today’s social media and internet culture. But the film’s biggest strength is found in its keen ability to keep its audience hooked on every virtual detail. Combined with the strong performances and creative premise, it makes for a kinetic ride that’s every bit as absorbing as it is silly. “Missing” opens in theaters today.


REVIEW: “M3GAN” (2023)

Call her Chucky for a new era. M3GAN (pronounced “Megan” and short for Model 3 Generative Android) is a lifelike doll that uses cutting edge artificial intelligence. Much like the creepy My Buddy doll from the “Child’s Play” movies, M3GAN has been developed and programmed to be a child’s best friend. But unlike My Buddy, M3GAN is not quite ready for mass production which becomes abundantly clear after a prototype goes homicidal.

And that’s pretty much the gist of “M3GAN”, the new horror film from producers Jason Blum and James Wan. It’s directed by Gerard Johnstone and written for the screen by Akela Cooper (“Malignant”). The story (conceived by Cooper and Wan) doesn’t pack much in terms of twists. It’s pretty straightforward which works both for it and against it. But few people going to see “M3GAN” will be worried about the intricacies of the story. They’re there to see a killer robot doll go berserk, and they’ll get their money’s worth…sort of.

Allison Williams plays Gemma, a roboticist at a high-tech toy company called Funki. She’s the inventor of the eponymous state-of-the-art doll which she has been working on with her two assistants (Jen Van Epps and Brian Jordan Alvarez) behind closed doors and without the okay from her high-strung boss, David (a hilariously over-the-top Ronny Chieng – an early Razzie frontrunner).

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

One day the workaholic Gemma gets hit with some tragic news. Her sister and brother-in-law have been killed in a horrific car accident, and she’s been given custody of their only daughter, Cady (Violet McGraw). The two have a hard time connecting at first as Gemma knows nothing about being a mother, and Cady tries to deal with the trauma of losing parents.

To help out, Gemma introduces Cady to her M3GAN prototype (played physically by Amie Donald, voiced by Jenna Davis) and it doesn’t take long for the two to connect. As M3GAN learns and adapts to her new best friend, she not only becomes a security blanket for Cady, but she begins to fill some of the parental duties for Gemma. Cady’s growing attachment and Gemma’s dependence on M3GAN lead to some pretty obvious conflicts. But things really go south once M3GAN becomes self-aware and takes her role as Cady’s protector to a deadly extreme.

The film’s messages throughout couldn’t be more obvious, specifically in its examination of modern day parenting and our over-reliance on technology. Those are worthwhile subjects, and I wish the movie had dug deeper into them. But the filmmakers are far more interested in delivering straight-up genre entertainment which “M3GAN” (after a surprisingly languid start) finally begins to deliver. But even then it sputters in places, only really kicking into gear in the final 15 minutes.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Surprisingly “M3GAN” isn’t the slightest bit scary, nor is there an ounce of suspense. You won’t find any big twists or surprises, so you pretty much know where the story is going from the start. On the flip-side, there are a handful of good laughs (some intentional; others unintentional) that lighten things up a bit. I can’t help but think that “M3GAN” would have potentially made for a pretty good black comedy, but the movie (understandably) never commits itself to it.

While the story is fairly light and predictable and the characters all march to a pretty familiar beat, those aren’t what hold the movie back. The biggest frustration is with how watered down the film feels. I get going for a PG-13 rating in hopes of getting a bigger audience and earning more money. But “M3GAN” is surprisingly tame and the movie suffers as a result. The kills are barely shown and the bloodshed is at a minimum. With a premise this bonkers I really wanted them to go for it. Instead they chose to play it safe.

Yet despite those complaints, there is some fun to be had with “M3GAN”. It may not do anything all that fresh, and it’s hardly anything revolutionary. Still, if you’re a horror fan and you just want some light and easy entertainment, this probably has you covered. But me, in between the occasional giggle I found myself counting the missed opportunities and hoping they would really let loose. Sadly, they never did. “M3GAN” opens in theaters today (January 6th).


REVIEW: “The Menu” (2022)

2022 has been quite the year for “eat the rich” satire. We’ve seen the wealthy and privileged skewered in straightforward takedowns such as Ruben Östlund’s terrific “Triangle of Sadness”. They’ve also been torched in playful genre romps like Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion”. The latest to do it just might be my favorite. “The Menu” never hides what it sets out to do. Yet of this recent batch of movies, it might be the craftiest in its execution. It throws a little bit of everything in the pot and let’s it simmer. Altogether it makes for one wickedly satisfying meal.

Mark Mylod directs this mouthwatering black comedy horror-thriller that exists in a culinary world where language like “ruining palettes”, “flavor profiles”, and “mouthfeel” (???) roll off the tongues of foodies like common speech. The deliciously pulpy story (penned by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy) defies a simple description. It has so much on its mind and takes some pretty wild swings. But it would be a disservice to share them, because this truly is a movie where the least you know better.

The vast majority of the story takes place within the stylish contours of Hawthorne, a renowned restaurant for the rich and famous cozily located on its own private island. It’s where twelve customers per night can enjoy an over four-hour lavish dining experience for $1,250 a head. There they’ll partake in a meal painstakingly planned by Chef Julian Slowik (a devilishly fun Ralph Fiennes).

Over the course of the evening, guests will be able to watch Chef Slowik and his team of cooks meticulously prepare each high-concept dish in an open kitchen adjacent to their dining area. Once ready, Chef Slowik announces each course with a thunderous clap followed by a self-gratifying monologue about its inspiration. For him food is like a religion, and the restaurant is his temple. But on this particular evening he has something different in mind. He’s offering his specially selected group of diners an “exclusive experience”.

Among those holding reservations is a young couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). He’s an insufferable gastronome wannabe; she our representative – seeing things the way we see them; saying the things we’re thinking. You get the impression that Tyler probably maxed out his credit card to get their reservations. He’s no trust fund baby. He just wants people to think he is. And his facade of upper-class status and gastronomical savvy is paper-thin to the point where even Margot begins poking fun at him.

Tyler and Margot are joined by a collection of deeply flawed one-percenters. There’s the popular (and pompous) food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her fawning editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), a semi-washed up movie star Damien Garcia (John Leguizamo) and his younger assistant/side dish Felicity (Amiee Carrero), three smug silver-spoon investors (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr), and a wealthy older couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light) who seem utterly miserable together.

After a short boat ride to the island, the group of hungry strangers are greeted by Hawthorne’s maî·tre d, Elsa (Hong Chau) who gives them a brief tour before escorting them to their tables. They’re then introduced to Chef Slowik who kicks off their night of upper-class indulgence. Or so they thought. With each new course things get a little weirder and progressively darker. But it’s just theater…stagecraft, right? Right? “It’s all part of the menu”, Chef Slowik repeatedly insists. But is it?

As things get crazier and more twisted, you can sense Mylod and company having a field day running Hawthorne’s fresh batch of guests through the wringer. As for us, it’s a blast trying to figure out where the film is going next. It’s just wacky enough to be unpredictable, and even when we get a feel for what Mylod is going for, there are enough surprise turns to keep us guessing. The film also keeps us laughing with these hilarious dashes of black comedy that seem to land at the most unexpected times. It’s a key ingredient that adds flavor to an already seasoned and savory feast.

The sterling ensemble cast is just a crucial. It starts with the fiendishly good Ralph Fiennes whose dry, solemn presence can either be bone-chilling or disarmingly funny. He shrewdly sells us a disturbingly complex character whose genius is only outdone by his smugness. Yet there’s a darker layer to Chef Slowik which Fiennes teases yet keeps snugly hidden until just the right time. It’s a remarkably measured performance and the one that keeps the film from tipping over into full-blown camp.

There’s just so much to love about “The Menu”: its sparkling cast, its gonzo premise, its gripping storytelling, and Mark Mylod’s pinpoint direction (and that’s just for starters). And even if it doesn’t perfectly stick its landing (something I’m still a bit unsure about), the film’s almost giddy, full-throttled takedown of culinary culture and the uber-wealthy is otherwise so well conceived and executed. I’m still thinking about it a week after seeing it, and I’m already hungry to see it again. “The Menu” is now showing in theaters.

Final Food Pun Count: 14