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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 72.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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MOVIES

Crazy classic Scarface returns to the big screen
Rediscovering Brian De Palma

It's a doozy.
It's a doozy.
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Did you ever notice the one-line bios in the Internet Movie Database? When you look up moviemaking professionals on that comprehensive website, next to their names you see the one work they're most noteworthy for, by someone's reckoning, anyway. Steven Spielberg: Director, Schindler's List (1994). Edith Head: Costume designer, Vertigo (1958).

And there is this: Brian De Palma: Director, Scarface (1983).

Brian De Palma is one of my favorite filmmakers. I'll never forget the night in 1992 when, on summer break from college, in my hometown of Nashville, I stumbled into a deserted screening of the loopy 1992 thriller Raising Cain. It was the first De Palma film I saw in the theater, although back then I might not even have been able to tell you who he was. Those were the days when, at the multiplexes of my youth, I saw just about everything. Raising Cain? Why not?

This minor film, unseen by just about everyone, stunned me. The hysterical performance by John Lithgow, in multiple roles. The confusing story. The dazzling set pieces. The violence.

And maybe above all else, the humor and the camp. De Palma is one of Hollywood's sharpest and bitterest satirists, and even in his most mainstream films, like The Untouchables, there are some very, very sick jokes. Indeed, I've always understood his widely loathed The Bonfire of the Vanities to be not a straight movie version of Tom Wolfe's preening novel, but a lampoon of it.

By the time I saw Raising Cain, I'd already been developing a taste for the flamboyantly campy films of the English filmmaker Ken Russell (Tommy, Lisztomania!). Raising Cain and other feverish De Palma movies - Body Double, Dressed to Kill, Phantom of the Paradise - seemed similarly, gratifyingly outrageous. But also tougher. Smarter. More aware of film history.

Brian De Palma has had a long career in films, and I am grateful to him for many hours of cinematic pleasure. He has made some of the best movies I've ever seen (Blowout, Casualties of War), as well as memorable genre films (Carrie, The Fury, Femme Fatale). He also has made some films best forgotten, like Mission to Mars.

Would I choose Scarface as De Palma's one-line bio? Maybe not. The sprawling tale of Miami drug lord Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is unforgettable, to be certain. There is a lot to look at, a lot to think about, a lot to appreciate in this remake of the 1932 film inspired by Al Capone's exploits. But it isn't my favorite De Palma film.

Still, does the craziness of Scarface compare favorably with that of De Palma's other camp classics? Oh yes. The mannered histrionics could have come straight from a John Waters film.

And Scarface is that wonderful cinematic thing, a cult favorite. (Especially in the hip-hop community - the rapper Diddy says he has seen it 63 times.) There's something marvelously democratic about the way certain films, like A Christmas Story, become cult phenomena, and who am I to argue with that? Indeed, it's fitting that Scarface was released just as the 1980s home-video market was exploding, thanks to cable and videocassettes. Homes are where cult movies become cult movies these days, as opposed to the late-night theater screenings where films like 1975's The Rocky Horror Picture Show became enduring favorites.

But if you haven't seen Scarface in the theater, in all its bloody glory, you're in luck. On Aug. 31, cinemas nationwide, including Star in Fitchburg, will screen Scarface. It's a promotion for the film's release on Blu-ray next month.

That means you'll get to see those memorable sequences on a big screen, where they ought to be seen. Tony's friend is dismembered with a chainsaw. Tony lounges in an impossibly huge bubble bath as, nearby, his wife Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) blankly does blow. In the famous finale, Tony snorts from a pile of cocaine as big as Mount Rainier; fights off his sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), of whom he is a little too fond; then straps on a rocket launcher and takes on an army of hoods.

There is lyricism in these delirious moments, and in the quieter ones, as when Tony's best friend Manny (Steven Bauer) lounges with a beautiful woman on an absurdly decadent circular bed, complete with satin sheets.

The plot never quite matches the burning urgency of the images, but Oliver Stone's screenplay is an interesting forerunner of other stories Stone has told about powerful, desperate men, like Nixon. And the juicy themes of Scarface are familiar from other Stone films: friendship, family, politics, crime.

One testament to the power of Stone's writing is that Scarface is, like Casablanca, one of those films that people can quote lines from even if they haven't seen it: "Don't get high on your own supply." "Say hello to my little friend!"

Like a one-hit-wonder single, a cult movie classic takes on a life of its own outside the context of the creator's oeuvre. In the case of Scarface, that's a shame. If you're a Scarface fan - if, say, you've enjoyed umpteen basic-cable broadcasts of the film - and you haven't dug into the De Palma catalog, I urge you to. It's possible that what you like about Scarface you will find more of, much more of, in other, better De Palma films.

But if in the end De Palma is best remembered for Scarface, I won't complain. It's a doozy.

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