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Bengal’s 80s Retrospective Part XIV

Following this entry, I will be taking a break from this category to focus on films centered on Vegas, due to next month being my first trip to Sin City. For that reason, the naming joke inspired by Final Fantasy XIII will be scrubbed. That I felt I had to explain already ruined it anyway.

The impetus: seeing Gorillaz live for the first time. Well, you know, as live as the world’s most successful virtual band can be. If the background image for this website wasn’t any indication, Gorillaz is my favorite band and they will be part of the annual Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas. Other artists that I might check out for the one day of the festival I booked include Lorde and Pussy Riot. That latter act is quite something in terms of background but to keep focused, I would recommend looking them up on your own time.

Las Vegas is one of the few places in the world I can think up that can qualified as both the best and worst place to visit simultaneously. I don’t know if this registered with any of my readers over the years but I am not a fan of gambling. I don’t plan to do any kind of betting or game of chance in the one place other than maybe Monaco everybody knows it has in spades. There’s plenty of non-gambling hedonism to partake in, enough so that it will only mildly erode my soul. I’m there for two full days half a month from now so we will see how much more pathetic a human being I will be when I return home.

So, after this entry, I will be doing a series of films set in and around Vegas. They don’t necessarily involve gambling, but they do paint a picture of how our culture has come to understand or reckon with the artificial oasis. You can expect me to cover in the coming weeks the first of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean films, Scorsese’s Casino, Levinson’s Bugsy, The first Hangover and a return to the beautifully sad mind of one Hunter S. Thompson, both through his immortal portrayal by Johnny Depp in the Fear and Loathing movie and a documentary about the man simply titled Gonzo.

But now, onto the 80’s cinema. This go-around, we’ll be coming some box office hits from early in the decade I hadn’t seen before and of course, another offering from Bollywood.

Scarface (1983)

Image from Taste of Cinema (Pacino may not be Cuban, but he does have that Cuban energy.)

Brian De Palma’s initially controversial remake of the early 30s’ gangster classic is now considered many things, all of them good. It’s considered one of the best remakes of all time, some would say one of the few that surpasses the original. It’s one of the best and most influential crime films. It’s one of Al Pacino’s best known roles with only his time as The Godfather’s Michael Corleone fighting for the spotlight.

Love or hate the movie, Pacino’s kinda goofy, kinda charming Cuban accent is unmistakably his. Everybody knows the voice, even the kids. The best known line of course is “SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!”, which begins Tony Montana’s unforgettably violent last stand against the cartel he turned against, ironically for a moral reason.

It’s a line, taken out of context, that has made it’s presence known across all of popular culture, even extending to all-ages media. I certainly heard the line before I turned 13. Scarface is hardly a movie kids should watch. It’s less appropriate than even the most excessive stuff in any Godfather movie. There are moments where De Palma does leave some things up to the imagination and yet it makes it no less uncomfortable.

Scarface, no matter how you feel about it’s R-rated roughness, is a film that can’t be ignored, even after nearly 40 years. It’s influence as mentioned earlier continued to seep into later crime dramas. Alongside Miami Vice released the same year, it helped make Miami into one hell of a two-faced metropolis, beautiful and ugly, garish and artistic, tropical but very, very shady.

Regardless of the actual history of Miami as a 1980s’ nexus for drug smuggling and distribution, specifically cocaine, Scarface and Miami Vice did wonders in promoting this exotic Florida city with a bad side. Having visited Miami myself, first in 2006 back when I lived in the land of the Florida Man, despite its history and some really rundown aspects, I have perhaps a naive appreciation for the place.

Miami is one of the few things I missed about FL after leaving for greener(‘ricochet’) pastures in Colorado. It’s not just the cityscape and the public transit I loved, it was its immigrant flair through the great selection of foods from beyond our shores, predominantly Cuban.

Well, Scarface is the story of one Cuban immigrant trying to make it big in the land of opportunity. Following a real life exodus that Castro signed off on that sent many Cubans to America, Tony Montana goes from immigration holding camp, to street vendor to something just a little bit off the official channels of business offer.

At the time, one of the controversies surrounding Scarface was its accusation of anti-Cuban sentiment. Many of the Cubans that Castro was sending our way were considered “undesirables” by his government. Many had records that could or should be considered criminal or at least concerning. While we never get to know the full background of who Tony Montana was before he made it to Miami, it was certainly nothing that either the Cuban or American authorities would call “above board.”

The protagonist was viewed as an ugly avatar of all the potential bad that can come through allowing immigration. It’s a discomforting, bigoted notion that is more noteworthy now in the Trump era than it was back in the Carter/Reagan period. However, De Palma is never as simple as that.

Keep in mind that many of the “opportunities” that Tony embraces to eventually become a drug baron came from the circumstances that can be called a result of America’s (ongoing) failure to allow the newcomer to often have a chance, or at least a legal chance, at the big time. Sure, Tony had pre-existing skills from his life in Cuba to make him a violent enforcer for organized crime, but the people that hired him had been American for awhile or all their life. He gets his start going up the ladder from American criminals. In turn, he undergoes a journey into the dark underbelly of the American Dream.

Eventually, to expand his business, he gets involved with the Bolivian drug operation, but can it not be said, in a dark fashion, that Tony Montana is ultimately an American Made Man.

A lot of what Scarface has to offer can come across as pretty familiar, but that is the fault of this film’s impact. You have his elderly mother, herself an immigrant who does not approve of him becoming a cold-blooded criminal boss, all while he casually blows off his Madre’s concerns. He has his sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who he slowly but surely gets her caught up in the hedonism that comes from his ill-gotten gains, all while acting overly protective, eventually to a tragic extreme.

He ignores the clear warnings from his higher-ups in the drug trafficking empire that no matter what, don’t screw with their plans. He gets a trophy wife, played by an early Michelle Pfeiffer, who he often ignores for all of the other riches he has. For those who have taken Scarface as an uncritical look at attaining power and wealth through criminal action, one should look at how increasingly lonely Tony gets as the film goes on, how it, as everyone is vaguely knowledgeable of, ends him with getting blown off a balcony in the back by a shotgun into a indoor fountain.

As a modern viewer, I was aware of Tony’s fate for much of my life. It’s not so much that the familiarity of the experience is a downer, it’s an appreciation for what Scarface captured in the zeitgeist. If what Scarface did didn’t work, would it have been repeated, referenced like it was?

What keeps Scarface fresh enough is enjoying Al Pacino’s performance. Yes, the accent is thick and can be distracting from the weight of a lot of scenes. But then again, it isn’t Scarface without that voice. Seeing Tony go from calm and collected yet cocky to a vicious, frightening beast of a man is maybe what redeems Pacino’s choice of approach best. Also, no matter what you have to say about Tony Montana as a person, in how he may perpetuate a bad influence on male masculinity, make no mistake. They’re worse gangsters than Tony Montana. Hell, he’s killed by those that are worse.

When it comes down to it, the biggest kick I got out of finally seeing the 83′ Scarface was its impact on the Grand Theft Auto series. 2002’s Vice City is essentially a massive love letter to Scarface among other things. You have a small time but talented mook, Italian-American not Cuban this time, who rises to the top of Vice City’s (Miami’s) criminal food chain.

He even gets a mansion almost exactly like the one Tony has. The final mission is an extended riff on the final moments of the movie. Except, Vice City’s “hero” Tommy Vercetti survives. The game goes out of its way to show the playable Tommy avoiding all the mistakes that sunk Tony. He doesn’t imbibe in his own product, cocaine, and is thus clear-headed to defeat the criminals storming his estate. You get to witness an alternate scenario where Tony wins in the end through Vercetti. And that’s before an actual Scarface game in the vein of GTA would do just that itself.

Scarface also has the Giorgio Moroder produced song “Push it to the Limit”, that was included along with some other pop songs from the movie in the car radio for Grand Theft Auto III, released a year before Vice City. That game made GTA into an undeniable force on both gaming and popular culture. You’ve heard much about Scarface’s impact on gangster cinema. Well, never forget that much of Grand Theft Auto’s early success can be partially credited to both Brian De Palma and Tony Montana.

Say goodnight to the bad guy, indeed.

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Image from Youtube (You know this scene cause Simpsons.)

An Officer and a Gentleman would’ve been the biggest film of 1982 if it wasn’t for a cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman and an alien dialing his buddies for a ride home. If nothing else, this film is all about showcasing how more often an R-rated movie could make crazy big box office gold.

As the header image shows, and really, could I show anything else, it’s how the film ends that is best remembered. With early 80s’ pop blaring, Zack Mayo (yes, that’s his name), having become at last the film’s title, marches over to garment worker Paula, shows her he’s gone the distance and delivers her to a world less depressing than being forever stuck as a factory seamstress. She, too, has made it. Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes then serenade us all with their hit single, “Up where we Belong”.

You likely know the ending, but do you know how it came to happen? That’s less known unless you were there yourself in 82′. Mayo, played with distinction by a young Richard Gere, is the son of a very disgraced Boatswain, played in a role tailor-made for Robert Loggia. He gets sick of living with his always drunk, always lecherous father in the Philippines. He wants to make something of himself, be better than a father who has long since given up on even caring.

He heads over to AOCS, the Aviation Officer Candidate School, in Washington State. Upon arriving, he is greeted by the expectedly nasty drill sergeant Emil Foley, played by Louis Gossett Jr. in an Oscar winning role. And boy oh boy, does he have some things to say to the cadets. OK, I know it’s the 1980s and that a drill sergeant is supposed to say demeaning things to you, but goddamn if it actually made it harder for me to like this guy, especially since over the course of the movie Foley becomes more of a father figure to Zack than his actual dad ever did.

If the crude, cruel imagination of Foley’s style seems familiar upon viewing this flick, there’s a reason. The guy who was the advisor on being a drill instructor is….

Image from The Guardian

Gossett Jr.’s Foley is also present for the other scene you might be familiar with even if you hadn’t seen AOAAG. I didn’t know about the scene beforehand, but it involves our boy Zack at the lowest point of his time at the Academy, making up for breaking the rules at his dormitory. Forced to perform manual labor outside in the scorching heat, all while Foley glowers and constantly belittles him. He keeps on egging him into asking why his ass is till hanging on to a place undeserving of him in which Zack replies “I HAVE NOWHERE ELSE TO GO!” He then proceeds to sob and even Foley is left with pause.

If it wasn’t clear from me summarizing one of the few moments you might remember from this flick, Zack struggles to make candidate for the Air Force. While he handles the physical stuff quite well, from an obstacle course, from an underwater cockpit ditching exercise to a pressure chamber, it’s the more “civil” training and following all of the absolute guidelines that he gets hung up on. Of course his father’s influence, by nurture and by nature, can be inferred. The same can’t be said for his cadet buddy Sid (David Keith).

A number of factors, internal and external, just break the guy overtime, leading to a pretty hard sequence to just look at. While he does pretty swell on the obstacle course, it’s the other two physical challenges that he blows pretty bad. On top of that, he like Zack, begins a relationship with a “townie”, young attractive ladies who try to make it big with potential candidates.

According to the film’s logic, and I have no way of ascertaining how valid this was and still is now, if the townie’s cadet lover doesn’t make it through the school, then they will be stuck forever at the nearby garment factory. Apparently it is impossible for Paula (Debra Winger) or Lynette (Lisa Blount) to achieve any other aspirations or success if their cadet boyfriends wash out. I don’t buy it, as an outsider looking in.

If his poor performance in the school wasn’t enough, Sid is further weighed down by thinking that his townie girlfriend Lynette is pregnant with his child. Thinking that does give Sid a second wind of determination. He eventually concludes he isn’t cut for AOCS, but still does the gallant thing and offers to support Lynette. What a Chad.

I’m inferring to 40 year old spoilers here, but that is not exactly how it plays out. After all, Sid’s failure must further emphasis Zack’s eventual success by contrast. Zack shacks up with Paula, portrayed by an early Debra Winger, who first came to attention two years earlier in Travolta’s Urban Cowboy. An Officer and a Gentleman remains one of her best known roles, even if the actress looks back on it rather apathetically, as little more than a paycheck role. We’re not done with Winger, as she will be the main character of the next movie to tackle.

Paula, compared to Lynette, certainly has more scruples as it will turn out. While she remains resigned to the idea that Zack won’t make it, she of course comes to also care for him anyway. I honestly view her not unlike of all things a Disney Princess, stuck in a mundane or banal position in life, waiting for someone or something to sweep her off her feet to a better future, a whole new world. An interesting comparison I just made, considering the frank love scene that occurs between Gere and Winger.

There’s an undeniable, of-its-time melodrama that hangs over Officer and Gentleman. It doesn’t feature the kind of 80s’ score I look forward to but to be fair, this is still the early 80s. But hey, despite my deep reservations about a piece of media, no matter how old, that uncritically espouses the virtues of being part of the American military machine, this is still an engaging story about a man, physically grown up, who gets to emotionally grow up and find a gal.

Before I close out this part, I cannot ignore Lisa Eilbacher’s performance as Cadet Casey Seeger, one of the few female cadets. It should be noted that this was actually an unlikely scenario to happen in real life at the time, a female cadet for the Aviation Office. There were roles then that could be available, like being part of a radar plane crew but not piloting a fighter jet. That option wouldn’t be around until the late 90s’.

Casey excels in the academic stuff but struggles with the physical, mostly relating to the obstacle course. Of course, near film’s end, Zack helps motivate her to cross over that last obstacle and beat the course, making her into a gentlewoman. You know, with Casey in mind, it would be kind of interesting to see a gender inverted version of this story with the officer female and the townie male.

The irony behind the scenes was that Eilbacher was actually a female bodybuilder. In truth, she stood a better chance of getting through the obstacle course faster than any of her male actors, including Gere and Keith. She had to pretend to be the least physically strong of the cadets, but isn’t all pretend anyway?

So, yeah, check it out, if you haven’t already. This declaration of mine seems less necessary when I cover movies that were blockbusters but then again, a lot of this movie hasn’t stayed common knowledge so maybe if need be, check it out again.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Image from IMDB (A mother, her boyfriend and a worn-down daughter in what I imagine is the blistering Houston sun.)

Quick, off the top of your head, what do you think was the second biggest film of 1983? Ignore this part if you’re entirely unknowledgeable of such matters. A hint is that the last original Star Wars movie was number one.

Second only to Return of the Jedi is this R-rated family drama starring a returning Debra Winger as a daughter becoming a mother under the shadow of her overly neurotic mother, played by Shirley MacLaine. As Winger’s Emma marries Jeff Daniel’s Flap( roll with it) and moves from Houston all the way to Des Moines for his College teaching job, MacLaine’s mommy Aurora deals with being without her daughter and finds companionship with the neighbor Garrett (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic astronaut.

As for what the film is about, it’s one of those movies where it’s not readily apparent while watching it. Directed by James L. Brooks, one of the three men responsible for giving us The Simpsons, I think it’s about how one person’s real life quirks and traumas (the mother) help mold the kind of person the child becomes (the daughter). How many of the actions: good, bad or inbetween Emma makes in her life going forward were the result, in nature and nurture, of her mother?

There’s also the dynamic of strained connection between parent and child. Despite being either in her late 20s or 30s by the time she marries and leaves her mom, Aurora clearly goes through some kind of empty nest syndrome and finding a potential new partner (from a guy who claims he’s not about that life) is to help alleviate that as well as the earlier issues she’s been dealing with even before her daughter’s birth.

Emma and Flap’s relationship starts off quite well, neither glorious or horrid. But, the growing strains of them being parents to ultimately three kids begins to chill the love. Both of them start to engage in extramarital affairs. We see Emma’s more closely with Sam (John Lithgow), an older, middle-aged guy who turns out to be pretty sweet-natured. Both ends of the coupling prove how hypocritical their disdain at the other’s cheating is, though because we see this almost entirely from Emma’s perspective, and we see the kind of guy she’s (maybe) sleeping with, I at least tended to be more forgiving of her infidelity compared to Flap’s.

Am I engaging in a double standard being more OK with her over his affair? Possibly, but then again, the framing of perspective might’ve convinced me to think against my own general stances on marital infidelity.

But all of the plot threads come to a head and connect through the unifying thread of Emma getting CANCER. DUN DUN DUN. A cancer development occurring in a narrative can seem like an overly obvious even cheap way to escalate the drama, but the handling of Emma’s slow decline helps reshape how you viewed her relationship with her family, especially her husband and mother.

Why is the film called Terms of Endearment anyway? Could be that once the cancer hits, mother and daughter are forced to come to honest reckoning with how they feel about one another, since the end, as it’s made clear, is near. Considering her mother’s psychological influence, can Emma look at her mother and really love her? She might’ve inadvertently helped along the deterioration in her marriage with Flap. A butterfly effect if you will, but without time travel. The conclusion they come to before it’s too late is up for you to see for yourself.

Danny DeVito’s also in it and has quite high billing. He acts as one of Shirley’s suitors following her daughter’s move up north. I’m honestly puzzled by DeVito’s billing as he really feels tangential to the story, especially when Nicholson arrives with his apparently, irresistibly snarky voice. He doesn’t have many lines or scenes and I honestly forgot at one point he was in it. I don’t know when DeVito started getting big to warrant such attention in the marketing, but here we are.

Why was this decent film the second biggest movie behind Star Wars? In all honesty, ROTJ had a massive lead in box office over TOE. Episode VI made $309 million in 83′ money while Terms of Endearment made $108 million. But silver place is still silver place. It could have been the cast, with MacLaine and Nicholson’s involvement. Winger is also a factor due to appearing in Officer and a Gentleman the prior year. It had positive word of mouth from the critics on top of that so it all combined to make it the hit film it was.

I seriously have no idea if a movie like Terms of Endearment could be a blockbuster in this day and age. If nothing else, that consideration helps further cement it as a noteworthy film of its time and a just saccharine enough yet grounded experience to have while looking back at the past.

Saaheb (1985) (India)

Image from Dailymotion (Anil Kapoor is back to suffer for your Bolly Entertainment!)

Anil Kapoor is one of the most recurring faces in my ongoing, nearly completed selection of 80s Bollywood cinema. He might well be the leading man of the time as other major figures like Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan have appeared less from my recollection.

He plays the titular figure of Saaheb, a young man living the dream as a football (Soccer) star on the rise. And yet, the responsibilities of his extended family which all live together keep him tethered from moving out in the world.

Eventually, one of his sister’s is about to marry, and the expense of the marriage is so high that they will have to sell their ancestral home. Eventually, Saaheb learns of a risky alternative to that drastic measure: selling one of his kidneys. A wealthy business owner has a dying son and Saaheb is a valid donor. However, and this could speak more to the risks of the Indian health industry at the time than anything else but there is a risk that poor Saaheb could die on the operating table.

My mom is a nurse so maybe she could tell me what the current day risks, if any, for an American kidney removal operation. On top of that, the kidney removal, even if a complete success, would make it impossible for Saaheb to continue his Football career. I don’t remember what the film says happens to the body to make having only one kidney something to poo-poo an athletic career, but basically, for the love of his family, he’s putting more than his life on the line.

Why this self-sacrificial path he’s going through? It’s not simply that it’s the only way to afford the wedding without losing a house. Well, leading up to his dramatic decision, he is seen as the underachiever or the “black sheep” of the family. In spite of what I imagine would be considerable wealth attained from a successful football career (It’s commonly stated or assumed that one of the few ways a kid from a Brazilian favela can escape said favela is through becoming a Soccer player), his earnings aren’t really helping at all his family situation.

So, to prove to his family, especially his sisters and father, that he really does love them, in secret he gets an advance payout for the operation so the family may proceed with the wedding and on the wedding day does he grimly head over to the hospital.

The sequence showing the interplay of the happy family and friends at the wedding with Saaheb’s kidney operation is played for great effect. The million dollar question is if the operation works, does Saaheb survive? You should know by now that I rarely give away the result, unless for the sake of a point I want to make. Or, like in Scarface and Officer and Gentleman’s case, the conclusion is well-known or unavoidable.

To be honest and this wouldn’t be the first time, I have forgotten a lot of Saaheb since I saw it weeks prior. It runs around 150 minutes and the third act really is the part meant to linger in memory. I do wonder if the film being in Hindi, a language I do not know, does affect my memory. Often, when I think about many Japanese films I’ve watched, like from Kurosawa’s, I struggle to remember any lines of dialogue.

While looking at English subtitles, the delivery in Japanese or in Saaheb’s case Hindi does take away from recalling what was said. I remember the context and the outcomes of scenes based mostly on body language and the actions of the players, but I do regret it can’t be better than that for me.

I should recall more from a 150 minute movie, but maybe the other Bollywood films and just the great number of films I digest nowadays does a number on the memory banks. It’s a shame, I’ve been told my memory is great.

So, yeah, like with most films I’ve covered, give Saaheb a chance. Just it’s melodramatic but heartfelt climax is enough to recommend. I remember that, if nothing else.

Next time: VEGAS part I

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