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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Blu-ray Review: Scarface

Posted by Ned Lannamann on Wed, Sep 14, 2011 at 10:44 AM

Few films have acquired as dedicated a following as Brian De Palma's llello epic Scarface, which was decidedly not greeted with universal acclaim upon its 1983 release, but has since found a stalwart fan base over the years, both in the dorm rooms of white college kids and among the hiphop community. This second life is not only the reason why Scarface has received a deluxe reissue on Blu-ray (which came out last week in a special, if unnecessary, metal container), but it's the reason why the package feels somewhat lacking. De Palma's movie, imperfect as it is, has plenty of merits to speak of, but my overall impression is that Universal is eager to capitalize on Scarface's pop-culture currency as opposed to its cinematic worth. The result is a Blu-ray disc that is not all it should have been.

Oliver Stone wrote the script, and Al Pacino played the part, and Scarface has a lot to recommend it. There's the intriguing social history of Cuban refugees in Miami as a result of Castro's Mariel boatlift, as well as an examination of the cocaine culture of early-'80s Miami. What's more, there's the Shakespearean tragedy of Pacino's Tony Montana character, who more or less gets the world and then lets it go entirely to shit. And there's the simple time-capsule factor of the fashions and decor of the era, still ridiculously fun to watch. (Michelle Pfeiffer's clothes! Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's hair!) Plus, there's an insane amount of cursing, violence, and drug use, all of which make Scarface work just fine as a brainless, decadent romp even though there's enough going on in the film for it to work on an intellectual level. (Also, and I just realized this today, but doesn't the guy who played Alberto the Shadow look a lot like Ron Paul?)

So yes, the movie itself remains as entertaining as it did when you first saw it on videotape. And yes, it certainly looks better on Blu-ray, but it doesn't look as good as it should. This is because the movie—approaching three hours as is—is supplemented by a bevy of worthless extras that eat up further disc space. It's remarkable to watch a barebones disc of a 90-minute movie taking up all of Blu-ray's generous 50 GB—in these cases, the picture is absolutely extraordinary. But with Scarface running twice that length and the disc crammed full with needless extras, the picture quality noticeably suffers. Blacks are muddled, colors look crushed; certain nighttime scenes are indistinct while daytime scenes lack pop, looking more washed-out than they should. What should look garishly lewd simply looks garish. Yes, it is better than previous editions of Scarface, but it simply isn't good enough for a definitive edition of the movie.

No, this is not Photoshopped. Yes, that is llello.
  • No, this is not Photoshopped. Yes, that is llello.
There's also a new DTS soundtrack (which actually may be left over from a previous DVD issue) in 7.1 surround, and let me quickly say at this point that if you have a 7.1 system in your home, you are an asshole. At any rate, this 7.1 soundtrack is super-sized on steroids, with new, louder gunshot sounds replacing all the old original ones, Giorgio Moroder's blissfully coked-out music remixed up to woofer-rattling levels, and the violence and profanities blasting out of your system at a level that's bound to bother your neighbors. Bafflingly, the quieter passages remain indistinct, and you will find yourself jockeying with the volume control throughout the movie, turning it down, then up, then down again. I appreciate what they were trying to do with the new, "improved" soundtrack, but it simply doesn't work, and it draws unnecessary attention to itself. You'll be much happier by switching to the disc's secondary audio track and listening to the movie soundtrack in its original 1983 format.

Now, these extras: there are a bunch of little documentaries instead of one big one, which is annoying, and while De Palma appears along with Stone and Pacino, their appearances are far too brief. Instead, we're treated to unwanted interviews with the likes of Cypress Hill's Sen Dog and this idiot Jillian Barberie-Reynolds, who I recognize from somewhere (Entertainment Tonight, maybe?) but who has no business on this disc. (And where's F. Murray Abraham, huh? Answer me that!) There is also some picture-in-picture stuff, most of which seems duplicated from these documentaries, and there's a fun little ticker of all the times they say "fuck" in the movie (226!), but the deleted scenes look like total crap, and the documentaries, numerous though they are, fail to give a comprehensive history of the film, or put it into context.

The bonus disc is a DVD (not Blu-ray) of the original 1932 Scarface, and fans of the remake would do well to see how much was actually taken from the original. (Lots.) Here's what Universal should have done: included a second Blu-ray disc that has the 1932 Scarface and all these dumb little extras, which would leave plenty of space on the first Blu-ray disc for a proper, eye-popping transfer of De Palma's Scarface. Instead we're given this odd package that doesn't do the film justice, particularly in the light of all the excellent recent Blu-ray releases we've seen lately. When the Blu-ray edition of a 1966 B-movie like Return of the Seven looks better than one of the era-defining movies of the early '80s, you know you're in trouble.

(For true idiots, Scarface also comes in a deluxe Blu-ray edition that includes a humidor, retailing for $999.99.)

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