The Films of Brian De Palma
Murder a la Mod (April 26/16)
Brian De Palma's first (and worst) feature-length endeavor, Murder a la Mod follows a handful of less-than-engrossing characters as they navigate the seedy underbelly of New York's fashion world - with writer/director De Palma offering up a convoluted narrative that remains absolutely impenetrable from beginning to end. The degree to which the movie is unable to even fleetingly grab the viewer's attention is nothing short of astounding, and although writer/director De Palma has infused the proceedings with a few intriguing visual flourishes (eg a sped-up, single-take run up several flights of stairs), Murder a la Mod comes off as an aggressively experimental and mostly inept art film that's lacking in the most rudimentary of cinematic touchstones (eg compelling characters, competent plotting, etc, etc). There is, as a result, absolutely no momentum here; De Palma's patchwork screenplay ensures that the movie clumsily lurches from one uninvolving sequence to the next, with one of the more obvious and overt examples of this an absolutely interminable scene detailing a meeting between a protagonist and an unreasonably quirky banker. It's a pointless, monotonous interlude that's indicative of everything that's wrong with Murder a la Mod, with the movie's total lack of focus ultimately ensuring that even the most ardent De Palma supporter will find little here to embrace.
no stars out of
An extremely minor improvement over the unwatchable Murder a la Mod, Greetings follows three aimless young men (Jonathan Warden's Paul, Robert De Niro's Jon, and Gerrit Graham's Lloyd) as they spend their days essentially killing time and messing with random bystanders. Director Brian De Palma has infused Greetings with an excessively freewheeling sensibility that immediately grates, as the movie's pervasive silliness paves the way for an often interminable cinematic endeavor - with De Palma's refusal to offer up any instances of plot or character development exacerbating the aggressively inane atmosphere. It's clear from beginning to end that De Palma is essentially making all this up as he goes, as Greetings is jam-packed with utterly pointless sequences in which the actors improvise their way through a series of hopelessly inconsequential and irrelevant scenarios. (There is, for example, an unconscionably long and boring interlude detailing De Niro's character's small-talk-heavy encounter with a random New Yorker.) By the time it arrives at its seemingly endless final stretch, Greetings has firmly established itself as an inept relic of its time that forces one to rethink their De Palma fandom.
Hi, Mom! follows Robert De Niro's Jon Rubin, an aimless Vietnam vet, as he rents a rundown flat in Greenwich Village and subsequently begins filming people in the building across the way, with the lackadaisical narrative detailing Jon's exploits and adventures through New York City's anarchic, anti-war underground. Like Murder a la Mod and Greetings before it, Hi, Mom! suffers from an almost painfully meandering and off-the-wall vibe that grows more and more infuriating as time slowly progresses. And although the movie is, at the outset, not quite the intolerable experience one might've anticipated - De Niro's energetic performance is attention-grabbing, to be sure - Hi, Mom!'s excessively improvisatory atmosphere ensures that the viewer's efforts at embracing the central character fall flat at every single turn (ie he's just too zany to become wholeheartedly or even partially sympathetic). De Palma compounds the film's less-than-watchable vibe by increasingly emphasizing elements of an overtly political nature, with, especially, the filmmaker's decision to stress the activities of a black radical group paving the way for an absolutely interminable final half hour. It's ultimately difficult to recall a more dated, irrelevant film than Hi, Mom!, and there's little doubt that the movie has lost whatever cache it may have once possessed in the 40 years since its original theatrical release.
Get to Know Your Rabbit
A typically worthless early effort from Brian De Palma, Get to Know Your Rabbit follows Tom Smothers' Donald Beeman, a busy executive, as he decides to quit his job and pursue a career as a tap-dancing magician. It's worth noting that the movie, before it morphs into a flat-out unwatchable trainwreck, boasts a fair degree of potential in its opening stretch, as De Palma's decision to infuse a few early sequences with less-than-subtle instances of style sets a decidedly promising tone. (De Palma offers up a couple of seriously impressive single-take shots, including one that transpires above the central character's head as he traverses his small apartment.) From there, however, Get to Know Your Rabbit increasingly falls prey to precisely the sort of eye-rollingly broad and hopelessly unfunny comedic happenings that defined the director's first few movies - with scripter Jordan Crittenden suffusing the thin narrative with a series of exasperatingly offbeat situations and supporting characters. The aggressively wacky atmosphere, not surprisingly, grows more and more intolerable as time progresses, and there finally does reach a point at which the viewer is forced to throw their hands up and simply wait De Palma to finish telling a fairly worthless, interminable story - which ultimately cements Get to Know Your Rabbit's place as an epic misfire that's sadly right in line with De Palma's first few films.
Brian De Palma's first foray into Hitchcockian territory, Sisters follows intrepid reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) as she witness what appears to be a brutal murder in an apartment across the way - with the movie, for the most part, detailing Grace's ongoing efforts at convincing the police that said murder actually transpired. There's little doubt that Sisters marks a substantial improvement over De Palma's nigh unwatchable prior endeavors, as the movie, despite its faults, at least tells a coherent story and boasts a handful of genuinely engrossing sequences. It is, in terms of the latter, fairly obvious that Sisters benefits substantially from De Palma's sporadically stylish direction, with the best and most obvious example of this a fairly electrifying murder interlude that transpires mostly in split screen. The movie nevertheless remains unable to wholeheartedly capture the viewer's interest and enthusiasm, as De Palma, working from a script cowritten with Louisa Rose, has infused the narrative with a palpably erratic feel that grows more and more problematic as time progresses - with, especially, Sisters' final half hour suffering from a few missteps (eg a long, fairly tedious black-and-white sequence) that wreak havoc on its tenuous momentum. Whatever its faults may be, however, Sisters remains both a serious cut above everything that preceded it and also a solid step in the right direction for a fledgling filmmaker.
Phantom of the Paradise
Brian De Palma returns to the incompetence of his earlier films with Phantom of the Paradise, as the movie suffers from a disastrously broad sensibility that's compounded by underdeveloped characters and an emphasis on bland, forgettable songs. William Finley stars as the title character, a quirky songwriter who becomes hellbent on revenge after he's left radically disfigured by an evil record tycoon (Paul Williams' Swan). It is, right from the word go, impossible not to wonder just what De Palma is attempting to accomplish here, as Phantom of the Paradise's garish, aggressively over-the-top atmosphere is an immediate hindrance to one's efforts at embracing the material - with De Palma's decision to pitch the entire film at the level of a cacophonous wall of noise certainly exacerbating the pervasively unappealing vibe (ie it's just such a needlessly loud piece of work). De Palma's punishingly excessive modus operandi is reflected in the film's myriad of garish attributes, with, especially, Finley's annoyingly larger-than-life work as the far-from-sympathetic protagonist standing as one of the movie's most irritating elements. The end result is a hopelessly misguided cult curiosity that's aged poorly in the years since its 1974 release (to put it mildly), and it's difficult to envision anyone deriving much pleasure out of this thing in the 21st century.
Brian De Palma's (mostly unsuccessful) riff on Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, Obsession follows wealthy businessman Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) as he loses his wife (Genevieve Bujold) and daughter in a violent accident - with the movie subsequently picking up 15 years later and detailing Michael's risque relationship with an Italian woman (Bujold's Sandra) who looks exactly like his late wife. Obsession kicks off with an admittedly engrossing stretch revolving around the aforementioned accident and its buildup, with De Palma's expectedly grandiose stylistic choices ensuring that the movie, at the outset, possesses a great deal of potential. Alas, De Palma's decision to infuse the movie's midsection with as deliberate a pace as one could envision ensures that one's interest begins to dwindle steadily - with the uneventful nature of Paul Schrader's screenplay effectively compounding the progressively less-than-captivating atmosphere. It's clear, too, that the underwhelming vibe is compounded (and perpetuated) by Robertson's stiff, emotionless work as the one-dimensional protagonist, with the actor's standoffish turn essentially preventing the viewer from sympathizing with Michael's situation on an ongoing basis. (John Lithgow, on the other hand, delivers a scenery-chewing performance that elevates the proceedings on an all-too-sporadic basis.) And although the film closes with an appreciatively (and impressively) over-the-top final stretch - ie De Palma finally indulges in the broad filmmaking for which he's famous - Obsession is, in the end, a disappointingly weak entry within De Palma's otherwise strong body of work in the thriller genre.
Dressed to Kill
Scarface (February 13/12)
Based loosely on Howard Hawks' eponymous gangster film, Scarface follows Al Pacino's Tony Montana as he claws his way to the top of Miami's drug scene - with the film detailing the character's meteoric rise and inevitable fall. There's little doubt that Scarface, at a running time of 170 minutes, is much, much longer than it generally needs to be, as the movie boasts an episodic midsection that revolves mostly around Montana's various drug deals and his ongoing efforts at winning the affections of Michelle Pfeiffer's chilly Elvira Hancock. It is, as such, worth noting that the film, while consistently watchable, is never as engrossing or compelling as one might've expected, although it's just as clear that director Brian De Palma, working from Oliver Stone's bloated screenplay, does a nice job of peppering the narrative with sequences and interludes of a palpably electrifying nature (eg Montana's tense encounter with a chainsaw-wielding psychopath). The relaxed atmosphere admittedly grows more and more problematic as Scarface strolls into its languid second half, as it becomes increasingly difficult to shake the feeling that DePalma and Stone are spinning their wheels in the buildup to the climax (ie the film is simply too talky and repetitive for its own good). Such concerns are generally allayed by Pacino's engaging and frequently hypnotic performance, with the actor's chameleon-like turn as the central character proving instrumental in sustaining the viewer's interest through the movie's more overtly lackadaisical stretches. By the time the insanely violent (and tremendously entertaining) finale rolls around, Scarface has confirmed its place as a sporadically electrifying endeavor that could've used a few more passes through the editing bay.
Body Double is surely one of filmmaker Brian De Palma's more blatant riffs on Hitchcock, as the movie contains thematic and visual references to several of Hitch's well-known efforts - including Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho. Bill Maher look-alike Craig Wasson stars as Jake Scully, a struggling actor who finds himself sucked into a murder mystery after he surreptitiously witnesses the brutal killing of a neighbor. There's a whole lot more to the story than just that - including a thoroughly bizarre subplot in which Jake, desperate to dig up some more clues, becomes a full-fledged porn actor (!) - and De Palma, who also wrote the screenplay, is clearly having a lot of fun with the various conventions of the thriller genre, though there's certainly no denying that the film does possess a fairly uneven sense of pacing. Of course, De Palma's expectedly grandiose directorial choices go a long way towards keeping things interesting - with a long, dialogue-free pursuit sequence an obvious highlight. And while the movie is unquestionably a product of its time - eg there's a prolonged, music video-esque interlude in which Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Relax blares - Body Double remains an essential entry within De Palma's body of work.
The Untouchables (October 16/12)
The Untouchables follows federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) as he and his ragtag gang of officers (Charles Martin Smith's Oscar Wallace, Andy Garcia's George Stone, and Sean Connery's Jim Malone) battle bootleggers during the depression, with the bulk of the proceedings devoted to the group's ongoing (and increasingly tenacious) efforts at bringing down Robert De Niro's formidable Al Capone. Given that it kicks off with a tremendously promising opening credits sequence, one that's heightened by Ennio Morricone's larger-than-life score, The Untouchables' rather hands-off first act is, to put it mildly, somewhat disappointing, with the stirring performances and filmmaker Brian De Palma's typically over-the-top visual choices going a long way towards compensating for the movie's almost incongruously deliberate pace. The narrative demonstrably picks up as Ness begins assembling his team, however, and there's little doubt that De Palma's broad sensibilities grow more and more engrossing as time progresses, with the increased emphasis on downright jaw-dropping sequences - eg the justifiably legendary train-station interlude - ultimately overshadowing the decidedly episodic (and oddly theatrical) bent of David Mamet's screenplay. The end result is a consistently watchable yet sporadically captivating piece of work that is, unfortunately, starting to show its age (ie the movie's '80s origins are often far more obvious than one might've preferred), although it's clear that The Untouchables remains one of the more successful big-budget endeavors from De Palma.
Casualties of War
The Bonfire of the Vanities
Mission: Impossible (April 7/06)
One of the most common complaints leveled against Mission: Impossible during its theatrical run revolved around its admittedly intricate plot, although - as it turns out - the film is actually fairly easy to follow. This may have something to do with the proliferation of shows such as Alias and 24, which sport far more complicated storylines that continue over an entire season. Based on the '60s television show, Mission: Impossible stars Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt - a top-notch spy who must clear his name after being accused of killing most of his team members during a routine mission. Screenwriters David Koepp and Robert Towne pepper Mission: Impossible with a number of genuinely thrilling action sequences, as well as a curious emphasis on needless exposition - a choice that affords the film an unmistakably erratic vibe. There's consequently no getting around the fact that certain sections of the movie are far more effective than others - something that's true of the various action sequences (which are, as expected, thrilling and suspenseful). Director Brian De Palma infuses the movie with several much-appreciated bursts of style, though it's clear that he's holding back to a certain extent (ie there's no uninterrupted steadicam shot). Nevertheless, there's no denying that Mission: Impossible is probably a lot more entertaining than it has any right to be thanks mostly to De Palma's flamboyant directorial choices. The surprisingly strong cast also plays a substantial part in the film's success, as De Palma fills the screen with an assortment of first-class performers (including Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Henry Czerny, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jon Voight). Cruise is his usual personable self, though the actor does a nice job of transforming his character into a more than just a seemingly invincible action hero. That Ethan becomes such a compelling figure is due almost entirely to Cruise's effective performance, particularly since Koepp and Towne's screenplay contains almost nothing by way of character development (ie we learn that he's got a mother and an uncle named Donald but that's about it). Mission: Impossible succeeds in offering up several exciting and suspenseful sequences, though one can't help but wish that the dialogue-based moments packed the same sort of visceral punch.
Mission to Mars
Femme Fatale (September 16/02)
With Femme Fatale, Brian De Palma has returned to the sort of movie he does best. Filled with twists, double-crosses, and visually stunning sequences, Femme Fatale is a throwback to earlier films like Dressed to Kill and Blow Out.
The movie opens with a fantastic jewelry heist set at the Cannes Film Festival, with Laure (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) playing a pivotal role in the crime. Not surprisingly, she decides against sharing the loot with her partners-in-crime and escapes with the $10 million booty. Meanwhile, a down-on-his-luck photographer (Antonio Banderas) is about to find himself embroiled in Laure's scheme.
Femme Fatale, like all good noir films, is almost impossible to describe without giving something away. And a great deal of what makes the movie so enjoyable are the many surprises that crop up along the way. It's almost impossible to predict what's coming next, and just when you think you've got a handle on the story, De Palma turns everything on its head.
The movie features a surprisingly effective performance from supermodel-turned-actress Romijn-Stamos; this is a character who's always manipulating those around her, and Romijn-Stamos effectively switches from cruel indifference to sympathy-inducing vulnerability.
But as good as she is, Femme Fatale belongs to De Palma. The movie is chock full of the various camera tricks that made him famous more than two decades ago, from slow-motion sequences to uninterrupted long takes. He's crafted a movie that is, if nothing else, always amazing just to look at. Fortunately, though, his screenplay is just as interesting as his visual style and Femme Fatale could even be considered somewhat of a comeback for the director - whose Mission to Mars was visually stunning but ultimately dull and derivative.
The Black Dahlia
Undoubtedly filmmaker Brian De Palma's most ineffective effort in well over a decade, The Black Dahlia is a convoluted, poorly cast, and occasionally unwatchable would-be noir that's lacking even in De Palma's famously over-the-top sense of style. Based on James Ellroy's eponymous novel, The Black Dahlia follows a pair of 1940s detectives - Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) - as they attempt to solve the mysterious and unusually brutal murder of an up-and-coming starlet named Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner). Riddled with problems right from the get-go, The Black Dahlia never quite comes off as anything other than an extremely misguided and surprisingly sloppy piece of work - a vibe that stems primarily from Josh Friedman's muddled and flat-out baffling screenplay. There's simply too much going on here to comfortably sustain a two-hour running time, and it seems clear that casual viewers will have a heck of a time trying to keep up with the barrage of plot twists and recurring characters. Hartnett's stiff, thoroughly uncharismatic performance certainly doesn't help matters, as the actor seems woefully out of his element here (particularly when placed alongside Eckhart, who sporadically infuses the proceedings with welcome bursts of energy). De Palma's lamentable decision to reign in his wild directorial flourishes certainly doesn't do the film any favors, and there's little doubt that even the most ardent James Ellroy fan will be hard-pressed to find much here worth embracing.