Femme Fatale (2002)

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Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale is his best work since Blow Out. That’s really saying something because I really like Blow Out. This movie has everything. It’s got the classic De Palma style, Hitchcock references, insane erotica, hilarious melodrama, daring heists, and a fantastically intricate plot that weaves all this together ingeniously. The ending might drive some people a little mad, but I thought it stunningly brilliant.

Basically, and I say that lightly because nothing is basic about this movie, the film revolves around the scheming double-crossing character of Laure (Rebecca Romjin) as she deceives everyone across multiple continents and absconds with millions. It starts off with an elaborate diamond heist, where she ridiculously serves as a decoy, engaging the target, a famous film director’s wife bedazzled with the most absurd top you’ve ever seen. In fact, the top she wears, a golden snake studded with millions worth of diamonds, is the target of the heist.

Of course she double crosses her allies and makes off with the treasure for herself. She is mistaken for her doppelganger (referencing Hitchock’s Vertigo), a missing woman named Lili who recently lost her husband and young child. Lili’s parents take her back to their home, where she draws a bath. Suddenly Lili reappears at home. Unaware of Laure’s presence she commits suicide in a fit of depression. Laure sees this as an opportunity and disappears with Lili’s passport and a plane ticket to America. She meets a man on the plane, marries him, and returns to Paris when he becomes the French ambassador. Yet danger lurks for her in France as her accomplices of old have begun to seek out their revenge, who learn of her reappearance due to a photograph taken by one Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas).

What follows are an intricate set of events where she deceives, lies, strips, and shoots her way to a ten million dollar payoff. I don’t want to get too deep into all she does while in France because that would end up being the whole write-up, but needless to say she is well deserving of the title femme fatale. My favorite scene in the film involves a strip tease in a bar cellar where De Palma really indulges in his meticulous yet opulent directorial style that he’s known so well for. It ends in a fight between Bardo and another patron of which we see only the shadows while the camera dollies in on Laure, laughing at the artfulness of her devious machinations.

The film is an absolute tour de force of Brian De Palma, the perfect kind of material for his style. He utilizes every trick in the book. This is probably his best use of his trademark split screen, where the split ends with a dual shot of the same view, one of the actual square and another of Bardo’s recreation of the square made of hundreds of individual snapshots. It’s absolutely sensational.

Rebecca Romjin is also great in her role. You can read the cunning in her eyes so well, and the sensuality she brings to the picture is positively incredible. You couldn’t have asked for a better performance, especially in the aforementioned strip tease sequence.

The ending is pretty incredible as well. Upon being dunked into the river Laure wakes up back in the bathtub at her doppelganger’s house seven years earlier. It is easy to see how this kind of “it was all a dream” twist in the story would drive some insane, but I found it refreshing, especially when considering the scenes that happen afterwards. Of course Laure doesn’t allow Lili to kill herself, and through that act sets the wheels of fate in a totally different direction. We see a sequence from earlier played out again, but with slightly different details that change the entire event. Due to Laure’s brief act of altruism, a deviation from her usual Machiavellian selfishness, she was able to make her life into something far better and more genuine, and save multiple lives in the process. De Palma allowed Laure a second chance and a happy ending, a kindness rarely if ever offered to his characters.

All in all this is definitely one of De Palma’s greatest works, a film extraordinarily grand in scope of plot. The plot is intircate, but not unfollowable (Mission: Impossible I’m looking at you) and his direction is impeccable as usual. Its got everything a De Palma fan could want: sex, crime, violence, and a twist beautifully hinted at in subtle ways that turns the entire work on its head. This may be his masterpiece.

 

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Sisters (1972)

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The movie Brian De Palma cut his teeth upon, Sisters is a genuinely fun romp of a psychological thriller/horror. Being De Palma’s most blatant homage to Hitchcock, this film references the master’s work in a variety of interesting ways while also being able to tell an engaging little mystery of its own.

Probably the most obvious reference is to Psycho, where our villain has a split personality in which one side is capable of brutal murders while the other acts as an innocent bystander in the proceedings. De Palma is able to jazz up this premise by giving us more backstory into how exactly our mental case developed such a condition.

The film begins with a classic Hitchcock opener, where we see a television show where some unknowing individual’s chivalry is tested by giving them a chance at voyeurism. The two contestants Phillip and Danielle, played by Lisle Wood and Margot Kidder, go out for some drinks. They are stalked by an unknown man (William Finley), said to be Danielle’s ex husband Emil, who follows them as they go back to Danielle’s apartment where they make love.

The next morning Phillip is murdered, by someone we presume to be Danielle’s sister, Dominique (also Margot Kidder). The scene is witnessed a la Rear Window by a neighbor, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt). The shot where the murder is witnessed is done with De Palma’s classic split screen view, where we see from inside the apartment as Phillip crawls over to the window and begins righting “HELP” on the window while also seeing from Grace’s point of view as a bloody hand scrawls the desperate message.

Also done in split screen is the process of Danielle and Emil cleaning the house of all evidence pertaining to the grisly crime while Grace tries to hurry the police along up to the apartment. It serves to increase the suspense fantastically, and we see just how close the police come to catching the crooks red handed as Emil emerges from the apartment with a bag of dirty rags just moments before the police arrive. It’s a brilliant little scene.

Now, like I said above, our mental case around which the film revolves is a clear homage to Psycho but actually manages to be more interesting than Psycho’s Norman Bates. We are served a fascinating backstory pertaining to Danielle and Dominique’s history as Siamese twins. Apparently their fragile mental states were codependent, and when Dominique was killed in their separation surgery Danielle’s mind is fractured, splitting into an alternate personality, a version of her deceased sister. It makes for a fascinating peek into a totally broken mind and delightfully satiates the appetites of the morbidly curious.

The movie speeds along at a great pace throughout the first two thirds. Jennifer Salt is great as the tenacious young reporter, desperately trying to get the police to believe her story. I especially enjoyed the scene as Grace and the police go through Danielle’s apartment trying to find any evidence of the murder Grace witnessed. Margot Kidder is also great in this scene, playing the laid back French-Canadian model Danielle with a terrific touch of disconnectedness, giving us the distinct feeling that not all is quite right with her.

De Palma’s signature style is put to tremendous use here, and although the last third of the film feels a little bit rushed as the entire twist ending is dumped into our laps in a few short, confusing minutes, the script is a fine mystery that keeps our attention throughout.

There are a couple other fun references to Hitchcock laid throughout, including a great sequence where a private detective rummages through Danielle’s apartment when she walks in unexpectedly. Grace places a call to distract her and watches through binoculars as the detective avoids the occupants, much like Jimmy Stewart does with Grace Kelly in Rear Window. 

It’s not De Palma’s most tidy work, that would have to go to Body Double, but it was a great start from a junior director to what would be a fruitful career. The acting is very good and, as always, there are some shocking moments of violence sure to surprise and fascinate. I haven’t yet figured out the final shot, but I do enjoy the nihilistic conclusion to Grace’s search for justice for the murdered Phillip. Her repeated cries that “there was no body because there was no murder!” is sure to raise the hackles on even the most devoted horror fan.

Raising Cain (1992)

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Raising Cain is a tour de force by John Lithgow. I always knew the man was something special when it came to play deranged psychopaths. His turn as Burke in Blow Out was especially sensational, embodying the unemotional coldness that you would imagine a sociopath would have. Here he takes on five different roles, making each just as incredible as any other role he’s taken on.

Raising Cain is about Carter, a child psychologist who murders women in order to abscond with their children in an attempt to study their personality development. It quickly becomes clear that Carter’s personality development was anything but normal. Carter is a victim of a multiple personality complex. One minute he’s Carter, the next he’s Cain. Carter is a genuine fatherly figure who is dedicated to his work whereas Cain is a streetwise tough talking goon. The two characters are as far apart as they can possibly be from each other and Lithgow embodies both phenomenally.

Unfortunately the plot doesn’t really thicken beyond this initial premise. There are your suspenseful sequences common to just about any De Palma thriller, but really its Lithgow’s performance that makes the film stand out. In one scene he takes on the personality of a seven year old boy, and his facial expression and body language are stunningly accurate to how any little boy might act. The nervousness and twitchy eye movements are incredible and its a wonder what kind of mindset Ltihgow had to be in to nail this role the way he did. I’d have to imagine James McCavoy took a lot of inspiration from Lithgow’s performance when taking on a similar role in the recent film Split.

It’s unfortunate that the plot never seems to go anywhere. We are given multiple overly expository scenes that explain the full details of Carter’s particular condition which may have been necessary when the film came out, but seeing as this sort of thing has been the subject of a myriad of movies since then it feels unnecessary.

De Palma’s in full form with this type of material and he makes excellent use of his trademark stylistic flourishes to inject the proper sense of lunacy into the film. There are many instances where De Palma makes use of a dutch angle shot, evoking well the queasy uneasiness of Carter’s shattered mind. Also included are well directed suspense sequences so well known to anyone familiar with De Palmas work. This includes the climactic end scene taking place over three levels of a hotel catwalk. Proper use of slow motion and excellent set up make you feel like you’re there with the characters witnessing this traumatic event.

During one of the long expository sequences De Palma has the characters wander about a police station. The two cops follow the woman explaining the entire plot to the audience and the camera follows along beautifully in one five minute long take. This even includes them going down a flight of stairs as the camera rotates into a dutch angle while she mentions the traumatic events that cause Cain’s initial split. I can’t help but think this is De Palma sort of poking fun at these kinds of expository scenes, and having the psychologist almost wander away multiple times during the take can symbolize the audience’s wandering patience with the exposition. It’s quite brilliant.

So, like always, De Palma turns out a well directed if slightly underwritten movie. The film could’ve used a bit more in the way of plotting or a few extra twists or turns. As it is there aren’t many real surprises which comes as a bit of a disappointment in a movie about something as demented and disturbing as multiple personality disorder. Lithgow’s incredible performance is enough to entertain any viewer however. All in all its a good entry into De Palma’s filmography and I applaud him for trying a thriller with a more psychological/horror element to it for once.

Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

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Brian De Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities is an interesting movie to watch from a modern perspective. It appears to be a satire of the go-get-it attitude fostered by American culture in the 1980s, but today it can be applied to the prevalent hatred for the upper class that elevates politicians like Bernie Sanders into the mainstream.

You have all sorts of characters that could be parodies of modern figures and movements. The black preacher and the outrage he manufactures for the hoodlum put into a coma by Sherman McCoy’s wrong turn can easily be equated to the black lives matter movement of today. The journalists eager to get the scoop on Sherman could be the mainstream media, constantly looking for the next example of the rich striking down. It’s a culture that’s as prevalent today as it was in the 80s.

The film, however, never really reaches the heights it seems to aim for. The myriad of characters that circle Sherman like sharks who smell blood are never fleshed out well enough to fill out the satire the way it deserves to be. Simply put, there are too many characters and the film stretches itself too thin to properly deliver a biting satire of the caricature of each of them.

Take, for example, the assistant district attorney that spies an opportunity to get in good with the mayor. While it’s clear what he’s doing and to what end, we don’t get a good feel for what exactly this man is doing wrong. To anyone viewing the film he’s simply trying to prosecute a man who’s injured a Bronx teenager in a hit and run incident. We don’t get a good enough feel for the cycism this character was clearly meant to inspire, and as a result we rather sympathize with his crusade to bring the perpetrator to justice.

The Bruce Willis character is also given far too little screen time to be able to understand his exact motivations. What exactly does he see in this story that’s so spellbinding? Why does he so badly want to capture it? We never get enough of a peek through to figure him out entirely.

Morgan Freeman comes off better than most as the intelligent, real world judge who attempts to inject a bit of sense into the frothing craze of the situation at hand. The scene at the end where he lectures his mad courtroom is the finest point in the film, and it was when the underwritten message of the movie came to light for me.

And underwritten it is. Unfortunately this means an end result where most viewers will probably come away sympathizing with the mobs of opportunistic individuals rather than being disgusted by them. The original Tom Wolffe novel, although I haven’t read it, regarded these people with a white hatred for the opportunistic pigs they were. Anyone viewing the film without this in mind would probably enjoy seeing the millionaire adulterer Wall Street socialite taken down a peg in life. And I don’t think that was what was intended.

De Palma utilizes interesting stylistic flourishes to jazz up the film, but it’s impossible to make a good movie out of a script where the characters are underdeveloped. As a result of this the characters, rather than being brilliant caricatures of their real life counterparts, come off as plain unlikable. Thankfully the characters are eccentric enough and the directorial style charming so as to make the film an entertaining romp. It’s just a shame it couldn’t reach the heights that it aspired to, it would’ve been a fine satire that would be ever as relevant today as it was when it came out in 1990.

Obsession (1976)

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Brian De Palma’s Obsession is his ode to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It concerns a man’s relentless preoccupation with the memory of his deceased wife and his subsequent attempts to recapture that forever lost relationship with a different woman. However, try as it might, Obsession film lacks the layers of depth that made Vertigo into the masterpiece that it is. Nevertheless this is still a decently fun little movie, even if it drags a bit in some parts.

Cliff Robertson plays Michael Courtland, a New Orleans land developer whose wife and daughter are kidnapped and killed at the start of the film. Fifteen years later and Michael makes a trip to Florence with his business partner Robert Lasalle (John Lithgow). He goes to visit the church where he and his wife had met and runs into a woman, Sandy, who looks strikingly similar, played by Genevieve Bujord in a dual role as both the wife and the new woman. 

Immediately Michael is attracted to this woman, seeing promise in her of returning to his old life before the tragedy. Much like in Vertigo there are scenes where Michael attempts to get Sandy to act the same as his deceased wife. He has her walk a certain way and asks her to call him Mike, just like his wife used to.

I have to say that this all comes off as creepy. In Vertigo it was obviously gross behavior as well, but by the time it was occurring in that film you’d spent so much time with Jimmy Stewart’s character that you could easily empathize with his behavior. There was a good amount of effort put into personifying Stewart’s anguish at the loss of his loved one so that when he rediscovered someone similar you could feel his desire to recapture that fleeting romance.

It’s also the fact that Michael in Obsession is trying to recapture the love of a marriage, a relationship far more complex than the romance at the center of Vertigo. It’s a bit stranger for someone to attempt to reestablish a lost marriage, rather than rekindling a courtship extinguished at the climax of affection.

There’s also the fact that in Vertigo Hitchcock makes known the identity of the doppelganger as soon as she is discovered. That gives an added layer of depth to each interaction between the characters. In Obsession the reveal takes place at the end of the film: standard thriller stuff. It makes the preceding interactions a duller affair.

Now it may not be fair to compare this movie to one of the greatest works in cinema history, but the film invites the comparison every chance it gets so it is inevitable that one might contrast the two. Mirror shots of Sandy putting on the dead wife’s jewelry, dream sequences, and even a scene where a man is pulling Sandy along unwillingly to a place she doesn’t wish to go. The references are near constant, so the comparison becomes unavoidable and obviously Obsession doesn’t hold a candle to the great masterpiece that is Vertigo. 

I also have to say that I guessed half the plot twist pretty early on. John Lithgow is basically a walking spoiler. The man is just far too menacing to convincingly play a good guy in a Hitchcockian thriller. It was clear early on that he was the perpetrator.

What was very enjoyable about this film was the music and direction. First off, Bernard Hermann is an absolute master composer. The musical swells at moments of emotion conjure a dreamlike atmosphere, much like the dream Michael now walks through where he finally gets a chance to revive his lost love.

De Palma is also a stylistic genius and he fills this movie with some gorgeous shots of Florence from dark back alleys to a mass zoom out of a cemetery the couple walk through. Also included is some interesting photography during the dream sequence and great shots of Sandy moving about the house. You get a great feel for space from De Palma’s shots, allowing you to sympathize with poor Sandy attempting to fill the shoes of an idolized figure in Michael’s life.

This isn’t De Palma’s best work, but it is a bit unique for him. It carries the classic twists and turns of one of his thriller films, but also contains a style and emotion rarely seen in his films. The central idea for the story doesn’t come off as well as it did in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, and that’s really the crux of the problem with this movie. Thankfully some excellent music and De Palma’s stylistic choice of overwrought melodrama make this into an enjoyable experience.

Casualties of War (1989)

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Brian De Palma has up to this point in his career directed a wide variety of genres. Although being mostly at home within the confines of a Hitchcockian thriller he has shown that he is also able to deliver very good crime and horror films in the case of Scarface and Carrie respectively. And now he tries his hand at a war film.

De Palma has shown that he can be a very stylish, opulent director, but it seems he knows that his usual sly camerawork is out of place in a film about the horrors of war. This is De Palma at his most restrained, filming the characters and action from a distance, seeming to prefer longer takes of character interactions in a manner pioneered by the great John Ford. He doesn’t have the same eye for proper blocking and staging of sets that makes John Ford’s style work so well. The result is a disappointment from a fan of De Palma’s who wanted to see him do something interesting stylistically with a different sort of material. De Palma indulges in one gratuitous POV scene that could’ve been ripped right out of Body Double or Dressed to Kill, and it feels totally out of place in this movie.

The movie centers around on Pvt Eriksson (Michael J Fox) who is a newby, or a cherry as the soldiers refer to them, to the Vietnam war. He seems to empathize with the local Vietnamese that his compatriots trounce upon. In an early scene we see him playing with a group of village children, establishing Eriksson’s humanistic qualities that the film will focus on.

His squad consists of Harvey (John C. Reilly), Clark (Don Harvey), Diaz (John Leguizamo), and Sgt Meserve (Sean Penn), who begin a long patrol by kidnapping a local woman (Thuy Thu Le) to use as a sex slave and living punching bag as they make their arduous journey. This sets up the main conflict of the movie, as our hero, Pvt Eriksson, seeks to keep this woman from harm and, as a result, ends up an outcast from his own unit.

It seems that whatever conscience these men may have once had has been ground out of them by the countless horrors inherent to the war they’ve been enlisted to fight. The level of complicity of the local population with the enemy is typically unclear until it’s too late, and as a result they’ve grown to view the Vietnamese citizenry as vermin. Too many friends have died because of these people so their well of trust has run dry. Their natural borne moral guidelines I believe to be the titular casualties of war.

This isn’t a bad story necessarily. The themes aren’t entirely dissimilar from those of Platoon, yet that film’s script does a far better job digging into the psyche of the men who’s morals have been wiped clean by near constant trauma, whereas Casualties of War gives us one death scene and some decent acting, mainly from Sean Penn. The dialogue between Meserve and Eriksson in their clashes over the morality of their undertaking leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than comprehensive examinations of their conflicting ideologies it essentially boils down to Meserve calling Eriksson a pussy and threatening him menacingly.

The acting by Sean Penn provides the most depth you’re likely to get out of these encounters as his character’s sociopathy is well displayed. Michael J Fox also does a good job of portraying his character’s frustration at the futility of his attempts to impose morality on his comrades. What’s interesting here is the utter inevitability of the rape and murder. Eriksson hasn’t any recourse in his situation and is forced to stand by while the brutalities are inflicted. It seems the film means to say that sometimes there isn’t anything the good guys can do to stop the bad guys. These are the film’s strongest points.

The second half of the film takes a Kafkaesque turn, as Pvt Eriksson attempts to seek justice for what transpired in the jungle. Of course his superiors take on a “boys will be boys” attitude about the event and he is reasonably disheartened by the experience. The scenes in the jungle are far more compelling by comparison which makes the film feel a bit uneven. The murder of the kidnapped woman feels like the natural climax and it happens a bit more than halfway through the movie.

I’m aware that this is a true story, and although I haven’t read the entire New Yorker article I have read about what happened. The film seems to have stuck to the true story for the most part, which is admirable in its own way. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that I have to give it a pass for being paced inconsistently. True stories rarely occur in the proper three act structure that works so well in movies.

The framing device is half baked at best. Rather than ending the film on the heart wrenching and depressing note the story deserves, the screenwriters choose to try and give the tale a more positive spin. It doesn’t work. Had they allowed the atrocity to occur and simply had the audience deal with the cruel reality of the horrors of war the film would’ve been far more effective. As it stands this is an ok movie that could have been great had it been structured differently. It stands apart from De Palma’s other works as something a bit more mature, but it fails to exceed anything else I’ve seen by him.

Carrie (1976)

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Carrie’s telekinetic abilities in this film are the supernatural manifestation brought on by a lifetime of suffering. Years of torment, the smothered ambition and intellect, of a person who so desperately wants to be accepted but life’s dice roll simply won’t allow it. Many, many people around the world can identify with Carrie’s struggle; I know I could. But the difference in Carrie’s struggle was her preternatural ability to strike back at her abusers, and it makes for a one hell of a satisfying conclusion to a well told story.

The film begins with an overhead shot of a volleyball match. The camera slowly makes its way over to a lone girl who looks uncomfortable, almost exposed in her athletic outfit. The ball comes her way and she botches the spike, much to the ire of her teammates. The subsequent titlecard sequence is beautiful photography of a steamy locker room. We bear witness to numerous women in various states of undress all fooling around implying camaraderie. But slowly the camera makes its way to the back of the room where we see a lone figure taking a shower. The music implies a certain childlike innocence not found in teenagers while also invoking a deep sympathy. Its a brilliant opening that perfectly establishes Carrie’s feelings of separateness from the rest of her classmates.

It’s here that Carrie (Sissy Spacek) experiences her first period, which she is unaware is a natural function of the female body. Her reaction is to run for help, but it only serves to increase her awkward eccentricity to the rest of her class, who react as you might expect. A teacher attempts to punish the girls who mocked Carrie which leads to the ban from prom of one of the more popular girls (Nancy Allen). Of course this petulant little cunt blames Carrie for her punishment and seeks revenge in the most horrible way she knows how. This leads to the final scene of grisly carnage where Carrie takes her ultimate vengeance.

The truly sad part is that Carrie isn’t an unattractive girl. She’s not overweight or ugly by any means, even sporting a decent figure with voluptuous curves. And when she goes to prom it’s revealed, almost surprisingly, that she’s actually gorgeous. A beauty that other women would die for. Yet her ostracization isn’t based so much upon physical appearance so much as it is a function of her social ineptitude; a quality born into her and exasperated by an overbearing religious fanatic of a mother (Piper Laurie).

The most terrifying sequences to me are the ones between Carrie and her mother. Ironically, their house, which is adorned with countless religious idols, is bathed in a hellish orange glow. Its a truly tragic thing when a girl who is so despised and ridiculed at school cannot run home for any comfort. Instead she receives lectures on maintaining sexual purity from a mother who projects her own perceived sinfulness upon Carrie, never allowing her to form full fledged relationships. She locks Carrie into a closet where her only company is a demonic eyed statuette of Jesus, presumably symbolizing the agony that religion, or her mother’s twisted puritanical version of religion, has brought her life.

Even more tragic are the ill fated attempts to bring Carrie back into normal society. One of her classmates (Amy Irving) takes pity on her and bids her boyfriend into asking Carrie to prom. Seeing Carrie at prom finally feeling happy and at peace with the world brings fleeting moments of joy to our souls. We can see that underneath all the callused layers of protection she’s built for herself is a girl that’s real and emotional.

We yearn for her happiness and sympathize with her despair because who wouldn’t? I particularly enjoyed De Palma’s direction during her first dance with Tommy Moss (William Katt). He has the camera spinning around them, slowly picking up speed as she asks him question after question about why he took her of all people to prom. It culminates in him tenderly telling her that they’re here, together, and he likes it. And it seems like he’s being genuine. Like her innocence and modesty have made him regret those years of ignoring her and he wished he’d seen her for what she was sooner. The camera eventually is spinning so fast around them we get the distinct, queasy feeling that this romance is too good to be true; that the night is beginning to spin out of control into its inevitable and grave conclusion.

The acting from Sissy Spacek is absolutely sensational and she was surely well deserved of her Oscar nomination for the role. She plays the girl so that you can understand why teenagers would treat her the way they do while also maintaining a fine level of sympathy. You can see the deep pain inside her every time the camera looks down her eyes. And when she turns catatonic and begins using her telepathy to butcher her harassers it is sincerely haunting. You can really feel her mind shift over into that instinctive mode where her only intention is to use every ounce of ability to inflict pain. It’s really disturbing.

Horror movies aspire to be as good as this one. This was De Palma’s breakout movie, and in my opinion one of his finer works. He allows his characters to make the horror, rather than vice versa. If only all his scripts were as good as this one.

The Untouchables (1987)

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So I couldn’t help but wonder at one point in this movie if the cops who get moved into Agent Ness’s treasury division get paid extra money for their increased risk. It would only make sense right?

If you get hung up on small details like these you’re not going to enjoy Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. The movie avoids things like historical accuracy or authentic police procedures in favor of delivering a stylistic action/crime thriller. And that part is done brilliantly. De Palma once again shows off his impeccable directing chops with some truly exhilirating sequences of action and suspense.

The showdown inside a train station, for instance, is a masterclass in suspenseful action film making. He sets the stage beautifully: simultaneously he gives us a good feel for the geography of the upcoming shootout while providing suspense in the form of a mother moving her child ever so slowly up a flight of stairs. The subsequent action lasts all of ten seconds in real time, but is shot in slow motion and because De Palma has painstakingly set up the locations of the various bad guys it is easily immersive.

Kevin Costner is Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), an agent of the treasury department (I wasn’t aware the treasury department had a law enforcement division?) who is tasked to clean the streets of Chicago of the bootlegged booze coming from Al Capone’s gang. His initial efforts are thwarted by dirty police officers in his own ranks, so he elicits the titular set of untouchable officers totally clean of any corruption. The film’s title could also refer to Capone (Robert De Niro) himself, seeing is so powerful he is basically untouchable by law enforcement.

The acting here is decent enough. De Niro is the standout for me as a brutally violent version of Al Capone. Every look at his face feels like staring down the barrel of a gun. The man oozes brutality and we are shown that first hand when he beats one of his subordinates brains in with a baseball bat. This is a man that can and will do anything to keep his empire afloat, including blowing up little girls.

The ever so charismatic Sean Connery plays Malone, the street smart cop who has been around the block a few times and therefore is aware of the corruption of Chicago. He doesn’t have a lot to work with but is still able to make his character charming and likable.

The same cannot be said for Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness, who is archetypal to a fault. He’s a man who has a great deal of respect for the law, even going so far as to implore the division of police officers assigned to him to restrain from touching any alcohol despite the ready availability of the substance. Costner plays him straight, and try as he might he doesn’t do much to make the stiff character Eliot Ness likable.

The central conflict of this film seems to be the price of justice. Ness wants justice for Capone, but is initially unwilling to step outside the confines of the law to accomplish his goals. This begins to change as he learns from the elder Malone. If he wants true justice he’s going to have to leave his comfort zone. This takes effect in various ways: from their initial warrant-less seizure of a warehouse stocked to the brim with booze to Eliot eventually allowing a man to fall to a brutal death as an act of revenge.

I have to say I’m not sure if I agree with the message the film is trying to send here. Maybe a cop should be willing to work outside the lines occasionally, but to go so far as to indiscriminately murder someone to satiate a thirst for vengeance? I don’t know, maybe I’m too bleeding heart.

In any case the sets, costumes, and music (by the always amazing Ennio Morricone) are all fantasic and really nail the look and feel of thirties Chicago (if it did really look like that, I can’t really say I wasn’t there). De Palma is able to engage in some of his signatory slick directing while depicting the opulent lifestyles of the gangsters or the many action scenes. As always in a De Palma flick there’s a chase scene that is done absolutely brilliantly and is one of the highlights of the entire movie.

Overall this is a good action film that doesn’t require a tremendous amount of brainpower. The characters, their conversations and stories aren’t above cliche and that keeps the film from reaching its true potential. Watch for the style: a tremendous looking film, but you can go ahead and tune out just about everything else. You won’t miss much.

Journal: Embrace the Chaos

embracethechaos

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the chaotic nature of the world recently. I’ve always been aware of these thought paths, but my mind never went down them as deeply until I read Blood Meridian. There’s a quote in there that stuck with me:

“Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you will not lose your way”.

This struck me for a number of reasons.

The biggest, I think, is that I think I’ve been a victim of the type of mindset that Judge Holden was describing above. I’ve always wanted to try and categorize things, or place them into easily digestible boxes so as to understand them better. The recent turmoil of american politics is one example of something that I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around for a while now. I’ve been trying to understand the election of Donald Trump from a variety of angles that would make it easy to digest. Maybe it was racism? Maybe economics? Maybe people just hated Hillary Clinton that much?

The truth is, obviously, that all of those things played a part. I knew that, but I’ve also been trying to root around for a singular answer that could help me better understand. It’s just too difficult to believe that many of my fellow countrymen chose something that I saw as so obviously wrong. So distinctly embarrassing. They put their faith in someone that was clearly an egomaniac and a liar and it doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve picked up a series nihilistic views about the world since then that I think are totally justifiable by the Cormac McCarthy quote above. In an ironic way the above quote gives me the explanation that I’ve been searching for.

I think that Trump voters felt burned by the system. This isn’t a totally alien thought to me; I think I’ve felt similarly in certain situations. I cast my vote for Bernie Sanders in the primaries for just those reasons: the establishment didn’t have anyone’s back but their own. They set the system up to work for themselves and didn’t give half a shit about the little guy. Sanders seemed like an authentic, reasonable voice among the Clintons of the world. Those kinds of smarmy, self-important career politicians who tested every word they’d ever spoken in front of a focus group to be sure they maximized their chances of victory (since then I’ve learned to have more appreciation for career politicians and the political establishment but that’s besides the point).

So here comes a guy that tells everyone what they’ve all been thinking: the establishment is corrupt, they’re phony, they’re fakers, and they’re only interested in screwing you over so they can collect a few extra bucks off your pain. Obviously this played into the feelings of all those that felt the system wasn’t doing them any good. Someone that was willing to say anything no matter how wrong or dumb it would make them look once they’d actually attained victory would obviously do very well with these types of voters. He said what they wanted to hear and that was enough for them.

He also drew from a massive well of online conspiracy theories and fed them to his followers as if they were utter fact. I’ve seen countless, hilarious theories about the Clintons, ranging from their days as hitmen to the completely insane idea that they ran a child sex ring through a D.C. pizza joint. My question has been why do people feel these ways, why are they so susceptible to such clearly ludicrous arguments or obvious ploys for their votes.

The answer I came up with, thanks to the McCarthy quote, is it is their own way of explaining the chaos in the world. Why else would people be living in such misery? Working such long hours for such shit pay? Slaving away in some Pennsylvanian steel mill just to be cut loose in a modern economy that their government hadn’t prepared them to enter? It has to be because the people at the top are conspiring against them, that big money was destroying their upward mobility and costing their families the lives they ought to have.

Now obviously there is some of that with lobbyists and the Citizens United decision and what have you. But the ultimate truth of the matter is that the world is a chaotic place. The government can only do so much to help you and the bureaucracy we’ve established is far too complex to change as the times call for it. The people at the top barely know what they’re doing themselves. They’re all just normal people with extraordinary amounts of responsibility heaped on their shoulders and their attempts to navigate the bureaucracy in the hopes of helping people typically amount to nothing. There are too many competing ideas, too many people, too much to attend to. It’s a miracle that the system works at all.

I think this truth is too much for a lot of people to accept. That we are just a bunch of rats bouncing around a cage barely held together by the fragile structure of society and government. That the world economy and billions of lives are entangled in such an immeasurably complex knot that no single person can possibly decipher it let alone untangle it. It’s a concept that I can’t even begin to describe fully, and I’ve been grappling with it for a while now.

But I think that’s the reason I’ve been so desperately searching for. It is preferable to believe that the guys at the top are knowingly fucking over the rats at the bottom rather than acknowledge that the guys at the top probably have no idea what they’re doing. And when someone like Donald Trump comes along, someone who is a member of that elite club, who has disentangled that knot of the world and become richer than you could ever dream of. When that someone comes along and says you’re right, that they’re all snakes, then you’re inclined to believe him.

Now I don’t believe this fully explains his election. I’m leaving out other major reasons like his not so coded racism and the horrifically flawed candidate that was Hillary Clinton (I think she would have been a terrific president, but she had problems as a candidate), but I think that this explains how a solid majority of his base latched onto him. He told them the order they saw in the world was true and promised to fix it. To make everything better and make things work the way they were supposed to. In a way this also explains the popularity of Bernie Sanders, who ran on a similar message, albeit sans the racism, misogyny etc.

When Trump inevitably fails to deliver on what he promised those people will either believe his bullshit about how he was held back and the GOP establishment and democrats kept him from accomplishing what he intended, or they’ll jump ship. We’ll see what happens eventually.

There are many complicated truths in our lives that are beyond our capacity to accept. These truths are the chaos in our lives that we constantly attempt to rearrange so as to make them understandable or so we can tell ourselves that we’ve mastered that subject. The real truth is that we have to keep learning, that we may never accomplish true mastery but we can continue to understand as much as possible while simultaneously accepting that it will never fully make sense.

Embrace the chaos and you’ll be all the more happier for it.

I’ll probably be writing a lot more about this in the future, but I think for now this is a decent start.

Wise Guys (1986)

wiseguys

Ah, what a pleasant film! This is the type of movie that was singularly unique to the 1980s: and R-rated comedy with good characters, acting, and a decent amount of heart. Even more unique about this particular movie was its ability to provide legitimate thrills. Those kinds of feelings aren’t alien to director Brian De Palma, who injects some of his style into what would otherwise be a decent screwball comedy.

Harry and Moe (Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo) are two everyday schmucks who happen to work for the mob. They’re frustrated by their lack of upward mobility. While they’d rather be extorting old ladies for protection money, like many of their counterparts, they are instead relegated to picking up laundry or grocery shopping. The main narrative thrust comes when Harry and Moe make the mistake of betting big boss Tony Castelo’s (Dan Hedaya) on the wrong horse, quite literally, in an ill fated attempt to embezzle the boss’s money and open the first ever Italian-Judeo delicatessen. In a slightly contrived act of sniffing out loyalty issues the boss tells each of our schmucks that the only way to dig their way out of their graves is by killing the other.

Some comedy is conjured out of this set up, but most of the laughs come from the terrific parodies of the numerous gangster movies that are had become commonplace by the mid 1980s, some even directed by De Palma himself. One of my favorite moments comes when Harry is asked to start the car, which everyone sees as a dire task. Apparently car bombs have become routine for this group of people, so much so that they bet on whether the bomb is rigged to the door or the ignition. And after their jig is up, Harry is comedically tortured by being tossed into a lobster tank. “I truly believe there may be another way out of this than the usual violent approach,” Harry says in between dunkings.

The film knows its audience is very familiar with mob movies, and who isn’t? The cliches of those types of films are spoofed quite effectively, and the films leading characters are charming and likable enough that they keep the jokes from getting too stale. The characters are even so likable that the climactic end of the film, taking place as Harry and Moe believe they are about to be whisked back to New York inside a stretch limo, is actually very thrilling. And Harry’s (fake) death elicits actual emotion (although we all know there’s no way the film could possibly end there).

This is made possible by the pair of excellent performances from Devito and Piscopo. Their camraderies is totally believable. The way Piscopo acts downwards to his little buddy seems totally natural, and Devito is utterly charming in even the most dire of circumstances. He always looks like he’s got a plan, some kind of scheme to get them out of whatever mess he just got them into. He’s immensely lovable.

Also enjoyable was the cast of side characters, ranging from Harvey Keitel (who is so, so natural as the Italian mobster type) as the casino owner Bobby D to Lou Albano as Frank “The Fixer” Acavano. The former plays the role totally straight, which becomes humorous when matched up with the rambunctiousness of the rest of the cast. The latter plays his role as the intensely aggressive yet morbidly obese mobster with just the right amount of excessiveness that the role calls for. The scenes with him are some of the funniest in the entire film, especially when he gets agitated, which is basically all the time. In one scene his mob buddy is clipping his toenails and wonders why he has to do this. The Fixer growls “You know damn well I can’t do it myself!” with such rage that we forget how sad it is that he’s so overweight he can’t even clip his own toenails.

This is not the funniest movie I’ve ever seen, not by a long shot. But what it is is a charming, mostly lighthearted romp with some very likable characters and appropriate, restrained direction from Brian De Palma.