The Untouchables (1987)

The Untouchables (1987) movie poster

director Brian De Palma
viewed: 11/03/2017

Personally, I think Brian De Palma’s 1987 crime movie The Untouchables holds up pretty well.

There is a lot of cool cinematography and set pieces, the highlights of the film. That opening overhead shot of Robert De Niro getting a shave. The whole sequence of the bar getting blown up. The baseball scene. The interior tracking and everything happening in Sean Connery’s apartment when he gets it.

And the cast is great. Okay, I won’t argue strongly for Kevin Costner. He’s a bland lawman at the head of the thing. But Connery, De Niro, Andy Garcia, and in particular Charles Martin Smith are solid and each gets some choice lines and scenes. Can you imagine it if Mickey Rourke had been Eliot Ness?

Certainly, it’s a man’s man’s man’s world. And it takes some fascism (via David Mamet’s script) to gain control of Al Capone and the mafia.

The one scene that didn’t hold up so well is the balletic slo-mo Odessa Steps homage shootout. I recall thinking it was really cool back in 1987. Now it seems like a lot of build-up to almost comedic action. My son chuckled during it.

Sisters (1973)

Sisters (1973) movie poster

director Brian De Palma
viewed: 01/15/2017

I’d long been meaning to re-watch Brian De Palma’s first foray into the psychological thriller genre, Sisters. Having recently watched the documentary De Palma (2015) as well as David Cronenberg’s take on twins, Dead Ringers (1988), I decided to queue it up.

I didn’t recall a lot from having seen Sisters some quarter century ago (how terrifying to use that phrase legitimately). But I did recall enjoying it.

Was Margot Kidder ever so winsome? Her silly French-Canadian accent is part of the charm of film, at times amazingly visual, at times happily silly (I’m thinking of you, Charles Durning and Bill Finley).

I also have to wonder: did Hitchcock ever see this? What about Polanski? If so, what did they think?

I’ve never seen De Palma’s earliest movies, the comedies that preceded Sisters, but it does seem that this is a transitional film for him. It’s quite funny that he followed this up with Phantom of the Paradise the very next year. Maybe that all makes more sense if you have seen all his early work (or not, who knows?)

The final shot of Durning surveilling the dumped couch is cutely open-ended, apropos very much.

De Palma (2015)

De Palma (2015) movie poster

directors Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
viewed: 01/05/2017

This De Palma documentary is the kind of artifact that fans would wish for of any of their revered directors. It’s just Brian De Palma himself talking at length about his life, career, and specific films, as interviewed and filmed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow offscreen. Copious shots of his films highlight his commentary.

At best, it’s insight to the career and workings of a significant filmmaker, one who has made a number of significant films (that number probably depends on the intensity of your De Palma fandom.) It certainly gave voice to a very different person than I had perceived De Palma from his work, humble, easy-going, friendly.

As I said, you’d love to have one of these made about any number of directors. De Palma is deserving, but the film sort of underscores a criticism thrown his way: that he’s not the sort of highest tier of auteur, but a strong stylist, whose best work makes the most of said style. Hitchcock is his god and eternal cinematic touchstone, homage after homage after homage. He’s a maestro with the split screen.

The greater auteurs typically bring more to the table, whether it’s innovation, invention, social or cultural commentary, a consistent world view, greater works of art. This documentary which offers consideration and study doesn’t necessarily make a case beyond De Palma’s strengths and shortcomings. Still, very worthwhile.

Carrie (1976)

Carrie (1976) movie poster

director Brian De Palma
viewed: 06/12/2016

This movie is pretty amazing.  Brian De Palma’s best?

Sissy Spacek is fantastic as the shrinking violet outcast turned avenging angel.  The whole cast is great really and what a cast: Piper Laurie of course, Nancy Allen, Travolta, Amy Irving, William Katt, P.J. Soles,…and Edie McClurg!  Edie McClurg as a teenager!

Say what you will about De Palma’s derivative aesthetics but Jesus, it’s a beautiful movie, from the tracking shots, the split screen, that spinning dance number, the gloriously colorful prom pre-destruction, it’s tremendously gorgeous.  And the loose and pre-P.C. portrayal of the nastiness of high schoolers.

At 40, it’s as good as ever.

I watched it this time with my daughter, who watched part of the 2013 re-make and was interested.  Talking about the differences, explaining how long ago this version was made, she commented how nobody had cellphones.

 

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)  movie poster

director Brian De Palma
viewed: 04/05/2015

You think you know Brian De Palma.  Director of a number of excellent films in the 1970’s-1980’s and a few notable films in the time since.  His greatness, or lacking in greatness, might be encapsulated in seeing him as a stylist with a rich visual aesthetic, though perhaps shallow in ways that might allow for a more auteurist assessment of his films.  But if you go back to his earliest work, in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, you might gain a perspective on an altogether different filmmaker.

Riffing off the Faust narrative, De Palma envisions The Phantom of the Opera (1925) as “rock” opera and the resultant horror-fantasy-cum-musical is a spiritual sibling and predecessor of the far more famous camp classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), not to mention a cult classic all its own, though culturally more obscure.

Obscure as it may be for some, I think I’ve been aware of Phantom of the Paradise for virtually all of my life.  I think it was in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland or other writings about horror films that I first saw images and references to the movie, and it has more or less lingered as one of those movies that I need to get around to seeing for all of that time.  Though it wasn’t until this Sunday that I finally got a chance to watch it courtesy of a friend who is an avid fan and his Blu-Ray disc.

I don’t know if it’s the Blu-Ray, but the movie is gorgeous.

De Palma’s signature split-screen shots are there (has anyone done this better?) but the whole production design and cinematography are beautiful.  For such an oddball, camp flick, it’s about as good-looking a movie as you’re like to find.

William Finley plays Winslow Leach, the composer who gets ripped off, disfigured, and imprisoned by the nefarious impresario Swan (the wonderful and weird Paul Williams, who also wrote all the music for the film and performed the voice of “The Phantom”.)  The gorgeous and beautifully-voiced Jessica Harper is Phoenix, the woman and the heart of the story.  There are a lot of great smaller roles throughout as well.

But the whole thing is a comic and camp phantasmagoria of rock’n’roll, pop, theater, sex, fame, and a hilarious skewering of the music industry through a prism of artsy oddity.  It’s pretty frickin’ brilliant.

I don’t know what else to say about it other than I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to seeing it.  Great, fun stuff!

Body Double (1984)

Body Double (1984) movie poster

director Brian De Palma
viewed: 03/14/2014

Director Brian De Palma’s Body Double is sort of his Eighties mash-up of Alfred Hitchcock’s Read Window (1954) and  Vertigo (1958), with a pornographic theme and lots of great Los Angeles location shooting.

I think it’s fair to say that De Palma has had his day in cinema.  I don’t know how great I really think any one work of his is and it’s been a long time for me on a few of his most notable films.  But he was no slouch and even in this rather extremely derivative flick starring a likable but not really star-quality Craig Wasson (who? right?), this is not a great nor terrible movie.

The funny thing is I always remembered liking it as a teen, though that might have been for all the nudity.  I did encounter it on cable television.  It is a decent riff on Hitchcock, though it’s no Hitchcock itself.

Really, Melanie Griffith is the best part of the film, another tip of the hat to Hitchcock as her mother Tippi Hedron was one of Hitch’s icy blondes.  She plays a porn star and a jabbery, upfront, gal of the Eighties, with her little girl voice, that New Wave coif, and frequently unclad body.  She’s actually only in the film quite briefly, but she’s by far the best thing in it.

It’s funny about Wasson.  Perhaps from my familiarity with him in this film and maybe another, he’s recognizable. I think in some way I thought of him and Bill Maher being the same person at some point (purely physical resemblance).  He’s got an affability but isn’t a compelling star, something that this movie kind of needs.

It’s a story about an actor on Hollywood’s lower rungs, who splits up with his wife and ends up house-sitting a crazy house (the Chemosphere).  From here, he spies on a sexy neighbor, who he ends up falling for, only to wind up witnessing her murder from afar.  He figures out that he was tricked by a “body double”, Griffith’s porn star and has to track the body down to find out who set him up.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood appear on set of the porn shoot, lip syncing what will become a version of their video for “Relax”.  It’s actually a little confusing at that point.  And I swear (would have sworn back in the day) that Wasson’s vampire get-up is actually Billy Idol’s outfit from “Dancin’ with Myself”.

It’s one of those odd kinds of movies where the sum isn’t quite the whole of the parts.  The LA locations, Melanie Griffith, numerous strange little things make it a reasonably entertaining film.  It was actually kind of funny to see again after so long, since I think I did like it quite well back in my youth.

The Fury

 

The Fury (1978) movie poster

(1978) dir. Brian De Palma
viewed: 10/27/08

I’ve seen quite a few of Brian De Palma’s films over the years, but The Fury wasn’t one of them.  I queued it up as part of my Halloween horror-fest for this year, though it turns out to not be so much a horror film but probably something that dips into several genre.  It’s certainly not his best.

De Palma’s “best” are debateably Sisters (1973), Carrie (1976), and The Untouchables (1987).  Most recently of his films, I saw Scarface (1983).  The thing about De Palma is that he channels Hitchcock like a wind tunnel at times, perhaps achieving some of his high points in doing so.

This film, like Carrie, is about teenagers with psychic abilities.  Unlike Carrie, it’s far less psychological, far less perverse, far more of a big adventure film.  It stars Kirk Douglas, an aging leading man at the time, who is trying to find his psychic teenage son, who has been abducted by John Cassavetes and some secret government organization.  There are some action moments with Douglas running, jumping, and crashing cars.  And the psychic phenomena moments, in which De Palma uses some of the film’s most effective editing, are sporatic.  It’s a bit long, too.

What is cool is the location shooting in Chicago in 1978.  I’ve watched several films shot on location in New York in that era, which is revelatory in a historical and cultural way.  Chicago, too, is interesting to see, a time not so long ago, but yet still significantly different from today.  Would it be sad to say that this was my favorite thing about the movie?

Hopefully, my coming horror films will begin to fit the bill a little better.

Scarface

 

Scarface (1983) movie poster

(1983) dir. Brian De Palma
viewed: 09/08/06

For some reason, I had never seen this iconic 1980’s film from the significant, if not brilliant Brian De Palma.  My personal favorite of De Palma’s was his poppy, strange adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), but his career has been marked by interesting, if not fascinating fare.  Perhaps, Scarface was one of his true peaks in terms of popularity.  It’s an epic, clocking nearly 3 hours of running time.  Oliver Stone wrote the script.  Giorgio Moroder created the original music.  And a young, beautiful and compelling Michelle Pfeiffer is the cocaine-addicted moll.  It’s got a lot going for it.  It’s a re-imagining, if not a re-make of Howard Hawks’ earlier gangster film.  And actually, in retrospect, watching it prior to this could have been informative.

Frankly, Al Pacino is a joke.  He doesn’t just chew scenery, he utterly masticates it, digests it, shits it out.  His Cuban accent is ridiculous.  There are a lot of Italians and Jews, but not a lot of Cubans or even Latinos playing primary roles.  It’s bizarre.  Pacino acts well with his face and body gestures, but emotes like the proverbial ham, hammier than ham.  He’s the whole pig.  It is painful at times to hear him speak.

The film has this cultural focus on the Cuban immigrants of 1980 and this criticism of Fidel Castro that I don’t have enough historical information to fully critique.  It just strikes me as weird and lacking analysis or true cultural connection.  A strange, phony atmosphere.  Fully 1980’s, which feels genuine due to the hairdos and the post-disco pop.

The best scene in the movie is the “chainsaw” scene which is relatively early in the film and seems to promise more than the rest of the film has to deliver.  I love the shot that tracks from the apartment down to the car outside, waiting, casually, while the inside is going crazy and someone is getting chainsawed to bits.  It’s the masterpiece of the film.  Later, the film delivers a fine camp moment, when Tony Montana’s younger sister comes nearly nude, provoking him sexually, and then starts shooting at him until she is gunned down by rival hoods.  It’s pretty over-the-top and has some trash appeal.

Overall, though, the film is not De Palma’s best.  The attitude toward Pacino’s Tony is mixed sympathy and total revulsion.  He is just a killer, a criminal, with shallow sensibilities, while living “the American Dream” in criminal style.  It could in a sense be a parable of the 1980’s.  There are probably better contexts in which to watch this.   Some context, perhaps.  On its own, I’d say it’s not bad but not great.  But it’s definitely a movie of its time, which perhaps is the best way to watch it.