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Retrospective: The Films of Brian De Palma

Retrospective: The Films of Brian De Palma

Few film directors are as polarizing as Brian De Palma, whose new film, the already argued-over “Passion,” opens this week (read our review from Venice here). Hailed by some as an American visionary and a modern master of suspense, capable of gorgeously realized visual feats, De Palma is derided by others as a overtly referential hack who has based almost his entire career on a single trick: ripping off Alfred Hitchcock. But, as “Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible,” the new scholarly text on the director by Chris Dumas, points out, this divisiveness is at least partially his own doing. De Palma is a director who once claimed that he wanted to be “the American Godard” and talked openly about “the revolution” on national television (fun fact: he was once shot by a cop), yet went on to create fizzy popcorn entertainments that were occasionally boycotted for their perceived misogyny (at least two of his movies spawned honest-to-God, organized revolts). But if one of De Palma’s inherent gifts as an artist is his uncanny ability to synthesize films that feel very much his own out of disparate source material, that doesn’t always lead to a great deal of consistency as regards the quality of his output—and so his fascinating filmography runs the gamut from stone-cold classic to whatthehellwashethinking??? and back again, several times over.

It’s undeniable that De Palma has real flair and visual sense. When so many action and suspense movies these days are lost in a shuffle of quick cuts and hand-held shakiness, De Palma’s camera gracefully glides around sequences, so that you’re always aware of the spatial geography of the moment and where the characters are in relation to the camera and each other. He uses a whole host of tricks as a kind of visual shorthand: the split diopter lens that allows both the foreground and background to be in focus, the employment of split-screen for a number of reasons (mostly to show the same event from two different locations or perspectives) and the use of slow motion as a way not just to amplify the visual importance of a moment but to accentuate the moment’s emotionality. But (especially to his detractors), these often acutely-aware-of-themselves flourishes can end up taking away from what are often perceived as lightweight narratives, pieces where the style doesn’t enhance the subject but rather is the subject. 

The vocal enthusiasm of both his supporters and detractors actually makes him somewhat unique in his peer group (which also includes Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola). From the outset it seems like a love-it-or-leave-it approach has to be taken; either you’re on board or not. But this is slightly unfair. There are things that even the skeptics can begrudgingly love about his movies, and things that even diehards are quick to admit can be improved. In this feature, we hope to explore the wide range of emotions associated with De Palma’s distinctive filmography. Of course, since this is De Palma, we may occasionally slip into the realm of the hopelessly obsessive ourselves. It’s only fitting.

Murder A La Mod” (1968)
As far as debut features go, it’s hard to find one that’s more evocative of the filmmaker’s overarching career trajectory than “Murder a La Mod.” Released in one theater in New York City in 1968, the film was quickly forgotten and remained, for a while, one of the hidden corners of De Palma’s past. You can already feel the effects Antonioni‘s “Blow-Up” was having on the director (as well as Michael Powell‘s “Peeping Tom” and, of course, Hitchcock), in this tale of murder set amongst the blurred territory between art and pornography. A number of later, better De Palma movies can claim their origin here too, along with his chief thematic obsessions: voyeurism and sexual violence. In fact the movie is relatively entertaining, even though, at 80 minutes, it feels more like an art school thesis project rather than a bona fide feature film (and that theme song, written and sung by future “Phantom of the Paradise” icon William Finley, is kind of a hoot). The movie’s black-and-white aesthetic adds to its generally homemade quality, poised somewhere between experimentalism (already he was toying with jump cuts and POV shots) and amateurism (some scenes are just cut oddly, and it’s not for dramatic or artistic effect). The humor that would define De Palma’s best films is in short supply here, although some of the sequences are unintentionally hilarious. It’s like De Palma was unsure whether or not humor and horror could commingle, so he wanted to make sure the comedies he was making at the time were ultra wacky and things like “Murder a La Mod” were as told as straightfacedly as possible. Watching “Murder a La Mod” now, as part of the supplemental spread on the deluxe Criterion edition of “Blow Out,” is like uncovering a De Palma time capsule that predicts the future of his career. If only the movie was better. [C-]

Greetings” (1968)
Audiences that only know (and perhaps adore) De Palma for the stylish, immaculately crafted Hitchcockian postmodern movieness that dominated his career, might not even recognize the De Palma from the early ‘70s with his socio-political bent and anarchic, silly, freewheeling comedic style. An amusing socio-political satire about three New York men trying to dodge the Vietnam draft, “Greetings” is offbeat and wacky with musical segments that resemble something taken from “The Monkees” TV show or the Beatles during their early Help! days. Starring Robert De Niro (in one of his first major roles), Jonathan Warden and Gerrit Graham, the vignette-heavy picture wrily plays like a self-mocking spoof of free love and ‘60s culture while at the same time embracing the anti-establishment zeitgeist. Discursive, episodic and very loose (to see this in contrast to De Palma’s modern work is like seeing night and day), the film follows three characters: Paul (Warden) the shy love-seeker who uses a computer dating service to get laid, Jon (Deniro), the amateur filmmaker-cum-peeping tom who helps coach his friends out of the draft with all kind of hilariously wild ideas, and Lloyd (Graham), the Kennedy assassination conspiracy nut. While DeNiro is largely defined as the super-serious unhinged tough guy in “Mean Streets,” his De Palma collaborations came way ahead of Marty’s breakthrough film and it’s wonderful to see him this loose and playful in this nebbish part (more akin to Rupert Pupkin in “The King Of Comedy“) — he even breaks the 4th wall at one point. While still very ragtag, De Palma’s affection for the French New Wave is very much in evidence, and while enthusiasm once again eclipses focus, “Greetings” is nonetheless vibrant, spirited and often times a hilarious portrait of the anxiety of living in the shadow of the draft. [B]

The Wedding Party” (1969)
You’ll often see “The Wedding Party”— when looking at a chronological view of De Palma’s filmography — listed as his third feature-length film (as it is here), but make no mistake, it’s actually his true directorial debut (well, sorta). And to be honest, it shows. Independently produced, shot in 1963 and released six years later, it’s safe to say DePalma would rather have this film seen as a student movie instead of what is technically his feature debut (though that’s arguable too: its credits list his drama teacher and renowned stage director Wilford Leach and the film’s producer Cynthia Munroe as co-directors, but it’s said Leach worked with actors and Munroe simply paid for it). Starring Robert De Niro (improperly listed as ”Denero”), Jill Clayburgh (both of whom he is credited with “discovering”) and Charles Pfluger, “The Wedding Party” is a dark farce set in Long Island, New York with a simple premise: a soon-to-be-groom interacts with his fiancée’s family and the members of his wedding party two days before he’s supposed to married. This mostly amounts to the groom (Pfluger) conversing with his friends (one of which is DeNiro) about various topical ‘60s issues such as the sexual revolution, Vietnam and black power, all while also discussing bachelorhood and impending marriage. High on enthusiasm, but low on focus, laughs or insight “The Wedding Party” is often improvised (it shows) and like all of his early work, has a goofy sheen to it. Notable for its use of jump cuts (De Palma was in love with the energy of the French New Wave at the time) and silent film techniques (title cards, sped up running around a la Keystone Kops), the director seems to spit techniques at the screen (still photography, voice-over) without much thought or arrangement. And often, said techniques feel like choices of necessity, circumstance or budget rather than creative ones. While an interesting curio, especially for De Niro and De Palma completists, “The Wedding Party” is more of an unpolished experiment in filmmaking rather than a proper De Palma film and should be viewed as such. [C-]

Hi, Mom!” (1970)
While an arch and devilish sense of humor is key to understanding the stylish, over-the-top second half of De Palma’s career, one has to wonder if ‘70s cinephiles lamented the end of his irreverent, reckless, scruffy and ’60s-inspired groovy style that spanned his early career and ended with “Greetings” (and to a lesser extent “Get To Know Your Rabbit“). Continuing De Palma’s amusing socio-political exploration, the filmmaker’s fourth feature is a counter-cultural comedy/quasi sequel to “Greetings,” this time focusing on Jon Rubin, the peeping tom/aspiring filmmaker played by Robert De Niro (Allen Garfield also essentially reprises a similar role of the smut peddler). A media satire and send-up, “Hi Mom!” centers on Rubin (a Vietnam vet of course), back in New York finding his voyeuristic tendencies (De Palma preoccupation alert!) have taken on a more demented bent. Once Rubin gets involved with adult porn magnate John Barren (Garfield), he hatches a plan to shoot pornographic pictures by filming his unsuspecting neighbors; going as far as dating a girl next door and attempting to time their lovemaking to his calculating camera. With appearances by Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning and actor-turned-filmmaker Paul Bartel (“Eating Raoul“), “Hi Mom!” is almost two movies in one, with its second half taking on an angry, politically charged mood in a completely different cinema verite style (this character could easily be a precursor to Travis Bickle). It’s as if the movie takes a “Vertigo”-esque turn (Hitchcock preoccupation alert!), and changes gears as Rubio becomes increasingly violent and urban guerilla-esque. When his porn-career plan fails, the disillusioned veteran turns to a radical theater group simply to fit in somewhere. Cue black face and white face segments that are pretty visceral and the famous “Be Black, Baby” section, shot in documentary style that could be a movie unto itself (black radicals interview Caucasians about the meaning of being black). Structurally, the wild and ungainly narrative falls apart, but “Hi Mom!” is a complex and ambitious send-up of political extremism, white guilt and media perception. Even when it doesn’t work. [B]

Dionysus in ’69” (1970)
This pseudo-documentary focuses on The Performance Group, an experimental New York City theater troupe that would later be known as The Wooster Group, as they perform the titular play, an adaptation of the ancient Greek theatrical piece “The Bacchae.” The entire movie is captured via one of De Palma’s favorite stylistic flourishes: split screen. The movie was shot, edited, and directed by De Palma and was entered into competition at the Berlin International Film Festival. Since the festival, though, it’s rarely been screened and remains a coveted relic amongst DePalmaniacs — rare enough in fact, that none of us have had the chance to see it. It sounds a little like an outlier curio in De Palma’s back catalogue, but we’ll leave this section ungraded pending getting a chance to actually judge for ourselves. [-]

Get To Know Your Rabbit” (1972)
The last of De Palma’s purely silly comedies, which embraced their shaggy absurdism and relied heavily on zippy wordplay and visual gags, as far as goodbyes go, they don’t get much more inglorious than “Get to Know Your Rabbit.” Tom Smothers (yes, one of the Smothers Brothers), plays an executive who leaves the corporate world behind to follow his dreams of becoming a tap dancing magician. Er. The title refers to one of the golden rules of magic, which is to get to know the rabbit that you’ll be working with on stage. In fact, when Smothers says to Orson Welles —playing Mr. Delsandro, a master magician who runs an academy for wannabes — that he’ll work 24 hours a day if he has to, Welles looks at him and growls, “That would be terribly unfair to your rabbit.” The script, although intended for a major studio release, was heavily influenced by off-the-wall British comedy and focuses on zany gags like John Astin, playing Smothers’ co-worker, locking Smothers and his parents in a wardrobe to give them more privacy, while he walks around the spacious room. The problem with “Get to Know Your Rabbit” is that its zippy exuberance can’t replace an actual narrative worth investing in, and after the movie’s first hour it just starts to grate. Supposedly Smothers was unhappy with the way the film was shot, and had Warner Bros effectively fire De Palma when the film was in post-production, leaving a picture that both the star and the director have publicly distanced themselves from. But even with De Palma out of the movie, it still carries with it some of the filmmaker’s hallmarks, especially during the outstanding opening, which involves split screen, an overhead shot of a man walking through an apartment building (vertically and not laterally) and an attempted bombing (something that would return to the De Palma arsenal in “Phantom of the Paradise“). Ultimately, “Get to Know Your Rabbit” proved to be a dud, with barely any kind of theatrical release and no presence on home video until the Warner Bros. manufacture-on-demand technology resurrected it. Nowadays it’s more notable for being the movie that convinced De Palma to move away from comedies and into the shadowy realm of the thriller, than anything that’s actually in the movie. Although, it should be noted, Welles is a hoot. [C-]

Sisters” (1973)
De Palma’s affection for all things Hitchcockian is on full display in this lovely little low-budget shocker, the first of his thrillers that more or less laid the groundwork for his career after its release. “Sisters” is like a game of cinematic Mad Libs, only with Hitchcock’s films. You can fill in the blanks with references to his work: the ludicrous pop-psychology and murder scenes are all “Psycho”; a multi-tiered, creepy nightmare sequence near the climax is reminiscent of “Vertigo”; elsewhere there’s a sequence straight out of “Rear Window”; and over it all Bernard Herrmann’s wonderfully batshit score. Yet De Palma also has fun subverting Hitch’s tropes, ultimately crafting a cautionary tale about modern women—diametrically represented by Margot Kidder’s sexy French model and Jennifer Salt’s smart, driven and bullheaded journalist— subjugated by men who refuse to take them seriously, and the harmful side effects that can result. When Kidder, here playing a Siamese twin who survived the separation surgery while her more disturbed sister died, meets a nice young man on a game show, things go from good (casual sex!) to very very bad (stabbing!) in a hurry, and it’s up to the reporter in the building across the street, played by Salt (in a role and storyline heavily indebted to Barbara Stanwyck’s “Witness to Murder”) to solve the case. The director’s tendency to fall into camp histrionics doesn’t always gel with his subject matter, but the crazy/silly/fun strange brew of “Sisters” and its use of giallo techniques and plotting and the surprisingly deft protofeminist leanings for what is in many ways an arty exploitation horror genre piece, proves a perfect match. It’s as stylish as anything in his filmography, often funny as hell, and on a few occasions brutally violent (seriously, that first murder is tough to watch, even by today’s gore standards), and the final shot is a wonderful little visual, cosmic joke. It’s flat-out one of De Palma’s best. [A]

Phantom of the Paradise” (1974)
It’s kind of shocking to think of “Phantom of the Paradise” as coming beforeCarrie,” since it reeks of the wildly creative, endlessly self indulgent spectacle usually associated with a filmmaker cashing in all of their chips and goodwill following a sizable hit. “Phantom of the Paradise” is that kind of singularly outrageous passion project, but one that came before the director had any kind of quantifiable success. (Also of note: its gonzo mix of horror and musical elements predates “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” by a full year.) It’s the kind of movie that makes you wonder, who the fuck does Brian De Palma think he is? A winky combination of “The Phantom of the Opera” and Faustian legend, well, let’s just quote the Wolfman Jack radio ad from the period: “It’s about a cat who sells his soul for rock’n’roll… It’s a horror story, it’s a love story, it’s a comedy, all rolled into one phantasmagorical flick.” Even though the movie, filled largely with obscure character actors like De Palma regulars William Finley and Gerrit Graham, was overlooked upon its initial release, both critically (Vincent Canby called it “an elaborate disaster” in his review for the New York Times) and commercially, it has since acquired an appreciable cult following and is largely cited as one of De Palma’s finest. The cult of “Phantom of the Paradise” has a lot to do with the music by seventies icon Paul Williams, especially since the songs appropriate a wide range of styles and flavors (everything from doo wop to phony Beach Boys to all-out rock’n’roll). French electro duo Daft Punk talked openly about the influence “Phantom of the Paradise” has had on them, from their trademark masks to enlisting Williams for their own cross-genre masterpiece Random Access Memories and French musician Sebastien Tellier said that his Eurovision entry “Divine” was a direct reference to one of the fake bands in the movie. Of course, “Phantom of the Paradise” is also notable for its exuberant visuals, which are even more wildly comic book-y than normal (take the escape from prison/creation of the Phantom sequence), with De Palma’s usual obsessive flourishes amped up to a frantic degree (it features some of his best use of split screen ever, during the sequence where the Phantom is planting a bomb on stage). Either you love “Phantom of the Paradise” or you hate it, there’s very little middle ground. But for a director routinely criticized for how “cold” his movies are, this is an absolute delight, a surprisingly emotional, endlessly rewatchable journey through the dark heart of showbiz. [A]

Obsession” (1976)
Considering how much bloody violence and explicit sex Brian De Palma has committed to cinema over the years, it’s pretty strange that “Obsession,” a PG-rated romantic mystery chiefly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Vertigo,” remains one of his most controversial. The movie itself is pretty simple, at least within the decidedly warped canon of De Palma movies: a New Orleans businessman (Cliff Robertson) loses his wife and daughter in a kidnapping plot gone wrong and years later falls in love with a woman (Genevieve Bujold) who looks exactly like his late wife. Of course, his new obsession runs the risk of turning out like the last one, with Robertson losing the person he loves the most, especially since the dark forces that were responsible for the previous kidnapping are realigning (if you see John Lithgow in a Brian De Palma movie, just run the other way as fast as you can, especially if he has a slippery southern drawl). Famously, “Taxi Driver” scribe Paul Schrader‘s original script, entitled “Deja vu,” was significantly longer than the finished film, with the obsession repeating itself a third time (the end of the movie was set in the not-too-distant future). When De Palma requested that the ending be truncated and rearranged, based on a suggestion by composer Bernard Hermann, Schrader refused, and De Palma did the last script polish; Schrader never forgave him. But surely this extra act could have added little to the film besides yet another layer of mind boggling complexity (you can read the script in the little booklet that comes with the region-free European Blu-ray of the movie). The other area of contention is the movie’s (SPOILER) incestuous subplot, with the eventual reveal being that the woman Robertson falls in love in the second timeline is actually his daughter (she didn’t really die in the original kidnapping plot). In an effort to lessen the overt incest subplot and gain a distributor for the independent production, De Palma and his editor Paul Hirsch added effects and an establishing shot of Robertson sleeping to suggest much of their relationship, including when they have sex, was actually a dream – a dreamy fabrication of his inner desires. Subsequently, the dream sequence reading of the movie has largely been put aside, with most taking the literal meaning of the movie: that Robertson fucked his daughter. Pretty bleak stuff for a PG-rated movie (something that makes it all even more perverse). While “Obsession” is far from perfect — its pacing often drags, the cast is somewhat second rate (Robertson can’t pull off the psychodrama or the sexuality) and Vilmos Zsigmond‘s diffused cinematography is sometimes so soft that the image becomes a blurry haze (though there are some truly wonderful shots, of course, including a great moment that’s meant to represent the passage of 15 years). But there are just as many delights, like Hermann’s sweeping score and Lithgow’s bonkers performance. Admittedly, if you watch the movie thinking that the incest subplot is not a dream, then it’s a much better, more gleefully lurid experience. [B]

Carrie” (1976)
Often imitated, never duplicated (woe to this fall’s high profile remake), Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, “Carrie” not only introduced the work of Stephen King to the silver screen for the first time, but also helped to usher the horror genre out of the B-movie ghetto and into mainstream success and prestige (both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were Academy-award nominated for their performances). De Palma brings his sheer cinematic audacity to the well-trodden world of high school bullies and and mean girls, both energizing and abstracting the genre’s aesthetic, infusing the proceedings with a shot of absurdism and beauty, and showcasing a completely unique style of cinematic storytelling. However, here, all of the style serves the story, which is why sequences like the extended slow motion naked locker room introduction/tampon attack, the spiraling camera during a dance between Carrie and Tommy (William Katt), and the use of split screen to demonstrate Carrie’s telekinetic powers during her violent rampage feel not just apropos, but the only way to capture these moments. But while he applies artful (and ballsy) cinematic techniques to what is essentially high school horror exploitation material, De Palma isn’t afraid to muck around with a little bit of camp (a quality all too easily tossed aside in overly serious modern horror). Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s Southern-fried religious fanatic mother, as well as Nancy Allen as the evil Chris (with John Travolta as her dumb-as-rocks boyfriend) are the epitome of high camp. This willingness to allow the film to be ridiculous or funny at times is what makes it so compulsively re-watchable (the mark of a true classic), and inspires one to long for De Palma to return to this milieu. No matter how many sequels or remakes or Broadway adaptations, no iteration of this tale will come close to the original without De Palma behind the wheel. [A]

The Fury” (1978)
Usually, you can tell whether or not someone is a De Palma die hard by where they stand on “The Fury“: to the faithful it’s a kicky, super-charged thriller, one in which the heightened style De Palma developed with “Carrie” spins gloriously out of control, a movie so artfully entertaining that it supposedly inspired Godard to return to more mainstream enterprises. For those on the other side of the fence it’s an unnecessarily violent, muddled retread of the infinitely superior “Carrie,” one in which the constant flow of sparky shocks trumps little things like narrative coherence or tonal consistency. What makes “The Fury” such a singular moment in the director’s filmography is that both lines of thought are essentially correct: it is kind of a shit show, with the movie’s highly emotional thematic core, which attempts to dramatize what it’s like to be a young person (with psychic powers, no less) victimized by powerful adults, repeatedly getting undercut by De Palma’s show-offy camerawork and abrupt tonal shifts, like the hilarious sight of Kirk Douglas, as an AWOL secret agent, running around Chicago in his underwear. On the other side of things, “The Fury” is an absurdist delight, one in which the rigid conventions of the seventies paranoid thriller are taken to such extremes that the movie takes on its own kind of profound, abstract beauty; earthly logic doesn’t matter because you’re so wholly transported. The plot of “The Fury” concerns teenagers who possess a psychic ability that makes them very attractive to a covert government shingle that hopes to weaponize them (led by a gloriously villainous John Cassavetes, who gets his comeuppance in the movie’s unforgettable final moment). Like the “X-Men” movies, “The Fury” mines the transition from childhood to adulthood as a metaphorically rich period of time, where the emotional trauma and feelings of alienation and heartache translate into superpowers and exploding heads. For such an underseen movie, it has some of the director’s most virtuosic set pieces, including a wordless foot chase sequence (scored by John Williams‘ amazing music), a foggy car chase that seems to have been filmed almost entirely on an elaborate set, and an absolutely astounding sequence set at a now-defunct indoor amusement park where one of the psychically gifted teens lets out his fury. The film has its share of problems (the parallel narrative paths never reconcile in a meaningful way) but it’s a movie that seems to be saying something about America’s relationship with the Middle East while also being a coming-of-age tale that makes time for jokes about Kirk Douglas’ underwear and exploding heads. [A-]

Home Movies” (1980)
During Brian De Palma’s sexy, suspenseful streak of either out-and-out masterpieces or interesting, adventurous entertainments, he stopped to make “Home Movies,” a clunky, low-budget, disarmingly autobiographical comedy about a young man (Keith Gordon) who, distraught over his parents’ rocky marriage, starts obsessively filming his home life. (Some of its handmade charm came from the fact that De Palma made the movie with his students from a class he was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College). Voyeurism has been a constant theme in De Palma’s work, stemming from an early childhood incident where he tried to capture photographic evidence of his father’s philandering ways. This is De Palma dealing with that situation directly, although diffused through the trappings of a gonzo indie comedy, wherein the Gordon character is visited regularly by Kirk Douglas (who had just starred in De Palma’s infinitely funnier big-budget sci-fi thingy “The Fury“) playing a kind of magical film professor who guides Gordon in the best ways to photograph his father. Sometimes this is kind of funny, but more often than not it’s WTF-worthy weirdness. De Palma regulars Nancy Allen (who was still married to the director at the time) and Gerrit Graham (from “Phantom of the Paradise“) make memorable appearances but get lost in the muddy, boxy photography (so weird for a director who usually so elegantly uses the widescreen image) and snared in the script’s confused tonal mishmash. De Palma movies are often notable for being wholly understandable just by the images alone; even without music or dialogue you can grasp what’s happening. With “Home Movies,” he was boldly reverting back to the more experimental material of his early films but in a way that fails to connect in any meaningful way. He was certainly going for something with “Home Movies,” but what that something is remains wholly obscured. Not even the imagery can muster much enthusiasm, even from the De Palma faithful. [C-]

Dressed to Kill” (1980)
We could describe the plot of “Dressed to Kill” in detail, but the story isn’t really the point here for either the director or his audience. De Palma’s love for and homages to Alfred Hitchcock have been discussed to a brutal, stabby death, but it’s impossible not to bring up the original Master of Suspense when talking about this particular movie. We imagine it’s the film that De Palma thinks Hitchcock would’ve made were he not operating under the Hays Code. Echoing one of Hitch’s most famous scenes, this 1980 film begins with Angie Dickinson’s Kate Miller in the shower having a rape fantasy, and the film isn’t shy about showing every inch of the actress (or, more accurately, body double–and Playmate–Victoria Lynn Johnson). While Hitchcock’s shower scene doesn’t show the blade piercing the skin, De Palma’s murder later in the film zeroes in on a slicing blade and glories in the spurting blood from the first strike — what a difference two decades makes. Beyond the individual moments, there are of course thematic and stylistic echoes, including doubles, voyeurism and blondes (there are apparently no brunettes in De Palma’s New York). But outside of the easy comparisons to the classic filmmaker’s work, “Dressed to Kill” stands on its own as a fun, sometimes silly psychosexual thriller that only De Palma could have made. The film is steeped in the year 1980, and many of its elements haven’t aged particularly well (it’s not one of Michael Caine’s best performances), but it is still an enjoyable exercise in style. Ann Roth deserves extra notice for creating the glamorous costumes, particularly for Dickinson’s sexually frustrated housewife and Nancy Allen’s upscale hooker. [B+]

Blow Out” (1981)
No matter what you think of De Palma’s oeuvre as a whole, it’s impossible to deny the raw power of “Blow Out.” An uncanny bouillabaisse of influences including everything from Antonioni‘s “Blow-Up” to the JFK assassination, the movie concerns a B-movie sound technician (John Travolta, in his all-time best performance) who accidentally records a political assassination and gets involved in a dark conspiracy involving a young call girl (Nancy Allen, of course) and a contract killer (John Lithgow, of course again), who lets his work get away from him. “Blow Out” oscillates wildly in terms of tone and genre, too. Ostensibly, it’s a thriller, but it’s also a movie-world satire about low-budget filmmaking, and a celebration of the transformative power of cinema, all nestled inside regular De Palma themes of voyeurism, sexuality and political unease. What was originally intended as a much smaller film wound up with an infinitely larger budget thanks to the rising star power of Travolta and the movie, according to one De Palma book, made less than half of its production back in its initial domestic run. It’s hard to imagine audiences, who had been so beguiled by Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease” turning up to see him as an obsessive, self-loathing sleazeball. (The movie, although released in 1981, carries with it the cynicism and sophistication of a seventies movie. Had it been released just a few years earlier we have to believe it would have been more loudly appreciated and seen by a greater audience.) But really, its cheif pleasure is that if “Blow Out” is consumed with the mechanics of filmmaking, then the filmmaking in “Blow Out” is beyond exquisite. From the opening prologue, a phony slasher movie sequence that is giddily over-the-top, to the title sequence that basically lays out the entire movie in a few minutes, to the staging of the actual blow out; this is De Palma’s working at an astonishing technical level, but without the usual glittery flourishes that usually garner so much criticism from the director’s detractors. It is, in its weird way, subtler than most of De Palma’s thrillers but just as dazzling, maybe more so (Quentin Tarantino may have repurposed a section of it for “Death Proof,” but even Pino Donaggio‘s score feels delicate and understated). There are showy moments, of course, like the sequence where Travolta realizes his tapes have been erased, all captured by a single swirling camera movement, but it’s all in service of a deceptively simple story of growing paranoia and sexual unease. “Blow Out” culminates in what is undoubtedly De Palma’s most downbeat ending; (SPOILER) not only does the beautiful girl get horribly murdered but our “hero,” racked with guilt, who has been recording the entire moment, ends up utilizing it for one of his hacky B movies. In De Palma’s world, even real-world tragedy can be fodder for movie magic. [A]

Scarface” (1983)
A 1983 retelling of the 1933 Paul Muni gangster classic, DePalma takes on the American dream and renders it absurd (and violent) in the form of Cuban immigrant Tony Montana (Al Pacino). The gangster genre has long been a useful way to dissect the American dream, especially for those ethnic immigrants shut out of the mainstream capitalist system who found access to financial success (the marker of achievement) by turning to crime. The 1933 version of “Scarface” was so violent that it, in part, inspired the restrictive Hays Code, enforced in Hollywood in 1934, that required films have “compensating moral values” for depicting crime, lawlessness, and general immorality (ie. the bad guy’s got to be punished). And DePalma’s take follows the gangster formula dutifully, down to the bloody blaze of “compensating moral values” that he goes out in. Written by Oliver Stone in the wake of a fierce cocaine addiction, the film is like the effect of a line of fresh powder snorted in a Miami club bathroom: colorful, bright and bloody. Pacino disappears into Tony, his accent thick and unwieldy, his eyes wild. He is unhinged and unpredictable, a man who lives by the motto he sees on a Goodyear blimp: the world is yours. An exquisite Michelle Pfeiffer represents his ultimate trophy: an icy blonde white woman, whom he gets how he gets everything in his life—with copious amounts of cocaine. But while Tony’s creeds and lifestyle are often aped in rap videos as an aspirational way of life, make no bones about it, “Scarface” is an absolute satire of the fallacy that is this particular American Dream. At the moment when Tony throws a tantrum in a fancy restaurant, sipping expensive wine, surrounded by his drug-addled trophy wife and his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer), he realizes that all that he’s worked (and killed) to attain is utterly empty and meaningless. Tony Montana is capitalism’s existential crisis. A close reading of the film clearly demonstrates how De Palma illustrates this—even the famous bathtub scene shows Tony alone and made absurd by his own meaningless surroundings. The epic scope of the film, the South Beach sun-blasted, saturated colors, the brutal violence, and Pacino’s over the top, but brilliant, performance have co-mingled to create a gangster classic that wasn’t embraced upon release, but has since imprinted itself on our collective unconscious. [A]

Body Double” (1984)
While “Blow Out” is the undisputed masterpiece from De Palma’s so-called “red period,” “Body Double” might be the most flat-out fun, though it was inspired by De Palma’s experience working with a body double for the opening of “Dressed to Kill” (no, that was not Angie Dickinson‘s bush) and intended initially as an honest intersection of adult film and Hollywood (complete with X-rating). Even after it was decided that the movie would be a more mainstream Hollywood piece, De Palma flirted with actually casting an adult film actress in the lead role of Holly Body. But when Columbia brass found out he was auditioning porno queens, they had a shit fit, leading De Palma to cast a largely unknown Melanie Griffith in the role. From the infamous teaser poster (which won an advertising award) to the movie itself, “Body Double” was marred by controversy that often tipped over into outright hate. De Palma, who had flirted with being labeled a misogynist mostly due to his uncanny ability to think of creative ways to kill beautiful young women, was finally condemned as villainously anti-woman, with most of the criticism centered around a scene where a woman is impaled by an oversized phallic drill (get it?) Of course, the hysteria feels misplaced now, with the movie playing more as a clever mash-up of elements of “Vertigo” and “Rear Window,” significantly sexed-up for the music video eighties (there’s even a music video within the movie)) It’s also infused with De Palma’s trademark absurdist sense of humor, particularly when, towards the end, the narrative shuffles between the actual plot and the cheesy vampire movie that our main character (Craig Wasson, charming in his own, wooden way) is making. But even if you find “Body Double” deplorable (“sadistic” was probably the word most often used to describe it), it’s hard not to be awed by some of the set pieces (even the drill-killing sequence, which features the same pooch from Sam Fuller‘s “White Dog” trivia fans), including the extended chase that travels through an outdoor mall and out onto the beach, the aforementioned Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video, and anything involving a naked Melanie Griffith. There’s a certain amount of joy in every frame of “Body Double” that is sometimes lacking in De Palma’s more clinical technical exercises, with little flourishes like frequent De Palma confederate Dennis Franz playing De Palma (he’s even wearing De Palma’s clothes); a phony all-pornographic channel that Wasson watches (“And for you home viewers, you can pick it up at Tower Records all-night video sales”); Wasson auditioning for a porno while another one is being shot on the stage below (viewable, since this is a De Palma movie, thanks to a rectangular sliver of glass in the producer’s elevated office); and Pino Donaggio‘s purposefully cheesy, electronics-infused score. (The screenplay, too, by De Palma and Robert J. Avrech, is endlessly quotable — “I’m not some fucking stunt cock, I’m an actor!”) It’s got the conspiratorial tone of someone telling a really dirty joke, something that makes the outrage that followed the film’s release even more baffling. Plus, if De Palma was really a misogynist, why would he give Griffith all the best lines? [A-]

Wise Guys” (1986)
Oftentimes Brian De Palma movies can be funny, sometimes outrageously so (as is the case with “Body Double” and “The Fury“), but when he tries to do out-and-out comedies the results are decidedly more mixed. In the case of “Wise Guys,” though, his attempt at humor was more or less a complete disaster. Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo (!) play a couple of low-level leg-breakers who squander a mob boss’ money and go on the run together (in a pink Cadillac, no less). There are a couple of noteworthy supporting performances, particularly Dan Hedaya as the mob boss who loves wearing bulletproof business suits (don’t ask) and Harvey Keitel as an Atlantic City hotel owner, whose mere presence makes the movie a few degrees cooler, but that doesn’t amount to much. What could have been an intriguing, fun concept is marred from the very beginning by cartoonish performances and a kind of heightened reality that doesn’t, as is usually the case with De Palma movies, enrich the action but instead detracts from it to a crippling degree. Everyone seems to be shouting and waving their arms around and De Palma’s direction more or less follows suit, with a number of visual flourishes that only serve to remind us that the director could very well be using his complex technical expertise on much better material. (Although there is a great, super single shot of an entire street clearing the way for an exploding car, only hampered slightly by his decision to speed up the action a la the trying-on-the-tuxedos moment in “Carrie.”) “Wise Guys” proves that a tone deaf, dumb-ass comedy with a bunch of nifty split diopter shots is still a tone deaf, dumb-ass comedy, and for all its frenetic energy it can’t muster much enthusiasm in those watching. [D]

The Untouchables” (1987)
While many critics were right to dismiss the kinda awful “Gangster Squad” earlier this year, it seemed like a major criticism leveled against it was that it was a lesser “L.A. Confidential” knockoff. We’d argue that’s a more apt description of another, more recent De Palma film (yes, “The Black Dahlia“). “Gangster Squad’ was much more derivative of “The Untouchables,” attempting (and failing) to hit that sweet spot between comic book style iconography, true life crime tale, and hard-R action. If anything it was proof that screenwriter David Mamet, seemingly having a ball writing lots of theatrical, tough guy dialogue (“He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!”) and De Palma together fashioned something quite special with their truth-be-damned take on the Elliot Ness autobiography and TV series of the same name. While plenty of facts are smudged to tell the audience the legend instead of the truth—this is like the dime-store paperback edition of the truth, “Dick Tracy” for adults if you will—it’s hard to argue in favor of verisimilitude when the results are this entertaining. And now that Kevin Costner has been such a welcome presence in certain big movies lately (“Man of Steel”), can we all just admit that in his prime, he was a wonderful everyman star actor? His take on Elliot Ness as a goody-two-shoes cop who just wants to take down Capone is just the right center to give balance to all the high quality (and high decibel) work done by the supporting cast: Robert De Niro as Al Capone is lights out; Best Supporting Oscar winner Sean Connery (being awesome and so wonderfully Conneryish as a badass Irish beat cop); fellow untouchables Andy Garcia and especially Charles Martin Smith, who brings so much joy, be it firing a shotgun for the first time or digging into Capone’s taxes for any angle at an arrest. And we can’t forget Ennio Morricone’s lovely, bombastic score, old fashioned in all the right ways. It’s a tough trick to pull off something as strong as “The Untouchables,” which is artful purely and only for being so damn entertaining. [A-]

Casualties of War” (1989)
When “The Untouchables” proved to be an unexpected box office bonanza, De Palma utilized his newfound popularity to get “Casualties of War,” a singularly bleak war movie, off the ground. Inspired by an actual event that was covered in a New Yorker article from 1969 (three short years after it occurred), “Casualties of War” concerns a small deployment in Vietnam whose highest ranking officer (Sean Penn) orders his men to kidnap a young Vietnamese girl for, in his words, “A little portable R & R.” A sorely miscast Michael J. Fox stars as a young infantrymen, recently deployed, who serves as the moral compass for the movie. We watch, in horror, as Fox wrestles with his guilt and culpability. Sex crime during war is a subject that has largely gone unattended to in the genre of the war film, and “Casualties of War” shows you why: it’s disastrously bleak stuff and the movie pretty much suffocates the viewer in this darkness, like blanketing the entire audience in a thick toxic fog. “Casualties of War” is not without it’s merits; most of the performances are great, notably Penn and a few supporting players who De Palma would reteam with later, like Ving Rhames and John Leguizamo (it was also, it should be noted, John C. Reilly‘s first movie), and occasionally the filmmaking is dazzling in a way that only De Palma movies are dazzling, like when the camera moves below ground, to show the inner workings of the Viet Cong’s tunnel system, hollowed out like an ant farm. It’s just that there’s no recovering from the blackness of the subject matter, and the occasionally heavy-handed way that De Palma handles said subject matter. Still, it’s not without its supporters (Quentin Tarantino called it his favorite war film ever and stole a sequence from the film for “Reservoir Dogs“) and it’s infinitely better than De Palma’s later, thematically similar “Redacted.” But that’s damning it with faint praise. “Casualties of War” is an essential movie in the De Palma filmography, but more for the role that it played in his life rather than the film itself. After its disastrous response, both critically and commercially, De Palma fell into a deep depression, thinking that his personal projects were uniformly doomed. It’s the reason that he wound up making one of the worst decisions of his career: taking on “Bonfire of the Vanities,” because he was eager for an easy, surefire, crowd-pleasing hit. Little did he know. [C+]

Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990)
As lovingly detailed in Julie Salamon‘s must-read first hand account “The Devil’s Candy,” De Palma’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe‘s blockbuster novel was filled, from start to finish on both a macro and micro level, with crippling creative compromises and poor decisions. How, for instance, was lovably thuggish Bruce Willis cast as the novel’s erudite British author or the loud, Jewish judge from the book portrayed by a knightly Morgan Freeman? De Palma has never been the best with straightforward comedies (see also: “Wise Guys“), which is once again the case here, particularly with the screechy comedic tone established and maintained by stars Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith (so much better and funnier in earlier De Palma joint “Body Double“). Here you can almost feel the director’s desperation to get back into the audience’s good graces after the disastrously received, unrelentingly bleak “Casualties of War.” Maybe most damning was the fact that, due to the sluggish development phase of “Bonfire of the Vanities,” the novel that embodied the eighties wasn’t released until 1990, well after it had captured the national zeitgeist. As is the case in all De Palma movies, no matter how miserable, there are a few moments that still dazzle: the opening, unbroken shot that follows Willis through a maze of underground tunnels before emerging into a swanky Manhattan event, the shot of the Concorde touching down that took a Herculean amount of effort to achieve (it’s lit by the golden hue of the setting sun), and the movie’s first image, atop the Chrysler Building, which required 24-hours of time lapse photography (achieved, like the Concorde moment, by second unit wizard Eric Schwab, who comes across in “The Devil’s Candy” as one of the production’s few non-assholes). In the documentary “Boffo: Tinseltown’s Bombs and Blockbusters,” Freeman (after a heavy sigh) said that the vibe was bad “going in.” He continued: “When an airline crashes, they say that it’s mostly as a result of a series of mishaps. Same thing.” The movie remains a fascinatingly rococo misfire, but a misfire just the same. [D]

Raising Cain” (1992)
In the nineties, De Palma’s style had become almost a parody of itself, and its a credit to him that he didn’t alter his point-of-view, but rather embarked on a search for the camp within. Which is why “Raising Cain” might be one of his more overt homages to Hitchcock, mining the crux of “Psycho” to produce a murder mystery labyrinth balanced by one truly gonzo performance. A bug-eyed, memorably unhinged performance by John Lithgow carries “Raising Cain” as Dr. Carter Nix, who is basically the twist of “Psycho” made flesh and turned into the premise for a film. Nix is so disturbed by memories of his mother that he’s developed an excessive case of multiple personality disorder, one that has resulted in several new identities for him to try on. And all the while, he tries to find the root cause of the condition, with frequently murderous results. De Palma’s mastery of long shots reveals itself in a more contemporary context, as “Raising Cain” is also loaded with the sort of maddening trick angles and forced perspectives that reveal a storyteller brazenly emptying his bag of tricks. Less a movie than a magic trick, it’s De Palma dealing with a skimpy psychosexual theme, using it as an excuse to showcase not only a post-modern Hitch homage (watch those thundercracks!) but a standout nutball performance by Lithgow, never more terrifying, even as he tries on a number of increasingly absurd costumes and wigs. Rumors suggest a disastrous test screening forced De Palma to toss the set-up involving damsel in distress Jenny (Lolita Davidovitch), which gives “Raising Cain” a more askew, difficult reputation, as, essentially, the killer is the main character. What tickles isn’t the off-center moral confusion that creates, but the idea that De Palma is relishing challenging our notions of whether the “thriller” genre can ever feature a relatable “bad guy” who also happens to be totally batshit insane. [B+]

Carlito’s Way” (1993)
While “Scarface” gets the lion’s share of the love when it comes to Brian De Palma crime epics starring Al Pacino, “Carlito’s Way” is just as wonderful, in some ways even besting Pacino and De Palma’s earlier triumph with a beautifully told story of rage, revenge, and (ultimately) redemption. In 1993, “Scarface” had yet to gain the cultural foothold it has now, and “Carlito’s Way” was greeted with, if not indifference, than far less acclaim than it should have been given. It’s the tale of Carlito Brigante (Pacino), a Cuban-American gangster freed on a technicality by his wormy Jewish lawyer (an unrecognizable Sean Penn) who tries to resist being pulled back into a life of crime, and sets about attempting to reconnect with a former flame (Penelope Ann Miller), while legitimately running a Harlem discotheque. Twenty minutes into the movie, during a dizzying sequence set inside a seedy pool hall, you can feel De Palma setting the film apart from “Scarface” while also re-establishing himself as a major cinematic talent after spending several years in the wilderness after the disastrous failure of “Bonfire of the Vanities.” But not only does “Carlito’s Way” feature some of De Palma’s best set pieces (including the breathless climax set inside Grand Central Terminal circa 1975), it also boasts some of the very best performances in any of the director’s films, particularly the unstoppable trifecta of Pacino, Penn and Miller (showing off her sexy side at a time when she was otherwise starring in clumsy contraptions like “The Shadow“). The movie’s emotional complexity, too, cannot be overstated. De Palma is a filmmaker who frequently comes under fire for being too “cold” and “calculating,” more interested in camera movements than character motivations. But he takes you on a journey with Carlito, one that you cannot help but get swept up in. When Carlito meets his fate at the end of the movie, it’s the most heart-tugging moment in any of De Palma’s films since the end of “Blow Out.” The pool hall sequence, when he’s trapped in a tiny bathroom, armed with an empty pistol and unsure of what’s on the other side of the door actually spawned the movie’s poster, because it so perfectly sums up the character’s struggles in a single image: you can feel him getting tugged towards crime while he simply tries to keep to the shadows, out of everyone’s way. “Carlito’s Way” is a sprawling, multi-layered tragedy, elegantly told by De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp (who would become an essential collaborator for De Palma during this period). It’s a film that represents the last time De Palma was responsible for a genuine masterpiece. [A]

Mission: Impossible” (1995)
With “The Untouchables,” De Palma remade a classic television series as a big-budget feature for Paramount Pictures. He would do the same less than a decade later, turning a beloved spy series into a big-budget franchise for the same studio. The resulting film would go on to become De Palma’s biggest box office hit, grossing almost $500 million at the worldwide box office and spawning sequels that continue to this day (“Mission: Impossible 5” is currently in development). The production was notoriously difficult, with constant script revisions (by heavy hitters like David Koepp and Robert Towne) and incessant micromanaging from Tom Cruise, who in addition to being the world’s most powerful movie star was also the film’s producer. Evocative of the creatively turbulent production was the fact that the entire completed musical score by Alan Silvestri was jettisoned at the last minute and replaced by a new score by Danny Elfman (Silvestri’s score would be appropriated for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Eraser” that opened later that summer). Rumors persisted that the director and Cruise didn’t get along and that by the end of the tumultuous post-production period, De Palma had removed himself entirely (he also refused to do press for the film), and while knowing all of this and watching the film you can see lessened influence from the director, though its success is attributable directly to the filmmaker’s sense of pacing, composition, and suspense. In short “Mission: Impossible,” while a greatly unadorned De Palma movie, is still undeniably his. First off, there are a number of Hitchcock nods, mostly to “Notorious” (especially during a sequence at the beginning set at a lavish party) and Hitchcock’s fascination with trains (the movie’s breathless climax happens on the Channel) and secondly there are suspense set pieces that only De Palma could have pulled off with that much wit, humor, and technical expertise. It’s easy to point to the sequence where the team breaks into CIA headquarters at Langley as not only the highlight of the film but, up until the Dubai sequence from ‘Ghost Protocol,’ the entire franchise. There’s also a terrific moment towards the end of the movie where Cruise is talking to Jon Voight, but while he’s recounting one series of events, we’re seeing the truth of what actually happened unfold. It’s miraculously clever, especially for big-budget tentpole stuff, and unsurprisingly when the movie was released it was criticized for being overly complicated. It’s not, it’s just complex enough. Those who claim that it’s watered down De Palma isn’t paying attention. This is his ‘Mission’ — decide to accept it. [A-]

Snake Eyes” (1998)
Following the international success of “Mission: Impossible,” De Palma immediately returned to the sleazy, psychosexual underworld of Atlantic City (where much of his earlier “Wise Guys” was set), this time with his “Carlito’s Way” and “Mission: Impossible” scribe David Koepp along for the ride. The results weren’t nearly as successful, either creatively or commercially, as their earlier collaborations but “Snake Eyes” remains an unfairly overlooked and enormously entertaining big-budget R-rated thriller, the kind that they just don’t seem to make anymore. Part of the fun of “Snake Eyes” is watching Nicolas Cage, as a morally muddy detective who is drawn into a sinister, “Chinatown“-esque conspiracy on the night of a heavily touted boxing match, turn in a performance that’s just as loopily acrobatic as any of De Palma’s sophisticated camera moves. When these elements are in synch, like during the glorious opening sequence that appears to be constructed as a single shot (it is, in fact, three), “Snake Eyes” soars. Other times, though, and you can feel De Palma’s signature style start to creak under technological advancements; his fuzzy dream logic and insistence on Hitchcockian doubles makes even less sense in an age of endless surveillance footage and security cameras. If the movie had followed the more stringent rules of the procedural, the central mystery could have probably been solved in a matter of minutes, the labyrinthine conspiracy uncovered moments later. But it’s the swirly narrative loop-the-loops that make “Snake Eyes” such a charmingly singular experience. But if the film feels hopelessly unfinished that’s because it is: at the last minute an elaborate and costly visual effects sequence, which had the movie’s casino set washed away by a biblical wave (designed by the genies at Industrial Light & Magic), was jettisoned due to test audience’s confusion at what they perceived as an abrupt tonal shift into something more along the lines of a disaster movie (this was during the genre’s mini-comeback). Paramount forced De Palma to change it, although vestigial hints of the superior climax remain (there are references between two characters about “drowning in the tunnel,” something we never actually see). In a recent chat with De Palma, he said that he would gladly rework the original ending back into the movie, given the opportunity. Sadly, that’s highly unlikely. But for all its flaws, “Snake Eyes” remains a buoyant lark, thanks largely to Cage’s performance and the movie’s glittery production values. With that wave, though, it could have been top-tier material. [B-]

Mission to Mars” (2000)
While “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” might be the most successful theatrical feature based on a Disney theme park ride, it wasn’t the first. That dubious distinction goes to De Palma’s “Mission to Mars,” a movie based on an attraction in Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Tomorrowland wherein guests were treated to a crude approximation of what it might be to travel to the Red Planet. The movie, however, retains little from the attraction beyond the setting of Mars. In its place is a fairly typical space adventure, wherein an exploratory mission to Mars (led by Don Cheadle) goes disastrously awry when the astronauts run afoul of the planet’s original inhabitants. Cue a rescue mission manned by an emotionally damaged genius (Gary Sinise, when he could move a lot more of his face), a young hotshot (Jerry O’Connell), and a team of married scientists (Connie Nielsen and Tim Robbins). The more science-based middle section of the movie, with the second team traversing the cosmos to get to Mars, is ultimately more emotionally satisfying than the movie’s otherworldly conclusion, which ends up drowning in forced sentiment and iffy creature effects that are so overtly cuddly that they make E.T. look like a kaiju from “Pacific Rim.” There are a number of notably gonzo moments in “Mission to Mars,” where you can feel De Palma stretching under the obvious creative constraints of mounting such a sizable movie for such a sizable studio, things like the initial attack on Mars, the zero-G dance number (to a Van Halen song, no less) captured largely in a single shot, and the torturously agonizing death of one of the cast members, scored to an ominous, organ-heavy piece of music by Ennio Morricone (not your first choice to score a space odyssey, but ultimately a brilliant decision). And it’s fun to watch De Palma play in a genre that he’s never tried before, even if the results range from fun to frustrating. Ultimately, “Mission to Mars” proves too dopey to rank amongst his best, but there are two many little pieces to marvel at to be able to completely dismiss it either. It’s middle-of-the-road De Palma, which is the filmmaker at his most frustrating; even when he fails, he usually fails big. This, on the other hand, just feels like a damningly minor effort, undone by some profoundly bad decisions and the creative interference from a company more interested in making a movie based on an old Disneyland ride than whatever weird nonsense De Palma was interested in making. [C+]

Femme Fatale” (2002)
Leaving aside the many, many problems that de Palma’s “Femme Fatale” suffers from in terms of characterization, performance and plot the big issue that hangs over any summary like a sword of damocles is the (SPOILER) “twist” ending, when it is revealed that pretty much the largest portion of the film didn’t actually take place. On a level perhaps only with Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower for sheer, facepalming WTF-ness, it takes what had till then been a very silly, but intermittently enjoyable, faux noir and makes it all a tricksy in-joke, in which the joke is on you, for investing even on a very surface level, to that point. We’re clearly on the negative side, but it should be noted that, as so often with latter-day de Palma, critical reaction was actually very polarized (audiences not so much; the film flopped hard at the box office) and enthusiasts were quick to emphasize the film’s “knowingness” — as if the retrospective clues (fish tank!) to the fact that the film is about to massively cheat its viewers somehow makes it okay that the film massively cheats its viewers. Let’s be clear: we’re big fans of the clever twist, and often have been enjoyably hoodwinked by this very director, but this is not one of those times. It’s not even like de Palma takes the opportunity of poking fun at the level of ludicrousness we’d been buying till then — in fact he undercuts any such notion with an ending that is fully as stupidly contorted as anything that happened in the “imagined” section. Betraying her team after an involved jewel heist at the Cannes Film Festival, the sexy Laure (Rebecca Romijn) goes into hiding but is mistaken for another woman, who conveniently commits suicide, leaving a passport and a plane ticket. On the flight Laure meets smitten diplomat Watts (Peter Coyote), and ends up marrying him. All is well until he is posted back to Paris and she is photographed by hack photographer Nicolas (Antonio Banderas) and her old gang is back her trail once more. But there are far more sexy seductions and insane coincidences and double crosses and TWIST!s than that, none of which add up to anything even distantly related to sense. It gets nudged up a fraction because of a few moments of silly, salacious fun including the striptease showcasing of Rebecca Romijn’s jawdropping body, and for the curious watchability of its trainwreck storytelling, but that doesn’t mean after the final credits roll, and all the “twists” are finally twisted out, we don’t want to throw the whole damn film off a goddamn bridge. [D+/C-]

The Black Dahlia” (2006)
And here would be the infinitely lesser, hacky attempt at an “L.A Confidential”-style period piece noir we referred to in “The Untouchables” segment earlier. This one turned out so excruciatingly bad it’s become the red-headed stepchild of many famous, talented actors filmographies. We don’t imagine two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, embarrassingly miscast as a vampy, femme fatale type, will want to see this in a career highlight reel (proving that even very fine actors have some roles they just can’t pull off). Same goes to Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett, all acting as if they were filmed in different rooms with different players, being given direction for three completely different films. But you can’t talk about the utter shittiness of “Black Dahlia”—at this time the hearty middle of the shit sandwich that is now De Palma’s unfortunate late career that began nose diving from “Snake Eyes” and hasn’t yet recovered—and not mention one Fiona Shaw, who plays Swank’s mother in the film as if she was constantly high on mescaline and whip-its. The multiple reveals and plot twists surrounding this character, and her descent into unintentionally hilarious, I’m-loving-every-minute-of-being-crazy insanity, should be added to the pantheon of bad performances in shit movies. Things seem off right from the elaborate opening tracking shot, when even De Palma’s signature long takes can’t make up for the garish, over-the-top period costume design and a cartoonish street brawl staged and choreographed like a Max Fischer play but without any of the earnest charm. It’s a slog that would be more fun if it could even lay claim to being laughable; instead it’s just turgid, embarrassingly sloppy and full of so much wasted potential. [D]

Redacted” (2007)
These days, De Palma sounds resigned when talking about “Redacted,” his hot-button political thriller from a few years ago. Zillionaire producer Mark Cuban basically challenged De Palma to write and direct a feature that could be shot on digital for a cost of less than $5 million. (You’ll remember he had a similar agreement with Steven Soderbergh that ultimately proved less successful than either had imagined.) De Palma came up with the concept for “Redacted,” based on an actual event and imbued with his anger at the injustices of the Iraq war. The resulting movie was one that harkens back to his experimental early films, both in terms of its mixed media formality and its righteous political outrage, an aspect of the filmmaker’s art that had been suppressed for much of his career, while he instead focused on big-budget contraptions like “Mission to Mars.” It’s just too bad, then, that “Redacted” is utterly awful. The movie appropriates a number of disparate digital aesthetics, from shaky YouTube videos to a French documentary about the war, but the main focus is a military unit that’s responsible for the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl. You know it’s going to happen and the rest of the movie, for all its silliness, is filled with a palpable sense of mounting doom. But what’s really the problem is that none of it feels real. It’s an older director adopting new technology and not having either the tech savvy or the storytelling skills to utilize it correctly, which is especially odd considering how closely this movie is linked to De Palma’s earlier, vastly superior tale of wartime rape,”Casualties of War.” An unmitigated boondoggle, the movie was attacked in America for painting a negative portrait of the troops, even though it’s based on a well-documented event and De Palma, for all his righteous fury, never places blame squarely on the troops themselves. Instead, he seems to suggest that the atmosphere of war, with all of its bloodlust and misplaced aggression, helped breed this behavior. (Fox News cared more about the movie than general audiences, who ignored it completely.) Of course, any point the movie might have tried to make was lost amidst the amateurish filmmaking and even worse performances; the whole thing comes across as embarrassing and trite. Everything is heavy-handed and ugly, to the point that you want to just shout at the screen, “We get it!” It’s unquestionably the single worst film in De Palma’s considerably rocky oeuvre and, while we have to applaud his anger and his directness in attacking the war, would it have killed him to do it with a better movie? [F]

Passion” (2013)
Already having played the film festival circuit and been on VOD for almost a month, Brian De Palma’s “Passion” finally enters theaters this weekend and it is classic De Palma through and through: it’s voyeuristic, it’s got femme fatales entangled, and it has plenty of thriller and mystery intrigue wrapped in its crimes of passion/revenge story. If De Palma hadn’t made it, one might have believed it was conceived as a homage to him. Ironically, “Passion” is a remake of the French erotic thriller “Crime d’amour” by director Alain Corneau. Deliciously twisted playful and arch, “Passion” centers on two black widow spiders in the corporate advertising world whose competitiveness turns ruthless and cutthroat– literally. Noomi Rapace plays Isabelle, a rising star in the advertising world and Rachel McAdams Is Christine, her venomous, manipulative, insecure boss, who’s not above stealing other people’s ideas to keep her executive status intact. Calculating and devious, Christine enjoys toying with her adversaries, so when she and Isabelle cross swords, things get ugly quick and then movie spins into a De Palma-esque Grand Guignol goulash of murder, lust, and cunning revenge. Bordering on two movies in one again, “Passion” is delirious entertaining and gnarly in its first half –arguably a compendium of all that makes Brian De Palma great. But like a naughty schoolboy who believes no one is looking, the filmmaker can’t resist slathering layers of style and conspicuous film technique in its second half and it spills over into sensationally overwrought overkill. Granted, the plot becomes increasingly ridiculous, but instead of dialing it down for counterbalance, De Palma runs straight at it culminating in a sensual and melodramatic climax that is off the leash entirely. Though, we suspect that’s exactly why diehard De Palma-ites adore this movie. [B]

De Palma has also been responsible for a number of short films, most of which were unavailable for us to watch, like “Icarus” (1960), “660124: The Story of an IBM Card” (1961), “Bridge That Gap” (1965) and “Show Me A Strong Town and I’ll Show You a Strong Bank” (1966). These early works are notably for mostly being documentaries (he has yet to make a feature-length documentary) and being filmed by De Palma himself. Two of the shorts are available on the region-free European Blu-ray release of “Obsession” — low budget black-and-white oddity “Woton’s Wake” (1962), which stars “Phantom of the Paradise” weirdo William Finley and showcases De Palma’s obsession, at the time, with German expressionism. The other, “The Responsive Eye” (1966), is a half-hour documentary about the opening night at an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

And if you still haven’t had your fill of De Palma, here’s a 52-minute long Summer Talk given by the ever-entertaining director hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. And if that’s not enough, you can read our recent interview with the director here). — Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Katie Walsh, Erik McClanahan, Jessica Kiang, Gabe Toro, and Kimber Myers

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