Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Redacted



Redacted (2007)

So we have caught up with Brian De Palma’s body of work. Redacted goes back to a lot of the same territory as 1989’s Casualties of War. We have American troops in a foreign land and the sexual violation of a native girl is the crux of the conflict. There’s one soldier who above all the rest is still virtuous. This was one was written by De Palma as well and really shows off his weakness as a writer. However, there are some interesting technical elements to the picture, and it really easy very experimental for De Palma, both in its making and the distribution.

Told through soldiers’ personal video diaries, CCTVs, news footage, and user submitted online videos, this is based on a true story where a squad of American soldiers were responsible for the rape of 15 year old girl and the subsequent murder and burning of both she and her family. The film did not do well upon its release, and in no way is this a great movie. However, many of the criticisms were jingoistic blather about De Palma wanted to imply that all soldiers are evil monsters. The fact that one of the squad members goes to the authorities with what happens must have gone over their heads. Its part of this thoughtless creed of “support the troops” which many interpret as do not question or think critically about the actions of the military. I don’t believe every soldier over there is some sort of sociopath, but I believe the culture that surrounds the military breeds that in people who leaned that way in the first place. That said, De Palma doesn’t present either the villains or the hero of the film in an interesting way at all.

The two vile soldiers who perpetrate the rape and murder are drawn cartoonishly broad. There are even scenes where they cackle like the hyenas in The Lion King. The hero is also without flaws and there’s nothing remotely interesting about him. The type of evil that is most interesting is the kind that comes out of mundane and ordinary people. When you have two characters who appear to be walking cliches they don’t come off as truly intimidating at all. A good filmmaker would make us like these guys, show us sympathy for them, and then reveal their darker nature. It makes us question ourselves. Even Sean Penn in Casualties of War, of which De Palma is really ripping himself off on, was a character I understood. Even though his action were abhorrent I could see what he saw in the world. What I did like was De Palma trying to do more with his camera. His typical POV shots were incorporated as part of the soldier’s diaries and there’s some interesting work done with website video.

Looking back on the films of Brian De Palma I have to defend him as a cinematographer. He may not always be a great all-around storyteller but he is one of the best cameramen I’ve ever seen. The level of tension he can generate in a film is amazing, and its all done through some of the tightest editing around. The moment in the prom scene of Carrie, as Amy Irving is figuring out what the bullies are about to do is such a perfect example of that. So much information is told without words, simply looks and cuts. The museum scene in Body Double should be shown to every wannabe filmmaker of how to tell a voluminous story in a only a few minutes and without a single piece of dialogue. Even watching the worst films of De Palma’s, I always knew he would amaze me with the camera. Sadly, his career has been marred by too many failures in a row. According to IMDB, De Palma appears to be working on a remake of his great rock opera Phantom of the Paradise (seen before I started this marathon), a prequel to The Untouchables sub-titled Capone Rising, and The Boston Stranglers, based on a true crime book about the theory that multiple men were placed under the umbrella of one serial killer. My hope is that De Palma can still find a way to produce good films again, I know he has it in him and I think there’s a strong possibility that he can rally a comeback in the same way that Francis Ford Coppola has been doing.

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – The Black Dahlia



The Black Dahlia (2006)
Starring Josh Harnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw, Rachel Miner

Coming off of the Euro Noir Femme Fatale, De Palma steps right into classic L.A. Noir, where the entire bleak genre really began. The film is based on the James Ellroy novel, which is in turn based on the real life murder of a young wanna be actress named Elizabeth Short, nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” by the newspapers. For the picture, we find De Palma restrained much more than in Femme Fatale. I didn’t notice too many visual flourishes, instead a lot of post-production gauziness added to the film in an attempt to make the film resemble its counterparts in the 1940s. He manages to directly reference old movies, a trademark of De Palma’s love of cinema. It’s a long picture, over two hours and there are many sub plots and third act twists. So how does it all come together?

Bleichert (Hartnett) and Blanchard (Eckhart) are L.A. beat cops who meet during the 1947 Zoot Suit Riots (sailors versus hep cats). The two men are promoted to being bond agents and fate finds them a block away from the discover of Elizabeth Short’s body. Blanchard becomes obsessed, while Bleichert becomes enamored with Blanchard’s girl (Johansson). Feeling the pressure to keep his partner from going over the edge due to the case, Bleichert does some footwork and meets a young woman, Madeline Linscott who traveled in the same lesbian circles as Short. Through a series of “what a coinky-dink” sub plots, all of these characters become entangled, ending just like all good noir should end, most every dies. The only part that really diverges is the very final scene which felt very tacked on by the studio in an attempt to not let the film end on a “sad” note. Pshaw.

This is a real mess of a film. If we were judging it on style and production design it gets an A+. That’s one thing you can never fault De Palma, the man knows how to make a film ooze style. The cinematography is pitch perfect, thinking in particular of a crane shot where as part of the background we witness the discovery of Short’s body by a mother out pushing her baby carriage. It’s done as this little thing in passing, that you could easily miss if you weren’t paying attention. That sort of clever detail is hard to not love. The entire set and costume design is solid, no one looks out of place. As always, there are some interesting set pieces that had to involve thousands of shots and takes. So from a technical stand point, its an excellent film.

Plot wise this film is trying to do way to much and tie to many things together that don’t make much sense. Characters who have no connection through the majority of the film are suddenly revealed through clunky exposition to have been sleeping with each other the entire time or connected to the murder of Short. By the time you get to the end its all so ludicrous and over the top it becomes absurd. While coincidence is a big part of noir, it at least as to make some sort of sense with the story told so far. I did however enjoy an incredibly macabre and creepy old Hollywood family that plays a crucial role in the film. While we only get a glimpse of their utter insanity, I found myself wanting to see more about them. There’s also some references to The Man Who Laughs, a Lon Chaney, Sr horror picture that served as the inspiration for The Joker. All in all, a rather middle of the road with too much plot to cram into two hours.

Next: we wrap things up with a shockingly different film, revisting Casualties of War territory, this time in Iraq, Redacted

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale (2002)
Starring Rebecca Romijn, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote, Eriq Ebouaney

De Palma came off of Snake Eyes and went in a total 180 to make Mission to Mars. I don’t think any one could have really predicted that film from him: A science fiction film set in the future involving a rescue mission to Mars with aliens and special effects and so on. It was definitely a risky move on his part, and ultimately it failed. There were moments that worked, in particular a planetfall sequence involving risky maneuvers using a deep knowledge of gravity and physics. It had a lot of tension in and drew me in, but overall the film was a mess. So for his second film of the 21st century, De Palma revisited some Hitchcock elements, but more he dipped fulling into the Noir genre, something he had skirted his entire career but never gone full bore into.

The film opens on a heist being taken by a trio of anonymous figures. The main element in the heist is a tall, attractive blonde posing as a photographer. She lures the arm candy of a director at a film premiere in Cannes to the bathroom, and the two women begin having a tryst. The photog undresses her from the flimsy gold and diamond encrusted chest ornament (its not really a shirt or bustier, its like gold snake that doesn’t cover all the bits and such). A second person takes the pieces of the ornament at it drops to the floor. Things go wrong and the photog double crosses the man running things and heads off with the diamonds. Through a case of mistaken identity she ends up in the place of a French woman whose husband and daughter have just been killed. Her life diverges onto a very strange path that culminates seven years later in a series of double crosses and cons.

This film is one where De Palma’s camerawork completely meshes with the plot. The opening heist sequence, taking place in a lavish theater in Cannes is so much fun. Its obvious that Mission: Impossible was the practice, and this heist is its culmination to perfection. Seeing all the devices and methods employed to get the ornament is lots of fun. Its also full of that nervous tension that makes those types of scenes enjoyable to watch. We root for the thieves and wriggling in our seats as security inches closer and the chance that every will fall apart goes higher. The entire sequence is near wordless and, like many of De Palma’s top film moments, could be presented as short film unto itself.

Rebecca Romijn is not a great actress, I know I shocked you with that statement. But, when you think about it, neither was Grace Kelly, but she made a hell of a Hitchcock female lead. Romijn does what she needs to do here, the classic film noir femme fatale is not really a three dimensional figure. And I have to say she fooled me during many of her double crossing, well both she and De Palma together fooled me. Like any great noir female she creates stories that make her sympathetic and earn the trust of those around her. She is duplicitous and evil, yet we root for her. Antonio Banderas’ tabloid photog on the other hand is not quite as charismatic or interesting, even though he makes for a more plausible protagonist.

The third act twist seemed a bit out of left field and reminded me of the much better Mulholland Drive (if we’re talking metaphysical identity mysteries, its is better). There are clues sprinkled in the first half of the film that hint at two interpretations of what happens in the rest of it. This could be a Dorothy Gale instance of imposing faces onto figures in one’s psyche or it could all be literal. De Palma never says for sure but he leaves the door open so that either makes sense within the universe of the film. There are set pieces galore here and a real admittance that this is not about substance, its about style. The fact that the director pulls this off in such a technically clever way makes it heaps more enjoyable than whatever a style focused director like Michael Bay offers up. The film was a colossal financial failure for De Palma, however, something he hasn’t recovered from in the eight years since.

Next Up: The Black Dahlia and De Palma bombs again

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Snake Eyes



Snake Eyes (1998)
Starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, John Heard, Luis Guzman

In the wake of Carlito’s Way, De Palma was back on top and directed the very commercial Mission: Impossible. It was definitely a big break both for the director and in establishing Tom Cruise as an action star. It was also not very De Palma-esque, especially due to its globe trotting nature. Most De Palma films work because of their very small and local nature, so having character moving from Europe to Langley, Virginia between scenes was a bit jarring for those expecting a film more true to the director’s aesthetic. It was an enjoyable movie though, but it was Snake Eyes that was set to stand as a return to the paranoid thrillers De Palma made in the 1980s (Body Double, Blow Out).

Rick Santoro (Cage) is an Atlantic City cop who has embraced the corruption of his city. It’s fight night at the casino he frequents most and his old pal, Kevin Dunne (Sinise) is in attendance as the head of security for the attending Secretary of Defense. Rick gets a seat right next to Kevin’s, but the latter is pulled away due to a security issue leaving Rick front and center when a Palestinian terrorist assassinates the secretary. Rick is immediately thrown into the midst of a conspiracy involving a strange young woman who was talking to the secretary moments before he was killed. The investigation leads Rick into retracing the steps of all the major players presenting in the arena at the time of the conspiracy.

Snake Eyes is a colossal failure, due in part to an unrewarding second half, when all the big reveals are made. However, the first half the film is basically a masterclass in cinematography. No matter how terrible the plots and acting are in a De Palma film you can always rely on the camera to be a star (Bonfire of the Vanities being the exception). The first scene of the film is a series of about eight Steadicam shots spliced together to make one long introductory scene leading up to the moment of the assassination. From there, as Rick interviews suspects and witnesses, we are taken back in time where we see the events play out from their POV, the classic first person camera shot De Palma so often employs. There is also an elaborate shot where characters are hiding and pursuing each other on a floor of the casino’s hotel. The camera raises itself up to look down and begins panning over roofless rooms, allowing us to peek inside.

The conspiracy is incredibly predictable based on certain characters’ actions and comments, so when we learn the truth its a big of a yawn. There’s also a lot of plot points that stretch the film’s credibility beyond anything acceptable. The motivation for the conspiracy is also fairly weak. I was reminded of Three Days of the Condor and how, despite its low points in the middle, it delivers a believable reason for conspiracy that makes sense within both our world and the universe of the film. The conspiracy in Snake Eyes is rather too elaborate for what is trying to be covered up. This over the top turn of events causes the film to become a bore and by the end its hard to really care about where any of these bland characters end up.

Next: De Palma goes back to some deep Hitchcock roots with Femme Fatale.

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Carlito’s Way



Carlito’s Way (1993)
Starring Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, Luis Guzman, John Leguizamo, Viggo Mortensen

In the wake of Bonfire of the Vanities, De Palma returned to Hitchcock-land with Raising Cain, an odd film about twins and multiple personalities that in many ways hearkened back to Sisters. It was another failure for the director, albeit not as quite a large scale one as Bonfire. With a sense of humility about him, De Palma embarked on adapting a novel by a federal judge called After Hours. The film would be renamed Carlito’s Way (to distinguish it from Scorsese’s After Hours) and would return De Palma to some themes and ideas from Scarface. However, instead of the rise and fall of a crimelord who is brash and aggressive, Carlito’s would tell the story of a man once neck deep in crime, now trying to work his way out and go legit.

Carlito Brigante (Pacino) has just finished five years of a thirty year sentence. He has successfully been released when an appeal is issued proving the D.A. illegally made the recordings that sent him up the river. Now, with a re-evaluation of his life, Carlito has his sights set on raising enough cash to join a former inmate’s car rental business in the Bahamas. He buys into a nightclub set up by Kleinfeld (Penn), his attorney and reconnects with his lost love (Miller). Along the way, he draws the ire of Benny Blanco (Leguizamo) an up and coming street tough and must question his loyalty to the ever more frenetic Kleinfeld, whose life in danger of being taken by angry mobsters. The entire time Carlito is trying to make the right choices, stay on the path of good, so that he and his girl can escape.

The first thing that struck me about this film is how phenomenally better and more modern it was than Bonfire. One thing that kept getting to me as I was watch Bonfire was how it felt very dated. Typically if a film is set in the 1980s you’re supposed to feel that through the set design, tone, etc. Bonfire pulled it off in a way that made the picture feel too out of touch with any sort of universal truth. Carlito, on the other hand,despite being set in the 1970s, feels like an incredibly modern film. I think a lot of this is due in part to it being subject matter that De Palma is much more capable of handling. The director himself admitted he was planning on turning it down because on first glance he saw it as a Scarface retread. When he finally sat down to read it, he saw the film was going to be the antithesis of Scarface.

The acting here is a mixed bag, though. Sean Penn as Kleinfeld is spot on. He never exaggerates his character but is able to get across the transition from cool, calm and collected to on the verge of a nervous breakdown without breaking a sweat. It’s interesting to note, that at this point in his career, Penn had all but retired from acting to pursue directing (He was working on The Crossing Guard with Jack Nicholson at the time). His return to the screen was a big deal at the time and his performance definitely caused some people to encourage him to keep acting. It’s a strange thing for people of my generation to think about, as I was not aware of Carlito at all on its original release and have grown up with a viewpoint that you can count on Penn to be in all sorts of Oscar bait type pictures. On the other hand, Pacino nails the character of Carlito but has a persistently annoying accent problem. In his attempt to conjure up a Puerto Rican flair to his voice he ends up sounding at times like a Southerner, and then at others a bizarre interpretation of a stereotypical New Yorker. Accent aside, this a is a complete 180 from Scarface. Carlito is incredibly likable and charming, and it is impossible for you not to root for him to escape.

All the typical De Palma tricks are on display, and while they felt forced in Bonfire, here they feel exciting and fresh. There’s some great looking deep focus shots, just a little POV, and some wonderful Steadicam work, particularly in the final scene in Grand Central. The editing in the film is also some of the best of any De Palma movie. I found myself literally clutching my fists in anxiousness during the final tense moments of the film, which could not have been possible if it was wasn’t for some stellar camerawork and editing. While plots and actors may fail the director at times, his camera is his most loyal friend and you can always count on him to know exactly how to shoot a scene that gets the most out of it.

Next: De Palma does Mission: Impossible and closes out the 90s with Snake Eyes

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – The Bonfire of the Vanities



The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
Starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, Kim Catrall, Morgan Freeman, Saul Rubinek, F. Murray Abraham

And so, all great filmmakers must descend into the bowels of hell from time to time. It’s hard for us to understand just how terrible this film is now. Oh yes, Hanks is certainly acting in a way that comes across as acting. And Willis is forced to deliver voice over narration that both shoves the story forward and sounds like he has difficulty saying it. But the utter disaster that is The Bonfire of the Vanities was both as a completed picture and the behind the scenes production fiasco. What was thrown up on the screen was a watered down version of a biting satire, that somehow manages to still offend every major racial group and still feel like the studio was pulling back and watering it down.

The novel by Tom Wolfe, was an attempt to skewer the 1980s greed culture and the rise of a more and more tabloid-influenced media. You have Sherman McCoy (Hanks), a Wall Street financial wunderkind who is sneaking behind his wife’s back (Catrall) to have an affair with socialite Maria (Griffith). During one tryst the lovers take a wrong turn and end up in the Bronx where, with Maria at the wheel, they end up running over a black youth who was attempting to rob them. Sherman thinks they should report it to the police, but Maria convinces him otherwise. Cue an Al Sharpton-inspired preacher, opportunistic D.A., and drunken reporter (Willis) and the hunt is on to catch the WASP in the Mercedes who ran over the poor young man. All of these cynical characters feel set to get their comeuppance in deliciously vicious way…however, it never happens.

The names originally batted around in pre-production color a very different film. William Hurt was originally looked at to play McCoy. Jack Nicholson and John Cleese were named as playing the role that went to Willis. Walter Matthau was brought up when casting the judge, but he wanted more money than they were willing to spend. And nineteen year old newcomer Uma Thurman has been up for the role of Maria. These people in these roles would have presented a much better film, not perfect, and they would have fit the types they were meant to play. Hurt would have played into the Ivy League, born into money mold much better than Hanks, who has always come across a more everyman than anything else. And anyone would have been better than Willis as the reporter, who seems to never know what he is doing and simply plays “smarmy”.

De Palma throws us some cinematography bones: steadicam shot, quick POV, deep focus. It all comes across as him jumping up and down, shouting “Hey, remember I’m directing this!” Otherwise this is any other lofty studio picture trying to tackle the race issues of the early 1990s and come across as “edgy”. I was reminded of Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (also released in 1990) which is on the other end of the spectrum from this picture. In Grand Canyon, Kasdan seems to tread as if he is walking on ice while broaching the issue of black-white relations and so the film never feels like it comes to any point. Here, we have a film that seems to be promising its going to go where no one else will while constantly tugging at the reins. The final courtroom scene snuffs out any chance that the film will end on a provocative note, as the judge descends from his bench and delivers a sermon to the characters and to us. The entire didactic droning feels like it should have ended with an American flag unfurling behind him and tiny sparklers appearing from out of frame. De Palma was at a major low point here…but he was about to prove he could deliver a monumental picture.

Next up: Carlito’s Way

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Casualties of War



Casualties of War (1989)
Starring Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Don Harvey, Thuy Thu Le

Coppola made Apocalypse Now. Stone made Platoon. And De Palma made Casualties of War. At the end of the 1980s De Palma was secure in his place as a Hollywood film director. When he had been closing out the 1970s he was still immersed in Hitchcoclk style thrillers. A decade later he’s made a gangster epic (Scarface), a 1930s historical crime film (The Untouchables), and a Vietnam War flick. Despite the change in venue and content, there are the same cinematographic trademarks (deep focus and POV tracking shot). But how does this film shape up next to the other great Vietnam War flicks?

PFC Ericksson (Fox) is out on patrol with his unit when they are ambushed. He’s standing over a Viet Cong tunnel and falls half way in. As a Cong soldier inches closer, knife in teeth, Ericksson is saved in the nick of time by Meserve (Penn). Later, they both witness their commanding officer getting gunned down and Meserve takes over. He becomes obsessed with revenge and leads his group of five men to a village where they kidnap a  young girl with the intent to rape and savage her. Ericksson is frozen as he must decide whether to protect this innocent or honor the bonds of his military brotherhood.

Casualties is by no means a perfect film, but it is a surprisingly mature film for De Palma, where he seems to be balancing his camera flourishes with a thoughtful look at the nature of war. There are still some cringe inducing line deliveries and Penn’s Maserve is played a little too broad for my taste. I did like Meserve’s speech about hating the Army. Often in pop culture, the soldier who brutalizes for pleasure is made out to be a dedicated troop. It feels more realistic that such a sociopath would despise the lack of self-decision that comes with the military. Once Meserve is out of the eye of his superiors he adopts his own sense of law. Ericksson provides a balance as a soldier who appreciates the idea of duty and rank. When Ericksson goes to report what he has seen he goes through the proper channels of authority. Meserve tries to get revenge under the radar.

De Palma ends things in a way I didn’t expect. Moments before the credits rolled, I felt the film hinting at a possible dramatically violent finale, but then it ends in an ambiguous way. The message of the film is hammered way to bluntly, though. De Palma does an excellent job of telling this story in a clear, comprehensible way and he uses some interesting technical skills. At the end I felt a certain dissatisfaction with  product. It’s not as high an artistic achievement as Apocalypse Now and its doesn’t have the emotional weight of Platoon. It is a well made piece of cinema with some very enjoyable acting, but definitely doesn’t score as high as some of De Palma’s other films for me.

Next: The first big disaster, Bonfire of the Vanities.