Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Sisters



Sisters (1973)
Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley

Sisters is director De Palma standing up and yelling, “I love Hitchcock!”. He got Bernard Hermann, Hitch’s composer and most famous for the the slashing string crescendo of Psycho, he gives us murder enigmatically glimpsed from an apartment window, he gives us crazy camera tricks such as split screen wherein figures meet between both views, and many more flourishes that express his admiration for the great suspense director that Hitchcock was. And this film is as disturbing, if not more than Hitch at his most macabre.

The film uses a Hitchcock bait and switch technique of making us believe one character is our protagonist only to kill them off about 20-30 mins into the film. The focus of the story is Dominique (Kidder), a French-Canadian model who is plagued by a possessive ex-husband. Her current date, Phillip, a gentleman she met while working on a game show, escorts her home and helps her ditch the ex-husband. Phillip spends the night and goes out to pick up some medication for Dominique. It’s at this point the film goes into psycho overdrive and it is so much damn fun. A neighbor, reporter Grace Collier sees a murder take place through her window and into Dominique’s. The police show up and there’s no blood or body.

What makes the picture so much fun is how unashamedly de Palma is referencing Hitchcock’s work. A murder clean up scene is straight out of the overlooked Hitchcock picture Rope and the way the director plays the idea can’t help but get your adrenaline going. Jennifer Salt as Grace plays the traditional Hitchcock style protagonist perfectly. She is determined and focused, despite the skepticism of others around her. She even gets a Grace Kelly (a la Rear Window) in the form of Charles Durning. Durning plays a P.I. hired by her editor to help gather facts for her story.

Alongside all the blatant Hitchcock imagery, there’s some interesting subtext about women and their subjugation. Both Danielle and Grace are victims of being forced into a particular societal role. Danielle’s is much more external, while Grace’s is a psychological one. Having that subtext in mind makes Grace’s final scene in the film even more chilling, as it appears she has been defeated. The film ends in a strangely ambiguous way, referencing its opening game show sequence titled “Peeping Tom”, a nod to both the Michael Powell film and the act of voyeurism in general. The finale features a character watching, and waiting, with the solution to our mystery hanging up in the air with it.

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Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Carrie

Some pre-conceived notions about Brian DePalma: Before I get into the review of this first picture in the DePalma series, I will address some ideas I have about this director. Of Mr. DePalma’s films I have seen are Phantom of the Paradise, Raising Cain, Mission: Impossible, and Mission to Mars. I wouldn’t say DePalma is a director I actively dislike, I just have never been overly impressed with him. Without further ado, my first review:



Carrie (1976)
Starring Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, Piper Laurie, Betty Buckley, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, William Katt, Edie McClure, PJ Soles

I was homeschooled through my entire elementary, middle, and high school grades. So, I was never subject to the sort of direct bullying I’ve seen in countless films and television shows. I definitely was raised in a sporadically religious home and was a quiet kid, so I felt some connections to the character of Carrie White. My ideas about this film from its osmosis into popular culture was that Carrie is a “weirdo” character. I found myself pleasantly surprised by the depth actually brought to her in the film.

In the town of Bates (named after Hitchcock’s nefarious Norman), is the home to quiet and shy Carrie White (Spacek). In the opening of the picture, Carrie experiences her first period while in the girls’ showers at school. Her mother (Laurie), has kept Carrie completely ignorant of her own sexuality and Carrie immediately thinks she is dying. The other girls mock her, tossing tampons at the poor girl as she cowers. Miss Collins (Buckley), the PE teacher chastises the girl and comforts Carrie. As punishment, the girls are forced into an afterschool PE detention, which causes popular girl Chris (Allen) to harbor resentment towards Carrie. Conversely, Sue (Irving) feels bad about the incident and convinces her boyfriend to ask Carrie to the prom. If you are aware of the way this film has been parodied since, then you know how things turn out.

The picture has not aged too well. The majority of the music, particularly a lot of light-hearted montage scenes feel incredibly cringe-inducing. Piper Laurie, who plays Carrie’s mother, is an actress who hasn’t met a piece of scenery she hasn’t enjoyed chewing and that’s fun for the most part. I was reminded of author Stephen King’s cliched zealous fanatic archetype that seems to crop its head in almost all his work. However, I can definitely see how a lot of the high school movie tropes were borne out of this film. Nancy Allen as the uber-bitch Chris does an excellent job and Amy Irving as Sue comes across very genuine.

Where the film won me over was the famous prom scene. Wow! The tension that DePalma is able to create in the moments before poor Carrie is pushed over the edge are breathtaking. He is most definitely a skilled editor, knowing how long to stay on a shot before cutting to a reaction or image related to the previous shot. It’s like a cinematic Rube Goldberg device where every little piece click and leads to the next perfectly. The music here is an homage to the work of Hitchcock’s composer, Bernard Hermann. Hermann died before he could compose the score for Carrie so it was brilliant to make it a reference to his previous works, especially Psycho; four notes of that film’s score are heard repeatedly through the film.

I was most impressed with the portrayal of Carrie White. She was not the “weirdo” or “freak” you might see portrayed in derivative films made since. Carrie shows resentment and anger towards her mother about not being told about her sexuality. She isn’t completely naive and shows reasoned skepticism when invited to the prom. And Spacek’s choices in acting, particularly in her scenes with actor William Katt at the prom are exceptional. I found this to be a great start to my exploration of this director’s films. It wasn’t perfect, but it showed a wonderful sense of pace and restraint that a lot of contemporary horror films could learn from.

Maybe Sundays – The Crazies (2010)


The Crazies (2010, dir. Breck Eisner)
Starring Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Danielle Panabaker, Joe Anderson

The Crazies is only a zombie film by default. It’s “monsters” aren’t the walking dead at all, but people infected by viral weapons designed by the United States military. And one could easily debate if the villains in the film are the townsfolk or the emergency response military troops that come to kill them all. Based on a 1973 George Romero cult flick, this film follows the same premise but with some modern tweaks and a lot better character development than the original.
The story begins with Ogden Marsh Sheriff David Dutton attending the opening game of the high school baseball season. A town farmer arrives on the field, behaving strangely and brandishing a shotgun. David to shoot and kill the man when he draws his weapon on the crowd. Over the next day, more cases of similar behavior surface causing David and his doctor wife, Judy to suspect something sinister is at work. In the middle of the night military forces show up in Ogden Marsh, rounding up citizens in makeshift internment camps.
It’s obvious the film is expanding on the anti-government paranoia of the 1970s with a post 9-11 spin. What I picked up on most was that almost every infected townsperson is a familiar face that we’re allowed to pick up some details about before they become a monster in the film. With the military, we only see one soldier’s face. The rest are constantly wearing hazmat suits or full fatigues with gas masks securely planted over their faces. This conceit causes the military to come off as much more of the mysterious evil force than the infected. In fact, the greatest horror of the film is performed by the military in the film’s finale.
Despite this, the film falls into the most cliched of cliches in the horror business. There was an inordinate number of times where we were given a cheap jump scare from someone being touched on the shoulder. And I counted at least twice where a scare was revealed by the camera simply panning to the right to reveal an infected in the room. It’s these easy paint-by-the-numbers techniques that take a film, which could have been interesting and tapped into some interesting zeitgeist, and turn it into a $5 DVD bin flick for Wal-Mart.

Film 2010 #35 – Shutter Island


Shutter Island (2010, dir. Martin Scorsese)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas

My immediate reaction after seeing the first trailer for Shutter Island was that it would be interesting to see Scorsese tackle a film with horror elements. After thinking about this for a little while longer, I realized he already had in Taxi Driver, a film I think of as an urban horror picture more than anything else. Upon further contemplation, I realized we found similarly paranoid protagonists in many Scorsese pictures: The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and of course, The Aviator. This is why Shutter Island, while stylistically a departure for the directing legend, is thematically at home in his body of work.
The premise brings U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane located on Shutter Island. Rachel Solando, a patient at the asylum has vanished so Daniels, and his new partner Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) have come to investigate. Daniels is introduced to the facilities by Dr. John Cawley (Kingsley) and eventually meets the head of the hospital, Dr. Naehring (Sydow), a German who brings back Daniels animosity for the Nazi atrocities he witnessed during World War II. This combined with strange nightmares about Daniels’ late wife intensify his paranoia while on the Island and he begins to formulate what he believes is the real horror going on behind the scenes on Shutter Island.
What hits you first about this film is the score. The music was designed and chosen by long-time friend of Scorsese and former member of The Band, Robbie Robertson and he proves he has an ear for some powerful modernist compositions. There are elements of Bernard Hermann yet never played to the point of absurdity. Because of the strong musical elements they create a balance with the unscored moments. An encounter in a cave among the cliffs of the island goes unscored, despite there being revelations made there that would have received a crescendo of strings in an older picture. It’s those choices of presence and absence that strike the right balance in the film.
At its core, this is simply a variation on the haunted house trope. What sets it apart from a B-movie are the very powerful artistic masterstrokes Scorsese uses. The dream/nightmare sequences Daniels experiences, whether they be in sleep or in the middle of the day, inform the audience with the clues the investigator fails to find in the conscious world. I was particularly intrigued by the cultural paranoias of the day that seeped into the fiber of the film. We have Daniels haunted by the sights of Jews frozen to death at Dachau and his unit subsequent expunging of the camp’s guards in an era where PTSD was not something remotely thought about. In addition, characters mention the fears of atomic annihilation as a result of the Cold War, the idea of Nazi scientist-torturers being granted pardons for service to the US military, and brainwashing techniques of HUAC. This constant atmosphere of not-knowing and being watched makes Shutter a perfect companion piece to The Aviator.
Shutter Island may not end on the most satisfying of notes, but there really is no other way for it to end. Such a story can’t deliver any true sense of justice and still remain true to its film noir and horror roots. From the first time we see Daniels, hunched over a toilet as the ferry rocks around him, it is apparent this character is in bad shape. An odyssey to an island of madness can never make such a condition better.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part Two

SPOILERS BELOW, if you haven’t seen the Alien films and being surprised is important to you don’t read.


Alien3 (1992, dir. David Fincher)

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dutton, Charles Dance, Pete Postlethwaite
When we last left Ripley in James Cameron’s Aliens, she had defeated the Alien Queen and was back in cryosleep with her makeshift family (Hicks, Newt, Bishop). However, a couple months later a fire breaks out on board the space marine vessel Sulaco and the sleeping travelers are emergency ejected in a small capsule. The capsule ends up on the prison planet Fiorina 161. Sadly, all but Ripley are dead and she has an emotional collapse at this realization.
Alien3 is a great film is you like Ripley, but not necessarily if you like the xenomorph creature. The picture plays fast and loose with some of the franchise’s established rules with the creatures and moves at a much slower pace then the action-oriented Aliens. But, as I said above if you are interested in the evolution of the Ripley character then the film is quite interesting. I have to say, that after going back and re-watching this one I enjoyed it more than Aliens. It has a stronger story and I’m a big fan of when horror films take pacing seriously.
Ellen Ripley develops a love interest in the film, the prison doctor Clemens and I liked how the relationship played out atypically from most relationships in films. Ripley never takes a passive, traditionally feminine role and in fact behaves in a fairly masculine way with Clemens. Clemens doesn’t become passive either so it makes for a kind of relationship not seen much on screen. Ripley also undergoes her most severe trauma. She discovers that the fire on board the Sulaco was caused by two facehugging egg aliens (one of whom is responsible for the creature running around in the film). Ripley also learns she has been implanted with a queen. The realization that the species would have died off with the destruction of their planet in Aliens, convinces Ripley that she must make the greatest sacrifice.
If we play out the sexual/pregnancy/rape subtext of the first Alien film this makes it the pain Ripley’s situation even greater. The one violation she has fought off for decades has now happened. Sigourney Weaver plays the devastation of Ripley amazingly. The film comes to a climactic finale as Ripley races to destroy herself and Weyland-Utani rushes to Fiorina to try and claim the creature inside her for R & D purposes. In the end, Ripley makes a metaphoric fall backwards into a vat of molten lead, arms extended in an explicitly Christ-like manner, saving the universe from the xenomorph species.

Alien: Resurrection (1997, dir. Jean Pierre-Jeunet)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Dany Hedaya, Brad Dourif, Dominque Pinon
Probably wondering how a fourth film starring Sigourney Weaver could be possible after the last one. Joss Whedon was brought on board to pen this truly final installment in Ripley’s story and sets the picture hundreds of years into the future. Blood samples taken in the infirmary on Fiorina 161 are gathered up by Weyland-Utani. Centuries later, the company has been absorbed as part of a bizarre government/corporate ruling body that presides over Earth. Ripley has been cloned for the sole purpose of harvesting the queen from her and in turn producing eggs and more xenos. The goal? To somehow train the creatures to become weapons in the corporate military.
Weaver plays Ripley 8, the eight and successful attempt to clone Ellen . Because of the mixing of blood, Ripley 8 also contains traces of xenomorph DNA, enabling her to have heightened sense and the trademark acidic blood. Because this character does not have the memory of the original, all the experiences and trauma are discarded. Ripley 8 is kept in a special chamber and watched over by the scientists whom are also trying to condition the xenos. This Ripley is a much less interesting character than Ellen Ripley. She fits a prototypical action hero mode, with no real emotional reaction or understanding of the consequences of her actions.
In essence, it feels like Whedon simply in enamored with the kick ass chick archetype and imposes it onto Ripley. If Buffy or River Tam is your thing, no prob, but to place that template onto the Alien franchise doesn’t feel like a natural fit. My personal preference was that having a mature, more adult figure like Ripley made for such a unique character in science fiction. The original Ellen Ripley felt like a real human being, truly scarred by her trauma with the xenomorphs yet not allowing to cripple her with fear. Her reactions felt real, she lashed out without thinking through completely, but from a purely survival perspective.
This last entry, serves as a disappointing capstone, despite having such a talented cast and crew behind it. I’m of the belief that director Jeunet decided to make a parody of all the action pictures he saw coming out of Hollywood, and if that’s true he nails it on the head. The gore is over the top to the point of being absurd and the dialogue has that clunky, smarmy style you see in any C-grade action flick. I also noticed a trend of European directors having characters in American action films cursing way too much, and has led me to believe they think this is an essential trait for blockbuster action cinema in this country.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part One

Over the holidays, while I was in Puerto Rico, I decided to download the four films in the Alien franchise after finding out Ariana had never seen them. While not all of them are quite masterpieces they do present a unique form of franchise. Typically in franchises, studios pick journeyman filmmakers to direct, guys who know how to simply shoot a film. They aren’t bad directors but they will probably never be considered visionaries. With the Alien franchise, you have Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), James Cameron (Terminator), David Fincher (Fight Club), and Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). These are definitely directors who have signature flourishes they bring to their work. This makes each of the Alien films drastically different in their tone and look. And central to all the films is Sigourney Weaver as the first lady of action films, Ellen Ripley. In this two part essay I want to look at how Ripley was developed into one of the more believable action heroes in cinema.


Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright

In the first entry into the Alien franchise, Ellen Ripley is not necessarily identified as the main character until the last 45-30 mins of the film. Instead, the film cleverly fakes out the audience by focusing on Tom Skerritt’s captain of the mining ship the Nostromo as the hero. If you haven’t seen Alien, you are missing one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. In the wake of Star Wars, but still firmly entrenched in classic psychological sci-fi cinema, Alien takes its time to introduce its title baddie.
Character development isn’t a core component of this first film. Director Scott appears to take a more aloof, documentary style on the material, using lots of handheld camera work and realistic conversations between characters. Ellen Ripley is a warrant officer for the Weyland-Yutani corporation, whose specialty is as a pilot. She’s also second in command to Skerritt’s Captain Dallas. Because of her rank in the military like structure of the corporation, we don’t see her take command until some bad things befall poor Dallas. Once she does assume command, she faces dissension from the ship’s science officer (Holm) and the contracted mining crew who is already disgruntled about their small percentage from the mission they are returning from. It’s very interesting that at such an early time in the history of the blockbuster movie, there was already a female action hero whose gender never played a role in her interactions with fellow crew members.
There is also a subtext that is commonly read into Alien that makes it fitting that a female character would take center stage. The entire process in which a person is implanted with a xenomorph (the name of the Alien species) embryo is akin to rape. A spider-like creature bursts from an egg, affixing itself to a host species’ face, then inserts a tube down into the stomach of the host where the egg is planted. The emergence of the xeno is also a dark commentary on childbirth. The larval creature bursts from the host’s chest, screaming and crying in a twisted variation on the birth-cries of an infant, and skitters away leaving the host for dead. While I’m sure the screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, and Ridley Scott don’t believe childbirth is evil, they are making an interesting comment on what a violent and brutal process it is. If you were to step back and observe, it is quite odd that mothers are expected to immediately love and bond with something that has literally torn them apart.
By the end of the film, Ripley has managed to escape the ship and fights of the xenomorph once more, defeating it and placing herself in cryosleep, expecting to wake up in a few weeks back at the space port.

Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton
Well, Ripley’s escape ship drifted much longer than she planned, in fact she was out in the emptiness of space for 57 years. She’s found by scavengers and delivered to Weyland-Utani where she learns that her daughter (in a deleted scene from the director’s cut), who was 9 when Ripley left for the mining mission, has died at the age of 66 two years ago. This devastates Ripley, and it is apparent that she is also suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from the massacre that took place on board the Nostromo. Ripley attempts to assimilate back into life on Earth, but is called back into duty when the planetoid the xenos where originally found on has been colonized and the colonists appear to have been wiped out.
Where in the first film, Ripley is goes into action only when she is pushed, this Ripley appears to have developed a much tougher skin as a result of her experiences. Her job on Earth is working a loader mechsuit (see the big robo suits from Avatar) and moving cargo around for shipment. Once she amongst the space marine platoon headed to kill the alien hordes, she is intent on proving herself just as tough as them, but with a clear head and much more intelligence than many of the grunts around her. When the unit lands and everything falls apart fairly quickly, with xenos mauling the troops, it is Ripley, not the unit commander that takes action and pulls the still living soldiers out. For the rest of the film, Ripley is the one calling the shots. She orchestrates a way of remotely calling a rescue ship from the marine vessel in the planetoid’s orbit and successfully defeats the xenos pretty much single handedly.
This film expands on Ripley’s maternal nature but introducing Newt, the child of colonists who has been severely traumatized by seeing her family devoured and used as living incubators. Ripley takes up the care of Newt without missing a beat, she knows how to speak to the child and comfort her so that she believes she is safe with Ripley no matter what. Ripley has a foil in the form of the Alien Queen, the one responsible for the those creepy, mucousy eggs that cause so much trouble. The finale of the film is two mothers fighting to death to protect their children. Something that is so visceral and ultimately feels like more organic action that most male-centric action films. There is an instinctual protective nature in mothers of all species, so much of the over the top action that occurs feels honest.
Aliens ends the same as the first: Ripley going in cryosleep, hoping that the next time she wakes this nightmare will be a memory. Too bad she has two more films to go.

Film 2010 #17 – Legion


Legion (2010, dir. Scott Stewart)
Starring Paul Bettany, Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, Adrienne Palicki, Charles Dutton, Lucas Black

Interesting concepts, poor execution. Par for the course with a lot of sci-fi and fantasy on film these days, and Legion is no exception. The film has a few little twists but at the end of the day fails on pretty much all fronts.
Michael the Archangel (Bettany) learns of God’s plan to finally wipe out humanity and cannot go along with this plan. He rejects his angelic nature, falls to Earth, and gets a bunch of machine guns to fight with. Michael makes his way to a diner in the middle of New Mexico where a young woman lives who is pregnant with a child that is somehow the last hope for mankind, though what exactly this kid can do is never explained in the film. Michael even goes so far as to say if the child lives or dies it doesn’t matter near the end of the film. Okay…then why all the hubbub?
There is a lot in this film that is never explained and that is incredibly frustrating. In an arthouse film like Eternal Sunshine, the tone of the film never takes itself too seriously, hence we never wonder how the memory removal process works. In a film like Legion, which can’t laugh at itself once, the tone dictates that when action is taken there is a concise rhyme and reason. The biggest example is of how exactly does a machine gun hurt a being like an angel. Not a single effort to justify that one.
The biggest concept I like from the film was the idea of angelic possession. The movie is basically a zombie film with angel-possessed human hordes attacking the diner and trying to kill the pregnant woman. While the execution of the idea is downright yawn-inducing, the concept itself is incredibly originally. I’ve read a hell of a lot of comics and seen a lot of films but have never encountered the idea of angelic possession. Pretty cool idea, would like to see it implemented in a different film.