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Days of De Palma: Conclusions

A while back, I decided it would be fun to watch through the filmography of Brian De Palma.  I had previously seen a number of films directed by Mr. De Palma, such as Scarface, Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables, and Snake Eyes.  I’d enjoyed those films, but it had been a while since I’d last seen any of them.  I knew that Mr. De Palma was a controversial filmmaker, loved by some critics and movie fans, and dismissed by others.  I was eager to make a judgment for myself, and also to watch some famous films (like Blow Out) that I had never before seen.

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It took me a while longer than I’d thought to finish this project.  But I’m glad I stuck with it.  I had quite a lot of fun making my way through Mr. De Palma’s impressively varied filmography.  While I quickly discovered that Mr. De Palma has a variety of stylistic devices that he enjoys employing in many/most of his films (long, uncut tracking shots; deep focus shots, in which characters in both the foreground and the background ate both in focus; and P.O.V. shots), I was even more impressed to learn that he did not limit himself to any one type of genre.  More than almost any other filmmaker I can think of, Mr. De Palma allowed himself to direct a vast array of different types of movies: science fiction stories, gangster stories, period pieces, horror/thrillers, goofy comedies, and more.  I don’t think Mr. De Palma was entirely successful in all of these different genres (I did not have much patience for his supposed “comedies” like Wise Guys), but I was incredibly impressed at his exploration of different types of movies.

Very quickly in to this project, it was clear to me that Mr. De Palma possessed a phenomenal mastery of the cinematic form.  His ability to incorporate creative, innovative shot-design, editing techniques, and other unusual stylistic devices (such as those I listed in the previous paragraph) into every one of his films blew me away.  (This was clear to me right away in Carrie In Noah Baumbach’s wonderful documentary De Palma, Mr. De Palma recounts how the studio was mystified by the complicated panning shot Mr. De Palma had set up to establish the bucket of blood up in the rafters.  Why was he taking so much time to set up such a bizarre, elaborate shot?  Why not just cut to a quick shot of the bucket of blood?  But Mr. De Palma’s genius lay in his understanding of how this long, complicated tracking shot would allow the audience to fully understand the geography of the room, who was where and what … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 20): De Palma (2015)

I feel like Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary De Palma was made just for me.

As I was finishing my lengthy “Days of De Palma” project of watching all of the films directed by Brian De Palma, I learned of the existence of this documentary.  Oh my god!  How perfect!  I decided I needed to wait until I finished my re-watch project before I’d watch the documentary, but as soon as I finished watching 2012’s Passion (the final film released, so far, by Mr. De Palma), I immediately turned to this documentary.  To say that I loved it would be an enormous understatement.

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This documentary, simply titled De Palma, is unlike almost any other documentary I have ever seen.  There’s no array of talking-head interview subjects, no fancy graphics, no complicated narrative.  The set-up is deceptively simple.  The documentary is just an extended interview with Mr. De Palma, who is sitting and talking directly into the camera.  The interview looks like it was filmed on two or three different occasions.  Mr. De Palma talks a little bit about his background and upbringing, but for the most part De Palma is simply a film-by-film retrospective of Mr. De Palma’s long and storied career.  Film by film, in chronological order, we move through Mr. De Palma’s filmography.  We watch clips from the films and listen to Mr. De Palma’s many fascinating stories about the making of those films.

That’s it!  That’s the whole documentary!  It’s like the ultimate DVD special feature for a (nonexistent) box-set collecting all of Mr. De Palma’s movies.

What a perfect, extraordinary film for me to watch after having just watched all of Mr. De Palma’s movies!!

This film was amazing.  It works because a) Mr. De Palma has made so many great movies over the years, and b) because Mr. De Palma turns out to be a wonderful storyteller.  It is a tremendous joy listening to him spin yarn after yarn as he recounts his experiences, good and bad, in Hollywood.  The film feels intimate, like Mr. De Palma is a good friend and we’re just sitting around together, shooting the shit and reminiscing.

The film is filled to overflowing with fantastic stories about Mr. De Palma’s experiences over the course of his career.  We learn that he and George Lucas cast Carrie and Star Wars together.  We hear a terrific story about a young De Palma having to find a way to work with the great Orson Welles who was unable or unwilling to learn his lines.  We learn that events in Dressed to Kill were inspired by Mr. De Palma’s actual experiences, as a young man, of learning that his father was cheating and … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 19): Passion (2012)

I am excited to have finally arrived at the end of my journey through the filmography of master director Brian De Palma.  (Well, the end for now – Mr. De Palma is alive and well, and hopefully has additional films in his future!)  2007’s Redacted was a rough watch — click here for my review of that film, which I strongly disliked.  It’s reception must have shaken Mr. De Palma as well, as he didn’t release another film for five years, until 2012’s Passion.

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Even though I strongly disliked Redacted, I was excited to dive into Passion, because this film looked like a return to a classic De Palma type of story: an erotically-charged mystery/suspense film.  Passion stars two beautiful women who are also each great actresses: Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams.  Seeing these two women matched with Brian De Palma looked like a recipe for fun, and of course stills like the one I have included above suggested that this film would contain some classic De Palma sexy fun.

I enjoyed Passion, but like so many of the late-career De Palma films, it didn’t quite ever come together as a completely successful film.  The whole thing felt somewhat half-baked to me.

Passion is certainly gorgeous to look at (a welcome relief after the ugly, clumsy-looking Redacted).  The film is sumptuously shot, and I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. De Palma’s many carefully-constructed, often-unusual-looking compositions throughout the film.

Many of Mr. De Palma’s favorite stylistic devices make a welcome return here in this film.  We get a split focus shot early in the film, when boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson) is on the couch and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) is in the mirror, asking about Christine (Rachel McAdams).  We have to wait for a while for a signature De Palma split-screen shot, but when it comes it’s a doozy: a long, continuous shot of a drunk Dirk confronting Christine, while Isabelle watches the opera.  This a wonderfully tense, sexy, suspenseful sequence that continues as Christine showers after her party guests have left, while meanwhile we see someone entering her apartment.  This sequence also cleverly incorporates a classic De Palma P.O.V. device, as the camera shifts to show us the intruder’s point of view as he/she sneaks around Christine’s apartment while, on the other side of the split screen, we continue to follow Christine’s movements.  This is a tour de force sequence and a highlight of the movie.

We also get a series of additional P.O.V. shots from Isabelle’s perspective as her life falls apart: first as she walks to the door when the cops arrive at her apartment, then later when the detective questions her, and then again in the lawyer’s office, and … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 18): Redacted (2007)

We’ve arrived at the peunltimate installment of my journey through the films of Brian De Palma!  (Links to all of my reviews can be found at the bottom of this post.)  Though Mr. De Palma’s output has slowed considerably over the last two decades, he quickly followed up 2006’s The Black Dahlia with 2007’s Redacted.

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Redacted presents us with a series of vignettes of a group of U.S. soldiers during the Iraq war, assembled from footage filmed by different sources, including a French documentary crew and the hand-held camera of one of the soldiers.  (Although the film is supposed to look like it was assembled from real found footage, everything was in fact shot by Mr. De Palma.)

Redacted is an angry anti-war film, and I respect Brian De Palma for so courageously making a movie fueled by the force of his convictions.

But that’s probably the last nice thing I can say about Redacted.  The film is absolutely awful.  It looks and sounds dreadful, completely amateurish.  I couldn’t believe, as I was watching it, that this film was directed by the master Brian De Palma.  And, yes, I know that much of the film is supposed to be “found footage” filmed by the amateur Private Salazar, but it’s not just that the footage looks amateurish.  It’s everything about the film.  The dialogue is terrible, the editing is choppy, the story is embarrassingly simplistic.  It’s painful.

The opening title cards set up some confusion, suggesting that the events in the film are real when we know they’re not.  And everything that follows feels painfully artificial and fake.  All movies, unless they are documentaries, are fake.  But movies that work have a power to speak to an audience, to affect us emotionally.  Brian De Palma could have attempted to tell a story about U.S. soldiers in Iraq using actual documentary footage.  But he chose not to do that, probably because Mr. De Palma recognized the power of fiction to make a point.  There have been many notable anti-war films that are powerful despite the fact that they are fiction, not documentaries.  So this is a film that COULD have worked, but unfortunately nothing about it does.

The dialogue in the film is eye-rolling awful and obvious, and the performances are almost all equally bad.  The whole film feels so fake that it kept me distant from the story being told.  I never engaged with the story or these characters.  We see an introductory speech from Private Salazar, talking into his camera, claiming that there will be no Hollywood narrative in this film.  But isn’t the whole point of making a fictional film, rather than just showing real documentary footage, to have … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 17): The Black Dahlia (2006)

I’m in the home stretch of my project to watch all the films directed by Brian De Palma!  Following 2002’s Femme Fatale, Mr. De Palma was off the scene for a while until 2006’s The Black Dahlia.  This noir murder-mystery was adapted by Josh Friedman from James Ellroy’s novel, which was itself inspired by the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947.  Ms. Short’s nude body was found mutilated, and her murder was never solved.

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In the film, set in 1947, L.A.P.D. partners Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and the rookie Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) investigate the murder of Elizabeth Short, who the press soon nicknames “The Black Dahlia” (just as happened in real life).  In their own way, both Lee and Bucky become obsessed with solving Elizabeth Short’s murder.  Bucky learns that Elizabeth was a lesbian who was involved in a porno film.  He meets and then becomes involved himself with one of Elizabeth’s friends (maybe her girlfriend) Madeleine (Hilary Swank).  Meanwhile, Lee becomes increasingly unhinged, which drives a wedge between him and his girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johanssen), while the sexual tension between Kay and Bucky begins to heat up.  The murder of one young woman threatens to uncover a much larger world of sex and crime in Los Angeles.

The Black Dahlia is probably the strongest film of the last almost-two-decades of Mr. De Palma’s career, his best since 1998’s Snake Eyes.  There’s a lot to enjoy in the film.  I loved the style and atmosphere of this 1947-set mystery.  This feels like a much tighter, focused film than some of the other late-career De Palma films (such as Femme Fatale, about which I recently wrote, and also Passion, about which I’ll be writing soon).  But it’s not perfect, and the film has some unfortunate weaknesses that keep it short of altogether working the way a great film does.

The film starts off strong.  I love the fast-paced opening sequence.  Right away this feels like a differently-styled film for Mr. De Palma.  It moves very quickly, with lots of short scenes.  There’s nothing overly flashy at first in this film, just a tight script, good actors, and solid directing.  Even when he’s restraining himself from his usual stylistic flourishes, Mr. De Palma’s master-level film-making skill is on clear display.  It’s a lot of fun to watch.  For these past several films (Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale) Mr. De Palma has been telling noir-type stories, and it seems right away here in The Black Dahlia that this will again be the case.  (Even though in the end the film turns out a lot different from how I’d expected — more on that later.)  This … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 16): Femme Fatale (2002)

My journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!

Following Mr. De Palma’s brief excursion into big-budget sci-fi, his next film returned to him to more familiar ground of crime, mystery, beautiful dames and Hitchcockian double-twists.  I’d never seen Femme Fatale before this De Palma viewing project, and I was interested to see whether this film — whose title seemed to promise a classic sort of De Palma story — would satisfy.

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Well, it does and it doesn’t.  There are some great delights in seeing Mr. De Palma return to this somewhat familiar ground, and there’s no question that Femme Fatale gives the master director plenty of opportunities to strut his stuff and demonstrate his extraordinary film-making skills.  But this film’s script just doesn’t have the sharpness of some of Mr. De Palma’s previous, stronger work.  The foundation upon which Mr. De Palma piles his cinematic bells and whistles is somewhat wobbly, and so while the film is fun and certainly held my interest, it doesn’t work as well as Mr. De Palma’s best films.

As the film opens, we see a beautiful, nude woman watching an old noir movie on TV.  In my review of Snake Eyes, I wrote about how it took me until the very end of the film before I realized that the loud, colorful, brash film that I had been watching was in fact a noir, and in that moment I finally understood the film that Mr. De Palma was making.  Here at the start of Femme Fatale, it’s as if Mr, De Palma wants to make sure his intentions are perfectly clear: this is a noir, OK?  Got it?  OK, I’ve got it!  And the beautiful image of a naked woman seen in a reflection is a classic De Palma image.  I love this opening.  I love how skillfully Mr. De Palma plays with the audience, making us wait quite a while before we actually are allowed to see the woman’s face or to hear her speak.  (This is smart, as Rebecca Romijn is competent but not exactly a master actress.  More on this later.)

I’ve noted in so many of these reviews of the films of Mr. De Palma the way he enjoys playing with the notions of watching.  Just as we are watching this movie, so too are so many De Palma characters seen watching others, often through TV or camera screens.  This theme continues to be present here in Femme Fatale.  We see Laure (Rebecca Romijn’s character) watching a noir movie on TV in the film’s opening shot, as I’d just discussed.  We see the cops watching the red carpet on multiple different TV screens.  In a carefully staged and … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 15): Mission to Mars (2000)

My journey through all the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (Scroll down to the bottom to see links to all of my previous reviews.)  Following 1998’s Snake Eyes, a film with a poor critical reputation that I don’t think is at all deserved, we come to Mission to Mars, a film that also has a poor critical reputation.  But whereas I unabashedly love Snake Eyes, I can’t quite say the same for Mission to Mars.  It’s nowhere near as terrible as many people like to say it is, but nonetheless it doesn’t quite work.

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Gary Sinese (re-teaming with Brian De Palma following his role in Snake Eyes) plays Jim McConnell, an astronaut whose wife has recently been killed.  His friends head off on the first manned mission to Mars, but when tragedy strikes a rescue/recovery mission is organized with Jim’s involvement, along with his friend Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robins), Blake’s wife Terri Fisher (Connie Nielson), and Phil Ohlmeyer (Jerry O’Connell).

It’s interesting to see Mr. De Palma’s style applied to a sci-fi film.  Mr. De Palma’s eye and style give Mission to Mars a different feel than your average big-budget sci-fi flick.  There’s a lot to enjoy about the film.  While the story isn’t that sophisticated, the mystery of what happened to the original crew on Mars is enough to hold my interest throughout the film.  Similarly, none of the characters are that interesting or complex, but there’s enough movie-star charisma on display — between the afore-mentioned Gary Sinese, Tom Robbins, Connie Nielson, and Jerry O’Connell, plus also Don Cheadle, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and others — to keep the audience hooked in.  However, I dearly miss the sharp work that David Koepp did on the screenplays of Mr. De Palma’s last three films (Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, and Snake Eyes).  (I groaned when, during the hull breach situation, Tim Robbins’ character says: “Come on, people, let’s work the problem,” a direct and obvious rip-off from Apollo 13.  Not the script’s finest moment.)

Both The Bonfire of the Vanities and Snake Eyes opened with a lengthy single-take tracking shot designed to introduce the characters and setting, and so too does this film, as we meet all of the main characters at a BBQ party before the original mission to Mars’ launch.  This device feels a little cliche for Brian De Palma at this point, so not nearly as effective as before (nor does it have the jaw-dropping audaciousness of Snake Eyes’ opening shot that somehow involved thousands of extras in the boxing arena), but it’s still fun to see and a neat method of introducing us to all the main characters.

In terms of signature … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 14): Snake Eyes (1998)

September 30th, 2016
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A few years ago I decided to start watching all of the films directed by Brian De Palma.  He’d always struck me as a very interesting director, one who had helmed a variety of very different films, and about whom there seemed to be a strong split in critical opinion.  I knew that there were several De Palma films that I had seen and enjoyed, and many more that I had not seen but was curious about.  And so my “Days of De Palma” series began.  It’s taken me far longer than I’d expected to make my way through Mr. de Palma’s filmography, I kept getting distracted and moving onto other things, but I never gave up and I am happy to say that, as I write this, I have completed my viewing project.  Now all that remains is for me to write about this last stretch of films!  Let’s begin with Snake Eyes.

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I believe that Mission: Impossible was the first Brian De Palma film that I ever saw in theatres, back in 1996.  I really liked that film, and so when Mr. De Palma’s follow-up film, Snake Eyes, was released, I remember being eager to see it.  The film was something of a critical dud, but my recollection of seeing it in a theater was being really blown away by it.  I hadn’t seen the film in the two decades since, and so as I was making my way through this “Days of De Palma” viewing project this was the film I was most eager to revisit.

Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) is a fast-talking Atlantic City police detective.  His best friend is US Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinese).  Rick considers himself the master of his town, a mover and shaker who is buddy-buddy with everyone important and always knows the score, but that certainty is shattered when the Secretary of Defense is assassinated under Rick’s nose at a boxing max.  Rick struggles with increasing desperation to unravel the complicated mess that he has found himself smack in the middle of, but it’s possible he never had a chance.

I know this film doesn’t have a great reputation, but I don’t understand that at all.  Watching this film again I enjoyed it every bit as much as I had originally twenty years ago.

First of all, David Koepp’s script is terrific, a nice taut, twisty mystery.  I have commented before that I believe Mr. De Palma is at his best when working from a strong script (I think blame for most of Mr. De Palma’s stinkers can be laid at the feet of those films’ poor scripts) so it’s great to see Mr. De Palma working here on … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 13): Mission: Impossible (1996)

Slowly but surely, my journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all the other Brian De Palma films I have watched!)

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Mission: Impossible is probably the Brian De Palma film that I have seen the most over the years.  It’s not a perfect film, but it’s damn good, fiercely entertaining and a heck of a lot of fun.  It’s funny to think that Brian De Palma was involved in a “franchise” film, but the marvelous thing about Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible film series is the way that Mr. Cruise has embraced the idea of working with a variety of filmmakers, each with very strong, singular styles, thus giving each M:I film a very distinct feel.  These films are far more different from one another than any other film series I can think of.  I don’t know if that was Mr. Cruise (and his co-producer, Paula Wagner)’s idea right from the beginning, but I love the way it has turned out.  With the fifth Mission: Impossible installment opening this weekend, it seemed perfect for me to take this opportunity to post my thoughts on my recent re-watch of the film that kicked off the series.

I never watched much of the original Mission: Impossible TV show, so even when I first saw this film back in 1996, I wasn’t going in with any pre-conceived notions of what Mission: Impossible was all about.  (So I wasn’t bothered by, say, what a fan of the TV show might see as a sacrilegious treatment, here in the film, of the character of Jim Phelps!) I have always judged these films purely on their strengths and weaknesses as films. And I think Mission: Impossible is pretty strong!

As I commented in my review of Carlito’s Way, it’s clear that Mr. De Palma can achieve tremendous heights when working from a great script.  And Mission: Impossible has a very solid script, one filled with twists and turns and a story that is engaging and exciting while managing to maintain a fairly light, frothy tone.  The screenplay is by David Koepp (who also wrote the great script for Carlito’s Way) and Robert Towne, with a story by Mr. Koepp and Steve Zaillian (another great screenwriter, who wrote films such as Schindler’s List and Moneyball and Gangs of New York and Clear and Present Danger), and having such strong writers in the mix has again proven here to be an important foundation upon which Mr. De Palma can bring his particular cinematic eye and stylistic flourishes.

Perhaps because he knew that he was involved in a big-budget film intended to appeal … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 12): Carlito’s Way (1993)

Slowly but surely, my journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all the other Brian De Palma films I have watched!)

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As I have discovered, Brian De Palma’s career seems to unfold in waves.  He hits big with some great films, then sinks back into the depths with some bad films, then he rises again.  After the stinkers of The Bonfire of the Vanities (a huge flop) and Raising Cain, the great De Palma of old returns with a vengeance in Carlito’s Way, one of his very strongest films.  I’d only seen this film once before, about two decades ago.  I remembered enjoying it, and I was pleased on this re-watch that it was even better than I’d remembered.

Based on the novels Carlito’s Way and After Hours by Judge Edwin Torres, the film tells the story of Carlito, a Puerto Rican criminal played by Al Pacino.  After having been released from prison, Carlito attempts to stay on the straight and narrow but finds himself increasingly drawn back into the world of crime.  The slow dissolution of his relationship with his lawyer and former best-friend, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) leads to a turning point in Carlito’s life.

While the idea of Al Pacino as a Puerto Rican is a little silly, I absolutely adore Mr. Pacino in this sort of epic crime story.  It’s a genre that well-suits Mr. De Palma as well.  And while this film doesn’t quite reach the heights of the two men’s previous collaboration, Scarface, Carlito’s Way is a terrific crime saga, with a wonderful cast and some iconic set-pieces.  David Koepp’s screenplay is terrific.  It’s clear that De Palma is at his best with a strong screenwriter.  In a film like this, Mr. De Palma’s striking visual style is able to elevate a great story to create a compelling, top-notch film.

The film kicks off with a striking opening as we see, in black-and-white, that Pacino’s Carlito has been shot.  The music is a bit overwrought but it gives the introduction a suitably epic feel.  This feels like the follow-up to The Untouchables.  Forget those terrible movies in between!!

There are so many sequences in the film that are elevated by Mr. De Palma’s cinematic style.  I love the tense shoot-out in the bar, early in the film, after Carlito accompanies his young nephew (played by John Ortiz, who was so great last year in The Drop) to a drug-deal that goes wrong.  This is a great sequence because there is very little cinematic trickery.  It’s just A-level filmmaking, as Mr. De Palma slowly and carefully … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 11): Raising Cain (1992)

Slowly but surely, my journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all the other Brian De Palma films I have watched!)

Sandwiched in between two high-profile Brian De Palma films that I had never before seen, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Carlito’s Way, was this film that I had never heard of.  A horror film directed by De Palma and starring John Lithgow?  I was intrigued!

At the start of Raising Cain we meet Dr. Carter Nix (John Lithgow), who is at a playground with his daughter, Amy.  When his wife, Jenny (Lolita Davodovich) is late to pick them up, Carter and Amy accept a ride home from another mom at the playground.  On the ride home, when the mom laughs at one of Carter’s suggestions regarding child-rearing, Carter loses control and murders her!  Yikes, this film doesn’t take long before taking a sharp turn into weirdness.  Things get far nuttier from there.  Carter’s wife, Jenny, begins to suspect something is amiss with him and, meanwhile, resumes an affair with a hunky former patient, Jack (Steven Bauer).  This turns her into a target for Carter, who we (and Jenny) discover has been twisted by the psychological experiments of his father into a creature with multiple personalities, many of them violent and disturbed.

There’s a core of a good idea for a horror film at the heart of that story, but I found Raising Cain to be pretty terrible.  It’s stunning to me how Brian De Palma seems to bounce from crafting truly excellent, masterful films (Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables) to such horrendous, amateurish misfires (Wise Guys, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and now this).  It’s fascinating!  I am not sure I have an explanation for this inconsistency in Mr. De Palma’s work.  I will say that I think he is much better off directing scripts written by other, stronger writers.  Mr. De Palma wrote the script for Raising Cain himself, and I think that is part of the problem with this film.

There is not much that I found to be good in Raising Cain.  The story is mostly laughable, rather than scary.  John Lithgow is a great actor, but he is entirely stranded by the script and direction.  His portrayal of Carter’s multiple personalities didn’t work for me at all.  I found it all to be incredibly silly as Mr. Lithgow would adopt different accents and costumes to portray the different sides of Carter’s broken mind.  Again, I can see this working in theory, but the execution fails.  It’s surprising, because John Lithgow is … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 10): The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Well, I’d certainly heard of The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the most famous flops in movie history, but I’d never before seen it.  This was one of the movies I was most curious to see as part of my journey through the films of Brian De Palma.  Was the film truly as bad as I’d heard??

In the opening minutes, I thought perhaps the general view of this film was wrong.  The movie opens with a gorgeous opening shot, as we watch a sped-up version of a full day of a city unfold from the point of view atop a tall skyscraper.  It’s a beautiful image and a clever one.  So far so good!  Then we jump into a staggeringly impressive five-minute-long continuous tracking shot.  This jaw-droppingly audacious shot follows a drunk Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) as he staggers in and out of rooms, down hallways, in and out of an elevator, and eventually into an enormous ballroom where he is supposed to be making a speech.  Brian De Palma’s cinematic style and skill is on full display with this sequence.  I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult this must have been to stage and to shoot.  It’s a wonderful sequence, hugely impressive.

The problem is that it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the movie!  This incredible opening sequence makes it feel like the story we’re about to watch is that of Bruce Willis’ character, the author Peter Fallow.  But the film that follows isn’t Fallow’s story at all, it’s that of the hapless rich white finance-guy Sherman McCoy (played by Tom Hanks).  So while I was initially impressed by this opening sequence, as the film progressed I came to see it more and more as a complete waste of time, an empty exhibition of style over substance.

It doesn’t help that the next 45 minutes or so of the film, after that crazy five-minute tracking shot, contain some of the most haplessly amateurish filmmaking of Mr. De Palma’s career (at least what I have seen of it so far).  When we first meet Sherman McCoy, it’s in a painfully failed comedic sequence in which he is trying to sneak out of his apartment that he shares with his wife, Judy (Kim Cattrall) so he can call his mistress Maria (Melanie Griffith).  Sherman uses taking the dog for a walk as his excuse, but the dog doesn’t go out in the rain, so then we cut to Sherman dragging his unconscious dog through the rain.  It’s supposed to be funny but it is so painfully unfunny that I just winced.  Between this and the entirety of Wise Guys (click here for my review[continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 9): Casualties of War (1989)

Following up on the successful and great The Untouchables, Brian De Palma moved on to another large-scale project: the Vietnam War story Casualties of War.

The film is based on the true events of the “incident on Hill 192” that occurred in 1966, and that were described in a New Yorker article written by Daniel Lang in 1969.  Michael J. Fox stars as Max Eriksson, a young kid serving in Vietnam.  As the film opens, Eriksson’s squad is engaged with a firefight with the Viet Cong in the jungle, and Erikkson falls into a Viet Cong tunnel.  The seasoned sergant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) helps rescue him.  Soon after, Meserve’s close friend “Brownie” Brown is shot and killed in a Viet Cong sniper attack.  A vengeful Meserve decides to kidnap a local Vietnamese from her village.  He and the other men in the squad drag her out of her home in the middle of the night.  Eriksson objects, but he is the only one in the squad who speaks up and so is ignored.  The men in the squad force the girl to march with them, beating and eventually raping her.  Erikkson continues to object but feels powerless to stop what he is witnessing.

The film’s central focus is on Eriksson’s moral struggle of what to do in this seemingly impossible situation.  This is a grim but compelling hook for a film, one made all the more powerful by the fact that these events did actually occur.

I enjoyed Casualties of War.  I think it’s an important story to tell, and the film’s cast of talented young actors do fine work.  However, the film falls a little short for me in that it feels somewhat fake, somewhat movie-ish.  The film lacks the mythic grandeur of Vietnam War films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and it also falls short of the you-are-there gritty realism of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.  For all of Brian De Palma’s skill as a director, visually I found that Casualties of War hasn’t aged as well as those other films.  It’s also a rare example of a film in which I felt that some of Mr. De Palma’s stylistic flourishes — which I usually quite enjoy and look out for — weakened the film rather than strengthening it.

One moment that comes to mind is the sequence in the Viet Cong caves early-on in the film.  While the men in Eriksson’s platoon unsuspectingly walk through the jungle, the camera pans down to reveal the network of Viet Cong caves running underneath the service.  Mr. De Palma constructed an elaborate raised set for this sequence, one that resembled … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 8): The Untouchables (1987)

My journey through the films of Brian De Palma rolls on!

After the one-two punch of 1984’s Body Double and 1986’s Wise Guys, both of which were terrible, I would imagine that Brian De Palma needed a hit.  Well, he got one with 1987’s The Untouchables.

Set in the 1930’s during the later years of prohibition, The Untouchables tells the story of honest cop Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his small group of “untouchables” who worked to free Chicago from the control of crime-lord Al Capone (Robert De Niro).  (The film is very loosely inspired by the TV series with the same name that ran from 1959-1963.  Both were based on the book The Untouchables written by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley.)  Ness assembles a small team of partners: tough Irish-American cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery); the young hot-headed Italian-American rookie George Stone (Andy Garcia); and the accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).  Together they take on corrupt cops and Capone’s mobsters.

Wow, what a treat it is to see Brian De Palma finally working with an A-level script!!  David Mamet’s script is lean and tight, chock full of memorable lines.  (“You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. THAT’S the Chicago way.”)  Combined with a great cast and Mr. De Palma’s skill as a visual stylist, and you have all the ingredients for a crowd-pleasing hit.

The main cast is dynamite.  In one of his earliest lead roles, a young Kevin Costner is terrific as the idealistic Ness.  His character is a little one-dimensional, but in this sort of broad-strokes story it works.  Mr. Costner’s genuine movie-star charisma carries him, and provides a strong anchor for the story.

Sean Connery delivers one of the most memorable performances of his career as Malone.  It helps that he gets most of the movie’s best lines.  In his great book A Pound of Flesh: Perilous Tales of How to Produce Movies in Hollywood, producer Art Linson describes how the shock to the audience of killing off movie-star Sean Connery in the middle of the movie was hugely important to the movie’s impact.  It’s funny, that sort of thing doesn’t really register with me, today, when I watch the film, but I will say that the fight in Malone’s home that leads to his death is a thrilling sequence in the film, hugely enhanced by Mr. De Palma’s point-of-view camerawork.  More on that in a moment.

Andy Garcia is great as Stone.  Like Ness and, frankly, all of the characters, the youth and tough Stone (his name is Stone, … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 7): Wise Guys (1986)

Hello!  And so, after a delay of nearly two years, we arrive at the film that nearly derailed my “Days of De Palma” series: 1986’s Wise Guys.  I’m not exactly sure why I avoided watching this film for so long.  I’d never seen the film before and I knew next-to-nothing about it.  (I’d never even heard of it before starting work on this De Palma series.)  There was just something about what little I knew about the film that made me think it would be dumb.  My movie “Spidey-Sense” was going off.  So without realizing I was doing it, I kept putting off and putting off watching this film.

But last month I decided the time had come to return to my “Days of De Palma” series and complete my journey through Mr. De Palma’s filmography.  And so I buckled down and popped Wise Guys into my DVD player.

The Italian Harry Valenti (Danny DeVito) and the Jewish Moe Dickstein (Joe Piscopo) are best buddies who are extremely small-time mobsters.  The two men live next door to one another, do everything together, and even have very similar morning routines.  They’re technically in the mob, but they are the smallest of small fries in the criminal undertakings run by mob boss Anthony Castelo (Dan Hedaya).  Their job doesn’t consist of much more than starting Castelo’s car to make sure it won’t explode before Mr. Castelo gets in.  One day Harry and Moe are assigned to place a bet at the racetrack on behalf of their boss.  Harry is convinced he knows which horse will win, and he convinces Moe that they should place Castelo’s money on that horse, and then split the winnings.  Unfortunately, Mr. Costelo had fixed the race, and so by not betting on the horse Costelo told them to bet on, Harry & Moe wind up costing him tens of thousands of dollars.  The two men must flee from the vengeful Castelo and his goons, especially the huge and vicious Frank “The Fixer” Acavano.

Unfortunately, Wise Guys is even worse than I feared it would be.  The film is a catastrophe, through and through.  It’s supposed to be a goofy comedy, but this is one of the most un-funny films I have ever seen.  You can see the flop sweat.  The whole thing is, frankly, embarrassing.

I knew we were in for trouble early on, in the scene in which poor Harry is sent outside to start Mr. Castelo’s car.  Everyone is convinced the car will explode, and Frank is scared out of his wits.  When the people in the neighborhood see that Frank is heading out to start the car, they all flee.  In what is supposed … [continued]

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Days of De Palma Returns!

I am a sucker for series.  Whether we’re talking about novels, comic-books, TV shows, or movies, I love long-form story-telling.  When it comes to stories, I love continuity rather than one-offs.  I’m also something of a collector/completist at heart.  These qualities combine to give me a special joy in reading or watching different works that share some sort of connection, whether it be of theme or a common creator.  Often when I read or watch something, I like to continue on and read or watch similar works, or other works by the same artists/creators.  Recently I was reading some Hellboy/B.P.R.D. comic-books by Mike Mignola, and I was seized by a desire to go back and re-read the entire series from the beginning.  (Thus launching my Great Hellboy Re-Reading Project series of blogs.)

A couple years back, I re-watched Terrence Malick’s WWII film The Thin Red Line after picking it up on a beautiful Criterion Edition DVD.  Re-watching it made me curious to go back and see some of Mr. Malick’s earlier films, the ones that earned him such acclaim.  And so I launched a brief series of blogs which I called “Days of Terrence Malick” (playing with the title of one of Mr. Malick’s famous films, Days of Heaven).  I watched and wrote about The Thin Red Line, Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Tree of Life.

I had fun with that series, and decided it would be fun to launch another, similar series, watching or re-watching the films of another filmmaker.  After batting around some ideas, I settled on Brian De Palma.  Mr. De Palma seemed a good choice as he was a filmmaker of some note, but also one about whom people’s opinions are often split, so it’d be fun to see where my thoughts landed.  I had seen several De Palma films that I was eager to revisit, and there were many other famous films of his that I had never seen.  I figured it’d be fun to dive into his lengthy filmography and write about the films as I went, and at the end I’d have defined my opinion about Mr. De Palma’s work over-all.

I wrote about six of Mr. De Palma’s movies: Carrie (1976); The Fury (1978); Dressed to Kill (1980); Blow Out (1981); Scarface (1983) and Body Double (1984).

But then the series hit something of a snag.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what happened.  I got busy with other things, and watching the next De Palma film kept getting pushed back and back and back on my “to-do” list.  It probably didn’t help that I wasn’t that excited about watching the next de Palma … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 6): Body Double (1984)

Wow.  Coming off the one-two punch of Blow Out (click here for my review) and Scarface (click here for my review), two Brain De Palma films that I quite enjoyed, comes 1984’s Body Double. This is a terrible movie, and by far the worst of the six De Palma films I have watched so far.

Craig Wasson plays Jake Scully, a down-on-his luck actor who just can’t seem to catch a break.  He gets fired from the movie he’s working on, then catches his girlfriend sleeping with another guy.  Things start to look up, though, when a fellow actor tells Jake that he can stay in the swank house in which he’s been house-sitting.  The house’s best feature?  The sexy housewife next-door, who likes to do an erotic dance in her lingerie, in plain view of the window, every night at the same time.  After several nights watching her, Jake becomes somewhat obsessed, eventually spending an afternoon following the woman all around the city.  His infatuation turns to frantic concern, though, when he starts to suspect that someone else has been following her, and is out to do her harm.

Body Double is basically an R-rated retelling of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. That actually sounds like it could be a decently entertaining idea, but I found Body Double to be a complete bore from start to finish.

The film’s biggest problem is that Craig Wasson is a totally uninteresting milquetoast character.  Part of that is the fault of the script, which wastes no chance to portray Jake as a total loser.  But Mr. Wasson’s performance is just terrible.  There’s a scene, early on, after he discovers his girlfriend having sex with another guy, when Jake heads to a bar to have a drink.  He starts drinking heavily and barking at the bartender.  The implication is that Jake has hit the bottle before, and I guess we’re supposed to think that this is a darker guy, with more internal demons, than we’ve heretofore suspected.  But Jake’s sudden turn into grumpy drunkenness, rather than giving extra layers to the character, just comes of as laughably ridiculous.  It’s like a kid pretending to be a tough guy.

Things don’t get better from there, and whether I was watching Jake floundering through the weirdest acting class I’ve ever seen or making puppy-dog eyes at the beautiful woman next-door, I was totally disconnected from the character.

Body Double is supposed to be an erotic thriller, but as with all of Mr. De Palma’s films I found the sex and nudity to be totally over-done to the point of silliness.  I could imagine the film containing some creepy/sexy scenes of a guy … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 5): Scarface (1983)

And so at last we arrive, in my journey through the films of Brian De Palma, to one of his films which I had already seen: Scarface. I watched this film several times back when I was in college, though I don’t think I’ve seen it much, if at all, in the last decade.

Just as I felt that Blow Out (click here for my review) was a large leap forward for Mr. De Palma from his earlier films, Scarface represents another huge jump in his prowess as a filmmaker.  Of all the De Palma films which I have seen so far, Scarface is the one that has aged the best.  There are a few moments when the somewhat over-wrought soundtrack dates the film, for me, but otherwise this movie feels just as vital and dynamic as a film made this year, rather than one that is almost three decades old.

Scarface is a live-wire of a film — a visceral, go-for-the-gut primal scream of a movie, filled with all the passion and excesses of it’s main characters.  But for a film that was shocking at the time of its release for its graphic violence, I must say I found Scarface to be the most restrained of all the De Palma movies I have watched so far, at least until the lunatic orgy of violence at the film’s climax.

Scarface, restrained?  OK, I realize that might seem to be an absurd comment, but hear me out.  Yes, Scarface is incredibly violent.  But my major complaint about Mr. De Palma’s films so far in my viewing project has been that there has been so much extreme content (mostly of the sexual/nudity variety) that seemed totally gratuitous to me.  I think those films would have been stronger films had some of the gauzy shower scenes, for example, been cut out, because those scenes just make me laugh or shake my head, pulling me out of the movie I was watching.

But in Scarface, I don’t feel the violence is gratuitous, at least not until the very end.  Let’s take one of the film’s most shocking scenes: Tony Montana’s botched money-for-dope exchange in a Miami hotel room which results in a bloodbath.  When I think of Scarface, I think of this scene even more than the “say hello to my little friend” climax.  It made an enormous impact on me when I first saw the film, and even knowing exactly what’s coming when I watch it now, I still find it to be incredibly gripping — tense and horrifying.  It’s terribly violent, but let me make two points.  One, the scene is not actually as on-the-screen gruesome as you might remember.  … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 4): Blow Out (1981)

After some delay (sorry about that!) we return to my Days of De Palma series, exploring the films of Brian De Palma!

Much has been written about the way in which Brian De Palma’s films feel heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  Already in my De Palma viewing project, I have seen the ways in which this is so.  But Mr. De Palma’s 1981 film, Blow Out, isn’t so much a Hitchcock film as it is a more lurid, mainstream re-telling of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent 1974 film The Conversation.

In Blow Out, John Travolta (who had a very small role in Mr. De Palma’s film Carrie) plays Jack Terry, who works as a sound-guy on shlocky B-grade movies.  One evening, Jack is out on a bridge recording sound (they need better “wind” for their horror picture) when he witnesses a terrible car accident, in which a vehicle careens off the road and into the water.  Jack dives in and rescues a woman, Sally (Nancy Allen, in yet another De Palma film after Carrie and Dressed to Kill), but the driver perishes.  When said driver is revealed to be a popular Presidential candidate, his people urge Jack to forget he was ever there and never speak to anyone about the woman in the car, so as not to sully the now-dead politician’s reputation.  The story the press reports is that the candidate’s car suffered a fatal blow-out which caused it to crash off the road, but Jack’s sound-recording of the event leads him to suspect that he can hear a gunshot the instant before the blow-out — meaning the man was murdered.

The start of the film had me very worried.  The film begins with a long point-of-view shot of a stalker lurking outside some sort of women’s dormitories.  We’re given just the sort of cheap thrills and gratuitous nudity that has so bugged me in Mr. De Palma’s films so far.  Of course, this dorm is filled with women having sex, women frolicking in their underwear in full view of the windows, a woman lying on a couch masturbating, women showering, etc.  The whole thing is eventually revealed to be a movie within-the-movie — we’re actually watching the cheesy horror film that Jack and his boss are working on.  It’s supposed to be a joke, but the gag would be a lot funnier if this sort of gratuitous exploitation wasn’t EXACTLY the sort of stuff Mr. De Palma’s films have been jam-packed with, up to this point!

Luckily, things pick up from there.  Blow Out contains some of the most effectively tense sequences of any of Mr. De Palma’s films that I have seen … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 3): Dressed to Kill (1980)

Click here for my thoughts on Carrie (1976) and here for my thoughts on The Fury (1978)!

Well, one thing’s for sure: the opening of Dressed to Kill isn’t one I’m going to be forgetting any time soon.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but an extended shower scene featuring full frontal nudity of the lead character (played by Angie Dickinson, though apparently the actual nude body on display was that of a body double) who, after getting herself nice and soaped up, begins masturbating and is then surprised and raped.

Oh, it all turns out to be a dream, but it’s an eye-opening sequence and that’s putting it mildly.  In my review of Carrie, I commented that I felt the opening shower scene was totally gratuitous and really weakened what was otherwise a strong start to the film.  Well, this opening shower scene is WAY more graphic (in terms of the nudity shown), and while it feels a bit more of a piece with the erotic thriller that follows, it still feels totally gratuitous.  In mean, it isn’t even an event that actually HAPPENS in the film, it’s just a dream!  I suppose one could suggest that the dream is an introduction to the weird sexual inner life of Angie Dickinson’s character, Kate.  And the concept of dreams and the line between fantasy and reality is a major theme of the film.  But it’s hard to argue that this opening isn’t just a way to start one’s movie off with a bang and titillate the audience.  I guess that’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but (and I made the same comment about Carrie), it makes it hard to take the rest of the movie seriously.

Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a wealthy housewife unsatisfied by her husband.  She admits her desire to have an affair to her psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), and eventually does pick up an unnamed guy in a museum.  I’m reluctant to spoil what happens next, so I’ll just say that a spree of sex-related murders begins, and eventually a call-girl, Liz (Nancy Allen, returning from Carrie) and Kate’s young son, Peter (Keith Gordon) team up to try to stop the killer.

Angie Dickinson is terrific in the film, with her star-wattage turned up high.  She’s electric in her early scene in Dr. Elliott’s office, and also in the extended near-wordless sequence in which she picks up a guy (or allows herself to be picked up) in the museum.  It’s great fun to see Michael Caine in the film, and he brings great dignity and presence to the role of Dr. Elliott.  Having these two movie-stars in the film really elevates the often … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 2): The Fury (1978)

My journey back through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  Click here for my thoughts on Carrie.

Two years after Carrie, Mr. De Palma directed The Fury, another story of telekinetic teenagers.  But while the initial description of the film does sound a bit like more of the same, The Fury is actually quite different from Carrie in terms of tone and execution.

Carrie was focused on the telekinetic teenager in question.  It was very much a coming-of-age story (albeit a very bizarre, horrific one!)  But The Fury is more of an espionage story.  And while we do follow the telekinetic girl Gillian (Amy Irving) throughout the story, I felt the main character — and the heart of the film — was the adult character, Peter.  In the film’s opening, Peter’s son, Robin (who we learn has telekinetic abilities) is kidnapped by mysterious men who try to kill Peter (and, indeed, Robin believes they succeed).  Throughout the rest of the story, we follow Peter in his increasingly desperate attempts to locate his son.

Peter is played by Kirk Douglas, and he’s terrific in the film.  We don’t learn a lot about Peter’s background, but he clearly has experience and training in the military.  The script doesn’t give Peter too much character — the story is far more concerned with the plot mechanics of twists and double-crosses, rather than character development — but Mr. Douglas’ performance fills in all the blanks we need.  He plays Peter’s friendly charm and charisma, as well as the tough-as-nails, willing-to-do-whatever-it-takes side of him.  He’s a ton of fun to watch, and frankly whenever the film cut away from Peter’s story I was impatient for it to get back to him.

That’s not to criticize Amy Irving (returning from Carrie), who is lovely and endearing as Gillian.  In the movie’s early-going, Gillian discovers that she possesses unusual gifts.  She eventually winds up checking into the Paragon Clinic, a boarding house devoted to young people with special abilities (shades of Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters!).  The clinic’s director (Charles Durning) seems friendly, but it is soon revealed that he has connections to the shady operative (John Cassavetes) who arranged for Robin’s kidnapping.

I enjoyed watching this non-super-hero take on kids with special powers unfold, and I enjoyed how the script and (by John Farris, adapting his novel) and Mr. De Palma’s direction treated the story seriously, without camp.  As I wrote above, The Fury is structured like a spy/suspense film, and I think that was a very successful choice.  (This distinction is made clear right from the film’s opening, an energetically staged assault on an Israeli beach designed to mask the effort to … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 1): Carrie (1976)

I’ve often enjoyed here, on the site, taking some time to watch or, in some cases, re-watch, a series of films by the same director.  One of my very first blogs on the site was a look back at several of the films of David Mamet, and more recently I re-watched the last decade and-a-half of the films of Steven Spielberg (click here for my reviews of AI: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal, The War of the Worlds, and Munich) and took a look back at the first three films by director Terrence Malick (click here for my reviews of The Thin Red Line, Badlands, and Days of Heaven).

I’ve decided now to turn to a prolific director whose films are very well-known, and yet somehow I’ve only seen a few of them: Brian De Palma.  Of his lengthy filmography, I’d only ever seen Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes, and Mission to Mars. There are a ton of other famous films, directed by Mr. De Palma, that I’ve been meaning to see for years: Carrie, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way, Femme Fatale, and more.  So I was excited by the opportunity to finally check out those films.  I was also intrigued by Mr. De Palma’s reputation, in that he seems to be a filmmaker who some love, while others loathe.  Personally I didn’t yet have a strong opinion on Mr. De Palma, having seen so few of his films.  That’s about to change.

I decided to start with one of Mr. De Palma’s most famous films, and the one I had been most wanting to finally check out: Carrie.

The film is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.  Sissy Spacek (just three years older than she was in Badlands) stars in what might be her most famous role as young Carrie White.  Raised by her single mom, a religious fanatic (Piper Laurie, dialing the crazy all the way to eleven), Carrie has lived a sheltered life.  Now, as a teenager, she is almost completely clueless as to the simple social realities of how to connect with the other kids at school, and in the movie’s still-shocking opening, Carrie is horrified when she has her first period in the school gym’s shower.  Carrie has no idea what is happening to her, and in the film’s first step into weirdness, that traumatic incident provides the spark that ignites Carrie’s burgeoning telepathic powers.

The opening scene in the girls’ locker room encapsulates everything that works, and doesn’t work, about this film.  Stephen King’s original idea, of taking the terror … [continued]