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Retrospective: The Films of Brian De Palma

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist August 28, 2013 at 1:52PM

Few film directors are as polarizing as Brian De Palma, whose new film, the already argued-over "Passion," opens this week (read our review from Venice here). Hailed by some as an American visionary and a modern master of suspense, capable of gorgeously realized visual feats, De Palma is derided by others as a overtly referential hack who has based almost his entire career on a single trick: ripping off Alfred Hitchcock. But as "Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible," the new scholarly text on the director by Chris Dumas, points out, this divisiveness is at least partially his own doing. De Palma is a director who once claimed that he wanted to be "the American Godard" and talked openly about "the revolution" on national television (fun fact: he was once shot by a cop), yet went on to create fizzy popcorn entertainments that were occasionally boycotted for their perceived misogyny (at least two of his movies spawned honest-to-god, organized revolts).
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Mission: Impossible

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

Snake Eyes

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

Mission to Mars

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

Femme Fatale

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

The Black Dahlia

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

This article is related to: Brian De Palma, Passion, Retrospective, Features, Feature, Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface