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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).

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


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

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

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

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

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