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Retrospective: The Films of Brian De Palma

by The Playlist Staff
August 28, 2013 1:52 PM
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"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

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  • Daniel | April 26, 2014 7:58 PMReply

    The writers mentioned Carlito Brigante as a "Cuban American". WRONG!!!!!!!!!!!
    Carlito was a Puerto Rican. He was Puerto Rican in the two novels Carlitos Way & After Hours. He was Puerto Rican in the movie. While I found this DePalma list entertaining and informative ( found some new movies to watch) I can't help but wonder if you made more errors.

  • waldek | April 20, 2014 9:01 PMReply

    as a fan of de palma i absolutely agree with the grades in this retrospective. i only didn't see "passion", because i gave up on new de palma movies since the last good one was mission impossible and the last great one was carlito's way, but after i saw a "B" here, i think i'll give it a chance. i especially love "sisters", "blow out", "dressed to kill", "body double", "scarface" and "carlito's way". these movies are enough for me to make him one of the best movie makers ever. today's blockbuster movies look all the same, it seems not to matter who's the director at all. that's why i like de palma's distinguished style. his movies look like de palma movies and you can't imagine anyone else directing them.

  • Grego | April 15, 2014 1:50 PMReply

    That Femme Fatale rating is just wrong. It's the ultimate De Palma movie. It's not about a "clever twist," it's about cinema itself. Simply getting lost in a movie, among other things.

    I respect that you acknowledged that it split critics down the middle, but perhaps you should have acknowledged the extent to which it did so. It finished in the top 100 of Film Comment's best films of the decade poll, for example.

  • MishuPishu | August 30, 2013 6:55 PMReply

    Wow! It's easy to forget that De Palma was behind all these great movies, as well as the clunkers. Bound to happen when you're making a movie almost every year for four decades.

    I remember going to see "Blow Out" at the Drive-In when I was ten. The images were such a primal movie moment for me. When I returned to it later, it held on as one of my favorites. I recall Carrie being one of the early horror films that made me yearn for the genre. Then I remember catching Scarface when I was a teenager and thinking it was the most badass screen expression ever. Absolutely exhilerating.

    Easy to forget that he was behind Mission Impossible.

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

  • MFD | August 29, 2013 8:50 PMReply

    I vote for Brian De Palma's tragic, emotionally shattering "Casualties of War" as not simply his finest film but as one of top-rank masterworks of all American cinema since the very beginning of its history.

    And as for acting, just watch Michael J. Fox slam one of his platoon mates with a shovel after they have tried to frag him for trying to reveal their participation in the gang rape and killing of a young Vietnamese woman and then listen to him deliver the line "You don't have to kill me, I told them -- and they don't care!" If Fox needed anything to justify his whole career (he doesn't), this sorrowful, indelible moment is it.

  • boo boo butter | August 29, 2013 7:18 PMReply

    What sequence did tarantino lift from casualties of war?

  • BOB | August 29, 2013 11:26 AMReply

    When I saw Thives Like Us get a C+ in the Altman I thought you guys were dumb. Now you giving Casualties of War a C+ just proves you are beyond reach. How are you not moved by that film? Droids I tell you! You all are droids! No emotion shilling for Nolan and Bigelow. Down with you cynics!

  • BENNY BLANCO FROM THE BRONX | August 29, 2013 9:14 AMReply

    ones i will watch and watch again

    2002 Femme Fatale

    1998 Snake Eyes
    1992 Raising Cain
    1990 The Bonfire of the Vanities

    1989 Casualties of War
    1984 Body Double
    1981 Blow Out
    1980 Dressed to Kill

    1976 Carrie
    1973 Sisters
    1970 Hi, Mom!

    1969 The Wedding Party
    1968 Greetings

  • Leah k | August 28, 2013 8:11 PMReply

    Thank you so much for this wonderful list! While I don't quite agree that Causalities of War deserved the grade it received, it's refreshing knowing that De Palma is getting his due. At least, here on this website.

  • Erik | August 28, 2013 7:28 PMReply

    You guys are really undervalueing Casualties of War! If any De Palma film holds up as well now as when it was released, it's that one. The final scene is kind of shitty, but the rest of the movie is terrific.

  • El Hanso | August 28, 2013 3:25 PMReply

    I'm not the biggest De Palma fan, but most of the films I've seen are at least fascinating in their very unique way. "Carrie" and "Blow out" are probably my favorites, while I couldn't really get behind "Sisters" last time I tried. But I feel like I want to check out "The Fury."

    But many thanks for this special. Love the director's retrospectives you do from time to time. Great work. Keep 'em coming.

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