Tag Archives: Brian De Palma

Casualties of War (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: He witnesses a rape.

Based on an actual incident that occurred on November 19, 1966 the story centers around five members of an American squadron during the Vietnam War where the pressures and ugliness of battle send their leader, Sergeant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) over-the-edge. When his squad gets denied leave he decides to have his men kidnap a Vietnamese girl named Oanh (Thuy Thu Le) who is then raped by the four of them while one, Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) refuses.  The young woman is eventually killed and her lifeless body left in a field. When the men return to their base Eriksson tries to report the crime, but finds stiff resistance.

This same incident was used as the basis for another film called The Visitors, which came out 17 years earlier. That movie took a different approach as it hypothesized what would’ve happened once the men returned from doing prison time and came for a ‘visit’ to the man’s home who had turned them in. That film suffered from a lack of a budget, but still managed to have a little more tension and impact than this one. This version takes way too long to play itself out. The audience knows where it’s headed right from the start and thus makes it almost excruciating to have to sit through.

The film would’ve worked better had the story been told in a fragmented style. The horror of the situation gets lost by the plodding narrative that overplays the story’s shock element and seems to take an almost sick delight in dragging out the whole kidnap/rape sequence until it gets agonizing and even tedious.

The idea that Eriksson would mentally be going back through this whole situation while he dreams it during a nap on a bus isn’t believable. The story is supposedly told as a flashback, but people dream in a more surreal, nonlinear way that wouldn’t painstakingly go back through every detail that had occurred to them in real-life. Also, people tend to repress unpleasant experiences that they’ve had. At times certain bits and pieces of it may come to the surface, but most of it would be locked away in the person’s subconscious, which is why the fragmented approach would’ve made more sense because we would’ve seen things in the exact same way that they were being played out in Eriksson’s head.

Fox is miscast and looks more like Marty McFly stuck in a time warp and involved in a situation he has no business being in. His character’s upbeat disposition makes him seem like he’s in some sort of invisible bubble that allows him not to be affected by the horrors of war even though it has clearly taken its toll on everyone else around him.  The character is also a bit too passive and does little to prevent the rape from occurring, which will make some viewers feel that he is cowardly.

Although his character is a bit over-the-top Penn gives a strong and effective performance and the main reason if any to watch the film. John Leguizamo is also good as a shy, quiet type that initially refrains from wanting to take part in the crime only to ultimately cave to peer pressure.

The on-location shooting done in Thailand is good and I liked the way director Brian De Palma uses the point-of-view effect particularly when the men go around the sleeping village looking for a victim to choose, but ultimately the film fails to elicit much of an emotional effect. The quasi, tacked-on ‘uplifting’ ending in which a stranger tells Eriksson to simply ‘let go’ of his horrible memories and in essence ‘move on’ from it is terribly contrived as there are certain experiences one can’t simply leave behind, which only helps to solidify how shallow this potentially penetrating drama really is.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: August 18, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 59Minutes (Director’s Cut)

Rated R

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Scarface (1983)

scarface

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Refugee becomes drug lord.

Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is a Cuban refugee arriving in Miami hoping to make it big in the land of opportunity. At first he is forced to do low paying jobs, but finally gets his break when he is hired to do a job for a rich drug dealer named Frank Garcia (Robert Loggia). Soon Tony becomes infatuated with Frank’s girlfriend Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the two begin a torrid affair. When Frank tries to assassinate Tony by ordering a hit on him at a nightclub Tony gets his revenge by killing Frank and becoming the top drug lord, which makes him quite wealthy, but the strain of constantly having to watch his back for whoever may be out to get him eventually wears on his personality.

This is a remake of the 1932 Howard Hawk’s classic that came about when Pacino watched the original film in a theater and felt compelled to make a modern day update with the drugs being the source of the criminal activity instead of alcohol. The result is only so-so, but it gets helped immensely by an incredible set design. Tony’s all-black office and a luxurious hot tub placed in the middle of his already kitschy living room are eye-popping as are the chic and lively interiors of the nightclubs, posh restaurants and exotic resorts. The graphic shootouts are equally arresting and keenly shot and edited for ultimate excitement.

Director Brian De Palma again digs into his bag of borrowed Hitchcock shots in order to tell his story, but here it works pretty well. My favorite one is when he uses the camera to track outside of a room where the action is occurring and onto a quiet street below. Hitchcock did the same thing in Frenzy where the bad guy strangles a woman inside her apartment, but instead of showing the violent act the camera moves out of the apartment and onto a busy street outside. Here the camera takes an equally fascinating journey from a man getting chopped up by a chainsaw to an idyllic afternoon day just a few feet away.

The supporting cast is strong particularly Pfeiffer as Tony’s bitchy girlfriend whose ongoing acerbic responses act as a good barometer to Tony’s ever changing social standing. I also enjoyed the transformation of Loggia’s character from intimidating kingpin to wilting coward. Harris Yulin is also memorable as a corrupt cop who ends up playing things a little too cool for his own good.

The thing I hated about the movie was Pacino’s over-the-top performance. Normally I’ve found him to be a great actor, but here the character comes off as too cartoonish and one-dimensional. He possesses no interesting character arch and is creepy and unlikable from the beginning and proceeds to only get worse as it goes along, which makes following his rise and fall quite boring and predictable.

The runtime is too long and encompasses a lot of lulls in between the action bits in a story that seems to telegraph where it’s going right from the start. The Cubans are also portrayed in a negative and stereotypical way with only a slight attempt to balance it. Had it not been for the excellent production values this thing would’ve been a real bore.

I was also confused as to why Charles Durning’s voice gets dubbed in during a scene involving Tony’s conversation with an immigration officer. If De Palma was unhappy with the original actor’s performance as the immigration officer then he should have re-filmed it with Durning present instead of just using his voice because his style of speaking is quite distinctive and I was thrown out of the scene completely due to wondering why I was hearing Durning’s voice, but not seeing him.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 9, 1983

Runtime: 2Hours 50Minutes

Rated R

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

Wise Guys (1986)

wise guys

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hiding from the mob.

This review contains some Spoilers!

Harry and Moe (Danny DeVito, Joe Piscopo) work as errand boys for a Newark, New Jersey mob run by Castelo (Dan Hedaya). They are tired of doing all the odd, dangerous jobs that no one else wants to and long to one day break away and open up their own restaurant, but lack the required capital. Then one day they are assigned to go to the track to bet on a certain horse, but Harry is convinced that another one will win, so they place all $250,000 dollars on that one only to lose. Now they must go on the run searching for Harry’s Uncle Mike who they hope can replenish them with the lost money before the mob’s henchman The Fixer (Captain Lou Albano) catches up with them to dispense their punishment.

Director Brian De Palma returns to his comical roots of Hi Mom! and Greetings, but unfortunately this film lacks the creativity and originality of those and instead comes off as just another tired, generic 80’s comedy. The attempted twists are not interesting or surprising. Having them lose on a ‘sure thing’ after they initially start gloating when it looks like their horse would win is comedy writing 101. The Sting-like ending is equally contrived and something I figured out long before it gets revealed. Again, you simply have to know the rules of a Hollywood comedy, which states every ending must be a ‘feel good’ one, so if a main character suddenly dies you automatically know there’s got to be some sort of catch to it such as is the case here.

The motivations of the characters are loopy. For one thing going back to their boss while putting up only a mild resistance after they’ve lost the money for what will most definitely be punishment and torture seems dumber than dumb even for these dimwits. The idea that they would both stay loyal to one another even during torture is not believable. Yes it may sound noble, but realistically especially when their families were being threatened it would have to be expected that at least one of them would crack and betray the other. Then the boss has them assigned to kill the other one and for a while they both secretly consider it, but this doesn’t make sense either because if they are going to remain so loyal to the other during torture then shouldn’t it be expected that they would immediately tell each other that they’ve been pegged to kill the other and then come up with some alternative plan to get out of it?

The destruction of Fixer’s convertible becomes another logical blunder. Yes, they both despise him and the chance at destroying his prized possession would seem tempting to anyone in their shoes, but they also need his car to get away and go places, so destroying it until it is literally inoperable becomes really stupid.

DeVito is great at playing arrogant, sarcastic jerks, but as a sympathetic good guy he is benign and out-of-place. I also didn’t care for wrestler-turned-actor Albano’s presence as his character is too one-dimensionally crude and obnoxious and the part where he is shown lying on his back with his big fat belly exposed is just plain gross to look at.

There have been some great gangster movies throughout cinema history, but they all tend to be ones that take the genre seriously and when they try to give it a comical spin it comes off as lame like this one. The part where Harry’s grandmother (Mimi Cecchini) reveals a million dollar bills that she has ‘stuffed under her mattress’ and the way all of Castelo’s henchmen eagerly light up his cigarette every time he puts one in his mouth, which happens twice with the second time being the gem, are the only two mildly amusing moments in this otherwise flat comedy.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: April 18, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated R

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: MGM

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video