Tag Archives: Brian De Palma

Obsession (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: She resembles his wife.

Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) is a wealthy land developer living in New Orleans whose wife Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold) and daughter (Wanda Blackman) become victims of a kidnapping and die during the police shoot-out. Michael becomes tortured with guilt feeling he should’ve done more to save them. 16 years after the crime was committed he meets a woman (also played by Bujold) who looks strikingly like his former wife. He becomes infatuated with her and the two eventually marry only for him to find that she holds a deep, dark secret.

This film marks yet another attempt by director Brian De Palma to emulate his idol Alfred Hitchcock with a film loaded with fancy camera work, but not much else. For the most part, at least visually, it’s tolerable and not quite as overdone as De Palma’s other Hitchcock imitations. To some degree the camera work and soft focus lens is the most entertaining thing about it although having the camera go back and forth from one talking head to another during a scene where Robertson and co-start John Lithgow have a conversation at a restaurant becomes unnecessarily dizzying.

The casting of Robertson is a problem as he’s unable to convey the demands of the part effectively as his constant staring at Bujold becomes creepy and unnatural and he’s obviously way older than any of his costars. They should’ve at least hired an actor his same age as his business partner as Lithgow was 26 years younger than him and it shows. For the most part Lithgow isn’t too good here either as he wears a wig and speaks in an over-the-top bayou accent, which borders on being annoying and it makes him come off as slimy and creepy right from the start.

Bujold on the other hand gives an excellent performance that rises far above the trite material, but she looks too young as a wife to Robertson during the flashback scenes. Turning around and having her also play a 10-year-old girl during some brief sequences comes off as awkward.

The story, which was based on a script by Paul Schrader, but highly truncated by De Palma is full of loopholes. I thought it was unbelievable that the crooks didn’t spot this green police van with a very odd looking antenna on top of it, which was needed to track the honing device that was put into the briefcase with the supposed ransom money that the crooks retrieved, that was following them around at a much too close distance. I thought it was equally unbelievable that the crooks would not have immediately opened the briefcase the minute they retrieved it and made sure there really was money inside it instead of driving all the way back to their hideout before opening it while naively trusting that there was no chance that they might’ve been duped.

There’s also not enough of a visual transition during the 16 year time period that the story takes place in. Except for a few extra white hairs Robertson’s appearance remains virtually the same while the commercial boat that he rides on to deliver the ransom remains exactly the same as does the deserted dock that he throws the briefcase onto even though after such an extended period of time both things most likely would’ve changed or evolved in some way.

Spoiler Alert!

The twist ending where we learn that Michael’s new wife is really just his grown daughter who he had thought had died during the kidnapping does nothing but produce even more loopholes. Supposedly she died with her mother when the car they were in burst into flames and went into the river and supposedly the police tried to recover the vehicle, but found it to be too difficult, so they gave up, but in reality I don’t think this would’ve occurred. After some setbacks they would’ve kept trying until they were able to retrieve it as they knew the approximate spot where the vehicle went in and a river is not an ocean, so it shouldn’t have been that hard anyways.

In order to avoid the controversy of promoting a film with an incest story line the producers decided to reedit the marriage sequence to make it look like it had been a dream, but this ends up just bringing up even more questions. Like how is Bujold able to get into Robertson’s dreams and continue her scheme by telling him he must prove himself all over again by putting a briefcase of $500,000 of his money back onto the same dock he had done 16 years earlier?

The final shot, which is done in slow motion and features Robertson and Bujold reuniting at an airport, is by far one of the corniest things ever put on celluloid and will surely cause most viewers to either roll their eyes or breakout into laughter.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The funniest thing though about this so-so film is probably just Rex Reed’s overly fawning review of it, which gets printed on the promotional poster seen above. In it he calls this movie ‘an immensely important cinematic piece of work’, but how is that as it’s just a tacky Hitchcock rip-off with no message to it at all? He also calls it ‘better than anything Hitchcock has ever done’, which just isn’t true. I know Reed has gotten criticized in recent years for many valid reasons including his fat shaming of Melissa McCarthy, but his career should’ve ended after writing this over-the-top glowing take of a film, which ultimately is nothing more than a third-rate mystery with fancy camera work, as it makes him look like he was a hack paid by the studio to write a puff piece about the movie simply to help promote it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 1, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, YouTube

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