Category Archives: Brian De Palma Films

Blow Out-1981

Blow Out-1981

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-John Travolta, Nancy Allen

Reviewed December 31, 2016

Grade: A-

The follow-up to the 1980 masterpiece that was Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma carves a web of intrigue and mystery with Blow Out, a film starring some of the same cast members from Dressed to Kill and from 1976’s Carrie. Certainly comparisons can be drawn to the trio as they are all in the psychological thriller/horror vein- notwithstanding, the predecessors are the superior films. Blow Out is not quite on the level with those masterpieces, but is still a worthy effort and a must-see for fans of De Palma’s work.

John Travolta and Nancy Allen are the stars of the film-recreating their chemistry from Carrie. In that film, the pair are the clear villains, but in Blow Out they are the heroes and have a rooting value. Dennis Franz appears as a shady thug and John Lithgow is superb as the dastardly  Burke, hired to commit a crime, and enjoying it all too much.

Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sound effects technician, working and living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He works on low-budget horror films, and is highly respected for his craft. Alone in a remote park, recording sound and video, he records a car careening off a bridge into a creek. He saves Sally (Allen) from the sinking car and this is the point in the film where the intrigue takes off. The driver of the car is a governor and he has died- Sally was having an affair with the governor and his aides are intent on covering this up. To make matters more complicated, Jack has detected a gunshot on his recording-just before the crash, leading to obvious foul play.

I adore the beginning sequence of the film- my favorite. The film begins as a slasher film, unbeknownst to the audience. A collection of dizzy college girls dance, drink, and shower, as the cameras are placed outside of the dorms. We see all of the action through the glass windows, then the steady cam is used from the killers point of view. This is a highly effective scene and rather humorous too. Inevitably, a creepy killer appears in the shower to butcher one of the college girls until the real beginning of the film actually starts. This aspect is clever on the part of  De Palma. Why not trick the audience early and keep them guessing?

Also compelling is the villain of the film- Lithgow. Typically playing  sweet-nature characters, it was interesting to see him as a maniacal killer- and reminiscent of the crazed killer from Dirty Harry, in his harried, grotesque facial features. One particularly chilling scene involves the murder of a prostitute at the train station. I like this scene because the audience gets to know her a bit before she meets her fate- adding a level of empathy for the victim.

Enjoyable are the location sequences of Philadelphia, which give authenticity to the film. Specifically, the train station. Grizzled, dirty, and bustling, the locales set the tone of the film.

The chemistry between Travolta and Allen is decent, though I found more chemistry between them in Carrie. I did not care for Allen’s use of an accent- intended to be a Philadelphia accent, it seemed a New Jersey one to me and simply does not work at all in the film. This distraction is the only weak point of the film.

All in all, Blow Out is a very good film. It combines mystery, political intrigue, and the famed De Palma stamp- which in itself is worthwhile enough to watch. Blow Out contains a dream-like element- as Carrie and Dressed to Kill before it did, which only enhances the mystique. The not so happily ever after ending is superb.

Carrie-1976

Carrie-1976

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie

Top 100 Films-#37     Top 20 Horror Films-#12

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Reviewed September 25, 2016

Grade: A

Carrie is a horror film from 1976 that is adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name. Many King adaptations have been fails, but Carrie (along with The Shining) is among the best. Going beyond the scope of horror and receiving more than one major Oscar nomination (largely unheard of in horror), Carrie influenced films and filmmakers for decades beyond release. This is largely due to the dream-like and breathtaking direction of mood master Brian De Palma.

By this time (2016), the film and the character of Carrie White are legendary. Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is a lonely suburban teenager, ostracized by her classmates for being “weird”. Her mother (Piper Laurie) is a devout Christian who spreads the word of god amongst the neighbors. Carrie has a special ability to move things, usually during anger- this is called telekinesis. After a humiliating incident in the girls locker room when Carrie begins menstruating, one of the nicer girls in the class, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels sorry for Carrie and convinces her boyfriend, Tommy Ross, to take Carrie to the prom. When others in the class take revenge upon Carrie with a sick joke, things take a horrific turn.

Betty Buckley as the empathetic gym teacher, Miss Collins, and John Travolta and Nancy Allen, as dastardly Billy and Chris, also star and are perfectly cast.

The direction in the film is second to none. De Palma adds interesting camera work throughout the film. During a tender, lovely prom dance between Carrie and Tommy, the camera circles the pair repeatedly, giving a spellbinding, but not dizzying quality. The use of slow motion in the important “pig blood” scene is immeasurably effective. The seemingly eternal time it takes for the blood spilling to occur, the camera (in slow motion) goes from Sue to Miss Collins to Chris to the bucket of blood is fantastic. The list of inspired and intense scenes go on and on- from the climactic scene between Carrie and Mrs. White to the “jump out of your seat” final scene.

The acting is also worthy of high praise. Spacek and Laurie deservedly received Oscar nominations for their work. Spacek elicits so much rooting value into her role with a shred of psychosis bubbling just beneath the surface. Carrie wants to fit in and have a happy life so the audience is immersed in her corner and celebrates her short-lived happiness with Tommy at the prom. Spacek is just perfectly cast. Laurie on the other hand, exudes crazy in every sense, but we do feel pangs of sympathy for her. We largely believe she cares for her daughter and wants to protect her from the dangerous world.

Carrie is a masterpiece that continues to hold up well and influence generations who can relate to school bullying,  taunting, and the desire to see the nasty popular kids get their just desserts. More than a great horror film, it is a revered classic with a dreamy, moody vibe. One of my all-time favorites.

Scarface-1983

Scarface-1983

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Al Pacino

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Reviewed November 13, 2014

Grade: B

Scarface is a 1983 mob film directed by Brian De Palma and is certainly an atypical film for the acclaimed director of several stylistic thrillers such as Dressed to Kill, Sisters, and Carrie. In this film, the subject matter centers on the mob and the world of drug trafficking, in this case cocaine, a very popular, powerful drug that ran rampant throughout the 1980’s. Jealousy, greed, and deceit are common characteristics of Scarface and the story focuses on a temperamental, cocky, and arrogant Cuban refuge sent to Miami by Fidel Castro, as a way of banishing criminals from Cuba and shipping them off to the United States to survive on their own.

Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino, goes from dishwasher to crime lord by selling drugs and creating an empire for himself. He manipulates, tricks, and makes enemies left and right including stealing his boss’s girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer) and eventually falling into a troubled marriage with her. He loves his financially struggling mother and sister, giving them money and opening a salon for his sister, but he also controls them, especially his sister, and is filled with rage whenever she attracts the affections of a potential suitor. In his mind nobody is good enough for her and he is filled with machismo and over-protectiveness. Tony eventually self-destructs due to jealousy, rage, and heavy drug use. I found the film overall quite compelling but kept thinking to myself how much it resembles a lite version of The Godfather I or II and Goodfellas. I am fully aware that Scarface preceded Goodfellas, but seeing it for the first time in 2014 this was my initial reaction. I was also kept aware of the fact that it must have been influential in the creation of the popular NBC television series Miami Vice, which debuted a year or two after Scarface was released. Similarities such as crime lords, Miami Beach, and drugs mirrored the slick feel of the hit television drama as well as the look, style, and fashions.

The performance of Al Pacino is problematic- in my view this is not at all his best work. For starters his accent keeps going in and out and I found him slightly unbelievable in the role. A phenomenal actor, something with his performance did not sit well. The musical score to the film is terribly cheesy- almost shockingly so. Granted this was 1983, but the silly dance beats sporadic throughout now seem completely dated.

Parts of Scarface dragged a bit, however a sudden dramatic scene (the dismembering of Tony’s friend by mobsters and Tony’s meltdown in a fancy restaurant) more than make up for the occasional lags in drama. Scarface is certainly not on the level of other contemporary violent mob films, but for fans of the genre, it will be enjoyed.

Sisters-1973

Sisters-1973

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt

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Reviewed September 29, 2014

Grade: B+

Directed by stylistic film genius Brian De Palma, Sisters is an early entry in the famed director’s repertoire and a direct homage to the classic films of Alfred Hitchcock.

The film stars Margot Kidder as a French-Canadian model named Danielle Breton, who shares a Staten Island, NY apartment with her demented twin sister Dominique. For many years Danielle and Dominique were conjoined twins and only recently surgically separated. After a romantic date with a new acquaintance, Danielle begins to feel ill and Dominique murders the new boyfriend after he surprises, who he thinks is Danielle, with a birthday cake. But is it really Dominique or is it Danielle? Meanwhile, a neighbor, Grace Collier played by Jennifer Salt, witnesses the murder from across the alley, and in a highly dramatic scene, involving the victim attempting to scrawl “help” on the window, Grace gets the police involved. The authorities are skeptical and unsympathetic to Grace’s claims since she works as a newspaper reporter and is constantly challenging the police department in her articles. Finally, when the police do search Danielle’s apartment, no dead body is found. This sets off the plot for the remainder of the film as Grace looks for the missing body on her own (in Nancy Drew style) with the help of a detective she hires, Joseph Larch, comically played by Charles Durning.

One point to mention about Sisters is that the film is a blueprint for De Palma films to come, but that does not mean it is not engaging on its own merits- it is-but pales in comparison to other De Palma gems which followed, such as Carrie and Dressed to Kill. It feels raw and slightly underdeveloped compared to those aforementioned films. Danielle’s ex-husband and doctor, Eli, while creepy and sinister, is not fully explored, and his relation to events taking place is a bit vague throughout much of the film. Techniques such as the split screen showing simultaneous action oftentimes relating to each other are introduced in this film and are a marvel to watch as so much of the plot is revealed in these sequences- activity in Grace’s apartment contrasts with and interchanges perfectly with action in Danielle’s apartment- highly effective and suspenseful. DePalma uses many Hitchcock influences, but in no way steals them- the idea of a set of conjoined twins with mental illness was taken from a real life story of Soviet twins. Viewers familiar with Psycho will smile during the murder scene as influences are apparent- Rear Window is certainly referenced as countless scenes of the camera looking into Danielle’s or Grace’s apartment or the camera looking out onto a street scene or someone with binoculars spying out of their own apartment and into someone else’s apartment across the street- very visually oriented. And the Hitchcock similarities continue with the musical score- it is composed by Bernard Hermann, a frequent collaborator of Hitchcock films- think Vertigo light.

After all of the psychological build-up throughout the first hour of the film, the final 30 minutes or so, taking place within the confines of a mental asylum, is confusing and unrealistic, as various flashbacks and dream sequences are used, even using one character taking the place of another in a dream- edgy and unique, but tough to follow and organize properly.  And Grace being assumed to be a newly admitted mental patient seemed far-fetched. What exactly transpired between Danielle and Dominique present and/or in the past? Even though events are explained, I found myself scratching my head a bit at the conclusion of the film. For fans of Brian De Palma films Sisters is a perfect movie experience to show the influence to come and not a bad film on its own either.

Dressed to Kill-1980

Dressed to Kill-1980

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Angie Dickinson, Michael Caine

Top 100 Films-#13    Top 20 Horror Films-#5

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Reviewed September 2, 2014

Grade: A

Dressed to Kill is Brian De Palma’s greatest work throughout his storied career. Set in New York City the film is essentially divided into two halves. The first half centers around Angie Dickinson, who plays a bored housewife named Kate. Kate is unhappy in her marriage and seeks therapy from a psychiatrist played by Michael Caine, whom she makes sexual advances towards. She is unfaithful to her husband, yet is a kind, intelligent, cultured woman. She adores her son, loves her husband, but is completely unfulfilled with life. Do we, the audience sympathize with her? Does she get what she deserves? Is she a victim? One powerful scene involves a wide-eyed little girl who cannot stop staring at Kate. Can she sense Kate’s shenanigans? Does she sense her conflict? Does Kate feel guilt? Kate is a complex character and brilliantly played by Dickinson who gives the character a sexiness, softness and appeal.

After a shocking event in a high rise elevator rivaled only by the shower scene in Psycho in its surprise and terror, the remainder of the film belongs to Nancy Allen, who plays a prostitute named Liz, determined to solve a mystery in order to clear her name. De Palma sets the dreamlike tone to the film with a sizzling opening shower scene sure to make the prudish blush in its explicitness, which I found deliciously sexy. A ten minute museum sequence speaks volumes without a bit of dialogue as Kate has a cat and mouse flirtation with a stranger.

The brilliance of Dressed to Kill is its versatility and complexity and contains one surprise after another from the elevator scene to the final reveal to the final scene itself. It is part horror film part thriller and always stylish. The film was surprisingly not well regarded upon its release, but over the years has achieved respect due to its creativity and excellent mood. Many scenes are shot in slow motion adding effect to them. Dressed to Kill is simply brilliant on every level.

Passion-2012

Passion-2012

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Rachel McAdams

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Reviewed November 8, 2013

Grade: A

Passion is a must see for all Brian De Palma fans (Carrie, Dressed to Kill). Unfortunately, the film received little fanfare and is mostly forgotten, but it deserves a viewing. The film is set in the world of advertising, where backstabbing and scheming are commonplace.

Rachel McAdams stars as an executive who steals her assistant’s ideas on a regular basis. Fed up, the assistant plots revenge. McAdams is delicious as the callous, calculating, little girl over her head in the corporate world. The praise goes to DePalma, though, for creating yet another stylistic gem similar in tone to many of his other successful films.

The plot is almost secondary to the direction- twists and turns, cool camera angles make the film an enjoyable experience. A common DePalma trait is a dreamlike feel which I love in his films. The ending is a direct homage to Dressed to Kill.