Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s reimagining of Howard Hawks’ prohibition-era gangster epic replaces the grime of old Chicago with the neon glitz and kitschy glow of 1980’s Miami and sets the scene for one of the most unique gangster movies of them all. Drop Al Pacino into the lead role of Cuban exile come narcotics trafficking kingpin and you can add “most explosive” to that accolade too. Pacino inhabits the gnarly skin of Tony Montero like few actors could or have as he steels the screen with his presence. An unpredictable concoction of balls to the wall attitude and psychopathic viciousness that bubbles to the boil around five minutes in and continues that way until the movie’s gargantuan close. Though everyone else falls in his frothing wake, there’s a lot of fun in their performances from Tony’s partner and incorrigible ladies-man Steven Bauer, to his reluctant self-hating wife Michelle Pfeiffer, to Robert Loggia’s weak-willed mob boss desperately trying to keep his insanely ambitious young charge on a leash.
Much has been made of this remake’s audacious production design and it’s usually this aspect that most detractors set their sights on. But regardless of criticism, there’s no denying that Scarface is its own film. Moreover, the truth is that, alongside Giorgio Moroder’s amusingly profound score, De Palma’s vision goes so far beyond cheesy that the movie exists in a fascinating kind of hyper-real haze of meta-gangsterism. And as is the case with every one of that director’s 1980’s movies, that’s exactly the point! Scarface isn’t a straight gangster narrative even though its works brilliantly as such, nor is it an action film even though its littered with sublimely staged (not to mention rather grisly) set-pieces that dwarf most of that decade’s best. Scarface is a twisted fairytale of greed and ambition funnelled through the intense personality of one of cinema’s most powerful actors at the height of his powers. Through this vessel, Stone’s crazy but endlessly quotable dialogue bristles with the megalomanic intention of a coke-fuelled tyrant and again, like all De Palma’s movies from around that time, it thus becomes a statement on the state of contemporary cinema itself. That it’s a riveting blast to experience just makes it all the more remarkable.
Rating: The Good – 76.4 Genre: Action Duration: 110 mins Director: Brian De Palma Stars: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart
IMF secret agent Ethan Hunt, is forced to turn rogue when his operation is blown from the inside and his team is killed. Hunting for the mole who set him up, he recruits a new team of equally disavowed spies and begins to put a complicated plan into action. This original movie adaptation of the popular television show has all the hallmarks of the source material but with the added style of Brian De Palma who demonstrated yet again that his genius for set-pieces applied just as much to the action genre as it did to thrillers and horror. Mission Impossible is an accomplished action movie in nearly other every respect too from the charismatic acting to the hip script underlying it. Tom Cruise is in top form as Hunt, Jon Voight’s presence is used well in the role of Hunt’s mentor, and a host of other familiar names contribute in equally well suited roles.
Of course, the star of the show is De Palma who while subduing his innate signature style somewhat, still manages to craft one of the more distinctive action movies of the 1990’s. The sequels were all directed by action heavy weights but none of them seemed to understand (or appreciate) the TV show to the same degree as he did and so their movies, while fine, were merely just action vehicles. The action present in De Palma’s Mission Impossible was defined by the concept of the television series and so it had an appropriate, distinctive, and recognisable personality. Indeed it’s worth noting that this signature style, built around intelligent brain-over-brawn set-pieces, laid the groundwork for the type of action movie that was to dominate US action cinema during the 2000’s and thus it signified an important break from the formula which defined the action movies of the late 1980’s and early 90’s.
When a woman is murdered after a one night stand, her son, psychiatrist, and the only witness become embroiled in an unusual game of cat and mouse. For a director who always enjoyed paying homage to Hitchcock, Dressed to Kill is arguably Brian De Palma’s greatest ode to the Maestro. A classic MacGuffin followed by the inevitable genre switch, voyeurism, a mesmerising murder sequence, and two blond female leads, Dressed to Kill is laced with touches old Hitch would’ve been proud of. Throw in some of De Palma’s penchant for deep perspective, split screen, and perfectly lit tracking sequences knitted together with precision editing and you have one seriously slick thriller on your hands. As is typical with his films, the story takes second place to the set pieces and while the story does make for a fine thriller in its own right, it’s certainly elevated by De Palma’s style.
Angie Dickinson gives a somewhat shockingly sensual but nonetheless excellent performance as the married woman searching for something else. Michael Caine is terrific as the psychiatrist while Keith Gordon adds another interesting portrayal of a slightly atypical teen to his acting catalogue. De Palma regular Nancy Allen is equally good as the prostitute who witnessed the murder and it’s nice to see her play a relatively straight character as opposed to a ditsy red-head or malevolent teen villain. Overall, Dressed to Kill is a movie fan’s delight shaped into a top notch thriller. Watch it from either point of view and you won’t be disappointed.
Rating: The Good – 78 Genre: Thriller Duration: 107 mins Director: Brian De Palma Stars: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow
If Brian De Palma’s 1981 movie was made today by someone like Quentin Tarantino, it would be hailed as a masterpiece which defines the fresh playfulness of the modern cinematic era….and rightly so. However, this just goes to show how ahead of his time De Palma actually was (or how slow mainstream cinema was in catching up). John Travolta stars as a B-movie sound man who while out one night recording stock sounds, ends up recording a car accident from which he rescues a young woman (Nancy Allen). When he tells the police that the accident sounded like it was preceded by a gun shot he gets told to keep it quiet and when he tries to go about proving it with his recording he inadvertently puts the girl’s life in danger.
Blow Out opens with a delicious film-within-a-film vignette as Travolta and his on-screen director are watching the dailies of their latest slasher film – which is so well lit and staged that you wouldn’t mind seeing the full feature! This sets a tone to the movie that persists throughout as Travolta uses the tools of movie making to elucidate the crime that De Palma’s movie is built around. This gives the entire movie a kind of through-the-looking-glass feel as everything seems overtly cinematic and otherworldly. The lighting and production design are vividly captured and De Palma’s striking use of staging even in the quieter, more insignificant moments seems conspicuously relevant to the movie’s vibe. The characters too, in particular Allen’s ditsy female lead and John Lithgow’s creepy assassin, feel purposefully overblown.
As is typical with De Palma, there are a host of dazzling set pieces (arguably more here than in any of his other movies) the best of which surely being that ingeniously crafted night-time sound recording scene. Travolta is in top form and his relationship with Allen’s character is believable and interesting yet much different to the malevolent pairing they shared in Carrie. Lithgow is equally entertaining in a peculiar sort of way.
Blow Out is a movie-lover’s delight and required viewing for anyone who enjoys intelligent cinema. It’s dark, it’s suspenseful, and like all De Palma’s great work, it’s wonderfully dramatic.
Rating: The Good – 74.8 Genre: Gangster Duration: 144 mins Director: Brian De Palma Stars: Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Anne Miller
One of Brian De Palma’s most stylistic films, Carlito’s Way tells the story of Puerto Rican hood Carlito Brigante as he attempts to escape a life of crime only for his friend Davy Kleinfeld to land him back in the middle of some nasty business. Al Pacino is excellent as the charismatic Carlito and it’s to Pacino’s credit that he chose yet another ethnic minority gangster to play rather than playing a series of Italian-American mafiosos. On the other hand, Sean Penn not only holds his own against the Titan that is Pacino but in many ways steals the show. That said, Carlito and the film in general would’ve been far more compelling if Penelope Anne Miller’s annoying character and love-story side line were dispensed with outright. De Palma gives his usual master class in the art of capturing great production design on screen and his action choreography particularly in that Grand Central chase sequence is as full of grace and electric energy as any before it or since. The characters are a little (OK, a lot) stereotyped and the side story is nonsense but for the most part Carlito’s Way is very good gangster film.
Rating: The Good – 90.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 98 mins Director: Brian De Palma Stars: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving
Brian De Palma brings Stephen King’s horror classic to life with bags of wit and style in this seminal addition to the horror movie genre. From the very opening shot we see that De Palma’s innovative style and penchant for long slow tracking shots are perfectly suited to telling the story of a troubled high school girl who spends her days being bullied in school and her evenings being psychologically abused by her fanatically religious mother. A target for her classmates’ cruelty and a vessel for her mother’s self-delusions, Carrie is about to blow and given that she has recently discovered that she can move objects with her mind, neither is going to want to be around when she does.
Carrie is a case of inspired writing and screen adaptation (kudos Lawrence D. Cohen) being brought to life by a confident young director who was (along with others of his generation) both heavily influenced by the old maestros yet also changing the shape of modern cinema with bold new ideas and innovations. And Carrie is chock-full of both. This film glides along and shifts almost effortlessly in tone from seriously dark and creepy in places to whimsical, carefree, and downright fun in others (just check out that tux-buying scene). Pino Donaggio’s score helps hugely in the latter instances but really comes into its own when Carrie is using her powers.
Sissy Spacek is phenomenally good in the title role given that the two sides to her character’s personality were so disparate. William Katt’s always positive presence brings a ray of sunshine the party and Nancy Allen and John Travolta are excellent together as two of the twisted bullies. Of course Piper Laurie is just plain scary as Carrie’s mother and adds that final touch of class needed to elevate this masterpiece into the high echelons of great cinema.
Of all Brian De Palma’s forays into mainstream cinema this is perhaps the story that best met his overt style. Kevin Costner plays Elliot Ness, Sean Connery the tough Irish cop (questionable accent and all) and Robert De Niro toplines as Al Capone. At the time of release, Costner was entering the highpoint of his career and was doing a good job in very interesting movies. The Untouchables was no different as he gives Ness some nice depth and just enough personality. Connery may have got the Oscar for his entertaining supporting role but it’s De Niro who strips the paint off the walls with a searing performance as Capone.
The Untouchables was De Palma at his most extravagant and Ennio Morricone met him head on with an equally opulent (and when not opulent – thrilling) score. Thankfully (and not surprisingly) both the style and score work a treat and indeed, they really elevate the famed story to something altogether more interesting. As you’d expect from De Palma, the set pieces as are exquisite with the shoot-out in the train station standing out in particular. The chemistry between Costner, Connery, Andy Garcia, and Charles Martin Smith (with the latter two rounding off Ness’ unit as the gun hand and accountant respectively) is spot on and enjoyably to watch and overall this is a damn good treatment of one of America’s great legends.
Rating: The Good – 75.3 Genre: Satire, Thriller Duration: 114 mins Director: Brian De Palma Stars: Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry
Brian De Palma’s half critique/half celebration of the repeated, often mindless use of empty cliché in the films of old Hollywood is a unique story about a man who believes he witnessed a murder only to find himself the target of the killer. Everyone gets a pasting here even the director’s greatest influence – Hitchcock himself. From the switching of female leads midway through the film (not the first time De Palma has done this), the claustrophobia (instead of vertigo) of the lead character, the reservoir instead of Mount Rushmore, the power drill instead of the chainsaw, the white man playing an Indian with ridiculous makeup, the Indian being a bad guy, the cheesy screen backdrops in the rear window of the car, to those romantic scenes that are so empty and meaningless as to be no different to porn, Body Double is an affectionate meta-analysis from start to finish. Don’t worry too much about the story just dive in and enjoy it.