Monday, April 30, 2012

Genre Spotlight #1.5: Alan J. Pakula's Paranoia Trilogy

Every decade brings new worries, and genre films are particularly good at capturing the cultural and political zeitgeist of the time. Every month, Genre Spotlight takes a look at a genre in a particular time and place, shows a certain director or screenwriter approached said genre, and tries to shine some light on what the cultural significance of the movement was. This month takes a look at the political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.

There were plenty of great directors who tapped into the free-floating paranoia of the 1970s. Whether the directors made paranoid thrillers (The Conversation, Marathon Man) or horror movies with paranoia-informed subtext (The Exorcist, Sisters), feelings of being watched or lied to by authority figures were everywhere. No one, however, used this to his advantage quite like Alan J. Pakula. From 1971 to 1976, Pakula’s unofficial Paranoia Trilogy (Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men) captured the zeitgeist about as well as any major Hollywood releases of the decade.

Klute: 82 (A-)

When Pennsylvania executive Tom Gruneman goes missing, the police find an obscene, threatening letter to a prostitute. Gruneman’s friend, police officer John Klute (Donald Sutherland), is hired as a private investigator, and he tracks the letter to New York City prostitute Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda in a fantastic, Oscar-winning role). Klute is a square, but he develops a close relationship with Bree that will be tested as the madman persecuting prostitutes in the area watches their every move.

Klute isn’t as politically minded as the later entries in Pakula’s Paranoia Trilogy, but rather focused on the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The film significantly looks at the feminist movement of the time. Bree lives in a more sexually permissive environment than women of the past, but that sexual permissiveness has not allowed for real breakthroughs. Bree tries to make it as an actress and a model in the pretentious underground theatre/pop art scenes, but women aren’t the ones in charge. Rather they’re still largely subservient to men; the best living Bree can make is as a call girl. The 1971 film shows a frank sexuality that wouldn’t have been possible in older Hollywood films.

 Pakula uses that to his advantage. When sexuality is out in the open, it’s easier for certain characters to be repulsed by it. The film doesn’t judge how Bree chooses to make a living, but the men around her do. Sutherland’s Klute and the other police officers look down on Bree (although Klute later loosens up). The main antagonist of the film beats up and murders prostitutes; the man has a clear contempt for women, and he uses a “disreputable” profession as an excuse to do whatever he wants to them. It excites him. Legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis uses his trademark dark lighting to great effect in all of Pakula’s Paranoia films. In Klute, the element of dread comes from a Pre-Watergate, post-hippie era in the early 70s. The love movement is dead, and there’s a nasty fallout to be had- violence towards the sexually liberated woman, contempt for the young by the men in charge, and a sense that there’s something ugly in the air.

Klute might not be overtly political, but the sense that someone’s always watching is still present. Klute uses surveillance to try to keep Bree safe, but there’s a thin line between surveillance as safety and surveillance as malice; he also uses tapes to spy on Bree as she goes on dates and blackmail her into helping him find Gruneman. There’s a sense of looking behind closed doors, sometimes to innocuous effect (Bree sleeping with a client), sometimes to dangerous (the killer stalking Bree). The film opens with white noise and a recording of Bree’s prostitution act. That tape shows up as a motif that carries greater meaning as times goes on. Throughout the film, there are several shots of Bree and Klute being watched by a mysterious character across the street or above the building. There’s another tie-in to the later entries in the Paranoia Trilogy (not really a spoiler, considering we learn this in the first half of the film, but just in case, SPOILER): Gruneman isn’t behind the murders, but rather his boss Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi). It’s the first of many films showing men in charge getting away with murder (to varying degrees), and letting small fries take the blame.
The Parallax View: 92 (A)

Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is a leftist reporter who witnesses the assassination of a presidential candidate. Three years later, his friend and fellow reporter Lee (Paula Prentiss) winds up dead, along with the other witnesses of the assassination. Joe suspects a massive conspiracy at the center of the assassination, but what he discovers something far more sinister: Parallax, a corporation which specializes in hiring and training political assassins. Joe uses an alias to infiltrate Parallax, stop their next planned assassination, and bring their exploits to light. But he might be too late, and the conspiracy might be too vast.

The 1974 film isn’t the strongest entry in the Paranoia Trilogy, but it’s certainly the most pessimistic. From the beginning, there’s a sense of wide-ranging conspiracy and meticulous planning from the conspirators. There’s something not quite right in the air at Senator Carroll’s rally- men in suits and sunglasses whisper to each other, and a waiter seems to be watching the senator rather closely. The investigation’s results are a bit too neatly tied together, and when the witnesses start dropping dead, something smells fishy.

Joe’s war against the machine is in vain- Parallax is too controlling and too powerful to let anything go to chance. When he meets with Carroll’s aide on his yacht, the boat is sabotaged. Joe barely prevents the assassination of another senator on a plane in a masterful suspense scene, it doesn’t stop Parallax’s attempts on the man’s life. And though Joe finds out as much as he can about the organization, he can never stay too far ahead of them- they’ll kill those close to him, destroy any information he might have, and make him the scapegoat for another assassination. The tie-ins to the conspiracy theories over the two Kennedy Assassinations are clear- two populist senators are murdered, and two commissions determine a lone nut acted alone. There’s government cooperation with assassinations and shady organizations, and someone’s always watching. The conspiracy theories over JFK’s death are too convoluted to take seriously, but The Parallax View taps into the spiritual malaise and free-floating paranoia following the assassinations, and it’s a terrifying state of mind.

The most famous and most effective sequence in The Parallax View is not directly related to the narrative, but rather is a montage as Beatty is recruited by the shadowy Parallax Corporation. He’s led into a sterile training facility. Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis drape him in black light as a creepy slide show starts, set to music that sounds like a cross between patriotic fanfare and a particularly demented Pink Floyd song. Words flash across the screen: LOVE, MOTHER, FATHER, ME, HOME, COUNTRY, GOD, ENEMY, HAPPINESS. Images range from All American apple pie, steak, money and breasts to the Ku Klux Klan, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Nazis, and Fidel Castro. In one surreal scene, the thesis of The Parallax View is made all too clear. Nationalism and patriotism are at the center of the Parallax conspiracies, but it’s a warped and twisted version patriotism. When acts of evil are done in the name of America, what has the country become?
All the President’s Men: 94 (A)

Klute and The Parallax View hint at the nasty mood that gripped America in the 70s, but All the President’s Men, the best and most famous entry in Pakula’s Paranoia Trilogy, covers the actual events that signified the peak of the long national nightmare. Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are a pair of young, undistinguished reporters for the Washington Post. When the five Watergate burglars are discovered to have connections to various members of the Nixon administration, Woodward and Bernstein explore all possible angles. The two discover how far and wide the conspiracy really ranges: CIA operatives, the President’s Special Counsel, the Chief of Staff, the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP or CREEP), and finally President Nixon himself.

The real Woodward and Bernstein weren’t quite as handsome as Redford and Hoffman, and the memorable phrase “follow the money” won’t be found outside William Goldman’s script, but the film largely follows Woodward and Bernstein’s muckraking stories and subsequent book fairly closely. The paranoia here is real, the government threats and paranoia tangible, and the labyrinthine conspiracy narrative. Pakula and Goldman document a time where the people’s distrust and fear of the government was only topped by the government’s fear of the people. There’s nothing left to chance- Nixon’s people investigate Ted Kennedy, write a fake Canada-bashing letter to discredit Ed Muskie, and make sure that a passive (in honorable) lefty like George McGovern is in the race. But even with a pushover opponent, the sense of paranoia Nixon’s administration has that they might lose power is overwhelming. That paranoia leads to their downfall.

Before the hammer comes down, however, there’s months worth of intimidation to silence anyone who knows- Jane Alexander’s CRP bookkeeper is reluctant to tell the truth for fear of persecution, and late in the film Woodward’s FBI contact “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook) lets his friend know just how serious the danger is. Throughout the Paranoia Trilogy, Pakula and Willis create environments where there’s always someone lurking in the shadows, listening in, and what side they’re on is all-important. Here, Pakula’s command of sound and Willis’ command of shadow reach their peak. Whether it’s the burglars breaking into Watergate, Woodward meeting “Deep Throat” in secret, or Woodward and Bernstein trying to relay information without being heard, the reality that there’s always someone watching is very real and very frightening. That fear has never fully dissipated in the decades since, but if there was ever a time where artists documented that paranoia more vividly, it’s difficult to recall. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.25: Brian De Palma's Redacted

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 48 (C+)

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker isn’t the only Iraq War film, but it’s almost undoubtedly the best of the bunch. The others range from Paul Haggis’ barely remembered In the Valley of Elah to the famously melodramatic Home of the Brave. It’s strange that Brian De Palma, perhaps the most idiosyncratic of the directors to tackle the war, didn’t end up with a more well-liked effort. To his credit, Redacted is one of his most emotionally charged films, and a daring piece of filmmaking. It’s unfortunate that this doesn’t translate to “good”.

Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) is a soldier in Iraq with an obsession to tape everything he sees. His fellow soldiers include the intellectual Gabe Blix (Kel O’Neill), the moral Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), the loyal idiot B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), and the violent, racist Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll). When their commanding officer is killed by a roadside bomb, the soldiers are all angry, but Flake and Rush take things too far when they decide to raid an Iraqi home and kidnap a man. When the two later decide to rape a 15-year-old girl, McCoy and Blix want nothing to do with it, but they’re not strong-willed enough to stand up for what’s right.

Redacted has a lot going for it. In true De Palma fashion, it never flinches away from the horrifying violence on display. The killings in the film are frightening in their matter-of-fact starkness. When the commanding officer is killed by a bomb, his limbs fly into the air. The raids on the Iraqi home have a sense of realism De Palma is usually uninterested in- it’s hard not to feel a little uneasy after the girl’s death. De Palma also does a good job of clarifying the relationship sex has with violence- the two psychopathic soldiers have little regard for women, and Rush follows and feels up the girl long before the film’s climactic event. This, combined with a sense that the soldiers don’t empathize with or care to understand the Iraqis, shows how the line between civilian and insurgent could be ignored by a soldier, to tragic ends.

De Palma’s grasp on how the new media affects responses to violence is quite strong as well. In the internet age, there are plenty of videos responding to the war, from a soldier’s wife, to a terrorist beheading one of the major characters, to an ignorant, self-righteous Youtube commenter talking about the soldiers’ crimes. Redacted is a film filled with anger that brings De Palma’s voyeuristic sensibility to a more stripped-down style than he had ever used before.

It’s too bad that the film is so painfully heavy-handed. The film is a virtual remake of De Palma’s Casualties of War, which had a similar plot of soldiers kidnapping, raping, and murdering a young girl while the righteous characters were too helplessly weak to do anything about it. The difference between Casualties of War and Redacted is A. the former came years after the war had ended, allowing the director to have more clarity of judgment in his filmmaking, and B. the former had Sean Penn as the villain and was willing to humanize him. Redacted has a sense of prescience, but it’s largely overpowered by De Palma’s ponderous script, full of lines like “my fuckstick needs some pussy” and “killing Johnny Jihad…scorched fucking earth”, and the actors cast as the two villains are absolutely terrible. Penn used machismo in his performance, but there was a more human element to the character that showed Penn playing a character rather than judging him. These characters, as written and as played, are transparent racists and psychopaths, and there’s no authority to their bravado- it’s all bluff.

 De Palma treats the characters as monsters, and they never feel real because of it. He doesn’t handle the theme of guilt any better- the film ends with a shrill scene where McCoy speechifies during his homecoming, only to end on a leaden ironic note for a “celebration for a war hero”. As a post-script, De Palma includes “redacted” war photographs that the U.S. media wouldn’t share- dead babies, innocent people bloodied, charred, and burned. It’s an effective montage, but it’s telling when the collateral damage section leaves a more lasting impression than the actual story.

But let’s end this on a positive note: I haven’t been a lifelong De Palma fan, but revisiting his work has been an immensely rewarding experience. At the end of the day, De Palma is a film buff. He’s just one that happens to work behind the camera, and it’s telling that the movie buff directors to come after him- Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Noah Baumbach- have taken a page from him. Sure, his last couple of films have been disappointments. But De Palma’s passion remains, and his next two films- a psychological thriller (Passion) starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, and a remake of the 1986 Burt Reynolds vehicle Heat written by William Goldman and starring Jason Statham- sound more than promising.

De Palma: All Films Considered

1.     Blow Out (A)
2.     Carlito’s Way (A)
3.     Carrie (A)
4.     Dressed to Kill (A)
5.     Sisters (A)
6.     Mission to Mars (A)
7.     Scarface (A)
8.     Phantom of the Paradise (A)
9.     Femme Fatale (A-)
10. Casualties of War (A-)
11. Hi, Mom! (A-)
12. Body Double (B+)
13. Greetings (B+)
14. The Fury (B+)
15. Mission: Impossible (B)
16. Raising Cain (B)
17. Obsession (B)
18. The Untouchables (B)
19. Snake Eyes (B-)
20. Redacted (C+)
21. Murder a la Mod (C+)
22. Get to Know Your Rabbit (C+)
23. Wise Guys (C)
24. Home Movies (C-)
25. The Black Dahlia (D+)
26. The Bonfire of the Vanities (D-)
Unseen: Dionysus in ’69, The Wedding Party

Best Actor: John Travolta (Blow Out)
Honorable Mention: Al Pacino (Carlito’s Way)

Best Actress: Sissy Spacek (Carrie)
Honorable Mention: Nancy Allen (Blow Out)

Best Supporting Actor: Sean Penn (Carlito’s Way)
Honorable Mention: John Lithgow (Blow Out)

Best Supporting Actress: Piper Laurie (Carrie)
Honorable Mention: Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito’s Way)

Best Set-Piece: The Parade Finale (Blow Out)
Honorable Mention: Grand Central Station Chase (Carlito’s Way)

Next month’s Director Spotlight: Ridley Scott


1.     The Duellists
2.     Alien
3.     Blade Runner
4.     Legend
5.     Someone to Watch Over Me/Black Rain
6.     Thelma and Louise
7.     White Squall
8.     G.I. Jane
9.     Gladiator
10. Hannibal
11. Black Hawk Down
12. Matchstick Men
13. Kingdom of Heaven
14. A Good Year
15. American Gangster/Body of Lies/Robin Hood

Unlikely: 1492: Conquest of Paradise (it’s not available on DVD)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.24: Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 26 (D+)

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Curtis Hanson had adapted James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential in 1997, and the result was a masterpiece. Brian De Palma picked up the adaptation of Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia shortly after David Fincher left the project (Fincher’s Zodiac would hit the note Dahlia missed a year later). A great writer, a great director, a terrific noir plot- it seemed like something hard to screw up.

I have vivid memories of The Black Dahlia. In the summer of 2006, I saw the trailer before a showing of (ugh) Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. I was only semi-familiar with De Palma up to this point- I had seen and enjoyed both The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible, while Scarface had left me cold- but the trailer knocked me to the ground. It was stylish, eerie, and it forever burned itself to my memory. I still love that trailer. I was convinced that the film would be one of the best of the year. Then I saw it, and it’d be a fair guess that my bias against De Palma until recent years was based in part on my dislike for the film. After spending several weeks on De Palma’s filmography, I revisited The Black Dahlia with an open mind, hoping to be won over. It’s still terrible.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are LAPD police detectives who develop a friendship after an amateur boxing match with each other. Bucky grows close to Lee and his girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). When aspiring actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is brutally murdered, Lee and Bucky are assigned to the case. Lee becomes obsessed with the case, while Bucky starts a relationship with high society socialite Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank), who may or may not know something about the murder.

That’s the condensed plot. The Black Dahlia has so many threads that go nowhere (Hartnett’s senile father, boxing tie-ins) and plot details confusingly doled out (Lee’s corruption and past life) that it’s unclear in the beginning and barely comprehensible by the end. Noir needs a strong hand and someone highly interested in plot. De Palma isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but The Black Dahlia is so sluggishly paced and confusingly constructed that it’s hard not to think “who’s that person? What’s going on? Why are they doing that this way, and what are the consequences?” This thing is an absolute mess.

To De Palma’s credit, the film looks great. The period detail is meticulously designed, De Palma evokes an Old Hollywood noir feeling and a melancholy tone that’s appropriate for the story, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s hazy cinematography is absolutely terrific (Zsigmond garnered the film’s only Oscar nomination, though the film lost to Pan’s Labyrinth). De Palma brings stylistic bravura to the proceedings (intricate crane shots, split-diopter) along with his voyeuristic sensibility and unhesitant portrayal of violence and sexuality. The best moments of the film are classic stand-out De Palma set-pieces- the tour of a lesbian bar that crosses Old Hollywood underworld to De Palma’s unapologetic portrayal of sleaze, the weird dinner between Hartnett and Swank’s family (Fiona Shaw is amusingly weird as Swank’s mother), a staircase sequence where who’s watching who and why determines who lives and dies. And De Palma brings in some clever film references for his Hollywood-set film, most notably the creepy silent film The Man Who Laughs.

As far as the story goes, there’s exactly one thing De Palma gets right: the casting of Kirshner as Elizabeth Short. Kirshner brings her wide eyes and sad, vulnerable demeanor to portray a young woman whose hopes and dreams are about to be swallowed up by the labyrinth that is Los Angeles. There are only a few glimpses of Kirshner, mostly from a screen-test that deliberately evokes De Palma’s debut film Murder a la Mod (complete with a scolding director played by De Palma himself). Short is a liar, and not a particularly gifted actress, but she’s a tragic character that’s by far the most effective element of the film.

Part of the film’s problem is casting. When Josh Hartnett, not yet thirty years old and looking even younger, shows up as a hard-edged police detective, there’s no way to take him seriously. He’s too young, too contemporary, and kind of a blank; his tone-deaf narration doesn’t help matters. Twenty-two year old Johansson doesn’t fare much better- she may have the look of a classic Hollywood bombshell, but she’s far too contemporary and too young to have a world’s worth of trouble on her shoulders. These two provide a dead center to a dead film.

Miscast as they are, they’re not as hopeless as Hilary Swank is as a femme fatale. Swank doesn’t have the striking looks or intoxicating sexuality of a femme fatale- she’s most famous for playing a tomboy boxer in Million Dollar Baby and a woman posing as a man in Boys Don’t Cry. Worse, she attempts what seems to be an absolutely atrocious Katharine Hepburn impression for her femme fatale character (Hepburn never played a femme fatale). It’s a tone-deaf performance that’s unbelievable when she’s nice and even more unbelievable when she’s nasty. What’s even more mind-boggling is that De Palma uses Swank as a double for Kirshner- part of the film’s plot is that the two look so strikingly similar. The only problem is that they look absolutely nothing alike. Why De Palma didn’t cast Kirshner in both roles (as he has in the past for double roles in Obsession or Femme Fatale) is a mystery.

 Eckhart is more believable (he doesn’t look like he’s in a high school play) as bad-cop Lee, but his shift from normality into obsession comes without any in-between. All of the sudden, he’s obsessed. That’s a problem with most of the film- the film is both sluggishly paced and rushed in its storytelling. There’s never any sense of how much time has passed or what the dynamic has shifted to- we’re just expected to know. Apparently the film was originally going to be three hours and was eventually whittled down to two.  Perhaps the three-hour cut is a stronger film, but it’s hard to think it’d be too much stronger, given the central miscastings. It’s a technically impressive but dramatically inert film, and one of the most disappointing films in a great director’s career.

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Genre Spotlight #1.4: Marathon Man

Every decade brings new worries, and genre films are particularly good at capturing the cultural and political zeitgeist of the time. Every month, Genre Spotlight takes a look at a genre in a particular time and place, shows a certain director or screenwriter approached said genre, and tries to shine some light on what the cultural significance of the movement was. This month takes a look at the political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.

Grade: 83 (A-)

William Goldman’s novel Marathon Man was released in 1974, the same year the Watergate scandals broke. Neither the book nor the 1976 film adaptation features any direct connections to the scandal. Yet Marathon Man still has the mood of paranoia that runs with post-Watergate America. It’s a tale of a world filled with evil people, government agencies willing to work with them, and young people who fall by the wayside because of it.

Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a college graduate student and an aspiring marathon runner. Babe, a history student, is haunted by his father’s suicide following McCarthy-era persecution. He believes that his brother Henry “Doc” Levy (Roy Scheider) is a suit working for an oil company, but Doc is really a government agent. One of the men Doc is forced to deal with is Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), a former Nazi torturer known as “The White Angel” who gives up fellow former Nazis for diamonds. When Szell’s brother is killed in New York, he travels to America, kills Doc (suspecting him of robbery), and torments Babe, whom he believes knows what Doc was “planning” to do with his diamonds.

Marathon Man is directed by John Schlesinger, a British filmmaker whose films in both the U.K. (Billy Liar, Darling, Sunday Bloody Sunday) and the U.S. (the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy) have a terrific sense of time and place. Marathon Man, like Midnight Cowboy before it, captures the New York of its era. Midnight Cowboy shows young men living in squalor and being rejected by both the square world and the counterculture. Marathon Man is a nastier beast,  a film filled with governments that aren’t just unhelpful, they’re untrustworthy. Schlesinger and cinematographer Conrad Hall’s photography is gritty, intense, and (aided by the new Steadicam) precise. But the sound design to Marathon Man is perhaps more impressive- the sound of Hoffman’s feet hitting the ground while he’s running, Hoffman screaming when he finds his dead brother, or the screeching noise that accompanies the chases are more effective in telling the story.

Hoffman’s Babe is a mild-mannered, liberal pacifist college student. He’s sloppy, unkempt, and more interested in studying history than being a part of it. He’s writing a paper on “tyranny in American political life”, and it’s not just colorful background for the character. His father’s death, and the era of McCarthyism, hangs over the events of the film like a hazy waking nightmare. His father had been innocent of any wrongdoing, but he was persecuted by an untrustworthy faction of the government all the same. By the end of the film, Babe, another innocent pacifist with leftist leanings, will be tortured, chased after, and further persecuted by the government, all to help a former Nazi.

In stark contrast to his brother, Scheider’s Doc is very neat and well put together (and, it has been argued, implicitly homosexual). Doc isn’t a bad guy, but he’s a man more than willing to play dirty for his country. Schlesinger made a clever bit of casting by putting Scheider, the cop from The French Connection, against Hoffman, the titular character of Mike Nichol’s The Graduate. Where the latter is nervous, unsure of himself, and hopelessly idealistic, Scheider is jaded and more than willing to work with men he believes to be evil. That willingness costs him his life.

And what of that evil? Szell believes he was serving his country, and he has no qualms about anything he did. Greed has pushed him to the point of absolute evil. He is cold, pitiless, precise, and eerily refined (Olivier is perfectly cast here). The film’s most famous scene (“is it safe?”) involves his torture of Babe with dental instruments. Schlesinger uses the sound of Szell’s drill (plus the cold, sterile environment and bright light) to do most of the work, not showing the more graphic details, but it hits anyway. It’s another intellectual being cast to the wayside by the American government, but it’s also a tie-in to the Holocaust, with the Jewish Babe being tortured by a former Nazi.

Schlesinger and Goldman occasionally push the Jewish vs. Nazi connection a bit far (setting it near Yom Kippur, an early car chase between Szell’s brother and a Jewish man), and some of the plot threads are left dangling. But Marathon Man is a more than effective 70s era paranoid thriller, one that taps into both Watergate era paranoia and the knowledge that some Nazi war criminals were still at large (Joseph Mengele would die in South America three years later). It’s a tale of a decent man in an indecent world, what he must do to survive, and how he remains moral after having to turn to violence. In a world gone mad, it’s important to stay decent. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.23: Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 84 (A-)

Brian De Palma has always had an openly contemptuous relationship with Hollywood, and after the back-to-back financial and critical failures Snake Eyes and the perversely underrated Mission to Mars, De Palma left. For his next film, the director found financing in France, a nation more attuned to his skewed wavelength, and paid tribute to the nation with a Euro-centric version of his gloriously trashy thrillers. As with many De Palma films, 2002’s Femme Fatale plays with American genre conventions while doubling as critiques of those conventions. Femme Fatale happens to be even more film-centric than previous efforts, but it feels appropriate, considering that the birth of auteur theory came from some French film critics who went on to be filmmakers themselves.

Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn, then still Romijn-Stamos) double-crosses two of her accomplices after a complicated diamond heist. She’s on the run, but she catches a lucky break when she’s mistaken for a Parisian woman named Lily (also Romijn), who disappeared shortly after the death of her husband and daughter. Laure assumes Lily’s identity shortly after the real Lily commits suicide, goes to America, and marries the American Ambassador to France (Peter Coyote). Years later, paparazzo Nicholas Bardo (Antonio Banderas) is hired to get a picture of the Ambassador’s reclusive wife. Laure/Lily starts toying with Bardo and uses him to steal millions from her husband in a fake kidnapping plot. When the picture is displayed all throughout France, however, Laure’s old accomplices come looking for revenge.

Femme Fatale received mixed reviews from American critics (although Roger Ebert called it a masterpiece) before it found a well-deserved cult following, but even those critics would have a hard time disputing the awe-inspiring opening heist, one of the most playful set-pieces in De Palma’s filmography. The French loved De Palma, and he used that to his advantage by setting the diamond heist in the middle of the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a bravura sequence, honestly his best set-piece since the Grand Central Station chase in Carlito’s Way, that displays everything De Palma does well.

De Palma sets up the stakes early  on- Film Festival, gorgeous model wearing a bustier made of gold and diamonds, inside man on the Festival security team- in order to go all out on his obsessions and favorite film tricks. There’s magnificent tracking shots and use of split-diopter to show where everyone is in relation to each other and give a great sense of the Festival area. There’s a strong, voyeuristic sensibility as everyone who’s in on the heist A. watches what’s happening to get what they want, and B. mislead the Cannes security team. The fact that Laure seduces the model in order to get the jewel bustier off of her plays into the director’s sense of voyeuristic sensuality, and the fact that the model is in on the heist and just playing along with Laure betrays a sense of exhibitionism that so often pairs with voyeurism- they’re being watched, but they know who’s watching, so they hold the cards. De Palma and the cast play it up to hilariously brazen levels of voyeurism, exhibitionism, and sexuality to the point where the two are making love in a glass bathroom stall. When De Palma needs to get violent at the end of the heist, the violence really hits while still being viscerally exciting.

There’s plenty of film references in the opening heist, from the Cannes setting to the pictures of Juliette Binoche and Michael Haneke in the background to the use of the French film East-West as a distraction from the main event. Distractions abound- one of the accomplices talks about “bait and switch” without realizing that he’s about to fall for a bait-and-switch himself…and that the audience is going to fall for another bait-and-switch…that only turns out to be another bait-and-switch. Femme Fatale’s opening has a Brechtian quality that’s apparent throughout De Palma’s filmography. It’s all framework to study how the movies work, but De Palma keeps the pace moving so quickly and the excitement at such high levels that he makes the filmed film criticism outright jubilant. To top things off, it’s all set to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s fabulous score, which has its own Brechtian quality- it sounds so much like Ravel’s “Bolero” that it’s literally titled “Bolerish”.

Femme Fatale is most famous for that opening sequence, but the rest of the film is loaded with riches as well. De Palma no longer has to hide his stylistic flourishes within the recesses of Hollywood blockbusters, so he has excuse to go all-out. The director uses long takes and tracking shots to emphasize the particularly emotional moments of the film, such as Lily’s suicide. The director’s use of split-screen to emphasize two angles- often who’s watching and who’s being watched- is particularly masterful in conveying the thrills and dangers of voyeurism. When Bardo snaps a picture of a none-too-pleased Laure, he unknowingly photographs a woman who’s about to be attacked by old accomplices, only to follow her again years later. Bardo follows Laure, but the other side of the screen shows him being followed.

Voyeurism plays into nearly every De Palma film, and Femme Fatale is no exception. Aside from the heist and paparazzi scenes, Femme Fatale features several sequences of characters following each other, be it for information, revenge, or sabotage. Laure’s ex-accomplices follow her and make an attempt on her life. Bardo follows “Lily” to find out more about her, but at the same time, he’s being watched by “Lily’s” security team. Lily’s suicide scene, meanwhile, has a creepy feeling of seeing something we’re not supposed to see behind closed doors. De Palma implicates the audience in all of this- we often know what’s going to happen shortly before it does, but with the exception of the true players, the characters are completely clueless, and the feeling of helplessness they feel watching each other die carries over to us.

Because it’s a De Palma film, Femme Fatale also contains scenes in which violence, sexuality, and voyeurism all tie in together, like when Laure pretends to be an abused housewife in order to put one over on the voyeuristic Bardo. Better still is a terrific striptease scene- Laure has blackmailed Bardo into a kidnapping scheme, but she’s having trouble getting him to go through with it. She then lures some poor dopey French guy in with a striptease that’s more for Bardo (and the audience) than for the other guy (a split-diopter shot shows the French guy reacting in the foreground, but we’re paying attention to Banderas’ character in the background). It’s a bout of exhibitionism to make Bardo jealous, and it works- he flips out on the other guy, wails on him, and the two have sex before going off to rip off her husband. In De Palma’s world, sex is power, and the ability to control the voyeuristic and the violent is more power. That Bardo thinks he’s the one playing Laure (as a way to clear his name) is an added bonus- he’s a sucker who thinks he’s a player.

Above all else, though Femme Fatale is about the movies. De Palma was always one to stack his films with references and homages to other films (and sometimes even his own previous works), but even his previous films can’t hold a candle to this movie obsessed genre exercise. De Palma tips the audience off to where his head is at from the beginning- the film is called Femme Fatale, for goodness sake, and it opens with Romijn’s character watching Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity, the prototypical femme fatale, on television. The character is reminiscent of plenty of femme fatales of films past- Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, and even the more recent Sharon Stone in Basic Instict. Uma Thurman was originally cast, and no doubt she would have been perfect. Romijn is sometimes not up to par with what the part calls for: many De Palma films features characters “acting” for others, but they’re usually populated with actors and actresses more capable of pulling it off (Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill, for example). Romijn has trouble distinguishing the difference between intentionally off line-readings and line-readings that are just off. Whenever she gets speeches, she bungles at least a line or two. But that’s only a hindrance a few times. Mostly she’s having a blast playing the iciest of icy blondes- someone who loves being bad- and that’s more than enough.

Bardo, meanwhile, is modeled after Fred MacMurray’s classic movie patsy from Double Indemnity. Banderas is more attuned to what the part needs- a dumb character who doesn’t think he’s dumb. Early scenes show Bardo trying to pull one over on Laure in a hilariously unconvincing camp act- there’s no way anyone is going to buy this, and that’s the point. He’s all too easy for Laure to jerk around, and that’s part of the fun.

There’s plenty of other references to past noirs, as well as references to De Palma’s famous influence, Alfred Hitchcock, in numerous scenes of voyeurism and following that parallel Rear Window and Vertigo. But De Palma uses Femme Fatale best as a wonderfully entertaining , self-referential experiment. It carries obsessions with doubles, like in Sisters, Obsession, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double. The striptease scene is a throwback to Melanie Griffith’s striptease/masturbation scene in Body Double (side note: Griffith recommended her husband Banderas for the part to De Palma). The voyeuristic scenes are deliberate recreations of De Palma’s past scenes of obsession, all with an even more winks and nudges than usual. And then, in true De Palma fashion, he pulls the rug out from under us.


It’s not surprising that many people would be frustrated that it all turns out to be a dream, but it’s really just another level of artifice (plus a tribute to David Lynch’s own self-referential film from the previous year, Mulholland Dr.). De Palma gives several clues throughout the film in a Brechtian fashion that becomes more visible as time goes on- the “bait and switch” line refers not only to the heist, but to what we’re going to watch for the better part of the film’s running time. Early before the dream starts, a character yells “stop dreaming, this isn’t a game”; at the end of the dream, he yells “wake up, bitch, before you die”. When De Palma does a match cut to swirling plane engine, it’s an acknowledgement that we’re now through the looking glass.

That doesn’t even begin to cover the clues De Palma spreads throughout the film. We see everyone we’re about to see in the dream right before it starts, most notably the annoying paparazzi guy…who becomes the patsy in the dream. There’s a recurring image of overflowing water, all while Laure’s having a dream while taking a bath. According to De Palma, the three recurring fears in dreams are “falling, ‘I did something bad’, and ‘bad people are coming for me’”. He incorporates all of those into this dream. When Laure gets thrown off a bridge near the end, the deliberate recreation of a fall earlier in the film is a final clue as to what’s about to happen. The fear that bad people are coming for Laure ties into the fear of her ex-accomplices. 

As for “I did something bad”? Laure’s double-cross might by a dirty trick, but the other bad guys are far nastier. In reality, she’s not nearly as bad as she is in the dream (although dream-Laure certainly enjoys it). De Palma argued that “noir is stylized, dreamlike, and fatalistic”, and he uses the dream sequence in Femme Fatale as a noir film that’s watched by both the audience and the main character. As an added bonus, Laure gets a chance to avoid the mistakes that movie/dream-Laure made and do right by the suicidal Lily, pointing her on the path of a happy life with Peter Coyote’s loving ambassador. At the end of the day, there is a sense of morality and justice in Femme Fatale, right up to a final sequence that sets everything right, plays to all the voyeurs watching (especially the audience), and brings the meta-Mulholland Dr. exercise full circle when real-life Laure and Bardo meet under more amiable circumstances. “Have we met?” “Only in my dreams.”

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Director Spotlight #6.22: Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 93 (A)

Defending Brian De Palma’s 2000 film Mission to Mars to any degree is an uphill battle. Defending it passionately likely brings looks of incredulity. With a Metacritic score of 34 percent, the reviews range from lukewarm to scathing. The film flopped in theatres, and many De Palma fans regularly cite it as one of the director’s worst movies. The fact that one the film’s biggest fans is notorious contrarian and frequent troll Armond White doesn’t make matters easier. Yet Mission to Mars has a handful of passionate fans nonetheless- French film critics embraced the film (the Cahiers du cinema put it at #4 on their best of the year list), and put the film at #80 on their best of the decade list. There’s a number of people who are going to think I’ve gone nuts, and no doubt only a handful who will join the film’s tiny fan club, but screw it: Mission to Mars is one of Brian De Palma’s very best movies.

2020: Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) is an astronaut who’s dreamed of going to Mars his whole life, but his wife’s death took the passion out of him. His best friend, Luke Graham (Don Cheadle), will lead the first mission to mars instead, with their friend Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and his wife Terri (Connie Nielsen) following and Jim running the mission from NASA’s World Space Station.  When Jim receives a message from Luke stating that the rest of the team has been killed, he, Woody, Terri, and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell) set off on a rescue mission. But Luke found something fascinating on Mars- the possible origin of human life.

At first glance, Mission to Mars sounds utterly ridiculous. At second glance…it still sounds utterly ridiculous. Watching the film, it’s hard not to find the whole endeavor pretty goofy- the astronauts are absurdly clean-cut, and the dialogue ranges from clich├ęd astronaut jargon to conversations so expository it’ll drive some mad. For roughly the first 30 minutes of the film, I wasn’t sure if this thing was supposed to be a silly or not. As soon as the rescue mission was underway, however, I had my answer: of course it’s supposed to be silly.

This is Brian De Palma, a director whose films are so smart at playing with conventions that their smart-alecky tones are frequently overlooked. Dressed to Kill features a scene that, in a reference to the goofball psychology scene to Psycho, explains the villain’s murderous pathology with a conversation that includes the phrase  “when [his] penis got erect…”; there’s absolutely no way the film is meant to be taken too seriously, yet the film’s jokey manner went over several heads. De Palma mixes comedy and straight-faced, bigger-than-life emotions so idiosyncratically that it’s easy to be turned off by the bizarre tone. The PG-rated Mission to Mars was dismissed by many as a colossally goofy misfire containing little of the director’s personality. It just isn’t so. The film might be playing the goofiness straight, but it’s a good kind of goofiness that exhibits a sensibility that couldn’t come from anyone other than De Palma.

The film was criticized by many for ripping of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this isn’t much different than the pat “he’s a Hitchcock imitator” claims. Yes, there are distinct similarities to 2001: the space stations look suspiciously similar, and one scene involving a revolving space station is so close to the earlier film that it’s easy to see why some were apoplectic. But, in typical De Palma fashion, it’s more of a riff on 2001 that a straight-faced homage. That revolving space station scene is where I realized this was supposed to be funny: they’re using zero-gravity to mess around and dance to Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away”. There’s absolutely no way to take the scene seriously, and that’s the point. It brought a big, goofy grin over my face that wouldn’t disappear.

2001 is hardly the only sci-fi film Mission to Mars tweaks its nose at. De Palma plays with damn near every sci-fi subgenre: the astronaut business is largely inspired by cheesy ‘50s B-movies, complete with cheesy dialogue (“Ok, let’s get ready to light this candle!”) and references to Flash Gordon. A young, goofy actor like Jerry O’Connell seems out of place as an astronaut, but that’s largely the point. He’s not supposed to be a realistic portrayal of an astronaut. He’s a Buck Rogers-style, derring-do adventurer.

The plot about astronauts looking for answers is reminiscent of 2001, but the warm-and-fuzzy tone falls more in line with Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the presence of a wire sculpture of DNA in the foreground draws comparison to the famous Close Encounters mashed potatoes sculpture. There’s an M&M tie-in that’s a clear reference to the Reese’s Pieces product placement in Spielberg’s E.T.; another more infamous piece of product placement is so overtly ridiculous it features characters using a squeeze-pouch of Dr. Pepper to find a leak in the hull (come on, that’s just hilarious). Ennio Morricone’s exquisite score sounds like John Williams’ Close Encounters score by way of the operatic Italian composer. This is almost like it’s De Palma’s Spielberg movie, complete with wonder-and-awe that’s partial rib-nudging, partial earnestness.

The expository dialogue and general corniness of most of the human interactions could be taken at face value, but the similarities to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (honestly one of Howard’s best films, some cornball moments aside) shouldn’t be taken seriously either. The dragged-out explanation for Sinise’s reluctance to fly is so comically long that it’s hard not to laugh. The prominent American flag shots on Mars? Intentionally corny. The home movies? Same. Cheadle’s moment with his son back on Earth (“who’s gonna read to me now?”)? It’s like a goofy De Palma version of a corny Ron Howard version of a Spielberg moment.

What makes the film trickier than just a spoof is the mix of earnestness into the equation. De Palma might be poking fun at these sci-fi conventions, but there’s real affection for the genre nonetheless. The actors all assist him ably, never cracking a smile at any of the ludicrous stuff happening around them. Yes, it’s all very silly, but there’s something awe-inspiring about the mythic draw of space travel, and while De Palma’s “origin of life” business is just as goofy, there’s something admirable about the throwback to idea-driven sci-fi. Armond White’s assertion that someone who pans Mission to Mars “does not understand movies, let alone like them” is smug and obnoxious, but it’s easy to understand his claim that the film’s emotionalism killed it for most people with even a modicum of cynicism (and just when he starts to make sense, you remember he praised Jack and Jill). In the age of irony, it’s easy to see why some might scoff at the squeaky-clean story and general goofiness. When the film reaches its “De Palma imitating Spielberg’s Close Encounters imitating Kubrick’s 2001” ending, it’s undeniably silly, but it nonetheless feels like emotional honesty coming from a science-whiz turned filmmaker.

The director’s technical mastery is in full effect here- long tracking shots and crane shots are a part of De Palma’s filmic vocabulary, but he goes all-out with the possibilities of “zero gravity” camerawork. Love or hate the script (and it’s easy to see why someone might hate it), De Palma can move a camera like no other. The way De Palma shoots the “Dance the Night Away” scene is so visually exciting it’s hard not to get caught up in it. De Palma shows where everyone is in relation to each other, gradually building the wonderfully silly atmosphere until it culminates in rhapsodic dance that’s a clever combination of actual weightlessness and the lightness of romance. De Palma’s lyrical use of match cuts throughout the film only makes the buoyant 2001-riffing more effective.

De Palma’s most well-known influence- Alfred Hitchcock- isn’t absent either. De Palma, like Hitchcock or Spielberg, is a master visual storyteller, and his use of Hitchcockian suspense to tell a story is brilliant. In one extended sequence, De Palma uses a tracking shot to let the audience in on just how something is going to go wrong before the astronauts realize it (the old Hitchcock adage of showing a bomb without making the characters aware of it). There’s genuine suspense in the silly “use Dr. Pepper to find the hull breach” scene, and in an equipment retrieval scene turned tragic. When De Palma drags a rescue scene out to interminable levels, it makes the ultimately tragic end of the scene all the more heartbreaking.

There’s something inherently artificial about the film. De Palma’s intricate camera-movement reveals the sets in all their glory. It brings attention to how the sets are clearly sets, however gorgeous, but it’s appropriate for a director whose filmography so often utilizes Brechtian technique to acknowledge a film-centric worldview. There’s a lot of corniness, goofiness, and sci-fi/emotional kitsch at work in Mission to Mars, but there’s something more going on than base kitsch. De Palma is a filmmaker whose films often work as film criticism. Mission to Mars is both a critique and a celebration of movie kitsch- it’s artificial and it’s hokey, but when in the hands of a master filmmaker like De Palma, it’s still somehow beautiful.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.21: Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 56 (B-)

Snake Eyes is one frustrating movie. After the success of Mission: Impossible, Brian De Palma had a chance to do one of his classic thrillers on a big budget, and he didn’t waste a penny. For about an hour, Snake Eyes is one of the most exciting films of De Palma’s post-80s filmography, filled with dynamic filmmaking and fun performances. It’s a shame, then, when it all falls apart spectacularly in a third-act that drains energy, plausibility, and interest.

Ricky Santoro (Nicolas Cage) is a corrupt Atlantic City police detective whose best friend, Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), runs security detail for the Secretary of Defense. When the Secretary is assassinated during a boxing match for the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Dunne shoots the assassin, supposedly a Palestinian terrorist. But Ricky is convinced that there’s a deeper conspiracy that involves the champ (Stan Shaw), a handful of accomplices to the shooter, and a mysterious woman, Julia (Carla Gugino), who met with the Secretary shortly before his death. What he discovers turns him from a corrupt cop willing to look the other way to a crusader for the truth.

Every review of Snake Eyes, even the negative ones, begins with a discussion of the stunning opening, a 13-minute tracking shot that follows Ricky as he takes care of some shady business, acts like a live wire, enters the boxing arena, has a long conversation with Dunne during the fight, and witnesses the assassination. It’s as if De Palma saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights the year before, watched the complicated tracking shots, and said “I’ll fucking show you!”. De Palma immerses us in Ricky’s world- he’s an off-the-wall character in a wonderfully sleazy city, he deals with shady characters (Luis Guzman, Michael Rispoli, Kevin Dunn), and he’s got powerful connections. De Palma uses whip pans and deep focus to give clues as to how everything is going to go wrong- there’s a beautiful woman all by herself, a conspicuous drunk shouting something imperceptible, and Carla Gugino’s character in an obviously fake wig arguing with the Secretary about something. De Palma doesn’t show the fight or the assassination, but he shows the characters’ reactions, and that’s what’s most important to what happens next.

Snake Eyes never quite tops that opening shot- how could it?- but for the rest of the first two acts, De Palma uses seemingly every trick in his bag- long, complicated tracking and crane shots, split-screen and split-diopter, dragged out Hitchcockian suspense, strong command of great character actors, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s tense score. This isn’t De Palma’s first conspiracy movie- the film consciously echoes his masterpiece Blow Out- but De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp (his collaborator for Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible) do a terrific job of keeping the audience guessing. De Palma also makes great use of the seedy Atlantic City location as a stew of simmering sexuality and glorious gaudiness.

De Palma’s fascination with voyeurism and film are intertwined in Snake Eyes. Ricky’s use of security footage to look back on the events, check out other characters, and follow whoever he needs to aids his quest, but as with  Blow Out, the closer you look, the less clear everything becomes. De Palma consciously echoes Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon when Ricky interrogates various characters- we see events from multiple points of view, but it’s not entirely clear until the end who’s lying or leaving out important details. Voyeurism can clarify, but it can also obscure, confuse, and send someone off in the wrong director entirely. Best of all is a foot chase near the end of the second act, where De Palma toys with audience expectations and makes them helpless voyeurs just as he has his whole career.

Part of what makes Snake Eyes work so well (for a time, anyway) is the terrific cast. Cage was at the height of his powers in the 80s and 90s, and his utterly crazy performance is both entertaining and strangely apt for a character who clearly loves being the center of attention. Gugino, who hasn’t been nearly as good since, taps into Julia’s strong sense of morality and guilt- she’s the emotional center of a film filled with amoral and often nasty characters. Sinise might be most central to the film’s success. Within the first few minutes, it’s pretty clear that (SPOILER, I suppose) he’s the one behind it all, but the actor does a good job of A. playing a supposedly moral, dignified soldier, and B. playing a “John Lithgow in Blow Out” style cold-blooded assassin. Sinise, Koepp, and De Palma craft a character who represents the calculation and cold self-preservation tactics the government takes. Innocent lives don’t matter- it’s all part of a sick political game.

For the first two-thirds, Snake Eyes exhibits De Palma’s expert craftsmanship, left-wing cynicism, and gloriously over-the-top sensibilities. The film is so wracked with tension and fast-paced energy that I had knots in my stomach (no kidding, I was caught up). I was convinced I watching not just an underrated movie, but a possible classic. At the end of the second act, however, the thinness of Koepp’s script starts to show, and it grows increasingly clear that the plot is totally ridiculous. This matters less in De Palma’s horror movies, which largely toy with the idea that horror movie psychology is bogus, but in a conspiracy movie it’s important to have some sort of a through-line here. The filmmaking and acting is dynamic, however, and there’s a possibility around the corner that De Palma is intentionally toying with the idea that conspiracy movies are ridiculous. Then the third act starts.

The final thirty minutes of Snake Eyes aren’t just utterly ludicrous and idiotic. They’re boring. Totally, completely boring. John Heard is a fantastic actor, but when he turns to spouting ridiculous, heavy-handed speeches about why he helped mastermind the assassination, the film becomes frustratingly generic, the dialogue laughable. Sinise and Cage don’t fare any better- the former starts to go over-the-top, the latter grows mopey and uninteresting. By the end, it feels more like an imitation of a De Palma movie crossed with an idiotic action movie, complete with some totally absurd turns: the boxer is in on it, starts beating Cage up behind closed doors (no, really); the hurricane that’s been in the background of the film ends up saving the day (no, really). It’s easy to see why so many of the reviews for Snake Eyes were so scathing- the film’s last third is so bad that it makes it difficult to remember the better parts, or even makes it questionable how good those parts really were. I can’t deny how much I enjoyed the first two-thirds of Snake Eyes, however, even if it doesn’t amount to much in the end.

NOTE: This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.20: Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 69 (B)

Everyone needs a paycheck. Sometimes, great directors have to take a “one for them, one for me” mentality in order to get a pet project made. When Tom Cruise, a fan of the original Mission: Impossible TV series, approached Brian De Palma to direct the film adaptation, the result was one of De Palma’s least personal films (only The Untouchables could really compare). But that doesn’t mean it’s without merit, nor that De Palma isn’t able to inject some personality into the film. Mission: Impossible might not go down as one of the great Brian De Palma movies, but it has more than its share of pleasures.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is a member of the IMF American spy group, his particular team being led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight in a role originated by Peter Graves). When Phelps and the rest of the team (Kristin Scott Thomas, Emilio Estevez, and Ingeborga Dapkunaite in cameo roles) are killed on a mission in Prague, Ethan and Claire (Emmanuelle Beart) are suspected of murder by IMF director Kittredge (Henry Czerny) and go on the run in Europe. Hoping to find the real culprit by trading with arms dealer “Max” (Vanessa Redgrave), the two team up with former IMF agents Luther (Ving Rhames) and Krieger (Jean Reno), steal a list of undercover agents from CIA headquarters in Langley, and try to clear their names.

It should be said up front that the plot of Mission: Impossible is borderline incoherent and makes no sense whatsoever. This isn’t necessarily a drawback, however: the Mission: Impossible series has more or less become an excuse to string stunning set-pieces together and allow the director (De Palma, John Woo for part two, J.J. Abrams for part three, and Brad Bird for last year’s series-topping entry) to explore personal interests and themes.

De Palma, ever the expert craftsman, uses the big budget to his advantage to explore his pet theme of voyeurism. In a film about spies, it could be difficult to separate the narrative from De Palma’s active interests, but the use of surveillance has a voyeuristic thrill in the first Mission: Impossible. More importantly, when things go wrong, there’s a feeling of helplessness as a character (usually Hunt) can do nothing but watch as things fall apart and his friends die. When Jack (Estevez) gets stuck in an elevator shaft, there’s nothing his team can do but listen to him die. When Jim and the rest of the team get ambushed, Hunt is too far away to save his friends, but often just close enough to watch them die; this leads to a fleeting glance with another De Palma theme, guilt (although that’s mostly cleared away for the big set-pieces). Most importantly, who watches who and when determines the outcome of the action set-pieces of the film, from the opening ambush to the grand finale on the TGV train.

The script by David Koepp, Steve Zaillian, and Robert Towne doesn’t give the cast or De Palma too much to work with for depth: Beart’s character could be a sexy femme fatale, but that’s glanced over. The emotional devastation of the team’s death doesn’t really hit, and while one character has a surprisingly nasty death for a PG-13 movie, there’s not much insight as to what any of it means the way there might be in other De Palma films. As for the other characters: there are some fun performances in the supporting cast (Voight, Rhames, Redgrave, Reno), but not much depth of character. And while Tom Cruise is perfectly solid as Hunt, it is not one of the great Tom Cruise performances (there are many, I don’t care what anyone says). Perhaps it’s a bit much to expect in a blockbuster film that’s solely about stringing set-pieces together, but other Cruise collaborations with great directors usually yield great results: Scorsese for The Color of Money, Kubrick for Eyes Wide Shut, P.T. Anderson for Magnolia, Michael Mann for Collateral, Cameron Crowe for Jerry Maguire, and Spielberg for Minority Report (an example of a Cruise blockbuster film with depth of theme and character).

But while Cruise the frequently underrated actor is mostly just in movie-star charisma mode, there’s something else Cruise doesn’t get enough credit for: he could probably be a professional stuntman if he wanted. As with many of his action films, Cruise does most of his own stunts in Mission: Impossible, and the results are pretty incredible (he topped himself in part four with the building climb).

De Palma, for his part doesn’t use his film-centric worldview too much (although there’s a clever bit of magic that all but acknowledges the bait-and-switch nature of the plot), but he goes all-out on the set-pieces (other than the fun but impersonal special-effects finale on the train)- he uses slow-motion to emphasize certain stunts or movements. His grip on how to use Hitchcockian tension, slowly eking out suspense in deliberately paced set-pieces, is masterful, as always. He uses great locations in Prague and the rest of Europe to his advantage. Best of all is the famous Langley break-in, one of the most stunning set-pieces in his filmography. De Palma and the screenwriters set-up how utterly impossible the ensuing heist is supposed to be, but that only makes the airtight, you-can-hear-a-pin-drop results all the more astounding. Added bonus: De Palma gets a film reference in the heist, which is basically a high-tech homage to Jules Dassin’s masterful heist movie Rififi, because it wouldn’t be a De Palma film without an incredible extended homage in there.

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