For Reel


The Fury (1978)
August 5, 2016, 9:45 am
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Director: Brian De Palma
3 Stars
The Fury Devotees of Brian De Palma’s cinema have treated The Fury as a litmus test for one’s appreciation of the director. It is aggressively confrontational in its approach to many of the elements De Palma is known for—a central metaphor regarding a sexual awakening is delightfully perverse, the violence is sensationalized, and it is marked by contrasts in the most extreme sense of the word. In the first scene, a vacation between father and son is interrupted by the invasion of apparent terrorists, interrupting beachside relaxation with squibs and explosions. Similarly, De Palma’s visual strategy is as rigorous as it gets, obsessing over intricate angles and split diopter shots even in simple, plot-progressing conversations. But the argument that The Fury makes the case for whether one gets De Palma or not seems to reduce the director to a glorified pervert—if it is a quintessential De Palma film in the sense that it demonstrates his technique to the absolute extremes (if this is the argument, Scarface is just as worthy of an example), it ignores the moderation of his previous efforts. De Palma’s great contrasts are all but lost after the first scene, which plunges the film into a never-ending deluge of directorial excess.



Sisters (1973)
June 29, 2016, 4:28 pm
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Director: Brian De Palma
4 Stars
SistersIn the opening moments of Sisters, a blind woman enters a locker room and is about to strip down while a man watches. Cut to the same scene, now played in the context of a game show—contestants are asked to guess what the man will do, and inevitably they guess wrong because he does the gentlemanly thing and walks away. Everything about the opening sequence is ludicrous, but its brilliance is that it conditions the viewer of the film how they should be watching. In these earliest moments, director Brian De Palma incorporates much of what follows—the trope of voyeurism, the eroticism of the image, and the standoff between victim and the potential culprit. Then, when the scene is revealed to be a game show, De Palma takes an equal interest in showing that his film will not only be a perceptual exercise (it’s ironic that a film about questioning what you see involves a stubborn, Nancy Drew-like figure who can’t shake what she’s seen), but that it is constructed to be a experience that is both pleasurable and shameful, fixating on the audience’s fascination with the grotesque. Sisters is among De Palma’s purest and most deliberate Hitchcock homages, but while he does ape on certain images and scenarios from Hitchcock’s films, the most constructive homage is in transferring the sense of oppression. In the eyes of both Hitchcock and De Palma, oppression is synonymous with modernity, and both filmmakers become similarly obsessed with characters who push the boundaries regarding what is expected of a citizen—not just the murderers and crooks, but the protagonists who alienate themselves from others and use shady tactics as a means of uncovering the truth.



Dressed to Kill (1980)
October 27, 2014, 7:04 pm
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Director: Brian De Palma
3.5 Stars
Dressed to KillThe experience of watching Dressed to Kill can be summed up in the film’s true virtuoso sequence: a game of cat-and-mouse in the Metropolitan Museum that complicates the definitions of stalker and stalkee. A bored, sexually frustrated housewife (Angie Dickinson) sits next to a handsome, mysterious stranger on a bench and tries to get his attention by dropping her glove. When he abruptly leaves, she wonders what happened–was he offended by her visible wedding ring? She hunts him through several rooms of the museum until, somewhere along the journey, he begins following her and she grows terrified of him. De Palma’s film brings the viewer into a similar web. One is intrigued by the sexuality and the mystery and is driven to peer closer. It seems like a friendly game is being played until a climactic shot shows a group of madmen (substituting for the audience) hungrily looking down on the murder of a stripped woman. Whereas Hitchcock was plenty happy to please his voyeuristic audience, De Palma seems just as obsessed with punishing them, or at least making them feel dirty for enjoying what he puts on screen.



Scarface (1983)
April 3, 2011, 3:23 pm
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Director: Brian De Palma

Despite its shortcomings, one must admit that Scarface is one of the rare conceptually successful remakes. Updating the Depression-era Chicago setting to 1980s Miami in the aftermath of the Mariel Harbor boat lift, Brian De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone successfully give the movie new relevance while retaining the original’s anxieties regarding immigration. What they fail to do, however, is provide much of a counterpoint for this anxiety. While title cards enforce the fact that most of these Cuban immigrants were not criminals, the only Cubans we see in the film are despicable. Nonetheless, as a satire of capitalism run amuck, Scarface has its pleasures. When Tony complains about his increasing taxation whilst lounging in his mansion, one can only think of Stone’s later presentation of Wall Street criminals. The reason that Camonte appeals to me so much more than Montana, however, is the lack of narrative interest given to Pacino’s co-stars. So little is seen of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio that her final actions seem implausible (despite it being one of the more fascinating elements of Hawks’ 1932 vision), and as Montana’s trophy wife, Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t have a lot to do besides cocaine. Additionally, as intelligent a director as De Palma is, he doesn’t appear to think much of his audiences given his exaggerated punctuation of every plot development through camera zooms and music cues. While a moderately entertaining gangster saga, Scarface is unworthy of its reputation.