Untouchables, The (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Special Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is assigned to work with cops in Chicago to deal with the flow of illegal liquor and violence during the Prohibition. Everybody knows that Alphonse “Al” Capone (Robert De Niro) is ultimately in charge of importing and distributing alcohol to and around the country, but the police and others in power are either too afraid to stop him or are being paid to keep quiet. Agent Ness, therefore, thinks it is necessary to form his own team (Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia), men of the law with whom he can trust, to bring down the head gangster.
Based on the screenplay by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, “The Untouchables” is a good-looking action-thriller with a number of memorable set pieces that are certain to entertain. What the picture lacks, however, is complexity in terms of characterization. Though the demarcation between the good and the bad guys are well-defined, there is little cross-over in terms of how they think and the decisions they must make to achieve a goal. Thus, when a supposedly dramatic moment in which a character must choose between upholding the law versus personal vengeance, the dramatic gravity appears slight.
More than a few may argue that Costner is robotic in playing the lead—but I disagree. I enjoyed that it is difficult to read him at times, Costner playing Agent Ness almost guarded. After all, he is a stranger in the city and he has been assigned an important task of taking down one of the most visible criminals in the country at the time. I did not see his performance as robotic or wall-like; rather, the character has a lot to accomplish but he does not quite know where to start and so he covers it up by looking composed and professional. He wants to gain the respect of those who doubt what he can do.
De Niro’s performance is good but the character is not well-written. I found this Capone to be cartoonish—with only one really good scene involving a baseball bat. Mamet does not allow the character to do very much other than to look polished and sound sinister every time he must make a speech. The more interesting villain is Frank Nitti (chillingly played by Billy Drago), one of the henchmen who we cannot wait to get his comeuppance.
The action scenes make an imprint because they unfold like a thriller. Particular standouts include the station and the baby stroller, a rooftop chase, the raid at the border between the U.S. and Canada. De Palma employs uncomfortable pauses during critical moments. Just when we are ready to take the punch, he delays just a bit to catch us slightly off-guard. He does this time and again but it does not get old because there is almost always a bit of variation to keep the approach fresh.
The clothes, the sets, the hairstyles, and other elements designed to summon the 1930s are carefully picked out. Though they are easy on the eyes, they are never distracting. Couple the images of the past with a modern action-thriller score, one creates an interesting dichotomy. Although some may disapprove of the background music, I found it fitting considering the off-beat use of camera angles and pacing of action scenes.
“The Untouchables” would have been a more complete experience if we had gotten to know Agent Ness’ partners beyond what they can do superficially or their expertise. They are, however, given some memorable lines, particularly of Connery’s character giving advice to the federal agent in terms of what he should be willing to do or cross to capture the seemingly untouchable Al Capone.
★★★ / ★★★★
After appearing on a game show called “Peeping Tom,” Danielle (Margot Kidder), a model and a some time actress, decides to go to dinner with her co-star, Phillip (Lisle Wilson). The date is going smoothly until they are interrupted by Emil (William Finley), Danielle’s ex-husband, who insists that she go home with him immediately.
The next morning, Grace (Jennifer Salt), a reporter for The Staten Island Panorama, notices something strange going on across her apartment. She sees Phillip writing “HELP” in blood on one of Danielle’s windows so she calls the police immediately. But when Grace and two cops search Danielle’s place, there is no body to be found nor is there other evidence that an act of violence had taken place.
“Sisters,” directed by Brian De Palma, is an effective chiller with a healthy balance of camp, suspense, and intrigue. It is apparent that the director enjoys capturing Kidder on film because of her physical beauty along with the heavy French-Canadian accent she employs for her character. There is a certain air of tranquility when the actress’ face is front and center, talking about whatnots, her skin glowing.
Contrast Danielle’s delicateness and elegance to Salt’s self-assertive Grace, her name so ironic and yet so amusing in her own way because she knows what she wants and how to get her way exactly. At times she gets so pushy, she has no problem telling everyone how to do their jobs, from the cops sent by the station to the private detective (Charles Durning) hired by her employers.
Most tense sequences involve the missing dead body. Whenever the camera observes in and around the apartment in question, there is a growing sense of dread, accompanied by a nicely paced suspenseful score by Bernard Herrmann. It is difficult to deny that a material is good when we are given the knowledge where the body is located but we still bite our lips at the slightest possibility of error.
Admittedly, there are actually moments when I did not want the body to be found just so that the tease would last a little bit longer. I was tickled by Grace’s suspicions. It is like watching a great game of hide-and-seek only there is absolutely no chance of the person hiding will jump out of his or her spot because, well, he or she dead. Another masterful trick in Brian De Palma and Louise Rose’s screenplay concerns a sudden shift of interest. While the first half focuses on the corpse, the second half is more about identity and the questions surrounding truths and lies.
However, a critical misstep of the film is the employment of plot conveniences such as conversations suddenly turning into gargantuan hints, possible red herrings, designed for us to make sense of the increasingly bizarre mystery. While it is understandable that seeds are required to be dispersed so that we do not feel cheated by the eventual twists later on, more obvious clues are not necessary.
“Sisters” uses split-screens well. When the technique is used, my eyes are like ping pong balls because both sides of the screen offer something worth seeing. Since my eyes and brain are always involved, it never feels like there is a wasted moment.
★★ / ★★★★
Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz), having been homeschooled until her deeply religious mother (Julianne Moore) was forced to send her to school, gets the shock of her life when she notices blood coming out of her while showering in the girls’ locker room. In total fear that she is dying, she screams for help but instead of her peers trying to help her out, they laugh at her confusion. Chris (Portia Doubleday) even goes as far as to record the incident and posts it online for the rest of the school to see. Carrie becomes a laughingstock. Chris gets suspended and is out for blood.
Is Kimberly Peirce’s remake of Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” based on the novel by Stephen King, a necessary one? No, it is not. However, it does not mean it is without anything worthwhile or entertaining to offer, from a pair of characters with surprising human elements to them to gruesome deaths that left my mouth agape.
Despite special and visual effects being allowed to run amok, Gabrielle Wilde and Ansel Elgort, playing a popular high school couple who grow to care about Carrie, steal the show. There is a humanity to Sue and Tommy that not even the title character possesses. Because Sue feels guilty for contributing to Carrie’s misery, she convinces Tommy to ask the shy girl to the prom. Though Tommy insists on taking his girlfriend, taking Carrie is not a chore because he knows—and we know he knows—that his alternative date is a person of substance. If this had been a straight-faced high school drama, I would have been equally engaged—perhaps more so. I like it when teenagers who happen to be popular in high school are given some depth; it is too easy to put a target on their backs. The paranormal aspect, in some ways, functions as a distraction.
Floating books, levitating beds, and other psychokinetic displays are a bit overdone. This comes at a cost. For instance, during the first scene, Carrie’s powers are already front and center: objects moving by themselves, lights flickering when the girl gets upset. The story is set during modern times. Are we really supposed to believe that no one is able to put two and two together? That is, that Carrie has special abilities?
This piece is critical because Carrie is supposed to be an outcast. However, if I had seen someone moving objects using his or her mind, I would want to be his or her friend. In other words, the picture, despite being connected to paranormal phenomena, lacks logic. Therefore, it might have been better off having Carrie’s powers start off in subtle way and then a gradual escalation until the famous prom scene.
The final twenty minutes had me engaged. I found it amusing that even though I knew what to expect, I remained excited to see certain people getting their comeuppance. Still, though Moretz does a good job portraying loneliness and fear, she never achieves the necessary level of menace to make a real fearsome character. What makes Sissy Spacek such a great Carrie in the 1976 version is that we completely buy her as someone who is vulnerable but slightly dangerous, perhaps even off-kilter. The gap in performance is so vast that it is like comparing a flustered kitten to a lioness.
“Carrie,” based on the screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is light entertainment if nothing else is playing or if one is doing chores around the house. There is a sweetness to what Carrie and Tommy come to share but nothing else is especially noteworthy.
Blow Out (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★
In introductory Neurology courses, we were taught that our brain filters out most of the information our senses absorb. That is why, for example, when we’re in the middle of a big city during rush hour, most of the sounds tend to blend together. The only sounds our brain process, at least in a conscious level, are the ones we will ourselves to pay attention to or a sound that is really loud to the point where our brain translates it as something threatening. Our relationship with sound was tackled in a smart and mature way in “Blow Out,” written and directed by Brian De Palma, about a soundman named Jack Terry (John Travolta), who recorded an assassination of a potential presidential nominee as the car skidded off the road and plunged into the icy river. Jack managed to rescue Sally (Nancy Allen), but the police wanted to cover up the fact that the political figure, married and with kids, had a female escort. Rumors about the politician drinking and driving spread like wildfire but Jack wanted to reveal the truth. The film wore its influences on its sleeve. The more serious side, the spying scenes, reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.” On the other hand, the more comedic side was in the form of a slasher flick à la John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as we saw the murders from the killer’s perspective. The funniest running joke involved the filmmakers’ inability to correctly dub the scream of an actress who was about to get stabbed in the shower. The B-movie director and his associates were stuck in a Goldilocks and the Three Bears conundrum. The women hired tend to have screams that were either too deep or too shrill. Both sounded ridiculous and laughable without, but especially with, the shower scene image. Even though it didn’t have anything to do with the big picture, I was glad that De Palma didn’t remove those scenes. It showed me that he was confident with his work. The comedic scenes were solid tension-breakers and they never wore out their welcome. The film was almost obsessive with its images. Only in the last thirty minutes did we see the assassin’s face (John Lithgow) straight-on. And when we did, his dark intentions and strange fixations filled every frame. He moved like an animal; he knew about timing–when to hold back and when to go for the jugular. But the assassin’s meticulous nature was somewhat familiar. We saw it in Jack as he rewinded his tapes over and over again to find the most minute details of the crime. We learned about his past and his redemption arc came in the form of Sally, a girl who never watched the news because it was too depressing. He loved her but I loved that I wasn’t sure if she loved him back. I knew the film did a wonderful job because it made me want to know more. The ending was powerful but far from heavy-handed. When it comes to exposing the truth, sometimes you win some, sometimes you lose some.
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
★ / ★★★★
Dr. Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija) was on the plane to the United States after he discovered a virus named Chimera, fatal to its host within twenty hours of contact. However, the only way to transport the virus safely was to inject it inside a living person. The plane never made it to its destination. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was assigned by his superior (Anthony Hopkins) to recruit Nyah (Thandie Newton), a professional thief, so that she could reconnect with Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), former beau and rising international terrorist. Incidentally, Ambrose used to double for Hunt during missions back when he was still an IMF agent. He’d gone rogue and he planned to profit from the virus by forcing a pharmaceutical company CEO (Brendan Gleeson) to surrender his company. Based on the screenplay by Robert Towne and directed by John Woo, “Mission: Impossible II” was everything Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” was not: gone were the atmospheric paranoia that kept the characters from fully trusting each other, the heart-pounding scenes in which silence was successfully executed to attain the highest levels of suspense, and the thrilling possibility that anyone could drop dead at any time. Instead, we were subjected to more hand-to-hand combat, slow motions that featured Cruise’ well-shampooed and well-conditioned hair, and forceful, supposedly meaningful, glances between Hunt and Nyah, both of whom shared no chemistry. I wouldn’t have a problem with the direction the filmmakers wanted to take if more thought was put into it. The elements of great drama, a bridge to a solid action movie with a heart, were certainly there. Nyah was trapped between two men, obviously attracted to her, who used to work for the same team. But how were Ethan, not as Hunt the IMF agent, and Sean, not as Ambrose the criminal, different and similar to each other? The closest we got to getting to know them was toward the end when they tried to kill each other from their motorcycles. Ambrose knew how Ethan worked and processed information given that they went through the same training. There should have been more scenes when Ambrose took advantage of the fact that he knew who he was up against. Ethan, on the other hand, didn’t know much about Ambrose. He saw the man as just his double. It would make sense if he took a while to get accustomed to his adversary. Furthermore, there was a duality involving Greek mythology: Chimera, a monster with a head of a lion and a tail of a serpent’s head, and Bellerophon, a hero most famous for slaying Chimera. Incidentally, Chimera was the name of the virus and Bellerophon was the name of the cure. But how was Chimera and Bellerophon related to Ambrose and Hunt, respectively? The film missed another opportunity to further explore its characters independent of blazing guns and egregious slow motion montages. What bothered me most was the script seemed desperate to turn Ethan Hunt into James Bond. Doing something different for a sequel does not mean it’s acceptable to be disloyal to the original character. It means giving us something unexpected but still hanging onto his core, the reason why we rooted for him in the first place.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Phelps (Jon Voight) and his American spies (Tom Cruise, Emmanuelle Béart, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Emilio Estevez) were assigned in Prague to intercept a disk from a terrorist before a trade was made. The disk contained the aliases of undercover agents in Europe. If coupled with another disk, bearing the real of names of the IMF agents, important long-term missions would be compromised. But something went wrong in Prague. Phelps and his agents ended up dead with the exception of Ethan Hunt (Cruise). Kittridge (Henry Czerny), an IMF operative, was suspicious and believed that Hunt was a double agent. Like a pest inside a controlled system, he was to be captured and exterminated. Based on a television series by Bruce Geller, “Mission: Impossible,” directed by Brian De Palma, was a tense and atmospheric spy film but it wasn’t afraid to jump into cheekiness when it came to the dialogue and physically demanding stunts. As a result, coupled with a handful of creative twists and turns, it was very entertaining to watch. The best scene involved Hunt breaking into the CIA vault with the help of disavowed agents (Ving Rhames, Jean Reno). The way the trio handled complicated hurdles in order to prevent triggering the pesky alarm was suspenseful because it turned the viewers’ expectations upside down then turning it right back up just when we think we had it all figured out. I was particularly impressed with the small details. Hunt and Krieger had to crawl in the vents before getting into the room of interest. When Hunt slowly descended in the room, his arms were actually covered with dust and grime throughout the entire relentless, breathless, soundless mission. Even though there was something silly about the way it all unfolded, like the CIA analyst (Rolf Saxon) having to go in and out of the restroom while Hunt and his team extracted information from a computer, that level of attention to detail was a small but important reminder that the filmmakers respected the project as well as their audiences. Another scene that stood out, for a different reason, was the train sequence. The way the score was piled on top of one another as danger increased then capping them off with the movie’s main theme as the tension reached a peak was executed elegantly. It’s impossible not to feel roused when that classic theme blasts through the speakers. The film’s main criticism was it got confusing due to a combination of its tech talk, spy vocabulary, and plot twists. If a person takes a bathroom break while the movie runs, he ends up having no idea what’s happening when he returns. But that’s what I loved about it because it opted to challenge instead of allowing us to passively sit and fall asleep. Sitting through it was like examining a detailed chain and to understand the big picture required a bit of autonomy, to think and weigh the possibilities that maybe the person we trusted initially was a dire mistake. Since it was involving not merely on a superficial level, we could still feel the endorphins working even after the big explosions.
Micmacs à tire-larigot (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Bazil (Danny Boon) grew up as an orphan because his father was killed by a bomb. On an unlucky night while working in a video store, he was hit on the head by a stray bullet. However, he wasn’t killed despite the fact that the surgeon left the bullet lodged in his skull. A couple of months later, the unemployed Bazil teamed up with strange individuals with even more unconventional talents to bring down two arms dealers (André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié) by setting up a series of pranks that would drive them out of business. Bazil wanted to avenge his father’s death and what had happened to him by eliminating weapons used to kill. “Micmacs,” covered in sleepy yellow glow, was a droll comedy with spoonfuls of interesting imagery. I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time and effort to get into its story. I found out that the more I tried to figure out the plot and where it was going, the more I ended up feeling confused about why events transpired the way they did. A third into the picture, I decided to sit back and just enjoy the ride. Almost immediately, I found myself entertained with the way the dysfunctional family incorporated their talents to spy on the arms dealers. Each scene had its own level of excitement because the gadgets the characters used were essentially scraps from a junkyard. Imagine kids retelling their version of Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” with objects they found around the house. It was impressive (and amusing) in its own way because the filmmakers wished to showcase their many inspirations, mostly silent films with comedic edge, from under their sleeves. I also enjoyed the way the various characters communicated to each other. Because they were so strange, sometimes a wink during awkward first impressions or a nudge in order to direct attention to a unique invention or a smirk at the dinner table was enough to portray their thoughts and feelings. “Micmacs à tire-larigot,” directed with great imagination by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, wouldn’t fail to put a smile on someone’s face because of its whimsical and bona fide sense of humor and creativity in terms of revealing the illusion between our expectations (what we could hear, see, and feel) and other possibilities which weren’t necessarily transparent to us. Despite its common angle of a dysfunctional family, members of which were unaccepted by society, coming together and working toward a common goal, there were plenty of small twists so the material felt refreshing. I admired the film’s final image of a dress, with a help from a machine, looking like it was dancing with posh and grace. It made me feel like a child again because my eyes were so transfixed at its movements. It was like watching a magic trick.