Hi, Mom! (Brian De Palma, 1970)

Hi, Mom! has three distinct narrative threads, none of which adhere to a logic within the narrative. Instead, they come together rather elegantly as a critique of upper middle-class New York. In many ways, despite the film’s comedic tropes, Hi, Mom! is dauntingly depressing. The effect permeates from its opening shot, through the first-person perspective of Jon Rubin (Robert De Niro) – a young man who is attempting to rent out an apartment. He confronts the landlord, whose belly protrudes from under his shirt, and asks to see an apartment. Begrudgingly, the landlord presents Jon and the audience to a room in complete disarray, with broken furniture and fixtures all over the place. Yet the landlord refuses to acknowledge the poor condition of the room, and hardly budges on the rent. At this point, the audience is fully entrenched in the dingy environment of the film, with De Palma successfully displacing us from our comfort zone and immersing us in a world of filth and squalor. He lightens the mood sporadically, particularly through his eclectic soundtrack selection. But one has to question if these attempts at lightening the mood are genuine or rather meant to satirize the matter-of-fact nature of Rubin’s smutty journey.

The three narrative strands that remain relatively loose involve Rubin videotaping his neighbors from across the street, his involvement in a black student movement, and his acceptance of middle-class values and immediate rejection of them. The black student movement aspect of Hi, Mom!  is the most politically charged I’ve seen De Palma, wherein he provides an extended video sequence entitled Be Black, Baby. Here, we see a theater-production shot in a documentary style, where upper middle-class Caucasians are led into a large home to be given a crash-course into what it is like being black. They are subject to brutal humiliation, with De Palma not pulling back any punches. It’s only at the end of the segment, following severe acts of brutality, do we see a testimonial that releases tension to some degree.

Despite the interesting ideas that Be Black, Baby presents, the way in which the three narrative arches identify with each other escapes me. There are formal qualities to each arch that immerses the audience in a sort of perverse position, wherein we are forced to view things from Jon Rubin’s perspective. But Rubin’s perspective is diminished as each arch goes on – the opening segment where he is enter the adult film industry is largely first-person, while the other two segments are framed in a less Rubin-focused way. The beginning and end are particularly interesting because they are framed similarly, but with Rubin and his camera no longer being the eye. Have we successfully displaced Rubin? It’s an interesting idea, but it’s unclear as to where I, as an audience member, stand. The effect is certainly thrilling though, with this being De Palma’s most immersive film that I’ve seen.

Rating: 7/10

Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993)

Carlito’s Way offers a far more complex and interesting portrait of rising above corruption than what De Palma provided in Scarface. The two films follow a very similar arc, though it’s in structure and pacing that Carlito’s Way is far superior. The film begins where it ends; with Carlito (Al Pacino) narrating what seems to be his death. The narrative then begins with Carlito being released from prison after five years, vowing to lead a chaste and legitimate life. Immediately placed back in his old neighborhood, Carlito discovers that it’s easier said than done, as he is in the center of a violent shoot out that claims the life of his nephew (who notes that Carlito is seen as a local hero). Carlito eventually opens a club with another financial backer named Saso, where his attempts to legitimize his life are met with other obstacles – a cocky young gangster named Benny (John Leguizamo) seeks approval (and revenge) after an encounter with Carlito. Meanwhile, Carlito contends with his doper lawyer (Sean Penn) and attempting to rekindle a relationship with his ex lover (Penelope Ann Miller).

A lot goes on in the film, yet De Palma rarely misses a beat. He manages to pump so much life into the scenery, making for an extremely entertaining and viscerally engaging picture. So many genres blend together seamlessly through the film, being part love story, part revenge drama, both of which are mashed with themes of loyalty to friends and family. In a lot of ways, the film is a precursor to something like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (there is a night club scene in Carlito’s Way that reminded me of Anderson’s virtuoso opening scene in Boogie Nights). The film’s final act borrows from Melville’s Le Samourai , with equal results. Given how much is going on in the film, it’s a wonder that it functions at all – yet it functions as both a genuinely thrilling Hollywood escapist film and an excellent formal exercise in filmmaking.

8/10

Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma, 2002)

Visually underwhelming and oddly structured, Femme Fatale still makes an earlier De Palma film like Body Double obsolete. De Palma’s sensibilities are at the forefront, wherein he utilizes everything that I’ve seen so far from his previous work into one piece of sustained hyper erotic and thrilling film. The narrative is a bit all over the place and largely incidental to the way in which the film is constructed.

In a lot of ways, the film is heavily dependent on its twist in order to justify some of its previous actions. Such reliance on a narrative device can sometimes ruin an experience for me, but with Femme Fatale, I felt that the twist reflected something that was necessary in expanding the moral integrity of its lead character, played by Rebecca Romijn. It’s big twist ending also serves to alter the significance of the entire film – extending its meaning beyond a revenge thriller, but into something about the impact of choices and their everlasting effects.

7/10

Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)

Continuing my on-and-off look at De Palma’s filmography, Sisters falls somewhere in the middle pack of films that I’ve seen from him. Technique takes precedence, as De Palma relies on split-screen as a means to gather a larger sense of the world at hand. It works more like a novelty than a necessity to the narrative, but I can’t argue that it’s an interesting idea in concept.

The film’s narrative combines elements of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Rear Window, and I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. As much as Sisters reminded me of certain things, it doesn’t reach the level of any of those previously mentioned films. I had enjoyed the film’s premise and technique up until the final act, where the reality of the situation was called into question. Typically, this wouldn’t be much of a problem for me, but I felt that De Palma had devoted a particular amount in creating a suspenseful situation that to back track into such a wildly outrageous conclusion was a bit of a cop-out. Still, the events preceding the unfortunate finale were top-notch and genuinely suspenseful. De Palma was obviously still working out the kinks of his style, and as unrefined as this may be, I still enjoyed it.

6/10

Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)

Similar to my reaction to Dressed to Kill, I found Blow Out to be the sort of film the relishes in its B-movie sensibilities and grit, while being a richly competent directorial effort. The way this film is put together is incredibly smart. Tension wrests in the most mundane situations, such as when Jack Terry (John Travolta) attempts to piece together the sound of an accident with images he clipped out of a magazine. Terry merely sits, flipping switches and rewinding tape, until both he and the audience connect the pieces together. It’s an exceptionally rewarding experience; one that is oddly meshed with a seedy underworld that I gather is a De Palma trademark.

It doesn’t quite trump the glee I had while watching Dressed to Kill, but Blow Out edges that film out in its sharp character development. Travolta in particular, reminded me of Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac – the sort of obsessive, sleep-ridden character who seeks personal justice as a means of proving something to themselves. Though with Travolta’s character, his very occupation is used as a backdrop to establish that he has a score to settle – lives to save, people to avenge. In that way, it really does come across as one of his best roles. Nancy Allen is adequate as Sally – the perpetual damsel in distress. The screenplay gives her quite a bit to work with, but honestly, I found her acting to be a bit too over-the-top and derivative.

Nevertheless, De Palma’s stock with me continues to rise. He brings a unique flair for aesthetics and characters, while presenting his world of grime and decay with unusual and effective framing methods. He’s obviously influenced by Coppola and Hitchcock, but the way in which he manipulates their sensibilities with his own is a delightfully lurid marriage.

8/10