Sisters – Brian De Palma week

This is Brian De Palma week. Sisters is currently available on instant Netflix.

Sisters

WATCH: Sisters (1973) – Rated R

“Reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) sees model Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) commit murder in the apartment across the way and promptly alerts the police — who find no corpse or other evidence of the crime. Left to her own devices, Grace teams with private eye Joseph Larch (Charles Durning) to crack the case, with the trail leading to Danielle’s once-conjoined twin and a creepy mental asylum in director Brian De Palma’s disturbing shocker.”

“Did you know that the germs can come through the wires? I never call and I never answer. It’s a good way to get sick – very, very sick. That’s how I got so sick! Someone called me on the telephone!”

Brian De Palma both wrote and directed Sisters. He also cast two of his friends, Jennifer Salt and Margot Kidder as the leads. This is an early film of his and is a bit rough around the edges. He uses his split-screen a bit here (then a new technique) three years before his iconic use of it in Carrie.

Again De Palma is in Hitchcock mode here. He uses odd camera angles and tracking shots a la his role model. Bernard Herrmann, a frequent Hitchcock composer, provides a good score here.

Acting is a little uneven. Jennifer Salt underplays her role as the intrepid reporter allowing the other cast members to dominate the film. Margot Kidder is quite good as the mysterious Danielle. The show is stolen by the delightful Charles Durning as an investigator.

Obsession, yesterday’s film, is clearly the stronger mystery but Sisters certainly has its rough charms.¬† I recommend watching this because it is entertaining but not very highly because the twist is easy to guess and some of the third act shenanigans don’t make much logical sense.

People Watch: Look for Olympia Dukakis as Bakery Shop employee #2.

Obsession – Brian De Palma week

Okay here are some very late postings from last week due to the holidays. This is Brian De Palma week. Obsession is currently available on instant Netflix.

Obsession

WATCH: Obsession (1973) – Rated PG

“While vacationing in Italy, Michael Courtland (Cliff Robinson) spots a mysterious woman (Genevive Bujold) bearing an eerie resemblance to his late wife — who, along with his daughter, was killed 15 years earlier. Blinded by grief, Michael pursues the beautiful doppelganger, but winning her heart turns out to be a dubious prize. Brian De Palma helmed this unabashed homage to director Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Vertigo.”

Up until he made Scarface in 1983, almost all of Brian De Palma’s movies come off as homages to or extensions of Alfred Hitchcock’s work. Obsession is certainly no exception. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

In addition to directing, De Palma also wrote the story with Paul Schrader who wrote the screenplay. Strangely, Schrader eschews his usual focus on the seedy side of life for an old-fashioned if somewhat creepy mystery.

The story does build slowly but the payoff is quite worth it. An odd casting decision late in the film (to explain would be a spoiler) actually works quite well. A lot of De Palma’s camera angles and shot compositions are quite impressive.

Oddly Netflix did not spell either actors name correctly in their description. It is Cliff Robertson, not Robinson, who capably plays the male lead. That is Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben to those of you that don’t watch older movies. Genevieve Bujold wonderfully plays dual roles here as wife and mystery woman.

For the music, Brian De Palma wisely turned to Hitchcock veteran Bernard Herrmann. Obsession was nominated for an Oscar for Herrmann’s score. While not Herrmann’s best, it is quite haunting and lyrical as befits the tone of this film.

This is a very good mystery but is slow to get going despite starting with a kidnapping. The third act is wonderful and I highly recommend this film. One caveat: For some bizarre reason, instant Netflix’s transfer of this film ends abruptly with no credits so one is left wondering if that is really where the film ended.

People Watch: Watch for a much younger and blond (?!) John Lithgow as Michael Courtland’s southern-fried friend LaSalle.

Taxi Driver – Robert De Niro week

Augh! Pardon the delay in posting this as we’ve been having a few internet issues over the weekend. This week I’d like to celebrate one of our great American actors – Robert De Niro. Netflix has a slew of instant movies featuring De Niro including the Martin Scorsese classic Taxi Driver.

Taxi Driver

WATCH: Taxi Driver (1976) – Rated R

“Martin Scorsese crafts a violently prophetic, gripping vision of urban decay and insanity in which mentally unstable Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) drives a cab through the sleaziest streets of pregentrified New York City and befriends a child hooker (Jodie Foster). The groundbreaking film earned four Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Picture, Best Score, and for De Niro and Foster’s haunting performances.”

Thank God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk.”

Martin Scorsese’s camerawork and composition here is not as polished as most of his later works. This actually works for the film as too much trickery would have detracted from the raw power of this descent into madness. There is still some great cinematography of 1970s New York and a nice interior building 360 early on in the film.

The performances are excellent. Robert De Niro carries the film and almost every scene in the movie is centered on him. Jodie Foster’s supporting performance as the 12-year-old prostitute, Iris is superb – particularly coming from a child actor. Both were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances. Cybil Shepherd is wonderful as Betsy as is Albert Brooks in a non-comedic role as her friend Tom. Harvey Keitel was offered the Albert Brooks role but turned it down in favor of the much smaller role as Sport the pimp and he is superb.

Paul Schrader’s script is wonderful and logical up until the climax. He is excellent with scripts involving the seedy side of life (Hardcore, Rolling Thunder, Light Sleeper). Scorsese changed the roles of the pimp, the hotel manager, and the Mafioso to white people. This was a very wise decision because otherwise it would have seemed that Travis was simply a racist which would have blunted the whole thrust of the film. Reportedly Travis’ famous monologue in front of the mirror was ad-libbed by De Niro.

This was brilliant composer Bernard Herrmann’s last score. It is mostly composed of soft jazz with some sad soulful saxophone mixed in. With the exception of some of the post-denouement music which is a bit too jarring, his score here is excellent (as befits an Oscar nomination). Bernard Herrmann’s first job as composer was on Citizen Kane for which he was nominated for an Oscar. He is perhaps best known for his Harryhausen and Hitchcock films. Taxi Driver was dedicated to him.

This film is an absolute classic. You can view it as a harrowing descent into madness or simply as a treatise on loneliness. If you haven’t seen it yet and want to see an actor’s showcase then by all means I highly recommend this film. As for the very odd ending – remember that the story is told from Travis Bickle’s point-of-view and that the events following the denouement may have a rather different explanation.

People Watch: Martin Scorsese has a brief¬† but pivotal role as a psychotic passenger. Scorsese’s parents portray Iris’ parents in a photograph.

The Birds

Yesterday I praised Psycho and dissed Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. This combination of Hitchcock and nature must mean that today’s film is The Birds.

The Birds

WATCH: The Birds (1963) – “Chic socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) enjoys a passing flirtation with an eligible attorney (Rod Taylor) in a San Francisco pet shop and, on an impulse, follows him to his hometown bearing a gift of lovebirds. But upon her arrival, the local bird population runs amok. Suddenly, the townsfolk face a massive avian onslaught, with the feathered fiends inexplicably attacking people all over Bodega Bay”

The first thing to get out of the way is that while Psycho is a masterpiece, The Birds is not. The old-time special effects (rear-projection, etc.) look very dated but still better than much of what the Syfy channel movies offer. Tippi Hedren’s socialite is definitely one of those characters that exist solely in movies and this harms the beginning of the film and Rod Taylor doesn’t have a lot of depth here but Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette give good performances. The script bears only a passing resemblance to the Daphne Du Maurier story but is still scripted well by Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain). Long-time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrman is given a sound credit though there is no actual score. The lack of a score makes a number of scenes stand out – in particular the gathering of birds while the children sing in the schoolhouse, an excellent nailbiter of a scene and probably the best in the movie. There are a number of nice tense escalating setpieces right up until the ambiguous ending.

People Watchers: The little girl Kathy is played by a very young Veronica Cartwright (Alien).

AVOID: Fallen (1998) – While not bad and featuring a nice cast (Denzel Washington, Donald Sutherland, James Gandolfini, John Goodman, Elias Koteas). The musical theme of Time is on my Side is well thought out but far too overused (almost to the point of parody). There are waaaaaay too many POV shots of the demon. The end idea is intriguing but the ending is ridiculous – I’d describe why but I wouldn’t want to spoil it save to say that there are two very ridiculous parts about it. Basically you have everything you need for a really good movie but it was all overblown so it ends up being just okay.