Brian De Palma is a film maker who covets the genius of other film makers, so much so that he reflexively duplicates their trade mark signature gestures as his own. This does occasionally result in some exciting film work, such as the staircase scene from "Battleship Potemkin" artfully crafted into De Palma's "The Untouchables".
More often, though, the unending of one homage after another homage, tributes, plagiarisms is not unlike a three year old's version of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; they are virtually unwatchable, dripping with references, abrupt and illogical in their construction. De Palma, in fact, seems far too often to contrive a story just to insert his neurotic virtuoso camera tricks. He desperately wants to be taken seriously, to be considered an artist .and yet the best he can do is occasionally approximate the contours of another film maker's inspiration. No can really watch "Blow Out" and not think of the two superior films that inspired it, "Blow Up" and Francis Coppola's ingenious Americanization of the film, "The Conversation"; both those film makers had an idea of what the trying to do. The Untouchables and Casualties of War do not succeed as film narratives because De Palma had good scripts he hadn't the chance to alter, "improve" on, nor had the liberty to ignore. He is a director whose body of work would be more impressive if could reign in his desire to short-cut his way to genius. De Palma seems to select what scenes he would like to plagiarize and then fashion a movie around them; that would be an interesting technique if it had better results, but it doesn't.
Saying that De Palma's style is "post- modern pastiche” is a nice way of saying that this director hasn't an interesting idea of his own. The tradition has been, and stubbornly remains, that younger artists are influenced and inspired by older artists; the younger artists, those few who will rise as being notable on their own terms, will imitate and then mold their influences with their own experience and sensibility. It's a compelling dialectic. De Palma's work is a good example of what is fatally wrong with the post modern method: take various scenes from other film makers and then does a puppet show.
Carrie, Casualties of War, The Untouchables and Carlito's Way a few are indeed fine movies, but one can say that they are the least "De Palma like" in the body of work. He does good work when he sticks works in service to a good script; he had the potential of being a very good "Hollywood hack", an underappreciated designation to those directors who take assignments and produce powerful movies that resists fashion and politics.
Perhaps he should have aspired to be Robert Aldrich rather than Alfred Hitchcock. De Palma revealed technical virtuosity, yes, but unlike those he admires, he could translate his personal quirks and issues into a compelling art. Scarface is a classic merely because it is glutted burrito of excess; true to a post modern nature, one cannot decide if it is intended as parody or critique. I doubt De Palma knew either, as the increasing extremes of debauched sex, violence and vulgarity achieves not catharsis but rather the opposite, apathy. The last few minutes, the climatic shoot out with Sonny's invitation to "say hello to his little friend", is wonderful, of course, but it is the only thing in the film worth talking about these decades later. It is simply bad movie made memorable solely because it was so expensive and garnish.
Casualties of War is one of DePalma's best films, a straight forward and powerfully told morality tale, highlighted with notable performances from Michael J.Fox and Sean Penn. De Palma has always been a master of moving the camera in virtuoso turns (or rather, someone who has mastered the virtuoso camera turns of others, i.e. Hitchcock, Eisenstein, et al), but he is too often a lousy story teller, replacing a tricky sensationalism for plausibility. Here, he gets the combination right, a crucial issue at hand--at what point do liberators fighting for an Essential Good become worse than the evil they think they're fighting?-- the right script , the right actors, a balanced trifecta that compels the would be maestro to keep his film making in balance as well.
There is not a wasted scene, not a gratuitous cut or splice to hijack this movie's power. Michael J.Fox does a credible job as a soldier with religious convictions that are in conflict with his Mission, who's perimeters, he finds, are being improvised and diminished, and Sean Penn is stunning as hyper-macho team leader whose loyalty for the good of the men under his command changes from Good Soldier to Concentrated Evil; his sense of morality is shattered and ground to dust and there is a gleaming insanity just behind those radiating blue eyes. What additionally comes into an articulate focus are De Palma's views on violence towards women at the hands of warped men. Rather too often in films, women seemed little more than witless innocents or scheming, sulking whores who were engineering their violent ends due to a variety of self-scheming schemes; leeches, blood suckers, vampires, debilitating things to be poked, shot, prodded with blunt instruments, drills, knives.
The director, a gifted technician with a conspicuous desire to sit among the greats in the Auteur Pantheon, seemed to have issues with women, issues that seemed to find only extreme resolutions. The ambivalent treatment of the misogyny made you wonder whether DePalma was an inept moralist who couldn't make his movies perform both as entertainments and moral inquiries, or if he was merely interested in the thrill of seeing women abused by disgruntled men. With Casualties of War, the focus turns the churning culture of men in war time, on a band of soldiers who recreate and embrace their loyalty only to one another in the field to the tragic exclusion of all else. DePalma lines up the scenes of escalating violence and decreasing reason, until Penn's character offers up a lone Vietnamese women for his men to rape, offered up like a cash reward for a job well done; this is more than a melodramatic turn according to a prefigured script, but an effective, disturbingly presented result of group thinking. The issues aren’t nuanced considerations of good versus evil and what appropriate and punishments should be meted out--it is a blunt, plain truth, the inflicting of pain by the powerful against the weak. This problematic director for once gets that across forcefully, artfully, unambiguously.
Writing at Salon.com, Louis Bayard turns in a cute piece defending that barnyard stinker Scarface, mustering up what reads like a strained enthusiasm for that movie's grinding, loud and bloody imposition on the senses. It's perfectly fine to find something interesting to talk about in films that otherwise stink on ice, such as the controlled formalism King Vidor gives to the Ayn Rand's proto-fascist film version of her novel The Fountainhead;the ridiculous politics and Vidor's visual elegance make the film watchable , not a little campy. It's a quality worth commenting on further. Bad is bad, though, and Bayard's love of the egregious Brian DePalma film cannot quite get out of the drive way. It's an old space-filling trick for a pop culture wonk to take up the case of a commonly derided example of mass-art and argue the hidden or forgotten virtues therein.
Lester Bangs was brilliant at inverting commonplace complaints and making the case for bands that would otherwise be swept off the historical stage, and time has shown that he was right as often as not, noticeable in his early raves for Iggy and the Stooges and the MC-5. But the trick is a stock ploy now, and the reversals of fortune have become a splintered, ossified rhetoric, and this defense of Scarface doesn't carry the weight to make what has to be Brian DePalma's most elephantine, graceless, absurdly baroque film into anything resembling a watchable entertainment. Even the fabled violence and allegedly "operatic" style, over the top as they are, no longer , if they ever did, jolt, shock or make us consider the effects of mayhem on the viewer, nor does it make us contemplate the nature of violence in American culture at large. All the other virtues, as intrinsic critiques of American greed, the cult of the individual, the flesh-eating glee of unconstrained capitalism, are all there, surely, but these elements are less examinations of causes of real world ills than they are pretexts for the leaden DePalma show piece stylistics where he see the director , again, mashing together camera strategies he's lifted from directors who work with a steadier hands.
Steady DePalma isn't, and Scarface drags and seems interminable despite its reputation for vulgarity and grizzly gun play. It just goes on and on and on still until the sheer tedious weight of the thing mashes you into the seat. One might say something of Al Pacing’s flame-throwing performance of Tony Montana, and here it is; even Oscar Winners can be wretched when left to their own devices, and Pacino without a good director or a decent script might as well be an antsy house cat clawing up the furniture.