Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 15: (De Niro + De Palma) x 4 and House of Cards

Since there's (currently) a five-month lag between me doing this and me writing it up,.I've been very curious to see just how this evens things out.

Mookie with the 20! It's his second, and exceptionally fortuitous because it lands him on the box set Arrow put out a few years back of the early comedies Brian De Palma made with Robert De Niro, and a real chance to make up some ground, because that's three movies, even if they're probably not great, and a chance to pick something good to go with it. The idea is to try and keep thematic, so I figured I'd go for another De Palma, initially not realizing that De Niro was in The Untouchables, which was on the "recent arrivals, have seen" shelf in a spiffy new 4K edition. So that was the rest of December sorted, with Untouchables finishing the year.

(It's kind of odd that the pair's paths only crossed again that once after those early films, given that they both spent the 70s/80s/90s in the same adult-focused crime/drama space. Is it a case of Hollywood being bigger than one may think or some friction?)

The year then starts with Bruce rolling a 9, squeaking just landing on a box set of his own, and landing on House of Cards.

A potentially interesting selection - but probably not enough to keep distance ahead of Mookie. Let's see!

The Wedding Party

* * (out of four)
Seen 11 December 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Brian De Palma may have still been in film school, or just graduated, when he contributed his part of The Wedding Party, and I'm mildly curious as to which part is his. The silent-movie slapstick? The portion where the groom's buddies are trying to get him to sneak out for a bachelor party? Or the seemingly contradictory material where they're trying to get him back after getting cold feet and connecting with the bride's little sister. None of it seems particularly like De Palma, but then, neither of the two other writer/directors made enough that one can use their styles to rule them out.

Not that it particularly matters, of course; the final result is what we've got to look at and that's just as all over the place as one might expect. You can sort of see what the trio (De Palma, Wilford Leach, and Cynthia Munroe) are going for, with groom Charlie (Charles Pfluger) initially eager to get married and be part of this large family that he'd never had before the whole thing becomes overwhelming, with visits from three exes played by the same actor (Richard Kolmar) not exactly helping in that regard. The preacher who will perform the wedding (John Braswell), is concerned that the groomsmen (William Finley & Robert De Niro) don't get into any sort of hanky-panky down at the tavern.

The big problem, beyond the stuff that kind of goes hand-in-hand with super-indie production, is that the filmmakers never really sell the transition from Alistair & Cecil trying to help Charlie escape to them trying to get him to the church on time. The whole back end of the film kind of collapses as a result, because for all that the bits with Charlie and Phoebe in the back half is maybe the most interesting part of the film, the middle is too slapdash to feel like everything would invert but just entertaining enough that we can't just throw it away. We can see why Charlie would flee, but not necessarily why his friends would stop him.

Sixty years on, it's kind of amusing to see who made it big and who didn't - of the directors, De Palma had a nice career, Wilford Leach (the others' film school professor) appears to have spent much of his time in theater, and Cynthia Munroe seems to vanish from the film world, as does star Charles Pfluger, though he's not bad at all. It's hard not to keep one's eye on De Niro now; he gives a more level performance than William Finley (who would pop up in De Palma's films every once in a while). Jill Clayburgh plays the bride, who really doesn't have much to do, though it seems like she'd be a bigger part of Charlie's angst.

The silent-comedy bits are fun, if odd fits with the rest of the movie, and one can see where the filmmakers are going most of the time. They are just very raw and learning as they go, not quite putting it together yet.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 December 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Much of Greetings was apparently improvised, tied together with a few repeated songs on the soundtrack, and like The Wedding Party notable fifty years later because it's Brian De Palma working with Robert De Niro before they hit it big, with the first-billed "star" someone who would not appear in another movie. It's more of an ensemble picture, though, and one can almost see De Palma and co-writer/producer Charles Hirsch zeroing in on De Niro as the one who could break out.

All three of the main characters are New Yorkers, just out of college, and, because it's 1968, subject to the draft, which they talk about avoiding by making themselves sound like racist anarchist communists on their intake. In the meantime, Paul (Jonathan Warden) goes on a series of computer dates; Lloyd (Gerrit Graham) becomes obsessed with the JFK assassination; and Jon (De Niro) matter-of-factly makes the jump from "aspiring filmmaker" to voyeur.

It's a flimsy sort of story, but this is the sort of film that is meant to be flimsy, a slice of life in an uncertain time with young men who can't particularly make any plans for the immediate future. Given its improvised nature, De Palma's most important role may not be as writer or director but as editor, getting these three sets of episodic stories to form some sort of whole even when they aren't crossing over. He finds a rhythm to this thing that doesn't necessarily make the bits reliably funny but does keep scenes moving to get them to a punchline that, while it may or may not deliver fully, is there and recognizable as a joke. De Niro is obviously the standout in the cast, often dry enough in his delivery that Jon actually being a weirdo can be kind of unnerving, while Gerrt Graham plays the opposite end of the spectrum, off the deep end early and blundering along. Jonathan Wisdom doesn't really carve something out in the middle of these two extremes, and his computer dates never really find the right balance between "this futuristic system is laughable and inhuman" and how he's a screw-up himself.

Paul's story is also poking at the future while the other two are reacting to the present, and that every single person is apparently on "the apps" kind of sets those scenes apart in terms of being dated. I sort of suspect that Greetings works better as a time capsule now than it did as something contemporary at the time; It's messy and amateurish, with no room to perfect a scene or setting, and goes off in weird directions, but it's also filled with uncertainty that is not paralysis. It's an example on how focusing on very specific strange cases can sometimes say more than finding the average situation that has the best story, especially when the times are chaotic.

Hi, Mom!

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

It's not the case that Brian De Palma never did comedy again after these three with De Niro and the Tommy Smothers vehicle that followed them, but once he showed he was really good at thrillers, he was doing them more or less full-time. As he should; he's really good at them, and the primary take-away from this movie is that comedy maybe isn't this guy's thing.

It's a sequel to Greetings, with De Niro's Jon Rubin back from Vietnam and picking up where he left off, trying to get paid for his voyeurism by calling it filmmaking but taking other entertainment-adjacent jobs to pay the rent and sort of leading one of his favorite subjects on about his true intentions. It's interestingly eyebrow-raising to see De Palma doing this, given the material that would define much of his later career; as much as he's acknowledging and unveiling his own fascination with this sort of behavior here, he and De Niro never really shrink from Jon being a kind of creepy weirdo, even if there's also a lot of "awkward guy who doesn't know how to interact with people properly after the war" there.

On the other hand, the film is also highlighting a lot of what De Palma does not do with the rest of his career - not just comedy, but social satire around racial issues. The last act of the film involves gleefully putting bougie white folks paying for an artistic experience through the sort of police brutality and profiling that Black folks get, and, man, is De Palma kind of not the guy to do this, even if he is genuinely outraged (and there's no reason to suspect he isn't), nor is De Niro's character the guy to center. It's a balancing act between spoofing the complacent white folks who want to consume art that says they're better than this and the radical artists who do their cause more harm than good, and the enthusiasm of De Palma and producer Charles Hirsch has them stepping on a lot of rakes.

Hi, Mom! is frequently a pretty funny movie, but where Greetings survives as an intriguing look back at the era's uncertainty, this one feels like the filmmakers defining themselves by trial and error all at once, and hitting more errors than you might expect.

The Untouchables

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

As mentioned earlier, it's kind of weird that it would be another 15+ years before De Palma and De Niro worked together again, and never again since, even though being one of Scorsese's regulars didn't keep the latter from working a lot. And De Niro's part, Al Capone, sort of winds up being a glorified cameo, a chance to orate and play to the balconies rather than seeming like he's really sparring with Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness.

It sort of takes a while to reveal that this is kind of the point; that while Costner's group is "untouchable" in terms of being immune to corruption, Capone is untouchable because he's risen so high and so integrated himself into Chicago's power structure, and Ness isn't exactly an unstoppable force compared to Capone's immovable object. For a while, the movie seems to be coasting on De Palma's exceptional craft and a bunch of entertaining supporting characters - Sean Connery won an Oscar for this and he's terrific, of course, but Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia fill out the team well enough to remind you this was a TV series and if Paramount took a fourth run at the franchise, they could do worse than try to build this sort of ensemble. Billy Drago is a great Frank Nitti. But Costner is kind of boring for a fair chunk of the movie, a flatter affect than usual, at least until it clicks that it's not Capone that's a threat to corrupt Ness, but Malone - that he loses more and more of his soul as he buys into Malone's perspective as law enforcement as war with no rules. He becomes a more effective cop, but maybe not a better one. De Palma, writer David Mamet, and others don't necessarily have an answer for that.

The filmmakers don't really wallow in that, though, creating a bunch of impressive action beats that impress the heck out of the audience while also being distributed in such a way as to make sure that the methodical nature of the police work isn't smothered by the rest (we all know that Capone was brought down by the tax code, and that's got to be part of it). It's a gorgeous-looking film staged meticulously, with a great Ennio Morricone score. For this watch, it's fun to check back in with De Niro and De Palma to see what they've become since their early years, and while this isn't typical, it's still plenty fun.

House of Cards '68

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Look through a Kino Lorber sale - either the big one or the ongoing "while supplies last page" - and you'll find a lot of movies like House of Cards - thrillers that never became classics, and were probably never going to, but were probably a lot of fun for their audiences at the time: Shot internationally, starring guys like George Peppard (who, between Breakfast at Tiffany's and The A-Team, was kind of a budget Lee Marvin type), giving work to European stars who might like to get some Hollywood money and letting guys like Orson Welles slum it a little because they're international draws. They're kind of forgettable, meant to do okay in a lot of places, play on TV, and be a line on résumés or a title in parentheses when folks go to their next job.

But they can be pretty entertaining, as this one is, a shaggy right-person-in-the-wrong place story in which Peppard's expatriate drifter Reno Davis is hired by a widow (Inger Stevens) to provide a masculine/American example to her son, only for it to be revealed that the family she married into is part of a Nazi cabal, leading them to flee to Rome with the help of some of Reno's disreputable friends in the hope of freeing the boy being held hostage and exposing the conspiracy. It's a mess, story-wise - the screenplay apparently excises the tarot cards containing a list of conspirators that gave the original novel its name - and both Peppard and Stevens were good-looking, amiable screen presences but not the sort of star that can overwhelm the story's absurdity.

On the other hand, everyone involved is very capable, including director John Guillermin, who was the equivalent of a dependable pulp writer, and keeps things moving, letting the cast show some charm but being occasionally vicious when called for. He makes good use of locations in Paris, Rome, and various other European locations for action that still look solid fifty years later. It's not necessarily a great movie, or one that you need on a shelf, but it would be fun to have show up on TV throughout the 1970s.

Mookie makes his move! How's it look?

Mookie: 56 stars
Bruce: 57 stars

And just like that, this is a game again.

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