As with the other great American directors who made their mark in the ’70s Altman, Ashby, Scorsese, Spielberg a Brian De Palma film has its own signature. Starting with slow-motion sequences, dreamy close-ups, and a pulse-pounding orchestral soundtrack (the basic palette of Hitchcock, in other words), De Palma blends in heavy ironic overtones, as well as subtle shadings of satire. He’s also notorious for seducing audiences with masterful action choreography and gripping suspense, and then betraying their confidence by delivering cruel, sick-joke endings. If you’re hip to the joke, a De Palma film provides an entirely unique pleasure; if not, you’ll probably walk out disgusted.
De Palma’s Snake Eyes is a movie that most people will hate, and with good reason. It has a preposterous plot, hammy performances, and a sudden climax that will strike some as a cheat. But Snake Eyes also has a gloriously kinetic first hour, and some juicy character vignettes. That may not be enough for the casual filmgoer, but devotees of a director’s work tend to take what they can get, settling for style when the substance is weak.
Snake Eyes stars Nicolas Cage as Richie Santoro, a corrupt Atlantic City homicide detective with a wife, a kid, a girlfriend, and a network of lowlifes greasing his palms. An old buddy, naval commander Kevin Dunn (Gary Sinise), gives Santoro ringside seats to a heavyweight championship fight at a casino, but the evening turns sour when the secretary of defense (whom Dunn was guarding) is assassinated.
This setup is all established in the bravura 15-minute tracking shot that opens Snake Eyes. De Palma stays on Cage’s face and body (occasionally panning over to what he’s seeing) as he moves through the arena, talks on his cel phone, shakes down a bookie, expends several hundred volts of nervous energy, watches the first round of the fight, and gets splattered with blood as the secretary is shot in the throat. Suddenly, Santoro senses an opportunity to help his friend and to get his face on television. He starts barking orders and handling the media, and as he reviews the reels of security tape, he determines that this was not the work of a lone gunman.
Cage overacts like crazy in Snake Eyes, but he keeps the picture moving, and his natural charisma overcomes his constant shouting. (Besides, his character is supposed to be a blowhard.) As Santoro untangles the conspiracy, he meets one by one with the principals, and Snake Eyes indulges in a series of Rashomon-like restagings of the assassination. Meanwhile, Cage’s eyes narrow as Santoro’s interest in honest police work is gradually rekindled.
Snake Eyes takes a wrong turn, though, once De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp reveal the identity of the conspiracy’s mastermind only an hour into the film. The focus shifts from what Santoro sees and hears to a split between Santoro, the mastermind, and their mutual quarry a mysterious eyewitness, played by Carla Gugino. The switch in perspective gives De Palma a chance to pull off some startling effects. He puts us behind Gugino’s myopic eyes, as she struggles to focus without her glasses. And as Santoro and the mastermind close in on her hotel-room hideout, De Palma gives us a marvelous overhead shot that travels from room to room, passing through walls.
Granted, these are the money sequences in a De Palma film the ones that have fans chuckling gleefully but they come at the expense of what had been a taut, compelling narrative. As long as De Palma and Koepp stick with the flawed Santoro and all the broken people he meets in his investigation, Snake Eyes has a real raison d’etre. Like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, the film uses a non-linear thriller format to explore lives of pain and degradation an interdependent society of losers. Once it turns into a routine (if stylish) game of cat-and-mouse, the sillier story elements half-assed coincidences, a sloppy master plan, unconvincing motivations, a convenient hurricane begin to wear down the viewer. The meticulously detailed mise-en-scène of the first hour is abandoned, and several story points seem to disappear, perhaps to the cutting-room floor. Cage’s expressionistic acting, meanwhile, ceases to be endearingly quirky and becomes downright dissonant.
It would be a mistake, though, to underestimate Snake Eyes completely (as most major critics have already done). The knock on De Palma has always been that he’s a soulless Hitchcock imitator, but while he’s employing Hitch’s techniques, De Palma touches on our relationship to cinema, and on the ways we reduce the flashpoints of our culture political scandals, war, murder, psychological theory to diverting entertainment. Even though Snake Eyes doesn’t follow through on its early promise, and it lacks a devastating summary image like The Killing’s final blizzard of money, De Palma does fiddle amusingly with the way we trust our own eyes when we should go to the videotape.
What excites a fan, though, is that Snake Eyes is the first “real” De Palma movie in years. His last film was Mission: Impossible, one of the slickly competent commercial pictures that De Palma can make when forced to; prior to that, he made Carlito’s Way, a technically dazzling crime saga with no thematic weight. These films are entertaining, but there’s nothing daring about them they don’t risk pissing off their audience. For all its unforgivable lapses in plot, Snake Eyes has the wit and, yes, style, of an original filmmaker, along with a sucker-punch ending that is completely in keeping with De Palma’s character. That may only mean something to cultists, but speaking as one, I was grinning like a fiend through most of the film. After all, snake eyes is only a losing roll if you haven’t bet on it.
Noah Baumbach’s debut feature, Kicking and Screaming, was a pleasant enough example of the Gen-X ensemble film, revealing a gift for comic dialogue and deadpan film technique within an undistinguished story. With Mr. Jealousy, the writer-director has honed his best instincts for ensemble casting and funny lines. But the film marks Baumbach’s maturation by adding an engaging and sometimes touching story about how making yourself the protagonist of your own life can become a damaging obsession.
Eric Stoltz, who had a small but memorable role in Kicking and Screaming, plays Lester, an aspiring New York writer with a record of destroying relationships with worries about his partners’ exes. When his current girlfriend Ramona (Annabella Sciorra) mentions that she used to date a now famous writer named Dashiell (Chris Eigeman), Lester feels so threatened that he joins Dashiell’s therapy group, assuming the identity of his friend Vince (Carlos Jacott). While Vince hopes to get some vicarious help by having Lester talk over his problems in group, Lester unexpectedly becomes Dashiell’s trusted confidant, and his crisis grows with his deception.
Mr. Jealousy takes place at some intersection where Whit Stillman’s New York meets Woody Allen’s. Baumbach’s thirtysomething characters speak in complex literary sentences gleaned from their extensive education, but endearingly, they sometimes lose their way in a subclause before the thought is complete. Lester and Vince are entertainingly self-deluded, in a way that’s particular to comedies about therapy groups: They make lots of ironic speeches about making progress and getting healthier. But Baumbach structures his farce so that, as a result of these sessions, the two men actually face the enemies they’ve constructed for themselves. If Lester sees his life as a New Yorker short story, complete with telling gestures and omniscient narrators, Baumbach shows us exactly how that perception makes him intellectualize his emotions. At the same time, though, the director uses that familiar narrative structure to bring Lester safely home.
Baumbach has assembled, in his two films, the core of a great ensemble. Stoltz adds subtle shadings to a role for which he’s well-suited; Eigeman manages to be the slimy voice-of-his-generation at one moment and a sincere regular guy the next; and Carlos Jacott comes up with at least two extended comic scenes that snowball hilariously. The extra touches, though, make all the difference in expanding the insulated world of the writer-director and his characters. Bridget Fonda, in a brief cameo as a shy beauty with none of the pretensions or social skills of Lester and his group, elicits such emotion in a few sentences that the audience realizes just how much is at stake in these characters’ search for happiness. Seeing themselves as the heroes of their private, tragic novels, they almost fail to discover the joy of being in a romantic comedy.
The Parent Trap both the original and the new remake by the filmmaking team of Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer has more than just a contrived plot: It has a downright cruel one. Twin daughters are born to a divorcing couple, who decide it would be best for all concerned if they split up the girls and never see each other again. The heartless (and stupid) plan is betrayed when the long-lost sisters meet at a summer camp. (Though one girl is from California and one from England, they go to camp in Maine for some reason.) Working as partners, they hatch a plan to switch places and get their folks back together.
This is goofy, manipulative stuff: Anyone who isn’t touched by a child meeting her father or mother for the first time is as callous as The Parent Trap’s screenwriters. It worked in the original, though, because of the bright performance by child star Hayley Mills. And it works in the remake too, because of the turn by newcomer Lindsay Lohan, who can not only do both a British and a California accent, but can also do a Californian doing a British accent (and vice versa). She’s cute and precocious, but she still behaves like a real little girl, not some miniature adult or stuffed toy.
This new Parent Trap is actually superior to the original, because all the performances are high caliber. Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson are attractive and charming as the parents in question (even though their child-custody arrangement remains baffling); also good are Simon Kunz as Richardson’s butler, Lisa Ann Walter as Quaid’s nanny, and Elaine Hendrix as the impeccably painted porcelain doll that has caught Quaid’s eye. All give their stereotypical comic characters a wonderful subtlety; they play the emotions of the story, rather than going for the broad farce and slapstick that often mar children’s movies.
This is a classy adaptation, devoid of kiddie toilet humor and cartoon violence; it features a fully developed story, and it takes its time setting up the premise and letting it unfold. Actually, at two-plus hours, it may take a bit too much time for younger kids, who are likely to get restless. Better for them to wait for video. In the meantime, preteen girls and nostalgic adults will enjoy the opulent settings (a Napa Valley vineyard and the London fashion world) and the bittersweet romance. Contrived, cornball, and cruel it may be outwardly, but beneath its glossy exterior beats a surprisingly humane heart.
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I always read your column BEFORE I watch the show anymore. It's better that way.
What's the other review you read?
This was the worse review I've ever read. Maybe you should quit this career path…