Skip to main content

My true wife is my movie, not you.

De Palma
(2015)

If nothing else, De Palma, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary on the visionary director (“visionary” is an over worn adjective to daub on auteur-related movie posters, but if there’s one director who’s all about vision, it’s Brian De Palma) is a reminder of how few cinematic craftsman today possess a truly distinctive style. More than that, who embrace a distinctive filmic language; De Palma openly acknowledges his debt to Hitchcock, but quite rightly has a different take to those who accuse him of being little more than a copycat; the real surprise should be that he’s the only one who really followed and developed the form Hitch created.


For a piece on a master of the set-piece flourish, the meticulously, intricately-crafted tension teaser, Baumbach and Paltrow have settled on the most straightforward, linear approach possible, but it scarcely matters. Sit De Palma down and have him go through his career in sequence, anecdotalising the productions, the state of the industry generally and his own outlook on where he was and where he is. 


There’s much that’s familiar herein (his warped family background, in particular, including his father’s affairs that informed Dressed to Kill’s young protagonist, and how De Palma used to go and watch him, an orthopaedic surgeon, operate). What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer good-humoured exuberance of the man. He seems able to see the funny side of most things. Yet, while you can certainly see his twisted wit in some of his vehicles (any time he casts John Lithgow, in particular), give him something more expressly comedic or satirical (Wise Guys, Bonfire of the Vanities) and the results tend to come up short.


I think it was The Untouchables that first got me into De Palma, and I have to admit there are still several of his earliest pictures I’ve yet to get round to catching. Perhaps because I discovered him at the point of his studio renaissance, some of his earlier, unleashed horror-thrillers leave a more variable impression, sometimes absolutely working, sometimes excessive in the wrong ways, but always displaying astonishing virtuosity. I can appreciate both the arguments relating to the apparent misogyny in his narratives and his own well-thumbed excuse that women imperilled are simply more cinematically interesting (as to his confession that he likes to follow them around, well…), but his detours into more mainstream fare, be it the gangster or action genre, rather disprove the latter.


What De Palma rarely is as a director is boring (there are a few; for all its style, Obsession tends to have an anaesthetic effect on me – it may just be the Cliff Robertson factor). As he notes of his most controversial, critic- and censor-baiting period, “The fact that Pauline liked me made people argue about me constantly”. Kael was De Palma’s staunchest defender, and at times did seem to be pulling him singlehandedly through a minefield of his own knee-jerk devising (Body Double was precisely designed to inflame his most vehement critics).


De Palma: You have to know where everything is. How close is the jeopardy? I’m scrupulous about that.

In the era of shakycam (albeit, its proliferation isn’t quite as disruptive as it was at its zenith), every one of its adherents should be sat down à la Alex in A Clockwork Orange and forced to watch De Palma’s approach to action, because not only is he mesmerisingly distinctive in how sees space and juggles the different elements that comprise a sequence, he’s also entirely coherent in terms of geography. With often breath-taking results. As he says of his groundwork, “In my movies the run up goes on forever”. Take a gander at the prom queen scene in Carrie, or the art gallery dalliance in Dressed to Kill, the “Odessa Steps” in The Untouchables and the subway chase in Carlito’s Way, and prepare to be staggered by the bravura craftsmanship of his constructions every time.


It’s interesting to hear De Palma discuss his use of trademarks, such as how he discovered split screen didn’t work for action and his yen for Steadicam (in particular first using it for Blow Out, and also on executing that film’s famous 360 degree shot), but best of all are his anecdotes: on Orson Welles (he needed cue cards; De Palma, formerly in awe of the titan, considered “This is sloppy”) Bernard Herrman (“He was scary”), Cliff Robertson (Vilmos Zigmond backing the actor up to a mahogany wall and exclaiming, of his perma-tan, “You are the same colour as this wall! How can I light you?”), execs’ responses – to the downbeat ending of Blow Out (“They were appalled”), to Body Double generally (he had carte blanche “Until they saw it”) – Oliver Stone (De Palma had him taken off the Scarface set because he was talking to the actors), De Niro (surprisingly, not learning his lines on The Untouchables), Casualties of War generally (“Good old Sean” he says, of Penn’s “in the name of the art” mistreatment of Michael J Fox), Bonfire of the Vanities (he considers the movie is fine, “just don’t read the book”) Carlito’s Way (Pacino having finally had enough after having been forced to run around all night in a huge sweaty leather coat at the height of summer: “Al took the train home. He thinks you’re crazy”) his original ending to Snake Eyes (“Nobody thought it worked”), dealing with Mission to Mars’ special effects (“endless repetition”, and tipping his hat to them, but being unable to understand how Spielberg and Zemeckis do it). Oh, and how he finds car chases boring.


We also hear a steady stream of stoic disappointments at the failures of his pictures to strike a nerve with audiences: “I can’t make a better movie than this” (Carlito) “Nobody went to see it – it was a terrible disappointment” (Casualties). Certainly, he’s a director very much identified as relying on periodic hits to kick start the ever-lurking phantom of unbankability. However, it’s notable that many of his best works are those where he decided he had to do something in aid of such commercial clout (Carrie, The Untouchables); I do think he’s at his best when married with really strong material that isn’t of his own devising or predilections, the odd exception aside, even if in later years he came a cropper with a series of questionable high-profile choices (Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia).


The director’s also sanguine about where he is now (it’s five years since he directed,  and it was three when De Palma was made). He comments that 99% of those who try making movies are going nowhere, and “anybody who has a career, it’s a miracle”, that there’s nothing good about the Hollywood system, in terms of creativity. And, drawing on the example of Hitchcock, De Palma suggests that, in most cases, it is during their 30s, 40s and 50s that directors are at their peak, that it “physically wears you down, no question about it”. He’s probably right. There’s the occasional exception, sure (Mad Max: Fury Road), but even those who still churning them out (Spielberg, Scorsese, Ridley Scott) are often doing so with consistent technical skill but noticeably less passion or intent than hitherto. Still, I hope De Palma has a few more good pictures left in him, although like so many of his era, the difficulty is now more about getting the backing than a good idea.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.