Archive for Brian DePalma

They Go Boom #2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2018 by dcairns

The second film in our accidental Vilmos Zsigmond/Nancy Allen double feature, theone actually shot by Vilmos, was, of course, Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT, which is one of his NON-Hitchcockian thrillers. It meshes BLOW UP and THE CONVERSATION, Chappaquiddick and the JFK assassination, a few good ideas and some great execution with a lot of stupid ideas and a little stupid execution… as a political thriller it’s missed the bus to Pakulaville, but it does sport a charming and unaffected performance from John Travolta. I like some of his affected perfs too (American Crime Story!) but it’s interesting to see him looking and sounding human. He does have one terrible bit though…

We open with a film-within-a-film —  a slasher movie which we’re meant to find cheesy, yet De Palma can’t resist serving up long, bravura steadicam shots which kind of confuse the issue — parody cheese or real cheese? Also, this is the only bit where Pino Donaggio’s score works at all — it’s a kind of imitation Morricone/Goblin sound, again making the exploitation nonsense seem more distinguished than we’re meant to find it. From here on, EVERY TIME Donaggio crashes the soundtrack, it’s ruinous. I love love love his DON’T LOOK NOW music, but everything he did for BDP is noxious, especially the PSYCHO strings in CARRIE. Come to think of it, CASUALTIES OF WAR is a defensible film until the final scene where Morricone destroys it with syrup. De Palma has great taste in composers but lousy taste in music, it seems.The bit where Travolta is recording wind sounds at night is just gorgeous — ridiculous splitscreen/diopter shots, macros closeups of recording kit, rich sound design and a stunning location. The fatal “accident” outcome of this scene — a car’s tyre explodes and it crashes into the river, drowning a political hopeful and nearly killing his girl-of-the-moment — is the least interesting thing about it, but that’s OK.

From here on in, the film is in big trouble. BDP has written a nitwit role for his wife and, credit where it’s due, Nancy Allen totally commits to playing it to the hilt. She has concussion/shock when we first meet her, but when she recovers she just gets worse. Travolta’s solicitude for her character is endearing, but inexplicable, and this is going to kill the film’s ending.De Palma hasn’t got half enough story to make a feature film, so he pads it out two ways — he inserts an irrelevant flashback of Travolta working as a sound man for the cops, and he shows his baddie, John Lithgow (yay!), killing a couple of women, once as a case of mistaken identity when stalking Allen, once to suggest the action of a serial killer so that when he eventually does kill Allen, the investigators will be confused. Obviously, killing three women is riskier than killing one or two, as Lithgow eventually learns, but we can’t ask for De Palma thrillers to make sense.

The surveillance flashback is a way for De Palma to exorcise the memory of PRINCE OF THE CITY, which he was all set to direct before for some reason getting kicked off it and replaced by Sidney Lumet. But then Lumet got kicked off SCARFACE and DePalma took over that one, so they’re even. (See also: William Goldman was pissed about Bryan Forbes redrafting his work on THE STEPFORD WIVES, but got to doctor Forbes’ script for CHAPLIN in revenge.) The only effect of this backstory is it makes the police reluctant to help, a device BDP had already used for Jennifer Salt’s journalist in SISTERS. At this point, he’s not so much recycling Hitchcock as himself.

The movie further stretches credulity by having Travolta rephotograph frame enlargements of a Zapruder-type film printed in a news magazine, which shows the “accident,” and rephotograph the pics on an animation rostrum, creating a new film which magically syncs with his sound recording (using the crashing car’s impact with the water as sync plop). None of this is technically very plausible, but it’s accomplished largely without words, and is fun to watch.In Mark Cousins’ Scene by Scene interview with Kirk Douglas, the crumbling legend is shown a scene from BDP’s THE FURY, and briefly covers his eyes. Asked about it afterwards, he says “I don’t like my face” — not, I think, an expression of modesty or self-loathing, just an honest response to his director making him look silly in slomo. Similarly, Travolta’s excellent work is marred horribly by 100fps shots of him HUFFING — puffing out his cheeks and expelling air from his lips, making them ripple like thick wet carpets being shaken. A hideous and preposterous sight at what is meant to be the movie’s emotional climax.

But, you know, there are great bits, as there usually are with De Palma.

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Episode 3.5: An Old Hope

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2017 by dcairns

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Spoilers in this one — don’t read it if you’re ever planning to see ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY.

THE FORCE AWAKENS had some kind of vestigial appeal for me because I was ten when STAR WARS came out. But it was also frustrating because, like most JJ Abrams joints, it was just a remake and remix of its original. Another, even bigger Death Star? Again? Are ideas so scarce?

This new one didn’t awaken the same sentimental warmth in me because there were fewer of the original actors and less of the original John Williams leitmotifs. I enjoyed all the design and the environments (though two rocky planets in the first act was a mistake: should’ve differentiated them more). They picked up the best designs elements of the Lucas-Kirschner-Marquand trilogy, ditched the dodgy bits, added a bunch more that were stylistically in keeping and of a high standard. But the characters and plot and dialogue — ugh. OK, dialogue was never the series’ strong suit, but one does remember a few lines. There’s basically one good line in this, from the blind guy.

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Just one of the many exciting action sequences in ROGUE ONE.

I think it’s maybe a good thing that this one was less good vs. evil, black-and-white. There’s more conflict within the Rebel Alliance. But the story is very fragmented. After the first sequence we flash forward fifteen years or so. Then we start following several plotlines at once — quite different from the neat, WIZARD OF OZ like linearity of Lucas’ first effort. We meet the hero quite late in that one, because Lucas realized he had to use the robots to guide us through the story — as memory serves: when the droids meet Princess Fisher, we can then follow her and meet Grand Moff Cushing, and from then on we can intercut between droids, Fisher and Cushing. Then the droids meet Luke Hammillwalker, and we can intercut between his POV and the others (but sparingly). Luke meets Alec Kenobi, and then they meet Harrison Solo and Mayhewbacca. We don’t meet anyone before the droids meet them, except the baddies, who we meet via a kind of relay with the Princess.

Here, we just meet people all the time, whenever the committee in charge of the film feel like it, so it’s a jumble. And though the threads do intertwine more tightly to bring us to a climax on one planet, it still results in one of those horrible intercutty all-at-once climaxes that became a problem around RETURN OF THE JEDI. (STAR WARS has one climax, EMPIRE has two, JEDI has three). And it features the most ludicrous data retrieval system ever conceived, basically based on that arcade game with the claw where you try to pick up gifts.

(I think the awful inefficiency of the filing system must be why the cloned Cushing blows up the Empire’s entire records office at the end, along with the planet it’s on. There is no other possible explanation. I mean, it can’t have been in order to get the two surviving rebels, can it?)

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WARS and TREK both tend to deal in a mixture of one-dimensional and two-dimensional characters. Monsters and robots are mostly one-dimensional. C-3PO has one characteristic, he’s prissy. Chewbacca is large. Yoda is wise. The flesh-and-blood actors who show their own face-skin have slightly more facets, partly because Lucas realized they needed more, but also just because human beings tend to bring additional messiness to anything they play. Harrison Ford tends to sound bored, so his character becomes cynical and also crooked but also bored. Luke is noble and naive but also shrill and whiny.

In ROGUE ONE, the blind guy believes in the force and his pal is defined entirely by his faithfulness to the blind guy. The actors bring a little more to the table with individual line readings, but really that’s all they get to work with. It’s hard to say what makes the nice English girl in this different from the nice English girl in FORCE AWAKENS, other than backstory. The robot sounds like C-3PO only an octave lower, to which is added Chewie’s signature character trait of largeness. I can’t put any names to any characteristics of Diego Luna except he’s brave and a little ruthless. Riz Ahmed gives the best performance but it’s a miracle, since he has almost nothing to work with. Fairly early on, his brain gets tentacle-raped by Forrest Whitaker’s fat squid, and he’s a bit traumatized for the duration of a scene. Letting his combat shock last throughout the movie would have actually given him a part to play. What we get in the end is a pretty magnificent example of an actor bringing an empty outline to life by sheer force of commitment to inhabiting it with his humanity.

And then there’s Forrest Whitaker’s cyborg guy — a one-dimensional character with a two-dimensional head.

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Elsewhere we have the CGI Carrie Fisher about which all one can say is it doesn’t work, and the CGI Peter Cushing which doesn’t work and is an insult to a fine actor’s memory. I don’t care that his secretary gave permission. The idea that a bunch of nerds at computers are going to turn another thin actor into Cushing is preposterous and offensive and the results bear that out. Martin Scorsese said that as a kid seeing Hammer movies, he admired Cushing and “the precision of his movements within the frame.” The clone version certainly moves precisely — but the result is just “cut scenes” from vidgames only with a more detailed complexion.

So, my question is — given the movie’s commendably bold decision to basically kill all its characters, did someone say, “Better not make them too appealing, or people will be upset?” That doesn’t seem likely, but it’s what it felt like when I watched the film.

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Toallow a positive note — when Brian DePalma saw a rough cut of STAR WARS, the ever-obnoxious auteur sneered, “THAT’S your bad guy’s entrance?” as Dave Prowse in a plastic hat stepped into view at the end of a long corridor. This movie does give Darth Vader a much better entrance. First there’s a teaser of some guy living in a glass of milk in a big lava tower — Who lives in a house like this? The lava tower is actually an early Lucas idea for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and the partially-glimpsed, helmetless figure is actually a swipe from EMPIRE. A couple more bits. And then he gets a great action sequence at the end which sadly involves to actual characters but is very well staged, although not as good as the comparable fight in OLDBOY. But if you graft this one onto STAR WARS, Darth finally has a really strong, hissable entrance.

Did that make it worth twenty quid of our money? Hell no.

 

Couldn’t escape if I wanted to

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2015 by dcairns

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Hey, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on Thursday, so the Edinburgh International Film Festival decided to show Sergei Bondarchuk’s remarkable epic WATERLOO in 35mm anamorphic, with a certain amount of side-trumpery from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard (well, some of them) and an introduction from an affable, well-informed and frightfully posh retired brigadier.

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My only real prior knowledge of this movie was an anecdote recounted in the 1978 Scorsese profile documentary MOVIES ARE MY LIFE. Although Ennio Morricone is quoted as saying “Brian DePalma never smiles,” and that ties in with Fiona’s experience of the Great Man, the DePalma who appears onscreen to talk about his friend is a giggling, rolly-polly figure, just coming out of his improv comedy phase, I guess. DePalma the wacky funster. And he launches into a “hilarious” anecdotes about seeing WATERLOO with Scorsese on a double date, where Marty’s girl became distressed at the tripwired horses onscreen tumbling head over hooves in the dust. The tripping of horses is now outlawed as its very dangerous. As you see in old westerns, most tripped horses get up, but some can’t. They don’t show you that.

“So Marty’s telling her to shut up and she won’t and so he starts hitting her and because of that we miss the whole reason Napoleon lost the battle,” concludes the chortling Brian. Which tells you a lot about his sense of humour. One likes to think the story is at least heavily exaggerated. I discussed it with a friend.

“Well, hopefully Scorsese couldn’t really hurt anyone, he’s small and frail.”

“But energetic,” my friend replied grimly.

Disturbing that in 1978 that story could go into a documentary and nobody apparently worried about it. The past is a nightmare.

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WATERLOO shows some of that aspect of history.

The battle scenes, deploying 16,000 soldiers from the Russian army (plus some actual dragoons) are astonishing, of course. “Impressive” is too weak a word. But director Sergei Bondarchuk excels before then with his staging of TALK — he’s obviously in love with Rod Steiger’s performance as Napoleon, jumping in on the beady eyes or the obscenely wriggling sausagey little fingers. I’m not sure he’s RIGHT to be in love with the performance, which is very tricksy and big and elaborate, but having accepted the Steiger challenge, Total Commitment is the only option that makes sense. So sit back and enjoy the ham.

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And so generously sliced! The movie also sports Orson Welles (puffing his cheeks for two scenes), Jack Hawkins, a veritable shooting gallery of Toby Jugs. Christopher Plummer is a splendid Wellington — the lady next to me remarked afterwards, “I felt Wellington suffered from his dialogue consisting of every famous thing Wellington ever said. A man who speaks entirely in aphorisms.” And it’s true, he does come across as a sort of battlefield Oscar Wilde. But this is a kind of gigantic historical pageant, so it’s kind of appropriate.

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Shot in the Ukraine, apparently. Well, it was probably good practice.

REALLY impressed by the editing by Richard C. Meyer, who had just moved to the bigtime with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID after years on smaller films like the superb MEN IN WAR. But let’s give Bondarchuk credit too — he stages dialogue and action alike in long takes abruptly broken by short, aggressive cuts, faces, eyes, flickering flags. We get the grand sweep but we’re also kept on our toes. This is one epic that doesn’t lumber. Admittedly, the blasting and roaring and bellowing can exhaust the ability to appreciate — and I saw the damn thing with a hangover, for God’s sake — but if one overlooks the rather shoehorned antiwar moment (maybe a soldier really did freak out on the battlefield and run about shouting “Why must we kill each other?”, his blond locks waving in the breeze poetically, in which case I’m an idiot and forget I said it), this is true cinema. It just happens to be writ very, very large.

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Of all the movies I’ve seen at the Fest so far, this is the only one where I was struck by the size of people’s heads. Rod Steiger’s head was twice my height. I expect it was in life, too. But in the movie I saw right before, in the same auditorium, the people’s heads, though frequently framed in extreme closeup. seemed no larger than a chihuahua’s. Charisma, people!