Archive for Brian DePalma

Light & Dark

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , on July 28, 2021 by dcairns

Picked up a DVD of DYING OF THE LIGHT in a charity shop, which seems like the movie’s natural destination, and had a dim memory of it being a disastrous production that was taken out of writer-director Paul Schrader’s hands. Then, however, I was able to do a direct comparison with DARK, which is sort-of the director’s cut. Sort of.

DYING is a middling thriller in which a CIA officer with frontal lobe dementia (Nic Cage) tracks down a terrorist with anemia (Alexander Karim). You could say that the producer’s cut is anemic, and Schrader’s response is demented, and you wouldn’t be far off. Obviously demented is better. But not ideal.

DARK was made without access to the original materials, so Schrader and editor Benjamin Rodriguez Jr scrambled together the producer’s cut with deleted scenes from the Blu-ray, refilmed shots with a cell phone, and generally exploded and reassembled the material into a radically different form. The director’s cut is 75 minutes to the original’s 96 (Schrader didn’t have to worry about hitting a commercial length since he had no rights to the material and couldn’t commercially release his version). His reclaiming of the footage is a heroic act.

(In fairness to the producers, however, their notes, as quoted by Schrader, seem fairly respectful and reasonable — a case could be made for synthesising what they wanted from the film along with what Schrader wanted, to make something that satisfied everybody. It’s not quite clear what made Schrader decide such an understanding was impossible.)

But is DARK a better film? Is it really less conventional? In some ways, yes, but Schrader can’t escape the fact that he shot fairly conventional coverage. Both cuts even contain establishing shots of building exteriors, like you’d see in a sitcom. I was a bit unfair to Brian DePalma’s DOMINO a while back, not knowing at the time that BDP’s film had run out of money and he hadn’t been able to stage the setpieces he’d had in mind. At least on paper, Schrader’s film is more interesting than DePalma’s, with at least one proper character, Cage’s, and one borderline case, the late Anton Yelchin’s. He does what he can with an underwritten part, and the DARK cut restores a couple of character moments. But DePalma has said, “establishing shots are a waste of time” and when it comes to building exteriors he’s pretty much correct.

Both versions of the film require Cage to wear a FALSE EAR, which is supposed to look like a part has been cut away, but of course they couldn’t do that to Cage (he did have some teeth removed for BIRDY but they were baby teeth that would have had to come out anyway) so they’ve stuck a couple of bits on, resulting in an ear that always seems to be waving at you from behind its owner’s face.

The disruptive effects Schrader is going for in DARK, what he calls “a more aggressive editing style,” is not really anything new, it strikes me as artsy rather than really expressive, and it doesn’t really convey the Cage character’s disorientation in a way that feels subjective. Actually shooting the movie with disorientation as a goal would have achieved that better (but, to be fair, maybe there’s unused coverage that would have done that, but which Schrader couldn’t access). If disorientation is a goal those establishers are REALLY destructive.

There’s also a slight disadvantage in having a lead character plagued with mood swings and sudden shouting, played by an actor who’s made a career of mood swings and sudden shouting. Nothing’s very wrong with what Cage is doing, it’s just a little familiar.

Schrader follows his original plot (another place the disorientation should’ve been used more is in the WRITING) until the end, basically changing the visual and aural texture, and then he boldly has the film disintegrate instead of reaching a climax. It’s a big lightshow meant to signify the state of the protagonist’s mind, though it’s very electronic in both its pictorial effects (digital fragmentation, videotape static) and sound. Even here, Schrader can’t quite commit to abstraction, however, and ends the film with a character’s gravestone, so we can’t complain we never learned how things came out.

Still, it’s undeniably an auteurist disgorgement, able to be read as the most uncomfortable allegory — an aging pro, considered past it and suffering mental decline (Schrader is, I trust, quite healthy, but some of his social media posts might make you wonder) goes on a last desperate mission, with his bosses disowning him, helped only by a younger colleague who has to ignore the quixotic nature of the quest… it’s all there. Not all of it is flattering to the filmmaker. But he reclaimed his movie! And he screwyoued the producers in a highly noncareerist way. I have to admire that.

Mixed Emotions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 28, 2020 by dcairns

I wanted to like Brian DePalma’s DOMINO, like a lot of people I think (some DID like it), but I couldn’t. It is NOT a good movie, imho. And I don’t even know why I wanted to like it, since I don’t think of BDP as a particularly nice character who deserves more success. But, since I’d bought a cheap secondhand copy and was watching it, I would have liked it to be entertaining. And he’s made some good movies — we can all disagree about which ones, which in a way is even better — so one would like to see a modern film with the vibe of (for me) SISTERS, OBSESSION, THE UNTOUCHABLES or even one of the really unpleasant ones, just for a change.

This Euro-pudding, which BDP did not write, may occupy the sort of place in the DePalma oeuvre that BURKE & HARE does for John Landis. “Want to come to some drab country and film this crappy script?” “Sure, I’m free this week!”

I exaggerate. Denmark is probably much nicer than Scotland, where I live. And they made REPTILICUS, which Scotland SHOULD have made.

What you get is the mannerisms of the director without any of the pleasure. BURKE & HARE has director cameos by Costa-Gavras and Michael Winner, and virtually no laughs (Paul Whitehouse squeezed a reluctant guffaw from us by main force). DOMINO has would-be Hitchcockian set-pieces and Pino Donaggio aping Bernard Herrmann on the soundtrack and a creepy interest in hi-tech voyeurism (ISIS execution videos, this time).

Fiona: “Thanks a lot, Brian, I’ve spent the last few years AVOIDING that kind of imagery.”

I point out that it’s an incredibly lame reenactment since the movie doesn’t show the head coming off. The whole point of snuff movies is presumably the “frenzy of the visible,” showing the moment of death in horrible close-up. Everything to do with tech in the film is unconvincing, including the heroine’s phone photos of her holidays with boyfriend “Lars Hansen”:

The movie ends with YouTube exploding. Extremely poor.

Someone on Twitter did point out that the subplot, in which a vengeful Arab character is recruited by Guy Pearce’s dastardly CIA man to bring down a terror cell, and he kills his way through the organisation, driven by rage, would make a much better movie than the main plot. Possibly, but not the way it’s done here. What’s certain is that the two storylines don’t help each other, they just diffuse focus.

Oh, and it begins with two cops, and one of them is older and has a nice, disabled wife. He’s going to get killed, I thought. And then I thought, a reasonably good twist would be to kill the young leading-man type guy, the guy whose girl sleeps in a modesty pouch for some reason. It might not make up for the crushing sense of predictability being experienced in the first place, but it would be a good surprise.

Also, the hero goes on duty and forgets his gun. And then his partner is killed and the bad guy escapes for reasons that actually have nothing to do with the forgotten gun.

Mostly this looks like a TV cop show. But they make some better TV cop shows in Europe.

I’ll say this, it’s a movie that’s ineffective and bad at least in surprising, incomprehensible ways. Why is it called DOMINO when there was a movie of that title fourteen years ago which did not do well and is usually remembered unfavourably? (I genuinely don’t know why this one is called DOMINO, in the sense of, what does it have to do with dominoes? It would only resemble dominoes if you had to knock over each piece with lethal force and they never, ever set off a chain reaction.)

 

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.