Thursday, 1 February 2018

The Strange Case of Brian De Palma

Once upon a time there lived a group of directors…

Steven Spielberg. Martin Scorsese. Francis Ford Coppola. George Lucas. The names read like a veritable who’s who of the new wave of American filmmakers, each one doing their part to revolutionize the world of film and go on to attain international fame and recognition to this very day. Of this revered group who emerged during the 1970s, one name is quietly neglected, seemingly forgotten despite his numerous contributions to world cinema. His name: Brain De Palma.

After watching the recent HBO documentary on Spielberg which went in-depth on the relationship forged by this group of young directors, I was compelled to take a deeper dive into De Palma’s body of work. Why, I had to wonder, could this one director be so easily forgotten today when he inhabited a sphere alongside so many luminaries of his time – and perhaps all time. The simple answer to this question is that De Palma lacked the talent of Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola. This sentiment seems to be verified if one takes a look at his filmography on Rotten Tomatoes (admittedly a source always to be taken with a grain of salt) and sees a number of his films with very low ratings. However, this is circumstantial evidence at best to say that De Palma is a poor director because after having taken that deeper dive myself, I can honestly say that Brian De Palma is one of the most underrated and unique directors to ever work behind a camera.

De Palma (left) photographed with Steven Spielberg (center)
and Martin Scorsese (right)

Where do I begin, then, in this critical reevaluation of Brian De Palma as a director? Perhaps by using his own words: “I like stylization. I try to get away with as much as possible until people start laughing at it.” When one watches a De Palma film in isolation, only the most overt of his stylistic decisions are easily read. Who, for instance, can forget the camera spinning around and around John Travolta’s sound studio replicating the spinning of a reel of tape in Blow Out (1981), or the impressive thirteen-minute long one take which opens Snake Eyes (1998), never actually allowing us to glimpse the pivotal, fixed boxing match? While these scenes are likely to linger in the mind, if one studies De Palma closer, one will notice his repeated techniques - like overhead shots which look down on all his characters like some omniscient presence and his habit of placing large, disorienting objects in the foreground of his shots giving them great perspective and depth - are common to all his movies.

These methods pulled time and time again from the De Palma playbook give all of his films a unified, distinct look, something which few other famous directors can lay claim too. While other auteurs may be known for their style of writing or thematic approach to film, De Palma capitalizes on the visuals created from his movies. And, what is fascinating to take notice of is how consistent he was throughout his career employing these approaches to his films. De Palma’s second mainstream feature, Phantom of the Paradise (1974) shows De Palma’s early fascination with those overhead shots and sweeping long takes. Perhaps even more so than his contemporaries, De Palma – from the beginning – was forging a style all his own. Even in his later, more commercial properties like Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission Impossible (1996), De Palma is able to pull a few novelties from his usual bag and tricks and hide them in plain sight.

A masterpiece of suspense in the midst of Mission Impossible (1996)

The three films mentioned immediately above are unique in the canon of Brian De Palma’s films as they represent a departure from his usual genre work. From the outset with his first true film, Sisters (1972), De Palma has had a predilection towards the genres of thriller and horror, no doubt spawned by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock who De Palma cites as his primary influence. Indeed, De Palma’s earliest films owe a great deal to Hitchcock whether it is overt – the use of the Psycho strings used throughout Carrie (1976) – or more subtly. Dressed to Kill (1980) is itself one long homage to Psycho from the casting of well-known blonde actress who is murdered little more than a third of the way into the movie, down to a psychiatrist’s explanation of the killer’s motivations acting as the film’s resolution.

Blow Out is the obvious highlight of this period for De Palma, a grand homage to the kind of thriller for which Hitchcock was so well known, but De Palma’s script manages to balance the tributes to Hitchcock alongside an equally engrossing political conspiracy and the story of a twisted serial killer; both tropes being ones with which the Master only ever flirted. Hitchcock, himself, called De Palma’s films mere fromage instead of homage, but De Palma’s movies stand tall and as heretical as it may be to claim, the elevator murder in Dressed to Kill is executed just as well and packs just as much of a punch – if not more – than the similar shower scene in Psycho.

Directing John Travolta and Nancy Allen in Blow Out (1981)

Of course, not every one of Brain De Palma’s films has emerged quite as strong as his early thrillers, but every director has missteps and De Palma should not be judged on The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) alone. Indeed, throughout his career, De Palma has seen some positive press; when John Carpenter released his horror masterpiece, Halloween in 1978, some critics put it down as simply being a cheap imitation of De Palma’s style mixing suspense and out-and-out horror. Even today, I believe, the reevaluation of De Palma’s career is beginning: the 2015 documentary De Palma shed some light on what made the director tick and allowed him to defend even such lambasted films as Bonfire, and Kenneth Branagh’s more recent adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) pulled from the same cinematic stockpile which De Palma has made his own employing many long takes, POV, and overhead shots.

Perhaps the only reason that Brain De Palma has seemingly never generated the same praise as the others he ran with in the ‘70s is the simple reason that his film never revolutionized the artform in some way. De Palma was never granted a project which turned into the proto summer blockbuster like Jaws (1975); his original projects never had the same grand, operatic vision as Star Wars (1977); his films were less thematically challenging than Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976); and his gangster movies were never embraced with the same universality as The Godfather (1972).

That in no way diminishes the films he created, though. Almost always operating on a far smaller scale than those others and dabbling in territory which they would seldom touch, De Palma created a series of visually striking, and memorable films. Once seen, it’s unlikely that one is going to easily forget a Brian De Palma movie. 

Saturday, 20 January 2018

300 Words on "Phantom Thread" (2017)

Why did I like Phantom Thread so much?

I guess the best place to start would be the powerhouse performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who had me mesmerized whenever he was on screen. Even with the most minute of movements like sewing a piece of fabric – which as high-class dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock – Day-Lewis does a lot, he was able to imbue the action with so much meaning and gravity.

Giving a performance just as striking is Vicky Krieps as Alma, the object of Woodcock’s affections. Krieps delivers a nuanced, mannered performance which packs so much sublimating, dark emotions that when finally glimpsed, feel so incredibly justified.

The original screenplay written by director Paul Thomas Anderson is no less intriguing. Any viewer who expects an intricate, labyrinth-like story from Phantom Thread may come away feeling cheated, but the screenplay is layered and complex all-the-same. I often found myself wondering just where the story was going with no idea what was in store for these mesmerizing characters. Anderson’s screenplay is swathed in an intangible uneasiness and I found myself riveted by its strange – at times inexplicable – sense of foreboding.

Complimenting that mood is outstanding, lush cinematography which lovingly lingers on the colors and textures of fabrics in just the same way that Day-Lewis’s Woodcock surely would. And the score – seemingly one long symphony – composed by Johnny Greenwood is just as fitting.

I left the theatre unable to put into words my feelings for Phantom Thread and few movies are able to do that to me, but I now see clearly that I, not unlike the characters of the film, fell under the spell of Phantom Thread. A beautifully-acted and produced enigma, Phantom Thread proves to be an engaging and ultimately disquieting picture. Its defies its audience to understand it all at once.

My silence leaving the theatre seems justified. 

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

300 Words on "Darkest Hour" (2017)

Watching an actor transform and totally disappear into their character on screen is thrilling. I derive a certain amount of fun out of trying to see behind the make-up and manufactured accent looking for something which I recognize in portrayals of this kind, but few, I think, have been quite as seamless as Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. Indeed, there were moments when outfitted in the period costume and chomping on a cigar, that Oldman and Britain’s war-time Prime Minister could have been one and the same. Oldman’s performance is central to Darkest Hour, and he has rightfully been lauded for his work here as he brings just the right amount of larger-than-life magnetism and subtle character to one of the most recognizable (and often portrayed) figures of history.

Oldman is surely the most memorable and watchable member of the cast, but he is supplemented by a fine directorial sense under the hand of Joe Wright who enlivens some of the film’s slower, and more historically arcane bits with some inspired cinematography. Darkest Hour, I say without hesitation, boasts some of the most striking visuals for any film of 2017, and from its opening overhead shot of a bickering Parliament, I was intrigued.

Darkest Hour has been accused of being by-the-numbers Oscar bait, but I could not disagree more. The film stands on its own as an intelligently-written historical drama which makes for an interesting complement to other Oscar-worthy films depicting the era such as The King’s Speech (2010) and Dunkirk (2017). Unlike those other films, however, Darkest Hour doubles-down on the historical content but never loses sight of what it truly is: a character study, and it emerges as an engaging – and surprisingly moving -  piece showcasing Gary Oldman in what is surely the pinnacle of his achievements as an actor. 

Sunday, 31 December 2017

300 Words on "The Shape of Water" (2017)

The man-fish hybrid of The Shape of Water looks quite a bit like the eponymous man-fish of Creature from the Back Lagoon, and knowing director Guillermo del Toro’s love for vintage cinema, the similarity was certainly intentional. In many respects, The Shape of Water is an homage to the monster movie of the ‘50s, but its tone and execution make it so much more than a run-of-the-mill B-movie.

Sally Hawkins shines in the lead role of Elisa, a mute custodian who befriends the amphibious creature, and she delivers a stunning performance while hardly speaking at all on screen. The Shape of Water is filled with striking performances like these; Richard Jenkins steals the movie as Giles, Elisa’s neighbor and closet friend, and Michael Shannon chews the scenery to spectacular, attention-grabbing effect as the sadistic colonel who has captured the creature. While Shannon’s performance borders at times on caricature, his villain is only further realizing the heightened, just-beyond-real world of Cold War America in which the film is set.

The world of The Shape of Water is the perfect one for a movie of this sort to inhabit and, in another time and another place, the story of a secret government laboratory, Russian spies, and a creature straight out of the Amazon would have been more than enough material for a B-movie, but The Shape of Water adds depth and weight to this time-tested scenario and character types who we have seen play out countless times on the silver screen of old. The Shape of Water is therefore a unique enough retelling of the Beauty and the Beast archetype to not only separate it from Creature from the Black Lagoon, but make it stand on its own as quite an accomplishment of fantastical movie-making. 

Thursday, 28 December 2017

300 Words on "All the Money in the World" (2017)

I approached All the Money in the World with an almost clinical view. As a film which gained more press in recent weeks for the unprecedented last-minute reshoots which director Ridley Scott had to perform in order to replace Kevin Spacey in the role of oil tycoon, J. Paul Getty, I freely admit that I was curious to view the movie as the outcome of an experiment.

However, within minutes my analytical approach to the film melted away as I was drawn into it completely – All the Money in the World emerges as a thoroughly engrossing historical thriller.

There is much in the film which is vying for a reviewer’s attention; everything from the lush cinematography which swaths the entire film in a cold, metallic haze, to the resonating orchestral score by Daniel Pemberton deserves attention, but it is the performances which truly stand out. Michelle Williams as Gail, the put-upon mother of the kidnapped John Paul Getty III is a marvel in each of her scenes as she fights for both the life of her son and – hounded at every turn by the paparazzi – her own sanity. The true star of the film is Christopher Plummer as Getty whose titanic presence in each of his scenes lends innumerable layers to the role of the miserly oil baron. The fact that Plummer turned in such a multi-faceted, complex performance in only a few weeks’ time, too, speaks volumes to Plummer’s talents as an actor.  

Running over two hours, All the Money in the World may overstay its welcome a bit, but it is an engaging experience nevertheless. Its pitch-perfect recreation of 1970s America and Europe is truly immersive, and if that doesn’t grab you, then the work of Michelle Williams and Christopher Plummer certainly will. 

In short, it is so much more than a multi-million-dollar experiment. 

Saturday, 16 December 2017

300 Words on "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" (2017)

(Spoiler Free)

I don’t necessarily envy Last Jedi director, Rian Johnson. It was his responsibility to carry on the Star Wars saga, a legacy which has garnered countless fans around the world and made the series the third highest-grossing film franchise of all time. Johnson and his creative team would be scrutinized endlessly by Star Wars fans as he put forward what many were calling the most unique chapter in the series’ now 40-year history.

Those who called The Last Jedi a unique installment were quite correct. The film is epic and big from its very first moments (arguably more so than any other Star Wars movie), and the pacing does not let up for one moment. The Last Jedi is constantly cutting between three distinct narratives and keeps its audience on their toes throughout. Johnson also handles the action beautifully - some of the cinematography during the action scenes was truly jaw-dropping.

But, for all its relentless pacing, The Last Jedi is, ultimately, about character. Mark Hamill, returning as Luke Skywalker, is nothing short of breath-taking and he commands every scene he’s in. Daisy Ridley continues to marvel as Rey, and Adam Driver adds new depth to the villainous Kylo Ren. Their combined efforts made The Last Jedi feel like the most personal Star Wars chapter thus far. And it was truly compelling stuff; each of the three central characters’ arcs was riveting to watch.

Simply put, I was captivated throughout the entirety of The Last Jedi and, unlike some of the other films in the series, it never felt workmanlike. It was clear to me that someone with an expert skillset and knowledge of film was working behind the camera and, as a result, The Last Jedi – despite being the eighth chapter in an ongoing story – felt like it could easily stand on its own.

So, having produced a final product like that, maybe I do envy Rian Johnson after all.  

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

300 Words on "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri" (2017)

Martin McDonagh is an acquired taste for sure.

I am no expert, but his stories are nearly always filled with characters that inhabit the greyest zone of moral ambiguity, and though his stories touch upon the most taboo of topics, there is an alarming lightness in his tone. McDonagh’s writing is snappy, fast, and laced with profanity. And his hallmarks are in evidence yet again in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

As both writer and director, McDonagh revels in his pitch-black piece of Americana; Three Billboards being a brilliant showcase of the kind of dark undercurrent which can run through even the smallest and most wayward of American towns. As such, when the film begins, all of the central characters are just out of reach of being likable, but we are given little choice but to follow them and, miraculously, by the end of the film, the hard shell which each had been encased in slowly begins to crack. Three Billboards is built on these performances – Frances McDormand rightfully getting Oscar buzz already for her performance as a vengeful, grieving mother. McDormand is captivating all the way through, and we feel her pain in each second that she is on screen. Sam Rockwell matches her note-for-note, however, and his redemptive arc – the much-needed light in the bleak world created by the movie – is beautifully played.

Narratively, there isn’t much to Three Billboards – in fact the story almost seems to lose its way by its second act – but by the finale, the end product has certainly justified the sum of its parts. Like the other Martin McDonagh work to which I have been exposed, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri gets inside your head and lingers long after the final images have faded from the screen.

Yes, an acquired taste, but one which urges you to sample it again.