Wednesday, June 29, 2016

DE PALMA (2016)

Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. June 12, 2016 12:50PM

When Brian De Palma is good ("Carrie", "The Untouchables", "Scarface"), he's quite brilliant. And when he's bad ("Mission To Mars", "The Black Dahlila", "The Bonfire of The Vanities"), he's downright stinky. The narrow yet thoroughly entertaining documentary, "De Palma" examines virtually his entire film oeuvre, covering the good, bad and indifferent.

The co-directors, Noah Baumbach ("Frances Ha", "While We're Young") and Jake Paltrow ("The Young Ones" and son of Blythe Danner, brother of Gwyneth) have basically just put a camera in front of the now seventy-five year old director and let him go. And we are treated to him recalling vividly fascinating tales about his challenging yet ultimately rewarding career in the capricious world of film making.

The self-proclaimed "heir-apparent of Alfred Hitchcock" grew-up comfortably in the northeast without much real interest in cinema. He was in to science and even won a prize in high school for building an analog computer. That all changed with a viewing of Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and De Palma became utterly spellbound. He left Columbia and enrolled at the recently co-ed Sarah Lawrence college to study film, where he was drawn to the more avant-garde works by Antonioni, Warhol and Goddard. The fledgling director created some well-received documentaries before he put together his first feature, "Greetings" which took the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1969. While many contribute Martin Scorsese with launching the acting career of Robert De Niro, it was actually De Palma who gave the actor his very first film role, with him starring in "Greetings".

De Palma got Hollywood's attention and brought his unconventional style to the films he made there. Slow-motion, split-screen, extensive tracking shots and unusual camera compositions are what he contributed to such films like "Sisters", "Phantom of the Paradise" and "Obsession", his own spin of "Vertigo", yet none of them found much of an audience at the time. It was his adaption of Stephen King's first novel, "Carrie" that gave the director his first box-office hit and some much desired clout which would allow him to continue making more singular and personal movies.

The rest of his career resulted with a mixed bag with erotic thrillers ("Body Double", "Passion"), action blockbusters (the first "Mission: Impossible" film), suspenseful crime dramas ("Raising Cain", "Carlito's Way"), critically-respected yet box-office duds ("Casualties of War", "Blow Out") and complete flops ("Snake Eyes", "Femme Fatale").

While it's clear the point of "De Palma" is to just put a spotlight squarely on our subject, allowing him to give a detailed assessment of his own body of work, yet the complete lack of an objective point-of-view makes the documentary limiting. I believe that to better understand his films, it helps to understand the man behind the camera. It certainly would have been interesting to hear what it was like working with the mercurial director from some of the actors or crew members. Even any of his three former wives (including producer, Gale Anne Hurd and actress, Nancy Allen, who appeared in four of the director's films) sharing their life experience with De Palma might have offered some enlightenment.

De Palma had a fondness for fixating on deviant behavior, obsessive carnal desires, callous violence and the shapely female form in much of his work, particularly in his early films, where he enjoyed the opportunity to push the envelope much further than Hitchcock could ever imagine. And this brought him the ire of angry feminists denouncing his sexualized brutality towards women while many film critics disregarded his work for it's over-the-top excesses, lacking an individual style and relying too heavily on imitating his cinematic influences. But even with his commercially unsuccessful work, there is no denying the dexterity, craftsmanship and considerable entertainment value of a film by Brian De Palma.

Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola (no first names required), who were his peers when they all started out in the business in the late sixties, managed to win great acclaim and accolades for much of their film work. De Palma, on the other hand, still hasn't gotten much respect. No Oscar, hell, not even one nomination. The reason for the oversight might be best explained with this one example; De Palma received a nomination for Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle and Worst Director by the Golden Raspberry Awards, both for the same film, "Dressed To Kill".

"De Palma" takes an unvarnished and unsentimental look at one man's life in cinema, detailing the inspiration and creative thought-process of this fiercely independent movie maker. If anything, perhaps this documentary will encourage more people to seek out a De Palma film, particularly the more obscure or critically-shunned titles. After the experience, you'll realize they just don't make them like Brian De Palma anymore. A retro visionary with a lustful, gonzo spirit.

Saturday, June 18, 2016


Written by David Kajganich

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Where & When: Sundance Sunset 5 Cinemas, West Hollywood, CA. May 27, 2016  7:15PM

What begins as an idyllic retreat for a couple in love dissolves in to a volatile harbor due to the unexpected arrival of two troublesome guests in "A Bigger Splash", a vibrant and affecting drama from Italian filmmaker, Luca Guadagnino. Set on the tranquil, remote island of Pantelleria, southwest of Sicily, the melodramatic fireworks that are set off are an erotically-charged explosion of yearning passion, bitter resentments and painful regrets.

Tilda Swinton delivers her otherworldly flair as Marianne Lane, a famous rock performer recovering from throat surgery and advised to keep speech at a minimum. With her handsome lover, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) by her side, they spend their lazy days basting nude in the sun and enjoying each other's bodies. Their peace and solitude comes to a sudden end when Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne's boisterous former manager shows up on the island. And he's not alone. Penelope (Dakota Johnson), Harry's mercurial daughter who he hasn't had much contact with, is along for a holiday.

While Harry is there to enjoy good food, dance all night and partake in some heavy-duty partying, a weary Paul is wanting to keep their time together far more low-key. But Marianne gets swept up in Harry's infectiously wild enthusiasm and after he announces they have no place to stay, they suddenly have house guests.

The longer this foursome spends together, secret desires and true intentions are eventually uncovered. Harry had been more than just a business adviser to Marianne and desperately misses their time as a power couple. He had introduced her years ago to Paul when he was working as a photographer.  Without any clear details revealed, Paul had a troubled past involving substance abuse which lead to a tragic situation. And Penelope is certainly her father's daughter with a taste for mischief and self-satisfaction.

As Marianne is surrounded by an atmosphere filling with rancor and duress, she remains mostly mute, expressing her frustration through exasperated eyes or a hoarse whisper on occasion. Ms Swinton, looking ravishing in exquisite costumes created for her by designer Raf Simmons, brings a blistering intensity and incendiary sensuality that makes it quite clear why she's such a desirable creature.

Loosely based on the 1969 Jacques Deray film, "La Piscine (the Swimming Pool)", "A Bigger Splash" is that rare erotic thriller that is thoughtful, well-performed, mysterious and actually quite sexy. The crackling script by David Kajganich is filled with intrigue and a sense of dread as these complex characters are unable to be honest with each other or themselves. The camera of cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux gives the film a warm, sun-kissed glow, highlighting the exquisite beauty of the picturesque island and lingering on the overheated, scantily-clad bodies.

We have been so used to seeing Mr. Fiennes in dark and very serious roles for a large part of his career, like the doomed Count in "The English Patient", the murderous Nazi Captain in "Schindler's List" or even the evil Lord Voldemort in the "Harry Potter" films, that it's still a bit of a shock to see the actor lighthearted and smiling on screen. After dazzling us with his zany turn in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and more recently with a cameo in the Coen Brothers' latest comedy, "Hail Caesar!", it's nice to see him really break loose once again, giving us a show by wildly lip-syncing and attempting to shake his groove thang to the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue" or uninhibitedly stripping at a moment's notice.

Mr. Schoenaerts impresses as a brooding and tormented man of few words yet always able to make himself clearly understood. Even Ms Johnson, who left a lot to be desired with her flat performance in the lame S&M drama, "Fifty Shades of Grey", manages to hold her own with these formidable actors, unexpectedly displaying depth as a cunning seductress.

A jealous rage followed by an accidental death in the final act plunges "A Bigger Splash" in to predictable waters. But a startling revelation and shocking resolution manages to keep this offbeat, warm-blooded thriller afloat. A luxurious and beautifully well-acted relationship study that is ocassionally filled with high tension and a touch of danger, "A Bigger Splash" is a perfect getaway for adults during this summer movie season mostly geared towards younger minds.

Saturday, June 4, 2016


Written & Directed by Rebecca Miller

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. May 22, 2016 1:10PM

Woody Allen has seemed to have set the template for New York based, upwardly-mobile, intellectual romantic-comedies focusing on mature, hyper-critical, very self-involved Caucasians. "Maggie's Plan", the latest from writer/director Rebecca Miller, offers a slight variation of this model with the emphasis here on a caring yet still impassive young female.

Greta Gerwig, indie cinema's current darling, stars as the "Maggie" in the title who is part of a generation who thinks the Internet makes them all-knowing geniuses yet loses interest in a conversation if it involves more than 140 characters. The actress attempts to enchant with her brand of modern quirkiness but lacks an inner strength, determined initiative and endearing charm to be particularly appealing. Diane Keaton she is not. Nor Parker Posey. Or Lili Taylor. Or even Chloƫ Sevigny. You catch my drift.

Although not even thirty and not wanting to wait until the right man comes along, Maggie decides she's ready to have a child. With the help of married friends Tony (Bill Hader) and Felicia (Maya Rudolph), she decides to ask a former college acquaintance, Guy (Travis Fimmel), a dim but handsome entrepreneur, to be her donor. He agrees not only to provide a donation but also have no involvement raising her baby.

Then Maggie meets John (Ethan Hawke), an anthropology professor at the college where she works. He's struggling to complete a novel and his dominant, Scandinavian wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore), a successful novelist, professor and mother of their two children, is far too busy to give him much support. John offers her pages to read, Maggie loves his work, sparks fly and soon the two have fallen madly in love.

Three years later, Maggie now has a toddler yet hardly satisfied with her life. Still not completed his novel, John spends little time with his new wife, leaving Maggie alone to care not only for the baby but his teenage children that he shares joint custody with his former wife. Realizing she's no longer in love and sensing that Georgette may still have feelings for John, this sets Maggie's appallingly insensitive plan in to motion.

After a career of making intriguing indie dramas focusing on the lives of complicated women like "Personal Velocity", "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" (which starred her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis) and "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee", Ms. Miller, the daughter of acclaimed playwright, Arthur Miller, has decided to lighten-up with a thoughtful comedy involving a little romance. But this twist on convention has a film where the humor isn't nearly broad enough and the love story is buried too deep for an effective romantic comedy. For all of her efforts, Miller is unable to fully convince us that there is anything really funny about the over-bearing, narcissistic behavior of these well-educated characters.

And despite a less than illuminating lead, the rest of the cast are able to keep the film lively with their winning performances. Mr. Hawke handles the part of  Maggie's egotistical and unreliable partner with his usual amiable flair. Despite a far from unconvincing accent (perhaps intentional), Ms. Moore is the standout here as the hilariously direct and icy academic. Even "SNL" vets, Hader and Rudolph are able steal scenes with their brief screen appearances.

With a capable script and strong performances, "Maggie's Plan" still doesn't fully capture the magic of the whisical romantic experience. It's aim was higher than what is usually expected from these films yet some of the light-hearted fun that comes from them is still required.