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.