L13FC: Brian De Palma

Welcome back to the Lucky 13 Film Club and three cheers to my English buddy, Pete, for accepting my invitation to co-host this month’s discussion. We wanted to extend our admiration of Brian De Palma to you and encourage you to respond to everyone’s ideas in a positive way. Please join the conversation. Why is your favorite De Palma film memorable?

Pete’s opinion:

Blow Out. (1981)
I am starting with this film as I like it so much, and think it is grossly underrated. There is some real skill here, and the recurring use of sound and film editing, film techniques within a film. De Palma makes the most of going over the same thing time and again, with subtle changes that show the developments to the viewer, as they are discovered by the character of Jack (John Travolta) on screen. The director also shows his skill for pacing, as we happily wait for the painstaking research to play out before us, then get swept along by the excitement of the finale.
The split screen helps too, building tension, and saving running time in the process. Then there is the theme of ‘the scream’, one that runs through the whole film, and the idea of filming important scenes against the background of real events and large crowds, in vivid colour.
Body Double (1984)
This film stayed with me and is actually a lot better than it feels when you are watching it. The
story is secondary to the real purpose of the film though. That is De Palma playing fast and loose with an unbridled homage to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. For film fans, it becomes a delight to spot the references, many of which are about as subtle as being hit with a cinematic brick. At times it feels like the director has taken the films of the man he admired so much, and inserted them into Body Double in order of preference. They are so blatant, all that is missing is a title sequence appearing ahead of the scene. We have the voyeurism of Rear Window, the close-up collusion of Rope, and the use of the telephone from Dial M For Murder. Throw in some Vertigo and Psycho scene-alikes for good measure, and all we seem to be missing is the seaside scene from Rebecca, and the fairground from Strangers On A Train. But don’t let that put you off. It is a dedicated homage, cranked up for the 1980s.
Carlito’s Way (1993)
If the first choice was innovative, whilst derivative, and the second an outright homage, my third
choice is all about casting, and locations. This modern gangster film is far superior to De Palma’s overblown and out of control Scarface, made 10 years earlier. By this time, the director had grown into making something more serious, and despite using the same lead actor, Al Pacino delivers a fine performance that is a world away from hysterical Tony Montana. A barely recognizable Sean Penn captures the style and greed of the period as the friend and lawyer Carlito rely upon, and smaller roles from Luis Guzman and a testy John Leguziamo are memorable, too. Locations are bitingly authentic, from the run-down cafe early in the film, to the prison barge holding the Mafia boss, and the nightclub owned and run by Carlito. Everything smacks of authenticity, and if any of them were sets, I surely didn’t notice. Even though I knew some just had to be. This is my favourite De Palma film, with its sense of impending doom running all the way through.
Image result for casualties of war sean penn split screen image
Cindy’s thoughts: 
Remember in Casualties of War when the sarge, Sean Pean, was shaving looking into the camera like it were a mirror in front of him while soldiers talked about him without his knowing? I like how De Palma transitioned from the split screen to placing one image, usually a character, in the foreground. It happened later again when Michael J. Fox’s character is being transported via helicopter. It happens in many De Palma films. The trick forces the audience to focus on two stories going on at once.
Image result for carrie split screen image
The split-screen is a trademark technique. Repeating the stars from one film to the next is another trademark. John Travolta. Al Pacino. Melanie Griffith. Sean Penn. Can you sum up Brian De Palma? We know his stories are a parasitical obsession with Hitchcock. His stories are passionate displays for conspiracies and voyeurism. The scores are loud and melodramatic, and I am entertained when I watch them.
Image result for mission impossible one image of cruise hanging mid air
Mission Impossible is the best of the long franchise. Carrie is a horrifying film adaptation, probably the best of Stephen King’s novels.
My favorite De Palma film is The Untouchables. Robert DeNiro was electric as Al Capone. Jim Malone (Sean Connery) as the mentor to Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) was charming and Ennio Morricone‘s score sizzled. The best trick of DePalma for me, however, is his use of contrasts. He takes a beautiful setting–the hill country of Vietnam, the Canadian Rockies, the beauty of architecture, like sweeping stairs and velvet drapes, and inserts a horrifying situation or tragic character, the “humpbacked and crooked”, the two extremes, to create a binary experience. While De Palma films may seem like period pieces from the 80s and 90s and not as great as films from the 60s and 70s, I am nostalgic for them. He filmed on location in interesting places. I miss the  De Palma tricks, the colorful, melodramatic scores, and the corrupted souls fumbling around in the dark with the hope of redemption that rarely comes.
What’s your favorite De Palma scene? 
Thank you, Pete, for co-hosting! Check out Beetley Pete’s blog which can be found HERE.

Another Pair with Gene Hackman

This is the second installment of my winter project of investigating the filmography of a male film star I know too little about. According to Allen Hunter’s biography, Gene Hackman, he grew up in his grandmother’s house surrounded by the unremitting cornfields of Danville, Illinois. He dropped out of high school, joined the Marines on a whim, and served from 1946-51. Acting school followed at the Pasadena Playhouse and the cementation of friendships with peers Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall. You can read about their unique 50-year-old friendship in Vanity Fair HERE.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) 

Warren Beatty produced the film and likened to the role of Clyde because he was a character who wanted to “be somebody’ in the uncooperative climate of the Depression. This motivation was the force behind Clyde; Bonnie coaxed that motivation. Clyde saved her from a boring life and she was willing to do anything for the thrills of their partnership. When her poem, “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” was published, they had a national audience. Bonnie finally gets the passion she craved. The violence of the film pushed the envelope (a shot to the face of an apprehender smears blood on the getaway car) and the emergence of Faye Dunaway as the reckless Bonnie elevated the film to lofty heights. Dunaway reminded me of a young Bette Davis. The nuances, the body language, and her loveliness were exceptional. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen by a female performer. But wait. What about Gene Hackman? As brother Buck to Clyde, he gave an enthusiastic, convincing performance as did the rest of the cast, but no one surpassed Faye Dunaway. Fifty years later, the film still stands.  4/5.5  

If you like crime history, here is information about the FBI case of Bonnie and Clyde.

What stood out:

1. Gene Wilder‘s bit-part facial expressions. “Step on it, Velma!”

2. Blanche (Estelle Parsons) screaming; a most annoying character and perfect antithesis to independent Bonnie. Parsons won the Oscar for her role. I love her final scene when the Sheriff coaxes information with false sympathy. She is blind and bandaged and clueless til the end. Awesome role.

3. The opening sequence with Faye Dunaway, bored, restless and naked. Bonnie and Clyde sizing each other up in a matter of minutes, each cool and confident.

4. The famous ending directed by Arthur Penn. I liked the hard cuts, the montage that revealed the final thoughts of Bonnie and Clyde, and the sequence of events to their end.

Scarecrow (1973) 

What is best about the script of these unlikely friends is the 180 degree flip-flopping of their characters. (Lion) Al Pacino and (Max) Gene Hackman are allowed the space to give full-bodied performances. While the story-line was dull at times during its first half, it more than made up for any lags by the last half. Lion’s phone call to his estranged wife Annie was heartbreaking, and the anticipation of Lion’s fall was painful. Max goes from an unlikable character to someone who has benefited from a sincere friendship. It has been compared to Of Mice and Men; if Steinbeck’s classic engages you, you would no doubt enjoy Scarecrow.  4.5/5. 

What stands out:

  1. Watching a young, kindhearted Pacino (instead of later scene-chewing roles) teach the irascible Max a better philosophy of life even though the script seemed heavy-handed at times.
  2. Watching Hackman’s Max change. Usually Hackman is hard and mean and stays that way. It was great to see such a fine transformation. I smiled broadly when I found out why he slept with the shoe under his mattress. When Lion asks him why he picked him to be his partner since he trusts no one, Max responds, “Because you gave me your last cigarette. And you made me laugh.” The chemistry between the two characters was real and showcased great acting .
  3. I loved that open scene with the stormy sky and gold wheat field. The across the highway exchange was wonderful.

Are You Not Entertained?

Here resumes a monthly recap of better music, books, films, and television that entertained me. 

MUSIC

We’ve had a lot of visiting relatives this past month, and Neil Young seemed to be the background noise for much of it. At one point, I actually got tired of listening to him. But he is a staple in our home, and with healthy intermissions, I enjoy listening to his albums. He’s a fun one to mimic with those notes delivered at the back of the throat. He is a mood-setter. In my world, there’s nothing better than sitting by a fire outdoors or in, with wine and Neil singing in the background. How do you pick a favorite? This love ballad released in 1992 never grows old.

BOOKS 

 

Who was the first woman to obtain a glider pilot’s license? Anne Morrow Lindbergh. That’s understandably overshadowed by her husband’s accolades. The most famous man in the world in 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis near Paris and completed the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic. She was his co-pilot literally and figuratively throughout their 45-year marriage. Author Melanie Benjamin‘s historical fiction account is a refreshing twist showcasing the complicated life of the couple from Anne’s perspective. It is a novel full of intrigue, adventure, and scandal without sounding like a soap opera. Melanie Benjamin keeps the narrative cool enough to avoid melodrama, but close enough for the reader to feel like they’re privy to the introverted couple, and it is easy to care for Anne in her unique position. The Aviator’s Wife is gracefully written, entertaining novel. 4/5.

Edward Rutherford’s books are fun history. New York follows the chronological format as the other novel of his I read, The Princes of Ireland. Rutherford created an epic by placing fictional characters that represented a class or social group and placed them into historical events. My favorite section in New York was the July 1863 New York City draft riots. A husband tried to find his abolitionist wife who faced a mob who wanted to kill the African American orphans at her school. I kept thinking about Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York when I read this part of the novel; not too surprised to realize I liked the book version more. 4/5. 

TELEVISION

I didn’t like it–I loved every episode including the cool intro music and artwork. Why? I’m a fan of 20th Century social history especially of film. Plus, I think it’s peculiar–America’s obsession with movie stars and the interworkings of making a movie. Although Susan Sarandon portrayed Bette Davis and Jessica Lange depicted Joan Crawford with admirable effort, the most convincing performances went to the entire supporting cast notably Stanley Tucci as Jack L. Warner, Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich, and Jackie Hoffman as Mamasita. The 8 episode series juggled two stories–the actual feud between Davis and Crawford (I love Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? so the drama behind the film attracted me.) The other story was the Hollywood climate surrounding the casting couch and the manipulative power of male movie moguls. By the end of the series, I had an itch to explore director Robert Aldrich’s filmography.

Movies 

I’ve seen a lot of films lately, especially starring Gene Hackman, but for this post, I picked a pair that had me thinking and feeling.

Predestination(2015). This is a mind-bending, science fiction thriller film written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig with screenplay help by Robert A. Heinlein.  Time travel is an easier concept to play out in books than in films because the price asked for the suspension of disbelief is high. In books, your imagination fills in the holes while not so at the movies. In this story, agent (Ethan Hawke) embarks on a final time-traveling assignment to prevent an elusive criminal from launching an attack that kills thousands of people. A fine performance by Hawke, but the show goes to the creative performance by Sarah Snook. It’s one I’d watch again. 4/5.

Wind River (2017).  It’s a mystery, crime thriller that personifies the cold, spring of Wyoming on an American Indian reservation. A daughter is raped and runs six miles in her bare feet across the winter landscape. A pretty FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to investigate, ill-suited but determined to solve the mystery, and teams up with wildlife officer Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Despite the somber premise, the movie is moving because the theme of loss permeates all the characters and is allowed to surface in a way that is harmonic with the whispering wind and frozen landscape and a satisfying resolution. It is a strangely beautiful film. Plus, if you want to see a pair from Dances with Wolves, Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal were a sight for sore eyes. Actor Gil Birmingham returns from Hell or High Water (2016) to give the best performance of the film as the grieving father. Director and writer Taylor Sheridan is fast becoming a favorite with Sicario (2015), and Hell or High Water (2016) to his credit. He seems to be carrying a freshly-lit torch as writer and director of the post-modern Western. Taylor Sheridan’s ability to make the natural setting an integral part of the plot and his willingness to let an ensemble cast have lines and scenes that foster true characterization are reminiscent of the Coen Brothers. 4.2/5.

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