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.

L13FC: Voice-over Narration

Welcome back! It’s the thirteenth and time to talk about the movies.

Many movie buffs realize there are more bad voice-overs than good ones. Telling the plot of the story as if the audience can’t figure it out visually is insulting and detracts from the scene. The function of good voice-overs is to provide a contextual layer that enhances the themes of the story or magnifies a character in a way that is not seen with the visual narrative. If you ask for a top 10 list of best voice-overs in film, many would include classics by Billy Wilder, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Malick, Fincher, and the Cohen Brothers. Some have argued that Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby with Morgan Freeman‘s soothing voice is technically bad voice-over narration. I admit it’s true. Imagine the pair without his hallmark voice. Would the stories still be touching? Yes. Did the voice-over help us see the story on another level or reveal the principal character in a way that enhanced him? Nope. Did it complicate the point of view? Yes. (And still, I love both films anyway.)

The best voice-over narrations reveal the inner battles of the character. The tension and the eerieness catapults to great heights when the audience is bound to the mind of a maniac like Alex in Clockwork Orange. Better yet is when the layers unfold to reveal the unreliable narrator or one who speaks from the grave like Joe Gillis. That’s a dimension that enhances the story.

One Great Example 

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Apocolypse Now (1979) is a film with great voice-over narration. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) journeys into the forbidden inner realm of Cambodia with orders to assassinate the Army’s fallen angel, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Willard ruminates about Kurtz. He struggles with the morality of his mission. The jungle and the river and the motley crew who travel with him seep into his system. Without the voice-over narration, we would not be privy to the unusual relationship that grows between Willard and Kurtz even though they have never met. By the end of the film, no voice-over is necessary. Our anticipation of meeting Kurtz combined with the exoticism of the heart of darkness and fueled by the singing of Jim Morrison provided one of the more captivating climaxes in cinematic history. We have been primed to wonder if Kurtz is crazy and we are horrified to the extent at which war has pillaged the minds and landscape along the way.

One Bad Example 

Molly’s Game (2018)With a voice-over style that reminded me of The Wolf of Wall Street, the fast-talking, no-nonsense narration by the principal character Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) interjects in and out of the film and shares her story as though she were giving an interview to a reporter.  Explaining the lingo of poker players with similar on-screen graphics used in The Big Short to simplify the concept of the game for audience members who might not know the culture of poker was debatably effective. Jessica’s voice-over was monotone. She’s smart and tough just like a man, but her narration lacked a personality. This is unfortunate since the story-line about the real-life Molly Bloom is fascinating.

The Molly Bloom voice-over narration didn’t help.  Especially when she shared scenes with her two leading men who gave the best performances–Idris Elba as her attorney Charley Jaffey, and Kevin Costner as her father Larry Bloom. Elba and Costner breathed life into their characters displaying them as smart and tough, but their human frailties and emotions were present throughout the film. Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain’s Molly hides behind a hard shell, but she comes across as a robotic doll. The best performance I’ve seen Chastain give was as Celia Foote in The Help. Ironically, she shines best as an actress when she’s not smart or driven.

Please, won’t you share your favorite voice-over and explain how the voice-over enhances the film or magnifies a character with dimension?  Or, what’s a bad example you’ve seen lately?  

L13FC: For the love of characters or why ‘The Shape of Water’ was better than ‘3 Billboards’

Let’s talk about the two leading films of the year assuming you have by now watched them. One annoyed the heck out of me and the other one pleased me on a number of levels. I’ve been thinking about why I utterly disliked Three Billboards and why I liked The Shape of Water. Structurally, the problem for me were the characters. Let me explain.

Characters 

When telling a story, there have to be good guys and bad guys. It’s fine if your protagonist has faults, but if they are utterly unlikeable, then I can’t invest emotionally in their plight. In 3 Billboards there is only one character that garnered my sympathy. The son. The rest are obnoxious and deplorable. The big problem of the film is the unlikeability of Mildred Hayes played by Frances McDormand. I should feel the compassion of a mother experiencing a tragedy. What’s the point of the only flashback to the daughter showing them fighting and insulting one-another in a Jerry-Springer-low-brow dysfunctional fight? Mildred kicking two students at the curb and her speech to a priest who came to visit are two examples that made her unlikeable. Martin McDonagh’s script slaps the audience with shock statements instead of building an emotional relationship between the characters and the audience. What’s missing is subtlety and depth. The film never goes deeper than verbal insults, physical insults, unrealistic conversations, and motivations. It was painful to watch. A rare exception to this is when Woody Harrelson’s character Chief Bill Willoughby earns my emotions when McDonagh employs the voice over to show the chief’s remorse. Obviously, a lot of people loved the dark comedy. Frances’s Best Actress award was a shoe-in, but I thought her character was boring.

In The Shape of Water, the 1960s fairytale includes subtle references to social ills at the time. All the characters are endearing except for the obvious bad guy, governmental henchman Richard Stickland, played perfectly by Michael Shannon. Showing instead of telling, the story shows the fears from the 1960s such as fears of difference–Russian ideology, segregation, and homosexuality. The creature was part of the allegory, a wish by the characters to live in a fairytale world like the movies Elisa and Giles watch on the television set, manifested in their bubble world, all outcasts from the real world, the mute, “dumb” Elisa, the lonely Giles whose illustrations have become old-fashioned and replaced by photography, and we love him because his rejections refuse to destroy him. The fairy tale is full of depth and subtlety. It’s a far more interesting film. Add the beautiful set designs of the Orpheum theater, the windows in the apartment building, the teal colors of water, and a romantic, satisfying score by Alexandre Desplat, all add up to an instant winner in my book. I’m glad it won Best Picture.

 

So what are your thoughts on the balance of characters? If you liked Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I’d like to know why you thought it was a well written, dark comedy. 

 

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