Posts Tagged With: Brian De Palma

Not So Wonderful Copenhagen… A Quick Take On Brian De Palma’s DOMINO.

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Domino (Denmark / France / Italy / Belgium / Netherlands, 2019). Directed by Brian De Palma.

Looks like Brian De Palma burned all his Hollywood bridges with Redacted (2007) and presumably his proposed Harvey Weinstein picture isn’t designed to rebuild any of them any time soon. Passion (2012) was a Franco-German co-production and his latest, Domino, sucked up tax shelter investments from several European countries, principally Denmark, where BDP experienced sufficient problems with producers to declare that this will be his first and final foray into Scandinavian Noir. The film recently crept out on disc in the UK without much fanfare and I was pleasantly surprised (also kinda shocked) when antisocial media pal @GIALLO_GIALLO advised me that it was available on Amazon Prime.

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So, what we got here? Things start promisingly enough when Copenhagen cops Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Lars (Søren Malling) roll up to a reported domestic abuse incident. Lars is running down the clock to retirement and talking about taking his wife on a Caribbean holiday, so no prizes for guessing what happens to him when the incident actually turns out to be a bit of jihadist score-settling. All this plays out as yet another Vertigo (1958) rehash and Christian’s guilt over his part in the death of a colleague, interacting with the motivation of Lars’ pregnant lover Alex (Carice van Houten) and machinations of slippery CIA man Joe Martin (Guy Pearce) promise much but ultimately, De Palma flatters to deceive.

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Lip service is paid to signature concerns such as media / message, scopophilia and the surveillance society (updated to include drones and facial recognition technology) and Pino Donaggio (above, with De Palma) delivers his mandatory Herrmannesque score but Domino lacks the kind of camera and editing virtuosity we’ve come to expect from BDP and packs just one significant set piece scene, at a Spanish bull fighting arena, where suspense is adeptly built then fizzles out with a well-aimed kick in the balls.

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De Palma seems to have reached that point in his career to which Dario Argento has been reduced for some time now. You know: Sleepless is better than The Phantom Of The Opera, but… Domino is a competent thriller on which you won’t begrudge spending 90 minutes of your time, but any amount of competent directors could have knocked it out. Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale and Passion, never mind Dressed To Kill, Blow Out or Raising Cain, would all knock spots off it.

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Would probably make quite a nifty double bill with Sergio Pastore’s Crimes Of The Black Cat (1972)…

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(Not) Mucho Denero… DE NIRO AND DE PALMA, THE EARLY FILMS Reviewed

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

For some time now, I’ve been promising / threatening “a major piece” on Brian De Palma (“major” in terms of the amount of time I’ve devoted to drafting and redrafting it, if nothing else) but every time I think I’ve got a handle on this subject, some new subtlety or bit of connectedness in something I watch or re-watch makes me despair of ever managing anything like a definitive take (or even my definitive take) on the complexities of his oeuvre. A review copy of Arrow’s Carrie BD previously obliged me to write something about that one in these pages and for the same reason, the necessity now arises to post something about that label’s “De Niro And De Palma, The Early Films” set, comprising the restored anti-establishment triptych The Wedding Party (1963/9), Greetings (1968) and Hi Mom! (1970).

Tim Lucas’s oft-quoted (frequently on this blog) axiom that “you can’t really say you’ve seen one Jesus Franco film till you’ve seen them all” is doubly applicable to the work of De Palma, whose schematic grasp of what he was going to do with his career is evident from his earliest days behind a camera, during which he lay down markers as bold and intentional as any classical historian embarking upon their magnum opus… indeed, the works of Thucydides, Sallust or Livy are probably more apt points of comparison for De Palma than the filmographies of such contemporaries as Spielberg or Lucas. That might seem like a bold and / or eccentric claim but stick with me and I’ll try to justify it as we go…

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The Wedding Party (co-directed with Wilford Leach and Cynthia Munroe) is a black and white comedy of manners in which young science fiction writer Charlie (Charles Pfluger), on the eve of his wedding to Josephine (Jill Clayburgh), gets cold feet about assimilating into her upper crust family. His misgivings are fuelled by his picaresque friends / ushers Alistair (Bill Finley) and Cecil (De Niro, billed as “Denero” though he didn’t make mucho on this movie… fifty bucks, legend has it). Charlie’s increasingly desperate attempts to escape are underlined by De Palma’s bag of silent movie tricks (always showing his directorial hand… always reminding you that you are watching a movie) but ultimately, the groom makes it down the aisle for an unexpectedly (in retrospect) conservative ending. The central characters are vaguely dissatisfied with what society has to offer them (TWP now reads like some kind of precursor to the likes of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, 1967) but no clear alternatives seem to be presenting themselves… yet.

On this outing neither Finley (who subsequently amassed a respectable CV, notably in De Palma and Tobe Hooper pictures) nor De Niro (no introduction required) particularly outshine Pfluger, who disappeared without a trace after The Wedding Party. The film itself, shot in 1963, remained on the shelf until interest in RDN started to take off, not least on account of Greetings, which predates by a year the more celebrated Easy Rider (1969) as the first alt.Hollywood film.

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Taking its title from the opening line of a draft induction letter, this one begins with a shot of a TV on which President Johnson is addressing supporters, explicitly linking victory in Vietnam to social progress at home (turns out, in hindsight, that neither was possible). One strongly suspects that De Palma is all-too hip to the parallels with (here it comes) Thucydides, whose History Of The Peloponnesian War (written circa 431 BC) struggles with the paradox of Athens’ Golden Age of Democracy being sustained by bully boy tactics abroad (“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must…”) Of course domestic life in America’s nascent Golden Age (proclaimed by LBJ in a winking paraphrase of Harold MacMillan), as lived by another trio of proto-slackers (De Niro as “Jon Rubin”, Gerrit Graham as “Lloyd Clay” and another one shot actor, Jonathan Warden as “Paul Shaw”) consists less of civic virtue than pursuing their ongoing obsessions with getting laid (Paul) or at least copping a look at unsuspecting women (Jon), figuring out who killed Kennedy (Lloyd) and dodging that draft (all of them!) while serving De Palma’s own insatiable obsession with the act of filming, itself.

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The cinematic techniques calling attention to themselves here are, appropriately, more Bertolt Brecht than Buster Keaton, with jump cuts (Godard, of course, looms large) and scant regard for the proverbial fourth wall. De Palma repeatedly identifies looking / filming as an aggressive act of intrusion to the point where Rubin, the only character who does end up in Vietnam, closes the picture by re-staging one of his voyeuristic phony screen tests with a captured Vietcong girl… the proverbial “masculine gaze” writ geopolitically large.

Indeed, when one of Paul’s computer dates shows disturbing signs of autonomous sexual spontaneity he calls in Lloyd, who inks bullet entry and exits points on her naked body to illustrate a point from his relentless mission to debunk the findings of the Warren Commission, a scene which anticipates Ballard (whose The Atrocity Exhibition was published in 1970) as much as it echoes Blow Up (referenced implicitly and explicitly throughout Greetings and far from the last word on Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece in the filmography of BDP), in the process earning Greetings American cinema’s first ‘X’ Certificate (beating out Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy by a fortnight). The boys’ haphazardly related amatory exploits recall those of Encolpius, Ascyltos and Giton in the pages of Petronius, usefully reminding us of the original derivation of the term “satire”.

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The radicalisation of Robert 1) Reading case studies on voyeurism in Greetings (1968)

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The radicalisation of Robert 2) Reading The Urban Guerilla in Hi, Mom! (1970)

By the end of Greetings Paul’s endless sexual quest seems to have consigned and confined him to a porno loop that Jon picks up from some guy in a dirty mac and Lloyd’s paranoia is vindicated when he’s shot down on account of whatever insight into the JFK conspiracy he might have gleaned. Jon, ironically the last man standing, returns home from ‘Nam to pursue his voyeuristic activities in Hi, Mom! (which co-writer / co-producer Chuck Hirsch insists should have been released as “Son Of Greetings”). When his pitch for a “Peep TV show” (which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the gallery of grotesqueries that is today’s “Reality TV”) gets turned down by a smut producer, Jon trades in his camera for a TV set and randomly tunes into a community arts channel covering an agitprop theatre troupe (including the blacked up Gerrit Graham) who are staging Be Black Baby, a “happening” designed to acquaint complacent whites with the realities of negro life in ’60s America. Rubin signs up to play “a Pig” and psyches himself up by having an argument with a mop in an astonishing dry run for De Niro’s celebrated “You talkin’ to me?” routine in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It’s a toss up as to which is the more fun, watching this or the various bull sessions on draft dodging in Greetings, wherein De Niro (of all people) method acts a method actor… I wonder what method acting tricks he fell back on to pull off that performance?

The white middle class punters are duly roughed up, robbed and sexually assaulted but leave thankful for having been granted a “real experience”. “The more you rape their senses…” as Ruggero Deodato would have it “… the more they like it”. Presumably nowdays these guys would be sufficiently confident in their right-on personnas to refer to fellow whites as “gammon” (admittedly an equal opportunities bit of nastiness that’s obnoxious to Caucasians, Jews and Muslims alike).

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The continuing radicalisation of Robert: Hi, Mom! (1970)…

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… and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976)

When the Be Black Baby players progress to armed insurrection with fatal consequences (chiefly for themselves), Rubin appears to settle for the straight life, becoming an insurance salesman and setting up home with Judy (Jennifer Salt), only to conclude the picture by dynamiting their apartment block into rubble. It’s here that De Palma explicitly sets out the mission statement (joining the mainstream and using his privileged position within it to propagate his own subversive messages) to which he has adhered so impressively throughout his magnificent career. Hm, maybe I’ll write something about that one of these days…

Supplementary materials include a new Greetings commentary by Glenn Kenny (the author of Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor), Howard S. Berger’s authoritative and engaging take on De Palma’s early films and interviews with Chuck Hirsch. The Hi, Mom! trailer and PDF of the Greetings press book were present and correct on the two (out of three) discs I received but the advertised interviews with actors Gerrit Graham and Peter Maloney were conspicuous by their absence so I can’t tell you anything about those, nor the limited collector’s edition booklet featuring new writing on the films by Brad Stevens, Chris Dumas and Christina Newland, alongside an archive interview with De Palma and Hirsch. Then again, any attempt to see and comprehend everything is always doomed to failure in the De Palmian universe and even after an incomplete viewing, I have no problem declaring this one of the essential releases of 2018.

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Greetings: Howard Thompson’s perspicacious NY Times review included the line: “Of… Robert De Niro and Jonathan Warden, the latter at least gives some evidence of talent”.

Despite Mrs F’s urgings, I have steadfastly resisted the temptation to sneak another classical allusion into this piece about Italian-American film luminaries, namely that hoary old gag about Euripedes…

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Drill Dos And Drill Dont’s… Umberto Lenzi’s SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS Reviewed

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DVD. Shriek Show / Media Blasters. Region 1. Unrated. Out Of Print.

Fashion designer Mario Gerosa (Antonio  Sabato) and his new bride Giulia (Uschi Glas) find their honeymoon bliss interrupted by an inconsiderate serial killer who, clad in the regulation black gloves and clothes, is working his way through all of the women that stayed at a holiday resort on a certain date… a list which includes Giulia. The other women on it are dispatched in various ways (strangled, bludgeoned, drowned, drilled, etc) but all of the victims have one more thing in common. Each of them is found clutching a piece of jewellery in the shape of a silver half-moon. When an attempt is made on Giulia’s life, Mario takes up the mantle of amateur sleuth…

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Released as Das Rätsel Des Silbernen Halbmonds (“The Riddle Of The Silver Half Moons”) in West Germany, this 1972 thriller from Umberto Lenzi is a fascinating film for anybody who’s interested in the way that country’s “krimi” cycle of Edgar Wallace adaptations shaded off into the Italian giallo. Towards the end of the ’60s, Rialto tried to revive their long-running but fast-flagging Wallace series with Italian co-productions but the first fruit of this arrangement, Riccardo Freda’s Double Face (1969), flopped. No further entries were attempted for a couple of years and by the time this film and Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done To Solange (also 1972) completed Rialto’s run, Dario Argento had scored an international crossover hit with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970… itself spuriously passed off in Germany as an adaptation of a novel by Bryan Edgar Wallace, Edgar’s son and literary executor) and the pasta men were very much in the ascendancy. Owing more to the sadism of Bava’s Blood And Black Lace (1964) and Argento’s aforementioned debut, Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (the alternative title deriving from something Sabato finds on the grave of somebody he’d previously regarded as chief suspect) is a million miles removed from the Sunday afternoon gentility of the krimi, Lenzi throwing in oodles of gratuitous nudity and fearlessly tackling the contemporary drugs scene… fearlessly and rather recklessly (at one point a hippy dude beseeches Sabato to stop interrogating his friend, who is undergoing “a bad trip” on account of some heroin he’s just injected)… what would Eddi Arent have said?

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Torn between two traditions (one of them, admittedly, only recently established) and officially adapted by Lenzi and frequent Fulci collaborator Roberto Gianviti from an obscure Wallace yarn, SBO / TROTSHM owes at least as much to Cornell Woolrich’s Rendezvous In Black and veteran spaghetti exploitation scribe Dardano Sacchetti also had an uncredited hand in its concoction. One could be forgiven for expecting a bit of a dog’s dinner but Lenzi, who already had something like thirty directorial credits under his belt at this point, keeps the story rattling along in involving fashion and mounts the brutal kill scenes with characteristically gleeful gusto (he would subsequently prove perfectly capable of phoning ’em in… witness the extraordinary mess that is Eyeball, 1975).

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Although his male cast ranges from workmanlike (Pier Paolo Capponi as Inspector Vismara) to (just about) acceptable (Sabato), Lenzi is superbly served by a very strong female cast, though he’s happy to kill off giallo icon Marina Malfatti (The Fourth Victim, The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, All The Colours Of The Dark) within minutes of introducing her character. Perhaps he saw her as the film’s “Marion Crane” character?

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Marisa Mell also gets bumped off in pretty short order (with a handy-dandy power drill, during a scene to which Brian De Palma pays the sincerest form of flattery in Body Double, 1984) but plays twins in this one so at least we get to see more of the gorgeous Ms Mell. Uschi Glas (who, like Mell, had previous krimi form) is an appealing and perky heroine with a pleasing penchant for sexy / ludicrous early ’70s outfits

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On the minus side, Riz Ortolani’s “original soundtrack” lazily recycles themes already familiar from Lenzi’s So Sweet… So Perverse and Lucio Fulci’s One On Top Of Another aka Perversion Story (both 1969). Bonus materials include a brief interview with Lenzi, in which he angrily dismisses accusations of Argento copying, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it chat with Gabriella Giorgelli (which, to be fair, probably lasts as long as her appearance in the film), liner notes, a gallery and trailers, not only for the main feature but also Lenzi’s Eaten Alive (1980) and a particularly chuckle-inducing one for his Spasmo (1974).

Riding the crest of an anti-clerical wave that peaked in 1972 (Fulci’s Don’t Torture A Duckling and Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die?, to name but two, were released in the same year), Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is a solid effort that any self-respecting giallo fan will want to catch. Time for a remastered Blu-ray release, methinks…

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Dirty Pillows & Devil’s Dumplings … CARRIE Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow. 18.

There was a time (and such a fine time it was) when Brian De Palma and Dario Argento  were bracketed together as whizz-kid master thriller technicians, heirs apparent to the Hitchcock crown, et al, but both careers have declined since then… hardly surprising for directors who have been plying and polishing their trade since the 1960s. Their respective declines, though, have been relative… for De Palma it means that a higher proportion of his regular output has become more Hollywood formulaic / less auteurial and no doubt he cries all the way to the bank, clutching his big pay check, on account of this… for Argento it means trading on past glories with Mother Of Tears, cranking out such banalities as Giallo and Dracula 3-D and struggling to crowd fund a film starring Iggy Pop. Having just had the memory of Dario’s recent screen misadventures knocked right out of our heads by the restored Suspiria, here’s a timely reminder for all of us that De Palma was once a bit special, too.

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I’m assuming that the viewer is already familiar with the plot of Carrie… ugly duckling turns beautiful swan and is doused with pig blood… which really sets the telekinetic cat among the pigeons… topped off with the mother of all shock endings. The film also marked De Palma’s own transformation from vaguely lefty underground film maker to Hollywood player, ready to flex the dazzling technical chops he’d built up on the innovative but obscure likes of Dionysus In ’69 (1970) before a mainstream audience… and didn’t he do well? Dazzlingly deploying every tool in his armoury – virtuoso tracking, crane and “figure of eight” shots, slow motion, multi-focus lenses, split screen, you name it – De Palma, for my money, out-Hitches Hitchcock here, with sequences of sensuously strung-out suspense that will still perch you, agonised, on the edge of your set, no matter how many times you’ve seen them before. Coincidentally of course, the success of De Palma’s movie put a rocket under the career of the guy who wrote its source novel, a certain Stephen King.

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Piper at the Gates of Hell…

To add to the strength of his material and his own cinematic virtuosity, BDP could call upon the contributions of a team of stalwart collaborators, just about all of whom are acknowledged and celebrated and get to have their say somewhere in the mind-bogglingly generous supplementary material with which Arrow have stuffed this set. Here, I’ll just mention his cast. De Palma held a joint casting session for the film with George Lucas, who was looking to fill the roles for Star Wars. Seems like Brian got George’s cast-offs but can you imagine anybody topping the ensemble playing that he got in Carrie? The Oscar nominations for Sissy Spacek in the title role and Piper Laurie as her religiously fanatical mother were almost unprecedented for a “mere” horror film. Amazingly, the director considered swapping Spacek and Amy Irving in their respective roles (has Irving spent a single second in her life looking dowdy?) and took a lot of convincing to have Nancy Allen in the film at all (thereby nearly depriving us of the most mouth-watering Bad Girl in screen history… never mind Carrie White burning in Hell, I wanna know what mischief Chris Hargensen is getting up to down there!) De Palma did insist on Betty Buckley slapping Allen (his soon-to-be wife) repeatedly and for real during the PE detention scene. Armchair psychologists may make of this what they will… and no doubt they will.

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The 4K restoration looks a tad grainy to these eyes but they’ve been a bit spoiled recently… it was probably a bad idea to watch Carrie (or anything, for that matter) right after CultFilms’ staggering release of Suspiria. The good news is that the film sounds great in 5.1 surround sound and as previously mentioned, Arrow have really gone to town on the extras, here… De Palma, writer Lawrence D. Cohen, DP Mario Tosi, composer Pino Donaggio (for whom Carrie was also the Hollywood breakthrough… he talks about George Lucas jumping out of his seat at the end of his first exposure to the finished film), editor Paul Hirsch (who had his work cut out for him, assembling the split screen footage), casting director Harriet B. Helberg and art director Jack Fisk (Spacek’s real life husband) talk at length about their participation in putting Carrie together (much is said, for instance, about the aborted “raining stones” prologue). All of the major thespian participants (with the exception of John Travolta, whom everyone agrees was a sweetheart) speak about the film in documentaries made at various times over the years… it’s interesting to see how they’ve aged.

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Homecoming Queen… the return of The Repressed

As well as the expected galleries, trailers, TV and radio spots, you get a brand-new visual essay, courtesy of Jonathan Bygraves, comparing the various screen adaptations of Carrie over the years. There’s an “alternate” (should be “alternative”, right?) title sequence created for network television screenings to obliterate any sightings of lady bits or direct references to menstruation (to put this in perspective, it’s only in recent months that UK TV has allowed commercials for sanitary products to feature red rather than blue blood!) Betty Buckley, who plays Miss Collins in the film, talks about her stint as Carrie’s mom in the riotously received theatrical flop Carrie – The Musical and in an episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, some refugee from Green Day takes us on a present day tour of the movie’s iconic locations. He’s kind of irritating but I occasionally cracked a smile on account of his gonzoid presentational style.

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I haven’t had time to check the commentary track by Lee Gambin and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, nor the opportunity to peruse the 60-page booklet, which features a new appraisal by Neil Mitchell, who wrote the Devil’s Advocates entry on Carrie, a reprint of a 40th anniversary fanzine, and an archive interview with De Palma. I’m unlikely to see that now, given that last time I checked this limited edition set was selling out all over the place.

If you do manage to get your hands on a copy… well, we can burn it together and pray for forgiveness!

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Sorry, couldn’t resist another shot of Satan’s favourite cheer leader…

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