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Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian De Palma

De Palma remains one of the most prolific, poorly understood and controversial directors in the history of cinema.

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Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian De Palma

Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 04/29/2004, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).

“I’ve lived in empty places all my life. I don’t care where I live or what I look like.”

— Brian De Palma

“Critics—no maybe I should call them “reviewers” instead of critics—are looking for the latest thing rather than the truest thing.”

— Armond White, attempting to explain the critical abandonment of De Palma

In May, 2001, director Brian De Palma was honored with a one-month long retrospective, “The Responsive Eye,” at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Although De Palma had been taken seriously for decades by international critics, and had cultivated a large domestic audience, reviewers in the United States had been slow to recognize his achievements and progression as an artist. This event was seen by many as a breakthrough.

De Palma remains one of the most prolific, poorly understood and controversial directors in the history of cinema. His career has spanned three decades and includes such touchstones as Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible. Not only are these tremendously important works in their own right; De Palma’s characters, the phrases they utter and the philosophies they propitiate have been absorbed into our cultural vocabulary. Through persistence and longevity De Palma has created a body of work that is as moody and recalcitrant as it is aesthetically unassailable. The intensity and perceptivity of his works insures that a discussion of De Palma’s films is not merely a discussion of cinema but a discourse on the dynamics of human nature and our national psyche.

In spite of his popularity, De Palma is admittedly notorious. He has been accused of misanthropy, misogyny, cynicism—and their opposites: of “loving women,” of humanism, idealism and gushing romanticism. He is known alternately as a dispassionate plagiarist of Hitchcock and a maverick, a wicked satirist, an avant-gardist, a “sell-out”, a fiercely independent iconoclast and an intellectual; a creator of intensely personal or detached, deterministic and cerebral movies. As his own publicist, De Palma has at times been inflammatory. He is ambiguous or flagrantly opaque when discussing his own work and is at times willfully misleading. He is angered by his critics and occasionally peremptory with staunch advocates. De Palma’s mentor, Wilford Leach, once described him as a man defined not by his continuities but by his incongruities: “He is his own opposite, if you will. He is his contradictions.” Yet the truth is that De Palma’s body of work is undeniably symmetrical and entirely consistent.

Animosity towards De Palma’s formative, ferocious works is subsiding, and the trend towards measured reappraisal of his value as a filmmaker has encroached on his reputation for vituperation and scandal. The critical logjam gave way between the 1998 release of Snake Eyes and September 2000, when De Palma turned sixty years old. Since then, nearly all of De Palma’s works—including the confrontational Sisters, elegant Obsession and cult touchstone Phantom of the Paradise—have been reissued on DVD. The continued popularity of his old and new works, coupled with a recent surge of enlightened Internet criticism and highly publicized retrospectives domestically and abroad attest to the growing recognition of his importance. Courses on De Palma are now taught in several major universities.

Although De Palma has never been cowed by negative criticism, it is probable that without it his body of work might look very different than it does. Provocation has helped him to clarify himself. His films evolve to become more quietly forceful. His obsessions are his obsessions; that he explores and re-explores them with such tenacity attests to his unwillingness to discard his essential ideologies. His allegiance to a risky set of ideas in the face of skepticism situates him in a battle of attrition against evolving sensibilities. Just as Hitchcock and Kubrick outgrew their labels, as decades pass it becomes far more difficult to dismiss Carrie and Dressed to Kill as misogynist diatribe because audiences are increasingly sophisticated in their ability to draw a distinction between what a character signifies and what a director intends to say. These obstinate labels, on the contrary, have been good for De Palma because they stimulate scrutiny, and scrutiny motivates De Palma to be lucid.

Because of the advocacy of critics and persistent theorists, in conjunction with Internet scholarship and intermittent bursts of enthusiasm by mainstream reviewers who recognize flutters of genius in a half dozen of his works, the hope never perishes that De Palma might one day receive the reckoning afforded to a Kubrick, Scorsese or Godard. It has never been feasible to discredit De Palma on the grounds he lacks talent—even Stanley Kauffmann, who disdained the works now considered De Palma’s greatest, never denied that De Palma was gifted. In fact, it was precisely De Palma’s aptitude that exasperated Kauffmann; he argued De Palma’s crime was that he did not apply his genius to the telling of moral stories. But De Palma’s stories are moral; it is their moral complexity that creates the impression they are amoral.

A cinema of fearlessness

In the 1970s a new cinematic language became necessary not merely to transcribe the incongruity and paradox of life but to enhance the ability of cinema to save life from sameness by revealing the art in existence. Brian De Palma’s work was initially hard to reconcile with the affable coherence of more accessible, less contentious movies. His work was, and still is, a reaction against the incorrect apprehension of reality, as well as the representation of reality in art. He prefers pessimism if it is accurate to optimism that is a gross distortion of life experience. In the wake of assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate, films that fed rather than challenged complacency were vestigial leftovers, and audiences were famished not for platitudes disguised as comfort food but truth even when it hurt. De Palma’s films depict a world in which decency is imperative but rare and seldom rewarded; he offers a realistic representation of virtue’s motives and consequences, and a more honest appraisal of the impulse to be good. He presents action as a new mythology and antidote to paralysis and does so in a form that heightens the appreciation of reality rather than tries facetiously to persuade us that the world is arctic, corrosive and banal. De Palma’s career has been about testing the architectural integrity of cinema and encompasses his search for a balance between spectacle that ravishes the senses and emotional truth that invades the psyche at a subconscious level.

A visualist with an appreciation for the beauty of movement through geographies and across glittering surfaces, De Palma is constitutionally unable to make ugly films, and making them beautiful serves his purpose of locating existential splendor in chaos. He is fascinated by the discourse that transpires between film and spectator, and actively provokes our perception at deeper levels by colliding abstract symbols and polymorphous imagery, by offering more than one interpretation of a single event, and by integrating dream and reality without clarifying which is which in order to prove that in art such a distinction barely matters. As his work has become less edgy, it has become more philosophically challenging and, at times, subtly provocative—not provocative because of sex and violence, but as a result of an evolving sensibility that weds unconventional ideas with revelatory technique that sometimes contradicts or aggressively deceives the audience as to his intent.

De Palma is fearless when it comes to transposing patterns from one genre to another, and even when he works within the framework of a genre he manages to transcend easy categorization. Critics refer to Carrie and The Fury as horror films only because no more precise term exists to describe what they are. Is The Untouchables a western or a cop film? To call Mission: Impossible an espionage thriller is to reduce what is more properly described as a hybrid of Oedipus and Hamlet. Nearly three decades after its release, film theorists still quarrel over how to label Phantom of The Paradise.

Most every De Palma film conjures to mind at least one quintessential image, many of them metaphors in themselves: Carrie White soaked in pig’s blood at her own prom; Gillian, arms raised in the middle of a day-lit street as she tries to distinguish saviors from assassins in The Fury; Jack Terry straining to listen to the imperiled Sally through an earpiece on a subway platform in Blow Out; Tony Montana emerging from a swirl of smoke with a hand held rocket launcher in Scarface; Ethan Hunt suspended by a wire in Mission: Impossible; any frame extricated from the famous baby carriage sequence in The Untouchables. The images are potent enough; that they revivify contemplation of concepts is an even greater attribute.

His best films function as stories that enthrall us, paradoxes that trap us, and metaphors that expatiate the effort of a protagonist to cope with a fragmenting universe. De Palma adjusts for chaos and his films speak directly to people who feel, intuitively, that the world is coming apart at the seams but is not yet lost entirely. Even his ethical heroes are sentenced to linger in irreconcilable trauma. De Palma’s works comprise a relentless commentary on the world in which we live, even in instances where they masquerade as fully integrated commercial entertainments. His movies are soulful and inspiring even when they resolve in ambiguity, bitterness and mourning, if only because so many of his protagonists do, to some degree, master chaos.

Emergence of an auteur

De Palma was born in 1940. Pauline Kael, in a November 8, 1976 essay, situates De Palma among his contemporaries of Catholic upbringing, including Coppola and Scorsese. “These men have grown up with a sense of sin and a deep-seated feeling that things aren’t going to get much better in this life.” They are compelled to make art that testifies to their experience of America as a country in which “the Protestant work ethic doesn’t seem to have worked out too well.” As an adolescent, De Palma was mesmerized by computers and distinguished himself by winning first place at a science fair. After a brief flirtation with physics at Columbia University, De Palma immersed himself in his other fascination: filmmaking. His very early works, Greetings and Hi Mom!, were satires. But De Palma’s favorite director was Alfred Hitchcock, and in the early ‘70s he quickly located the Psychological Thriller a sufficiently lean genre whose economies and conventions invited the sort of expressionistic displays of technique that excited his muse. He recalled the genesis of his interest to Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times:

“I wanted to tell tight, precise stories and suspense and terror sometimes lend themselves to that. I was trying to learn something about film technique. I’ve been influenced by the German Expressionists. I’m very concerned with motivating an audience through imagery. I think I’m one of the few directors working in that area, and a lot still has to be developed there. Visual imagery and sound are essential elements of a film. That’s what makes cinema cinema. Most directors use their cameras as recording instruments and don’t really get to the essential element of form.”

Susan Dworkin, author of Double De Palma—a portrait of Body Double in production—situates De Palma among the “movie brats” and posits one explanation for the difficulty of categorizing works produced by these directors to genres.

“Artistically, De Palma could be placed as one of the “Whiz Kids,” a group of five directors who constituted a central generation in American auteur filmmaking. Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma were all friends, connected by old encounters… The Whiz Kids were American spinoffs of the European nouvelle vague of the early 1960s. They had been raised on the notion that the real auteur of a good movie had to be the director. It was originally François Truffaut’s idea, put forth when he was still a film critic and not yet a director himself. The idea was that a director could take a genre movie…and so imbue it with his vision and technique that it would rise above the genre into the sphere of art.”

Jake Horsley, introducing De Palma in The Blood Poets, a sprawling, two-volume analysis of violent contemporary cinema, writes:

“De Palma was actually the first American auteur of the New Hollywood (“the movie brats”) to emerge, but the last to come to prominence (not counting George Lucas, who is hardly an auteur in the true sense). He is also the most gleefully, perversely derivative of them all, and perhaps for this reason the most in tune with the times. De Palma may be the only one of these auteurs—Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielbergfrom whom we might still hope for miracles…”

Julie Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy remains the single most vivid portrait of De Palma at work. She concisely summarizes De Palma’s evolution and the conventional perception of his work. De Palma’s movies were, she writes,

“emotional, operatic films, repeatedly invoking the idea that terror was the only possible response to the cruel and irrational forces that governed the universe… His movies were filled with disturbed families and confused identities. They were filmed with such technical precision that they called attention to the presence of the man behind the camera, whose invisibility protected him from the intense emotions he aroused as he moved his characters through the treacherous, sometimes sadistic world he created on film. His movies were bloody yet oddly poetic, feverish yet carefully planned, full of passion yet distant.

”…Psychologists were intrigued by De Palma’s fascinating with pathology, by the aberrant behavior aroused in characters who find themselves manipulated by others.

“A great many people simply thought that De Palma was a fraud. They argued that he had simply dressed up his woman-hating wickedness so artfully that the intelligentsia didn’t see him for what he was: a perverse misogynist.

“At first De Palma was startled by the attacks, and then invigorated by them. He willingly, sometimes gleefully, went head to head with journalists eager to denounce him for the violence and violent sexuality in his movies. People were almost always thrown off guard when they met the well-spoken graduate of a Quaker school in Philadelphia, Columbia University, and Sarah Lawrence. Articulate and convincing, De Palma could defend himself very well indeed.”

The portrait that has incrementally emerged—not only in Salamon’s exemplary document but in interviews and profiles—is that of a casual—even frumpy—and reserved man who spends money on art and travel but not luxury, appreciates praise but anticipates condemnation, is indulgent with actors but cynical about producers, is impatient with dull questions asked by journalists and, at times, impatient with reasonable questions asked by proponents. De Palma also smokes, has trouble sleeping during production, allays anxiety by means of meticulous planning, and is cool under fire with studio executives—or at very least conceals his anxiety well. His mischievous side manifests when he is under assault; he will occasionally go incognito—vanish from the set or—in the wake of the critical coruscation of Mission to Mars—vanish from the continent. One can draw any number of conclusions from his asceticism, which has been remarked upon by many. Paul Mandell observes in a post-Fury interview:

”[De Palma] lives a relatively normal life far from the madding crowd of Hollywood. Beside a cigarette-littered ashtray on a table in his modestly furnished Fifth Avenue apartment sits a $50 portable typewriter with a piece of paper rolled through the carriage… “I’ve lived in empty places all my life,” I recalled him saying once in an interview. “I don’t care where I live or what I look like.” Mmm. I remembered reading how he spent his high school years designing computers and dreaming of going to the moon. I also remembered reading that he had been disinherited; had worked at a Greenwich Village bistro, the Village Gaslight; and had caught a bullet from the NYPD at the age of 23… The furniture was quite sparse.”

Mandell also quotes De Palma as saying, “I’ve never had an interest in anything material. I’ve always found it difficult to buy things. I’m just very bored by the process of going into a store. In fact it makes me quite uncomfortable.” Jennifer Dunning opens her New York Times profile with a description of an austere, morose De Palma:

“Mr. De Palma was sitting rather glumly across a worktable in his lower Fifth Avenue apartment. Soft rock blared out. But the apartment was nearly bare of furniture. Airy and immaculate, it had almost a monastic look.”

De Palma described himself to Us magazine author Stephen Schaefer in 1978 as “a relatively happy person” who lives alone and whose favorite pastime is “to be alone.” Julie Salamon gives us a flavor for De Palma’s preference for solitude—including a desire not to be bothered, particularly when napping—when she describes his abrupt absences during the filming of Bonfire of the Vanities, typically when he anticipated a confrontation with uneasy studio executives. As he had done on the set of Carrie, he soon began to listen to opera cassettes on his Walkman during filming.

Salamon believes she has located De Palma’s central contradiction: “He wanted to be recognized as an artist by the critical establishment, and he wanted to achieve box office success. Yet his most personal films could never have the mass appeal of more conventional movies.” To complicate matters, the critics who understood and felt possessive of his work resented it when he released films that made money and were appreciated by mainstream audiences.

Wrestling with contradiction

The desire for both artistic legitimacy and commercial success is contradictory in De Palma only because his stated objective is not to be loved but to be “infamous.” He has never aspired to please the many; that many are often not pleased should not surprise De Palma. Yet his behavior in the wake of rejection, even of ferociously antagonistic works like Casualties of War, suggests he is wounded by it—even by rejection that he actively courts, as in the case of Body Double, a film that sought to infuriate skeptics and cultivate new enemies. He appears at times simultaneously to reject and serenade the Hollywood establishment. Armond White explained to interviewer Brett Leitner why he believes De Palma—unlike Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas—is perceived to be an outsider:

“Probably because he takes more risks. I’ve always thought that people don’t really understand De Palma’s movies. I think of him as a popular filmmaker, yet he is not popularly understood. So many people who think he simply rips off Hitchcock don’t understand how many other filmmakers have influenced him. One of those other filmmakers is Godard. And like Godard, De Palma tends to alienate some people because he is so experimental, doing what used to be called ’radical.’ It causes the audience to think about what they’re watching… Because De Palma has that Godardian side to him, that’s the trouble he faces too, even though he works in a popular American medium.”

White, who has interviewed De Palma twice, found the director reluctant to discuss the political, social or metaphorical dimensions of his work.

Pauline Kael became De Palma’s first crucial advocate. She praised films like Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie and The Fury without guilt and argued that De Palma’s works were more than entertainments; they were not derivative but additive, and were products of an exponentially developing talent. Where other critics saw potential, Kael discerned hallucinatory poetics and wicked satire. It was not just that Kael was pleased by the films—many critics were pleased by Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie and The Fury—but the way she was pleased, and her persistence and eloquence in stating her case. She was able to situate De Palma in a context that did not diminish his achievements by insinuating that he was merely an understudy to greater, earlier directors. She called his films serious, compared them to works by Godard and Antonioni, and devoted pages and pages to cataloguing their virtues and, when necessary, their deficiencies. Certainly one of the most daring sentences she ever authored appeared in her 1978 review of The Fury, in which she asserted that De Palma had at last directed a movie that surpassed in intensity, vision and number of classic sequences anything directed by Hitchcock. In her defense of De Palma, Kael made adversaries and—in the eyes of the critical establishment—jeopardized her credibility. She was pilloried and even parodied by other critics. But she never backed down.

Armond White would become a force in the U.S. reappraisal of De Palma that followed the release of Snake Eyes. White’s contribution is not blind acceptance of every De Palma work (in fact, he was aghast by French exaltation of Carlito’s Way) but his positioning of De Palma, the modernist, among his post-modernist peers and his recognition of the sensibilities that fuel the director’s vision, not only at the moment the films are released to the world but within the larger context of what White describes as their “dialogue” with the history of cinema. White has on occasion opposed the consensus; he sees Mission: Impossible as a “sell-out,” deducted brownie points from The Untouchables because it pleased mainstream audiences, believes Bonfire of the Vanities is a vastly under-appreciated work of satire, and proclaimed Mission to Mars one of the ten best films of 2000. White is a provocative non-conformist who appears to distrust films that succeed at the box office but is unflinchingly consistent in locating aesthetic organization and passages of astounding beauty even in De Palma’s less experimental, widely accepted works. White believes hostility towards De Palma is a conditioned response to movies that have artistic rather than escapist aspirations. When interviewed by Brett Leitner, White asserted:

”[Critics] want to deny the truth and drift off into total escapism… That’s why they can’t see De Palma for anything other than a Hitchcock imitator. Some people think the world begins and ends with Hollywood formula; they aren’t aware of art, they aren’t aware of the modernist movement. But I think that’s almost willful. I mean, he’s been making movies for over thirty years and they still deny his seriousness. But it’s worse than that, it’s a willful commitment to the Hollywood idea of ’escapism is everything.’”

White attributes historical resistance to De Palma to a fear of filmic sensuality, invoking a phenomenon that Kael theorized in her essay, “Fear of Movies.”

”[De Palma] disturbs them in a way that a facetious and parodical filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino never can, because there isn’t really much style to respond to in Tarantino. Minimal style is OK with a lot of people, so they don’t want to respond to De Palma’s camera movement or his style of editing. They don’t even want to feel it. I think that’s part of Pauline Kael’s notion, that the ’fear of movies’ for some people is a culturally induced thing, almost related to peoples’ sexual response. Movies are very kinetic and can be a sensual art form and some people are just afraid to feel those things.”

White believes that critical and popular perception of De Palma is in transition and that reappraisal of his work is inevitable. For White, “the tide has turned. [We] have to make it happen. Critical responses are the result of critics. We need a new generation of critics, because after a while opinions and attitudes become a matter of inherited hostility rather than individuals watching movies for themselves. Think about Godard’s career. His reputation is still in dispute, yet he is crucial to film culture… [De Palma] may always be in dispute. And that’s OK!”

Many critics now concede that films like Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible did overcome the contradiction Salamon described by achieving both artistic and commercial success. But there has never been the unanimity in the critical community that is so predictably engendered by the works of a Scorsese or Spielberg. The charge, by De Palma’s advocates, is that he has not been taken seriously by critics simply because his works are so controversial that even to contemplate their significance is to risk ridicule. In the preamble to his interview with Armond White, Brett Leitner writes, “Few critics have dared to make public a respect for De Palma, and fewer still have bothered to explore the significance of his talent.”

Influences and accusations

As for De Palma’s appropriation of Hitchcock’s techniques, De Palma admits how deeply influenced he is by Hitchcock as well as other filmmakers. Critics versed in film history note not just one but a gamut of influences, including Orson Welles, Scorsese, Cassavetes and Kubrick. Although some dismiss any notion of a Kubrick influence on De Palma, he has invoked Kubrick frequently, as far back as 1975, and revisited Kubrick’s satires when conceptualizing Bonfire of the Vanities. De Palma has wisely left it to critics to determine whether he has surpassed his mentors or not—and some important critics believe he has realized Hitchcock’s promise by transcending its strictures and introducing important social themes—and even taboo—to the paradigm. On the matter of De Palma’s debt to Hitchcock, Jake Horsley writes:

“De Palma does not copy Hitchcock, he follows him, and his films (specifically Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and, to a much lesser extent, Obsession, Body Double, and Raising Cain) are not imitation Hitchcocks, they are rather authentic and ingenious developments of the same themes that once obsessed Hitchcock… De Palma took the threads that Hitchcock laid, and then ran with them, in the process creating a whole new tapestry, and his audacity helped to resurrect the old horrors within new forms in the American cinema.”

Another recurring allegation is that early De Palma’s works are inherently misogynist. Feminist objection to Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Body Double left a taint that persists. More recently the charge was leveled against Casualties of War. Perhaps helping his cause, but likely not, De Palma discussed with critic Michael Bliss the aesthetic reasons he places women in mortal jeopardy:

“You try to deal with things that an audience can identify with on a visceral level and I feel that’s what they can identify with to some extent. People say, “Why do women get slashed in his films, what does he have against women?” I just think that when women are in a perilous situation, audiences identify with them more than men because they look more helpless.”

De Palma’s mentor, Wilford Leach, sees internal contradiction as what differentiates De Palma’s work from that of his contemporaries and, even, from those works to which De Palma’s suspense films are frequently compared. Leach told author Susan Dworkin: “I can still tell Brian’s work in a minute. His work is the work of a rational, thoughtful, intellectual person who stands outside things—and who, in fact, is the opposite of that, whose passions run deep, whose sense of outrage is limitless.”

There is ample contradiction in De Palma; a filmmaker who admires and borrows from Hitchcock yet grows weary of having critics acknowledge this debt; a director who loves his female characters—often speaks through his females—yet situates their demise, often at the hands of vindictive psychopaths and disturbed voyeurs, as central to his art; a director who is simultaneously nonchalant about assertions his blockbusters are “sell-outs” and defensive of the charge because it insinuates artistic compromise; a director who at times seems to welcome and spar with detractors yet, in some instances, has cancelled publicity tours in the wake of critical excoriation. Finally, De Palma is a director who until 1985 wanted to offend the sensibilities but expressed disappointment when his films were denounced as offensive—perhaps because they were not attacked on their own terms but marginalized by a process of comparison (“Hitchcock”) and reductionism (“satire”).

Beauty in the grotesque

De Palma has, like Kubrick, Lynch and Fincher, sought to master the intersection of mesmerizing beauty and grotesque horror while legitimizing and freeing encumbered and stigmatized genres. His films are intensely curious—curious about the human psyche, as well as the cyclic patterns and inherent nature of quotidian existence. They explore cycles of self-preservation, implosion, virtue, vice and avarice. They hunger for the cosmic meaning of suffering. They explore the nature of mistakes and substitute obsolete myths about America with more fortifying and truthful myths. Where De Palma deviates from his contemporaries is that he situates intellect, intuition and social strategy as higher than emotion or pure altruism on the hierarchy of evolutionary tools. His most realized protagonists are patient Watchers who observe and deliberate before using reason, psychology and technology to smash through deception. De Palma does not attach any special premium to the emotional synthesis of crisis. His most successful characters are resourceful, methodical and disciplined. In instances where they are manipulated and exploited, it is often a consequence of inattentiveness or existential resignation.

De Palma’s characters are almost universally motivated by dualistic drives; they are multidimensional in their objectives and paradoxical in their desires. They seek transcendence, but how they go about this is dependent upon frequently contradictory considerations. Grace Collier in Sisters attempts to parlay the private anguish of a neighbor into professional credibility but soon becomes sidetracked by her fervor to feed a deeper psychological need. Jake Scully in Body Double is motivated by the paradoxical demons of prurient desire and a shamed conscience. In Blow Out, regret disguised as altruistic idealism manifests as Jack Terry’s compulsion to resurrect his accomplice, Sally Bedina, in his own image. Tony Montana’s every step closer to a forgery of the American Dream is undermined by proportionate estrangement from his own soul and bitter alienation from the sister whose idolatry inspires his voracity for success. In Casualties of War, Private Eriksson’s impulse to intervene on behalf of a brutalized civilian collides with the obstacle of rational self-preservation in a universe where hierarchy and moral order are eviscerated by primitive impulse and collective psychosis. In Mission Impossible, Ethan Hunt’s fixation on the mastery of obstacles and restoration of order to chaos is tainted by an erotic desire that may or may not constitute the betrayal of a betraying mentor. In Femme Fatale, De Palma documents the internal struggle of a female protagonist as she deliberates whether to accept or reject an archetype so powerful that it has the potential to emancipate or destroy her. Yet, even these thumbnail descriptions seem insufficient to convey the forces that toss De Palma’s creations around the existential abyss. In film after film, De Palma situates a divide between private aspirations and the intrinsic need to be—and to be perceived by others as—decent and evolving towards a perfected and sovereign self.

The films propound a hydraulic, incessant and fastidious linkage of cause to effect that challenges the notion of reality as arbitrary and unfathomable. Non-virtue yields poor results and good causes yield better results but often his heroes do not triumph in any traditional sense. They do, however, embody the realm of free choice and pure action. Everything they do matters. They do good, or they do bad, they leave an imprint on the society in which they struggle, and they always suffer. Despair can, in De Palma’s world, be the redemptive result of a magnificent act of moral courage. Good intentions can reap catastrophe. A deadly mistake is repeated by an intelligent man with an honorable aspiration. This is a much more clear-headed and less nostalgic cognition of the world in which we live—but De Palma gives it to us not as realism but allegory that, in its way, exalts the travails of life and transforms painful experience into art. There is glory to be found even in the stories of his most malignant characters. They are larger than life, and they believe they are free. Even when his narratives are phantasmagoric, they convey something utterly true. Through abstraction, and by the sheer fascination and novelty of their journeys towards redemption or collapse, they affirm the spiritual journey that culminates in self-comprehension and autonomy.

De Palma’s films are not warm and fuzzy. They issue ultimatums, cultivate disenchantment, and violate narratological edicts. Their heroes reap weariness and disappointment. He creates universes that penalize good intentions, sometimes reward intellect, and dangle temptation before the weak and ambivalent. His consistent mixture of beauty with violence is his signature. His Darwinian films, which champion ascendancy over evil and entrenched corruption by means of superior tools of adaptability, intellect, intuition and reason, have a taint of elitism because they deviate from classicist and popular exemplars that argue being good is enough. In De Palma’s universe being good is a virtue but is no guarantee of survival. His natural selection tends to favor taciturn exotics who do not react but rather choose a response. His cinema is not always a cinema of transformation. De Palma does not blindly accept the mantra that great drama must be about radical change; the challenge for some of his protagonists is to resist an onslaught. Eliott Ness and Private Eriksson, for example, are characterized by their defiance; they refuse to change, compromise or submit to an invitation to corruption.

De Palma is fascinated by contradictions within motive. The nightmare at the conclusion of Dressed to Kill hints that even the use of manipulation for a virtuous purpose—to expose a killer—leaves its user with a penetrating sense of guilt. In Body Double a questionable and frivolous obsession leads a man to solve a murder made possible only by his predictability. De Palma’s best films behave like self-replicating Von Neumann machines: They are so highly stylized, self-assured, and unrelenting that they create the impression that they are intelligent life forms. They ask, but only partially answer, the questions they raise about what it means to live in the modern world.

Clear perception is the religion of De Palma’s most intricate protagonists; Gillian in The Fury; Jack Terry in Blow Out, Eliott Ness in The Untouchables; Private Eriksson in Casualties of War, and Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible. Intuition, which De Palma distinguishes from emotion and intellect, is not a means to an end but a lifeline. Gillian doesn’t use clairvoyance; she embodies clairvoyance as a metaphor for sovereignty and the synthesis of truth. Peter Miller’s preoccupation is surveillance. Jack Terry’s is sound and, like Rick Santoro’s in Snake Eyes, visual-sequential reconstruction. Ethan relies on logic and photographic memory. These skills define the character who possesses them while functioning simultaneously as tools to master the indecipherable.

A universe of graceful suffering

De Palma is one of our most important and prolific living American directors. He has produced one of the most obstinate and unpredictable bodies of work in history. The prodigality, diversity and controversy of the oeuvre has frightened scholars away from pursuing meta-theories that explain De Palma’s output as a unified whole. To complicate matters, like Godard, De Palma’s films not only entertain and ruminate on the human condition but constitute a critique of contemporary cinema. Yet De Palma is every bit as consistent as Scorsese, as subversive as Lynch, and as cerebral and bemused by human nature as Kubrick. Like Scorsese, he excavates the same themes repeatedly, often to augment or recalibrate a schema he has rethought. Dworkin, with the help of De Palma’s mentor, explains the rationale behind repetition.

“Wilford Leach said that Brian’s movies were like the circling of the planets. Around and around the artist went, a lifelong 360-degree pan, and what he saw on one revolution would be better lit on the next or in total darkness the next time around. With each revolution, there was a further revelation, but the universe of Brian’s material remained basically the same.

Brutality.
Sex.
Greed.”

De Palma’s work testifies to an ongoing process of reinvention. He continues to transfigure obsolete, dishonest and meaningless myths for emerging generations that crave their renovation. His stories are infused with life; those moved by them receive the twin gifts of inspiration and curiosity. His films help us to experience the world more intensely, and to bear with grace, intelligence and courage the suffering of being human.

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Review: The Call of the Wild Provides a Resonant Take on a Classic

The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism.

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The Call of the Wild
Photo: 20th Century Studios

The latest cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is a surprisingly thrilling and emotionally moving adventure film. Its surprises come not only from director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green’s dramatic overhaul of the classic 1903 novel for family audiences, but also from the way their revisions make London’s story richer and more resonant, rather than diluted and saccharine.

It’s worth recalling that London’s vision of man and nature in The Call of the Wild is anything but romantic; indeed, at times it’s literally dog eat dog. In his story, the imposing yet spoiled Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix, is kidnapped from his wealthy master’s California manor and sold to dealers in Yukon Territory, where the Gold Rush has created high demand for sledding dogs. Buck’s initiation into the culture of the Northlands involves severe beatings at the hands of his masters, brutal rivalries with fellow sledding dogs, harsh exposure to unforgiving elements, and an unrelenting work regimen that allows for little rest, renewal, or indolence. What London depicts is nothing less than a Darwinian world where survival forbids weakness of body and spirit, and where survivors can ill-afford pity or remorse.

Not much of that vision remains in Sanders and Green’s adaptation. Buck is still kidnapped from his home and sold to dog traders, but his subjugation is reduced from repeated, will-breaking abuse to a single hit. In this Call of the Wild, dogs never maul one another to death, a regular occurrence in London’s novel. And minus one or two exceptions, the human world of the story has now become uplifting and communal rather than bitter and cutthroat. In the first half of the film, Buck’s sledding masters are an adorable husband-and-wife team (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) in place of a rough pair of mail deliverers, and in the second half, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), Buck’s last and most beloved master, isn’t revealed to be hardened treasure-seeker, but a grieving man who finds redemption in the great outdoors.

The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism and by its deepening of the man-dog bond that forms the heart of London’s story. This Call of the Wild relies heavily on a CGI Buck (and other virtual beasts) to create complex choreographed movement in labyrinthine tracking shots that would be impossible to execute with real animals. One might expect the artifice of even the most convincing CGI to undermine Buck’s palpable presence, as well as the script’s frequent praises to the glory of nature, yet the film’s special-effects team has imbued the animal with a multi-layered personality, as displayed in joyously detailed, if more than slightly anthropomorphic, expressions and gestures. And the integration of Buck and other CGI creations into believable, immersive environments is buttressed by the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, who lenses everything from a quiet meadow to an epic avalanche with lush vibrancy.

In the film’s first half, human concerns take a backseat to Buck’s education as he adapts to the dangerous world of the Northlands, but in the second half the emergence of Ford as Buck’s best friend adds to the film a poignant human dimension. Thornton rescues Buck from a trio of inept, brutish, and greedy city slickers (Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell), and Buck in turn saves Thornton from misery and drunkenness as he pines away for his late son and ruined marriage while living alone on the outskirts of civilization.

This is a welcome change from London’s depiction of Thornton, who possesses on the page a kind heart but not much else in the way of compelling characteristics; the summit of his relationship with Buck occurs when he stakes and wins a fortune betting on Buck’s ability to drag a half ton of cargo. In this film version, Thornton and Buck’s relationship grows as they travel the remotest reaches of wilderness where Thornton regains his sense of wonder and Buck draws closer to the feral origins of his wolf-like brethren and ancestors. Ford lends gruff vulnerability and gravity to Thornton in scenes that might have tipped over into idyllic cheese given just a few false moves, and his narration throughout the film forms a sort of avuncular bass line to the proceedings lest they become too cloying or cute.

A paradox exists in The Call of the Wild, which is indebted to advanced technological fakery but touts the supremacy of nature and natural instincts. Yet there’s a sincerity and lack of pretense to the film that transcends this paradox and evokes the sublime.

Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Cara Gee, Scott MacDonald, Terry Notary Director: Chris Sanders Screenwriter: Michael Green Distributor: 20th Century Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Book

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Review: Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Robertson’s sadness was more fulsomely evoked by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.

2.5

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Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Toward the end of the 1960s, with the Vietnam War raging and the civil rights movement and the counterculture in bloom, art was about taking political and aesthetic sides. As such, one can understand how Bob Dylan’s electric guitar could be met with violent boos, as it signified a crossing of the bridge over into the complacent mainstream, to which folk music was supposed to represent a marked resistance. In this context, one can also appreciate the daring of the Band, whose music offered beautiful and melancholic examinations of heritage that refuted easy generational demonizing, while blending blues, rock, and folk together to create a slipstream of American memory—Americana in other words. Like Dylan, the Band, who backed him on his electric tour, believed that art shouldn’t be reduced to editorial battle hymns. Complicating matters of identity even further, the prime architects of Americana are mostly Canadian. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson were all from Ontario, while Levon Helm hailed from Arkansas.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is concerned mostly with celebrating the Band’s early rise and influence on American culture, as well as their sense of connecting the past and present together through empathetic lyrics. Holding court over the film is Robertson, the dapper and charismatic songwriter and guitarist who looks and sounds every inch like the classic-rock elder statesman. Airing sentiments from his memoir, Testimony, Robertson mentions his mixed heritage as a citizen of the Six Nations of Grand River reservation who also had Jewish gangster relatives, and who moved to Canada at a formative age. Richardson learned his first chords on the reservation, and began writing songs professionally at 15, after he met Ronnie Hawkins and Helm. Hawkins’s group would over several permutations become the Band, whose musical identity crystallizes during their collaboration with Dylan.

Director Daniel Roher’s glancing treatment of Hawkins, a vivid presence who also performed on Martin Scorsese’s Band concert film The Last Waltz, signifies that Once Were Brothers is going to steer clear of controversy. Was Hawkins bitter to have his band usurped by the teenage prodigy Robertson? Even if he wasn’t, such feelings merit exploration, though here they’re left hanging. The documentary’s title is all too apropos, as this is Robertson’s experience of the Band, rather than a collective exploration of their rise and fall. To be fair, Danko, Manuel, and Helm are all deceased, the former two dying far too young, though Hudson perhaps pointedly refused to participate in this project—another event that Roher fails to examine. And the big conflict at the center of this story—Robertson’s intense, eventually contentious relationship with Helm—is broached only in an obligatory fashion.

Although the fact that Robertson and Hudson are the only Band members left standing adds credence to the former’s view of things, as he maintains that much of the group succumbed to drugs and booze, leaving him to write most of the music and to shepherd their joint career as long as he could. (Robertson’s wife, Dominique, offers disturbing accounts of the car crashes that routinely occurred out of drunk and drugged driving.) Helm, however, insisted that the Band’s collective influence on musical arrangements merited a bigger slice of royalties all around. Robertson and various other talking heads remind us of these grievances, though Roher quickly pushes on to the next plot point. Robertson is a magnificent musician and subject, but his devotion to his side of the story renders him suspicious—a cultivator of brand.

For these omissions and elisions, Once Were Brothers is a slim, if ultimately enjoyable, rock testimony. The highlight is the archival footage of the Band practicing and recording, including a privileged moment with Dylan after one of the controversial electric concerts, as well as interludes at the pink house in Woodstock where they recorded their defining Music from Big Pink, an album that included their classic “The Weight,” which Dennis Hopper would turn into a master boomer anthem in Easy Rider. Moments of the Band at play affirm Robertson’s idea of their early days as a kind of lost utopia, and his present-day nostalgia is cagey yet undeniably moving. Yet Robertson’s sadness, his sense of having witnessed friends and collaborators get washed away by bitterness and addiction, was more fulsomely evoked by Scorsese in The Last Waltz, as he looked at the Band and saw an entire group, a dying unit, rather than Robbie Robertson and the other guys.

Director: Daniel Roher Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Come and See Is an Unforgettable Fever Dream of War’s Surreality

It suggests that a war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind.

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Come and See
Photo: Janus Films

War movies largely condition us to look at warfare from a top-down perspective. Rarely do they keep us totally locked out of the commander’s map room, the bunker where the top brass exposit backstory, outline goals, or lay out geography for the viewer. Both characters and audience tend to know what’s at stake at all times. Not so in Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, in which relentless bombings and frenetic camerawork shatter the Belarusian countryside into an incoherent, fabulistic geography, and the invading Germans appear to coalesce out of the fog on the horizon like menacing apparitions.

We experience the German invasion of Belarus through Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who joins the local partisan militia after discovering a rifle buried in the sand. The early scene in which he departs from his mother and sisters presents a disconcerting, even alienating complex of emotions: the histrionic panic of his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), who alternately embraces and rails against him; the hardened indifference of the soldiers who’ve come to retrieve him; and the jejune oblviousness of Floyria himself, who mugs at his younger siblings to mock his mother’s concerns. Eager to participate alongside the unit of considerably more weathered men, Flyora feels emasculated when he’s forced to remain behind in the partisans’ forest encampment with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a local girl implicitly attached to the militia unit because she’s sleeping with its commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevicius).

Glasha first takes on nymph-like qualities in Flyora’s adolescent imagination, appearing in hazy close-ups that emphasize her blue eyes and the verdant wooded backdrop. This deceptive idyllic disintegrates, however, when the Germans bomb and storm the empty camp, kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke that never seem to fully leave the screen for the rest of Come and See’s duration. The two teenagers flee, pushing through the muck of the now-fatal landscape, only to discover more horrors waiting for them back in Flyora’s village.

The horrors lurking in the mists of a muggy Eastern European spring may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind when he coined the phrase “the fog of war,” but Klimov’s masterpiece suggests a redefinition of the term, the evocative phrase signifying the incomprehensible terror of war rather than its tactical incalculables. Come and See’s frames are often choked with this fog—watching the film, one almost expects to see condensation on the screen’s surface—and Klimov fills the soundtrack with a kind of audio fog: the droning of bombers and surveillance planes, the whine of prolonged eardrum-ringing, an ambient and sparse score by Oleg Yanchenko. It’s a cinematic simulacrum of the overwhelming, discombobulating sensory experience of war that would have an influence on virtually every war movie made after it.

And yet, in a crucial sense, there’s hardly a more clear-sighted or realistic fiction film about World War II. Klimov refuses to sanitize or sentimentalize the conflict that in his native language is known as the Great Patriotic War. While fleeing back into the woods with Flyora, Glasha momentarily glimpses a heap of bodies, Flyora’s family and neighbors, piled on the edge of the village where tendrils of smoke still waft from their chimneys. Despite the fleeting nature of her glance, the image sticks with the viewer, its horror reverberating throughout the film because Klimov doesn’t give it redemptive or revelatory power. There’s no transcendent truth, no noble human dignity to be dug up from the mass graves of the Holocaust.

Florya and Glasha eventually separate, Flyora joining the surviving men to scour the countryside for food, only to find himself the survivor of a series of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. A full third of the Nazis’ innocent victims were killed in mass executions on the Eastern Front—both by specially assigned SS troops and the regular Wehrmacht (though the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” lives on to this day). As the end titles of Come and See inform the audience, 628 Belarusian villages were extinguished in the Nazis’ genocidal quest for Lebensraum, so-called “living space” for the German Volk. As wide-eyed witness to a portion of this monstrous deed, Flyora’s face often fills the film’s narrow 4:3 frame—scorched, bloodied, and sooty, trembling with horror at the inhumanity he’s seen.

Like his forbears of Soviet montage, Klimov uses a cast stocked with nonprofessionals like Kravchenko, and he doesn’t shirk from having them address the camera directly with their gaze. In Klimov’s hands, as in Eisenstein’s, such shots feel like a call to action, a demand to recognize the humanity at stake in the struggle against fascism. Klimov counterbalances his film’s apocalyptic hopelessness with a righteous rage on behalf of the Holocaust’s real victims. The film, whose original title was Kill Hitler, takes as its heart-shattering climax a hallucinatory montage of documentary footage that imagines a world without the Nazi leader.

Come and See bears comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which likewise narrates a young boy’s conscription into the irregular Russian resistance to German invasion. But whereas Tarkovsky embellishes his vision of a war-torn fairy-tale forest in the direction of moody expressionism, Klimov goes surreal. Attempting to make off with a stolen cow across an open field—in order to feed starving survivors hidden in the woods—Flyoria is blindsided by a German machine-gun attack. Pink tracers dart across the fog-saturated frame, a dreamlike image at once unreal and deadly. Taking cover behind his felled cow, Flyoria awakes in the empty field, now absolutely still, with the mangled animal corpse as his pillow.

As an art form, surrealism was fascinated by the capacity for violence and disorder lurking in the psyche. Without betraying the real—by, in fact, remaining more faithful to it than most fictional remembrances of WWI have been—Come and See suggests that the war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind. For Klimov, the dreamscapes of war realized surrealism’s oneiric brutality.

Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985

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Review: Corpus Christi Spins an Ambiguous Morality Tale About True Faith

It’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.

3

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Corpus Christi
Photo: Film Movement

Using as its jumping-off point the surprisingly common phenomenon of Polish men impersonating priests, Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi weaves an elaborate, thoughtful, and occasionally meandering morality tale about the nature of faith, grief, and community in the 21st century. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a 20-year-old juvenile delinquent, is a recently converted believer, but he’s also an opportunist. After finding himself mistaken for a man of the cloth upon arriving in a small, remote town, Daniel decides to strap on the clergy collar from a costume and play the part for real. Better that than head to the sawmill for the backbreaking work his former priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), has lined up for him.

This setup has all the makings of a blackly comic farce, but Komasa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz play the scenario straight, using Daniel’s fish-out-of-water status as a catalyst for interrogating the shifting spiritual landscape of a Poland that’s grown increasingly disillusioned of both its religious and political institutions. For one, a general wariness (and weariness) of the cold, impersonal ritualism of the Catholic Church helps to explain why many of the townspeople take so quickly to Daniel’s irreverent approach to priesthood, particularly his emotional candidness and the genuine compassion he shows for his parish.

That is, of course, once the young man gets past his awkward stabs at learning how to offer confession—by Googling, no less—and reciting Father Tomasz’s prayers, discovering that it’s easier for him to preach when shooting from the hip. The convenient timing of the town’s official priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn) falling ill, thus allowing Daniel to slide comfortably into the man’s place, is a narrative gambit that certainly requires a small leap of faith. But it’s one that engenders a fascinatingly thorny conflict between a damaged imposter walking the very thin line between the sacred and the profane, a town still reeling from the trauma of a recent car wreck that left seven people dead, and a shady mayor (Leszek Lichota) yearning for a return to normalcy so that his corrupt dealings can run more smoothly.

The grieving process of the family and friends of the six teenagers lost in this tragedy is further complicated by rumors that the other driver had been drinking, leading to his widow (Barbara Kurzaj) being harassed and completely ostracized by the community. The falsity of this widely accepted bit of hearsay shrewdly mirrors Daniel’s own embracing of falsehood and inability to transcend the traumatic events and mistakes of his own recent past. Yet, interestingly enough, it’s the vehement young man’s dogged pursuit of the truth in this manner, all while play-acting the role of ordained leader, that causes a necessary disruption in the quietly tortured little town. His unwavering support of the widow, despite the blowback he gets from the mayor and several of the deceased teenagers’ parents, however, appears to have less to do with a pure thirst for justice or truth than with how her mistreatment at the hands of those around her mirrors his own feelings of being rejected by society.

It’s a topsy-turvy situation that brings into question the mindlessly placating role that the church and political figures play in returning to the status quo, even if that leaves peoples’ sins and darkest secrets forever buried. And while Daniel’s adversarial presence both shines a light on the town’s hypocrisy and their leaders’ corruption, his own duplicity isn’t overlooked, preventing Corpus Christi from settling for any sweeping moral generalizations, and lending an ambiguity to the ethics of everyone’s behavior in the film.

Whether or not the ends justify the means or fraudulence and faith can coexist in ways that are beneficial to all, possibly even on a spiritual level, are questions that Komasa leaves unanswered. Corpus Christi instead accepts the innate, inescapable ambiguities of faith and the troubling role deception can often play in both keeping the communal peace, and in achieving a true sense of closure and redemption in situations where perhaps neither are truly attainable. Although the film ends on a frightening note of retribution, it’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.

Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Tomasz Zietek, Barbara Karzaj, Leszek Lichota, Zdzislaw Wardejn, Lukasz Simlat Director: Jan Komasa Screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stella Meghie’s The Photograph Isn’t Worth a Thousand Words

The film is at its best when it’s focused on the euphoria and tribulations of its central couple’s love affair.

2.5

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The Photograph
Photo: Universal Pictures

Near the middle of Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) seduces Mae (Issa Rae) after dropping the needle on a vinyl copy of Al Green’s I’m Still In Love with You. The 1972 soul classic is a mainstay in many a foreplay-centric album rotations thanks to the smooth atmospherics set by the Reverend Al’s dulcet tones, but it’s not the aptness of the music choice that makes this encounter so strikingly sensual. Rather, it’s the leisurely, deliberate pacing with which Meghie allows the scene to unfold. As the mellow “For the Good Times” smoothly transitions into the more chipper and frisky “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” Michael and Mae engage in playful banter and subtle physical flirtations. The sly move of having one song directly spill into the next offers a strong sense of this couple falling in love, and in real time. The subtle surging of their passion occurs along with the tonal change of the songs, lending Michael’s seduction of Mae an authentic and deeply felt intimacy.

The strength of this scene, and several others involving the new couple, is in large part due to the effortless chemistry between Rae and Stanfield. When the duo share the screen, there’s a palpable and alluring romantic charge to their interactions, and one that’s judiciously tempered by their characters’ Achilles heels, be it Mae’s reluctance to allow herself to become vulnerable or Michael’s commitment issues. As Mae and Michael struggle to balance their intensifying feelings toward one another with their professional ambitions and the lingering disappointments of former relationships, they each develop a rich, complex interiority that strengthens the film’s portrait of them as individuals and as a couple.

The problems that arise from the clash between Mae and Michael’s burgeoning love and their collective baggage are more than enough to carry this romantic drama. But Meghie encumbers the film with a lengthy, flashback-heavy subplot involving the brief but intense love affair that Mae’s estranged, recently deceased mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), had in Louisiana before moving away to New York. These flashbacks aren’t only intrusive, disrupting the forward momentum and emotional resonance of the film’s depiction of Mae and Michael’s relationship, but they provide only a thinly sketched-out, banal conflict between a woman who wants a career in the big city and a man content to stay put in the Deep South.

The overly deterministic manner with which Meghie weaves the two stories together adds an unnecessary gravity and turgidity to a film that’s at its best when it’s focused on Michael and Mae’s love story. The intercutting between the two time periods is clunky, and while both narratives eventually dovetail in a manner that makes thematic sense, Meghie extends far too much effort laying out Christina’s many mistakes and regrets for an end result that feels both overripe and overwritten. When The Photograph lingers on the euphoria and tribulations of Mae and Michael’s love affair, it’s rich in carefully observed details, but the gratuitous flourishes in its narrative structure gives it the unsavory pomposity of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Issa Rae, Chelsea Peretti, Teyonah Parris, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chanté Adams, Rob Morgan, Courtney B. Vance, Lil Rel Howery, Y’lan Noel, Jasmine Cephas Jones Director: Stella Meghie Screenwriter: Stella Meghie Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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David Lowery’s The Green Knight, Starring Dev Patel, Gets Teaser Trailer

Today, A24 dropped the trailer for haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery’s latest.

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The Green Knight
Photo: A24

Jack of all trades and haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery is currently in pre-production on the latest live-action adaptation of Peter Pan for Disney, which is bound to be full steam ahead now that The Green Knight is almost in the can. Today, A24 debuted the moody teaser trailer for the film, which stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain on a quest to defeat the eponymous “tester of men.” Scored by Lowery’s longtime collaborator Daniel Hart, The Green Knight appears to have been shot and edited in the same minimalist mode of the filmmaker’s prior features, which include Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story. Though it’s not being billed as a horror film, it’s very easy to see from the one-and-a-half-minute clip how Lowery’s latest is of a piece with so many A24 horror films before it.

According to A24’s official description of the film:

An epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend, The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men. Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger. From visionary filmmaker David Lowery comes a fresh and bold spin on a classic tale from the knights of the round table.

The Green Knight is written, directed, and edited by Lowery and also stars Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, and Barry Keoghan.

See the trailer below:

A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.

The Green Knight

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Review: Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists Stagily Addresses the State of a Nation

Tukel’s film doesn’t live up to the promise of its fleet-footed opening.

2

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

Taking place on the night of the 2016 presidential election, Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists begins, fittingly, with the sound of a woman crying. Alice (Christine Campbell) explains to her concerned daughter that she’s sad because half of the country has made the wrong decision, prompting the child to respond that her mother has herself been wrong before: “You were wrong when you thought that black man stole your cellphone.” Defensively writing off this past instance of casual racism as nothing more than an honest mistake, Alice sends the girl back to bed, after offering a weary “probably not” in response to her asking if she could be elected president someday.

In just a few lines of dialogue, Tukel exposes the moral blind spots and hypocrisy of otherwise well-meaning liberals, not to mention the irresponsible vanity of outrage and despair in the face of a stinging electoral defeat. This short scene highlights the emotional vulnerabilities that often underpin, and undermine, political convictions, and it serves as a perfect encapsulation of almost all of the film’s thematic concerns.

Unfortunately, the rest of The Misogynists doesn’t live up to the promise of this fleet-footed opening. Set mostly within the confines of one hotel room and featuring sex workers, a Mexican delivery boy, wealthy businessmen, and other roughly sketched characters from the contemporary political imagination, Tukel seems to be aiming for a broad comedy of manners in the key of Whit Stillman and early Richard Linklater, but there isn’t enough attention to detail, sense of place, or joie de vivre to make his scenarios come to life.

The narrative revolves around Cameron (Dylan Baker), a friendly but obnoxious Trump supporter. Holed up in the hotel room where he’s been living since breaking up with his wife, he invites various visitors to share tequila shots and lines of coke in celebration of Trump’s victory, while he holds forth on such hot-button topics as racial hierarchies, gun control, and gender roles. Baker delivers a spirited performance as Cameron, but the character is little more than a one-dimensional stand-in for a particular reactionary attitude, especially compared to the more nuanced and conflicted figures he interacts with. As the script isn’t bold enough to dig into the deeper emotional appeal of Trump’s nationalistic fervor and old-school machismo, Cameron’s smug, pseudo-intellectual cynicism is mostly unconvincing.

Tukel realizes one of his few visual flourishes through the TV in Cameron’s hotel room, which switches itself on at random and plays footage in reverse, transfixing whoever happens to be watching. This works well as a metaphor for the re-emergence of political beliefs most people thought to be gone for good, as well as the regression that many of the characters are undergoing in the face of an uncertain future. It provides a hint of the more affecting film that The Misogynists could have been had it transcended the staginess of its setup.

Though the film’s dialogue rarely offers enough intellectual insights to justify a general feeling of artificiality, it does effectively evoke the media-poisoned discourse-fatigue that’s afflicted us all since before Trump even decided to run for public office. The film shows people across the political spectrum who appear to have argued themselves into a corner in an effort to make sense of their changing society, and their failure to live up to their own beliefs seems to be contributing further to their unhappiness.

Going even further than this, one of the escorts, Sasha (Ivana Miličević), hired by Cameron offers up what’s perhaps the film’s thesis statement during an argument with her Muslim cab driver, Cairo (Hemang Sharma). She insists on her right to criticize whoever she wants, claiming that “Americans wouldn’t have anything to talk about” without this right. This idea of conflict being preferable to silence ties into the ambiguous denouement of The Misogynists. Tukel ultimately seems to suggest that the freedom so many Americans insist upon as the most important value is, in fact, so lonely and terrifying that even the spectacle of the world falling apart is a reassuring distraction.

Cast: Dylan Baker, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Ivana Milicevic, Lou Jay Taylor, Matt Walton, Christine Campbell, Nana Mensah, Rudy De La Cruz, Hemang Sharma, Cynthia Thomas, Darrill Rosen, Karl Jacob, Matt Hopkins Director: Onur Tukel Screenwriter: Onur Tukel Distributor: Factory 25, Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Downhill Is a Watered-Down Imitation of a True Provocation

Downhill never makes much of an impact as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next.

2

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Downhill
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure brims with precisely calibrated depictions of human misery—shots that capture, with a mordant, uncompromising eye, the fragility of contemporary masculinity and the bitter resentments underlying the veneer of domestic contentment. The observations it makes about male cowardice and the stultifying effects of marriage aren’t exactly new, but Östlund lends them an indelibly discomfiting vigor through his rigorous yet playful compositions. Given the clarity of that vision, it probably goes without saying that Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s Downhill, an Americanized remake of Östlund’s film, faced an uphill battle to not seem like an act of redundancy.

Downhill not only borrows the basic outlines of Force Majeure’s plot, but also attempts to mimic its icily cynical sense of humor. The result is a pale imitation of the real thing that never builds an identity of its own. Like its predecessor, Downhill tracks the fallout from a single catastrophically gutless moment, in which Pete (Will Ferrell), the patriarch of an upper-class American family on a ski holiday in the Alps, runs away from an oncoming avalanche, leaving his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and two sons, Finn and Emerson (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford), behind—though not before grabbing his phone.

This scene, which Östlund covers in a single indelible long take in Force Majeure, is broken up here into a conventional series of shots. It’s reasonably well-constructed, and it effectively sets up the chain of events that follow, but perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t carry the same weight. And the same is true of so much of Downhill as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next, never making much of an impact.

Comedy of discomfort usually depends on the willingness to linger on an awkward moment, to make it impossible for us to shake off that discomfort. But Faxon, Rash, and co-screenwriter Jesse Armstrong lack the courage of their convictions. They craft some truly cringe-inducing scenarios, such as an explosive debate between Pete and Billie as they attempt to convince a couple of friends, Rosie and Zach (Zoe Chao and Zach Woods), whose version of events about the avalanche is correct. But they don’t give us enough time or space to soak in the uneasy atmosphere. During the debate, for example, Billie rouses Finn and Emerson and has them testify before Rosie and Zach that her memory is correct. But almost as soon as the sheer inappropriateness of the decision to bring her kids into the center of a brutal marital dispute hits us, the moment has passed, and the film has moved on to the next gag.

It’s hard not to feel like Faxon and Rash are pulling their punches, perhaps anxious that going a little too dark or getting a bit too uncomfortable might upset the delicate sensitivities of an American audience. Rather than really dig into the marital strife at the heart of the film’s premise, they’re mostly content to step back and let Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus do their thing. And the two actors bounce off each other with a pleasantly nervous energy, Ferrell’s clammy desperation so well contraposed to Louis-Dreyfus’s rubber-faced emoting.

Ferrell plays Pete as a man terrified of his own feelings, unable to reveal his deep insecurities to anyone, including himself. Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand, wears every emotion, however fleeting, right on her face, which is in a state of constant flux. Throughout Downhill, Billie’s emotions range from unease to anger to self-doubt to pity, often in the span of seconds. More than anything else, it’s Louis-Dreyfus’s performance that sticks with you after the film is over.

If Force Majeure was essentially a film about male cowardice, Downhill is in many ways about the lies women must tell themselves to remain sane in a man’s world. It’s apt, then, that one of the pivotal images in Östlund’s film is that of the husband’s pathetically weeping face as he breaks down in a fit of self-loathing in front of his wife, and that the most lasting image in this remake is the look of shock, confusion, and rage on Billie’s face as Pete tells her the same. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few truly striking and meaningful images in the entire film.

Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods, Julian Grey, Kristofer Hivju, Ammon Jacob Ford, Giulio Berruti Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Screenwriter: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 86 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a Tribute to Journalists, Gets First Trailer

Anderson’s latest is described as a “love letter to journalists.”

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The French Dispatch
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Today, Searchlight Pictures debuted the trailer for The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s first feature since 2018’s Isle of Dogs and first live-action film since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. According to its official description, The French Dispatch “brings to life a collection of stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city.” The city is Ennui-sur-Blasé and the magazine is run by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an American journalist based in France. The trailer, just a hair over two minutes, quickly establishes the workaday (and detail-rich) world of a magazine, a travelogue struggling with just how much politics to bring to its pages during a time of strife.

A French Dispatch is written and directed by Anderson, whose described the film as a “love letter to journalists,” and stars Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson. See the trailer below:

Searchlight Pictures will release The French Dispatch on July 24.

The French Dispatch

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Review: Sonic the Hedgehog Doesn’t Rock, Even After a New Paintjob

Throughout, any and all subtext is buried under the weight of Jim Carrey’s mugging.

1.5

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Sonic the Hedgehog
Photo: Paramount Pictures

It’s only fitting that director Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog, the belated big-screen debut for the eponymous Sega mascot, feels like a blast from the 1990s. Eschewing the emphasis on world building that pervades so many contemporary blockbusters, the film remains intensely focused on the personal travails of its supersonic protagonist (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and opts for telling a single, complete story over setting up a potential franchise universe. Indeed, despite Sonic being an alien from a distant planet, we only briefly glimpse other realms besides Earth throughout the film, and we only get enough of the blue hedgehog’s backstory to know that he fled his homeworld (modeled on the original video game’s starter level) after being hunted by other residents afraid of his superpowers.

Using rings that can allow him to pass through dimensions, Sonic ends up on Earth, settling in the woods around Green Hills, Montana. He remains hidden for his own safety but suffers from intense loneliness. This much is obvious from the way he darts around the outskirts of town, watching people from afar or spying on them through windows and pretending to have conversations with them. But Sonic the Hedgehog repeatedly makes its hero reiterate his feelings in endless monologues and voiceover narration. If the best contemporary children’s films trust young viewers to follow at least some of the emotional beats of a story on their own, Sonic the Hedgehog is frustratingly old-school in its condescension, as the filmmakers constantly hold the audience’s hand in order to make sure that we understand why the hero looks so crestfallen as he, for example, plays group games all by himself.

Eventually, Sonic’s high-speed, energy-producing running causes a power surge, and after the Pentagon enlists a private drone contractor, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), to investigate the cause, the hedgehog finds himself in the government’s crosshairs. As originally conceived in the video game, Robotnik had little depth or motivation beyond providing a megalomaniacal impedance to the hero, but there’s something gently unnerving about how little updating had to be done to Robotnik’s simplistic backstory to credibly present him as a mercenary in a modern military-industrial complex wielding destructive drone technology without oversight.

Of course, that subtext is rapidly buried under the weight of Carrey’s mugging. As the actor is wont to do, he lunges at each line like a starving animal, pulling rubber faces and jutting his limbs in angular motions as he says every other word with an exaggerated pronunciation. In depicting a mad scientist, Carrey over-exaggerates the madness at the expense of the rare moments in which Robotnik conveys a more compelling kind of super-genius sociopathy, a tech-libertarian’s disregard for anything outside his own advancement.

Through a series of mishaps, Sonic accidentally opens a portal to San Francisco with his rings and drops the remaining transportation devices through it, necessitating a retrieval mission to California. To do so, he enlists Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a local Green Hills cop, to escort him. Having Sonic travel with Tom is an obvious pretense to give the former his first true friend, but the pairing comes at the expense of all narrative logic. Sonic can sprint from Montana all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back within seconds, yet he opts to tag along in a pickup truck doing 60mph for a mission where time is of the essence.

To Marsden’s credit, there’s a natural camaraderie between him and the computer-animated Sonic, which is impressive given that the critter was likely represented on set by a tennis ball on a stick. The jokes are almost all uniformly awful, following a formula of some zany thing happening and a character merely describing aloud what just happened in an incredulous voice. But Marsden impressively imbues Tom with a sense of pity as the man contemplates Sonic’s life on the run—one that finds the hedgehog living in the shadows and heading to new, sometimes miserable worlds to outrun forces that might exploit and harm him.

For a film that gained notoriety well before its release for how wildly Sonic’s original animation diverged from his well-established look, Sonic the Hedgehog does show a clear understanding of the source material and its essential nature. Sonic, fundamentally, is a goofy character with a specific power who just wants friends, and as exasperating as the film can be in its overbearingly clumsy humor, it at least never tries to make the character more complicated than he really is. But the lack of any greater depth to the core of the material limits the possibilities of making any of this meaningful to anyone.

Video games long ago began to reveal their cinematic aspirations, but the Sonic the Hedgehog series to this day continues to channel the old-school cool of platformers that prize gameplay—and testing the player’s hand-eye coordination—over matters of story. There’s plenty of potential for movies and games to inform one another, but perhaps the only aspect of video game culture that Sonic the Hedgehog brings to cinema is the trend of allowing preemptive fan outrage to necessitate overhauls from already overworked animators.

Cast: Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Adam Pally, Lee Majdoub, Neal McDonough Director: Jeff Fowler Screenwriter: Pat Casey, Josh Miller Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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