Is this Brian De Palma’s only dull film? Very possibly yes. Released in 1986, this post-SNL Joe Piscopo vehicle (you read that correctly) feels incredibly standard. The plot concerns two low-level gangsters, Moe and Harry (Piscopo and Danny DeVito, respectively), who lose their mob boss’ money at the race track. Said mob boss (Dan Hedaya) orders the two schlubs to kill each other. Hijinks ensue.
In spats, it plays like De Palma trying out slapstick. Select moments — a close-up shot that pulls out to reveal Harry being drowned inside of a fish tank or Moe testing out a bulletproof suit jacket for his boss — highlight the fascinating hybrid of De Palma’s visual style with broad, studio comedy. If only it worked a bit more frequently throughout the film’s bloated 100-minute runtime. One can only ponder what additional mileage the director may have achieved from DeVito’s deliciously terrible hairpiece, but, alas, it was not to be.
It often seems that both the filmmaker and his lead actors are only trying to be funny intermittently. While structured and cast like a bumbling road-trip comedy, it is surprising how often all involved play it steady and soft, treating the fracturing friendship of the guy from Saturday Night Live and the guy from Taxi as a semi-tragedy to be overcome. And if its over-the-top music cues and sadness are meant to be acts of self-awareness engineered to elicit laughter, they miss the mark all too often.
To some degree, the manic comedy of De Palma’s earlier works (Hi, Mom!, The Wedding Party) never really manifested itself in his bigger-budget output. If one considers Wise Guys and The Bonfire of the Vanities the two closest examples of De Palma doing comedy at a studio level, the results speak for themselves. That said, the sheer scope and ambition of Vanities elevates that film above the middling atmosphere in which this film lives.
Now, one should not discount time as a factor. In the mid-80s, a buddy comedy about two losers assigned to kill each other almost certainly was a fresher, more bankable concept than it is today. Upon release, Wise Guys wasn’t wholly dismissed, receiving positive notices from the likes of the New York Times and Roger Ebert, and, for whatever it’s worth, screenwriter George Gallo would follow this picture with Midnight Run, a near-perfect on-the-run buddy comedy that’s only shined brighter with time.
It’s also important to note that Wise Guys opened (along with the cult hit Body Double) between two of De Palma’s most commercially successful movies: Scarface and The Untouchables. Both are playful and playfully violent; Wise Guys is never much of either. Punches are being pulled, safe decisions being made. Clever Mafioso subversions (Moe and Harry sometimes have to turn their bosses’ cars on, just in case it’s wired to explode), an easy chemistry between the leads and an impressive supporting cast, including Patti LuPone and a scene-chewing Harvey Keitel, never elevate an aggressively straightforward narrative.
There may be an explanation for the lack of creativity and verve here. Speaking with Fandango a few years back, De Palma briefly touched on the difficulties of making the film: “…take a movie like Wise Guys. It’s not one of my favorites because nobody at the studio ever liked it. It was given a go by one administration and they left, and then another administration came in. It was a bastard child that no one wanted anything to do with, so that was not a pleasant experience. But I liked working with Danny DeVito so much that we managed to soldier through it.” He doubled down on the take in an interview with Business Insider earlier this year: “Now a movie I wish I hadn’t done was Wise Guys… I should have just taken my money and walked instead of dealing with a studio that didn’t want to make the movie.”
Revisiting it thirty years later, there’s no denying what it could have been while also acknowledging what a strange time piece it has become: Piscopo as leading man, playing off of a white-hot DeVito, in the age after 48 Hours but before Lethal Weapon.
In many ways, Wise Guys is the “bastard child” of De Palma’s career — a lazy piece of work from a director who is anything but. Even with his trademark split-diopter popping up a couple of times — most notably during the finale in the casino — the filmmaker feels markedly absent from the proceedings. Auteurs, by nature, make their unique mark on everything they touch. De Palma’s mark does not get any lighter than this.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
In a medium founded on expanding one’s imagination and perception of reality, no genre does it better than science fiction. We’ve come a long way from the days when Georges Méliès took us to the moon, for today’s filmmakers look far beyond our universe and into the deepest corners of our soul to reflect the current society.
With the latest entry in the Star Trek franchise arriving in theaters this week, we’ve set out to reflect on the millennium’s sci-fi films that have most excelled. To note: we only stuck with feature-length works of 60 minutes or longer and, to make room for a few more titles, our definition of “the 21st century” stretched to include 2000.
Check out our top 50 below and let us know your favorites in the comments. We’ve also put the list on Letterboxd so you may keep track of how many you’ve seen.
50. The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (Lilly and Lana Wachowski)
I’ll ignore the wealth of received wisdom that’s surrounded these films for thirteen years and instead provide what’s deserved: praise. Following The Matrix‘s lightning-in-a-bottle success, the Wachowskis embarked upon a two-part sequel that expanded much of their original picture’s strengths (aesthetics, action sensibilities, pacing, easily digestible philosophy) into the higher-stakes realm of be-all, end-all conflict. But even with such intensity and portent on its mind, this duology makes great effort to balance the present moment with overarching narrative and theme. Where do I even start? There’s the infamous rave sequence, a tactile, all-colors celebration of humanity intercut with a sex scene more attuned to sensory experience and emotional connection than just about any other 21st-century example. There’s an extended, Lambert Wilson-delivered monologue regarding causality that’s sandwiched between a) a plot-advancing exchange where Keanu Reeves must make-out with Monica Bellucci and b) a Cornel West cameo. There’s the understanding of how words (e.g. “the Prophecy”) and the voices of those speaking them might attain a mantra-like quality that imbues more emotion than any effect — and yet, still, effects that either continue to awe or now charm in their somewhat-dated status. (Visible seams and all, the final Neo-Smith battle remains the greatest of superhero-villain encounters.) They’re grand in every sense of the word, especially side-by-side — hence their pairing: when treated as one entity (with a sanity-preserving intermission included), Reloaded and Revolutions play as an epic of the highest order. – Nick N.
49. Signs (M. Night Shyamalan)
Signs represents a curious moment in the career of M. Night Shyamalan, as despite being a massive success, on display were some of the earliest examples of his future faults: the bizarre, darkly comic moments that seem tonally out of place; the forced twist at the end that exists solely because he’s M. Night Shyamalan; the hokey dialogue. And yet within the bubble of Signs, which exists mostly as a stylistic exercise in Hitchcockian thrills by way of an episode of The Twilight Zone, these future blunders mostly work. Part of it comes down to the performances: Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix know how to handle the black humor in a way that Mark Wahlberg didn’t, for example. The idiocy of its twist ending is kind of irrelevant to the crux of this picture’s story, so it’s somewhat more excusable than people running away from trees. The score by James Newton Howard is eerie and striking, paying homage to Psycho with its assaulting theme. It’s Shyamalan’s last truly good movie, representing a strong balance of his eccentricities and stylistic quirks, and an unfortunate example of fine work being cheapened by all that came afterward: his subsequent films were so bad that it only caused people to reflect upon Signs with a harsher outlook. – John U.
48. Southland Tales (Richard Kelly)
Somehow more audacious than his feature debut, Southland Tales finds Richard Kelly spinning a thick yarn of post-apocalyptic sci-fi madness. At once extremely dense yet still thoroughly engaging on a level of pure simplistic entertainment, Kelly achieves a rare combination that makes for a special success. While certainly not for everyone, it stands as a testament to a modern director not satisfied with traditional narrative trappings, instead swinging — often wildly, sometimes flailing — at the far reaches of post-modernist storytelling as he tries to turn a mirror on society. Complete with unorthodox musical sequences, the world’s first car-on-car sex scene, and a cathartic, beautifully mad ending, Southland Tales is the realized vision of a true auteur. – Mike M.
47. Predestination (Peter and Michael Spierig)
The fraternal filmmaking duo Michael and Peter Spierig combine neo-noir style and labyrinthine storytelling for the tale of a time-traveling special agent (Ethan Hawke) who, while on the hunt for a terrorist, poses as a bartender in 1970s New York. Hawke might lead this mind-bending, Robert Heinlein-inspired thriller, but it’s his co-star, Sarah Snook, who steals the show as a brooding bar patron with a very complicated past. As the two protagonists talk over a long night of drinks, flashbacks and voice-over deliver one surprise after another, all of which culminate in an unbelievable twist ending. – Amanda W.
46. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
Writer-director Jeff Nichols‘ thrillingly oblique tale of a father and his mysterious son leading the federal government on a cross-country chase, feels like old fashioned sci-fi storytelling at its most eerily engrossing. Beautifully capturing the spirit of the finest examples of the genre with its haunting sense of mystery and wonder, the film is anchored by David Wingo‘s marvelous score, and a handful of emotionally engaging performances from Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton and Jaeden Lieberher. Nichols’ dryly taut screenplay bountifully rewards multiple viewings as the seemingly jargon-heavy dialogue often slyly supplies the audience with answers before we’re even posed the cryptic questions. Heart-wrenching in emotional impact, it masterfully weaves a grounded narrative around fantastic and extraordinary sci-fi concepts to tell an achingly tender story about a very special little boy. – Tony H.
45. The Road (John Hillcoat)
When most people think of science fiction, they picture futuristic cityscapes and bold adventures into the yawning abyss of space. The Road looks closer to home and asks one of the most depressing questions one can encounter when thinking of the future and the fate of our planet: what happens when it all dies? Entropy occurs when no new energy enters a system, and The Road – in washed out shades of grey and brown – posits a world in which entropy has taken hold. Nothing is growing, the sun is blocked out by dust, and the system of human kindness is winding down. Into this dead world the only new energy is the love of a father for his son. Whether that is enough to re-energize the system remains to be seen, but the idea remains and the visceral impact of the film and this world and its attendant horrors cannot be understated. – Brian R.
44. Pitch Black (David Twohy)
The movie that successfully pitched Vin Diesel as action star. As directed by B-movie auteur David Twohy, Pitch Black is a tight, scary creature feature with a head on its shoulders. Radha Mitchell works against Diesel’s antihero admirably, both leads immersed in some, impressive (if a bit dated) production design. Over 15 years later, the Riddick Trilogy (Pitch Black, Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick) exists as a somewhat underrated piece of sci-fi/fantasy storytelling. – Dan M.
43. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
The concept of a multi-verse has intrigued people since it first entered the scene. The idea that every choice on a quantum level results in a split universe being created means that there exist an infinite number of worlds in which things are either the same, similar, or wildly different. Coherence entertains this idea not through the eyes of scientists seeking it out, but through the eyes of dinner party guests grappling with its unknown consequences. A passing comment merges multiple realities onto a single street, and the guests at a supremely awkward dinner party have to decide how to keep themselves safe. known where they are, and to decide whether or not they even want to remain in the same place. It’s a devilishly clever film that starts as a taut thriller and turns into an existential horror film. – Brian R.
42. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
It’s hard to deny the haunting power of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. It’s a cold hard look at the bare facts of how efficiently a fatal disease can spread and instantly change the dynamics of our world while taking out half the population in the process. Featuring an ensemble cast who all deliver understated and subtle performances and a fantastic score by Cliff Martinez, Contagion’s real power comes from it’s raw fear of the unknown. Hats off to Soderbergh for not over-dramatizing his direction; the result is a hard-edged and profoundly frightening sci-fi (thanks to the invention of a fake disease) horror film that will leave you scramming for the hand sanitizer and a hazmat mask. – Raffi A.
41. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Lobster is a bizarre film, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous work. To attempt to explain the story is futile, as it just sounds deeply silly: a man who has not yet found a life partner checks into a resort where, if he doesn’t find a mate within a short period of time, he will be turned into an animal of his choosing. The fact that he chooses to become a lobster is just one in a series of darkly funny moments that are played pitch-perfectly by a pot-bellied Colin Farrell, who gives his best performance here since In Bruges. Farrell has repeatedly been shoehorned into mainstream Leading Man Roles like Total Recall, where he consistently falters and is charmless, but it’s in these smaller and quirkier affairs where his strengths shine through and he tends to remind me of why he’s a great actor. The movie is alternately tragic and subversive, and humorous; it would be false to compare it directly to Dogtooth, except to say that the after-effect is similar: you’re left a little moved, a little bewildered, a little disturbed, a little buzzed off the laughs – and craving a second viewing. – John U.
When rewatching Body Double for the third time, its most striking element was, as on my first viewing, Craig Wasson’s performance. As central character Jake Scully, Wasson turns his conventionally attractive looks into an endlessly fascinating nebbishness and awkwardness. In an early scene, Jake simply walks to his car and jumps in the driver’s seat, yet Wasson manages to turn this casual action into one of the most amusing instances of purposefully bad acting. This unquestionably intended ridiculousness in fact informs an audience of the approach required by the entire film: just as it is difficult to take this ludicrous failed actor and naïve man seriously, Body Double itself is better enjoyed with a grain of salt. Right before Jake goes to his car, he orders a hot dog from a street stand that De Palma shoots from the side before gliding to its front. With this voluptuous tracking shot, he creates a grotesquely sexual visual trick completely at odds with the hopeful tone of Pino Donaggio’s soundtrack and Jake’s cheerful dialogue with the clerk. Body Double isn’t a serious film, but it takes its outrageous fancifulness seriously.
Despite his ridiculous presence, Wasson as Jake is also likable for the endless kindness hidden behind his helplessness. Upon seeing his fiancée having sex with another man in his own bed, he leaves quietly, without even slamming the door. His soft spot and empathy is why he won’t exactly fit the profile of witness for the criminal who set him up as such: just like John Travolta’s Jack in Blow Out, but with even more heart, Jake cares too much. He is certainly repulsive as he plays the peeping tom on his new neighbor, becoming a stereotype of the complete loser: cheated-upon, he turns to easy, degrading pleasures that allow him to stay far from a woman he could never hope to conquer, thus satisfying himself with only an illusion of control. Yet Jake cannot help seeing this woman as more than an object of pleasure: when she seems threatened, he investigates her situation and even comes face-to-face with her, risking his dominant position. Again, Jake’s sensibility matches that of the entire film and its director, as this originally powerless woman, objectified and reduced to her sexiness, progressively becomes the drive of the film’s first act by leading Jake to follow her and, later, admitting she had noticed him all along. Eventually removing her sunglasses, Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) literally reveals the person behind the fantasy and starts talking to Jake, demonstrating a range of emotions and finally, to fully contradict her initial position as sex object, expresses her own impulsive desires.
Jake’s kindness does not entirely explain his ability to confront Gloria and go out of his way in helping her. Will isn’t enough for him to act: in the film’s opening scene, he finds himself physically unable to rise from the coffin in which he lays while playing the vampire in a horror-porn film. Unable to even move, he can act as neither an actor or person. He must come to the realization that acting, as pretending, is necessary to survive in Hollywood and the deceptive world at large. After discovering his girlfriend had played the loving fiancé just too well, Jake is literally told that he’s “gotta act” by a ruthless acting coach who purposely confuses the two meanings of the word in a shock psychoanalysis session. To finally become the master of his life and discover the truth about Gloria, Jake needs to combine his kindness with his acting skills.
De Palma’s screenplay, however, complicates Jake’s progression from inaction to action by doubling up on the idea of the world’s illusory nature. Jake wasn’t only deceived when he was a passive man: he is again duped when he starts convincing himself that he can and deserves to have control — that is, when he begins peeping on who he thinks is Gloria Revelle. Voyeurism is itself only an illusory, imaginative form of control, one to which Jake does not give in easily. As Donaggio’s entrancing yet delicate theme, “Telescope,” begins, Jake hesitantly approaches the device and repeatedly looks around as De Palma’s camera remains on him, stressing Jake’s unease with accepting even this moderate form of agency. Yet the deception goes further as the woman he fantasizes over will turn out to be someone else — and, like him, a trained pretender. Lost in this web of illusions, he will not manage to control Gloria and what happens to her.
In these layers of reality, Jake’s adventure becomes not only dreamlike, but the confusing materialization of his dreams of mastery. The illusory dominance he acquires by watching Gloria dance for him every night become (almost) reality when he meets and kisses her, even though she actually isn’t the dancer. De Palma’s exuberant style comes to perfect use when dream and reality become thus entwined: as soon as Jake and Gloria’s lips meet, the camera starts encircling the couple frenetically, as though struggling to capture this spiral of pure pleasure, while a green screen projection of the beach replaces the real one. The enthralling embrace, camera movement, and soundtrack, together with the background’s falsity being just noticeable enough, make this moment bigger than life, a dream coming true and exceeding all of Jake’s wishes and thus still feeling like a vision. Jake is finally beginning to act as he has always wished to, but experiences this sudden dominance as an overwhelming dream state — and one from which he typically wakes up too soon: he does not have sex with Gloria, and she runs away.
It is only after his failed attempt at saving Gloria in a real-life nightmare of obstacles, impotency, and gore when Jake truly realizes that dreaming isn’t enough, and that he must push his performance further: he will actually pretend to be someone else to discover the truth and fulfill his sexual desires. Authenticity has only led to suffering for Jake and death for Gloria, and, progressively, De Palma’s pessimism regarding society and the value it places on the truth becomes vigorously clear. In an unexpected and exhilarating music sequence where Jake plays a parody of his nebbish self accompanied physically and musically by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the director presents a need to “fake it ’til you make it” as absolute and inescapable. It is telling of De Palma’s joyful cynicism that this scene, an apotheosis of fakery and eroticism, is probably Body Double‘s most memorable. Although Jake “likes to watch,” in this alternate reality of depravity he gets the girl and the orgasm, and while this sequence turns out to be a scene in a porn production, his sexual pleasure seems unsimulated; even more important is that his performance doesn’t stop at “cut.” He keeps playing the porn actor, all leather jacket and slicked-back hair, which enables him to extract information from his co-star, Holly Body (Melanie Griffith). Jake becomes his own body double to approach Gloria’s and the truth.
Finally, all the dreams of control and nightmares of powerlessness that Jake has had to face come to the verge of realization in Body Double‘s climax. Performance becomes the way out of fantasy and into reality when he again finds himself experiencing paralysis in a grave, this one real. By fully putting his strategy out in the open and letting Jake accomplish himself, De Palma offers complete catharsis for his character and audience: the claustrophobic nightmare becomes a scene in a film, and Jake, taken out of his stupor by his director, understands the necessity to perceive this moment as a “shot” he must “get.” This power fantasy is realized as he returns to the tomb and reenters his reality, no longer behaving as himself but as an “actor,” active and corresponding to whom he wishes to be. Jake, now able to perform, defeats the killer, saving his and Holly’s lives.
As the credits roll, Jake is again seen on set, dressed as a vampire and making sure he does not move while the naked actress’ body double positions herself. Despite his new understanding of the need for falsehood to navigate the world, he is still only good enough to act in a low-budget porn film. This may not be what the man’s dreams are made of, but he is at least working and comfortable in doing so. Regardless of his pessimism, De Palma still allows his ending to be happy — with a touch of grotesque eroticism and humor.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
It is either my gift or my curse — maybe both; how you end up feeling about this piece will do a lot to decide — that I have been tasked with assessing one of the Brian De Palma films towards which few feel any need to express a strong, set opinion. (The director offered this ringing assessment in Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary: “You know, it wouldn’t necessarily be your first choice.”) “Be your own man!” you might say, which is just the thing: for as much as I enjoy his 1978 telekinesis-espionage actioner The Fury, and no matter the fact that I consider a handful of its sequences some of the very best in his oeuvre, the thing can take a bit of time to get there. But there exists a chance — a fine chance, in fact — that we may extract from its stop-start, hot-cold rhythm a further case for De Palma’s brilliance.
Let’s first take that insufferable auteurist’s route and lay a good deal of blame at the feet of screenwriter John Farris, who adapts his 1976 novel in such a way as to make me hope I’ll never have to read it. Almost every piece of dialogue in The Fury’s first sequence is a sign of what’s to come from his end: thrown-together locations (“the states”; “Chicago”; “a good school for you”) and more-than-clear intimations of characters’ relationships with one another (“since Mom died”; “give up soccer?”) in an attempt to stay above an expository fray. Yet something in the way of intrigue nevertheless emerges — a notice from father to son that this young man possesses “a talent that will shock the hell out of people.” Andrew Stevens as Robin, the son of Kirk Douglas‘ Peter Sandza, can groove with the dialogue just fine, and while the latter and John Cassavetes are too magnetic a pairing to be handed standard-issue conversations that see “a couple of guys” ribbing each other in an affectionate manner, preternatural talents make them strong enough to sell it to a certain point.
And at least they have De Palma. The extent to which he might have whipped all this into a stirring cinematic experience is more a matter of taste, but the how and why of his involvement with this material is a bit less disputable to even a semi-familiar eye. Nearly every exemplary piece of this sequence is a product of a director and cinematographer (Richard H. Kline) who manage to trace the effects of conversational rhythm through particular patterns. As if engineered to spice up bland material, the camera accomplishes its own effects by slowly oscillating between father and son in a ground-laying sequence; without cutting, it then settles on a locked two shot of Douglas and Cassavetes, the latter of whom has replaced Stevens in conversation, and in this formal schema are the picture’s most charismatic actors trusted with delivering the most “naturalistic” dialogue. (Make of it what you will that I still use quotation marks.)
Curiously enough for a supernatural film by a director whose name is most often associated with spectacle, both lovingly and derisively, De Palma’s main characteristic here is great restraint — or, some would just say, patience. Perhaps, after digging myself than 500 words in, I should tell you The Fury is more or less his version of an X-Men story, tracking a young man, Robin (Stevens), and woman, Gillian (Amy Irving), who possess what can only be described as “intense psychic powers.” The description’s left to only those three words because the film is at once rather blunt and largely vague about what, exactly, these people might be capable of. The closest point of understanding is when Farris’ script piles on a few dialogues about new age-sounding concepts and scientific possibility, which register as ineffectively from the actors as they do De Palma — who, with Kline, most often photographs actors in close-ups and two shots when they aren’t engaged in some sort of psychic, physical, or conversational show-down. (That is to say, when they’re explaining.) If it’s worth nothing that he feels more lost (or simply detached) here than in almost any other film, it should especially be said, perhaps in part to distract blame (there’s that auteurist route again!), that even Douglas and Cassavetes only bring marginal life to what’s on the page.
More than granting The Fury’s standout sequences a sense of relief, it makes them all the more delightful, no matter that they’d ring stellar with or without surrounding material of just about any quality. It’s in this film where De Palma latches onto something that I’m not sure he’s ever really expanded upon, or at least not done so well: representations of human thought under moments of extreme duress and attention alike. It’d seem he’s having the most fun with portraying psychic abilities, but the visual trait that stands strongest — mastery of the extended take, no doubt a reason many even see his movies — does so because it’s played in an ostensibly simpler register. It’s not just that he’s doing something well; it’s that he’s doing something even style-over-substance detractors should (should) recognize.
Consider the page-to-screen transition of a scene in which Douglas’ Peter Sandza, a man on the run and seeking his kidnapped son, is discovered by and introduces himself to the tenants of an apartment, who he’ll have to hold hostage for his safety and some clothes. It’s an extended dialogue sequence that only (speaking literally) brings him into the picture halfway through — and, given the situation and exchange between players, one that would most likely be depicted as a series of wide, medium, and close-up shots. De Palma stations a camera at a point between the apartment’s living room and entrance hallway, oscillates between separate spaces, sets a clear midpoint for the image (the patriarch of this shabby home standing in fear of an unknown occupant), and makes necessary revelations through well-timed pans, performers’ onscreen entries as dictated by dialogue, and focus-racking. It’s as much a matter of efficient staging — something every director should know, not something they should really be congratulated for — as anything else, but in comparison to, oh, 95% of ways it otherwise would have been handled, it’s as revelatory as it is effective in a present moment; and when compared to The Fury‘s worst scenes, where De Palma is contained to a particularly confined setting (e.g. cars and buses) and a few expository pages, it at least feels as out-there as whatever would typically go into a career-highlighting montage.
Being that these films are separated by merely two years, it’s hardly surprising that The Fury‘s visualization of psychic powers resembles Carrie in many a regard. These are easy to imagine — close-ups of faces in thought, quick cuts to a moving object, a screech on the soundtrack, a quick zoom communicating mental action — and so it’s the differences that prove more compelling. Here’s what I consider key to appreciating this as a unique work: The Fury is more upfront about its properties than Carrie thus embracing them in a fuller, more giddy, and sometimes more perverse way. The Fury’s opening action sequence — a failure on De Palma’s part, more mechanically assembled shot-by-shot than cut together for maximum effect — contains a shot from a cameraman’s POV. In the moment, this induced a smile for “allowing me to recognize” an “indulgence” on the meta-textual De Palma’s part. What it does later is far more surprising: serve as the bedrock of a sequence wherein Irving’s Gillian envisions a group communicating information to her. A static close-up of the actress’ face alternates with a projection of her mind that rather resembles a live-television director’s studio, the camera panning wildly from multi-television display to multi-television display until firmly settling — focusing — upon a screen playing the footage from earlier, in this barely stable state of intensity amply generating the thrill of a shocking cinematic image.
It is these supernatural expressions that so profoundly affords The Fury the “shocking” label, one more apt than just about any other De Palma film. With the likes of makeup master Rick Baker at his side, he compounds the oddity of these indescribable strengths with very real expressions of pain through a series of inflictions that seem to mount encounter-by-encounter, from an authentic-looking, mentally transmitted nosebleed to a woman who, with the touch of Gillian’s hand, begins convulsing as she oozes blood from every visible orifice to a bizarre, carnival-set comic set piece that seems horrifying but ends on a weirdly innocuous note to a tortuous, Carrie-esque, blood-spattered killing to, finally and of course, the sight of John Cassavetes being blown the fuck up not one, not two, but thirteen times in what Pauline Kael somewhat implied is cinema’s greatest climax — and a fine climax for De Palma, who embraces standard continuity editing at long last, albeit as a means of instilling comfort before his final, disorientingly cut jolt of an explosive encounter.
And now let’s end, then, with a terribly concerned moral question: does the artist enjoy this pain a bit too much? For me, the primary pleasure of Brian De Palma’s cinema is what pleasure he seems to take from building these worlds of glances, gestures, attacks, pain, ecstasy, roving cameras, voyeuristic POVs, and split diopters, and it’s with this appreciation in mind that I acknowledge some hard-to-ignore discomfort with The Fury’s casualty rate, or perhaps just its means of racking up casualties. (Sue me for being sensitive. The thought of profusely bleeding from every fingernail is hard to shake.) Yet the formalist’s playground it so often affords him, despite (and sometimes because) he’s bumping against lesser material, is its own source of joy — a conduit for what I tend to enjoy most in the first place. And isn’t indulgence the feeling his filmography, best and worst entries alike, serves better than just about any other?
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
In a career fixated on the machinations of filmmaking presented through both a carnal and political eye, Brian De Palma’s fascinations converged idyllically with Blow Out. In his ode to the conceit of Blow Up — Michelangelo Antonioni’s deeply influential English-language debut, released 15 years prior — as well as the aural intrigue of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, De Palma constructs a conspiracy thriller as euphorically entertaining as it is devastatingly bleak.
In a fake-out opening — shot by Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown — that combines the voyeurism, nudity, and threat of murder that are De Palma’s calling cards, we see Coed Frenzy, the fifth movie in two years that sound technician Jack Terry (John Travolta) has done for the shlock director employing him. By showing the artifice of the B-movie, this film-in-a-film positions Blow Out as a more mature offering from the filmmaker, explicitly foreshadowed during the split-screen opening credits in which the drama’s political underpinnings are presented next to its infatuation with filmmaking. Even Jack’s sound company, Personal Effects — the film’s original title — is slyly located above a porno theater, an amusing encapsulation of Blow Out and De Palma’s career in general: the director may have a foundation for finding splendor in sleaze, but his aims for technical precision reign supreme.
Jack, who previously helped with police sting operations only to have a technical miscalculation lead to the death of an undercover officer, now finds himself in the rut of exploitation films. Sent out on a mission to find the perfect scream, he wields his weapon of choice — a shotgun microphone that’s shown protruding in shallow focus, akin to Michael Caine’s knife in Dressed to Kill — in a nearby Philadelphia park. While surveying the area, a tire “blow-out” is heard as a car careens into the body of water in front of him. The governor and potential presidential nominee who was driving drowns, but his escort (Nancy Allen) is saved by Jack, and a cover-up begins.
Through converging the visual aspect of Blow Up and aural focus of The Conversation, De Palma — always one to explore an idea to its ultimate escalation — delights in Jack’s primary mode of investigation being the literal act of filmmaking. Placing us in Jack’s mind — now with a newfound quest for the truth, reignited after guilt tied to his botched police work — with tight close-ups of his actions and meticulous sound design, we walk through his discovery of the gunshot as he syncs it up to the photos, and finally creating his own film. It could be “the biggest thing since the Zapruder film,” according to the slimy co-conspirator Manny Karp (Dennis Kranz), but Jack’s breathless determination to reveal the truth is denied by the police and government at every turn.
In a film constructed with immaculate technical precision, one of its most paralyzing sequences finds Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera taking six 360-degree turns around Jack’s sound studio, panning to the whir of his now-blank reels. His sense of paranoia increases as his grasp on reality reduces. After being immersed during the 360-degree pan, our vantage point shifts to above the character, tracking across his lost work and observing the ruinous results with one overwhelming blow. After being intrinsically tied to and defined by his use of technology, he’s now in chaotic shambles.
In her fourth and final collaboration with De Palma, Allen, inspired by Giulietta Masina’s performance in La Strada, plays Sally with a heartbroken desperation, elevating the usual thriller tropes of a supporting actress in the genre. “I sure as hell can’t type, so it doesn’t leave a hell of a lot,” she tells Jack when being accosted about her monetary motives. Used and abused by Manny, the equivalent of a pimp, her capitalistic view makes the uncompromising finale all the more damning: she’s a character forced into her way of life, manipulated by those around her and ultimately victimized for taking the moral route.
Constructing perhaps the most memorable, condemning finale of his career, De Palma employs slow motion to prolong the inevitable. Jack sprints through a celebration of America’s finest hour as reflections of red, white, and blue bounce across his face. Above, Burke (John Lithgow) strangles Sally to death with a suffocating vision of the flag in the background. Jack is too late to save Sally, but he makes it in time to stab Burke to death while blood as red as the flag extrudes from his body. Through attempting to avenge Sally, Jack has inadvertently covered up his last known threads of conspiracy. Replacing the sounds of fireworks — a boisterous signifier for America’s freedom — is Pino Donaggio’s score, once-bombastic and now reduced to simple chords of a soft piano as we witness a somber final embrace underneath an explosion of light. As our country’s past gets proudly venerated, blood spills and a corruption is covered up behind the public’s eye. It’s a cynical view for De Palma, but for a filmmaker who grew up in the era of Vietnam, Zapruder, Watergate, and Chappaquiddick, it couldn’t be more sincere in its bleakness.
The final scene finds a sweating, lifeless Jack, now in an antithetical state from the opening, sitting in the editing bay as the dying shrieks of Sally echo, and his director yelps, “Now that’s a scream!” As if in a comatose state, he reluctantly repeats, “It’s a good scream, It’s a good scream” as he attempts to drown out the noise. His failure to save her life is now imprinted onto a film forever, the guilt-ridden horrors reverberating through his consciousness. The girl is not rescued. The conspiracy has not been overturned. Our now-miserable hero returns to a purgatorial room piecing together shlock. A moment of tragic horror is now reduced to a sound bite in a prescient finale that only resonates more today.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
The camera tracks towards a gate leading to a Victorian mansion, the shot coming to center on the home’s front door. It’s the evening and lights are on in the house, tinting the window in the door a translucent yellow. This block of color is interrupted by an alternation of total blackness and person-shaped silhouettes, evoking the action of a shutter masking a frame of a film strip as it passes by the aperture of a projector. This shadow play veils the activity occurring inside the house: a slideshow of photographs. Thus begins the post-opening-credits scene of Brian De Palma’s Obsession. In this reading, it functions as a metonym of the film’s concern with dissimulation, an abiding theme in De Palma’s body of work. Perhaps, in bringing to mind the operation of the film apparatus, this image is also the director’s ontology of cinema.
The home hosting this presentation of records of fond memories belongs to Michael (Cliff Robertson), a humble real estate investor, and his family. The event that sets off Obsession’s narrative is the kidnapping of Michael’s wife and daughter. The police’s effort to rescue them leads to a car chase that culminates in a fiery crash, witnessed by Michael, in which his family is apparently killed. At a site of mourning, it elides almost a generation and picks up in the mid-1970s, the time of this film’s release. Michael ventures to Rome to conduct business. While there, he returns to the church at which he met his wife, Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold). Drifting through the church in a contemplative state, Michael fatefully encounters Sandra (also played by Bujold), a dead ringer for Elizabeth. Instantly enamored with this apparent reincarnation of his lost love, Michael devotes his time to courting her – or more like stalking, as befits a De Palma film. Sandra submits to his advances, and they return to his home, where they intend to get married. But their plan is impeded by the machinations of Michael’s conniving business partner, Robert (John Lithgow).
Obsession is something like unfinished psychotherapy that positions Michael as the patient. The origin of Michael’s psychic illness is a repressed incestuous desire for his daughter. Evidence for this charge includes the onset of the scene in which Michael’s family is kidnapped. As Elizabeth enters her bedroom, she locks eyes with Michael. Their exchange of loving gazes plays as a portentous anticipation of embrace via zooms and overbearing orchestral music. But the view of Elizabeth from Michael’s position also contains a portrait of his daughter, allowing for the suggestion that his amorous look is directed at her likeness. When the couple do meet, their embrace is relatively chaste: they hug, kiss in a fashion reminiscent of classical Hollywood, and Michael finally places a book between them.
Michael’s infatuation with Sandra resembles the reaction of a patient to the work of analysis detailed by Freud in a paper entitled “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through.” The aim of psychotherapy, Freud explains, is to break down the psychic barrier impeding the patient’s recollection of the cause of their illness. One kind of reaction to this work, writes Freud, is that “the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it.” Thus Michael’s courtship of Sandra is not a phantasmatic return to the romantic beginning of his relationship with Elizabeth, but rather a repetition of his repressed desire for his daughter. The Polaroid Michael takes of Sandra on the steps of the church shouldn’t be read as an imitation of the photographs of Elizabeth in the same place that we saw in Obsession’s opening credits, but rather as a kind of screen that separates Michael from a recognition of his perforated memory. This idea of the inextricability of media and psychic pathologies is put forward recurrently in De Palma’s filmography.
Pertinent to this reading is the fact that Sandra actually is Michael’s daughter. In fact, this melodramatically unlikely situation is apposite to both this above analysis and a particular conception of cinema. That a psychic phenomenon – Michael’s daughter as repressed object of desire – has been made flesh accords with the fact that film has been theorized as illusion machine, as imaginary signifier, and that Obsession is both a story inhabited by Michael and the “scene” of his treatment. In terms of the kind of patient reaction to analysis the film brings to mind, “repeating… implies conjuring up a piece of real life.”
Obsession’s final scene stages an encounter in which Michael might be made to grasp the memory of what he has repressed. After learning of Robert’s scheme to bilk him, Sandra’s involvement in it, and her impending return to Rome, Michael heads to the airport to… well, it’s unclear, as the narrative’s cohesion begins to fray. The film shows us, in an utterly hysterical, baroque style, Sandra and Michael headed toward one another. As they embrace, she exclaims, “Daddy!” In this moment, the camera rotates around them, echoing earlier circular tracking shots that accompanied shifts in the narrative’s temporality. This technique, then, institutes a kind of temporal collapse of the repressed past into a present of potential recollection. Upon hearing this confession, Michael is initially deadpan, his external affective state throughout the film. Moreover, the film begins to slow down, as if Michael-as-patient’s resistance to “treatment” has been displaced onto the body of the film itself. He whispers something to his daughter, inaudible on the soundtrack. The corner of his lips open, perhaps the advent of a smile. Here the film’s unfolding is finally suspended; it ends on a freeze frame, a well-known cinematic form of ambivalence. Has Michael’s repressed desire dawned on him? We can’t say for sure, and De Palma, in the mode of auteur-as-unconscious, has perversely withheld our cathectic satisfaction.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
Brian De Palma‘s Carrie begins in the soft-haze of a high-school girls’ locker room. The camera lingers of the naked bodies of Carrie’s (Sissy Spacek) abusers and clearly sets them apart from the frail girl who showers by herself. As the others frolic and laugh among themselves, Carrie rests inside of her own body. In close-up, Carrie washes her face, breasts, and abdomen until she reaches her inner thigh. She drops her bar of soap and the lilting score from composer Pino Donaggio changes key into something more sinister when it is revealed that Carrie has begun her first period and menstrual blood slides down the side of her leg. She screams at the arrival of the punishment of Eve, and blood will be a harbinger of everything to come for one Carrie White.
Carrie is De Palma’s most empathetic picture in large part because of Spacek’s meek fragility and her ability to convey the submissive whipping girl within Stephen King’s original text. The camera seems to understand that Carrie is not a woman for whom voyeurism is appropriate. This alone sets Carrie apart from films like Blow Out, Body Double, and Dressed to Kill, among others. The opening shower sequence is as close as De Palma comes to viewing Carrie in a sexual lens, and, after the close-ups on her breasts and inner thigh, the camera retreats to a respectful distance of mostly medium shots for the movie’s remainder. De Palma’s lens is historically pointed, much in the way Hitchcock’s eye was, but the major difference in Carrie is a softness and a space to let a hurting girl breathe, for getting too close would mean her crumbling.
Carrie‘s mise-en-scène is reflective of abuse in ways that intertwine the hormonal and evangelical. Her mother (Piper Laurie) is drenched in black and always seen with a cross hanging around her neck. Her house is a connection to her religion, with arched windows that bleed red into the cracks like stained glass. A wounded Christ hangs in decomposition on a battered cross in a closet of punishment. Carrie prays to this figure (who looks strangely like Carrie’s mother) when she sins, and for simply being a woman is a sin in the eyes of her mother. Outside of Carrie’s lambs-blood house, her teenage peers are seen flirting with boys, locking eyes, and cusping mouths over erections. They live fast and dangerously with no consequences beyond detention or a bad orgasm. For Carrie, there are always consequences.
After Carrie begins menstruating, she starts to exhibit telekinetic powers, moving objects with her mind or breaking glass when she becomes overexcited or starts to experience anxiety. In a wry joke of his own predispositions towards Hitchcockian forgery, De Palma copies the crashing screech of Norman Bates’ knife in Psycho to exhibit these evolutions in Carrie’s body. But these aren’t her only changes, for she starts to fancy taking a boy to the holiest of ceremonies for high-school youth: The Prom.
Carrie’s shower incident was book-ended by those same girls pelting her with tampons and rejoicing “Plug it Up! Plug it Up!” These girls would face detention, and, if they didn’t comply, would lose their privilege of attending prom. The girls saw the reason in gym teacher Miss Collins’ (Betsy Buckley) punishment, but Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) isn’t one to lie down for anyone. Definitely not a freak like Carrie White. She’d get her revenge. This would end in crimson just as it began.
After a moment of empathy from Sue (Amy Irving), one of the girls who chanted “Plug It Up” in the shower, she convinces her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Carrie to the prom as penance for her earlier cruelty. Tommy is a tiger-beat dreamboat with Peter Frampton hair and bright eyes. With Carrie on his arm, they go. The Prom is lit beautifully by cinematographer Mario Tosi. In a wide shot, the room’s geometry is laid out from stage to backdoor, a typical high-school gymnasium shimmering with silver and red like a discotheque on Mars. De Palma’s expressive camera work is elegant and dream-like until it needs to be violent and sharp. But before the bucket there’s the dance, a moment of rhapsody that sees Carrie and Tommy staring into each others eyes with a 360-degree spinning image of sheer artistry that perfectly captures the feeling of Carrie White. It may very well be the best moment in her life. De Palma created that image by placing Spacek and Katt on a platform, spinning it one way, and using a dolly to spin the camera in the opposite direction. It’s dizzying, joyous, and brilliant.
Where the dance is the prom at its most effervescent, the following scene is of sheer brutality. In a tracking shot up a chord and into a balcony, the camera shows a bucket of blood hanging above the stage where the eventual prom king and queen would stand. Carrie and Tommy find their way up as they’re about to be crowned, but De Palma hangs on the moment for maximum suspense. It isn’t an issue of what will happen, but when, and it is agonizing to wait for Carrie’s eventual downfall at the hands of Chris Hargensen’s bucket of pig’s blood. De Palma lingers on the inherent evil in the moment by showing the dichotomy of Chris’s vengeful face and Carrie’s true moment of acceptance. There’s cutting back and forth between the two of them, as well as to an overhead of the rickety bucket. The moment’s happiness is tragic, ironic, and full of black comedy, but Spacek plays the scene straight, and when washed in the blood of a pig, she’s crestfallen, broken, and angry. Her eyes widen to Marilyn Burns (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) levels and the camera is split as she rains hell down on the high-schoolers in a bleeding red à la Marnie. The split-screen, the screaming, and the quick editing on the deaths create pure horror, and Spacek’s silhouette in the flames — covered in blood, gliding, inhuman — is nerve-wracking.
Underneath all of that blood is a broken-hearted girl who found nothing but misery in her life. When Carrie returns home later that night, she washes off the prom in a bathtub, crying and waiting to fall back in her mother’s arms, but even then Carrie couldn’t find peace. Carrie is a tale of two separate authors, Spacek and De Palma, and their instincts mesh into a film that is incendiary. Spacek brought with her the trauma and confusion of her abuse and carried it in her body language, and De Palma knew how to push the camera enough to amplify that abuse and multiply her sorrow. It is De Palma’s answer to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, a film of similar trauma and explosive craftsmanship.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.
This month is the epitome of summer blockbuster season with a couple kids films, a couple attempts at old school epics, some comedies, some actioners, and a sparse few adult-oriented indies to provide a well-needed counter to the explosions and slapstick. We’re still inundated with sequels (four on this post alone) and reboots (two), but as long as we buy tickets they’ll continue coming — louder, brighter, and vapid.
So let’s try and give some love to the smaller films. Take the kids to a matinee this holiday weekend and then check out the art-house for your own sanity. It’s fun to watch big studio fare fail because we can laugh and laugh and laugh. But each one doesn’t seem to slow Hollywood down because there’s always potential to hit the mark. Give less money to the franchises and more to the mid-range auteurs. Someday “property” will become meaningless in comparison to creativity, right? Fingers crossed.
Summer: for kids and adults alike
One thing family-friendly sequels are good for is a paycheck on behalf of the marketing firms because most times the campaign has already been established ten years prior. I can’t believe the Ice Age series still has legs let alone the strength to endure fourteen years. Fourteen years! Think about that. Maybe the newest subtitle Collision Course (July 22) is finally predicting the end has arrived.
What more is there to do with this property as far as posters are concerned? Nothing. It seems lazy to just slap the characters in frame to stare at us with the title in the middle, but Fox and Blue Sky is probably so resigned to the fact that the film will sell itself that they can’t be bothered. All our favorites are back and Scrat is once again in peril. Now give me your money.
The Refinery can’t be faulted either because they know a fifth installment needs little panache. Smush the animals together for funny faces, put Scrat in an astronaut suit, and be glad you have a client as easy as this. They don’t come along often.
By contrast, The Secret Life of Pets (July 8) provides LA the opportunity to have fun. The premise concerning what our pets do while we’re gone is ripe with comedic possibilities and the obvious one — their sitting and staring silently at the door in wait for our return — is perhaps the best. Look how simple and brilliant this tease is. This is the picture of faithful servant regardless of whether being such is contingent on our being that little guy’s only source for food.
I like the second one-sheet too even though its showing the back of other animals doesn’t quite work with the same theme (and neither does having them on a roof’s ledge). The great part is the cat in the foreground slyly looking back at us — bored of this futile exercise the others have embraced and cunning enough to see through the artifice of the poster itself. It’s a tiny detail, but it’s hugely effective.
What about the character sheets, you ask? Well, they’re cute. Pun humor reigns and minimalism sustains. I don’t love the horizontal logotype (the vertical one is much better as the red box serves as a billboard above the “Pets” skyscrapers), but it’s a tiny gripe. The goal here is to advertise the eventual toy lines to come. Get those kids loving each pet before the lights even go down.
The Legend of Tarzan (July 1) does the exact opposite of Pets by having its subjects stare straight through our souls. I won’t lie: BOND‘s sheet with the titular hero and an army of gorillas is a bit unsettling. Are we supposed to assume he is as much a brutal beast that cannot be tamed like his jungle brothers? He’s looking at us with menace, after all. What did we ever do to him? We better buy a ticket so he doesn’t leap forward and rip out our jugulars.
Their profile version is so much better as a result because we are no longer being threatened. He and the gorillas are fiercely moving towards their true enemy and we can look upon the rage with excitement rather than fear. The film is targeting a moderate family friendly atmosphere — it’s going to need one to be successful — so dial down on the animosity please. You know, stop having them run towards us as though they’ll be the last things we ever see.
At least the sheet with Margot Robbie’s Jane gives their steely eyes a cause. They are protecting her (which is ironic when you see the film considering she’s the biggest bad ass of them all). They growl and snarl for us to move on. Okay. You win.
This same aesthetic does, however, work for Wonderland‘s The Purge: Election Year (July 1). These creepy demonic humans in masks are actually out to get us. We’re supposed to fear them because there are no heroes to be seen. We need to turn around right now and run because they are not fooling around.
This entry and its French counterpart (boy do I absolutely love the title “American Nightmare 3: Elections” as though the film is a documentary on Clinton vs. Trump) are the best because they put us in the world of insurmountable odds. If you cannot afford to stay safe behind closed doors, this is what you see: murderers and maniacs approaching slow because you have nowhere to go.
That’s not to say the tease from LA isn’t nice too, it’s just not as creepy without the foggy atmosphere of an ongoing assault. I will give the credit for the “I Purged” sticker advert, though. That’s pretty funny.
Do I know you?
Yes, I do know you. You look a little different, but the gist is pretty much the same. This is what happens when 20+ films are released each week, every week for decades. That doesn’t make it any less fascinating when it happens.
ARSONAL‘s sheet with photography by Sam Jones for Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (July 8) isn’t exactly a rip-off of Project X per se, but it definitely is using the same concepts. Passed out and drunk in the grass after a wild night out, where the latter leaves the victim alone to wallow in his own vomit the former includes a couple predators. This juxtaposition of the girls being the troublemakers while the boys think they’re the wild ones is key to the film’s appeal; the delivery is simply tired.
And is it just me or do the lipstick drawings on Adam Devine and Zac Efron look Photoshopped? I want to believe that this is a scene from the film and the boys did actually have these pictures scrawled in lipstick on their chests, but I’m finding it harder to do so the more I look.
Regardless, this poster is by far better than the Spanish version. Interaction always is when compared to obvious photo-manipulation. I’m honestly not sure what is real in this wedding shot because nothing but the faces appears to be untouched. Those glasses in the girls’ hands look vastly out of proportion, Devine’s eyes and mouth look plastered on a mannequin’s head, and Efron is either destroying his back with that posture or had his head titled without regard to the shoulders.
Our Kind of Traitor (July 1) is all kinds of redundant. I like the idea of the “gun text” layout, but can’t help seeing The Departed every time I gaze upon it. I hate the little hammer flourish on the bottom of the “T” and find the placement of trigger frame completely awkward. It tries too hard to be something unique without realizing it’s anything but.
As for the others, Leroy and Rose‘s white slanted collage mimics too many designs from the past to even begin to mention any. And the landscapes growing out of the photo boxes are distractingly irrelevant. Maybe Big Ben above Damian Lewis and the Kremlin below Stellan Skarsgård are okay because those two countries seem to be of major concern to the story, but stop there. Adding the other two loses the impact of what those locations mean.
Empire Design‘s work is the best of the bunch if only because it hopes to spin the monotony of photo strips into something new. It’s not much, but having the text cut across the diagonal photos horizontally gives our eyes resting points. Overlapping adds intrigue because we’re deciphering visual and textual language separate from the other at the same time. We aren’t just reading left to right blandly.
The next two are less “copycats” and more saddled by stylistic tropes because you cannot tell me you don’t think Wes Anderson upon seeing BLT Communications, LLC‘s poster for Captain Fantastic (limited July 8) and expect me to believe it. I won’t. It’s all I can see and I’ve seen many people stating the same online: quirky family portrait, quirky text (I adore the stamped, retro typography in different fonts, though), and quirky vehicle.
On a purely simplistic level it is pretty much Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums meets Little Miss Sunshine — both posters that BLT also designed. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just an unavoidable aesthetic comparison. It will help ticket sales for those who like the aforementioned films and hurt for those who don’t. People look at posters and say, “Oh look, a Wes Anderson-type film.” Those words are just as praise-worthy as they are damning.
As for Concept Arts‘ Jason Bourne (July 29), this trope has been well-documented and the source of hilarity everywhere. Let’s slap some text on Matt Damon’s face — it’s practically a meme. It’s too bad too because the effect works here due to the lighting photographer Frank Ockenfels utilizes. The shadows reveal the actor’s secretive nature and the text warps and glitches above him to speak directly to us. It works even better on the full body shot. The diagonal ray of light here beautifully takes our eye on a journey from top to bottom.
And really, is a meme so bad when the alternative is such a god-awful back-to-back rom-com pose with gun drawn? Alicia Vikander’s stern face is laughable and the duo floating above a non-descript skyline with burning police cars comedic. This is the poster you make for a Bruce Willis straight-to-DVD flick. Not the long-awaited fourth installment of a prestige franchise.
It’s a common image in cinema: a beautiful, but vulnerable woman entering a cold and unforgiving world, where good bone-structure and talent become dangerously interchangeable. While navigating the leering male gaze and sometimes heartless competition of female peers, she also must do battle with her own insecurities and self-doubts, all of which can be seemingly cured with the miraculous kiss of success. But for some, that success can lead directly to their downfall. Sometimes, the consequences can even be lethal, the adversary too ruthless to be conquered, and the beauty is left to rust in tragic defeat. And sometimes, it’s more painfully simple. They merely want to cut the poor girl’s throat.
The Neon Demon, the spellbinding new film from director Nicolas Winding Refn, is now playing in theaters nationwide. The plot follows Jesse (Elle Fanning) a 16-year-old girl who arrives in Hollywood with dreams of becoming a successful model. She’s quickly on the fast-track to fame and fortune, but runs into conflict with the jealousy of the women around her. Despite some divisive reactions from critics — our own review and subsequent discussion provides two ends of the spectrum — The Neon Demon feels to me like a welcomed return to form for Winding Refn after the puzzling peculiarities of his previous work, Only God Forgives.
In the wake of The Neon Demon‘s release, we decided to take a look back at the numerous cinematic incarnations of the death of beauty, whether by vengeful murder, or by her own heartbroken hands.
Please enjoy the list, and recommend your own suggestions in the comments below.
All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an aspiring actress with a touching sob-story, is invited into the world of Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis), quickly becoming her personal assistant and protégé. Doting on Margo with the careful attention of a nursemaid, Eve slowly insinuates herself with the actress’s friends and co-workers, slowly revealing herself to be a ruthlessly ambitious woman with lofty career goals. It isn’t long before the actions of this duplicitous up-and-comer nakedly expose the unchecked insecurities of everyone she encounters. Even Margo’s advancing age presents an impending career problem, a fact which could prove beneficial to the conniving Eve. Stylishly conceived and scripted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve is every bit the scathing masterpiece it’s acclaimed to be. It’s no spoiler to state that Eve will, in more ways than one, succeed in her attempt to usurp the famous Margo Channing, as the film opens with this reveal. The real fun lies in witnessing all of the psychological games and back-stabbing betrayals Eve orchestrates with a cunning and ruthlessly skillful mind.
Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg)
Two Americans live in Vienna during the Cold War. Alex (Art Garfunkel) is a well-known psychiatrist, who meets Milena (Theresa Russell) a boozy free-spirit at a party. They soon begin an affair, but their relationship runs hot and cold, a problem seemingly caused by Milena’s promiscuously wandering ways. Or is it? Filtered through a characteristically fractured narrative from master filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, we see only Alex’s thoughts and attitudes expressed, trapped inside his limited perspective, only permitted to see his side of the story. He blames Milena for every failure in their relationship, viewing his former love as a beautifully crazed object of his affection, and his alone. Roeg’s film jarringly reveals a yawning chasm of male insecurity in this erudite friend of Freud, a man who endlessly forces psychological criticisms onto the woman he loves, all the while casually reminding police after her suicide attempt: “I’m not her doctor.” No, he’s not. Alex wishes only to be her possessor, to tame and control Milena, instead of understanding her.
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
It’s a mistake to value success over all else, including your own well-being, which Nina (Natalie Portman), a skilled ballet dancer at a distinguished NYC dance academy, learns with devastating consequences. In the running for the next Swan Queen in a much anticipated production of Swan Lake, Nina must not only best her competitors, but her relentless inner demons which often take hold. The ballet director (Vincent Cassel) can see the pure, virginal White Swan in Nina, but the Black Swan, the darker side, eludes her. Off stage, Nina will see things that are not there, hallucinations which become increasingly difficult to surmise from reality. As an on-stage performer, Nina is all heart. She bears herself so wide-openly that even the slightest criticism can reduce this brow-beaten perfectionist to shreds. The obsession with succeeding eventually leads Nina to disconnect entirely from reality, a step unfortunately necessary for Nina to transform into the elusive Black Swan.
The Congress (Ari Folman)
As the career of actress Robin Wright sinks into unpopularity, she receives a once in a lifetime offer from Mirimount Studios. For a hefty fee, Wright (playing herself in this witty satire) will allow her likeness, her body and expressions of emotion, to be digitized in order to produce horrible mainstream entertainment for which many performers would rather be paid than endure making. Robin reluctantly agrees and signs the contract, stipulating no sci-fi or holocaust films and certainly, no pornography. As the years pass, Robin finds her life and world unrecognizable as her digital persona morphs into the blockbuster movie phenom that she never could. Half live-action satire and half psychedelic animated head-trip, the film could be described as Children of Men meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a dystopian nightmare by way of Chuck Jones or Robert Crumb. Adapted from a little-known novel by Solaris author Stanislaw Lem by writer-director Ari Folman (Waltz With Bashir), The Congress is a subversive and anguished cautionary tale, which skewers worthy targets with skillful poise.
Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju)
A morbidly engrossing blend of horror and suspense from Judex director Georges Franju, Eyes Without a Face is the story of a father’s undying love for his only daughter, a poor girl who’s face was horrifically disfigured in an accident. Hoping to return the girl to her former beauty, the doctor, a more pensive version of the classic mad scientist, begins surgically removing the faces of kidnapped young women and transplanting them to his daughter’s visage, to varying degrees of success. Eerie in its deadpan seriousness and uncommonly gory, Franju’s film drips with an ageless Gothic mood and atmosphere, a seeming perfect marriage of high art and low genre, which includes a playfully creepy score by Maurice Jarre. The film is intelligently adapted from a novel by Jean Redon, climaxing with a diabolical game of cat and mouse which manages to keep the audience guessing right up to the grisly finale. More chilling perhaps than all of its violence is the tender affection shown by this twisted madman for his beloved daughter, who saw his own salvation in the return of her fleeting beauty.
Are you all caught up with the best films of 2016 so far? It’s now time to turn to the other half of the year and July kicks things off with a promising slate of festival favorites and hopefully a decent summer blockbuster or two. It should be noted that the Coens‘ debut Blood Simple, recently restored, is getting a theatrical release ahead of a Criterion bow in the fall, so make sure to seek that out if it’s playing near you.
Matinees to See: Our Kind of Traitor (7/1), Men Go to Battle (7/8), The Infiltrator (7/13), Don’t Blink – Robert Frank (7/13), Tulip Fever (7/15), Seventh Fire (7/22), Summertime (7/22), The Land (7/29), Into the Forest (7/29), Gleason (7/29), Equity (7/29)
15. Cafe Society (Woody Allen; July 15th)
Synopsis: Set in the 1930s, a young Bronx native moves to Hollywood where he falls in love with the secretary of his powerful uncle, an agent to the stars. After returning to New York he is swept up in the vibrant world of high society nightclub life.
Why You Should See It: I stand by my sentiment that Woody Allen has yet to make a truly awful film, so even if he doesn’t hit out of the park, there’s always something to enjoy. His latest seems to fall in that camp as we said in our Cannes review, “Café Society is a quintessential later-period Woody Allen film. That is to say, it’s thoroughly mediocre. It’s by now a sad truism that the octogenarian auteur is more interested in maintaining his prodigious output of at least one feature per annum (he hasn’t missed a beat since 1982) than to strive for the supreme heights he reached time and again in his first three decades as a filmmaker.”
14. Ghostbusters (Paul Feig; July 15th)
Synopsis: Ghosts get busted.
Why You Should See It: At this point, I’m eager for the discussion around Ghostbusters to move beyond noxious man-children trolling the internet as much as I’m looking forward to the movie itself. Led by Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, Paul Feig has gathered the ideal comedic quartet to continue the franchise. While the trailers have been a bit of a let-down, that was the case for the director’s previous films, yet they mostly all managed to deliver in their final form, and hopefully that continues here.
13. Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Koreeda; July 8th)
Synopsis: A story that revolves around three sisters who live in their grandmother’s home and the arrival of their thirteen-year-old half sister.
Why You Should See It: While he just debuted one of our favorites from Cannes, After the Storm, Hirokazu Koreeda‘s previous feature will finally get a release soon in the United States thanks to Sony Pictures Classics. Adapted from Akimi Yoshida’s highly successful manga Umimachi Diary, Our Little Sister is an examination of the dynamics amongst the members of a damaged family.While we were mixed on it back at Cannes last year, there’s no way I’ll be missing out on seeing a new film from the director.
12. The BFG (Steven Spielberg; July 1st)
Synopsis: A girl named Sophie encounters the Big Friendly Giant who, despite his intimidating appearance, turns out to be a kindhearted soul who is considered an outcast by the other giants because, unlike them, he refuses to eat children.
Why You Should See It: Steven Spielberg adapting Roald Dahl sounds like an ideal match, and indeed, the director brings a level of directorial precision, wonder, and imagination missing from the rest of the summer slate thus far. While it often feels whizpoppingly flat, dramatically speaking, it’s still worth seeing. We said in our review, “CGI loses the day in Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, a partly motion-captured, eco-minded adaptation of Roald Dahl’s adored children’s book that leans so heavily on green-screen trickery that even Mark Rylance’s kind eyes — squinting out from that computer-generated abyss — can’t save it from mediocrity.”
11. Zero Days (Alex Gibney; July 8th)
Synopsis: Documentary detailing claims of American/Israeli jointly developed malware Stuxnet being deployed not only to destroy Iranian enrichment centrifuges but also threaten attacks against Iranian civilian infrastructure.
Why You Should See It: With an output so rapid, we don’t blame you if you’ve missed the last few documentaries from Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Taxi to the Dark Side). His next one, however, you’ll certainly want to pay attention to. We said in our review, “With its focus on the U.S. government’s covert advances into the field of cyberwarfare, Zero Days resembles Gibney’s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, an equally searing indictment of the U.S. military’s government-sanctioned use of torture during the Iraq War. Although his scope is much more ambitious this time around, the writer-director handles this expansive, technically complex, and ethically abstract subject matter with remarkable cogency, crafting a documentary that’s as enlightening as it is disquieting.”