Split/Screen: The Films of Brian De Palma. Movies reviewed: De Palma, Sisters, Obsession, Carrie, Blowout

Posted in Conspiracy Theory, Crime, Cultural Mining, Hollywood, Horror, Mental Illness, Psychological Thriller, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on June 17, 2016

De Palma PosterHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

A new documentary is opening today called simply De Palma (directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow). And that’s what it is: an interview with director Brian De Palma (director of Carrie and Scarface.) He talks directly to the camera about his career and the films he made, complete with clips. De Palma was part of the small Brian De Palma and Al Pacino on set of SCARFACE as seen in DE PALMAgroup of New Hollywood directors who broke loose in the 1970s: I’m talking Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas. He was the first one to cast Robert De Niro, who he discovered straight out of acting school.

Brian De Palma started as an experimental art-house director in NY. Then he became a genre director, specializing in horror, suspense and crime movies. Eventually, by the early 1990s, he Brian De Palma and John Travolta on set of BLOW OUT as seen in DE PALMAmoved on to big budget hits, but his movies lost their original or interesting elements.

His movies are easy to spot. He pioneered the use of the split screen. He took parallel montage – meaning to alternate simultaneous scenes — and tossed it out the window. He replaced it with split screens, a remarkably successful technique that shows two points of view at the same time, side by side.

De Palma uses split screen like an exclamation point. He’s saying: pay attention and look at this — it’s important!

Another trademark are his soft-core scenes of naked women caressing themselves in the shower, surrounded by clouds of billowing steam. Immediately followed by lots of blood. This was very controversial at the time, for combining highly sexualized images of women with scenes of violence directed toward the same characters. It led to widespread protests and boycotts of his movies (especially Body Double and Dressed to Kill).

Split/Screen: The Films of Brian De Palma is a retrospective now playing at TIFF. This week, I’m looking at some of his lesser-known films from what I call his Golden Age: the 1970s and 1980s.

mwk4wA_106_006_o3_9000592_1463580929Sisters and Obsession are two of De Palma’s earliest – and not that well-known – Hitchcock-type movies. They both star Canadian actresses.

Sisters (1973) is about a pair of beautiful twins, Dominique and Danielle (Margot Kidder, with a solid Quebecoise accent). These sisters’ lives are closely bound,  to say the least. When one of them stabs a man to death in her own qjo47D_106_007_o3_9000652_1463580940apartment, her greasy ex-husband steps to in to cover-up the crime. The body and the blood all disappear, but not before Grace, a journalist (Jennifer Salt) who lives in an adjacent building, witnesses it all. But she is hampered by a corrupt and sexist police force (a common, subversive theme in many of his movies). This film is a combination of The Lady Vanishes and Rear sisters.003Window, where it’s up to a single person not just to catch the criminal but to prove the crime even took place. While far from a masterpiece, it has Margot Kidder in one of her first feature roles (she was strictly a TV actress before this). There’s also an incredible, drug-infused, surreal scene in black and white (using a camera’s iris) set in a mental ward. The film is worth seeing just for that.

OBSESSION-SPTI-08.tifObsession (1976) is more like Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Michael (Cliff Robertson) is a business tycoon in New Orleans. He works with his smarmy partner Bob (John Lithgow, De Palma’s go-to villain). But when his wife (Genevieve Bujold) and his two kids are kidnapped and murdered Mike falls into a deep depression. Decades later, on a business trip to Italy, he spots a beautiful woman restoring art in a cathedral – the same church where he had met his wife. Sandra looks just like OBSESSION-SPTI-07.tifher – like time stood still. He becomes obsessed with her. They travel back to New Orleans and plan to marry. Sandra explores the house including what she finds in a sealed room. And that’s when their lives starts to unravel and deep secrets are revealed in a shocking ending.

The Hitchcock feel of these two movies was not coincidental. The story, look and sound of these movies evokes him in many scenes. De Palma intentionally hired the same composer Bernard Herrmann, that Alfred Hitchcock used in movies like North by Northwest and Psycho. Prophetically, like Hitchcock, he’s never won an Oscar.

oYmo3N_Carrie_2_o3_8998306_1463581372Carrie (1976) is much more famous – it was a big hit based on a Stephen King novel. Sissy Spacek plays Carrie, the daughter of a fire-and-brimstone evangelical mother (Piper Laurie) who thinks anything sexual is a sin. So Carrie panics when she has her first period at school, not knowing what was happening. Instead of being helped, she is horribly bullied in the girls’ locker room. They throw tampons at her. Sue (Amy Irving) feels guilty so she sets Carrie up with a date for the senior prom. But Chris (Nancy Allen) takes the opposite path and plans to inflict a humiliating practical joke on her. But no pgnpEr_Carrie_10_o3_8998395_1463580862one knows that Carrie is telekinetic: she can move things with her mind.

All of this leads to the iconic prom scene, the climax of the movie, which makes use of extensive split screen 58Mkjq_Carrie_43_o3_8998438_1463580881to great effect. And I should warn you here, if you haven’t seen Carrie, watch it first, before the documentary, which is filled with spoilers. Carrie is both a heartbreaking story of adolescence and (for when it was made) scary as hell.

vgwy65_5006903_o3_8997710_1463581179Blowout (1981) is about Jack Terry (John Travolta), a sound guy. He used to wire cops, hiding microphones on their bodies to help with corruption investigations. Now he works at a two-bit recording studio in Philadelphia, recording and mixing sound effects for schlocky slasher films. One night he heads out to record wind sounds in a park, but, coincidentally, he catches the sounds of a chappaquidick-style accident: a tire blows out, and a car goes off a bridge. He dives into the river and saves a young woman trapped inside… but not the driver. He’s dead.

Turns out the driver was the late State Governor groomed to be the next President. His political X6Pv9v_FRL-42992_Blow-Out_col-slide_002_tmb_o3_8997675_1463581167team wants the whole accident to disappear. But was it an accident? Jack wants Sally, the woman from the accident (Nancy Allen — married to De Palma at the time) to help him prove that this was an assassination. And that the sounds he recorded were of a gunshot followed by a blow out. But a mysterious, murderous political fixer (John Lithgow) is working behind the scenes to make it — and all the people involved — disappear. The police seem to be part of the cover up, and Sally has some secrets of her own (she was in the car as j2BjjP_IMG0087_o3_8997801_1463581207part of a honeypot blackmail scheme.) Can Jack and Sally expose this deep, dark conspiracy?

I saw Blowout as a kid when it first came out, and it blew my mind. It was a flop and largely faded away (until recently). But I’ve always considered Blow Out to be one of De Palma’s best movies.  It’s inspired by Antonioni’s famous Blow Up, but I like it better. John Travolta is fantastic in this. The sounds and pictures in this are amazing – every shot has spectacular depth of field (like a close up of an owl taking up the right side, and Jack on a bridge far off in the distance on the left side.) This movie is made to watch on a wide screen – it feels like split screen, even when it’s not.

If you want to see just one De Palma film, let it be this one.

De Palma (the documentary) and Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma are playing now in Toronto – go to tiff.net for showtimes.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

 

 

 

 

 

B Movies. Films reviewed: Sisters, Black Christmas (1974), He Never Died, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, comedy, Cultural Mining, Horror, Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 18, 2015

 

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Star Ka'at 1976 A certain movie – which shall remain nameless – is opening today, but I’m not going to cover it. It’s getting more than enough airtime already.  Instead, I’m going to talk about “B” movies and genre movies opening this weekend that might otherwise be neglected. There‘s a comedy about adult sisters, a classic horror movie about sorority sisters, a comedy/horror about a man who can’t die, and a French noir mystery about a woman who can’t remember.

1_lSisters
Dir: Jason Moore

Maura and Kate Ellis (Amy Poehler and Tina Fey) are adult sisters. Maura is the do-gooder – she always behaves responsibly, even excessively so. She just wants people to like her. Kate is the wild, irresponsible one. A single mom, she can’t keep a job, hold onto an apartment or even care for her teenaged daughter. But when the two sisters hear their parents are selling their childhood home, they jump into a car and head on south to Florida, to reclaim their childhoods. And once there, they decide to invite all their old friends to a final bash, complete with dating, drugs, loud music and debauchery. Except this 2_lparty will be different. Maura can go wild while Kate has to be the responsible one. Maura invites James (Ike Barinholtz) a guy she likes who’s renovating a nearby house, while Kate has to deal with her high school nemesis, Brinda (Maya Rudolph).

That’s the story but it’s not really important. The movie is just a series of semi-improvised sketches about grown-ups behaving like teenagers. It also lets female comics – including lots of others in small roles — be the funny ones with the men as sex symbols, foils or goofs. It’s pretty sloppy: for example, the house swimming pool is emptied then full, emptied then full, in the course of a couple scenes… as if the film editor forgot to read the script. But it’s still pretty funny. I laughed a lot, at about 60% of the jokes.

MjBBrA_11B_Black_Christmas_o3_8804423_1442868311Black Christmas (1974)
Dir: Bob Clarke
A group of sorority sisters live together in a shared house in a college town. Most have gone home for Christmas break, but a few are still there. Barb (Margot Kidder) is there for the sex, Phyl (Andrea Martin) is more bookish, Clare (Lynne Griffin) is conservative — called a “professional virgin” by Barb — while Jess (Olivia Hussey) is working things out with her boyfriend, Peter. And then there’s Mrs Mac (Marian Waldman) their alcoholic 76JJ5j_11C_Black_Christmas_o3_8804484_1442868309housemother who spends most of her time trying to keep track of all her hidden whisky bottles.

Then one day they start getting strange, obscene phone calls by someone who uses various voices and seems to know all their secrets. And when they start disappearing, one by one, they realize something is very wrong. But the town police are slow to react, dismissing them all as just silly girls. That is until a search party finds a body. Can they track the phone call and find the killer? And will anybody ever look in the attic?

BLACK-CHRISTMAS-Website-PosterBlack Christmas was made more than 40 years ago, it’s a Canadian film, and was shot right here, in spitting distance from where I’m recording this. And it’s often called the very first slasher-type horror movie. But it’s much better than the flood of slasher movies – ones where the cast members are killed one Black Christmas posterat a time in their home — that followed it. And the cast is amazing. Besides the ones I mentioned, there’s also John Saxon (Enter the Dragon) as the police detective, and Keir Dullea (2001: a Space Odyssey) as Peter, Jess’s confused musician boyfriend. It also deals with big issues of the day: vigilantes with guns, abortion, sexual freedom, and feminism. They’re re-releasing it now on DVD and VOD, and it’s also great chance to see it on the big screen.

He_Never_Died__22349He Never Died
Dir: Jason Krawczyk
Jack (Henry Rollins) is an ordinary, monosylabic guy who lives alone in a dingy, downtown apartment. At the foot of his bed is a wooden chest filled with money. He uses it to pay for meals at the Times Square Diner (where he occasionally talks to a waitress) or for old people bingo games at a local church. He has an intern named Jeremy (Booboo Stewart) who brings him a large, unmarked bundle once a day. He needs it to stop the voices he hears in his head. He likes life to be as simple as possible.

Then things start to get complicated. A gangster (Steven Ogg) that Jack used to work for reappears on the scene. A teenaged girl names Andrea He_Never_Died_Still_03(Jordan Todosey) shows up saying he’s her father. And she tries to get him to date Cara (Kate Greenhouse) the waitress at the diner.  Thugs come to his door demanding he tell them where Jeremy is. They say he owes them money. They hold a gun to his head and threaten him. But they don’t realize that death threats don’t work because Jack can’t die. He’s actually very old. In-the-Bible old. And he doesn’t hesitate to smite people who do bad things.

He_Never_Died__94057Then things get worse. They break the intern’s kneecaps, cutting off Jack’s supply. They kidnap his daughter, enters his domain and messes up the diner he goes to. It’s not like he seeks revenge, or wants to kill dozens of people with his bare hands. He just gets in these bad situations. Where people make him angry.

He Never Died is a funny but violent horror movie with a supernatural dimension. It was shot in an urban, gritty-looking Toronto. This movie is fun. It stars the 1980s hardcore hero Henry Rollins, who plays it very calm and chill… until he explodes. I wonder if I would like this as much as I do if I didn’t like Henry Rollins. Maybe, but it also has a good story, a cool look, and good acting all around.

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (photo_04)The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun
Dir: Joann Sfar
It’s the 1960s. Dany (Freya Mavor) is a young woman with fiery red hair and round glasses who lives in Paris. She’s just a secretary, she tells herself, but has wild fantasies and vivid nightmares. One day her boss (Benjamin Biolay) orders her to type up a 60-page report at his home before he flies off to Switzerland with his wife. The next day he hands her a cash bonus, and lends her his brand new Thunderbird to drive back to Paris from Orly airport. But on a sudden impulse, she turns south instead and drives toward the sea. She buys some new clothes in a seaside resort and examines her The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (photo_01)new self – she’s not just a secretary – she’s a star!. She feels free, glamorous, sexy. People ogle her as if she’s famous. That’s when things get strange. A woman from a café asks if she’s feeling better now. Truckers at a roadside gas station stare at her and a mechanic there swears he fixed her car the night before. At her hotel she finds her name already on the roster. And a cop stops her car and addresses her by name. It’s all so strange!

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (photo_02)She meets a slick but sketchy man named Georges (Elio Germano) who asks her to drive him to the sea. He has to catch a boat to West Africa. There’s a definite attraction between the two, but can he be trusted? And when a dead body shows up, she wonders if she is losing he mind. Was she a killer and just can’t remember?

I like this movie. Have you heard of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady The_Lady_Vanishes_1938_PosterVanishes? An elderly woman disappears on a train, but everyone except the main character swears she was never there. This film is more like The Lady Reappears. Everyone, except the main character herself, swears she was there the day before. The film is pure eye candy,  and it looks like a graphic novel, with split screens and parallel scenes. Beautiful and stylized. Director Joann Sfar is a great comic artist, so it makes sense his movie looks like this. And I love seeing two non-French actors doing a movie entirely in this lingua franca.

Sisters, He Never Died, and The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun all open today in Toronto: check your local listings. And Black Christmas has a special screening on Saturday at the Royal Cinema with live appearances by Nick Mancuso and Lynn Griffin.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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