DE PALMA (2016) – Controversial Director Reflects on His Career

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Brian De Palma tells his story in DE PALMA (2016).

Brian De Palma has a lot to say about his career.

And in DE PALMA (2016), the new documentary on the acclaimed movie director by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, he gets nearly two hours to do just that.

The film is actually footage from an interview Baumbach and Paltrow shot with De Palma back in 2010.  They liked the footage so much they added lots of film clips and turned it into a documentary.

DE PALMA pretty much plays like a one person movie panel.  Brian De Palma is front and center speaking to the camera for nearly the entire movie, with appropriate film clips thrown in to highlight his points and stories.  As such, it’s not going to win any awards for creative cinematography.

Back in his heyday, in the 1970s and 1980s, Brian De Palma was a polarizing and controversial movie director, infamous for his ultra-violent yet stylish movies, especially for over-the-top scenes of violence against women.  He was also known for his Hitchcock homages which critics often slammed as simple knock-offs.

In DE PALMA, Brian De Palma takes us through his entire career, beginning with his early years, when he used to operate in close circles with his best friends and fellow filmmakers Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Paul Schrader, and Steve Spielberg.  De Palma also worked with a very young Robert De Niro and directed De Niro’s first movie, GREETINGS (1968).

De Palma continues with how he began to make a name for himself with films like SISTERS (1973), PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974), and OBSESSION (1976).  He called Genevieve Bujold’s performance the best part of OBSESSION, and Cliff Robertson the worst part, explaining that Robertson, once he saw that Bujold was stealing the show, tried to sabotage the movie by making things as difficult as possible for both Bujold and De Palma.

Later that same year De Palma was offered the project which would launch his career, CARRIE (1976), based on the novel by Stephen King. De Palma lamented that the studio really didn’t get behind CARRIE since they viewed it as just a gory horror movie, but to his delight, both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were nominated for Oscars.

After the success of CARRIE, De Palma received a huge budget for his next movie, THE FURY (1978) which happened to be the first Brian De Palma movie I ever saw.

After THE FURY, De Palma entered his Hitchcock period with such films as DRESSED TO KILL (1980), BLOW OUT (1981), and BODY DOUBLE (1984), films that critics complained were too derivative of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. DRESSED TO KILL was modeled after PSYCHO (1960) and BODY DOUBLE was modeled after VERTIGO (1958) and REAR WINDOW (1954).

De Palma said he was heavily criticized for power drill murder scene in BODY DOUBLE, especially for making the drill so big, but as he explained, the drill was gigantic because in order for the scene to work, Craig Wasson’s character had to see it coming through the ceiling, and for that to happen, the drill had to be huge.  As De Palma explains it, it made perfect sense to him because it was simply part of the story.  He said he never intended to create extra violent scenes against women, but that those scenes existed only to satisfy the stories he was telling.

In the middle of these films came SCARFACE (1983), starring Al Pacino.  De Palma tells the story of how he was so annoyed at the ratings board for not giving his film an “R” rating even after all his edits, especially to the chain saw scene, that once he did receive the “R” rating, he went back and released the unedited version anyway.

He also said, and it’s true, that the way he edited the infamous chain saw scene, you never see the chain saw cut into the victim’s flesh.  I recently re-watched SCARFACE for the first time in years and I was surprised at how little De Palma showed in that scene.  It’s really not that gory at all.

After the comedic flop WISE GUYS (1986), De Palma made the movie that once more resuscitated his career:  THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), which just might be De Palma’s most popular movie, but strangely, it’s one of my least favorite films that he made.   Oftentimes I find De Palma’s camerawork overbearing.  The famous “shoot-out with the baby carriage falling down the stairs” scene in THE UNTOUCHABLES, for example, I find almost unwatchable because of the pretentious slow-motion camerawork.  Some see it as cinematic genius, but for me it’s just cinematic overkill.

Likewise, in his discussion of CARRIE, De Palma talks about the complicated shots he conceived for the end of CARRIE and how the producers were unhappy with the results, to which De Palma says they just didn’t get the genius of his work.  While this may be true, the climactic bloodbath in CARRIE is another example where the camerawork gets in the way of the story.  To me, and this is why I’m not the biggest De Palma fan, if you’re going to use the camera creatively, you have to do it in a way where it empowers the story, not detracts from it.  Spielberg does this all the time.  De Palma does not.

His next film was CASUALTIES OF WAR (1989), the gripping Vietnam movie starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn.  This one I did like, and it’s probably my favorite Brian De Palma movie of all time.  I remember seeing it at the movies and being blown away by its potency.

De Palma tells some interesting anecdotes from the set of CASUALTIES, specifically of how Sean Penn used to torment Michael J. Fox.   At one point, Penn was supposed to whisper a line in Fox’s ear about payback, but De Palma heard Penn say, “TV actor!”  De Palma felt Penn’s antics caused Fox to feel alienated and defensive on set, which ultimately helped Fox’s performance since his character was supposed to feel the same way.

This was followed by one of De Palma’s biggest flops, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (1990), a downward trend that would continue over the next few years.  After a brief surge from the Tom Cruise vehicle MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (1996), De Palma’s career bottomed out with the woeful MISSION TO MARS (2000) which was the last movie to date that De Palma shot in the United States.  His subsequent films have all been made in Europe.

DE PALMA is not the most riveting documentary I’ve ever seen nor even the most informative.  Its style is simple.  De Palma speaks directly to the camera the entire time, and when he’s not on screen, we’re treated to appropriate movie footage, which is  used here effectively.

De Palma also isn’t the most animated speaker around, but he does provide plenty of stories and anecdotes. He also asks questions.  For example, De Palma points out that although people have praised Alfred Hitchcock as a cinematic genius, no one else except for De Palma himself has ever tried to use Hitchcock’s style.  He asks why more directors aren’t making movies like Hitchcock did?  It’s a fair question.

Maybe part of the answer is that De Palma’s homages to Hitchcock never really worked all that well.  Part of the reason they didn’t work was they were too closely based on the Hitchcock movies they were paying homage to. Had De Palma used Hitchcock’s style in stories that were original and not derivative of specific Hitchcock movies, he may have had better results.

For Brian De Palma fans, DE PALMA is must-see viewing.  For the rest of us, it’s a chance to see and listen to a film director reflect back on his entire body of work.  And whether you’re a fan of De Palma or not, you have to give the guy credit for his persistence and for sticking to his guns when it came to making movies the way he wanted to make them.

De Palma is currently 75 years old and still making movies in Europe.

—END—

 

 

 

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CARRIE (2013)

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Carrie poster 2013Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on the recent remake of CARRIE (2013) starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore.  It’s up now in the February 2015 Edition of THE HORROR WRITERS ASSOCIATION NEWSLETTER.

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT it’s the 2013 remake of CARRIE starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore.

CARRIE, based on Stephen King’s first novel and first filmed in 1976 by Brian De Palma with Sissy Spacek in the lead role, tells the story of awkward teenager Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) who’s constantly picked on at school because she is awkward and shy.  Carrie acts this way because she has been brought up— and until recently, home-schooled— by her religious fanatic mother Margaret (Julianne Moore).  Fanatic might be too lenient a term.  In short, Margaret is a lunatic!  For example, Margaret’s idea of effective parenting includes locking Carrie in a closet so she can pray for forgiveness.  We’re never told why Margaret acts the way she does, but we can assume she experienced one or more traumatic events earlier in her life.

After Carrie’s classmates make a vicious video of her in the girl’s locker room shower, gym teacher Ms. Desjardin (Judy Greer) punishes the girls responsible by restricting their prom privileges unless they do extra drills during gym class.  Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) sees the error of her ways and in good faith asks her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom instead.  Carrie is wary of the invitation, but eventually is convinced that Tommy is not trying to trick her, and so she says yes.

While Sue and Tommy have the best intentions, the wild and rebellious Chris (Portia Doubleday) does not, and she and her boyfriend plan an elaborate scheme of revenge to get back at Carrie at the prom.

The other thing about Carrie is that she has telekinetic powers, which come in handy for dealing with the likes of her mother, and in the film’s bloody finale, Sue and the others who try to humiliate her.

The original CARRIE was directed by Brian De Palma, and starred Sissy Spacek as Carrie and Piper Laurie as her mother Margaret, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards, so as good as this sequel is, and as good as both Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore are, they would be hard-pressed to match the efforts of the original.  Sissy Spacek, for example, remains the definitive Carrie.

However, there’s a lot to like about the 2013 version.

I enjoyed how director Kimberly Peirce and screenwriters Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa updated the story.  For example, in this version, the girls take the video of Carrie on a cell phone which they then upload to the internet.  This version also does a better job than the original of showing Sue’s motives as to why she wants to help Carrie.

Chloe Grace Moretz does a nice job as Carrie.  Before seeing the movie, I was concerned that Moretz would have been too normal and good looking for the part, but she does a good job making Carrie awkward and uncomfortable.

Like Piper Laurie in the original, the scariest part of this movie is Julianne Moore as Carrie’s mother Margaret.  Is Moore as good as Laurie?  Probably not, but she’s still damn scary, which is a good thing, because there’s not much else that’s frightening about CARRIE.  It’s disturbing, to be sure, as Carrie’s life is a tough one, as she’s bullied at school, and at home she’s dominated by her insane mother.  And it’s exceedingly sad to see Carrie humiliated at the prom, and even her revenge doesn’t feel rewarding.  You just want to see her be happy, not single-handedly wiping out half her high school class!

The acting here is above average.  In addition to Moretz and Moore, Gabrielle Wilde is very good as sympathetic Sue Snell, as is Judy Greer as Ms. Desjardin.  Portia Doubleday does a nice job making Chris a spoiled bratty nemesis for Carrie, and while I liked Ansel Elgort as wholesome boyfriend Tommy the first time I saw this one at the movies, the second time I watched this on Netflix I found him rather syrupy sweet, and I had a hard time taking him seriously.

The best part of CARRIE is it tells a genuine tale of the effects of bullying, something that too many high school students have to deal with, and the sad part is they’ve been dealing with it for years—long before King wrote the novel in the early 70s— and they continue to deal with it today.  This combined with the other part of the story, Carrie’s relationship with her abusive mother, make this one sadder than most horror tales.

I liked this version of CARRIE well enough, and by far my favorite part of this movie was the performances by Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her demented mother Margaret.

CARRIE is a gloomy drama about a young girl who is eventually pushed to the edge of her sanity, to the point where she can’t take it any longer and strikes back with the full force of her deadly telekinetic abilities.  Yet, this action does little to lift Carrie out of her predicament.  In fact, it doesn’t rescue her from her plight at all.  It simply ends it.

In CARRIE, the only release from pain is death.

For those who like dark stories, you can’t get much darker than that.

—END—

YOUR MOVIE LISTS: CHLOE GRACE MORETZ Movies

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Chloe Grace Moretz as CARRIE (2013).

YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  Chloe Grace Moretz

 

By Michael Arruda

 

Welcome to another edition of YOUR MOVIE LISTS, the column where you’ll find lists of odds and ends about movies.  Today we’re looking at films starring Chloe Grace Moretz.

 

Ever since Chloe Grace Moretz burst onto the scene as Hit Girl in KICK- ASS (2010), I’ve been a huge fan, so much so that she’s clearly one of my favorite actresses working today, and what makes this even more amazing is she’s only seventeen years old.  It’s a rare thing for me to be blown away on a consistent basis by an actor that young.

 

Sure, part of what made her so memorable as Hit Girl was the shock factor: here was an eleven year-old girl using language usually reserved for Robert De Niro in a gangster movie and kicking bad guys’ butts with the ferocity of Christian Bale’s Batman.

 

But Moretz didn’t stop there.  She has continued to star in one decent movie after another, and she’s usually the best part of these movies.

 

Here is a partial list of movies featuring Chloe Grace Moretz:

 

HEART OF THE BEHOLDER (2005) – film debut of Chloe Grace Moretz.

 

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (2005) – plays young Chelsea Lutz in this re-imagining of the 1979 film.

 

KICK-ASS (2010) – the film which pretty much put Moretz on the map.  While Aaron Taylor-Johnson is pretty impressive in the lead role as Kick-Ass, the young teen turned superhero, Chloe Grace Moretz is even better as the eleven year-old Hit Girl, the roughest, toughest pre-teen superhero ever seen in the movies.  Violent and not for everybody, KICK-ASS is one of the more enjoyable off-beat superhero films you’ll ever have the pleasure to come across.

 

DIARY OF A WIMPY KID (2010) – plays Angie Steadman in this very funny movie based on the popular book by Jeff Kinney.

 

LET ME IN (2010) – Moretz is amazing as the vampire Abby—perhaps even more impressive than her performance as Hit Girl— in this Hammer horror film directed by Matt Reeves.  This is one of my favorite horror movies of recent years, and Moretz’ performance is a major reason why.

 

HUGO (2011) – plays Isabelle in a delightful supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s highly entertaining visual tour de force about a young boy name Hugo (Asa Butterfield)  living in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris.  Also starring Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen.

 

DARK SHADOWS (2012) – plays Carolyn Stoddard in this reimagining of the iconic 1960s TV show by director Tim Burton.  A comedic misfire, not even Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, or the presence of Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Christopher Lee, and of course Chloe Grace Moretz could save this one, which plays more like THE ADDAMS FAMILY than DARK SHADOWS.

 

KICK-ASS 2 (2013) – While it was nice to see Moretz reprise her Hit Girl role along with Aaron Taylor Johnson’s return as Kick-Ass, this sequel is nowhere near as good as its predecessor.

 

CARRIE ( 2013) – plays the lead role of Carrie in this decent remake of the 1976 film starring Sissy Spacek, both based on the very first novel by Stephen King.  Moretz is good, and Julianne Moore might be better as Carrie’s cruel mom.

 

IF I STAY (2014) – love story where Moretz’ character Mia has to decide via an out-of-body experience after a car crash whether or not she wants to return to the land of the living.

 

THE EQUALIZER (2014) – supporting role as a prostitute in this OK actioner very loosely based on the old TV show from the 1980s starring Edward Woodward.  This one stars Denzel Washington in the lead role.

 

There you have it, a partial list of some notable Chloe Grace Moretz movies. Hope you enjoyed it.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CARRIE (1976)

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Carrie (1976) posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, published in this month’s HORROR WRITERS ASSOCIATION NEWSLETTER, on the Brian De Palma movie CARRIE (1976) based on Stephen King’s first novel.

—–Michael

  IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

I’ve never been that big a fan of CARRIE (1976). 

Granted, there are those who love it, who hail it as a masterpiece by director Brian De Palma, but this interpretation of Stephen King’s novel has never quite done it for me.

I caught up with it again the other day on streaming video, in preparation for the October 18, 2013 release of the remake, starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore.

While this 1976 version of CARRIE failed to wow me yet again, I came away during this latest viewing with a deeper appreciation for its two lead performers, Sissy Spacek as Carrie, and Piper Laurie as her mother.

The story of CARRIE is quite simple.  Awkward Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is made fun of and bullied in her high school classes.  She’s awkward because she’s raised by her religious fanatic mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) who’s prone to locking Carrie in her room to pray for forgiveness for her sins.  In short, her mom’s a lunatic.

One of Carrie’s classmates Sue (Amy Irving) feels sorry for her and arranges in good faith to have her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) ask Carrie to the prom.  However, the vindictive Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), angry that her bullying of Carrie led to a week-long detention, plots with her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) to sabotage the prom date.

Oh yeah.  There’s one more thing about Carrie.  She has telekinetic abilities.  She can move objects at will, just by using her mind, and when she gets angry, she kinda loses control of herself.  So, if I were Chris and Billy, or Carrie’s mom, I’d be careful about pushing her buttons, but I’m not, which means these folks don’t have a clue about what they’re getting themselves into, and it goes without saying, that they get what’s coming to them.  Big time.

CARRIE is a disturbing tale of a young high school student dominated and tormented by her mother and bullied by her classmates.  The mother-dominated relationship has shades of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, and I’m guessing this is what attracted director De Palma to the project, since so many of his early movies were rip-offs— er, homages to Hitchcock movies. 

De Palma’s best films display a creative visual style that some critics say were rip-offs of Hitchcock, but I liked De Palma’s signature moments, and when he’s on, it’s difficult not to enjoy his work.  That being said, there’s not much of that style to be found here in CARRIE.  The prom sequence which is nicely choreographed comes closest, but for most of the film, De Palma’s camerawork is uncharacteristically subdued.

My favorite part of CARRIE is Sissy Spacek’s performance.  She creates a perfect shy and withdrawn teen, and she’s totally believable in the role. 

Equally as good is Piper Laurie as Carrie’s mother Margaret.  By far, Laurie is the scariest part of CARRIE.  She’s absolutely terrifying, and it’s frightening to imagine what growing up under her roof would be like.  If she had a son his name would have been Norman Bates. 

Both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were nominated for Academy Awards for their roles, Spacek for Best Actress in a Lead Role and Laurie for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.  Neither actress won.

The rest of the cast plays like a “who’s who” for up and coming stars of the 1970s.  Amy Irving plays good girl Sue Snell, and she’s okay.  Irving would be even better in De Palma’s THE FURY (1979).

William Katt, TV’s GREATEST AMERICAN HERO (1981-86) does a nice job as nice guy Tommy Ross, and pre- SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) John Travolta plays bad boy Billy Nolan.  Travolta actually enjoys one of the film’s most entertaining scenes, when he’s in the car with his girlfriend Chris (Nancy Allen).  It’s a great scene, as Chris goes back and forth between teasing her boyfriend and tormenting him, manipulating him perfectly, and Travolta’s confused reactions during this sequence are priceless.

As Chris, Nancy Allen delivers one of the better performances in the movie, right up there with Spacek and Laurie.  Chris is a royal pain in the butt, and Allen is full of spoiled angry energy throughout.  Allen appeared in several other Brian De Palma’s movies after CARRIE.  She starred in DRESSED TO KILL (1980), and BLOW OUT (1981).  No surprise since she was married to De Palma at the time.

 

And P.J. Soles who we’d see later in HALLOWEEN (1978) and STRIPES (1981) is also on hand as one of the conniving teens.

 

The screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King, tells a very sad story.  High school can be a scary place, and for Carrie it’s full of horrors.  Her home life with her mother is even worse.  This is the horror that is CARRIE, a sad portrait of a lonely girl.

For some, this is what horror is all about, producing an emotion in the audience, in this case extreme sympathy for Carrie.  This is all well and good, but I prefer my horror with a greater sense of fun, and by “fun” I don’t meant “let’s-throw-a-party” type deal, but “let’s get you squirming in your seats” type of fun.  There’s none of that here, which is a major reason why I’ve never been all that into CARRIE.  There’s nothing fun about it. 

It also has a ridiculous over-the-top ending that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie.  And it’s a bit dated.  For example, there’s a scene where a teacher slaps a student, which is something that wouldn’t happen today, and later on we see high school students casually driving while drinking beer. 

Compared to the other big horror hits of the 1970s, films like THE EXORCIST (1973), THE OMEN (1976), and HALLOWEEN (1978), CARRIE just doesn’t measure up.  It’s not as scary as these other movies, its story isn’t as riveting, and it’s not as stylish.

While you’re watching it, CARRIE plays like a depressingly bad prom date.  It’s painful to get through.  But after it’s over, and time passes, you realize it’s really not that big of a deal.

Neither is CARRIE.

—END—


—Did you like this column?  Then check out the book, IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, available now as an EBook from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.comand also as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.

Enjoy!

—Michael