Sunday, June 12, 2016

Review: De Palma

Image courtesy of A24.
As far as documentaries focusing on a single subject go, Noah Baumbach's "De Palma" doesn't break any new ground. However, it's a fascinating oral history of its subject - one of Hollywood's most underrated and controversial filmmakers from American film's golden age of the 1970s - and Baumbach is wise enough to just let De Palma narrate his own story, but also a history of American filmmaking from the late 1960s up through the present, without interrupting him too much.

In essence, "De Palma" is the titular director's commentary on his career, kicking off with a brief history of his family (his father was a surgeon and the director originally intended to go into science before becoming interested in movies in the 1960s) and then diving right into his filmography, picture by picture.

For those not familiar with or particularly a fan of De Palma's work - the director's films were often filled with sex and violence and some of his best known titles were panned at the time, only later to become cult classics or respected long after the fact - the director himself makes a pretty good case for why his voice and cinematic style is so unique. Baumbach frequently shows off De Palma's signature stylistic traits - such as extreme close-ups in the foreground with other characters in the background or his brilliant use of split screen - so that those viewing this documentary get a pretty good grasp of De Palma's style, regardless of whether they've actually seen any of his films.

De Palma was obviously a disciple of Alfred Hitchcock and although this should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen his work, it's interesting to hear the director discuss exactly how "Vertigo" (his favorite), "Psycho" and "Rear Window" helped inform such films as "Dressed to Kill" and "Body Double." Other obvious references - the Odessa steps sequence in "Battleship Potempkin" being recreated in "The Untouchables," the central concept of "Blowup" influencing "Blow Out" - are also diagnosed here, but, again, hearing De Palma's own take on why those famed sequences inspired his own are presented in an invigorating way in Baumbach's documentary.

The picture will also likely one day act as a document for a style of filmmaking that has increasingly become a thing of the past. De Palma points out that his first 10 films were flops and also how he'd experiment with particular shots and stylistic choices in the middle of filming a scene, whereas - as he mentions - today's Hollywood films are frequently centered around expensive special effects driven scenes that are story-boarded to death and created on a computer before a director even begins shooting the scene.

And, if nothing else, Baumbach's film will likely make you want to revisit De Palma's oeuvre, which includes a number of very good to great titles, including "Sisters," "Carrie," "Dressed to Kill," "Blow Out," "Scarface," "The Untouchables," "Casualties of War," "Carlito's Way" and "Femme Fatale." The documentary's format - talking head discussions with De Palma punctuated by set photos and movie clips - may be standard, but this fascinating documentary on a great filmmaker in the late stages of his career as well as a view of a style of moviemaking that is, sadly, fading into oblivion is a must-see for movie buffs and those interested in cinema history.

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