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a la Mod:
Wayne Kramer, who directed Walker in the excellent Running Scared, as well as this year's Pawn Shop Chronicles, mentioned in a Facebook post Sunday that De Palma had offered Walker a film project some years ago. "It always pained me when critics and internet talkbackers slammed him as an actor," Kramer wrote, "because I knew the truth about the guy: he was fucking awesome in every way. And he was just coming into his own as a strong leading man. I always told Paul that his most exciting years were going to be his 40s and 50s, and even beyond, as a masculine American tough guy in the vein of Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. We talked about how Paul was going to be my Lee Marvin and we were hungry to make those kind of films that could show Paul in that light. In some alternate reality somewhere, he’s still on that career trajectory and I’d love to be there to see the work because it would be something to experience indeed. For every anonymous internet hater who bagged on him, there were great actors and directors who made a point of letting him know how amazing he was. Kevin Costner was a fan and wanted to do a western with Paul. Vincent D’Onofrio (whom I recently worked with) made a point of telling me how much he dug Paul as an actor. Quentin Tarantino called Paul after seeing Running Scared to tell him how much he loved Paul’s performance. Sylvester Stallone was a fan of Paul in Running Scared. Walter Hill and Brian De Palma offered him projects a few years back. Paul was very discriminating with the films he picked. He chose to make them for personal reasons, regardless of the quality of the finished film or the reputation of the director. And once he signed on, he was there one thousand percent for his directors. We shared the same taste in material. Usually dark and extreme, but with a lot of soul. Closer to the films of the 70s and 80s that they no longer make anymore."
At its wooziest, Lee's direction reminded me of Brian DePalma or John Carpenter in nightmare reverie mode, or Alfred Hitchcock when he seemed possessed by whatever horrible muses drove him. It's purely intuitive, at times musical, direction. The lack of a political dimension seems to have freed Lee to be looser and more (cruelly) playful than usual. There's news footage on Joe's hotel room TV, but when we see, for instance, scenes from 9/11 or the Iraq war, it's not meant to drive home anything but the passage of time and its effect on Joe's psyche. The performances are all over the map, in what struck me as a DePalma-like way. Some actors give fairly naturalistic performances (Brolin and Olsen) while others (Jackson and Copley) chew the scenery into fine shreds and then pluck them from their shiny teeth. Lee presides over the madness with a droll serenity that says, "This is the movie; deal with it."
The big problem with Lee's "Oldboy" is that for all its dark confidence, it doesn't reimagine the original boldly enough. This isn't like Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear," David Cronenberg's "The Fly" or Jonathan Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate"—or the recent superhero-inflected version of "Carrie," which I liked better than most critics—all of which drastically rethought their inspirations. Lee's "Oldboy," in contrast, is more like "Point of No Return," the American remake of "La Femme Nikita." It's so close to its predecessor in so many ways that I can't see much reason for it to exist, except to give xenophobic viewers an experience similar to the original, but minus the subtitled Korean and the octopus-eating scene—and with a more ostentatiously cartoonish bad guy, and lot more monologuing to explain the convoluted plot.
That's not a bad thing, though, when you consider the current climate for mainstream American films. For people who haven't seen the original "Oldboy" or anything like it, this will be a rare studio release that feels shocking and abrasive and perverse and in some way new. I'd love to sit through Lee's movie again in a theater with newbies who came to see a straightforward revenge picture starring a guy who's been locked up for a long time and have no idea what they're actually in for: a swan-dive into the toxic id. Few American auteurs are making mainstream studio movies in the vein of Spike Lee's "Oldboy": unabashedly hardcore genre pictures that aren't afraid to treat sex and violence as colors on a palette, and get nasty and raw, in that seventies-movie way. Park's "Oldboy" was no skip through the daisy field, but this one is even harder to watch, sometimes indulging in savagery that blurs the line between Old Testament morality play and straight-up exploitation.The filmmakers seem obsessed with making everything as extreme as possible, replacing, for example, a bruising bit of hammer torture with a prolonged sequence in which the hero uses an X-acto knife to slice a dotted-line-shaped pattern into a former jailer's throat.
Roger Ebert's four-star review of the original praised it as "the kind of movie that can no longer easily be made in the United States" thanks to content restrictions imposed by "a puritanical minority." The same sentiments apply here, but even more so, because Park's film came out ten years ago, and things have only gotten more restrictive since then. Plenty of international filmmakers are working in this mode—Park, Takashi Miike, Nicolas Winding Refn and Lars von Trier spring immediately to mind—but not too many English-language directors, aside from Quentin Tarantino and sometimes Oliver Stone ("Savages"). Martin Scorsese and David Cronenberg used to make this sort of picture all the time, but haven't in a while, perhaps because it's just too much for some people, and "just too much" movies tend not to get made at a major studio level because the financial stakes are too grave. I don't like or approve of everything in "Oldboy," but I'm glad it exists. The multiplexes are filled with PG-13 movies that should have been R-rated movies, released by studios that don't make adults-only genre films anymore. This is one such film, starring a real actor, directed by a real director. It deserves to be seen and argued about.
Peary then asks Olsen, "What is it that makes some dark films fail while others become classics?"
Olsen replies, "I think it has to do with it being something new. You can remake Carrie, for instance, but the reason why [Brian de Palma's] Carrie was Carrie was because it was groundbreaking. It could still be a great new story to tell people who haven’t seen it, with great actors and actresses, but the reason the original was a classic was because there was nothing like it before."
In the series description, Seid explains what will be discussed:
Contemporary films originate on a digital platform, making digital cinema the native exhibition standard. A prickly issue arises when an older film, born photochemical, is transferred to digital for projection. Suddenly, the “film” finds itself occupying the screen in absolute stability, the subliminal flicker gone, the light values subtly altered, the contrast and depth redefined. Does this misrepresent the experience of film history? Perhaps. Or does it resurrect a history that might otherwise be lost to us? Again, perhaps.
“I don’t know, maybe there’s a mis-fuckin’ understanding here, I don’t know man. Maybe you don’t remember me. My name is Benny Blanco…”
“Maybe I don’t give a shit. Maybe I don’t remember the last time I blew my nose either.”
I chuckle at those moments but the language feels real, has slang and street color that’s both dangerous and funny. No surprise at their mixed effectiveness given that writer [Edwin] Torres walked those streets, he lived them, and channelled through screenwriter David Koepp (“Panic Room”) the dialogue seems honest. Nothing as iconic as, “Say hello to my little friend!” but “Here come da pain!” has a special place in many hearts, I’m sure. The cast is solid. From the majors to supporting players Viggo Mortensen and Luiz Guzmán as Pachanga, there’s not a loose brick in the wall. Leguizamo plays Benny like a knife with a slimy handle; if he can’t schmooze you with one end, he’ll stick you with the other. [Sean] Penn, not surprisingly, is a wonder as Kleinfeld, nothing less than mutated into the frizzy haired, deliciously corrupted lawyer that earned him Golden Globe and Chicago Film Critics Association acting nominations. Of course, in the hands of Brian De Palma, presentation is personality.
Like Spielberg and his often-assumed mentor, Hitchcock, the New Jersey born director De Palma (“Sisters,” “Mission Impossible”) is known for his visual style. Canted angles, 360-degree pans, extended takes ~ they’re ever present in “Carlito’s Way,” along with an Odessa Steps sequence that rivals his “Potemkin” shootout in “The Untouchables,” this time on the escalators of Grand Central Station. It’s here, in the club, and in the excellent (kick ass) pool-hall scene that you know exactly who is calling the shots. De Palma has a singular stamp. Given his earlier Pacino vehicle, “Scarface,” the director no doubt has experience delivering this world, of mansions and period style, of lives fueled by booze, drugs, narcissism and dreams. His technique is immersive and operatic, completely suited for these bold characters.
The release was well reviewed, with the restoration and preservation expert Robert A. Harris (who oversaw, among many other projects, a new rendition of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” films) praising “color, shadow detail, resolution.” Mr. Harris, writing on Home Theater Forum, a tech-savvy and often argumentative site, noted, in the argot common in such forums: “The grain structure is totally filmlike. So much so that when we hit a long dupe shot,” viewers “can easily see the difference.”
And there, for some viewers of the Twilight Time “Fury,” was the rub. De Palma is a technical virtuoso and “The Fury” one of his most bravura works. He and the director of photography, Richard H. Kline, pulled out the stops with focus manipulations, cleverly orchestrated effects and rear-projection work. Composite, or dupe, shots are put together in a lab, combining materials shot under different conditions. Merging and rerendering these elements creates an inevitable downgrade from the quality of the original camera work; that’s what experts mean when they say a particular shot looks “dupey.”
In the first half-hour of “The Fury,” there’s a car chase in which Cassavetes’s sinister C.I.A. officer pursues an on-the-run Douglas, who hijacks a police car. It’s a night scene, shot in low light, with a number of composite shots. To top it off, the climax of the scene takes place on a foggy pier. “That scene in particular, and some other night scenes, always looked a bit problematic to me, especially compared to the surrounding day shots,” said James White, a freelance DVD producer who lives and works in Britain. “They really suffered, on account of the ‘pushing’ of the film stock, the heavy noise-to-grain ratio, the process shots. None of it really fit in well with the rest of the picture.”
Mr. White was part of the team at Arrow Video, a British genre and cinephile DVD/Blu-ray label, working on a version of “The Fury” for British distribution. In tandem with the French label Carlotta and the Australian concern Shock, the company financed an entirely new high-definition transfer, using advanced film-scanning technology, and the movie’s original negative (which includes the shots put together from different sources in the lab) for the picture source.
“When people say that the Twilight Time Blu-ray looked the way they remembered it in theaters, well, it probably did,” Mr. White said. “Because, to my eye, the version on that master looked like an inter-negative, the source from which 35-millimeter prints were actually struck for distribution. Using the camera negative, you’re offered so much more in terms of contrast, color and detail.”
And it’s true, the night scenes in the Arrow “Fury” have a smoother, less garish look than those on the nonetheless very watchable Twilight Time release. These two versions of “The Fury” caused some controversy among buffs in the Home Theater Forum thread following Mr. Harris’s review, and elsewhere. Many home theater mavens own region-free Blu-ray players that defeat the blocking technology meant to keep foreign-made DVDs unplayable in the United States and vice versa. For them, comparing the two versions was easy. Mr. White, for his part, said that in the online world of Blu-ray assessment, “people play favorites, and it gets out of hand.”
As it happens, Twilight Time has been subject to a lot of criticism over its limited-edition business model, which the label’s co-founder, Nick Redman, calls a “clean” model that satisfies studios licensing the product and in a sense guarantees the ability to put out more obscure material.
“The critics of our limited-edition model think that we’re somehow artificially depriving all the millions of people that would really want a copy of a given movie from having it,” Mr. Redman said. “In fact, an edition of 3,000 is completely in line with what 99 percent of all catalog releases will sell. The other thing we’re criticized for is our price point, which is $29.95 — completely in line with every other label, including Olive and Criterion, but because we are available at only one retailer (although now there are some copies available at TCM), we can’t participate in the discount deals that other labels that go through Amazon and the big-box retail stores can do.”
These sticking points, Mr. Redman said, might have contributed to the bad blood over “The Fury.” The label’s edition is, even so, a success, as it’s sold out. The Arrow “Fury” remains available, although you need a region-free player to watch it. While Mr. Redman stands by the Twilight Time edition of “The Fury,” he allows that he’s learned something from the kerfuffle: “Had we known that Arrow and Carlotta were planning to create a new master, we might have gone in on it with them. But we didn’t know.”
Mr. Redman said he now believes that better communication between international DVD and Blu-ray producers is essential to the survival of the formats. “As the studios back further and further away — and people are dreaming if they think the studios are not backing further and further away — from physical media,” he said, “it is going to totally default to the independent labels in each territory in the world to synergize and work together as best they can to make those libraries viable for those handful of people left who want them on disc.”
The Telegraph's Anne Billson argues that "in the 50 years since John F Kennedy's assassination, the event has been so endlessly repeated on film that it has almost lost its meaning." Billson includes De Palma along with Andy Warhol and John Waters as "early adopters" of JFK iconography on film:
One of the first artists to co-opt JFK iconography was Andy Warhol, whose Sixteen Jackies depicted serial images of the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy; he also cast some of his The Factory regulars in a never-completed film called Since (1966), a stylised recreation of the assassination in which Gerard Malanga shot Mary Woronov with a banana. "It didn't bother me that much that he was dead," Warhol said. "What bothered me was the way the television and radio were programming everybody to feel so sad. It seemed like no matter how hard you tried, you couldn't get away from the thing."
Other early adopters include John Waters, who in 1968 restaged the assassination in his parents' backyard for a 16mm short called Eat Your Makeup, in which Jackie was played by Divine, and Brian De Palma, whose second film, Greetings (1968), satirised JFK conspiracy theorists before most of us were even aware they existed.
Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981) picked up the theme of technology inadvertently detecting a crime. In both cases, a sound recording finds evidence of a murder, actions that, when discovered by the murderer, put a bull's eye on the sound recorder, too.
The climax of The Godfather (1972), in which Michael Corleone attends the church baptism of his nephew while his enemies are being executed around the country, has striking similarities to images on TV screens during the morning of Nov. 24, 1963. Mr. Coppola's cross-cutting is not unlike what many American families saw that Sunday when religious proceedings were interrupted by the shocking sight of Oswald being gunned down by Ruby.
A classic exchange late in The Godfather: Part II (1974) between Michael and Tom Hagen, the Corleones' lawyer, unmistakably connects Kennedy's death to Oswald's.
As Michael calls for the execution of Hyman Roth, their crafty rival who is being deported back to the U.S., Tom objects that such a plan has no chance of succeeding.
"It's like trying to kill the president," he says. "There's no way we can get to him."
"Tom, you know you surprise me," answers Michael with chilly authority.
"If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it's that you can kill anyone."
Mr. Coppola confirms this cynical truth by directing the assassination of Roth to resemble the shooting of Oswald. As Roth speaks to the press after landing at Miami airport, Corleone henchman Rocco Lampone, posing as a reporter with notebook in hand, pulls out his gun and kills Roth, before being shot himself by police.
South Park once claimed it took 22.3 years for terrible things (in their case, AIDS) to be funny. But it only took five years for no-budget filmmaker John Waters to, in his first film, recreate the assassination in his parents’ backyard, complete with Divine as Jacqueline Kennedy.
1968 was also the year it started being funny to mock JFK conspiracy theorists. Brian De Palma’s first of two episodic comedies with a young (and then mustachioed) Robert De Niro features a guy (Gerrit Graham) who bores people with his claims of a massive coverup.