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Monday, March 2, 2009
Every review of Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah mentions Brian De Palma's Scarface, and for solid reasons: two characters in the film go around Naples acting out scenes from Scarface. The film is based on the book of the same name by Roberto Saviano, who has been under 24-hour armed protection since 2006, when his book, which peers unblinkingly into the Camorra Mafia, became a bestseller and the author was besieged by death threats. Fellow author Salmon Rushdie, who was famously condemned to death by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and went into hiding when his novel, The Satanic Verses, was deemed by Khomeini as insulting to Islam, told reporters in Rome last October that Saviano is in even greater danger than Rushdie had been, because the reach of the Camorra is incredibly expansive.

In Saviano's book, he spends some time delving into the relationship between the Comorra and Hollywood, finding that it is not Hollywood reflecting reality, but the other way around. Here is an excerpt in which Saviano walks through the former mansion of one Mafia boss who had given his architect a copy of De Palma's Scarface because he wanted Tony Montana's villa, "exactly as it was in the movie," a villa, Saviano states, that everyone calls Hollywood. However, after being caught by the police, the boss had everything removed because, as Saviano writes, "If he couldn't use it, it shouldn't exist. Either his or no one's"...

He had the doors taken off their hinges, the windows removed, the parquet taken up, the marble pulled off the stairs, the expensive fireplace mantels disassembled. Ceramic bathroom fixtures, wood railings, light fixtures, and kitchen appliances were removed, and antique furniture, china closets, and paintings carried off. He gave orders to strew the house with tires and set them on fire, ruining the plaster and damaging the columns. Even so, he managed to leave a message. The only thing left untouched was a bathtub, sitting on three wide steps in the living room. A princely version, with a lion's face that roared water. The boss's great indulgence. The tub sat right in front of a Palladian window that looked directly onto the garden. A sign of his power as builder and Camorrista, like an artist who cancels out his painting but leaves his signature on the canvas.

As I wandered through those blackened rooms, I felt my chest swell, as if my insides had become one giant heart. It beat harder and harder, pumping through my entire body. My mouth had gone dry from the deep breaths I took to calm my anxiety. If some clan sentinel had jumped me and beaten me to a pulp, I could have squealed like a butchered pig but no one would have heard me. Evidently no one saw me enter, or maybe no one was guarding the villa anymore. A pulsating rage rose up inside me. Flashing in my mind, like a giant swirl of fragmented visions, were the images of friends who had emigrated, joined the clan or the military, the lazy afternoons in these desert lands, the lack of everything except deals, politicians mopped up by corruption, and empires built in the north of Italy and half of Europe, leaving behind nothing but trash and toxins. I needed to vent, to take it out on someone. I couldn't resist. I stood on the edge of the tub and took a piss. An idiotic gesture, but as my bladder emptied, I felt better. That villa was the confirmation of a cliché, the concrete realization of a rumor. I had the absurd sensation that Tony Montana was about to come out of one of the rooms and greet me with a stiff, arrogant gesture: "All I have in this world is my balls and my word, and I don;t break them for no one, you understand?" Who knows if Walter dreamed of dying like Montana too, riddled with bullets and tumbling into his front hall rather than ending his days in a prison cell, consumed by Graves' disease, his eyes rotting and his blood pressure exploding.

Saviano goes on in this chapter to relate how the movies are studied by generations of bosses and criminals who want to carve out an image for themselves. The author provides examples of these from several films, including The Godfather ("Before the film came out," writes Saviano, "no one in the Sicilian or Campania criminal organizations had ever used the term padrino"), Il camorrista ("The film's sound track has become a sort of Camorra theme song, whistled when a neighborhood capo walks by, or just to make a shopkeeper nervous"), Good Fellas (Saviano imagines one scene flashing in a would-be gangster's mind as he meets his death), The Crow (one man wore clothes reminiscent of Brandon Lee's in that film), Pulp Fiction (Camorra killers have started holding their guns crooked, the way they do in Tarantino's film, which makes them horrible shooters for which they compensate by leaving a bloody mess everywhere), Kill Bill (bodyguards for female bosses dress like Uma Thurman's character), Nikita (one woman's nickname), and even Taxi Driver (two young bullies would start fights with a look, and then repeat after Robert De Niro's famous lines from that film: "You talkin' to me?").

Those two bullies are the characters in the film mentioned at the top of this post. In early January, it was announced that Martin Scorsese would lend his name in support of IFC Films' U.S. release of Garrone's Gomorrah, which opened in select U.S. theaters this past weekend. "Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah is a tough, forceful look at the Neapolitan underworld," Scorsese told the Hollywood Reporter. "I admire the bluntness of this picture and the devotion of Garrone and his actors in their pursuit of a terrible truth. Gomorrah is despairing, but it's also enlightening and, because of its frankness, strangely heartening." Garrone responded, "I have been waiting for some time for the chance to thank Martin Scorsese publicly for the courage and generosity he has shown in laying his support on the line for Gomorrah. I can't forget how deeply touched I was seeing him arrive for the presentation of the film; of all directors, he is one of the most important in my development as a filmmaker. I am therefore extremely proud that the film has found such a prestigious adoptive father, and I will certainly cherish this memory for all time."

What follows are links to several reviews of Garrone's film, with selected excerpts:

Anthony Lane at the New Yorker

There is a pair of teen-agers, Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), fools in love with a gangsterish ideal; “I’m No. 1! Tony Montana!” they cry, acting out their pantomime of Scarface in an empty tenement, where a sunken, unused bath echoes not just old Brian De Palma movies but much older tubs, in the balneae of Pompeii, across the bay...

Garrone’s film is less furious than Saviano’s book, which has the tang of personal nausea, and for that reason, I suspect, it will prove more enduring. (It failed to make the nominations for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards: the usual travesty.) As I watched various Scampians being slain or spared on a whim, I felt borne along not so much by reportage, however well dramatized, as by a fierce meditation on the vagaries of fate—and thus, oddly enough, by the pull of comedy. When Franco, in a cathedral-size quarry, needs a new set of truck drivers to shift his drums of corrosive chemicals, whom does he call? Local children, who perch on cushions to see through the windshield; in a way, they make better mafiosi than the adults, yielding with less caution and complaint to their instinctual urges. There is a terrible numbness to the grownups, spun in the endless cycle of revenge; “We don’t know anything” is the conclusion of one group, which agrees to press ahead with murder, for want of another plan. I’m not sure that, after this movie, I will be able to take quite such unquestioning pleasure in the suave, all-knowing dons of the Godfather trilogy, let alone the stylized brutality of Scarface; the spoiled earth of Gomorrah is the ground zero of Mob cinema, burning away the sleekness and self-congratulation of the genre.

Armond White at the New York Press

Director Matteo Garrone pretends to expose Camorra, the vicious Neapolitan version of the Mafia that has ravaged contemporary Italian society. His title’s clever reference to Sodom and Gomorrah decadence implies biblical judgment. But Gomorrah’s five interlocking stories are told with slow, almost obscenely casual regard. Garment worker Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) tries to outfox the mob; Gaetano (Vincenzo Altamura) double-crosses a gang; young thugs Sweet Pea and Pitbull (Salvatore Ruocco and Vincenzo Fabricino) embark on a mini-war against townspeople while defying veteran hoods; and teenage delivery-boy Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) chooses dangerous role models. Garrone’s mix of local color, environmental anarchy and sensationalism is prurient; Gomorrah always heads toward awful, inevitable moments of deception and vengeance.

In the Godfather films, Coppola’s revelations of our deepest thoughts about law, order and human weakness were enthralling. That’s why the three-thousand gangster movies The Godfather inspired don’t measure up—and why Coppola’s trilogy still feels definitive.

Chuck Williamson at Out 1 Film Journal

While it did not “reinvent the wheel” of contemporary gangster cinema, Brian De Palma’s Scarface nonetheless underlined in thick, bold strokes the genre’s internal frictions and contradictions. Scarface amplified the genre’s basest elements, reimagining its narrative as a sensationalistic, overstuffed, Grand Guignol cartoon that forced audiences to confront, up front and personal, the paradox implicit within all mob movies: the glamorization of the gangster. Because of its lack of nuance and subtlety, De Palma’s film made those once inconspicuous contradictions more explicit. Scarface, like most gangster films, turned its antagonist into an icon of cool, a two-fisted merchant of death with both charisma and cojones—and no amount of anti-crime moralizing could cancel out the intrinsic allure of such a character. For all the bullet wounds and moralizing of its “crime doesn’t pay” third act, the film largely functions as a male adolescent fantasy, a fever dream concoction where decadent materialism is rewarded, macho posturing leads to steamy sex (with nudity!), enemies are mowed down in satisfying spurts of splatter-gore, and men speak in expletive-laced bon mots like, “This town is a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked.”

Loaded with both implicit and explicit references to Scarface, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra reappropriates the pop-culture image of gangster cool and makes visible its seams, cracks, and inherent hollowness.

In its most memorable scene, two skinny, anemic-looking teenagers—Marco and Ciro—strip down to their underwear, stroll through a riverbank, and crudely reenact Scarface’s final shoot-out sequence with a pair of stolen semi-automatic weapons. “You sounded just like Tony Montana,” one says to the other, but nothing could be further from the truth. Using Scarface as a “how-to” manual, these two boys may have memorized the film’s macho swagger and f-bomb sloganeering, but their ritual still comes across as a children’s game, a media-constructed façade that fails to mask the authentic image of two vulnerable, naked youths. They are pathetic, juvenile, a pair of children pretending to be big, bad gangsters—and despite their reprehensibility, they remain somewhat sympathetic, as they have bought into the false constructs of Hollywood and will, of course, pay the consequences. While the scene could be described as both self-reflexive and revisionist, it also carries an undercurrent of tragedy, as their inevitable (and bloody) downfall seems designed right from the first pull of a trigger.

R. Kurt Osenlund at Your Movie Buddy

Gomorrah redefines the mob flick because it shows a criminal association not as it might be, but as it is. Still, Garrone isn't above giving a nod to his genre predecessors, namely Brian De Palma and his immortal Pacino vehicle, Scarface. The brief opening sequence has a tacky neon opulence reminiscent of the cult classic – even the title logo goes from red to “Vice City” pink – and, later, the delinquent duo play with empty pistols in an empty warehouse and pretend to be Tony Montana. What would Tony say if he saw Gomorrah? Fuhgeddaboutit? No way. Not this merciless movie. It sticks with you for days.

Christy Lemire at Associated Press

Two cocky Italian teenagers run around their dilapidated Naples neighborhood, melodramatically riffing on Scarface lines to each other: "Now it has to be ours, the whole world. Miami, all of it."

They're certainly no more over-the-top than Al Pacino. But this is the closest director and co-writer Matteo Garrone comes to any sort of traditional, Hollywoodized depiction of mob life in Gomorrah.

It's appropriate, though, that Brian De Palma's bloody epic is the source of inspiration for wannabe thugs Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone). That film, and the genre in general, are so entrenched in contemporary pop culture that they've become a source of self-parody.

That's what's so compelling about Gomorrah: It upends everything you think you know about the mob, and mob movies.

Steve Erickson at Gay City News

In a sense, Gomorrah is a humanist gangster film. It goes out of its way to avoid glamorizing the Mafia - among recent films, only Johnnie To's Election and Triad Election have presented a grimmer version of organized crime.

Just to make sure we get the point, Gomorrah has two of its characters constantly quote dialogue from Brian De Palma's Scarface and compare themselves to its anti-hero, Tony Montana. No doubt they missed the memo that Scarface was intended as a critique of '80s excess and greed. Italian director Matteo Garrone clearly doesn't want anyone to make the same mistake with his film.

Ironically, despite its humanism, Gomorrah could hardly be more nihilistic. It veers among five different storylines. If the Mafia angle isn't immediately apparent in each one, it soon becomes clear. The screenplay never brings these narrative threads together; in a post-Paul Haggis climate, that's something for which we can be grateful. However, this is the kind of film where no one takes any moral stances until two hours have passed.

Greg Oguss at LA Snark

The Scarface references aren’t arguing the case that violent entertainment begets violent children or the truism about contemporary gangsters taking their cues from movie gangsters. Instead, they merely make an effective contrast between De Palma’s romantic vision and a milieu without any charismatic anti-heroes or blaze-of-glory deaths, where loyalties are never taken seriously enough to be betrayed. Even the few functionaries who walk away from the corrupt empire by the story’s end lack nobility, with their paths determined principally by cowardice and naiveté. Despite being well-versed in the bloody justice doled out by the mafia, the film’s myopic characters have little understanding of how completely the illegal and legal businesses of the Camorra shape their existence. Gomorrah’s end-titles offer a tally of official statistics to illustrate the Camorra’s social costs, suggesting that, by certain measures, this is the most criminally violent place on the planet. But the film offers no scenes of anti-mafia police efforts and the collective struggle required to change the region’s way of life is beyond the imagination.

J. Hoberman at the Village Voice

Martin Scorsese may be presenting Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, but this corrosive, slapdash, grimly exciting exposé of organized crime in and around Naples comes on like Mean Streets cubed. Detailing daily life inside a criminal state, it's a new sort of gangster film for America to ponder...

In a vacant lot outside the fortress walls, two skinny teenagers play at being the antihero of Brian De Palma's Scarface. That's the fantasy; robbing African crack dealers is the reality, after which the two aspiring gangsters dance in scurvy triumph on some gray-sand beach. Their dreams come true when they stumble upon a cache of weapons, including AK-47s and a bazooka. Meanwhile, the Camorra expands into legitimate businesses, from garbage disposal to haute couture.

Garrone skips from one Camorra scam to another, all plots climaxing amid inexplicable internecine warfare in a more or less simultaneous reckoning. Gomorrah's episodic, mosaic structure is in some ways comparable to Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, but Garrone is not so much interested in diagramming a process as mapping a specific terrain. Despite its vivid characterizations, the movie stays on the surface—or, rather, it offers a sort of neorealist reportage. (Occasionally, the sober frenzy indulges in the sort of grotesque humor Garrone employed in his 2002 black comedy The Embalmer, wherein the Camorra enlists a professional taxidermist to stitch a shipment of drugs into a corpse.) The undistinguished visual style is predicated on a jittery wide-screen SteadiCam. There's a sense that Garrone's bobbing and weaving camera is just hanging with the homies—a strategy akin to Saviano's in his first-person book.

Saviano devotes an entire chapter to detailing the often-comic Camorrista fascination with Hollywood gangster flicks—mainly De Palma's Scarface, but also The Godfather, GoodFellas, and Pulp Fiction. "It's not the movie world that scans the criminal world for the most interesting behavior," he writes. "The exact opposite is true." Garrone has taken this to heart. Characterized as it is by a total absence of antiheroic glamour, his unsentimentally tough and unrelentingly squalid movie is unlikely to inspire much real-world imitation.

Posted by Geoff at 11:18 AM CST
Updated: Monday, March 2, 2009 11:22 AM CST
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Friday, February 27, 2009
Time Out New York's The Frame-Up blog has been running a series this week called "NYC Antiheroes," in which Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle represents "ground zero," according to blog host Joshua Rothkopf, who states that Martin Scorsese's film is "about a man who fails at being a New Yorker." In today's entry, Keith Uhlich interprets the New York of Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way as a "metaphorical prison" that uses everything and everyone from Carlito's past as barriers to the freedom he can ultimately only dream of. Here is how Uhlich eloquently puts it:

Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) has a dollar and a dream. He just needs a little more ($75,000 to be exact) so he can leave his criminal past behind, retire to the tropics, and buy into a car rental dealership. Destiny has other plans for him, but we know this from the start: The first image is Carlito getting shot down in Grand Central Station. The film that follows is his dying-moments reminiscence. A Proustian whirlwind begins in a courtroom, where Carlito is released from jail on a technicality, only to enter another, more metaphorical prison: a city greatly changed from the way he left it. It’s easy to relate to the desire to escape New York, its towering edifices and worlds-within-worlds, as oppressive as they are awe-inspiring. Carlito’s instincts still serve him well in this environment, but they’re now more a force of habit than a true moral code. He’s ready to move on, in body and spirit, even if his aim to please his friends (Sean Penn as sleazy lawyer David Kleinfeld) and lovers (Penelope Ann Miller as whispery-voiced dancer Gail) prevents him from saying so. It’s obvious that there is no exit for him. Befitting director Brian De Palma, Carlito’s death rattle is at once a sublime joke and a cutting indictment of dreamy, age-addled nostalgia, while Pacino’s performance (one of his wizened best) complements De Palma’s acid tongue with quiet dignity.

Posted by Geoff at 3:38 PM CST
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Thursday, February 26, 2009
Filmmaker Edgar Wright will present Brian De Palma's The Phantom Of The Paradise at Toronto's Bloor Cinema on March 15, 2009, as part of The Wright Stuff: Toronto fest that runs at the theater from March 1st to April 12th. De Palma's film will be the second half of a double bill March 15th that begins with Busby Berkley's Dames. On his site, Wright says of the two films:

If you are a fan of Michel Gondry and yet have never seen a Busby Berkley film, you need to rectify this immediately. Whether you are a musical fan or not, you cannot fail to be dazzled by the eye popping beauty of his choreography. The fact that his wildly inventive setpieces were made in the 1930s is just staggering, they still look impressive by today’s standards. And Phantom Of The Paradise is one of my all time favourite movies. Brian De Palma and Paul Williams’ 1970’s rock opera is genuine one off; satirical, magical, dark and hilarious. It’s both one of the most atypical films in De Palma’s canon, and one of his best.

In late 2007, Wright presented "The Wright Stuff" at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, and kicked it off with a pairing of Phantom Of The Paradise and Alan Parker's Bugsy Malone. Both films feature songs by Williams.

Peet points out in a comment to this post that Wright has previously provided a commentary on De Palma's film at Trailers From Hell. In the commentary (which you can hear/see by clicking the embedded player below), Wright says that Phantom Of The Paradise has a terrible trailer, but is an incredible film. He also mentions that he tried to ape the take of Winslow running down a corridor (as seen in the trailer) for a scene in Hot Fuzz. (Wright also previously provided a Trailers From Hell commentary for De Palma's The Fury.)

Posted by Geoff at 7:50 PM CST
Updated: Friday, February 27, 2009 3:58 PM CST
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Wednesday, February 25, 2009
After all that talk comparing these directors' set pieces-- Pictured here from left-to-right are director Tom Tykwer, Brian De Palma, and novelist Salmon Rushdie at the Guggenheimer Museum afterparty which followed the New York premiere of Tykwer's The International on February 9 2009. Variety posted the photo, which was snapped by Dave Allocca for StarTraksPhoto.
(Thanks to Patrick for sending it along!)

I saw The International opening weekend and loved it-- a very satisfying motion picture with a poetic sense of paranoia and more than a few highly involving sequences of tense action. The ending is beautifully set up and executed (pun intended) as a dead perfect bit of irony. Tykwer has made a studio action picture that keeps his stamp and keeps us wondering what he will do next.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty, Clive Owen says that Tykwer had a "little film festival" of '70s conspiracy thrillers to get everybody in the right mood...

We watched those [The Parallax View and Three Days Of The Condor], The Conversation, The French Connection. When I did Inside Man, Spike Lee did this cool thing where he screened about half a dozen movies. It was a little film festival to get you inspired. Tom Tykwer loved that idea, so we did it on this.

Posted by Geoff at 1:16 PM CST
Updated: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 1:23 PM CST
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Monday, February 23, 2009
Sean Penn was in terrific form last night as he accepted the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Gus Van Sant's Milk. "You commie, homo-loving sons-of-guns," Penn told the crowd with sarcastic irony as he accepted his award for portraying the openly gay politician Harvey Milk. "I did not expect this," he continued, "and I want it to be very clear that I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me often." Prior to the envelope being opened, Robert De Niro, sharing the stage with four other actors who have previously won the Best Actor award, was assigned to introduce his friend Penn as a nominee in the Actor category. "How did he do it?" quipped De Niro. "How for so many years did Sean Penn get all those jobs playing straight men?" De Niro concluded his speech by saying, "Tonight, it’s important to be a great actor. In life, it’s more important to be a great human being. That’s my friend Sean Penn."

Penn is interviewed by Mark Binelli in the February 19 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. Binelli comments on the fact that Penn has not done much comedy in his career, wondering how the actor avoided being pigeonholed after his breakout role in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Penn replied to Binelli:

It never happened. I'm more interested in the way drama tends to resonate in people's lives, versus that kind of escapism. But I certainly would have done 10 more comedies had I been offered them. I was talking to someone the other day and said, "Who would have thought when I was younger that I was going to end up being the poster boy for the Queer Nation and Robert De Niro was going to be the biggest comedy star in America?"

In the interview, Penn also mentions his work on Brian De Palma's Casualties Of War. After Binelli refers to stories about Penn being wild with Tom Cruise and Timothy Hutton while filming Taps early in their careers, Penn says that the three were all "forced" into a fraternity when the producers set them all up in a hotel in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Penn continued to Binelli:

...we were all kids running around. We had a great time. But since then, I'm always the guy who stays at the other hotel than the other actors stay in. I remember, we were shooting in Thailand on Casualties Of War, and some guys were going to the hospital, showing up with stitches.

[Binelli] From being up partying?

It started because groups of young actors can forget what they're there to do. I didn't want to get caught up in that.

According to Variety today, Penn is now in talks to play Joseph Wilson, the ambassador whose New York Times op-ed piece four months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq was critical of the evidence used by the Bush administration to justify that invasion. One week after Wilson's editorial was published, his wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as an undercover CIA agent in a column written by Robert Novak. Naomi Watts is set to star as Plame, and the film will be directed by Doug Liman. A year ago, Liman was set with Nicole Kidman for the Plame role, and, back when Bush and Cheney were still in office, the director had told MTV's Shawn Adler about his "really insane" way to film the story without having to worry about any government objections:

I have a really, really insane take on how to tell it. It’s so outrageous. Ultimately, I’d be doing something no one has ever done before. Therefore it’s automatically appealing to me. I’m just starting to explore whether [what I have in mind] is even possible to do.

Posted by Geoff at 11:59 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 12:08 AM CST
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Sunday, February 22, 2009
This past week, Little White Lies' James Gracey interviewed composer Marco Werba, who has scored Dario Argento's latest film, Giallo. Werba told Gracey that for Giallo, he was inspired by Bernard Herrmann's scores for Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma...

I offered to write a symphonic score in a similar vein to Bernard Herrmann because Giallo is a great film that reminds me of the masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma. Herrmann not only composed for Hitchcock, he also wrote the music for two of the best De Palma films, Sisters and Obsession.

Werba also mentions the score for De Palma's The Fury as John Williams' best:

It’s difficult to say which specific film scores I deeply admire. There are many good compositions for films. I would say that each composer has his own best film scores. John Williams wrote wonderful music for Brian De Palma’s thriller The Fury, but it’s not a well-known score.

Also this past week, UGO's Jordan Hoffman posted a conversation with Wes Craven in which the two discussed cinema's best exploding head scenes...

[Hoffman, discussing a screening of the Last House On The Left remake] “You heard the audience’s reaction with the exploding head. That’s entertainment! That was one of the best exploding heads I’ve seen in a while. Definitely in the top ten.”

[Craven] “Well, nothing beats Cronenberg’s Scanners."

[Hoffman] “I disagree! I think Scanners takes the silver medal and there is one better. John Cassavetes exploding at the end of Brian De Palma’s The Fury.”

Craven seems unsure and simply says, “Mmm.”

I backpedal. “But that isn’t just his head, that is his whole body. But it is the head that flies up at the camera. In slow motion.”

[Craven] “Well, I had a hell of an exploding head I shot for Deadly Friend. It was one of the more spectacular things I ever shot of Anne Twomey’s head, but the studio had us cut it out. It’s out there somewhere in a vault at Warner Brothers never to see the light of day.”

[Hoffman] “Maybe for a DVD release?”

[Craven] “Well, you never know.”

Posted by Geoff at 12:20 AM CST
Updated: Thursday, February 26, 2009 7:53 PM CST
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Friday, February 20, 2009

Investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger had a column in the New Statesman yesterday in which he blasts Hollywood filmmakers for consistently overlooking the oppressed victims of invasions, and lays into film critics for playing into the politics of omission by hiding behind sheens of "safe snipes and sneers." Pilger cites one critic's dismissive prose in describing Brian De Palma as "divisive" as an example of how a film like Redacted (which, according to Pilger, "shows an Iraq the media do not report") effectively buries the film from proper consideration. Here is an excerpt from Pilger's editorial:

As Robbie Graham and Matthew Alford pointed out in the New Statesman (2 February), in 167 minutes of Steven Spielberg's Munich, the Palestinian cause is restricted to just two and a half minutes. "Far from being an 'even-handed cry for peace', as one critic claimed," they wrote, "Munich is more easily interpreted as a corporate-backed endorsement of Israeli policy."

With honourable exceptions, film critics rarely question this, or identify the true power behind the screen. Obsessed with celebrity actors and vacuous narratives, they are the cinema's lobby correspondents. Emitting safe snipes and sneers, they promote a deeply political system that dominates most of what we pay to see, knowing not what we are denied. Brian De Palma's 2007 film Redacted shows an Iraq the media do not report. He depicts the homicides and gang rapes that are never prosecuted and are the essence of any colonial conquest. In the New York Village Voice, the critic Anthony Kaufman, in abusing the "divisive" De Palma for his "perverse tales of voyeurism and violence", did his best to taint the film as a kind of heresy and to bury it.

In this way, the "war on terror" - the conquest and subversion of resource-rich regions of the world, whose ramifications and oppressions touch all our lives - is virtually excluded from the popular cinema. Michael Moore's outstanding Fahrenheit 9/11 was a freak; the notoriety of its distribution ban by the Walt Disney Company helped it to force its way into cinemas. My own 2007 film The War on Democracy, which inverted the "war on terror" in Latin America, was distributed in Britain, Australia and other countries but not in the United States. "You will need to make structural and political changes," said a major New York distributor. "Maybe get a star like Sean Penn to host it - he likes liberal causes - and tame those anti-Bush sequences."

Writing that "censorship by omission is virulent," Pilger's editorial calls for "another Wall Street, another Last Hurrah, another Dr Strangelove."

Incidentally, in 2005, Pilger edited a book titled Tell Me No Lies, which is also the title of Angel Salazar's documentary within the fiction of De Palma's Redacted.

Posted by Geoff at 3:08 AM CST
Updated: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:09 AM CST
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Thursday, February 19, 2009
Armond White reviewed Tom Tykwer's The International last week in the New York Press. White found the film "simplistic," noting that "emotion and politics are not director Tom Tykwer’s things." White highlights Tykwer's ambitious Guggenheim Museum set piece, and mentions three Brian De Palma films throughout the review. Here is an excerpt:

A credible emotional point of view is rare in action movies; problem is, emotion and politics are not director Tom Tykwer’s things. Despite the clear outline of worldwide greed in Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay, The International is terribly simplistic. Using the IBBC as a metaphor for Capitalism, Singer assesses the self-interest that makes the world turn. But except for Owen and Watt’s empathetic portrayals this is essentially a cloak-and-dagger programmer pumped-up De Palma-style.

Tykwer sends Owen and Watts through a series of show-off set pieces. None express psychic turmoil like De Palma’s extravaganzas: A sequence at Berlin’s National Gallery featuring Arnold Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead salutes the great museum scene in Dressed to Kill without defining Salinger’s disposition through the art work...

Of the many climaxes in this climax-stuffed cautionary tale, it is the clash at the Guggenheim Museum—where Salinger has trailed an assassin—that get Tykwer’s most flamboyant. It’s allegory for global anarchy and destruction. Salinger and the assassin recognize their common humanity, then their tension and obstacles escalate. This sequence is an ambitious combination of moral conflict and bravura aesthetics. Configured to match the sloping, slanting, continually changing perspectives of the Guggenheim’s rotunda, the scene attempts to out-do the visceral curlicues of Tykwer’s first hit, Run Lola Run. It visualizes Salinger’s dizzying, uphill struggle and 360-degree paranoia. Tykwer daringly intercuts video installations (actually from the Hamburger Bahnhof by Julian Rosenfeldt). As Salinger’s targets shift and danger boomerangs, capitalism itself becomes an Abstract Expressionist version of the Disasters of War. This tour de force is more accomplished than any of the set pieces in Children of Men—or Zodiac for that matter—yet it fails to drive home the sadness in Salinger’s eyes, unlike the astonishing photo-realist mural in Femme Fatale that summarized its heroine’s life journey.

Instead, as Tykwer goes on to other tricky chases and sensational killings, The International becomes more routine and shallow—even as it pretends to uncover the intricacies of small-arms trading, Middle East subterfuge, collateral damage and varieties of ethnic revenge. Although audiences chuckle when Armin Mueller-Stahl’s jaded banker explains to Salinger, “Life is stranger than fiction, fiction has to make sense,” the unfunny joke is on the way contemporary political fiction (in movies) rarely makes sense of our moral alarm. One reason lies in Tywker’s fanciful/serious approach. Though stylish, it lacks the aesthetic-moral force of such political thrillers as Francesco Rosi’s Exquisite Corpses, Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, Spielberg’s Munich or DePalma’s Blow Out.

When we’re told that “We’re all slaves to debt” or that war comes from “banks committing so much of its resources sale of weapons” and that cynical news is matched with cleverly staged assassination scenes in anonymous crowded cities, it means that The International isn’t any better than Children of Men. Although war and financial crises are distressing, today’s moviegoing generation doesn’t know the culture shock of assassination and disillusionment that informed Rosi, Peckinpah, Spielberg and De Palma that movies like this merely exploit. Owen pantomimes feeling, but through political snark and snazzy technique, we’ve lost the beauty of art with feeling.

Posted by Geoff at 4:55 PM CST
Updated: Thursday, February 19, 2009 4:56 PM CST
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Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Romain Desbiens has been doing some outstanding work at The Virtuoso of the 7th Art-- check out his phenomenal new welcome page for starters. Romain recently posted new analyses of the relationships between the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, with focuses on Vertigo and the shower scene in Psycho, the latter of which also includes a section on Dario Argento and De Palma. All feature detailed screenshots for comparisons. Also check out the filming locations section, where, in several cases, Romain has gone back and taken photographs of key locations from De Palma's films, such as the San Miniato al Monte in Florence, seen in Obsession, the passerelle Debilly, seen in Femme Fatale, and a view of Notre Dame de la Croix in Ménilmontant from just two days ago, posted side-by-side with matching frames from De Palma's Femme Fatale, filmed in 2001. Just over "seven years later," we note that Le Paradis has now become La Festive.

Posted by Geoff at 10:59 PM CST
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Monday, February 16, 2009
The Swan Archives has posted several newly discovered photographs from the set of Phantom Of The Paradise, including a shot of Brian De Palma himself operating a camera during the climactic concert section of the film. Along with that gem, two other shots of De Palma on set can be seen at the Production page of the Swan Archives. Also new to the page is a photo showing Sissy Spacek sitting in the theater next to a dog (Spacek was credited as set dresser on the film, while boyfriend Jack Fisk was the production designer. Both went on to get married to each other, and each also worked on De Palma's Carrie-- with Spacek in the lead role, of course). There are several other rare photos to check out at the Archives, which is always full of surprises.

Posted by Geoff at 11:59 PM CST
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