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a la Mod:
Before Nicolas Cage there was John Lithgow, whose own brand of “mega-acting” sets the tonal barometer for this demented, schlocky thriller. Raising Cain is a series of rugs being gleefully pulled out from under your feet by a filmmaker who has just made Bonfire of the Vanities and has nothing to lose. It’s brilliant.
Lithgow has a ball playing a child-kidnapping madman whose evil twin is really a split personality, and whose dead father split personality is really his still-alive actual father, who’s also mad. Meanwhile Lithgow 1.0’s wife (Lolita Davidovich) has an affair with her old flame (Steven Bauer), a hunk in a sleeveless V-neck cardigan, and her vivid dreams-within-dreams give her a slippery grip on this tenth-year-of-a-soap-opera version of reality.
The climactic sequence begins with the line “You’re gonna kill somebody with that sundial!” and is structured according to the Mouse Trap formula (the board game, not the play). Disparate elements are wittily introduced – scalpel, bystanders, pram. Geography is established – motel walkway, elevator, parking lot. Characters’ objectives are set – patricide, rescue, escape. And when the trap is sprung, the perfectly choreographed chaos unfolds in glorious slow motion.
At times Raising Cain plays like a TV movie directed by its own main character(s) but that’s only to trick you into forgetting that it’s directed by Brian De Palma.
This is summarised by a four-minute Steadicam shot in which Frances Sternhagen leads a walk-and-talk through a police station – she keeps taking wrong turns while the cops steer her in the right direction. Throughout the film, De Palma points your expectations, sympathies and fears one way only to head off in another, but despite the madness on display he’s always in complete control.
By the end we’re primed for anything, and the thrill of the climax comes from De Palma’s precise timing and orchestration as he resolves the film’s myriad conflicts in a single scene.
After Casualties of War underperformed (despite critical praise) and Bonfire of the Vanities flopped (having received none), Raising Cain was De Palma’s conscious return to the twisty-turny thrillers that made his name. He did the same thing ten years later, following a lukewarm response to Snake Eyes and the summary dismissal of Mission to Mars.
2002’s Femme Fatale is Raising Cain’s sexier stepsister, sharing a delight in frustrating and subverting audience expectations, and building to a similar Mouse Trap-style showdown.
“I’d never acted with a camera that’s basically hooked under my chin,” Czerny told The Huffington Post in a conversation for the 20-year anniversary. “I didn’t know what to do with it, but Brian was at the monitors and if he didn’t get what he wanted I’m sure he would have told me.”
The most extreme close-up Czerny experienced was when his character accused Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt of being a mole. The two sat in a restaurant surrounded by aquariums. Czerny wasn’t sure, but he thinks De Palma’s desire to feature those trapped fish led to the memorable camera angles. “He didn’t want the [viewers] to forget about the fish tank,” said Czerny. “So by putting the camera below, you have the character in close-up and the fish tank in the background hovering if you will.”
So, did Czerny worry about how he’d look with a camera so close to his face?
Czerny laughed in response to the question. He didn’t even know the camera would be there.
“If they’d told me, I would have paid more attention to those nose hairs. Maybe the hair department or the makeup department knew what was going to go on and then did that for me. [But] I had no idea.”
Czerny also recalled a scene when De Palma told him to get almost impossibly close to another actor.
After Hunt breaks into the CIA, Czerny’s character is telling an intelligence co-worker (played by Dale Dye) that they should send the CIA employee responsible for the mishap to Alaska.
De Palma apparently told the actors, “I need you a little closer,” so they shot again. Then, De Palma said something like, “No, no, closer! Like you’re almost kissing!”
“I just remember thinking, ‘I hope I brushed my teeth thoroughly,’” Czerny laughed.
Although Czerny thought it was sometimes “weird” to work within this method, he enjoyed being a part of what’s now considered De Palma’s signature style. “He’ll do a long tracking shot and then jump in for close-ups. It doesn’t allow you to leave the scene.”
In the article, Czerny also talks about how Cruise would regularly take members of the cast and crew out to a "cool establishment" in whatever big city they were filming in, to help release tension. One night in Prague, Czerny tells Van Luling, "I found myself sitting on a piano bench singing show tunes with Nicole [Kidman]. That was not something you normally get to do."
De Palma’s career is all the more remarkable for his ability to adapt to changing circumstances – both his own and those of the film industry at large. Regardless of the size of his canvas, the potency of his vision is undiluted, whether he’s working in the low-budget experimental realm (as in Redacted or early apprentice efforts like Murder a la Mod and Dionysus in ’69) or on the kinds of big-budget tent-poles that stifle less robust personalities. When De Palma takes a studio assignment on a film like The Untouchables or Mission: Impossible, he fuses his own preoccupations with the demands of the material in a way that serves both; his stylistic and thematic obsessions expand to broader dimensions thanks to their expression in a new form, and the films’ escapist set-pieces are more entertaining and charged with energy because of the artistic drives motivating them. There’s never any sense of De Palma following the old “one for me, one for them” (them being the studio) formula in his career – they’re all for him, and they’re all for us. It’s hard to think of a director whose work yields more rewards on repeat viewings, or whose dense visual representations and allusions gain more from being experienced on the big screen –making the Cinematheque’s retrospective one of the essential repertory events of 2016 thus far.
"In a prime example of the way De Palma subverted the standard action format, the film’s most iconic set piece is a silent moment of acute accuracy and stillness. When Cruise repels down into that vault, surrounded by a gleaming white light that showcases his figure, form and every minute movement with exclusive intent, it’s not a matter of spectacle, it’s a matter of tension. It’s not about explosions or fisticuffs, it’s about control and technique, and a small-scale demonstration of the physical command that would come to define Cruise’s later career."
"A top Thai medical college has caught students using spy cameras linked to smartwatches to cheat during exams in what some social media users on Monday compared to a plot straight out of a Mission Impossible movie. Arthit Ourairat, the rector of Rangsit University, posted pictures of the hi-tech cheating equipment on his Facebook page on Sunday evening, announcing that the entrance exam in question had been cancelled after the plot was discovered. Three students used glasses with wireless cameras embedded in their frames to transmit images to a group of as yet unnamed people, who then sent the answers to the smartwatches."
"In some ways, Personal Shopper feels like a Gallic cineaste’s attempt to recapture some of the freewheeling, kooky genre-drama of a 1980s Brian De Palma movie – and there’s more than an echo of Body Double here – but what’s missing is the latter’s style and verve. The lack of glamour in [Kristen] Stewart’s introverted, depressed personal shopper character leaches into the visual style of a film that, with the exception of a couple of scenes set in a scary old house and a spoof period movie reconstruction, often feels flat and conventional."
"There are, at a conservative count, four different movies inside Olivier Assayas' new film, led by his Clouds of Sils Maria star Kristen Stewart, and two of them might even be quite good. There’s the full blown ghost story, complete with creaking floorboard, haunted house, CG-phantasms-hanging-out-of-chandeliers-spewing-ectoplasm, which is unexpected. There’s the straight-up grief movie, in which a twin mourns the recent death of her brother while the others in his life circle around her anxiously, which is promising but underdeveloped. There’s the Brian De Palma-esque elaborate and illogical murder mystery with added modern tech aspects (texting), which is twaddle. And there’s the fashion industry/celebrity satire part which is a lot of fun, because we get to see Kristen Stewart topless and trying things on, looking at jewellery, sneaking a go in her employer’s haute couture, forking over thousands for perfectly unremarkable handbags and generally purchasing the clothes that, at least half the time with Personal Shopper, the emperor isn’t wearing."
Personal Shopper is "an awkward fusion of ghost story, celebrity culture satire and half-baked Brian De Palma-style thriller. There are enough intriguing elements to keep it watchable but it never manages to gel into a coherent whole...
"...Assayas heads off the rails when he attempts to shoehorn way too many other elements into the story. We also spend time following Maureen on her day job among the haute couture houses and Cartiers of Paris, choosing items for her demanding celebrity boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Perhaps part of Maureen even wishes she was Kyra and that is what leads to the De Palma-inspired secret stalker, who acts like a refugee from Scream and urges Maureen to give in to her secret desires. Unfortunately, their cat and mouse games are played out in exchanges of text messages, which makes for deadly dull cinema. In some respects, Personal Shopper is rather stylish, with hints of Polanski and even Kieslowski in the execution, and Stewart’s nervy, edgy performance nearly manages to keep everything on track. Almost but not quite is the final verdict."
No De Palma reference in this next one, but interesting as a counterpoint to the negative reviews above:
"Among the many things that appear to be on Assayas's mind is the disembodied – and disembodying – nature of modern-day communication and social media, which makes ghosts of us all to those with whom we text far more than we talk. Perhaps no film has ever made the mobile phone quite such an instrument of tension: the on-screen iPhone ellipsis of an incoming message takes on a breath-halting urgency here.
"For the preservation of enjoyment, no more should be revealed about the film's gliding, glassy sashay through multiple, splintered genres and levels of consciousness – except to say that Assayas, working in the high-concept, game-playing vein of his Irma Vep and demonlover, is in shivery control of it all. And he's found an impeccably attuned muse in Stewart, who wears the film's curiosity with the same casually challenging stride that she does – in a key scene of sensual self-realisation – a jaw-dropping silk-organza bondage gown."
PAUL VERHOEVEN'S 'ELLE', WITH ISABELLE HUPPERT
"Not unlike Brian De Palma, another filmmaker who likes to skirt the boundaries of good taste, Verhoeven has inspired no shortage of gender-based arguments over the years: Whether his female characters are misogynist constructs or avatars of empowerment is a topic open to continual debate and reappraisal. That seems unlikely to change with his latest work, Elle, a breathtakingly elegant and continually surprising French-language thriller that brought the 69th Cannes Film Festival competition to a rousing close on Saturday."
"Michèle also finds herself curiously attracted to Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), her married neighbour across the road – and in a sequence worthy of Brian De Palma, she pleasures herself while peering at him through a pair of binoculars from her study window, while he sets up an outdoor nativity set."
NICOLAS WINDING REFN'S 'NEON DEMON'
"It's a gory, bloody, and erotic thriller that evokes David Lynch (in Mulholand Drive) and Brian De Palma (in Body Double), making direct reference to Under the Skin (2013), with Scarlett Johansson."
"What starts out as a glossy, Brian De Palma-style thriller soon veers sharply into David Lynchian territory and finally into surrealist horror. It turns out this is not All About Eve, nor Star 80 after all, but another Refn taunt which embraces camp and revels in horror to the extreme. And there is nothing like cannibalism and necrophilia to set Cannes tongues wagging."
Journalist asks Refn if the film was inspired by Brian De Palma at all, because it reminded him of De Palma's Dressed To Kill. Refn responds, "Well, I love Brian De Palma. I mean, who doesn't love Brian De Palma?"
In Los Angeles, American Cinematheque begins a 5-day De Palma series on June 1st with a 40th anniversary screening of Carrie. The next three days see double features (Dressed To Kill/Obsession June 2nd, Body Double/Femme Fatale June 3rd, Scarface/Carlito's Way June 4th), leading up to a "Members only" screening of De Palma on Sunday June 5th.
"THINK OF DE PALMA'S CINEMA IN THE SHAPE OF THE SPIRAL FROM THE OPENING CREDITS OF 'VERTIGO'"
In the programmer's essay for the TIFF retrospective, Brad Deane writes, "Though De Palma's oeuvre doesn't follow a clear thematic trajectory, ideas, motifs, and images repeat obsessively throughout his work; each of his films exists resolutely on its own terms, yet the more you watch, the more they all seem to be haunting each other. Rather than a straight line, think of De Palma's cinema in the shape of the spiral from the opening credits of his beloved Vertigo: an endlessly swirling vortex where recurring stylistic, thematic and narrative elements whirl into and out of view. And against that spiral, think of the split: the knife thrusts that slice open bodies, the doubled protagonists and fissured psyches, and that bifurcated screen which shatters the illusion of a single, immersive reality. In the cinema of Brian De Palma it is always, finally, the audience who must somehow sew that split back together."