BERNARD HERRMANN, ETC., w/SOME INTRIGUING EDITS & MATCH CUTS, "JUST FOR FUN"
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First Reformed's intellectualized, detached, and emotionally reticent notion of suicide recalls Bresson's The Devil, Probably. Bresson, along with Ozu and Dreyer, formed a trinity at the heart of Schrader's book Transcendental Style in Film, and the filmmaker has faithfully returned to them again and again, channeling them in most of his directorial efforts, working within the so-called “Tarkovsky Ring” (films made within this ring will find commercial distribution, films like those of Bresson and Roberto Rossellini, while films outside of this ring are destined for museum and festival existences). Schrader was raised in an austerely Calvinist home, but at the age of 17 he converted to cinema. First Reformed is about Schrader's film theories, about the transcendent possibilities of the medium, as much as it is about religion.
The film is, even by Schrader's standards, a bleak endeavor, concerned with the durability of spirituality, its susceptibility to corruption and radicalism, and its place in modern American life: with the slow decay of the planet, as well as with pain, penance, and the validity of suicide and murder. Invidious, at times startlingly beautiful, and at others startlingly ugly, it encapsulates Schrader's cinematic philosophies, the testament of a man who worships film. It's a churlish and controlled film, suffused with dolor yet agleam with the prospect of hope, each assiduous and apoplectic composition as neat and orderly as the garments Toller adjusts during his morning routine.
Shot by Alexander Dynan, First Reformed has a mostly familiar, competent aesthetic, with subjects and their surroundings structured in a geometric style reminiscent, again, of Ozu. The repetition of shots—what film theorist David Bordwell refers to as “planimetric shots,” faces isolated in the frame, buildings filmed head-on, the camera unmoving and observant—insinuate a life of tedium, devoid of variety. There's little ambiguity in the deep focus. The camera isn't liberated. But as Toller's faith grows increasingly strained, his revelations more and more exceptional, the shots go aslant, the camera moving more. The final shot, twirling oneirically, the camera jubilant as it circles around Toller and Mary in bloody embracement, feels torn from a Brian De Palma film, out of place with the phlegmatic style of Schrader's. It suggests a dream, an Empyrean awakening. It brings to mind a bible quote, from Revelation 17:6: “And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her, I marveled greatly.”
First Reformed feels like a culmination of and response to Schrader's career. It harks back to Martin Scorsese's New York nightmare Taxi Driver by using a journal as a narrative device. Both films use a laconic, unexpurgated voiceover to elucidate on the inner turmoil of a man whose well-being is eroding and whose disdain for the people around him grows with each passing day and toward a violent epiphany. Schrader has said that he knows his obituaries will read, “Writer of Taxi Driver,” despite his own idiosyncratic career as a filmmaker. With First Reformed, he seems to be rewriting his own legacy, revisiting the infatuations and compulsions that inspired the Scorsese film.
Travis Bickle wants to wash from the streets the decay he perceives in modern life. He's a man who anoints himself an angel of death, come to smite New York City's miscreants. The backseat of his cab is, at the end of each night, doused in blood and cum, the way the faithful are awash in the blood of the lamb. In Travis one finds the seeds of Schrader's obsessions: penitence, sin, tortured veterans, working-class malaise, men with complicated relationships with sex. Like Travis, Toller sees grotesqueries and unforgivable misdeeds, and his notion of atonement becomes more extreme. He turns away the longing of his ex-wife, Esther (Victoria Hill), who leads the megachurch's choir and secretly pines, in pain, for Mary. His faith, while tested, never corrodes; it becomes more steadfast, more Old Testament-like. Misery begets penance, suffering ameliorating the sins of humanity. Toller rejoices in his suffering, and through him Schrader has found his faith in cinema renewed.
For the role of the conflicted clergyman, Schrader said Ethan Hawke was an easy choice.
“There’s a certain physiognomy in playing a man of the cloth, be it Montgomery Clift in ‘I Confess,’ Belmondo in ‘Leon Morin’ or Claude Laydu in ‘Diary of a Country Priest.’ So, you’re thinking about actors who have that physiognomy, maybe Jake Gyllenhaal, Oscar Isaac, but Ethan was 10 years older than them and his face was getting some very interesting wrinkles. I started thinking he’s just right for this. I sent him the script and he responded right away.”
Hawke’s performance goes from contemplative to harrowing as he considers ecoterrorism.
“He’s going to blow up a church, but this pregnant woman arrives and he can’t do it, so he reverts to turning himself into the sacrifice. This is a pathological fallacy deeply embedded in Christianity, the notion of suicidal glory, that my own suffering can redeem me. It’s not what the Bible teaches, (nor) what Jesus taught. It is a fallacy that is virtually the same as Jihadism.”
Hawke’s self-purgation finds him drinking Drano and wrapping himself in barbed wire.
“It’s a reference to Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Wise Blood’ (by) John Huston, where Hazel Motes at the end of that book puts his eyes out, wraps him up with wire and goes out preaching.”
This sacrifice is ultimately alleviated when Seyfried enters the room and the two embrace amid a swirling camera. It’s the first time the camera moves. Schrader uses a static camera with a 4:3 aspect ratio for the entire movie, before unleashing a circling camera like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) or Brian De Palma’s “Obsession” (1976), which Schrader wrote.
“When you start working on the spiritual side of the street, the still side of the street, you have to stretch time,” Schrader said. “This is a very static film. The camera does not move, pan or tilt. It just sits there. It is very passive aggressive and takes too long to do everything. All of a sudden at the end, it jumps like a bird from a cage into a kinetic, whirly-gate soul in flight.”
As the camera circles, the soundtrack delivers the spiritual hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Film buffs will recall Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), though Schrader insists it’s a reference to singer George Beverly Shea of the Billy Graham Crusade.
“That song, my father would play over and over again,” Schrader said. “(The final scene) is meant to be read in different ways. If you want to say he’s dead and imagining this, I wouldn’t object. If you want to say it’s a miracle, I wouldn’t object. If you want to say it is a redemption, I wouldn’t object. In fact, I don’t know the answer. It’s all of those things put together.”
This isn’t Schrader’s first ambiguous, dreamlike ending. A similar fate befell Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976), who similarly attempted an act of terror before embracing his better angels. In that case, it was a political assassination before shifting to vigilante justice by killing the pimp (Harvey Keitel) of a teen prostitute (Jodie Foster).
Jennifer Fox isn’t new to Hollywood—the accomplished documentarian has directed and produced many of her own docs and supported others work as well. She can count Hollywood legends like director Brian De Palma and Oren Moverman as friends and mentors. (Both of whom were more than willing to call up Laura Dern on her behalf.) Though many would be apprehensive to divulge their personal histories on film, Fox was excited to do so with The Tale.
Premiering on HBO this Friday, May 26, The Tale tells the true story of Fox’s own childhood. When Fox (played by Dern) was 13, she wrote a short story documenting her relationship with an older man. When her mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn) discovers the story decades later, Fox is forced to take a hard look at her childhood sexual abuse and the memories she twisted and repressed.
The Tale is gut-wrenching and tough to watch, but with Fox’s deft hand as a documentarian and a towering performance from Dern (who De Palma told Fox was the only actress to have the guts to take this role), it is a complex and unflinching look at the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive.
Based on Fox’s own life—Dern and Nélisse play Jennifer Fox at different ages—The Tale deals with the moment, years after the fact, that Fox was forced to grapple with the memories of her first sexual encounter aged 13. “It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that what I called a relationship, all of a sudden I realized was abuse,” she noted.
Fox, whose storied work in documentary film includes the highly personal series Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, turned to narrative film for the first time to construct a wholly unique portrait of the way memories can shift and rewrite themselves in our minds. It is with the rediscovery of an essay written when she was 13 that the older Jennifer Fox, played by Dern, is forced to confront the 13-year-old version of herself (Nélisse), who framed her relationship with a much older running coach in the language of first love and unforced desire.
“It took me years to write [the film] because it was such a complicated telling, and it’s really more about the stories we tell ourselves to survive, and why we need to tell ourselves stories,” the filmmaker explained. “There are so many things that are too heavy to deal with when you’re younger, that it takes until maturity to be able to face.”
Dern’s journey with The Tale stemmed from a conversation with filmmaker Brian De Palma, an important mentor to Fox. Dern recalled De Palma’s powerful and compelling brief: “[He] said, ‘You’re going to receive a script that is difficult and painful and brave…But take it seriously. It’s so radical, it’s so brave, and you should go on this journey.'”
For Dern, “What’s extraordinary about this time is that we all are considering together how we’ve normalized behavior, to ourselves, as a community, as a culture. It has been a reckoning for many of us individually, to see how we said things like, ‘Well, it was the ‘70s,’ or ‘I looked very mature for my age.’ We took the blame, and we were silenced by our own cultural shaming.”
It was a welcome, if unexpected, climate in which to launch the film, she said, noting the conversations about taking on this story began many years ago. “This zeitgeist has said that there is restorative justice here,” Dern said. “There is reward in being a witness to something and sharing your voice, and that has really changed the conversation. There is therefore less fear, through a piece of art that you make, to all have conversations together, and hopefully, allow it be the groundbreaking time we all so desperately need.“
Fox noted the particular courage shown by Jason Ritter in taking on the role of her abuser Bill. “I think, Jason, you’re the most courageous, actually, of all of us,” she said. “We know from statistics that 93% of perpetrators are known by the children who they abuse. That means that they don’t look evil; they’re part of communities; they’re successful, they’re loved. Jason really embodied the kindness and the complexity of what I wanted to bring to this telling.”
But by the time he’d read it, he insisted, “there had already been so many incredible acts of courage that led up to this moment—Jennifer writing it, people coming on board. If I was going to be the coward to back out at the end, I wouldn’t have been able to look at myself. The truth was that I read the script and I thought it was so profound and incredibly honest, and I felt like I was opening doors in my mind that I hadn’t even cared to open, looking at this experience and getting a deeper understanding of what this can be like.”
When filmmaker Jennifer Fox was 13, she wrote a story for English class about a young girl who is coerced into a sexual relationship with her 40-year-old running coach.
Little did her teacher know, the story was true.
"I got an A," says Fox, now 58. "My teacher wrote on the back, 'If this is true, it's a travesty. But since you're so well-adjusted, it can't be.' "
Four decades later, Fox has adapted her account into a harrowing feature film, The Tale, which premieres on HBO Saturday (10 ET/PT). Two-time Oscar nominee Laura Dern plays an adult Jennifer — a successful documentarian and professor — as she confronts the truth that her childhood "romance" with Bill (Jason Ritter) was sexual abuse. With the support of her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and boyfriend (Common), she reconnects with people from her past in an effort to remember what happened after years of suppression.
"The film is about memory and the stories we tell ourselves to survive," says Dern, 51, who was brought the script by director Brian De Palma, Fox's friend and mentor. "I think we all find that relatable, not just people who have experienced sexual abuse or assault."
Dern identifies with Fox's story, having grown up as a teen actress on movie sets, where she experienced sexual harassment. She says she never recognized it for what it was until the Me Too movement started last fall, as women and men came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct and abuses of power.
"I didn't realize until recently that my experiences of harassment were harassment," Dern says. "For so many young girls and boys, behavior is justified because it's like, 'Well, they did that. Maybe that's normal.' We presume that's just the way it works in Hollywood."
Like her fictionalized character in The Tale, Fox didn't fully process her trauma until middle age, as she interviewed women around the world for her 2006 documentary Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman and began to hear similar stories. She's careful to make the distinction between sexual assault and abuse, when someone is manipulated into thinking "he or she is agreeing to something which is sexual, but it isn't often violent," Fox says. "It's different from rape."
"Scarface is a timeless film that has influenced pop culture in so many ways over the last 35 years," Screenvision Media's Darryl Schaffer said in a press release. "We're thrilled to partner with Universal Pictures and Tribeca Film Festival to bring it back to the big screen in celebration of its anniversary. The Tribeca Film Festival talk was an important commemoration of the film. We're excited to extend it to the big screen and provide fans a behind-the-scenes insight into what production was like in the 1980s."
Paula Weinstein, EVP of Tribeca Enterprises, added, "Tribeca has a rich history of producing legendary reunion events. We are thrilled to be able to replicate the Festival experience with audiences across the country. Our gratitude to Screenvision and Universal. Scarface has had a strong influence on popular culture and reuniting the cast for the 35th anniversary was an evening not to forget."
About a week after the Tribeca event last month, Jesse Kornbluth, who moderated that on-stage Q&A, defended himself in a post at Head Butler, with the headline, "So I Asked Michelle Pfeiffer A Question...."
Recently, the Tribeca Film Festival celebrated the 35th anniversary of “Scarface” with a screening at the Beacon Theatre, followed by a panel discussion featuring Al Pacino, Brian De Palma, Michelle Pfeiffer and Steven Bauer.
I moderated the panel discussion.
There never was an audience for “Scarface” like the 2,894 film fans at the Beacon. Of course they knew all the great quotes, but even more, they cheered like opera buffs after the great scenes. And when it ended, better believe they were eager to be in the same air space as the stars.
I brought the actors onstage one by one. Bauer got some love. Pfeiffer got more. De Palma got a roar. Then, with one chair empty, I teased the audience: “There’s one more… I forget…. Oh, I got it….Al Pacino!” The theatre went nuts. Al basked at the standing ovation. “Still got it!” he said.
And then we began. I started with the person who had the idea to remake the 1932 classic: Al Pacino. I asked Bauer about being the only Cuban in a major role. I asked De Palma about getting around the repeated X-ratings, quoted Chekhov’s remark that a gun on the wall in the first act must be fired in the second and asked if having a chainsaw murder in the first 15 minutes of the film made him question if topping it in the final scene might be too much violence for any audience. And, of course, I prompted Pacino to deliver the most quoted line of his career: “Say hello to my little friend.”
Michelle Pfeiffer has described herself as a “set piece” in this film — the attractive woman who looks good on the arm of the leading man but who’s not essential to the story. And because questions of misogyny and female agency are no longer background noise, I asked her to look back at “Scarface” from the perspective of 2018. She spoke eloquently about what she learned as a very young actress paired with a powerful star giving one of his most aggressive performances: “One of the things that hit me the strongest from the beginning was watching him fiercely protect his character and really at all costs and without any sort of apology. And I have always tried to emulate that. And I try to be polite about it. But I think that’s what really makes great acting.”
Pfeiffer’s crisp, smart responses got little media attention. Only one exchange did. I was curious about her preparation for the role as a cocaine freak whose diet seemed to consist of cigarettes and Scotch. And I thought of my daughter, who is exactly the same height as Pfeiffer. She is thin. In “Scarface,” Pfeiffer was dramatically thinner. So I asked: “As the father of a daughter, I’m concerned with body image. During the preparation for this film, what did you weigh?”
The crowd — not all, but a vocal contingent — reacted instantly. There were boos. Someone shouted, “Bad question.” I also heard “Why do you need to know?” and “Why!”
I turned away from Pfeiffer to speak directly to the audience: “This is not the question you think it is.”
Press reports said that Pfeiffer was dismayed at the question and paused before answering. Not so. She paused because, like a professional, she was waiting for the crowd to settle down. And then she answered my question — at length: “I don’t know. But I was playing a cocaine addict, which was part of the physicality of the part, which you have to consider… The movie was only supposed to be a three-month, four-month shoot. Of course, I tried to time it so that as the movie went on, I became thinner and thinner and more emaciated. The problem was the movie went six months. I was starving by the end of it because the one scene, which was the end of the film, where I needed to be my thinnest, it was ‘next week’ and then it was ‘next week’ and then it was ‘next week.’ I literally had members of the crew bringing me bagels because they were all worried about me and how thin I was getting. I think I was living on tomato soup and Marlboros.”
At the end, the stars got a standing ovation. There was a small after-party. Around midnight, I went home and, as I generally do, logged on. To my surprise there was a YouTube report of my question to Pfeiffer, but because I wasn’t named as the moderator, I laughed and went to bed.
By mid-morning, I was asked to comment. I replied:
“It is true that a gentleman should never ask a woman about her weight. But that was not my question. It is a comment on the knee-jerk political correctness of our time that no one would be shocked if you asked Robert De Niro about the weight gain required for his role in ‘Raging Bull’ but you get booed — not by many, but by a vocal few — for asking Michelle Pfeiffer about the physical two-dimensionality required for her to play a cocaine freak in ‘Scarface.’”
Finally, I caught a break: In the Daily News, Linda Stasi wrote a column headlined “Sorry, PC police — it’s not body shaming to ask Michelle Pfeiffer how much she weighed during ‘Scarface.’” Her first sentence: “What a bunch of fat heads!”
Later, I had a chance to add to my response:
Nobody booed when I asked Michelle about how she was able to “own and claim” her performance against one of Al’s fiercest performances.
Nobody booed when I asked Michelle if she could imagine a remake in which Tony Montana was Toni Montana — a woman.
Nobody booed when I asked Brian if he were making this movie now, would Tony be a Russian — or even Mark Zuckerberg?
Nobody booed when I quoted Tony Montana — “Who put this thing together? Me!Who do I trust? Me!” — and asked Al: Who does that sound like?
I’ll go further. Not to defend myself — it’s not possible to defend yourself against the accusations of people who know you better than you know yourself — but to tell you what I learned from this experience.
First, there’s a double standard here. When a man gains or loses weight for a role, that fact is served up to the media as an asset. It’s not just De Niro in “Raging Bull.” Matthew McConaughey lost 50 pounds and Jared Leto shed 40 for “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” Matt Damon lost 40 pounds for “Courage Under Fire” — the reporting of their preparation for roles is invariably admiring. For women, the topic of weight can also be an asset — if she reveals it, as Charlize Theron did when she told Entertainment Weekly about the 50 pounds she gained for her role in a new film. So why is it “insensitive” to ask Michelle Pfeiffer about her physical instrument in a movie she made 35 years ago? Has something happened in the last 35 years to turn a young actress who had the strength to stand up to Al Pacino into a timorous Victorian maiden who needs protection from a man asking a question about her public persona?
Before we went on stage, I quoted Oscar Wilde to Pfeiffer and Pacino: “There are no impertinent questions, only impertinent answers.” Yes, I could have worded that question better. And if the question, in any form, offended Michelle Pfeiffer, I apologize.
More to the point: If I knew the audience was hardcore liberal PC, I would still have asked that question, though I would have asked it another way. But I had no idea there are New York movie lovers who see little difference between a man asking a woman about something she did professionally and Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women between their legs. It’s not heartbreaking, but it’s really, really disappointing to learn that people who presumably deal with complexity and multiple levels of meaning in their careers can be as stupid and close-minded as people who watch Fox and think Pizzagate and Obamaphones are real.
Bottom line: I call BS on the yahoos who booed.
When this came your way, it came to you as a spec script that screenwriter Brandon Boyce was asking for advice on, and then you decided you wanted to do it. What was it that made you so passionate about telling this story?
DEVLIN: Well, the first thing is that it was a page turner. I couldn’t put the script down, and that’s so rare. Usually, I’m not a great reader. I have to push myself to read through a script. And the other problem I have is that, very often, I’m rewriting a script while I’m reading it, and then I get half-way through it and I realize the movie in my head is totally different from the one I’m reading, so I’ve gotta start over again. This one was absolutely compelling, from the first page to the last. I just couldn’t put it down. It also reminded me of early Brian De Palma movies that I fell in love with, like Dressed to Kill, and things like that. There are a lot of great scary movies in the last couple of years, but they tend to be either supernatural or have a science fiction aspect, or creatures, or aliens. To me, the most horrifying and frightening thing in the world are other people. If you had a psychotic person, who had no ability to feel guilt or empathy, and you married that with someone who had all of the resources and money in the world, that’s a very terrifying idea, but not so unrealistic that you couldn’t run into that, in real life. That’s what chilled me.
What Alfred Hitchcock (or his disciple Brian DePalma) could have done with this cat-and-mouse "Silence of the Lambs"-lite material boggles the brain.
Director Dean Devlin, who gave us the ludicrously silly weather disaster drama "Geostorm," can't boggle, but he races over logic lapses with such speed that the frequent surprises, power-shifts and reversals easily take up the credibility slack.
Irish actor [Robert] Sheehan executes his role as an out-of-his-class hero with aplomb, although he's operating in a story that supplies a humongous amount of Oregon scenery for British actor Tennant to chew, and he gorges himself on it with unbridled gusto.
Resembling a cross between Norman Bates and Charlie Sheen on a bender, [David] Tennant tunes into the movie's melodramatic excesses better than his co-stars. (If Tennant wore a mustache, he probably wouldn't twirl it, but we'd see him thinking about it.)
David Connell's impressive, widescreen cinematography keeps our eyeballs occupied with kinetic, well-framed compositions, although Joseph LoDuca's crushing suspense score overpowers a climactic, snow-dusted showdown with distracting notes.
If nothing else, "Bad Samaritan" might be just enough of a horror film to give us pause every time we toss our car keys to a parking attendant.
Vaughn Stein's Terminal has also led to at least a couple of mentions of Brian De Palma in critics' reviews:
The latest in a long line of post-Tarantino imitations, Terminal paints its setting in broad strokes. The train station where the film's action takes place abounds in retro-modern colors that are redolent of so many 1990s-era industrial music videos. It's a generic space occupied by stilted characters: two hitmen (Dexter Fletcher and Max Irons) who trade wince-inducing banter while waiting for new assignments; a terminally ill teacher (Simon Pegg) who's looking to speed up the shuffling off of his mortal coil; and a disabled janitor (Mike Myers) who just might be more shrewd and observant than he lets on. Interacting with them all is Annie (Margot Robbie), a woman who's introduced via a series of images that, in the way they reduce her to flashing, emerald eyes and pursing ruby lips, lamely prop her up as a femme fatale.
In fact, Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale stands out as the closest analog to this film, as Annie is constantly slipping on various disguises as she seduces and double-crosses those who dwell throughout this terminal at the heart of an anonymous city. Yet the comparison to De Palma's freewheeling, deconstructionist take on noir does this lugubrious thriller no favors, as writer-director Vaughn Stein doesn't so much as dust off the cobwebs from the tropes he recycles throughout. Terminal's actors are awkward and stiff in trying to project hard-boiled cool, and all while delivering lines—from “Hello, handsome, dangerous men” to “Hello, beautiful, semi-clad girl”—that sound as if they had been passed multiple times through an online translation tool.
“There is a place like no other on Earth … to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter.” – Margot Robbie’s Annie in “Terminal.”
With lines like that, it’s not as if the lurid and highly stylized and neon-noir “Terminal” isn’t announcing itself as a derivative B-movie borrowing elements from pop culture touchstones ranging from old-timey gangster films of the 1940s and 1950s to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to “Pulp Fiction” to “Sin City” to “Blade Runner” to certain films by Brian De Palma and Guy Ritchie.
This is a dark and bloody and mind-bending trip, alternately fascinating and ridiculous, featuring some bold and outrageous plot twists, and juicy performances from one of the more eclectic casts you’ll see in a film in 2018.
We’re talking Margot Robbie, Simon Pegg, Matthew Lewis from the “Harry Potter” films — and Mike Myers playing one of the sickest sickos in recent memory.
Oh, and one of the aforementioned has a dual role, and let’s just leave it at that.
Every year, we get a handful of movies that have a legit shot at appearing on some “Best of the Year” lists and some “Worst of the Year” lists.
"Terminal" is just that kind of movie.
If Dario Argento, Brian De Palma and Kenneth Anger conceived a three-way love child while watching Cruising and listening to a Giorgio Moroder mix tape, the result would be something like French director Yann Gonzalez’s Knife + Heart (Un couteau dans le coeur).
Taking the erotic kitsch and glamorously trashy aesthetics of his many shorts and first feature, You and the Night, to the next level, Gonzalez uses a murder mystery set in the late-'70s gay porn industry to explore deeper themes of desire, abandon and sexual repression, all of it with plenty of humor and blood splatters. Playing the same late slot that Good Time and Drive did in previous festival editions, the film should add a needed dose of glitz and gore to an otherwise tame Cannes competition, with potential for crossover appeal in France and elsewhere.
Shot on 35mm by Simon Beaufils and backed by a throbbing retro score from Gallic electro rockers M83 (one of whose founding members is the director’s brother), Knife hits you from its very first frame — and this is really a frame of celluloid and not a file of gigabytes — as a work engulfed in the pleasures of filmmaking's past.
In the beguiling opening sequence, Gonzalez cuts between an editor splicing 16mm footage; a porno movie shot somewhere in the countryside; and scenes of its young, waifish star heading out to a nightclub and meeting a man in a leather mask. Anyone who’s seen the 1980 Friedkin-Pacino movie or the works of giallo auteurs like Argento or Lucio Fulci can imagine where this late-night encounter is headed, though the director tosses in one of several surprises when the murder weapon turns out to be a black dildo armed with a switchblade. This is not your typical slasher pic.
The young victim was the latest muse of 40-something gay porn producer Anne (Vanessa Paradis), who has built up a sizable filmography of semiautobiographical skin flicks with cheeky titles like Anal Fury or Homocidal. With the help of her favorite actor-director Archibald (a hilarious Nicolas Maury), her editor and former lover Lois (American actress Kate Moran) and a fluffer nicknamed Golden Mouth (Pierre Pilol) — or Bouche d’or in French (not to be confused with Palme d’or) — Anne is as passionate about her oeuvre as any self-respecting Gallic auteur, even if her movies only play at a seedy Parisian XXX theater that also doubles as a cruising spot.
Gonzalez has a good time exploring the slapstick behind-the-scenes side of Anne’s productions, although when we first meet the woman, she's totally grief-stricken after breaking up with longtime girlfriend Lois, who’s had enough of her drunken shenanigans. Anne’s work is further compromised by the fact that castmembers keep dying left and right, with each killing beautifully, and sometimes comically, staged in a different setting: a forest during a wind storm, a late-night parking lot, the movie set itself. She soon decides to embark on an ambitious new feature that re-creates the murders in front of the camera, while investigating the murders behind it, as Knife transforms into a film within a film that blurs the boundaries between reality, fiction, dreams and disaster.
The whodunit side occupies much of the movie’s second half, with Anne turning into an amateur sleuth who uncovers a trail of bread crumbs involving a former actor and his doppelganger (Khaled Alouach), a blind crow that looks a lot like the one in Game of Thrones, and a series of black-and-white flashbacks that reveal a dark family secret involving a character named Guy (Jonathan Genet) who may or may not be dead. It’s too much to handle at times, and the film’s rhythm dips a little during the closing reels, but the ending adds some needed thematic weight to all the B-movie antics by focusing on how sexual repression — specifically of gays — can spiral dangerously out of control.
Like in Gonzalez’s debut feature, Knife indulges in the seductive, sleazy stylings of thrillers and horror flicks from the '70s and '80s (alongside movies by Argento and De Palma, the cult classic Liquid Sky also comes to mind here), with cinematographer Beaufils bathing scenes in oversaturated shades of blue and red as M83’s vintage beats blast on the soundtrack.
Someone is killing the cast and crew around the production of a gay French porno in “Knife + Heart,” which provides an inspired opportunity to set an erotic thriller within the milieu of vintage Parisian blue movies. In the hands of gifted French director Yann Gonzalez, who leaps from Critics’ Week to the official competition with this hyper-stylized follow-up to “You and the Night,” an environment that might have once given exploitation helmers the excuse to stage some red-blooded voyeurism (à la “Body Double” or “Crimes of Passion”) instead serves as a backdrop for queer empowerment in what should be one of the hottest tickets for gay audiences this year.
Picture “Cruising” as directed by Brian De Palma, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this frisky parody-homage, which is equal parts kinky and kitsch, rendered with the kind of meticulous attention to lighting, composition, and sound (including a reunion with M83, who also scored Gonzalez’s first film) that all but guarantees a cult following.
Gonzalez, cinematographer Simon Beaufils and composer M83 (fronted by Gonzalez’s brother Anthony) conspire to make a moody whodunit with a dream logic that can frustrate anyone looking for a more straightforward crime story. In Knife + Heart, the investigation is given equal heft as Anne’s romantic woes and her company’s attempt to make their latest porn, although eventually these disparate strands will (somewhat) come together.
The film’s immutable take-it-or-leave-it ludicrousness has its bracing kicks, especially when Gonzalez stages the masked killer’s vividly violent attacks. (His weapon of choice is a dildo with a switchblade at the end.) Knife + Heart pays homage to disreputable genre films of old, not just mocking porn’s cheap production values but also the grimy pleasures of B-movie horror. Whether it’s Anne’s hip wardrobe or the flamboyantly revealed plot twists, Knife + Heart grins through its gruesome murders, revelling in the power of cinema’s pure escapism.
At some point, though, that style needs to add up to something, and Gonzalez comes up short, resolving the mystery inelegantly and failing to make Anne’s existential crisis absorbing. One suspects the filmmaker spent more time worrying about how to construct his retro split-screen suspense sequences — a clear shout-out to De Palma — than he did in developing the human beings in those frames.
On paper, Yann Gonzalez’s “Knife + Heart” sounds like an entirely perfect follow-up to his 2013 debut, “You and the Night.” A pansexual fantasia about a gaggle of symbolic characters who get together for an orgy, the film compellingly melded elements of camp, smut, romance, Anger, and the self-aware stylization of Jean Genet into a chromatic fever that established its writer-director as a unique new voice in contemporary queer cinema (or just cinema, full-stop).
Flecked with some new giallo flourishes and a generous helping of De Palma-like psychological distress, Gonzalez’s frenzied second feature certainly finds that voice growing stronger and more confident. “Knife + Heart” outgrows (or obliterates) the black box constraints of its predecessor in favor of a broader canvas that stretches from a subterranean nightclub to an enchanted forest in the heart of France; from reality to fantasy and back again, using the scopophilic pleasures of sitting in the dark as a bridge between those two worlds.
That morning the slender, contradictory man was eating grain cereal with stewed fruit and speaking in a thoughtful, slightly formal fashion about how the people from Hollywood were progressing with the movie version of The Bonfire of the Vanities. He mentioned diplomatically that they were being attentive to details.
"I must confess I get my shoes made at New & Lingwood," Wolfe said, dropping the name of the London fabricator of two-thousand-dolloar-a-pair men's shoes with his cultivated mixture of snobbery and modesty. "And the salesman was here in New York, and he said that Tom Hanks had arrived and wanted two pairs of shoes for the movie -- Tom Hanks or whoever was buying shoes for him -- and asked the salesman what kind should we get? And the salesman says, 'Well, in the book it says half-brogues,' and the movie person says, 'Okay, give us those.' I was rather impressed by that because, unless they make a point of it in the script to have the camera focus on the shoes, who's going to know? You have to have a very picky eye like myself to sit around and figure out where the shoes are from. They seem to be concerned with accuracy -- inn certain respects."
He wasn't willing to criticize the moviemakers -- just yet. "I think it's bad manners in the Southern sense to be sharp and critical of it," he said. "I did cash the check." However, with his good Southern manners the author had made it clear to the Hollywood people right after he accepted the $750,000 they paid him for the rights to his book that he didn't want to have anything to do with the making of their movie.
"To tell the truth, I've never wanted to write any script based on something I've done," he said. "From my standpoint it's too bad that movies don't run nine or ten hours. The way I constructed the book, almost every chapter was meant to be a vignette of something else in New York as well as something that might advance the story, and to me one was as important as the other."
The author paused briefly. "It's a fairly simple story. It's not a complicated story. But I wanted there to be all these slices, one after another. Not that I gave very much thought to how the movie could be made, but I never could see how you could do that."
In the final chapter of The Devil's Candy, Salamon again interviews Wolfe, who has just watched De Palma's film via a pre-opening day screening for the author and friends:
Tom Wolfe cringed over the movie, just as he'd cringed the first time he saw "The Right Stuff." He saw "Bonfire" two more times after that, hoping he might like it better. He didn't.
He never violated his rule of public silence on the subject of "Bonfire of the Vanities." He hinted that he didn't care for it much, but the worst thing he said was that "the great thing about selling a book to the movies is that nobody blames the author." Wolfe realized that in some way he was a collaborator in this venture, and that he was better off being polite about it all. He also recognized the fact that his books now had a bad track record in Hollywood and it was a good idea to be polite.
In private he confessed that he was dismayed by the picture, that he really disliked the writing in it. "My feeling is that Hollywood rules are always wrong," he said. "Everybody in Hollywood hates to think about writing. It's so uncompromisable in a sense. There's no easy way to improve it. It's so fundamental. You can't make it better with a better deal."
He sympathized with De Palma's dilemma and couldn't see any way to condense the book himself. He had liked the director's idea to use "Dr. Strangelove" as his model for "Bonfire of the Vanities." But Wolfe felt De Palma didn't pull it off. "Dr. Strangelove," he felt, was a bitter farce, with the emphasis on bitter. The director, Stanley Kubrick, had only one message and it was antiwar. In every scene Kubrick set the business of war against the idiocy of the people making the war.
Wolfe couldn't really understand what kind of farce De Palma wanted "Bonfire" to be. "It wasn't a bitter farce and it wasn't a bedroom farce and it wasn't a sweet farce or an agreeable movie," he said. "As far as I can tell they didn't take on a point of view and cleave to it. I'd be pretty hard put to tell you what the point of view is."
And though he understood that few people would believe it, Wolfe (the man who made up phrases like "Heh-heggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!") thought the film was too exaggerated. "It was as if Brian De Palma said, 'Well, I've got to do something extraordinary to pull this off in two hours, so I'm going to try all kinds of things. I'm going to try this "Dr. Strangelove" approach. I'm going to try the most extreme camera angles I've ever used.'"
Wolfe sighed. "If you're going to exaggerate, it has to be done just so, as in 'Dr. Strangelove.' The slightest false note can boomerang. I hesitate to find a great deal of fault with what was done because it was a tough problem to do this thing in two hours. De Palma took a chance. It really didn't pan out."
From today's obit by Rolling Stone's Tim Grierson:
Born in March 1931, Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. grew up in Richmond, Virginia, holding onto his genteel Southern accent all his life. Attending Washington and Lee University, he studied English literature – there was no writing major – and edited the school newspaper's sports section, along the way co-founding the college's literary magazine Shenandoah. After receiving his doctorate at Yale, he worked as a reporter in Springfield, Massachusetts before moving to The Washington Post and then landing at the New York Herald Tribune, whose brash reporting style was summed up by its motto: "Who says a good newspaper has to be dull?" While there, he wrote for the paper's Sunday magazine, which would later become New York magazine, an upstart rival to the more refined New Yorker.
But Wolfe's first major breakthrough came in 1963 with a piece he pitched Esquire about Southern California's world of custom cars. After doing the reporting, though, he panicked about how to write the piece. On the advice of his editor, he sent over his typed-up notes, and the vivid, stream-of-consciousness observations became "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," one of the landmark documents in the formation of New Journalism — a flashy, giddy prose style whose champions, including idiosyncratic writers like Hunter S. Thompson, were charting the country's changing, turbulent mood during the Sixties.
The techniques Wolfe brought to "Kandy-Kolored" – you-are-there portraiture, inspired digressions, obscene amounts of exclamation marks and italics – would be his trademarks in subsequent works, perhaps most memorably in his 1968 nonfiction book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which didn't just profile Kesey but also the LSD counterculture at large. (Wolfe himself didn't partake in the hallucinogen. "I felt it was really far too dangerous to take a chance," he said in 2016, "and they didn't try to pressure me.")
Wolfe always dove into unique ecosystems in order to present a macro view of American life. 1979's The Right Stuff, which started as a series of pieces in Rolling Stone about the Mercury Seven astronauts, became a commentary on the country's can-do spirit and the breadth of its ambition. No matter the topic, Wolfe learned quickly that trying to blend in with his subjects actually hurt his reporting — pretending to know more than he did kept him from learning the basics of the worlds he was embedded in.
"People really don't want you to try to fit in," he said in a 1980 interview with Rolling Stone. "They'd much rather fill you in. People like to have someone to tell their stories to. So if you're willing to be the village information gatherer, they'll often just pile material on you. My one contribution to the discipline of psychology is my theory of information compulsion. Part of the nature of the human beast is a feeling of scoring a few status points by telling other people things they don't know. So this does work in your favor."
In that same interview, he mentioned that he was considering writing his first novel. "I'm doing something that I've had on my mind for a long time, which is a Vanity Fair book about New York, à la Thackeray," he offered, later adding, "[N]ovelists themselves hardly touch the city. How they can pass up the city, I don't know. The city was a central — character is not a very good way to put it, but it was certainly a dominant theme — in the works of Dickens, Zola, Thackeray, Balzac. So many talented writers now duck the city as a subject. And this is one of the most remarkable periods of the cities."
After years of research and reporting, Wolfe achieved his lofty goal by publishing The Bonfire of the Vanities, an epic, swaggering tome that began as installments in Rolling Stone. The book introduced the world to Sherman McCoy, a wealthy and morally corrupt bond trader who, in another lively Wolfe turn of phrase, was a "Master of the Universe" during Wall Street's giddy Eighties boom. Receiving glowing reviews and enjoying phenomenal sales, The Bonfire of the Vanities tackled not just New York but also racism, masculinity, economic inequality, a broken justice system and the tabloid press — all the while being wickedly funny and unexpectedly moving. It was quintessential Wolfe: knee-deep in the messy vibrancy of American life but sharply insightful about the country's contradictions and shortcomings.
"When I was writing that book, it was with a spirit of wonderment," he confessed later. "I was saying [excitedly], 'Look at these people! Look at what they're doing! Look at that one! Look at that one!' It was only after I finished and read it over that I see that there is a cumulative effect that leads to [a dark reading of the book]."
Very sad news today... Margot Kidder passed away Sunday at the age of 69. No cause of death has been reported at this time. Kidder was dating Brian De Palma when she starred with her good friend Jennifer Salt in De Palma's Sisters, released in 1973. De Palma had given them each a copy of the screenplay for Christmas. Kidder and Salt were sharing a Nicholas Canyon beach house together in Malibu in the early 1970s, where they held parties and met De Palma, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, John Milius, Paul Schrader, and many many more.
In 1974, Kidder was part of the inaugural class of AFI's Directing Workshop for Women, along with Ellen Burstyn, Lee Grant, and Maya Angelou, among others. Kidder, of course, is most famous for her role as Lois Lane in Richard Donner's 1978 box office smash Superman (and its sequel, Superman II, which was finished by director Richard Lester after Donner was fired). Other notable films include Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974), George Roy Hill's The Great Waldo Pepper (with co-star Robert Redford, 1975), J. Lee Thompson's The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975), and The Amityville Horror (1979).
Margaret Ruth Kidder was born on Oct. 17, 1948, in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Her mother, Margaret, was a teacher, and her father, Kendall, was an explosives expert whose job entailed taking the family to whatever remote place ore had been discovered.
“I read books,” she told The Montana Standard in 2016, “and hung out with friends in the woods or at the hockey rink. We’d get Montreal on the shortwave radio once a week. That was about it for entertainment.”
Eventually her parents sent her to boarding school in Toronto, where she started acting in school plays. She later attended the University of British Columbia.
In the late 1960s she landed her first TV roles, in Canadian series like “Wojeck,” “McQueen” and “Corwin.” Her first film was the Norman Jewison comedy “Gaily, Gaily” in 1969.
Among her films in 1975 was “92 in the Shade,” written and directed by the novelist Thomas McGuane, whom she married in 1976; they divorced the next year. Her marriages to the actor John Heard in 1979 and the director Philippe de Broca in 1983 also ended in divorce.
Margaret Ruth Kidder was born in Canada and honed her acting skills on TV shows such as McQueen, Nichols, Banacek and Mod Squad before becoming a movie star.
After landing a lead role in Brian de Palma's Sisters in 1972, Kidder's film career took off. It hit the stratosphere six years later, when she appeared as Lois Lane in the launching of the Superman film franchise. She went on to appear in three sequels over the next nine years.
Famous for her smoky voice and for portraying smart, indomitable characters, Kidder also struggled with addiction and bipolar disorder for much of her life. She suffered from a famous breakdown in 1996, when she disappeared for several days. When police found her in Glendale, Calif., she was hiding in the bushes behind a house.
After Kidder recovered from that incident, she became an advocate for mental health awareness.
"I'm not saying it's all over," Kidder told People magazine after her life derailed in 1996. "I'm saying this is the pattern of my life. In three years I might be having another wig-out. I have no idea. I just have to accept the fact that this is me, or I ain't gonna make it."
Kidder went to take dozens of other acting jobs, from recurring roles on TV's Boston Common in 1997 to 2009's Halloween II.
For decades, Kidder had lived in a log cabin near Livingston. In addition to promoting mental health issues, she spoke publicly as an anti-war and environmental activist.