Friday, June 17, 2016


Opening this weekend:

De PalmaFor all the faults of his movies, even for all the supposed great faults of his character, I’ve always had a soft spot for director Brian De Palma. This isn’t always easy to defend—while the frequent charge that he’s a misogynist can’t, I think, be proven from his movies, the general smarminess and arrested adolescence that many of them give off is hard to deny.

But his filmmaking mastery is even harder to deny. There’s a lot of schlock and silliness on the list of his credits, but there are several enduring classics, too, and I find that scenes from even his worst misfires remain in my memory in a way that plenty of better movies don’t. This is because, of course, he’s a true cinema stylist, lavishing so much craft and obsessive care on even the most absurd or ugly content that it ends up charged with vivid atmosphere.

Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow apparently share this admiration. The documentary they made about him comes across, more than anything, as an act of obsessive fandom. The only talking head is the title character, sitting in front of a gray fireplace. First he talks about his background, a little, and then he talks about his films—every one of them, I think, at least briefly—and the films that influenced him. As he talks, clips and stills are mixed in. That’s pretty much the whole movie.

The austerity of Baumbach and Paltrow’s approach is shrewd, because the material on which they draw is so cinematically rich. The biographical material is fascinating—I certainly didn’t know that De Palma’s father was a famous osteopath, or that the director himself had been a science whiz as a kid—and the straightforward progression through his works gives a bird’s-eye view of his development. The clips offer some intriguing treasures, too, like the unused deus ex machina ending of 1998’s Snake Eyes that’s more interesting than anything that made it into the finished film.

As for his own psychology, the ruefully chuckling De Palma seems candid enough, in a general sort of way. But although he shares some eyebrow-raising autobiographical subtext to Dressed to Kill, overall he seems unwilling to go very deep. Unlike, say, 1994’s Crumb, this movie doesn’t strip its subject naked for us. He’s evasive about his sensibility toward women, for instance, saying only that it “always made sense” to him, in the context of the genre in which he was working. And indeed, adjusting for generational differences in the degree of graphic violence acceptable in a movie, it’s hard to see how Hitchcock, for the most obvious example, is less vulnerable to this charge than De Palma.

In any event, De Palma can lay claim, at least for me, to the highest praise a documentary about a moviemaker can earn. Like last year’s movie version of Hitchcock/Truffaut, it left me with an appetite to re-watch these movies. 

 Finding DoryPixar’s 2003 animated ichthyological smash Finding Nemo is one of the most beloved of all kid movies. But I think I enjoyed this sequel focusing on Dory, the cheery titular blue tang with the unreliable short-term memory who helped in the search for the title fish in the first film, even more.

This time Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, is trying to find her home and parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy), from whom she was separated as a kid, and the worrywart clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his little Nemo are helping her. Once again they have to cross the ocean, this time to a marine center on the California coast. And once again they have to depend on the kindness of strangers, notably an octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), as well as a whale shark and a beluga. Dory is also amusingly guided by a voice from above—specifically, the voice of Sigourney Weaver.

The imperturbable, doggedly polite optimism and geniality of DeGeneres is center stage here, and deeply endearing. Her off-the-cuff, throwaway delivery, along with the mild kvetching of Brooks, is central to the movie’s balance. The theme, along with the Pixar/Disney standard of separation from loved ones, is the preciousness and vulnerability of memory, and the light touch of DeGeneres makes this moving, but not exhausting.

To Mesa Arts Center this Sunday, June 19…

 …comes a different iconic American filmmaker of the ‘70s and ‘80s: John Carpenter. The auteur plays a concert of his own music, both from his films and from a couple of recent studio albums. Check out my interview with him, on New Times blogs.

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