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For lovers of cinema, “De Palma” is about as close to cinematic bliss as it gets.
Jake Paltrow & Noah Baumbach’s intimate documentary is essentially an autobiography of legendary filmmaker Brian De Palma, the director responsible for classics like “Scarface,” “The Untouchables,” and “Carrie” as well as the less successful “Mission to Mars,” “Snake Eyes” and many more in between.
The beauty of the film is its simplicity.
“De Palma” is a guided walk-through of the filmmaker’s prolific career, from the early classics to his more recent misfires. De Palma literally does all the talking and is the only figure on screen besides all the characters featured in clips from other films.
Brian De Palma himself is delightfully candid as he takes us through what worked, what absolutely didn’t work, and shares a myriad of fascinating on-set stories that offer a new perspective on his films.
Cinephiles will be thrilled to hear the untold details about De Palma’s many conflicts over the years, like what a debacle filming the first “Mission: Impossible” movie was in 1996 when he clashed with screenwriter Robert Towne over the final sequence.
One of the more interesting reveals is that Steven Spielberg visited the set of “Scarface” to help shoot the infamous shootout sequence because Al Pacino was out for two weeks with a hand injury and they had nothing better to do. There’s also some great home-movie (Super 8!) footage of Spielberg calling De Palma on his car phone in 1976.
The film is full of wonderful primary-source insights like these.
We learn that the on-screen hostility between Sean Penn & Michael J. Fox in “Casualties of War” was actually very real, and during the scene in which Penn whispers something in his ear that ignites a fight, he actually berated Fox by calling him a “TV actor.”
We also get to see how difficult it was to shoot the train sequence in “Carlito’s Way,” as Pacino was running around the sweltering hot NYC subway in a leather jacket.
Though “De Palma” certainly has the aesthetic of a DVD bonus feature or commentary track, its brisk pace and efficient editing ensure not a second is wasted. It never dwells on one sequence long enough to get boring, and his insights are equally enlightening whether he’s talking about a well-regarded film like “Scarface” or a critically-maligned one like “Snake Eyes” or “The Black Dahlia.”
The biggest surprise of the film is how funny it, or rather Brian De Palma, is. He has a terrific sense of humor about his filmography, warts and all. The film’s tagline could be “Holy mackerel,” as De Palma proclaims this throughout a number of times as he waxes poetic.
While he never lingers too long on the subject of his alleged misogyny that permeates through a number of his films, he’s very sincere when discussing his “failures.” It’s all incredibly compelling, and those most familiar with his body of work will get the most out of it.
That’s not to say it’s for aficionados only – it also works as a decent introduction to his oeuvre that will inspire new fans to seek out the material.
“De Palma” may be a little rough around the edges and not as polished as most festival-bound documentaries, but it’s hardly a detriment. The film skates by purely on the joy associated with letting its subject do all the talking.
With its countless revelations – amusing, insightful, or otherwise – “De Palma” is a movie-lover’s paradise.