Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Obsession



Obsession (1976)
Starring Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold, John Lithgow

Throughout his early career, de Palma was either referred to as a director who made homages to Hitchcock, or was blatantly ripping the master director of thrillers off. And its a very fine line de Palma walks, particularly in this melodrama that is an obvious reference to both Rebecca and Vertigo. In fact, Hitchcock himself was reportedly furious that de Palma’s Obsession was so incredibly close to Rebecca. And its interesting to note that Hitch’s trademark composer, Bernard Herrmann, once again composes the score to a de Palma thriller. So how does this furiously melodramatic Hitchcock knock-off stack up?

The story opens in New Orleans in 1959, where land developer Michael Courtland’s wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. Courtland’s business partner, Robert Lasalle helps him raise the money, but at the last minute the police decide to drop a phony suitcase with a homing device in it. The kidnappers find out they have been duped and escape their hideout with police in pursuit. Courtland watches from the back of the lead detective’s car as the vehicle carrying his wife and daughter explodes in a ball of flame. Jump to 17 years later, and Courtland is still haunted by this incident. He takes a trip to Italy where, while touring a cathedral, he happens upon a woman who is the spitting image of his late wife. A romance begins, but Courtland’s intentions sink further and further into reshaping this new woman into a facsimile of his wife.

The soundtrack to this film never lets up. From the opening title to the closing credits, the music is not present maybe three times, and those are only for a minute or two. The rest of the film is filled with the rise cry of despair from a choir or the operatic dissonance of a church organ. The music compliments the plot of the film which is an over the top, melodramatic gothic tragedy. At points the melodrama can become so overblown its laughable and the actors play along with this tone. John Lithgow in particular is some times comical with Foghorn Leghorn-esque take on a New Orleans businessman.

Courtland’s wife, Elizabeth feels like a non-character. She appears on screen for all of 6 minutes and never speaks and so it was hard for me to buy into Courtland’s undying love for her. Though, this could be an intentional choice, by not making her an actual character it passes judgment on Courtland. At one point in the film, Sandra, the new wife discovers Elizabeth’s journal and learns that her predecessor saw Courtland as uninterested in his family, and more concerned with his land developments. The final brutal twist of the film operates on two levels, as well, and recalled the 2006 South Korean mind twister of a film Oldboy. Courtland ends up in an embrace that can be read as a beautiful denouement or as a disgusting and bizarre finale.

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Import Fridays – Lilya-4-Ever



Lilya-4-Ever (2002, dir. Lukas Moodysson)
Starring Oksana Akinshina, Artyom Bogucharsky, Pavel Ponomaryov

A young girl, face swollen with bruises, cut across her lip, runs through the overcast streets of an anonymous European city. The streets are littered with refuse; broken bottles, crumpled and empty chip bags. She stops on an overpass and stares down at the cars zooming by below. This is how director Lukas Moodysson introduces us to Lilya, an 16 year old Estonian girl trying to overcome a hopeless existence she was born into and unlikely to get out of. Moodysson is grabbing the audience by the scruff of the neck and forcing them to watch this very real tragedy unfolding before their eyes.

Lilya’s mother and stepfather are leaving Estonia, but promise they will send for her once they are settled there. As soon as they leave, Lilya’s aunt claims the girl must leave the flat she shared with her parents for a smaller, more affordable apartment. She ends up in a rundown tenement and befriends Volodya, a boy thrown out of his house by his parents. Lilya is tempted into prostitution as her money and hopes dwindle down. Eventually, she meets Andrei, a man who shows genuine interest in her and gives her hope of leaving this place where she has no chance to better herself.

The film feels completely honest in its characters and the universe it builds around them. Lilya feels painfully real and could be one of millions of teenagers in any country across the globe living in abject poverty. The film doesn’t leave anyone out as responsible for the situation either. The entire system in place to protect children like Lilya is a farce. Teachers ridicule her intelligence so its no surprise she has no interest in finishing school. Her parents abandon her and her only relative, her aunt, dumps her on her own with no money or food. Every adult she comes in contact with wants to use her for sex or abandon her. Its no surprise that she resorts to prostitution as a means to survive. What is interesting is how her mother and her aunt are also sympathetic in their own ways. The women in this culture are fighting to survive, they may have to hurt another in the process, but they have been conditioned to fight tooth and nail. Even Lilya ends up committing the same betrayal when she has an opportunity to leave Eastern Europe.

Lilya-4-Ever could just as easily be remade in the United States and feature the oft vilified Hispanic population. Immigrants are people looking for hope that their homeland couldn’t provide. They fall into crime many times because they are reaching out for anything to hold onto so they don’t sink further. What is most touching about the film are the dream sequences Lilya has in the days where life has gotten the worst. She dreams of having wings, righting the wrongs she made in her past, fixing her life so none of this has happened. That painful regret is what tears at you the most in the end, and breaks your heart to see a life of such potential destroyed.

Charlie Chaplin Month – The Other Films

While I am giving in-depth reviews to the Chaplin films I haven’t seen, I would be wrong in leaving out films of his I have seen previously, especially because they are some of his best work.



The Gold Rush (1925)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Georgia Hale

Made after the box office failure that was A Woman of Paris, Rush has Chaplin conjuring up some of his most iconic comedy moments. The dancing rolls bit, which has been referenced continuously in pop culture since. At one point starving miner imagines Chaplin transforming into a human sized turkey. We also have Chaplin boiling and eating a shoe. Chaplin originally intended to shoot the film on location in Alaska but nature had other plans. There is one on location shot in the film and its a gorgeous one. The rest was filmed on Chaplin’s United Artists sound stages. If you are looking to make a list of must see films for historical significance, this is a must for that list.



City Lights (1931)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Meyers

This is my personal favorite Chaplin picture and I think its one of the best romantic comedies ever made. The Little Tramp befriends a blind flower girl whom mistakes him for a millionaire. The Tramp promises he will raise enough money for the young woman to have a costly procedure. To do so he signs up for a boxing tournament and the crux of the comedic action revolves around that. The film features one of the best scenes in cinema at its climax when the young woman, now sighted, learns the truth about the Little Tramp. I actually brought a girl to tears in college simply by describing in detail this scene. A beautiful film with a big heart.



Modern Times (1936)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard

This is the last major American film to make uses of silent movie title cards (ignoring silent film parodies that would come after). Chaplin billed this as his first “talkie” but plays with audience expectations while making a point. The only voices heard come from the abstract machinery of the factory the Little Tramp works in. It was all part of Chaplin’s ideas about how technology was being used improperly and, instead of empowering mankind, it was being used to take their humanity away. Chaplin also wrote the film’s ending song “Smile”, which has become a standard since (“Smile though your heart is aching Smile even though its breaking”).



Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Mady Correll

This was a drastic departure for Chaplin. There was no Little Tramp present here. Instead, he plays recently fired banker Henri Verdoux. Struggling to support his family, he decided to begin marrying rich women, murdering them, and absconding with their money. Chaplin plays the picture as a pitch black comedy and had a lot of difficulty with the Production Code on this one. The point behind the picture came from the idea that if a man murders a few people for money he is a criminal, however if he mass murders as in a war he is a hero. The film proved that Chaplin had little concern for box office returns, and really want to make films that were of interest to him.

Charlie Chaplin Month – The Circus



The Circus (1928, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia, Harry Crocker

This was to be the last true silent film made by Chaplin. The era of the Talkie had begun and audiences were no longer content to have their actors speechless. Chaplin’s following films would have elements of silent pictures in them and could easily be categorized that way, but make use of sound. Chaplin leaves the silent era with a bang, though. He pulls out all the stops, referencing the theater acts of his youth and adding the trademark Chaplin twist to them.

The Little Tramp happens upon a circus and become charmed with the ringmaster’s horse-riding daughter. The ringmaster sees potential in the Tramp as a clown in his show so he hires him one. The Tramp observed the ringmaster cruelly beating his daughter and sneaks her food when he can. Eventually, a handsome tightrope walker joins the circus and woos the daughter away. The Tramp begins to lose his edge as the hit of the circus and through a series of zany circumstances ends up having to step in for the tightrope walked in the film’s climactic sequence.

I laughed harder at this than I have most contemporary comedies. It’s not the slapstick, its the way Chaplin’s Tramp adds little flourishes of personality. The most symbolic sequence in the film is when the ringmaster has his troupe of clowns perform classic Vaudeville and dance hall comedic routines. The humor doesn’t come from the routines, but in how the Tramp bungles them up when it is his turn to perform. Chaplin understands that in the moments where another comedian would ham it up the Tramp will get the bigger laugh by playing dumb. What is also wonderful about the film is the feisty personality of the Tramp. He can be very feminine in his behavior, particularly when he attempts to woo the ringmaster’s daughter. Its very interesting that Chaplin takes the traditionally female role when courting, coyly casting his gaze downward, batting his eye lashes, and literally prancing. Juxtapose this against moments when the Tramp has had enough of his poor treatment from the ringmaster and he delivers comical blows.

While The Circus is one of the purest Chaplin comedies I’ve ever seen, it is not without its moments of  typical Chaplin poignancy. The final scene of the film, as the Tramp sits alone in a field that the circus wagons once occupied, standing, then walking into the dusklight is very beautiful. The background of the film is marred with difficulty. Sets were rained out or burnt down. Footage was scratched beyond usage. And Chaplin was dealing with a messy public divorce and an IRS lawsuit. None of this is visible on the screen though, showing Chaplin was the consummate professional.

Newbie Wednesday – Clash of the Titans (2010)



Clash of the Titans (2010, dir. Louis Leterrier)
Starring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Artherton, Jason Flemyng

When I was 8 years old I went through the entire Webster’s Dictionary so I could catalog the Greek gods and monsters listed therein. Afterwards, I got the idea the library might have books on these things, and from there I devoured the stories of Greek mythology. Once, while visiting Nashville’s local to scale replica of the Parthenon around the age of 10, I began telling my mom and visiting aunt whom all the figures in the statues and carvings were. An man touring the structure began following and listening and remarked to my mom “Your son knows a lot!” I tell you these things to show that I am onboard when I hear about films based around Greek myths. How does director Louis Leterrier’s (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk) remake of the 1981 fantasy film stack up?

Perseus, son of Zeus and a mortal woman has his adoptive family taken from him when they are bystanders to an vengeful act of the gods. The hero ends up in Argos, where its citizens are rebelling against the Olympian Pantheon and Zeus has decided either they all die or they sacrifice the princess to his beast, the Kraken. Perseus and a rag tag group of Argosian soldiers head out into the wilderness to figure out if there is a way to defeat the unstoppable beast. Along the way they battle giant scorpions, blind witches, a beast who bleeds acid, and finally the classic Medusa. Oh yes, there’s flying horses, too.

Why does Hollywood insist on continuing to cast Sam Worthington (Terminator: Salvation, Avatar) in films? The man is an uncharismatic bore. He has two acting settings: “grunt” and “brooding”. It can be said that the action films of the 1980s and 1990s were inane, but at least the leads were charismatic. Think about Schwarzenegger, Willis, Stallone, etc. They all had charming personalities that made us root for them. With Worthington you root for him out of default, he’s the protagonist on the screen so you hope he wins because that’s what mainstream cinema has taught you. I also was flabbergasted at the actors cast as gods. Why cast Danny Huston as Poseidon if you give him one line? Just cast an generic actor for the role! And Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy, Skins) as Eusebios, what a waste of great talent. And he’s a million times more charismatic than Worthington!

The plot is a mix of the original film, mixed with attempts to “bad ass” it up. It became apparent to me that the screenwriters and art directors seemed to want to make a God of War film rather than a remake of the 1981 Clash of the Titans. Every encounter feels like a stage in a video game, complete with boss battles. I can forgive discrepancies between the original myths and the film (Example: Pegasus is the name of one specific winged horse, in pop culture we refers to the species as Pegasi now), I’m not one of those fanboys who harumphs when they change a detail. I understand the need to create a fluid, organic script. However, there are some pretty glaringly dumb subplots in the film that were attempts to blend elements of the original picture. I also rolled my eyes at their attempt to be clever by giving Bubo the Mechanical Owl from the original film a cameo. Bubo has more charisma than Worthington, people!

At the end of the day, this is yet another dull CG-dependent action flick. Leterrier’s previous films have left me bored and with this one I was literally falling asleep halfway through. His upcoming Captain America movie has my expectations about as low as they could get. But, if you are hoping to cleanse your palette for Greek myth based flicks, Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) has one coming out November 11th, 2011 titled Immortals. Hoping he shows Leterrier how it is done.

Wild Card Tuesday – Dead Silence



Dead Silence (2007, dir. James Wan)
Starring Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valetta, Donnie Wahlberg

There is just something frightening about facsimiles of humans (i.e. dolls, dummies, mannequins). They have been fodder for horror since the 1920s when both Lon Chaney and Erich von Stroheim played ventriloquists using their wooden cohorts for nefarious purposes. This film seeks to find itself amongst the best of this style of horror and is helmed by the creative team behind the Saw franchise. It begins with a promising opening sequence that evokes a strong atmosphere, but eventually falls into the same chasms contemporary horror can’t seem to help but seek out. A lot style and technique over any substance.

Jamie receives a package at his apartment with a ventriloquist’s dummy inside. He leaves the house to pick up some food and while he is gone the dummy appears to murder his wife, taking her tongue. The police of course suspect Jamie is behind it and a detective is assigned to follow Jamie. Our protagonist returns to his hometown of Raven’s Fair, which happens to have a ventriloquist-related curse behind it. It seems a Depression era performer named Mary Shaw was murdering children and the townspeople assembled a mob who killed her and cut her tongue out. Now her ghost, through the dummies is killing off the members of Jamie’s family as revenge.

James Wan is not a bad cinematographer. Using the best cameras available today and tight editing he generates the perfect amount of atmosphere. The set design is top notch and I especially liked the set piece of he Guignol Theater set in the face of a cliff, alongside a lake. Even the dummies presented throughout the film are very effective. Everything came off with the tone of a great, over the top William Castle horror flick. However, the rest of the film is horrendously terrible.

Wan falls back on the same cliche scares again and again. If you have watched even a minimal amount of horror films in the last decade you could easily write the rest of the script after the first 20 minutes of the picture. There seemed to be a plethora of evil things underneath sheets and dummies menacingly turning their eyes to stare at a potential victim. The attempt to add quirks to characters extends no further than having Donnie Wahlberg’s character act like an obsessive facial hair trimmer. And the final “shocking” reveal of the picture has so many plotholes you can see straight through it. The movie ends up being yet another contemporary horror film to be thrown into the $5 bin at Wal-Mart.

DocuMondays – Kurt and Courtney



Kurt and Courtney (1998, dir. Nick Broomfield)
Featuring Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, and a cast of thousands…of junkies

I was thirteen when Kurt Cobain killed himself, and honestly the front man for Nirvana existed on my periphery. The whole grunge scene has never been a music genre I enjoyed, I’m more of a 90s BritPop fan (Oasis, Blur, The Verve). But I can understand why the movement was so big, as it was a big deviation from the musical norms of the time. This docu, by Brit filmmaker Broomfield seeks to stir up some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Cobain’s death and in the end isn’t really about Kurt or Courtney, but about famewhoredom.

What stands out most about the film is the shoddiness. Made on the cheap, the documentary is narrated by Broomfield who doesn’t do much to play the neutral observer, but pretty much interjects his personal opinions throughout. That doesn’t make the film any less fascinating though, especially with its parade of “friends” of the Cobains. In particular, one young woman who takes Broomfield to a club where Kurt performed during his early days, and whom talks with expertise about seeing the Cobain couple shoot heroin. She promises Broomfield photographic evidence, and when he returns to her apartment later she is anxious and befuddled and has a million excuses as to why she hasn’t been able to provide the photos. The woman is incredibly reminiscent of how Courtney Love is described throughout the documentary.

Broomfield pursues some wild leads, including the claim by S&M band member El Duce that Courtney offered him $50,000 to kill Kurt and “make it look like a suicide”. A less reliable source you couldn’t ask for. There’s Courtney’s former private investigator who now has “scientific” evidence that the amount of heroin in Kurt’s blood made it impossible for him to handle the shotgun. However, Broomfield provides actual scientific evidence proving that it is possible, to which the investigator simply ignores. The most awful of Broomfield’s interviewees is Courtney’s father, a man writing and publishing books condemning his daughter for the murder of Kurt in what he explains as a way to keep in touch with his daughter.

Broomfield reasonably comes to the conclusion in the film’s epilogue that Kurt most likely did commit suicide and that Courtney didn’t pay anyone to kill him. What the documentary revealed to me was that at the end of the day both people came from incredibly messed up homes where a strong parental presence was absent. Kurt seems like a very personable, intelligent guy in some of the interview archival footage, and Courtney seems like a sad woman who made a habit of latching onto local musicians in the hope of grooming them into the next Sid Vicious, as a compliment to her Nancy Spungeon. The person you feel the saddest for is poor Frances, their daughter, whose childhood couldn’t have been an easy one.

Kurt and Courtney is currently available to view on Hulu.com