De Palma Review

Despite creating a stream of iconic genre movies for decades, Brian De Palma always seems to be a somewhat underrated filmmaker. While his movie brat contemporaries like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese eventually garnered Oscars and accolades for their impact on the industry, De Palma remained somewhat of a critical anomaly beyond a handful of loyal supporters like Pauline Kael. Granted, the guy’s movies were frequently hits and he always remained concerned with entertainment beyond all else, so it’s easy to see why many wouldn’t take him seriously. However, he remained such a remarkable technical craftsman with such a twisted sense of humour and perverted sense of subtext that he continues to rack up a cult of loyal fans. Two of them are directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, who were kind enough to dedicate a documentary to honouring the great De Palma.

It’s about as stripped down and simple a profile documentary as possible. De Palma goes through his career film by film, sharing anecdotes and observations. Every now and then a particular title might bring up a certain theme, actor, composer, or bit of autobiography for De Palma to reflect on. But for the most part, it’s a career-long history lesson punctuated by clips of the director’s finest set pieces and without a single other voice involved. Pure movie nerd stuff to be sure but unlikely to appeal to anyone who isn’t already enamoured with the filmmaker. However, the guy is a hell of a storyteller and no longer concerned about keeping secrets to retain a Hollywood career, so a bunch of doozies spill out. Is a mini-film school and gossip column all at once from a guy with a morbid enough wit to keep things interesting.

On a certain level, De Palma is more of a brilliant DVD special feature than a movie (indeed the project started out of several filmed chats between De Palma and Baumbach for Criterion Collection releases). However, there’s something undeniably cinematic about watching a greatest hits reel of De Palma’s stunning set pieces in a movie theater that breaks up the monotony of the single talking head shots in between. The prickly director isn’t concerned with niceties, so some of his personal flaws slip out amongst his great artistic gifts. The interviewers and De Palma also avoid most of the stories about these movies that have been told countless times before, so the De Palma obsessive target audience won’t feel cheated. It’s catnip for a certain crowd that will bore anyone else, yet certainly worth checking out with reasonable expectations. If nothing else, the movie offers viewers a chance to finally see the fabled lost ending to Snake Eyes and hear De Palma break the record for the most times anyone has ever said, “Holy Mackerel” in a single film. If that’s not worth the price of admission, I don’t know what is. 

This review was originally published as part of our of Hot Docs 2016 coverage.