Many a film journalist has met their match in Brian De Palma, who suffers through interviews as if they’re one of the Stations of the Cross. (“The Story of Film’s” Mark Cousins’ characterization of De Palma as a “grumpy bastard” is far from the worst thing he’s been called.) But Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s “De Palma” approaches the director not as the subject of journalistic or even cinephiliac study, but as one (or two) filmmaker(s) to another. The movie, which has been acquired by A24 for a 2016 release, is getting a new round of reviews after its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival (the version shown in Venice last month was reportedly still a little rough around the edges), and it’s being called not just essential for fans of the director and his work — which includes “Blow Out,” “Carrie,” “Scarface,” “Dressed to Kill,” “The Untouchables” and “Mission: Impossible” — but for anyone interested in the finer points of the filmmaking process. Baumbach and Paltrow don’t press De Palma hard on thematic elements, which might be why their approach yields more productive results than a critic’s might; in fact, they’re not heard in the movie at all, although De Palma occasionally makes it clear who he’s talking to. Career-spanning documentaries can be a bear to release owing to the complexities of licensing clips from different studios, but A24 has acquired “De Palma” for a 2016 release.
Reviews of “De Palma”
Guy Lodge, Variety
Acolytes of Brian De Palma’s flavorful, flamboyant filmography hardly need reminding of his acrobatic ability as a visual storyteller; what they’ll learn from “De Palma” is that in front of the camera, he’s a pretty marvelous raconteur, too. The septuagenarian director provides an exhaustive but exuberant film-by-film account of a career spanning nearly half a century in Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s delicious documentary portrait — skimping neither on candid self-effacement or irreverent wit as he recalls such professional triumphs as “Carrie,” such dispiriting misfires as “Mission to Mars,” and the wealth of knowledge gained and opportunities lost in between. Elegantly linear in its setup, and reflecting at least one of its name helmers in its overriding mood of buoyant good humor, “De Palma” reps several Christmases come at once for fans, though it’s playful and perspicacious enough to engage all film-biz aficionados.
Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily
When it comes to aesthetic insights from one of Hollywood’s most cerebral masters of technique, “De Palma” is a blue-chip masterclass that will be required viewing for film students and cinephiles. The film’s structure is basically that of a filmic equivalent of the director-on-director books published by Faber & Faber over the years: a set of interviews covering De Palma’s career film by film, prefaced by a section on his early years. De Palma is interviewed talking-head style, the directors’ questions never heard — which means that anyone intrigued to know Baumbach’s personal views on his subject will be frustrated (only at moments does it become clear that De Palma is specifically addressing his interviewers as film-makers themselves).
Vadim Rizov, Filmmaker
Film writers (I’ve been guilty of this) often leap to conclusions about why directors take on assignments or make aesthetic choices; this practical, peer-to-peer chat is a useful reminder that keeping up with business movie journalism and thinking about production logistics is as useful a tool to understanding a body of work as any…. The doc is implicitly a work of critical advocacy for a currently somewhat unfashionable director, though it’s realistically for the already converted. It’s illuminating and edifying, if not precisely revelatory: the big Rosebud anecdote/thematic decoder key (about De Palma filming his cheating father’s partner entering his office from across the street, then charging in to confront dad) has been told many times before. But it’s useful to be reminded how directors can think of themselves and their work: as conscious artists, of course, but also as endlessly badgered managers and worker drones, depending on where they are in their career.
Jordan Hoffman, Guardian
It’s like “Room 237,” but instead of crackpot theories, there’s a tidal wave of legitimate insight. The duo’s editing plus the narrator’s raconteuring style ought to hold the interest of people with no familiarity with De Palma’s oeuvre. For those cinephiles enamored of his stylized camerawork and elaborate mise-en-scènes in the service of ripping crime yarns, sleazy thrillers or counter-culture time capsules, this is a nirvana.
Alonso Duralde, The Wrap
Not just any auteur can make this kind of treatment work: I adore the films of Canadian director Guy Maddin, but the documentary “The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin” made me never want to hear him discuss his process or his inspirations ever again. But while I wouldn’t willingly subject myself to a second viewing of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” or “Snake Eyes,” I would happily listen to De Palma expound on what works and what doesn’t in those movies.
Jessica Kiang, The Playlist
Formally the film is nothing to write home about — while it’s liberally interspersed with clips that seem precisely chosen to make you immediately pang to watch the film in question again in its entirety, all of the De Palma footage seems to have been taken from one long interview, with him facing the camera against the same unfussy background. And despite the names behind the camera, there’s never a peep out of anyone else, with the occasions on which De Palma addresses a comment or an aside to “you guys” meaning Paltrow and Baumbach, coming few and far between. But the two directors, who have known De Palma for ten years now, perform a much more valuable service by removing themselves than any onscreen interlocutors could — they make it feel like De Palma, talking to them as unguardedly and frankly as you would to friends of many years, is talking directly to us.
Rory O’Connor, The Film Stage
The friendship between Baumbach, Paltrow and De Palma seems crucial to the film’s ease and flow. In an interview for Scene by Scene in the late 90’s, the critic Mark Cousins — a great admirer of De Palma’s work — introduced him by saying that he’d been told he was “a grumpy bastard.” By stroking his ego a great deal, perhaps, Baumbach and Paltrow seem to unearth a much lighter side to his character. His stories burst with wry humor and irony throughout, often breaking out in Errol Morris-style hoots of laughter or shouting, “Holy mackerel.” We see a side to the director that hasn’t quite been seen before — his “alligator smile,” as Kael once described it.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter
De Palma is candid about his failures, honest about his disappointments, and doesn’t bother with false modesty where his great pictures are concerned. Speaking of the various remakes and subsequent adaptations of “Carrie,” the film that put him on the commercial map, he chuckles over the amusement of watching other people make mistakes that he avoided. He’s sanguine about movies that were attacked upon their original release and then embraced years later, by which time the initial criticism — usually pertaining to his penchant for baroque violence, especially when perpetrated against women — has been forgotten or become irrelevant.