Tag Archives: Pino Donaggio

Dressed to Kill (1980, Brian De Palma)

Dressed to Kill has oodles of style. It doesn’t have a lot else going for it–a lot of the acting, sure, but the acting never pays off for anyone–but it does have style. Director De Palma and cinematographer Ralf D. Bode create an ethereal New York for the action to play out in.

The film opens with sexually dissatisfied housewife Angie Dickinson fantasizing about, well, something more satisfying. De Palma’s got Pino Donaggio music and Donaggio music can get away with a lot but even it can make a smutty shower scene play. The film then introduces Keith Gordon as Dickinson’s technology nerd teenage son before bringing in top-billed Michael Caine. He’s Dickinson’s therapist. She goes to therapy before she goes to the museum to pick up a man.

After picking up the man, which isn’t a good pickup sequence at all, but is a fantastically executed bit of filmmaking. Dickinson’s walking around the museum, everything’s silent, and it’s just great. Bode, De Palma, editor Gerald B. Greenberg, it’s awesome.

When she wakes up at the man’s apartment, Dickinson finds herself involved in a bloody homicide. Nancy Allen comes into the film at this point to also witness the murder, setting off Allen’s story line. The killer is after her, it turns out, eventually leading to her teaming up with Gordon.

Caine’s in it because he’s pretty sure the killer is another one of his patients, though he doesn’t want to give that information to cop Dennis Franz. Franz, meanwhile, is trying to get Allen to help on the case. She’s a sex worker and he’s sort of blackmailing her? Franz is a creep. When De Palma tries to do a denouement redemption of Franz, it’s one of Dressed’s worst moments. De Palma’s script is occasionally jaw-dropping in its pure stupidity, but the redemption of Franz is something else. Especially given it comes through the big “explanation” scene (out of Psycho, natch, with that museum pickup being out of Vertigo) where De Palma manages to be–at least what appears to be–unintentionally transphobic.

One of Dressed’s big plot twists–it’s got at least two, maybe three depending on how you want to count the minor ones (because then there are plenty of minor “twists”)–involves a transsexual person. Dressed to Kill is exploitation. It’s gorgeous, it’s got sometimes A list stars, but it’s exploitation. Yet when De Palma brings in gender dysphoria, it doesn’t seem like he’s using it as a punchline. Because he butchers what he’s doing with it, bringing in multiple personalities and whatnot. The script is really, really stupid. It’s hard to explain how unintentionally stupid Dressed to Kill can get.

And not when De Palma’s intending it either. He has quite a few split screen shots in the film, which works in maybe two cases, but never with Dickinson. Dickinson has the split screen shots to remember something sexual or somehow related to sex. Given how little material De Palma actually gives Dickinson to work with in the script, her performance is incredibly impressive.

But De Palma doesn’t direct the actors poorly. He often directs them quite well. Everyone gets good direction. Even Dennis Franz. It’s just Franz is one step too far. Dressed to Kill’s fairytale New York City clashes with Franz’s lounge lizard detective.

Allen’s decent throughout, occasionally downright excellent. Dickinson’s good. The script does her no favors and neither does Greenberg’s editing (everything else he can edit, but not Dickinson’s reaction and pensive close-ups), but she’s good. Caine’s fine. De Palma doesn’t really give him a lot to do. He meanders through the film.

Gordon’s good. He’s really likable. The likable part is more important. Once he and Allen are hanging out, there’s this strange lack of sexual energy, like only the adults in De Palma movies get to be sex-crazed. And they’re mostly all sex-crazed and De Palma wants to talk about it. A De Palma scripted interchange between a sex worker and a therapist is simultaneously cringe-inducing and mesmerizing.

Dressed to Kill is, overall, cringe-inducing and mesmerizing. It looks beautiful. It sounds beautiful. It’s just vapid. Sometime in the second act, it seems like it might get a little less vapid.

It doesn’t. But it still moves pretty well. There’s an unfortunate false ending, coming after some of the biggest third act problems, but the quality of the filmmaking–and Allen’s performance–gets it through. And brings up the film a bit.

A bit is a lot for Dressed to Kill.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Brian De Palma; director of photography, Ralf D. Bode; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by George Litto; released by Filmways Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Doctor Robert Elliott), Angie Dickinson (Kate Miller), Nancy Allen (Liz Blake), Keith Gordon (Peter Miller), Dennis Franz (Detective Marino), and David Margulies (Dr. Levy).


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Passion (2012, Brian De Palma)

Moody lightning, false endings, a Pino Donaggio score–Passion is De Palma’s return to his overcooked Hitchcock homages and a gleeful one. More, De Palma’s aware of its place in his filmography–the film opens with a playful piece of music from Donaggio, preparing the audience for a pitch black comedy. And, for a long while–even through some unexpected developments–De Palma lets that impression continue.

Most of the film is Rachel McAdams behaving badly. She alternately grooms and torments one of her subordinates–Noomi Rapace–which soon sets the two women against each other. Throw in a shared love interest (Paul Anderson) and Rapace’s admiring assistant (Karoline Herfurth) and De Palma has his lurid setup.

There’s also the setting–Passion takes place in Germany, apparently. It’s unclear and just European for a while, but then a lot of the cast starts speaking German, just not the leads. And then all of a sudden Rapace starts speaking it and the setting is just another thing De Palma didn’t make clear for the audience.

The last third of the film is De Palma daring the audience to guess how he’s messing with them. Even when he makes things completely clear, he’s only doing it to further twist things.

Passion has good acting from Rapace and McAdams and De Palma is having a great time. His only ambition–besides giving his actors good scenes–is toying with the audience. Great editing from François Gédigier.

It’s far better than it should be.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Brian De Palma; screenplay by De Palma and Natalie Carter, based on a film written by Carter and Alain Corneau; director of photography, José Luis Alcaine; edited by François Gédigier; music by Pino Donaggio; production designer, Cornelia Ott; produced by Saïd Ben Saïd; released by ARP Sélection.

Starring Rachel McAdams (Christine Stanford), Noomi Rapace (Isabelle James), Karoline Herfurth (Dani), Paul Anderson (Dirk Harriman), Rainer Bock (Inspector Bach), Benjamin Sadler (Prosecutor), Michael Rotschopf (Isabelle’s Lawyer), Max Urlacher (Jack) and Dominic Raacke (J.J. Koch).


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The Howling (1981, Joe Dante)

All due respect to Rick Baker, but Rob Bottin’s werewolf transformation in The Howling is superior. The transformation lasts so long it’s no longer shocking, just interesting. It’s so deliberate, it got me wondering what the werewolf would do if he needed to change in a pinch… if he didn’t have three or four minutes to spare.

The Howling is actually a really peculiar movie, both technically and in terms of plotting.

It is, possibly, Joe Dante’s straightest work. He’s making a regular picture here, with newsroom stuff, with cop stuff. It’s different from anything else I’ve seen of his–when Belinda Balaski is running from a werewolf, he handles it without any humor. It’s beautiful direction, even if there is a strange animated shot at one point (which makes little sense, because there’s some fine stop motion at the end, so why didn’t they just use it earlier too).

But The Howling is actually full of humor. The last shot of the film is a hamburger cooking, it’s goofy. There are constant, omnipresent references to werewolf films–there are ten characters named after werewolf movie directors–there’s a clip from The Wolf Man, there’s even a picture of Lon Chaney hanging on a wall–in story. But these references are somehow detached from the rather serious and straightforward way Dante tells the story. He’s got Kevin McCarthy giving a straight performance–Kevin McCarthy giving a straight performance in a Joe Dante film. It’s incredible.

Where The Howling gets in trouble is Dee Wallace. It isn’t just her performance, which is okay (though she’s never quite believable as a go-getter anchorwoman), but the way John Sayles’s script treats her. The concept–reporter discovers her elite psychiatric resort is really a colony of werewolves–really seems to imply she ought to be the main character. But she isn’t. She isn’t even the first to discover the werewolves. She isn’t even the second… wait, yes, she is. She is the second.

But Sayles avoids giving Wallace much to do and the film suffers for it. There are big plot holes–for example, it’s never explained why Wallace is invited to the werewolf club. It’s also never explained why her husband–played by Wallace’s real-life husband, Christopher Stone–accompanies her.

No, where Sayles finds the most interest–and maybe Dante too–is with Dennis Dugan (yes, Dennis Dugan) and Balaski. Both of them are fantastic, full of chemistry, having a great time, as TV news producers investigating. Their scenes are wonderful–they get the Dick Miller scene and it’s a doozy–and the film comes alive whenever either are onscreen.

The Howling also skirts around being particularly disturbing. Wallace is having real psychological problems, occasionally represented onscreen as dream sequences, but it’s hard to imagine her having a really hard time. Her basic recovery is just too fast.

There’s some good acting from John Carradine and Slim Pickens. Patrick Macnee has less to do than Wallace, if it’s even possible. Stone leaves a lot to be desired… Robert Picardo’s got a small part and he’s fantastic.

What’s nicest about the film is the way it gets so much better in the last third. The first act and most of the second invite all these questions, all this thinking–the last act doesn’t bother with it, but still manages to close with a great scene. Unfortunately, it isn’t the last scene in the film, just the last scene in the narrative. The final scene’s a misstep, because The Howling spends so much time as a rather quiet movie about people, only to go with a big comic finish.

It’s nice for a film to take its entire running time to impress (or close to it–the last shot’s awesome, but it’s a diversion from dealing with the emotional aftereffects of the previous scene); makes the viewing experience all the more rewarding (and somehow exciting).

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; screenplay by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, based on the novel by Gary Brandner; director of photography, John Hora; edited by Dante and Mark Goldblatt; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by Jack Conrad and Michael Finnell; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Starring Dee Wallace (Karen White), Patrick Macnee (Dr. George Waggner), Dennis Dugan (Chris), Christopher Stone (Bill Neill), Belinda Balaski (Terry Fisher), Kevin McCarthy (Fred Francis), John Carradine (Erle Kenton), Slim Pickens (Sam Newfield), Elisabeth Brooks (Marsha Quist), Robert Picardo (Eddie Quist), Margie Impert (Donna), Noble Willingham (Charlie Barton), James Murtaugh (Jerry Warren), Jim McKrell (Lew Landers), Don McLeod (T.C. Quist) and Dick Miller (Walter Paisley).


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Piranha (1978, Joe Dante)

More than anything else, I think Pino Donaggio’s score sets Piranha apart. Initially, anyway. The film’s a very self-aware Roger Corman Jaws “homage,” but Donaggio’s score very quickly establishes it on firm ground. The score’s delicate, without any spoof-related cynicism (there’s no attempt to mimic the famous Jaws theme, Donaggio has some piranha attack music, but uses the score differently), and rather lovely in parts. With the score opening the door, Piranha‘s other singular elements come through.

Director Joe Dante and writer John Sayles maintain some of the Jaws mores, but quickly go their own way. The scale of Piranha is much smaller and it’s hard to believe how much time Dante and Sayles can get out of the story. There’s the pre-titles prologue (the biggest Jaws rip), but then Piranha immediately changes gears. The film’s got a constant sense of dread–something Dante does really well, especially for the scenes at the summer camp–and it’s difficult to notice the low budget aspects after a while, just because the film’s so ruthless in who the piranhas get. The scene at the summer camp is fantastic; the wholesale piranha attacks on the campers is startling. That scene alone puts Piranha on its own, in terms of cinema.

The film does have some playful elements, mostly at the beginning. There’s some good stop motion work from Phil Tippett; it doesn’t go anywhere and just serves to kill some running time, but it’s well done and a fine time passer. The rest of the film mostly gets its humor from Paul Bartel as the summer camp director. He’s a complete jackass and his scenes do provide a little relief.

It’s hard to say what’s more important for the film, Dante’s direction or Sayles’s script. The film looks so much like a Joe Dante picture–with Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy and the stop motion tangent–he seems the easy answer. But Sayles doesn’t just bring a fine attention to turning the little scenes with throwaway dialogue into real scenes (I’m thinking most of the scenes with Melody Thomas Scott and Shannon Collins, but also the even shorter water skiing scene), his pacing also makes the film work. There’s a break in the action during the second act, when the piranha attacks cease for about ten minutes (in a ninety-some minute picture, ten is a lot). Sayles is able to turn the dread to eleven here, with the summer camp attack then realizing it. But it’s Dante who makes that attack so visceral and affecting.

It’s complicated.

The acting’s decent–Bradford Dillman’s a solid lead, Heather Menzies is fine as the private investigator (though it’s unclear why her boss, a good Richard Deacon, doesn’t trust her). McCarthy, Miller and Keenan Wynn are, no shock, the best. Thomas Scott and fellow camp counselor Belinda Balaski are both good.

I think I’ve seen Piranha before, but it’s been ten or eleven years and I barely remember it if I did. It’s a lot better than I thought it would be; it seems to be overlooked and under-appreciated, regarded as a trifle instead of a credible film. It’s certainly the latter.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; screenplay by John Sayles, based on a story by Richard Robinson and Sayles; director of photography, Jamie Anderson; edited by Dante and Mark Goldblatt; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by Jon Davison; released by New World Pictures.

Starring Bradford Dillman (Paul Grogan), Heather Menzies (Maggie McKeown), Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Robert Hoak), Keenan Wynn (Jack), Dick Miller (Buck Gardner), Barbara Steele (Dr. Mengers), Belinda Balaski (Betsy), Melody Thomas Scott (Laura Dickinson), Bruce Gordon (Colonel Waxman), Barry Brown (Trooper), Paul Bartel (Mr. Dumont), Shannon Collins (Suzie Grogan), Shawn Nelson (Whitney) and Richard Deacon (Earl Lyon).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED ON BASP | PIRANHA (1978) / PIRANHA (1995).