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April 26, 2011

Blow Out goes all out

Thirty years and one Criterion face-lift later, Brian De Palma’s conspiracy thriller is more mesmerizing than ever


Also this week: South Park Season 14, Sweetie, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dinoshark

It’s common knowledge that the cinema of Brian De Palma is frequently linked to the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, insomuch that the former has been accused of blatantly stealing from the latter. As exceptional as films like Sisters, Dressed to Kill and even Carrie are, their creator is often dubbed an imitator rather than an innovator. 

Hitchcock isn’t the only past master that De Palma has borrowed from: The Untouchables’ climactic shootout was clearly influenced by the famed Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark silent film The Battleship Potemkin; while 
Blow Out (Criterion) was charged with ripping off Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (and to a somewhat lesser degree, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation — also influenced by Blow-Up). 

Still, De Palma’s maligned yet masterful Blow Out has its share of devotees. Late, great film critic Pauline Kael (the director’s most ardent supporter) called it his “biggest leap yet, ” even comparing Travolta’s performance to Brando’s in On the Waterfront. Equal praise also comes from one Quentin Tarantino, who recycled the film’s haunting score in Death Proof (for more nods, see every other Tarantino joint).

As is typically the case with De Palma, Blow Out is packed to the gills with aural and visual excess. From surreal split screens to the director’s iconic split focus shots to his whirling 360-degree camera movements, it’s downright experimental. 

The film’s wonderfully convoluted plot centres on a b-movie sound effects man (Travolta at his zenith) trying to record the perfect scream for an upcoming slasher dud, but instead capturing the fatal car crash of a presidential candidate. He manages to rescue a young female passenger (Nancy Allen, also tops) who may be linked to an assassination conspiracy (carried out by none other than John Lithgow, now universally recognized as the Trinity killer thanks to Dexter). 

If rediscovering such a terrific film on gorgeous DVD and Blu-ray isn’t enough, the extras are easily some of the best around. In addition to an excellent hour-long chat between De Palma and super-underrated filmmaker Noah Baumbach (also a Criterion vet), we get amazing new interviews with Allen and Steadicam creator/operator Garret Brown. The fact that this release also includes De Palma’s little-seen 1967 avant-garde feature Murder a la Mod is nothing short of film buff bliss.

Also Available
Unlike The Simpsons, Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s subversive animated series hasn’t lost its footing after all this time. South Park: Season 14 (Paramount) still delivers the same topical brand of foul humour, this time taking a jab at such pop culture curios as Jersey Shore, Facebook, reality TV chefs and that overly enthusiastic dude from Mobile, Alabama who claimed to have spotted a leprechaun in a tree. Also on tap is the usual bevy of always-amusing mini commentaries, deleted scenes and a tie-in episode from season 13.   

Both eccentric oddities in their own right, Jane Campion’s stunning feature debut Sweetie (Criterion) and Terry Gilliam’s loved-and-loathed gonzo adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s radical Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Criterion) now make for one terrifically trippy Blu-ray double-header. Both films are arguably their directors’ most amusing work, and Criterion gives them the respect they deserve by preserving all the previously released extras while giving each film a new coat of gloss that makes their characters pop out of the screen like giant lizard men...in a good-buzz kinda way. 

Speaking of monster freak-shows, SyFi’s latest CG-sploition arrives on DVD and probably-too-classy Blu-ray. Like Sharktopus, Dinoshark (Starz, Anchor Bay) is a certified Roger Corman production. Eric Balfour (soo ’90s) battles the prehistoric beast between long stretches of abysmal dialogue and girls-in-bikinis montages. While the film is something of a slog, even by shark TV movie standards, the grenade and jet ski climax is shiteous in the best sense of the word. Also worth tuning in for is the three-way commentary with Corman, his wife and the film’s director, whose name is probably not worth looking up.