Reel Dad: Two documentaries capture memorable men

Muhammad Ali is captured in Sandra and Joseph Consentino's documentary.
Muhammad Ali is captured in Sandra and Joseph Consentino’s documentary.

The best documentaries explore the souls of people we never get the chance to meet in person.

Two such movies –Muhammad Ali, The Whole Story, at the Ridgefield Playhouse on July 10 [This presentation has been postponed to Aug. 21, when Rasheda Ali will attend and take questions], and DePalma, in area theaters – remind us what we learn when we trust a filmmaker’s instinct to find a story. Both films offer new insight into their subjects (a legend in sport and the creator of memorable movies) as their creators humanize how larger-than-life men approach their worlds. And we are the richer for their efforts.

For Ridgefield moviemakers Sandra and Joseph Consentino, trying to fit Muhammed Ali’s personality into a film presented an exciting challenge some 20 years ago. “In 1996,” Joseph Consentino remembers, “TNT approached Sandra and me to do a documentary on Ali. Until this point we weren’t exactly fans. We always felt that Ali was a loud-mouth braggart who was an excellent figure but also a clown. But, when we began to research his life, it became a different story.”

That story comes to life in a meaningful tribute to a man, his ambitions and beliefs, and his impact on a generation. With careful use of newsreel footage to capture the energy of the moment and the passion of the man – as well as interviews with those involved with him and others who observed – the film explores how his early determination to fight later defined his battles in the ring and against Parkinson’s Disease. The result is a fascinating view of a man who has seldom been studied with such care and precision. As the film says, “Ali never forgot where he came from,” and, thanks to the Consentinos, we can all remember.

While Ali stood at the center of the world stage, movie director Brian De Palma prefers to remain behind the camera, using his lens to create films that stand alone in their use of visuals to tell stories. From Carrie to Blow Out to Dressed to Kill, De Palma brings a unique approach to his work that may be influenced by other filmmakers, such as Alfred Hitchcock, but bears a unique stamp that only he can claim.

Rather than fill the film with commentary from others, documentarians Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow limit their focus to De Palma, using a personal interview style that makes us feel the director shares directly with us, in the audience, as he explains what he sees when he calls, “action.” By taking us through each film – the hits and the flops – Baumbach and Paltrow present a balanced view of a creator who dares to take risks and, now and then, succeeds beyond his expectations.

What makes the film so special is the man himself. Because De Palma is likable, he makes us want to believe in his films; because his films fascinate, he makes us want to learn more about what goes on behind the screen. As the director looks back over his career, he expresses pride in the films that fail as well as those that succeed. He presents himself as someone who so loves the work so much that, after he gives his all to a film, he’s just fine if it doesn’t work, or people don’t like it or they stay away from the theater. De Palma makes his movies for De Palma. And, by focusing on how the director wonders – with well-placed excerpts of the films he directed as well as those that influenced his style – the movie lets us see into a soul that helps us understand what we see on a screen.

Thanks to the work of documentary filmmakers, we get to know people at the movies who continue to make us think. By focusing on real life, these movie creators remind us how powerful a reel experience can be.

See you at the movies.

(Muhammed Ali, The Whole Story, which runs 93 minutes, will show at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Aug. 21. For tickets to this benefit for Parkinson’s Disease, go to De Palma, which runs 1 hour and 57 minutes, is showing at area theaters.)

The Reel Dad Salutes Brian De Palma

When Brian De Palma looks down a street, he may not see what the rest of us see.

While we may notice buildings and trees and crowds, De Palma looks inside the people he observes to wonder, “what could they be hiding?” In his movies, what people hide can inspire the filmmaker to imagine complex lives. Here’s a second take on some De Palma films that are impossible to forget.

Carrie (1976)

After making a series of small, independent films – several starring a yet-to-be-discovered Robert DeNiro – DePalma enjoyed his first box office hit with this riveting look at a young girl with extraordinary powers. Thanks to De Palma’s exaggerated visual style, and Sissy Spacek’s grounded performance in the lead, the movie emerges less as a horror story about events as it does a bitter exploration of the power of neglect and criticism. Spacek and costar Piper Laurie received well-deserved Oscar nominations for their performances.

Dressed to Kill (1980)

The success of Carrie gave De Palma the confidence and clout to pursue projects that might fascinate audiences. Few, though, were prepared for the visual power of this thriller about disguise, deceit and denial. In what many consider a salute to Alfred Hitchcock, De Palma uses the camera to tell the story, rarely relying on dialogue to advance the narrative. He continues to draw strong performances from actors, this time giving Angie Dickinson the chance to turn in a performance of career and Michael Caine to deliver one surprise after another.

Blow Out (1981)

If the financial success of Dressed to Kill defined De Palma’s commercial prospects, the visual brilliance of this thriller framed his creative path. No matter that, at the time of its release, many considered the film a weak entry in John Travolota’s career. The superstar plays a movie sound effects technician who hears more than he bargains for. With the credence of a documentarian, and the creativity of a musician, De Palma creates an intricate look at the psychological boundaries some people bring to letting themselves embrace the truth.

Scarface (1983)

Like his colleague Martin Scorsese, De Palma is known for creating violent sequences to punctuate visual narratives. While critics questioned Oliver Stone’s approach to this screenplay, few resisted praising De Palma’s thrilling direction. He brings out a surprising performance from Al Pacino – as a refugee who becomes a big guy in the drug world – and dazzles with his set pieces that define an underworld we haven’t before observed. Even though Stone’s script is a downer, De Palma makes us want to keep watching.

Body Double (1984)

In what may be his most personal film – perhaps his most revealing – De Palma again pays tribute to Hitchcock with this story of a struggling actor, a deceptive girlfriend, and what people learn when they dare to examine private situations. As Hitchcock did with Vertigo and Rear Window, De Palma creates a unique visual environment in which to explore what people fear, want and resent. And he reminds us that, with the right material, no director can accomplish more.

The Untouchables (1987)

As the director admits in De Palma, he likes to make movies that make money, especially if they are good movies, too. He hit the jackpot with this film adaptation of the popular television show of the late 1950s. Rather than restrict himself to what people saw on the small tube, De Palma creates a widescreen epic about the power of organized crime and the diligent efforts of those who commit to keep ordinary people safe. Sean Connery won a well- earned Oscar for his striking look at a good guy who wants to feared by the bad guys.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

The idea of De Palma directing a franchise film, though, may be challenging to consider given his unique point of view. As he explains in De Palma, the director was fascinated by the ideas behind the action in this adaptation, like The Untouchables, of a popular television show. This time around, De Palma shapes the narrative around the appeal of Tom Cruise, adding more depth to the character than immediately meets the eye. And the public loved it. Yes, Mr. De Palma, you make us want to watch every movie you make. And it’s been that way for a long time.

See you at the movies.