Monthly Archives: October 2012

Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

You have to hand it to a movie in which the main characters are so unlikable, nobody wanted to play them. Such is the case with Double Indemnity, number 38 on the AFI 100 List, and the first piece of film noir we’ve encountered so far. Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity is a stylish piece of work that undoubtedly stood out in the 1940s for its callous protagonists.

MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, a jaded insurance salesman. On a routine call to renew an auto policy, Neff becomes interested in Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), who quickly tries to involve him in a scheme to murder her husband and collect insurance money. It is Neff himself who plans and orchestrates the entire enterprise, even though he knows that Inspector Keyes (Robinson), the claims adjuster for his company, has an uncanny knack for uncovering phony claims. As the story unfolds, Neff and Phyllis become suspicious of each other, and their relationship spirals out of control. The film opens with an injured Neff leaving a memo of his confession for Keyes, so the audience knows right away that there will be no happy endings.

This is a very intense film. Even though there is no real mystery involved (I always thought that mystery was a key component of noir), the audience is drawn into the increasingly tangled web that Neff and Phyllis have spun for themselves, and we watch with a sort of morbid anticipation for what will happen next. The script, adapted by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder from the novel by James M. Cain, is lean, mean, and lightning-fast. The cinematography is fascinatingly dark, with tight shots that add dramatically to the tension. The movie feels very modern in some ways, not least of which is the coldly fascinating characterization of its leads.

Neff and Phyllis are, indeed, extremely unlikable. From the very beginning, Neff is cynical and somewhat crude, and Phyllis is obviously sly and conniving. When they first enter into a romance with one another, there is a somewhat disturbing lack of passion or interest: their relationship seems conducted merely out of boredom and intrigue. As their plans unfold, they seem to lose interest in one another, with Neff focused on getting away with the thing, and Phyllis making her own plans. Neither shows the slightest hesitation or remorse for what they are doing. Both Stanwyck and MacMurray are impressive in these roles; MacMurray’s deadpan narration truly adds to his character’s lack of spirit, and Stanwyck plays the femme fatale as a woman for whom it is too easy to use her sex to get what she wants. On the other hand, Robinson’s Inspector Keyes is a blustering, affable little chap, and it gives one pause to consider the ease with which his mind is able to understand the lengths of depravity to which others might go. Ultimately, he is the hero of the piece, but his good-guy qualities are effectively overshadowed by the disturbing nature of Neff as villain. He really is a sociopath. As much as it is Phyllis who instigates the plot, it is Neff who performs every function with no notable emotion whatsoever. This would be “normal” in other situations involving criminals, but since Neff starts out as nothing more than an insurance salesman, his calm descent is even more unnerving.

All in all, a fascinating film. From start to finish it is a taut, dramatic piece of work, with very little extraneous content. Double Indemnity is apparently held up as a prime example of film noir, and has influenced many films that followed it. Without knowing a great deal about the genre, I would say that there is a definite feel to the movie, exemplified by the dark cinematography, angular camera work, and the emotional distance of its characters. At various points throughout, I found myself questioning whether or not I thought the acting was good, or whether or not the plot had gotten confusing, but in the end, it all seemed to fall into place so neatly that one must acknowledge the the whole is greater than its parts, and that the film, unusual for its time, stands up against films of today that may go further, but do not capture so effectively the sometimes ugly nature of humanity.

Halloween for cowards: Six favorite not-so-scary movies

I’m pretty positive I’m mentioned it here before, but I’m a chicken. I don’t like horror movies with lots of gore, and serious suspense just leaves me jumpy for days. Despite all that, there are some Halloween-related movies that I truly love, a few of which I regularly watch around October 31st. I thought I’d share my favorites with you, in case you’re on the lookout for something fun to watch this Halloween. There are even a couple that qualify as kind of scary, so don’t make too much fun of me.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Duh. This is one of my favorite movies ever. I know a lot of people who choose to watch it around Christmas time, but in my opinion, why limit yourself? It’s kind of spooky and dark and most of the characters are denizens of Halloweentown, so it totally qualifies. The story (written by Tim Burton, natch) is great, the voice talent is excellent, and the songs and score are some of Danny Elfman’s best work. I’m assuming most people reading this blog have already seen Nightmare multiple times, but just in case you’ve missed out, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. Go! Right now!

Hocus Pocus (1993)

Go ahead and scoff, but I love this one, too. Hocus Pocus definitely falls into the “silly” movie category, but I just think the performances of Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker (c’mon, who doesn’t toss out “amok amok amok!” from time to time?) remain enjoyable year after year. Bonus little tiny Thora Birch!

Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968)

Ok, so Blackbeard’s Ghost is kind of obscure. It’s a funny Disney movie about the ghost of Blackbeard the Pirate, who is forced to perform a kind deed or else his spirit will never be able to rest. It stars Peter Ustinov (the voice of Disney’s Prince John), chewing the scenery for all he’s worth, and it is hilarious. It also stars Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette, and is very Disney 60s-ish (think The Love Bug and That Darn Cat), but seriously, Peter Ustinov is worth every second.

The Crow

Ah ha! I included one that’s not for kids! While it’s not scary, necessarily, The Crow is dark and violent, but it’s also kind of beautiful. It’s such a cultural touchstone for Generation X (I think), and for me personally. Starring Brandon Lee, who died during filming, and the brilliant Michael Wincott, The Crow is, above all, a love story. I admit I haven’t seen it in a long while, but I think I might pull it off the shelf this year to see how it holds up. Note: the sequels are best avoided. Stick with the original.

Watcher in the Woods (1980)

More Disney, but this one is actually kind of scary! A young woman and her sister have strange experiences upon moving into a creepy old mansion which seem to be tied to the tragic disappearance of a girl who lived in the house many years before. Bette Davis plays the old woman who owns the house. This movie was very late in her career, and it was the first thing I’d ever seen her in, and she is super-spooky. I have watched this one recently, and it remains creepy and suspenseful. My husband even said so, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t just humoring me.

Bell Book and Candle (1958)

You know I’ve got to sneak a classic in somewhere. Bell Book and Candle stars Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart as a modern-day witch and the man she falls in love with. It actually takes place around Christmas, but it’s about witches, so it totally counts. The supporting cast includes Elsa Lanchester, Hermione Gingold, and a young and adorable Jack Lemmon. It’s really an odd little movie, but it’s very entertaining, if not particularly scary. It’s beautifully shot and has great costumes (at least Novak does). Upon first viewing it is a teenager, I thought it was weird and a little slow at point, but as an adult it’s come to be a favorite of mine. I’ll just leave you with this scene from the movie. It’s not a musical but a few scenes take place at a club, and this number is part of the entertainment. It’s apparently called “The Bored Assassin.”

Happy Halloween!

Review: Frost/Nixon (2008)

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you amassed a cast full of excellent character actors and made a movie with them? Well, look no further than 2008’s Frost/Nixon. Led by the superb Frank Langella, this dramatization of the post-Watergate interviews between British television personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) and Richard Nixon (Langella) is an extremely well-constructed film in every way, but of course it is the acting that stands out.

David Frost is a British media personality, a playboy who spends his time interviewing celebrities and living the good life. After the American Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s subsequent resignation, he takes it into his head to conduct a series of interviews with the disgraced politician, hoping for huge ratings and a major payoff. He assembles a crack team of researchers (Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell: seriously, that’s enough reason to see the movie right there) and actually manages to get Nixon himself on board, for a tidy sum, of course. The hard work remains to be done, however; while Frost is trying to gain network backing and financial support, his team is trying to construct hard-hitting questions while balancing their own varied agendas. Meanwhile, on the President’s side, his Chief of Staff, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) attempts to maintain control of the situation in the hopes of creating positive spin for Nixon and clearing the way for some kind of political future. Ultimately, Frost finds damning evidence against Nixon and the interview essentially closes the door on his political career.

Despite knowing very little about the whole Watergate scandal (I know, I’m a bad American), this was a fascinating film. I’m not generally a fan of movies where people just sit around and talk, but the performances in this case were by and large so compelling as to make a movie about putting together an interview really interesting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the movie is based upon a play by Peter Morgan, but unlike many plays-turned-films, this one manages to hide its roots. There are plenty of scene changes and locations that can be utilized, and Director Ron Howard does a great job of keeping things moving without getting bogged down in details. And there are a lot of details. One flaw of the film is that it does assume a certain amount of knowledge of the real-life events being discussed, and I definitely found myself lost a few times.

Still, plays-turned-films are always about the acting, and this one is no slouch. The supporting cast, as mentioned previously but also including Toby Jones and Rebecca Hall, all bring their A-game. Kevin Bacon in particular is truly great, while Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell are always so much fun to watch. Without knowing a lot about the real David Frost, I think that Michael Sheen does good work in showing us the dynamics of his character: he changes from thinking the experience will be a lark to nearly giving up to finding some motivation to make something special happen. Still, for reasons I can’t put my finger on, I didn’t find his performance completely convincing. Perhaps that is how we are meant to react, given his opponent on the field: Langella as Nixon. Frank Langella may be the reigning god of character actors. One can only imagine the pressure to portray someone as iconic as Richard Nixon, who still looms large in current memory. Before watching the film I remember thinking “Langella as Nixon? If you say so. He looks more like Reagan.” While his looks are perhaps not completely perfect, he still manages to capture the person with great skill. We see so many sides of Nixon, and while he’s really sort of the villain of the piece, he is ultimately a sympathetic character in Langella’s hands; he did what he believed was best to do, but he understands what it has cost him and has the grace to move on.

Again, I’m not generally a fan of movies with more talk than action, but this is a fine piece of work. The cinematography and costuming deserve mention for providing a very authentic feel to the movie, and Ron Howard’s direction is very keen and insightful. Frost/Nixon definitely feels like a Howard movie: it’s very character-driven and human. We learn as much about Frost and Nixon from watching how they approach the interview as we do from seeing the event itself. I don’t recall any scenes that did not serve to strengthen the characters and provide us with some extra detail of their personalities. Dramatic without being over-the-top, amusing at times, intelligent and above all, professionally crafted. What happens when you construct a cast entirely of character actors? In the case of Frost/Nixon, you get an extremely worthwhile film.

Review: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Terry Gilliam’s a weird guy. Given that he was a member of the Monty Python troupe, we can safely assume that he is funny, and that’s very true. But, if you delve a little bit deeper into his work, you will find that beyond the humor, there’s a rather bleak world view and a great deal of cynicism with regard to human nature. While his 1985 offering, Brazil, is perhaps the best example of these themes, 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, though masquerading as a fairy story, is actually no less bitter in its skewering of bureaucracy and society as a whole. Think of it as dystopian fiction (almost) for kids.

Our story opens on a besieged city, indeterminate in time and location. An embattled theatrical troupe is attempting to entertain the masses by presenting the adventures of the legendary Baron Munchausen. When the man himself (John Neville) turns up to set the record straight, he is given the task of saving the city from the Turks who threaten to destroy it. To do this, he must round up his long-lost band of merry men: Berthold (Eric Idle), Adolphus (Charles McKeown), Albrecht (Winston Davis), and Gustavus (Jack Purvis). Each of these men has an incredible, super-human talent, and together, Munchausen and his men have indeed had mythical adventures. However, now they’re all old and decrepit; the Baron himself really only seems to long for Death. Spurred on by Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), a young girl who believes all the stories, will Munchausen manage to track down his men, and will they be able to defeat not only the Turks, but also The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), a bureaucrat seemingly intent on keeping the city under siege?

This is a crazy movie. I had seen parts of it as a kid, and I really thought that it was just this sort of fun, fairy tale romp. Not quite. Parts of it are fun, but other parts are truly, truly weird, and some parts are even downright scary. Running through it all is Gilliam’s trademark cynicism, most notably manifest in the “scheduling” of the siege, agreed upon by the Turkish Sultan (Peter Jeffrey) and Jackson. In order to find his men, Munchausen and Sally travel to the Moon (ruled by Robin Williams at his most insane), a volcano, where the Baron comes between the God Vulcan (Oliver Reed!) and his wife Venus (Uma Thurman), and the belly of a gigantic fish.

Obviously, the film boasts an excellent cast, many of them Gilliam regulars. John Neville carries the story well as the roguish Baron; he is simultaneously dashing and weary of the world. Jonathan Pryce, who plays the hero in Brazil, gets to have more fun this time around as the “villainous” Jackson. In smaller roles, Robin Williams exceeds expectations of madness, and Oliver Reed’s truly bizarre presentation of Vulcan is utterly fascinating to watch. Sarah Polley (now a well-respected director) does fine as the feisty Sally; playing the “kid” in a movie is often a thankless job, but it is her determination that keeps the action moving along.

Although the structure of the storyline is somewhat confusing, the film is visually fascinating thanks to Gilliam’s artistic sensibilities. The film received four artistic Oscar nominations, and deservedly so: it’s a beautiful film to look at. It’s of a higher production quality than Brazil, and the effects are reasonably impressive for the late eighties. Munchausen is clearly meant to appeal to a broader audience than Brazil. Still, it seems to me that Gilliam is very definitely not for everyone; there are plenty of moments where even someone familiar with his work will be left scratching his or her head. It’s hard to explain what is so odd about the movie; part of the issue is that Gilliam is clearly trying to say something, but it’s not entirely clear what that something is, at least in this instance. Brazil is more effective in its satirization of a bureaucratic dystopia, while Munchausen wanders a bit and occasionally gets bogged down in the details. In the final tally, it’s a more entertaining film, I think, particularly if one likes one’s fantasy a bit more bright and shiny. Perhaps the two might make an interesting double feature. If anyone tries that, please let me know it goes!

Small Roles, Big Performances: Gladiator

FlixChatter has invited movie bloggers to “shine a spotlight on the ‘unsung heroes’ if you will, the overlooked performers who add so much richness & entertainment value to the film no matter how brief their appearance is, but yet they don’t get the credit they so deserve.” Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at the title up there, and you’re thinking “Gladiator? Unsung?? This is just another excuse for you to talk about Russell Crowe, isn’t it?” I will grant you that I’m breaking a little bit with the spirit of this blogathon, but when I started thinking about “small roles, big performances,” Gladiator sprang quickly to mind. In part, perhaps, because I’ve seen it a number of times, but also because I think it is a movie full of really great moments, and those moments are created by really talented actors who, despite the movie winning Best Picture, were perhaps not noticed individually as much as they might’ve been. I want to talk about two of the actors featured in Gladiator particularly. Both gave fine performances that added greatly to the film overall, and both were actors from an older generation, here shown late in their careers. Neither was a complete unknown, but nor were they ever true household names. In my opinion, part of what makes their roles in Gladiator so important is the fact that this is a film for which they will both be remembered, and perhaps it will serve as an introduction for modern audiences to their earlier work.

Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius

Before he strode onscreen as Albus Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter film, Richard Harris made a big impression with new audiences as Rome’s “last good emperor,” the philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius. Harris fills the screen with his quiet dignity and whispered wisdom. Through his eyes, we see Crowe’s Maximus as more than just a good soldier; we see him as a loving and loyal man. Aurelius helps to shape the character of Maximus, and Harris imbues him with paternal pride, love, and the certain knowledge that those he loves are hopelessly flawed. Aurelius must make the difficult decision of either naming his son his successor, or choosing what is best for Rome, and returning her rule to a governmental body. In essence, he must choose between being an emperor and being a father, and Harris shows so clearly the heartbreak that Aurelius goes through in making that decision. Here we see him change between those two roles effortlessly; from the commanding emperor to a father at the end of his life, asking for forgiveness from the son he has disappointed.

Gladiator may have been the first film in which I saw Richard Harris, but his performance, brief yet lasting, has certainly assured that it will not be the last.

Oliver Reed as Proximo

Gladiator is, in fact, Reed’s final performance; he died before he had finished shooting all of his scenes in the movie. Special effects were used for those final appearances so that he wouldn’t be replaced. It is, in my opinion, the perfect tribute. Proximo, the slave owner who essentially kidnaps Maximus and transforms him into “The Spaniard,” is also a father figure, but one cut from an extremely different cloth than Aurelius. His business is the purchase and disposal of human beings, and most of his demeanor is accordingly blunt and disaffected. Still, in his later scenes with Maximus, we see the same paternal pride and even a measure of respect. He also conveys a great deal of intelligence and hard-fought wisdom. I like to think that this final role embodies much of what made Oliver Reed a great actor. He was rough-hewn but intelligent, full of bluster and heart. Like Harris’ Aurelius, Proximo adds layers of depth to the character of Maximus, and both Reed and Crowe portrayed their bond extremely well. Here, Proximo speaks to Maximus as an equal, showing his respect and pride.

In Maximus, Proximo finds someone to confide in; in a way, I think he also sees the younger man as someone who might succeed him. In the end, he chooses to embrace Maximus’ (and Aurelius’) dream of Rome’s restoration. Like Harris, Reed makes a transformation of sorts, from hard-bitten slave driver to a man willing to die for others’ freedom.

Gladiator was the biggest movie of the year. It won many, many awards, but neither Harris nor Reed were particularly recognized for their efforts (Reed was nominated for a BAFTA). And yet, without them, I don’t believe that Gladiator would be the film that it is. It is a testament to the abilities of all three men that we are able to see the extent to which both Aurelius and Proximo shape the character of Maximus and move him through his journey. In that way, I believe they truly exemplify the idea of “small roles, big performances.”