All posts by Andrew Wickliffe

Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

Double Indemnity is mostly a character study. There’s the noir framing device–wounded insurance salesman Fred MacMurray stumbling into his office and recording his confession on a dictaphone. Turns out he met a woman and things didn’t work out.

MacMurray narrates the entire film. Occasionally the action returns to him sitting in the office, bleeding out. He’s always present. And he’s the only one always present. His confession is for Edward G. Robinson, who plays the insurance company claims manager and the closest thing MacMurray has to a friend. Both Robinson and MacMurray stay with it for the puzzles. Robinson in catching fraudulent claims, MacMurray in idling his time. He’s a character in stasis. Until he meets Barbara Stanwyck.

The chemistry between Stanwyck and MacMurray has waves. Their demeanor develops in real time. With director Wilder and co-writer Raymond Chandler’s double entendre barbs tangoing and Doane Harrison getting just the right cut. And Miklós Rózsa’s ostentatious yet perfectly so score coming in. The scenes between Stanwyck and MacMurray, especially the first couple, radiate.

But the film isn’t about Stanwyck’s fed-up wife and boyfriend MacMurray plotting to kill her husband (Tom Powers). For a while it seems like it might be–with MacMurray’s narration implying it too. But it’s not. Not the plotting, anyway. The plotting is all done offscreen while MacMurray’s dealing with work stuff. Powers is barely in the movie. Wilder’s ability to get good impressions from the supporting cast is outstanding; it’s also essential to Double Indemnity’s success. MacMurray’s narrating so he always gets the focus. Making sure the supporting cast is familiar when they have to return is big deal. Wilder (and Harrison) do some awesome character establishing in this film.

After the murder, there are complications. Sometimes there are resolutions, sometimes not. The connotations of each play out on MacMurray’s sometimes strained, sometimes ashen (presumably) face. Robinson and Stanwyck get the film’s flashier roles, but MacMurray’s the one who has to sell it. Not just in his performance but, for the film to work, in how his narration jibes with his own onscreen action.

And Double Indemnity does it. The filmmaking is impeccable.

The flashback takes place over a considerable amount of time–a few months–but the present action of the film is the hundred minutes of the runtime. MacMurray’s narration has an urgency to it. He skims the boring parts, or the parts it turns out he doesn’t want to examine, which is where the character study comes in. Both for Stanwyck, which is expected, and MacMurray, the film has some third act revelations. Double Indemnity being great, some of these revelations come out in scene so Stanwyck and MacMurray get to do their reactions. Others are in MacMurray’s narration. And those revelations are coming while the tension–both in the present and flashback–is getting more and more taut.

It’s awesome.

Double Indemnity is awesome.

Wilder has the three stars–MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson–and he’s always trying to figure out how to place them. The characters talk like they’re fencing–even when it’s pals MacMurray and Robinson. The physical movements are important. Especially when they’re moving during the talking heads. Robinson’s got this nervous energy as he works out schemes, making his behavior itself agitating to MacMurray.

Then there are are the silent facial expressions. They’re real important. Stanywck’s got one particularly great one. And Wilder makes them do some heavy character development lifting too. It’s great.

All three leads are great. Again, Stanwyck and–especially–Robinson get to be flashy. MacMurray has to keep it cool. Even so, Robinson’s probably the best. Then Stanwyck. The flashy is excellent flashy and the actors nail it.

Porter Hall’s got a fun scene, Richard Gaines has an awesome scene–most of the supporting cast just show up for a single scene. Established then out. Until they might need to come back, like Jean Heather as Stanwyck’s step-daughter. She shows up, implies one arc, comes back with something completely different. And far more important than originally implied.

Double Indemnity is a fast, busy film; Wilder and the crew–John F. Seitz’s photography, Harrison’s editing, the score, Edith Head’s costumes–make it graceful fast and busy. Like I said, it’s impeccable, masterful, awesome. Double Indemnity’s great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Billy Wilder; screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Doane Harrison; music by Miklós Rózsa; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Tom Powers (Mr. Dietrichson), Byron Barr (Nino Zachetti), Porter Hall (Mr. Jackson), and Richard Gaines (Edward S. Norton, Jr.).


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Creation (2009, Jon Amiel)

Creation is the not the story of how Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and the ghost of his oldest daughter (Martha West) collaborated in the writing of On the Origin of Species. That story would make a much better movie.

The film opens with a title card explaining it will be about Darwin writing that book, released in 1859. Some conversation early on places the present action in 1858. So a year. At this point, it’s been twenty years since he published Voyage of the Beagle. Some of those adventures show up in flashback–a flashback’s flashback–as Bettany recounts stories to West.

Well, at the beginning. Then not. The Beagle flashbacks are the biggest budgeted sequences in Creation and director Amiel treats them as set pieces. Only then such flashbacks (in flashbacks) stop and so do set pieces. Instead, it’s just Bettany hanging around at home, making churchy wife Jennifer Connelly real upset with his blasphemous manuscript and research. It seems like this narrative floundering is covering a lot of time but it turns out it isn’t. Amiel and screenwriter John Collee are terrible at pacing. Why do they need pacing when they can have Bettany talk to West (not an actual ghost, just a narrative contrivance). If only the exposition moved the film along.

After a promising first act, Creation settles into that “ghost” story. Amiel and Collee tease out details of West’s death in the present while flashing back, at first, to unrelated family bonding scenes. The flashbacks eventually get confusing because Bettany’s makeup for Darwin age forty-nine is bald with stringy hair, very pasty skin, a paunch. The film skips back seven and eight years to the West flashbacks–those seven actual years in between Darwin’s daughter’s death and the Species’s completion are apparently empty of worthy story material. Darwin age forty-two makeup is bald with stringy hair, mildly pasty skin, general nineteenth century upper class flab. It’s not hard to tell them apart, but only because Bettany’s good. But in terms of filmmaking–Amiel’s direction, Jess Hall’s flat photography–well, it’s good they have Bettany.

Also because it’s an entirely thankless part. Collee’s script is deceptively worse than first impression. It’s not bland biopic stuff, it’s bland biopic stuff without any characters. Amiel, whose direction is never better than mediocre (outside the special effects sequences of animal decomposition and so on), he at least tries occasionally. He really likes his close-ups. So the actors can spout either ominous lines (because of hiding daughter West’s fate in flashback) or exposition.

While Bettany’s got it bad, he at least gets to walk around in his make-up. Connelly is left to take care of the kids and give disapproving looks when Bettany doesn’t take his “war on God” seriously. And Connelly never really gets a role. She ends up with one poorly written, well-acted scene. It’s exceptionally impressive filmmaking from Amiel, Hall, and editor Melanie Oliver. It’s this entirely manipulative, cheap, soapy scene and it still works. Because Bettany and Connelly. Connelly gets some character motivation at what might as well be the end of the movie. There’s still more movie and it’s bad, but that moment is when Creation could’ve got out in the black.

But it doesn’t. Because Amiel and Collee are entirely artless with Creation. They want all to benefits of melodramatic contrivances without ever embracing those contrivances. There’s also the issue of how the film characterizes the religious. Caricaturizes. Connelly and Jeremy Northam (extended cameoing as the village clergy) are inappropriately villainized. But meaning they need to be villainized differently. There’s no dramatic fodder in it as is.

Bettany’s good. Not great. Better than decent or fine. West is decent. Connelly is problematic; the part’s crap. Northam’s cameo is too thin. Ditto Toby Jones. He’s bombastic though. Energy is a lot in Creation, as the film stops producing any once the second act hits. Benedict Cumberbatch is good. He tries.

If there’s a great film about the final year of Darwin writing Species, Creation sure ain’t it. Amiel’s just too bland a director to save the film from the script. It could’ve at least maintained mediocre, but as it becomes more and more clear how bad Collee’s plotting and pacing is going to get… well, mediocre’s way out of reach.

The awful Christopher Young score doesn’t help either.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Amiel; screenplay by John Collee, based on a story by Amiel and Collee and a book by Randal Keynes; director of photography, Jess Hall; edited by Melanie Oliver; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Laurence Dorman; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Icon Film Distribution.

Starring Paul Bettany (Charles Darwin), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Darwin), Martha West (Annie Darwin), Jeremy Northam (Reverend Innes), Benedict Cumberbatch (Joseph Hooker), Jim Carter (Parslow), Bill Paterson (Dr. Gully), and Toby Jones (Thomas Huxley).


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Superman (1978, Richard Donner), the extended cut

The extended version of Superman runs three hours and eight minutes, approximately forty-five minutes longer than the theatrical version (Richard Donner’s director’s cut only runs eight minutes longer than the theatrical). The extended version opens with a disclaimer: the producers prepared this version of the film for television broadcasts (three hours plus means two nights). The director was not involved.

Neither, one must assume, was original editor Stuart Baird because I’m not sure anyone could stand to see their work so butchered. Superman’s already had one somewhat inglorious revision–the director’s cut–and this extended version takes it one step further. Scenes will now drag on and on as actors try one more line. The subtly of the cuts, which enhance the performances, is either gone or severely hampered. The John Williams music is rearranged to fit the lengthened scenes and sequences, with no attention paid to how the music fits the scenes.

Worse, padding the film out changes the emphases. Margot Kidder is far less relevant (Christopher Reeve’s Superman as well) because most of the added footage is Gene Hackman and company. In addition to introducing Lex Luthor (Hackman) as a piano-playing crooner, the extended edition has all sorts of physical humor and lame jokes for Hackman’s sidekicks, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine. Perrine gets a little more character–in fact, she’s the only actor who benefits from the extended material–while Beatty gets a lot less. The constant jokes make his presence drag, especially since he and Hackman aren’t funny with the physical humor.

The extended edition does explain a few things, like why Larry Hagman isn’t with the missile on Hackman and company’s second attempt at it. And Chief Tug Smith gets a whole subplot. In the other versions of Superman, he gets maybe a line or two in an interview with Kidder.

And there’s more at the beginning on Krypton. With everyone except Brando and Susannah York–though, wow, you forget how amazing they are together in their one scene. So good.

Actually, the extended version starts just fine. Terence Stamp’s microexpressions are preserved as well as Baird’s exquisite cuts between them. Then there’s a little more dialogue, here and there, with Brando and the other council members. The scene starts to drag and instead of the drag being corrected, it just gets worse. All the added lines are superfluous (as the two successful versions of the film attest).

Then the flying guard out to bust Brando for using too much power shows up. It’s a pointless addition–I assume it got cut because they couldn’t get the special effects to work or just decided it was a waste of time. But the producers want to waste some time with this cut. Well, executive producers. Original producer Pierre Spengler apparently didn’t have anything to do with bloating the film out. Ilya and Alexander Salkind, however, wanted to get it to those two nights for television.

Most of the added material–after the three major additions (Krypton, Hackman and company, Smith and the Native Americans)–is surplus dialogue. Lines no one would’ve kept. Including the actors. Besides Hackman seeming lost in the slapstick, Glenn Ford’s got a real awkward added line and can’t get any traction out of it. Though the extended scenes of the Daily Planet are interesting. They’re still too long.

After the surplus dialogue, the Salkinds threw in a lot of establishing shots. Lots of second unit. Lots of unfinished special effects–like during the way too long destruction of Krypton. Or special effects director Donner wisely cut just because they didn’t look any good even when finished. There’s some great helicopter footage of New York City though. Sorry, Metropolis. And, actually, Smallville too. It just doesn’t do anything.

Except add time. As scenes play long, even unpadded scenes start to drag–the mono soundtrack with the rearranged score doesn’t help–and subplots stop developing. Kidder disappears for way too long. Reeve gets some added material, which starts the character in a mildly new direction, but then there’s nothing else. The extended material is dead weight. Even when it’s good for character development, like with Perrine. And, to a lesser extent, Marc McClure.

Superman: The Movie: The Extended Cut is a swell curiosity, but nothing more. Maybe it really should be seen in two parts. Except, of course, it’s not like the Salkinds tried to do anything to make it feel like a two-part story either. Because their additive editing is disastrous and an ignoble diss to the film, its cast, and its crew. Not to mention the screenwriters, who clearly wrote some rather wordy, rather unnecessary lines.

However, if you’re a Fawlty Towers fan… Bruce Boa (from “Waldorf Salad”) does show up for a second and gets very angry. There’s also more John Ratzenberger, if you’re an avid Cliff fan.

Anyway. Editing is important. So is not purposely bloating out a film. The extra forty-five minutes are kryptonite to Superman.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, story by Puzo, from characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; creative consultant, Tom Mankiewicz; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Stuart Baird and Michael Ellis; music by John Williams; production designer, John Barry; produced by Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Christopher Reeve (Superman/Clark Kent), Ned Beatty (Otis), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Glenn Ford (Pa Kent), Trevor Howard (First Elder), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jack O’Halloran (Non), Valerie Perrine (Eve Teschmacher), Maria Schell (Vond-ah), Terence Stamp (General Zod), Phyllis Thaxter (Ma Kent), Susannah York (Lara), Jeff East (Young Clark Kent), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Sarah Douglas (Ursa) and Harry Andrews (Second Elder).


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Puppet Master 5 (1994, Jeff Burr)

Puppet Master 5 opens with the series’s (unfortunately) standard lengthy opening title sequences. There’s nothing exciting about it, just white text on black and Richard Band’s theme in the background. The film’s single surprise in the titles is Band just getting an “original music by” credit. Michael Wetherwax is here to adapt it. He’s the Ken Thorne of Puppet Master movies.

He actually does a great job. Puppet Master 5’s music sounds different. It’s got more energy during the slasher sequences. It gets so weird during one of the chase scenes, it sounds like the wrong music track was laid down. But it works. It’s lively.

A lot of Puppet Master 5 is lively. But the film does a lot to delay that energy. After the opening titles, there’s a scene with Ron O’Neal as a police detective interrogating lead Gordon Currie. Puppet Master 5 takes place right after 4. Currie is a genius scientist who gets chosen to be puppet master to an assortment of sentient, animate puppets. They’re all being hunted by an evil Egyptian demon. O’Neal doesn’t believe Currie’s story. Lawyer Diane McBain makes concerned faces. For a moment, Puppet Master 5 seems like it’s at least going to be a little different. The actors will be better. O’Neal might not have great lines and his part might be mispelled in the end credits, but he gives a professional performance. Same with McBain. She has maybe one line. It all feels strangely competent.

Then, of course, the movie fumbles and flashbacks back. A five minute flashback of the last movie’s events. For all those people who thought Puppet Master 5 would be a good jumping on point for the series.

The first puppet sequence doesn’t impress. A puppet escaping from the police lock-up while the officer-in-charge listens to musak. In fact, it’s an ominous sign for the film’s music, so it’s rather cool it turns out to be okay.

But then Ian Ogilvy shows up. He’s playing Currie’s boss. Not of the animate killer (but only bad people) puppets but of the science thing. Ogilvy’s kind of great. He’s hamming it through, the stuck-up British guy who’s actually not entirely proper. Turns out Ogilvy’s in league with the Pentagon to weaponize the puppets. “Holy shit that WAS Clu Gulager” Clu Gulager cameos for a scene as one of the Pentagon suits.

Anyway. Ogilvy hires these three idiots to help him steal the puppets. Nicholas Guest is the boss of the other two idiots. He’s no fun. Willard E. Pugh is fun and nearly good, certainly the best of the three. But Duane Whitaker is more fun, though not actually good. Even if you remove the “Holy shit that’s Maynard; is he going to go get the gimp” factor from Whitaker, he’s still more fun. Because the good puppets spend some time beating him up for being a jerk. They can’t kill him, because they’re good, but giving him a solid beatdown is something else. It even leads to an amusing moment when the puppets hide Whitaker’s unconscious body from female “lead” Chandra West.

All the killing from the puppets is the little demon monster. The big demon humps–literally–his life force into a little demon monster. It’s the same model as the last movie’s little demon monsters, which look like the little Lost World: Jurassic Park dinosaurs but without tails. And done with puppets, not CGI.

And it’s also supposed to be a puppet. Because there’s a long scene with the big demon–presumably a larger than life puppet, but terribly designed and detailed (though the hand effects are amazing)–talking to the little demon monster and it sounds like he too is a “puppet master.” Or at least he really likes to talk to his action figures.

The little demon monster is different from last movie’s because it’s got bling. It starts hunting down Ogilvy and the three idiots.

Those scenes, played equally for humor and suspense, work out well. They take up a lot of Puppet Master 5’s second act and, even when it’s Guest and there’s even not a unspecific bemusement quality, the scenes work. Adolfo Bartoli’s lighting actually has personality. He and Burr all of a sudden decide to have some style. And with Whitaker dressed as a cowboy, Pugh as a Shaft knockoff, Guest as a sports fan, and Ogilvy as a British square–it’s a lot. In the right way.

Sadly, Puppet Master 5 isn’t just these four idiots getting in the middle of the little demon hunting the puppets. There’s still Currie and West. And Teresa Hill, who plays West’s friend who the demon monsters attacked last movie. She’s in the hospital–not one of the film’s more convincing sets–but she can see the big demon and his plans. Like the one where he stands behind the little demon and tells the toy he’s going to hump his life force into it.

That footage is repeated at least twice in the movie.

So at first it seems like Currie and West might have a storyline together. Currie has this sex dream about West being all sultry in a bath tub full of blood; see, the puppets are bleeding her out and she feels all naughty for Currie.

It’s weird. Unpleasantly so. It also goes nowhere. Because once Currie and West get to the closed hotel (along with the long opening titles, another series standard), West gets nothing to do beyond scream and try to save Currie. Currie meanwhile gets to do his computer magic to communicate with Hill. She’s projecting her consciousness into the computer. Oddly, there’s not a lot she can do because the computer’s DOS, after all.

Eventually the little demon comes for West and Currie and the puppets get involved and Guy Rolfe is back. He’s the original puppet master. Now he shows up with his head superimposed over one of the puppets so he can give words of wisdom to Currie.

Currie starts the film a lot better than he ends it. He’s intolerable by the third act; somehow him being knocked out and West trying to save him is more annoying than when he’s pretending to read the computer screen and it’s hard to imagine anything more annoying than that one. Except maybe his inability to deliver one-liners.

Ogilvy’s kind of great. Though his glasses change lenses. Or sometimes appear not to have lenses at all. It’s distracting.

The movie would’ve been a lot better with just Ogilvy and the idiots getting hunted by puppets. The more Currie, the more West, the worse Puppet Master 5 gets. It’s unfortunate. Director Burr, cinematographer Bartoli, editor Margeret-Anne Smith, and composer Wetherwax (sorry, adapter)–they push through the budget restrictions and deliver some actually horrific little demon kills. When it’s not going well, they just keep going until it works. It’s impressive (and unexpected).

Shame about the rest of the movie, which can’t even get a good voice performance out of Jake McKinnon as the big demon. Movie knows to cameo Clu Gulager but not get a good voice performance for the villain. Of course it doesn’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jeff Burr; screenplay by Steven E. Carr, Jo Duffy, Todd Henschell, Douglas Aarniokoski, and Keith Payson, based on characters created by David Schmoeller; director of photography, Adolfo Bartoli; edited by Margeret-Anne Smith; music by Michael Wetherwax; production designer, Milo; produced by Charles Band; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Gordon Currie (Rick Myers), Chandra West (Susie), Ian Ogilvy (Jennings), Nicholas Guest (Hendy), Duane Whitaker (Scott), Willard E. Pugh (Jason), Teresa Hill (Lauren), and Guy Rolfe (Toulon).


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