Monday, August 27, 2012

Capsule Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

One of the earliest - and finest - film noirs, Billy Wilder's shadowy tale of murder and betrayal was co-written by Raymond Chandler, whose hard-boiled prose is evident in Fred MacMurray's narration. MacMurray - as the impossibly confident Walter Neff - is a revelation in the lead; a complete heel, but an attractive one, who somehow makes being an insurance salesman seem like the most glamorous (and sexy) occupation in the world. His life begins to collapse after he randomly meets Phyllis Dietrichson and - remarkably quickly - is convinced to plan the seemingly perfect murder of her husband. The excellent Edward G. Robinson plays Neff's friend and co-worker Barton Keyes, who starts to take apart the story piece by piece, until the only question becomes who will turn on who. Beautifully written, the film was a massive critical and commercial success upon release, and helped popularize the genre which would flourish over the following decade.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Capsule Review: All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve has such wonderful dialogue and performances that it's easy to forget just how bitter and cynical it is. A slick commentary on our culture's obsession with youth, particularly in the entertainment industry, it features a tour-de-force performance by Bette Davis as the aging actress Margo Channing. Davis is in full-on queen bitch mode, while somehow still remaining the heart and soul of the piece, spitting out the exquisitely crafted Joseph L. Mankiewicz dialogue with equal parts enthusiasm and vitriol. But it's not just David in fine form, as the supporting performances are universally excellent - with the ensemble receiving five acting Oscar nominations alone, and the production as a whole getting an (at the time) record 14 noms. The plot; about an obsessed young fan surreptitiously infiltrating - and  imitating - the life of a famous theatrical star, remains ferociously entertaining until the end. A true Hollywood triumph.

Capsule Review: Les Diaboliques (1955)

Like Psycho, a film that might possibly never have existed if it wasn't for Les diaboliques, time and imitation have dulled the edge of Henri-Georges Clouzot's masterpiece of suspense. However, even with an ending that most audiences will see coming at the half-way mark, the film has enough slow building suspense and fascinating psychology to thrill and entertain in equal measure. Wife and mistress working together to plan the perfect murder sounds like something out of Hitchcock's playbook, but the French surroundings and cast - who are pitch perfect - serve a much darker tale than Hitchcock would have attempted. The imagery is unforgettable, and the climactic sequence - with the ill Christina chasing her supposedly dead husband through the hallways of the boarding school - is still absolutely chilling. Re-made in English several times; most notably a poor big-budget Hollywood remake (known as Diabolique) starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Capsule Review: Magnolia (1999)

While Paul Thomas Anderson's debt to Robert Altman - who he later worked with extensively before his death - had been on display in Hard Eight and (particularly) Boogie Nights, it was 1999's Magnolia where Altman's influence really came to the forefront. Telling a sprawling tale of the interweaving connections between a dozen or so characters over a 24 hour period, the film explores themes of chance, fate, love, death, and forgiveness among people of wildly disparate backgrounds. Featuring one of the most impressive ensemble casts in recent memory - including Jason Robards in his emotional final performance - the film occasionally threatens to collapse under its emotional weight ( particularly during two memorably surreal sequences) but Anderson deftly keeps the ship upright over the lengthy three hour running time. It's uneven, and occasionally frustrating, but it's a massive accomplishment, and one with near limitless pleasures to unlock.