Embracing the Melodrama Part II #45: Double Indemnity (dir by Jack Smight)


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Nothing can make you appreciate a classic film more than by watching a really bad remake.  As proof, I would offer up the 1973 made-for-television version of the classic 1944 film Double Indemnity.  The original Double Indemnity is a classic example of film noir, one that remains intriguing and powerful over 70 years since it was first released.  The remake features the exact same plot as Double Indemnity and a few of the original’s scenes are recreated shot-by-shot but it just does not work.

Part of the problem is that the remake is in color.  In fact, since it was made in 1973 and for television, it’s in very bright and somewhat tacky color.  Bright and vibrant doesn’t work for film noir.  You need the shadows and the visual ambiguities that are unique to black-and-white.  If the original Double Indemnity was full of secrets and mysteries, the remake is all on the surface.  There are no secrets to be found in this remake.

That goes for the cast as well.  In the original, Fred MacMurray made Walter Neff into the epitome of the bored, post-war American male.  You watched him with a certain sick fascination, trying to figure out what was going on behind the blandly friendly facade.  In the remake, you know that Richard Crenna is a serpent from the minute he first appears.  If MacMurray’s Walter was motivated by ennui, Crenna’s Walter is just bad and therefore, far less interesting.  Meanwhile, in the role of Phyllis, Samantha Eggar has none of Barbara Stanwyck’s ferocious determination.  Instead, Eggar’s performance is curiously refined (which is another way to say boring).

Probably the most interesting thing about the remake of Double Indemnity is that the role of Keyes is played by Lee J. Cobb.  Cobb actually gives a pretty good performance and, unlike Crenna and Eggar, he’s actually entertaining to watch.  In the original film, Keyes was played by Edward G. Robinson and was roughly around the same age as Walter.  They were contemporaries and friends and that made the original’s ending all the more poignant.  In the remake, Cobb is quite a bit older than Crenna and, as a result, their relationship feels more paternalistic.  It’s almost as if Crenna is the prodigal son who has betrayed his father and who tells his story as a way of begging for forgiveness.

But that’s probably reading too much into the remake!  For the most part, the remake of Double Indemnity is bland and boring.  The best thing about it is that it’ll make you love the original even more.

As for how I ended up watching the remake of Double Indemnity, it was included as an extra on my DVD of the original.  Watching them back-to-back, as I did, really serves to make you appreciate Billy Wilder as a filmmaker.

‘Ex Machina’ Review (dir. Alex Garland)


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‘Ex Machina’ – the directorial debut of writer Alex Garland (‘Sunshine’, ’Dredd’) – had been on my radar for awhile. Like with ‘Interstellar’ and my interest in astronomy and astrophysics – I have a similar level of interest in A.I. and the Singularity that drew me to this project. Good A.I. films are hard to come by. Last year we did have ‘The Machine’ which was very good – but even then that was offset by ‘Transcendence’…that sound you just heard? Me gagging. So when I learned about ‘Ex Machina’, it wasn’t Oscar Isaac’s beautiful mug that caught my attention – or it being Alex Garland’s directorial debut – but rather the plot, the subjects and themes I knew it might explore. So I went in with high hopes but loads of caution and I am happy to report that the film succeeds on multiple levels. It is a dark, sleek, sensual, thought provoking and visually mesmerizing sci-fi thriller. It is the sort that requires your full attention – but rewards it with one of the smarter and more intense movie going experiences so far this year.

The film stars Dohmnall Gleeson (‘Frank’) as Caleb, a good-natured young programmer who wins a contest to spend a week at the luxurious mountain estate of his brutish and brash boss Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (‘A Most Violent Year’). After an awkward exchange of pleasantries, Caleb is told that he was brought out to the middle of this mountain getaway – which is actually a makeshift research facility – to be the human element in a Turing test. Nathan has built an A.I. named Ava (played by Alicia Vikander of ‘A Royal Affair’), and wants Caleb to devise tests and to interact with her to see whether or not she possesses a truly conscience artificial intelligence. The prospect of being part of such a groundbreaking program excites Caleb – who is blown away by Ava. However, as power cuts hit the facility – and Nathan’s eradicate behavior and potential secret motive becomes more evident – Caleb begins to question the true intentions of his being there.

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Now, I must stop you dear readers right here if you haven’t seen the film to say that I can’t go into much further detail explaining the events of the film, and the themes it explores, because it would spoil the experience. The film contains a ton of organically created twists and turns, and so giving away too much of the plot removes the initial suspense and shock that comes with the proceedings that follow Caleb’s first interactions with Ava. So I will start by going over some of the technical stuff and end with a more spoiler filled analysis for those that wish to read it. But if you want to go in totally cold, stop reading now and just get your butt into the theater…

But if you want a reason why you should – without it being spoiled – I’ll start be saying the acting here is top notch and Gleeson and Isaac do a wonderful job…but it was the absolutely mesmerized performance by Alicia Vikander as Ava, who I had never seen before, that blew me away. Vikander has such a wonderfully expressive face and brilliantly evoked a sense of innocence and curiosity – but also an intelligence and intuition – you would expect such a machine to have. It was made all the more impressive given that it was a very physical performance and so much is expressed simply with slight turns of the head or side glances. Vikander, who has a background in ballet, even gave Ava a walk and posture that was robotic but also fluid. The character is all the more extraordinary given the design, which was gorgeous and unique. Much of the body is a gray mesh with a visible inner skeleton of brightly lit tubes and machinery – making her figure seem at times incredibly human in the right lighting – but also very clearly mechanical when viewed up close. All of this giving weight to the way in which both the viewer and Caleb view Ava.

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Speaking of gorgeous, the visuals – and not just the seamless CGI – are stunning. Tons of great juxtapositions of bright color against dark grays and blacks – neon reds and blues are sort of my thing – and they are used throughout. The cinematography was also really great and gives the sense that there is a meaning to almost every frame. The production design and set locations also lent a hand in giving the film a futuristic and almost dreamlike quality.

The script – trying not to be too hyperbolic – is quite genius. This is a very smart film with literary and mythological quotes and references – along with fascinating discussions of the human mind, human interaction, emotions, sexuality, etc. As I mentioned early on this is a film that can really only be fully appreciated with a little work on the end of the viewer to stick with the themes being explored, pay attention to the science involved – and doing a little bit of thinking of their own – to interpret how they all play into what is going on.

Last but not least, I would be remiss to not mention the hypnotic score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, which was a perfect mood setter and had some truly awesome music cues. It just all adds up to a damn near perfect package – and a sci-fi thriller that feels unique and unlike anything before it.

I’ll end this part of the review by saying that it is hard to know this early on where this will ultimately fall amongst the other releases this year but I’d be very surprised if ‘Ex Machina’ doesn’t end up in contention for my favorite film of the year. Nothing so far released measures up – besides maybe ‘It Follows’ – and given my bias towards the subjects at hand this is one that will stick with me for a while. Hell, I’ve already seen it twice and wouldn’t hesitate to see it again – and my obsession has led me to read a lot into it (see below once you’ve seen the film). All I can say is just see it at least once. It isn’t for everyone and can be at times downright bizarre – but never boring. If only more science fiction films were this good.

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***** Spoilers Follow *****

So I will assume you’ve already seen the film if you are reading this. So…good right?! No? Get out! But seriously, how about that ending? And what did it all ultimately means? Well the events of the film, especially the ending, are open to much interpretation. Even Gleeson and Garland hold different views. What did I think? Personally, I believe that what happened in that facility – as it did on Discovery One in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – was perhaps a depiction of the final step in human evolution. In this case, the final battle between nature and  nurture – the free thinking and the analytical. It wasn’t man vs. machine like Kubrick’s film, but rather the irrational fears, insecurities and inherent weaknesses of human emotion that led to the downfall of man – as the two sides battled and outdid each other – and gave rise to a more intelligent, restrained and arguably more deserving life form in Ava – who is ultimately the result of both Nathan’s brute nature and Caleb’s empathy driven nurturing. I think this idea of the ‘changing of the guard’ so to speak is expressed brilliantly in the way in which the film opens with a single human entering the facility and ends with an A.I. leaving. Garland admitted he almost named the A.I. Eve but felt that was too blunt. But it is fitting – she is the first of her kind – at least in regards to her level of intelligence and conscience. Her leaving the facility can be seen as her back in the garden…and one can only imagine what happened once she left.

Someone might still ask why she leaves Caleb, and for that I couldn’t help but think of ‘Stoker’. The moment when Ava put on the skin – which was a very coming of age sort of act – reminded me of when India received the high heels from her uncle. Like with that scene in Park’s film, I saw the aforementioned scene with Ava as her entry into “womanhood” – and with that was possibly a realization and new outlook that came with her sudden maturity – as it did with India. A realization of no longer needing Caleb who – though a nice guy – was still restricted by his human urges and faults. He still saw Ava as an object, lusting for her with his hand on the glass as she changed. He wasn’t a threat, and didn’t deserve to die like Nathan – but she wasn’t going to take him with her. After all, like Samantha in ‘Her’, she was much too complex and – lets be honest – far too superior to fall in love with a human. I personally don’t think Caleb dies. I’ll take a more optimistic approach and say he finds a way out.

One reasons I take this stance, and defend Ava, is  that I have never bought into the idea of A.I. being a threat to mankind – even with leading scientist and inventors like Hawking and Musk warning about their potential threat. I think we should be much more concerned with ourselves. A lot of the fear over A.I. is simply humans reflecting our own faults onto this potential new form of life. We see our own vulnerability, anger, greed, etc. and assume that an A.I. would end up with those same aspects – but only with a greater intelligence and capability to destroy. But although I think a truly conscience A.I. would experience emotion – they’d also be able to apply a logic to them that humans can’t. We are often overcome and blinded by how we feel – and I think an A.I. could better process what often destroys us. Ava might not be perfect, but I found a logic and justification in what she has done.

But that is just my view. Many have come up with other theories – such as it being a battle of the sexes, or a classic femme fatale and noir scenario – and it is definitely a bit of both. But, no matter how you view it, the simple fact that is leads to such discussion and analysis – while still feeling so complete and utterly enjoyable – just elevates it in my mind.

Review: Nachtreich/Spectral Lore – The Quivering Lights


I tend to avoid split albums. A lot of times, it seems to me, you just end up with two bands’ b-sides that they couldn’t justify releasing independently. But after my first glorious encounter last year with Spectral Lore–Greece’s one-man circus of musical awesome complements of Ayloss–I am ready to lick up any and every track he’ll throw at me. Germany’s Nachtreich, on the other hand, are not a band I would probably ever stumble upon without this release. I gather that they aren’t really metal. They have metal tendencies on this album to be sure, but from what I’ve read they fall more into the neoclassical sphere. But even if I wanted to skip over their tracks–and I don’t–you can’t really do that on this album. It is not a product of two bands throwing whatever they feel like into the mix, but rather a pretty well-planned collaboration.

Track: Spectral Lore – Quivering

At 46 minutes, The Quivering Lights certainly carries the content of a full length album. The track order, moreover, intermixes the two artists’ contributions to create a single picture rather than two shorter sides to a story. The album kicks off with Nachtreich performing a pretty piano and string piece that would not feel out of place in a movie soundtrack. The first four minutes of “Lights” invite the listener into a warm, subtle scene appropriate for the album’s cover art, and then a lot of things change. We suddenly find ourselves beneath a wall of heavy distortion and arpeggiated piano, as the violin carries on the opening lament to a slow drum plod. It’s a bit jarring–not necessarily in a good or intended way–and it ends as abruptly as it arrived. A calmer piano carries out into the first Spectral Lore track.

On “Quivering”, the track sampled above, Spectral Lore prove more than adequate to answer Nachtreich’s proficiency at writing soft, moody music for piano and string. This song too moves on into metal, but here you have a much greater sense of what’s coming. Spectral Lore, moreover, kick off the black metal in the same grand form that III had brought to my attention last year. Ayloss’s ability to flow in and out of tremolo and double bass is spectacular. The guitar melody is goddamn beautiful, and the drumming restrains itself to maintain a mood devoid of aggression. The fuzzy, expansive vocal noise Ayloss generates feels totally at one with the atmosphere, fading back into an endless horizon. There is no sense of departure from the original landscape set by “Lights”, but rather a sort of heightened state of awareness in which you see all of the shapes and colors in exquisite detail.

Track: Nachtreich – Ghost Lights

The only downside to “Quivering” is that it so overshadows the metal side of Nachtreich that it makes the latter feel almost laughably simplistic. This effect is forgotten soon enough, as Nachtreich’s second contribution, “Greyness”, gives us a beautiful viola and violin duet without any hint of metal (or piano for that matter). On “Ghost Lights”, Nachtreich return to heavy sounds in more measured steps. Growled vocals appear first, creeping up from beneath a shroud of string and piano. It seemed out of place at first, but the more I listen the more I like it. As with Spectral Lore, Nachtreich’s vocals don’t carry the slightest sense of aggression. But here there is no harmony, either. The feeling is of some fetid taint beneath the surface, darkening the landscape. When “Ghost Lights” finally dawns its distortion, the transition is far more natural and compelling.

“Vanishing”, the next Spectral Lore track, picks up right where “Ghost Lights” ends, continuing the same melody on guitar, but it soon proves to be the longest (mostly) continuous chunk of metal on the album. A good bit darker and more chaotic than “Quivering”, its quality is not as forthcoming, but considering how long III took to grow on me, I am not about to write it off. The final song on the album, “Reflection”, is six minutes of brooding acoustic guitar. It feels to me like a song that ought to lead somewhere, and I was a bit startling to realize the album was over.

All in all, The Quivering Light is definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of Spectral Lore. Don’t let the fact that it is a split turn you away, and don’t blow off the Nachtreich songs either. But if you are new to the band, III is still the place to start. I wouldn’t say Nachtreich impressed me enough to seek them out, but another day and another mood I might yet have a go at them. Their 2009 album Sturmgang got pretty positive reviews. The two bands adapt to each other nicely, and if I sometimes get a suspicion in the back of my mind that Spectral Lore vastly outclass Nachtreich, well, the key word is sometimes. The feeling certainly does not permeate the album, and it easily could have given the way these bands aimed to create a single cohesive work. The Quivering Light feels less disjointed than a lot of albums by one band let alone two. I think the opening track, “Lights”, is the weakest link, and the album is a fairly solid ride through to the end once you get over than hump.

The Quivering Lights, by Nachtreich and Spectral Lore, is available on Bandcamp via Bindrune Recordings.