Movie of the Week: Se7en (1995)

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David Fincher directs Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey in this horror thriller about a serial killer forcing deaths onto people guilty of the seven deadly sins. 

I was under 18 when I went to see Se7en at the cinema. And Se7en is the epitome of an 18 certificate film. Subliminally installing images of knife strap-ons and exploded guts and severed heads into your mind while brazenly plunging you into a rain sodden cityscape that might as well be hell. I went with my parents. David Fincher said in an interview at the time he wanted to make films that scar. Films like Jaws, that stay in your fear receptors years later. That even if the movie flopped, he hoped that some 21st century kid might catch it late night and tell their friends about the old movie they saw that ended with a surprise head in a box. The severed head.

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Fincher was justified in his fears of a flop. This was his first project after the nightmare production of Alien3. A gruelling Hollywood baptism of fire that saw him be sacked three separate times on set, have his footage reassembled by producers and spend a year of his career a pariah, a period about which he still will not comment on in public to this day. Se7en was his second movie but his chance to reboot his reputation from scratch. Smaller scale and with a cast who could use their clout to keep his vision true from executive compromise and back pedalling. Visually, it is a similar film to his Alien entry. Industrial gothic. Beams of holy light piercing into caves with sweaty walls and crumbling utilitarianism. Antiques and faulty tech littered around unloved workspaces. Oblivion with a Nine Inch Nails soundtrack.

This time his vision captured the general public’s imagination, Se7en was a modest smash and Fincher would go on to refine and control his precise, pessimistic cinematic style in classics like Fight Club, Zodiac and The Social Network. Those films slowly became more prestigious, his reputation as one of the few living greats grew with each masterful release. Se7en isn’t one of those grand, important, sophisticated awards bothering movies but it is his finest. An obscene mystery movie that pounds you with it constant bleakness and dazzles you with its revolutionary twists.

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There’s only one action sequence. A foot chase that appears from nowhere but bruises and shudders you. Unlike the stunt led spectacular set pieces of an Arnie or Harrison Ford flick from that era this isn’t about a hero surfing the impossible but a human trying to avoid the probable. Every corner Detective Mills turns, every door and window he darts through, puts him in the crosshairs of a man who has proven how little he cares for human life. He stumbles, and slips, and careens towards the embodiment of death itself. Doggedly in pursuit of a villian he does not understand. It is a breathtaking break from all the world weary reviewing of the fanatic’s gruesome work. Much of the narrative is passive. Freeman’s marvellously resigned Somerset sums up Se7en’s core mode.

SOMERSET

All we do is pick up the pieces. We take all the evidence, and all the pictures and samples. We write everything down and note what time things happened…

MILLS

Oh, that’s all.

SOMERSET

We put it in a nice neat pile and file it away, on the slim chance it’s ever needed in a courtroom. (pause) It’s like collecting diamonds on a desert island. You keep them just in case you ever get rescued, but it’s a pretty big ocean out there.

 

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The performances are, in general, excellent. After having his cast prescribed to him for Alien3, Fincher clearly revels in filling his shot at redemption with distinctive turns. Most only have a scene or two to impress. R. Lee Ermey, John C McGinley, Richard Roundtree all add a gruff masculinity to their disempowered men of action roles… like Mills they want resolution and justice but have no practical answers to John Doe’s crimes. Morgan Freeman’s apathetic lead detective is electric. Trying to drown out the chaos and the degradation of the city he lives in. Apathy as a survival mode. The one chink in this perfect movie’s armour is Pitt’s Mills. He’s a little too twitchy and mannered here. Pitt goes big and aggressive, a good opposite to Freeman’s composed protagonist and fitting with his character’s ultimate fate. But it is nowhere near as nuanced and relaxed as his effortless partner. Gwyneth Paltrow mainly sleeps and looks angelic until her time to shine happens off screen.

And then we get Kevin Spacey… discounting his obscured appearances earlier on, his third act arrival into the movie is one of the best played hands in genre screen writing. “Detective. Detective. DETECTIVE! You’re looking for me.” The whole movie resets around his otherworldly enigma of a performance. We even get daylight. Just who the fuck is John Doe? Do we judge the man by his methods or his honesty or his success? In just 15 minutes of shackled, restrained screentime we stare true dogmatic evil in the face and he sneers right back at us, self amused and smugly triumphant. I’m surprised Anthony Hopkins didn’t FedEx Spacey his Silence of the Lambs Oscar the day Se7en wrapped. I guess the delivery man was busy.

10

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Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

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Jon M. Chu directs Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh in this romantic comedy about a university professor who travels to Singapore with her beau for a wedding… only to discover he is filthy rich. UH-OH!

Distasteful opulence abounds. There is a hint of satire to this but a satire where the only difference between the gaudy and the classy characters is whether they pull a silly or a sad face when they are onscreen. And so so many characters. 3 bland couples (the men exist only to be introduced with their tops off). 5 fairy godmothers. 6 road blocks to love. Countless bitches. It is all very brattish and brash. Which last time I checked isn’t very romantic… Still the production values are top notch and the makeover scenes are giddy confections.

4

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)

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Eli Roth directs Jack Black, Cate Blanchett and Owen Vaccaro in this juvenile horror about an orphan who joins his warlock uncle in his doom-laden mansion.

Eli Roth does a kid’s movie! It is too delicious a prospect not to go see. I even put aside my dislike for Jack Black. While it isn’t a film for me, an afternoon was pleasantly passed. It is pretty much the standard colourful gothic slapstick product you’d expect but there are a dozen creepy images hidden among the soft play that will scar imaginative kids long term. The demon in the Black Forest could come from any hard R genre piece. And kids need their first scary movie too, so well done Roth for making something that remains family friendly while still having some fang to it.

5

 

Mile 22 (2018)

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Peter Berg direct Mark Wahlberg, Iko Uwais and Lauren Cohan in this bloody actioner where a special ops team have to transport a double agent from embassy to airstrip with the entire Fakestanistan military trying to stop them. 

16 Blocks meets The Raid. Only not very good. The action is frenetic and ultraviolent. Ronda Rousey goes out like a trooper. There’s a twist you won’t care about. Mark Wahlberg spends a lot of the film making pronouncements into thin air about how completely badass he is. Someone’s been on the fight milk.

4

A Simple Favour (2018)

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Paul Feig directs Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively and Henry Golding in this comedy thriller about a single mom who gets entangled with a femme fatale who goes missing. 

What is it? WHAT IS IT?! I’d have enthusiastically gotten onboard with any one of the films this tries to be from scene to discordant scene. Colourful neo-noir. Hitchcockian farce. Broad Gone Girl spoof. Kinky soccer mom wish fulfilment fantasy. You want to like A Simple Favour but it is all a bit too much. Incest and 180 degree U-turn character growth arcs… and potty mouthed kids… and Anna Kendrick’s ditzy klutz twice being thrown on a bed to be ravished by men she clearly shouldn’t be fucking… and sassy bitches sassing. All happen jarringly in a film that should be… well… simple. It feels as jumbled and as uncertain as The Predator did last week. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were also extensive reshoots here. The lead investigator changes from act to act, for no real point. The ending is garbled… the twists ineffective. Frustratingly it squanders two strong star turns. Lively looks fantastic, her comically chic wardrobe is spectacular and she confidently seduces us with less screentime than she deserves. Kendrick goes at her hyper super mom role with admirable quirk, but she is weighed down by subplots that mark her out as a potential villain. That’s fine to keep us guessing but leaves us without a solid protagonist for a good hour. You can’t have the same character be investigator, patsy and possible antagonist concurrently. All the while putting them in slapsticky situations. And then expect the mystery elements to engage. Far too sloppy for something so polished looking. What starts out brimming with possibilities, ends on weak punchlines and patience testing confrontations.

4

The King and the Mockingbird (1952/1980)

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Paul Grimault directs Jean Martin, Pascal Mazzotti and Raymond Bussières in this animated fairytale about a mockingbird who helps two painted urchins escape the tyrant king who wants to break up their romance.

A film that took 30 years to complete and was released in various half produced states until 1980. It is a bit naff and naive at times. The plot is very loose and random. However it does conjure up some lovely images; a 3D airbrushed castle connected by rocket ship elevators, a polar bear dancing with a blind busker and a hunting dog adopting his prey. The funniest parts involve the terrible king punishing his useless minions. If you are a fan of steampunk or Disney this has overlapping form, but the joins of a rocky journey to completion do show a little too glaringly.

6

A Bullet for the General (1966)

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Damiano Damiani directs Gian Maria Volontè, Lou Castel and Klaus Kinski in this spaghetti western following a group of bandits profiteering from the Mexican Revolution.

Starting with a domino rally of tense set pieces (so smartly devised that The Joker from The Dark Knight would be impressed by their cruel zero sum gamesmanship), Damiani’s Leone rip-off sets out his stall thrillingly. It eventually becomes a little mawkish and didactic but never dull. Volontè is superb as the criminal El Chuncho, a charismatic man whose better instincts keep him from true evil. The colours of the clear sky and arid vistas are beautiful in this.

7

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014)

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Kiah Roache-Turner directs Jay Gallagher, Bianca Bradey and Leon Burchill in this zombie comedy horror about regular Aussies trying to outrun an outbreak in improvised armour and undead fuelled jeeps.

Cheap and nasty and inventive. Clearly made over half a decade of fun weekends but never letting that lack of professional resources excuse unprofessionalism onscreen. It looks the part. This is daft and dirty ride, packed with gory moments, creepy moments, great unsubtle gags and a revolving door of protagonists… gleefully, not many survivors survive more than a few scenes. If you like Braindead or Shaun of the Dead or The Evil Dead then this is a modern low budget show-off well worth chuckling along to.

7

Cutthroat Island (1995)

 

6ED42ED3-A86D-4FF0-9046-8D0E58864872Renny Harlin directs Geena Davis, Matthew Modine and Frank Langella in this infamous pirate movie that flopped massively.

It killed a studio. Proved women couldn’t lead action blockbusters. Highlighted that pirate films never work at the box office. All nonsense of course. Twenty years down the line the best you could say was Cutthroat Island is a folly but not one indicative of box office trends. Carloco Pictures was already struggling to make ends meet before production began. They had the choice of this project or an Arnold Schwarzenegger / Paul Verehoven crusades epic as their last shot at survival. Paul Verehoven came into a production meeting with some extreme ideas one day and Cutthroat Island was greenlit by default. They raised a lot of the budget by pre-selling it to foreign distributors. The package was Davis, Michael Douglas and massive period set action. Then Douglas pulled out. When they couldn’t find a leading man Davis and director Harlin tried to run also. Their contracts wouldn’t allow it. So Modine was roped in. The film HAD to be made as it had already been sold. And no one wanted to be there. Maybe that explains why it is all so distant and uninvolving. Because Cutthroat Island is a handsome lavish production. The costumes and the ships and the locations look like a $100 million dollars but the direction of them and acting in them is half hearted at best. Davis behaves like a secondary school teacher who has to oversee a two hour detention rather than the captain of a ship. Modine apes Kevin Kline for a bit but eventually gives up and matches his co-star’s ambient energy. Harlin stages spectacular battles and stunts but never involves the audience in them. There are lines that sound like jokes without any humour to them. There is a conspiracy of factions at loggerheads but this never produces much peril or conflict. It just sits there like a very expensive punishment. There are far worse blockbusters out there. Uncharismatic, sloppy cash-ins that should never have seen the inside of a picturehouse. Cutthroat Island isn’t one of those travesties… it merely has the misfortune of having the reputation and box office of one with little else to exonerate it.

5

Stardust Memories (1980)

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Woody Allen directs himself, Charlotte Rampling and Jessica Harper in this arthouse satire where a filmmaker is the star guest at a weekend retrospective of his own work, while trying to unpick his complex relationships to women.

A pleasant surprise this. One of Woody’s best that I had long avoided due to iffy critical standing. He visually apes Fellini and a bit of Bergman and the result are sumptuous. Gorgeous monochrome vistas are danced around in. The opening moment of Kafkaesque disappointment is a brilliant wordless joke. Though you wouldn’t want to be cast as an extra in any of this. Every crowd shot features a gaggle of cloying and grasping grotesques. Psychologically I don’t know how sound all of Woody’s confusion and frustrations are but he lands as many laugh out loud jokes here as in his “earlier, funny ones.” Proof that despite his desire to explore drama and stretch his pretentions as a serious filmmaker he still had it in him to tickle us.

9