Noirvember: Se7en

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Noirvember comes to an end on my blog this week. But I’ve saved one of the best neo-noir films for last. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of David Fincher. His movie Zodiac has also been covered on my blog. Fincher has a real knack for making taught thrillers. And my selection this week is a great example of that. The movie is Se7en. Some consider it a horror movie, others a crime movie and then there’s a few of us who believe it’s a neo-noir. I fall into the last category.

Seven follows two detectives as they track down a serial killer who uses Dante’s Inferno and the Seven Deadly Sins to choose his victims. The veteran detective on his last case is Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and the rookie is Mills (Brad Pitt). The movie takes us right down into the world of Dante’s Inferno as they go from one crime scene to the next. Every victim is sermonized by the killer, who justifies his actions by the fact that people today are ignorant of the Seven Deadly Sins. For example, the victim who has gluttony written across the wall across from his body is shown face down in a bowl of spaghetti. He was forced to eat himself to death.

Seven is not a movie for the faint of heart. It shows every grizzly detail of the murders. To this day I’m surprised it wasn’t given the NC-17 rating. That being said, it is also a meticulously crafted piece of cinema. Yes, the murders are portrayed in graphic detail. But it never feels like it’s done purely for shock value. That’s what sets it apart from what has become known today as torture porn. The gore is to show how twisted the killer is, not simply to make the viewer queasy.

While Seven has been out for many years, I will not spoil the ending. Because it packs one heck of a punch. But I will discuss some of the movie’s merits that I admire the most.

One of the things that surprised me the most about Seven was the great chemistry between Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. I like them both a lot, but was skeptical of them being paired together. Seven doesn’t fall into the trap of recycling buddy cop movie cliches or using the same grizzled veteran vs. young punk tropes. Freeman and Pitt are absolutely convincing as crime solving partners.

Another great thing about Seven is how it gets us involved in the process of tracking the serial killer. We have CSI and so many of its pale imitators on TV now. But this is still one of the best movies about detective work and the science involved with it that I’ve ever seen. It’s a thinking crime movie and not merely a gory serial killer movie.

Finally, I absolutely love the look of this film. It’s set in modern times, but it looks and feels like its right out of the 1940s. The costumes, especially Moran Freeman’s stylish ensemble, scream film noir. A lot of people argue you cannot make film noir in color. I disagree. Seven is a great example. David Fincher and cinematographer Darius Khondji give us one of the grittiest and most effective looking modern noir films ever made. The images really stay with you, and they’re not just the bloody murder scenes. One in particular that has stayed with me to this day is how the sloth victim’s murder scene was photographed. The detectives enter an apartment to see Christmas tree air fresheners hanging everywhere and beams of blinding sunlight entering the room almost so the sunlight resembles glistening needles. There’s an eerie vibe that haunts every frame. Fincher is truly a master at establishing mood.

Seven is dark, twisted and also an exhilarating experience. David Fincher is a master of not only telling thrilling stories, but giving us great characters to take us on the journey through their myriad twists and turns. Many serial killers have been made in the last decade or so. But Seven remains one of the best.

Noirvember: Memento

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Continuing my look at neo-noir films in honor of Noirvember, this week the spotlight will be on Memento. Made back in 2000 by an up and coming director named Christopher Nolan (who made an impression with his first feature film from 1998, Following), it’s a fascinating mystery that has kept me enthralled upon repeat viewings.

The premise of Memento seems simple enough at first. Leonard (Guy Pearce) sets out to solve his wife’s murder. But, there’s a twist. Leonard has short-term memory loss. He sustained head trauma when attempting to stop the murder of his wife. Since Leonard is unable to form new memories, he has to leave himself daily detailed notes and take plenty of photographs. One other thing Leonard does to carry on his investigation is to tattoo clues all over his body. The mystery unfolds in a fascinating use of nonlinear time. Pieces of the puzzle are unveiled in both color and black and white. The black and white scenes are put together chronologically and some of the color ones are shown out of sequence, echoing the mental state of the protagonist.

Memento is an absorbing look at grief, memory and revenge. Guy Pearce has never gotten the credit he deserves for being a solid actor. Two of his best performances came in neo-noir films: Memento and L.A. Confidential. Pearce shows us his full range as an actor in Memento: grief, anger and vulnerability. His supporting cast is solid too, especially Joe Pantoliano as Teddy, a contact Leonard makes during the course of his investigation. There’s also Carrie-Anne Moss as Natalie, a bartender who he becomes friendly with after seeing a note about her in his clothes.

In addition to the stellar performances, Memento is a triumph of editing and writing. Editor Dody Dorn does a masterful job of piecing together the parallel storylines in a way that, while disorienting at times, keeps the viewer intrigued as to how the mystery will be resolved. It’s great that the color sequences gives us a window into the mind of a person with short-term memory loss. All of this is aided by the movie’s screenplay, co-written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan (the latter wrote Memento Mori, the short story that Memento was based on). The screenplay and editing fittingly earned nominations.

Memento is a movie that takes multiple viewings to figure out. And, even then, you’re likely to still have some questions. The answer to the mystery isn’t the movie’s only point. It’s the journey that director Nolan and his talented cast take us on that makes Memento a modern classic. It’s a labyrinth mystery that keeps us guessing and involves us in its gritty atmosphere as we try to sort out who are the good and bad guys, much like the noir classics of old. Memento was what made critics and audiences take notice of its director. And, seeing it one time or ten times, you can see why.

Noirvember: Miller’s Crossing

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It’s November. But to lovers of film noir it’s Noirvember. I thought about focusing on classic noir. But then I decided it would be fun to show that noir is still alive and kicking today. So neo-noir films will be this month’s blog focus. The Coen brothers are masters of modern noir. Their debut, Blood Simple, is a great example. But I thought this week it would be fun to revisit their noir gangster movie Miller’s Crossing.

Miller’s Crossing centers around Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), who is the chief advisor of mob boss Leo (Albert Finney). Tensions have been building between Leo and rival mafia boss Johnny (Jon Polito). This all comes about because of the activities of bookie Bernie (John Turtorro). Tom tries to get Leo to give Bernie up to Johnny to prevent an all out war. What follows are revelations one after another. There are secret affairs, betrayals, shifting loyalties and power plays. All of this is set during the Prohibition era. Thats fitting, since many of the early noir films were set during that era. White Heat and The Public Enemy are great examples. Bootlegging and gangsters represented a perversion of the American dream, a theme that runs through classic and neo-noir.

Miller’s Crossing is equal parts noir, gangster picture and melodrama. And all of it comes together in riveting movie that looks sleek and modern while paying homage to the noir of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Special credit should go to future Men In Black director Barry Sonnenfeld for his gorgeous cinematography. This is still one of the best photographed movies I have ever seen.

The movie is loaded with incredible actors, including the late great Albert Finney, gifted character actor John Turtorro, Marcia Gay Harden and Gabriel Byrne who is great as the movie’s anchor. All of them are up to the juicy roles they’ve been given. Co-director’s Joel and Ethan Coen also penned the movie’s sharp script, working from Dashiell Hammett’s novels Red Harvest and Glass Key. If you’re going to make a modern noir, start with material from one of the best noir writers who ever lived, right?

Miller’s Crossing not only looks great, but is filled with brilliant performances from its stellar cast. Is it violent? Yes. But it never feels gratuitous. That’s something other modern crime pictures should take note of. It pays tribute to classic gangster and noir movies while being a great movie of its own era.

Stephen King Month: The Stand

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Greetings, readers! The time has come for my last entry about Stephen King adaptations for this month. My final selection is The Stand. I’m cheating a bit here because it’s a made for TV miniseries. But it’s so good, I couldn’t resist writing about it. While it may look a little dated since it came out way back in 1994, it still stands as an impressive adaptation of arguably Stephen King’s most ambitious story.

As The Stand opens, a secret government lab in California accidentally releases a weaponized version of the flue virus. One of the lab’s guards escapes the lab and travels to goes to his family home in Texas. Along the way, he unintentionally spreads the virus. The guard crashes his car into a gas station where Stu Redman (Gary Sinise) and several of his friends are gathered. The guard warns them about being pursued by a “Dark Man.”

The following day, the U.S. military quarantines the town. Redman and the other town residents are taken to a CDC facility in Vermont. Eventually all but Redman succumb to the virus. Redman eventually gathers a group of other immune survivors who are being led by visions to Nebraska from Mother Abagail (Ruby Dee). Another group of immune survivors follows visions to meet with the evil Randall Flagg (Jeremy Sheridan) in Las Vegas. The two different survivor groups eventually confront each other in a battle for the fate of humanity.

I’m greatly simplifying the story because its twists and turns and they way they unfold is part of what make the miniseries so compelling. The Stand spans just a hair over six hours. So its an undertaking to watch. But it’s absolutely absorbing from beginning to end. The same can be said of King’s massive tome, which is my second favorite novel after Carrie.

Director Mick Garris does justice to a book that has so much scope and scale that it might seem unfilmable. But Garris’ direction combined with a solid teleplay (written by King himself) and put in the hands of a brilliant cast brings the massive novel to life in a way that never seems to cheat us out of the source material’s ambition. The Stand could have been a by the numbers apocalypse story. But it’s not just about a disaster. It’s a compelling human drama. If the world was literally on the brink of ending, which path would you choose? The worst circumstances bring out people’s true colors, something Stephen King touches on heavily in The Stand and The Mist. It’s fascinating to watch the characters in The Stand grow.

I’ve talked about how loaded with talent this cast is. And it’s truly incredible how many big names they got for this miniseries. Gary Sinise has been so good for so long that I think we’ve taken him for granted. Whether he’s in The StandForrest Gump or CSI: New York, you can’t take your eyes off him. He has a commanding and natural screen presence. And that’s part of what’s given his career such longevity. My other favorite in this movie is the late Ruby Dee as Mother Abagail. That word legend gets thrown around in Hollywood a lot. But it certainly describes Ruby Dee. Her body of work speaks for itself. Dee feels right out of the novel in the brilliant way she plays the role.

You should definitely read The Stand. Afterwards, go find a copy of the miniseries. You’d be amazed what a solid miniseries was made out of such an amazing book.

Stephen King Month: Needful Things

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It’s the third week of my look at Stephen King movie adaptations. This week’s blog entry is on a book and movie that I feel are both very underrated. I’m speaking of Needful Things. It’s a fascinating study of human nature and the paranoia that hides under the surface of small town America.

Needful Things is set in Castle Rock, Maine, an imaginary setting for many of King’s works. Castle Rock has just had a new shop open called Needful Things. It’s run by new Castle Rock resident Leland Gaunt (Max Von Sydow). But this is no ordinary shop. There is nothing ordinary in the world of Stephen King after all. Gaunt’s shop has objects that everyone in town desires. The financial cost of the items isn’t much. But there’s an additional price. Purchasers are required to also play a practical joke on another town resident. For example Brian (Shane Meier) has to throw muck from the turkey farm onto Wilma Jerzyck’s (Valri Bromfield) newly laundered sheets that are hanging on the clothesline.

The pranks seem harmless at first and Sheriff Pangborn (Ed Harris), who has recently moved to Castle Rock to avoid the craziness of big city life, isn’t worried. But then things escalate, and the residents get more violent toward one another. Corruption, greed and jealousy all come the surface in one dangerous prank after another. It turns out that Leland Gaunt is no mere shopkeeper. He is, in fact, the devil himself. Gaunt has set up shop  to sow the chords of chaos. He enjoys pitting the Castle Rock residents against one another and manipulating them like a puppeteer.

Needful Things is a fascinating examination of human nature and the lengths people will go to in order to get what they want the most. Humans will quickly turn on each other, even in a seemingly quiet place like Castle Rock. The way the tension gradually builds and the people turn into a mob is fascinating. Remember all the quintessential American towns of Frank Capra’s movies? Needful Things is like a dark version of that. Everyone seems on the surface like Joe/Jane regular. But even the most ordinary person has dark secrets. Leland Gaunt just helps the secrets come out in the open.

My two favorite performances in the film are by Max Von Sydow and Ed Harris. Von Sydow could have easily overacted the juicy part he was given. But he hits the right note by being menacing and gleeful without going overboard and venturing into to campy territory. Ed Harris is someone who I’ve admired for years. He turns in one great performance after another in leading and supporting roles. It’s a joy watching him figure out the puzzle of what Mr. Gaunt is up to and the relationships he develops with the Castle Rock residents.

Needful Things didn’t get great reviews and it’s not cited often on lists of great Stephen King adaptations. But to me the book and the movie are both hidden gems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen King Month: Christine

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All October I will be writing about Stephen King film adaptations. This week I have chosen Christine. While the central premise of the movie, that an old Plymouth Fury is possessed and becomes a killing machine, is fairly ridiculous, the movie is fairly effective.

Stephen King really has a knack for creating relatable, believable outsiders, especially kids. This was evident in Carrie and The Body (which was adapted into the movie Stand By Me). In Christine, the protagonist is alienated teen Arnie (Keith Gordon). One day while getting a ride from his friend Dennis (John Stockwell) he sees a junked Plymouth Fury in a garden. Arnie is instantly taken with the car. The car’s original owner gives him the car (the Christine of the title). Arnie then works overtime in a car repair shop to restore it.

But this isn’t just a simple story about a boy and his first car. As Arnie becomes more and more obsessed with the car, which makes him feel like a cool kid for the first time in his life, Arnie starts to transform himself. The once nerdy loaner becomes a cocky and alienates the people around him. While the human drama plays out, the car proves to have a mind of its own. Christine starts killing the people who matter to Arnie so the car can have Arnie to herself.

Christine was directed by John Carpenter, the horror master behind HalloweenThe Thing and They Live. Carpenter generally doesn’t go too crazy with special effects. But here, there are some truly impressive ones involving the possessed car. It gets damaged and then seems to repair itself. There’s a particularly eerie moment when we see the car  traveling driverless while on fire. Christine may seem a little dated and cheesy in some respects. But the visuals are quite striking.

As I’ve said, the central premise of the movie is pretty outlandish. But what’s just as compelling as the special effects involving the car and the whole notion of a car being sentient and turning into a serial killer, is the story arc of Artie. As he restores Christine, Arnie becomes the type of person he used to despise. His relationships with the people in his life becomes tenuous while his one with Christine grows day by day. Credit to Keith Gordon for making Arnie into such a compelling character. It’s a really underrated performance IMHO. And I also like John Stockwell who played his friend Dennis.

What’s fascinating about Christine is that it also gets right how we all become obsessed with our first car, not matter what a pile of junk it is. And then it portrays accurately how people, especially men, use cars as a way to attract women. The woman in this case is Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul), the most popular girl in school Leigh and Artie start to date, making Christine jealous. There’s a scene where Arnie takes Leigh to a drive-in movie. While Arnie steps out for snacks, Christine tries to kill Leigh. It’s one of the most intense scenes in the movie.

Christine sounds ludicrous on the surface. But the story works because of the grounded performances and John Carpenter’s craft. It’s not the best Stephen King adaptation, but it’s one of the most entertaining.

Stephen King Month: The Dead Zone

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It’s October. And that means it’s time to binge watch horror movies. One thing you’re sure to see a lot of on TV this month is adaptations of Stephen King stories. He’s a modern master of the genre. And while adaptations of his works have been hit or miss, there are a few that really get the material right. That’s my topic this month. Up first is The Dead Zone, a 1983 adaptation of King’s novel of the same name. It’s more supernatural than straight up horror. But it beautifully builds tension and features one of the best performances of Christopher Walken’s career.

As the film opens, we meet protagonist Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) . He’s a school teacher who appears to have his whole life ahead of him. But one night while leaving his fiancee’s house, his life is changed forever. Smith gets in a horrible car wreck and ends up in a coma. Five years later he wakes up. But he has acquired an unusual gift. He can see people’s past, present, and future merely by making physical contact with them. Smith discovers his ability when he first wakes up from his coma. While being bathed by his nurse, he sees her house is on fire and her daughter is in danger.

While also adjusting to his new ability, Smith has to also adjust to how the world has moved on without him during his coma. The toughest part is that his fiancee Sarah (Brooke Adams) has gotten married and now has a child. Many people misunderstand Smith’s ability. So he stays at home, working as a tutor.

But then one day his gift forces him to take action. When he shakes hands with US Senate candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) at a rally, he gets a flash of Stillson becoming President and starting World War III by launching a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. The Dead Zone poses a very uncomfortable question. Is assassination ever justified? The movie handles that question in a much more nuanced way than you might expect.

The Dead Zone is not the kind of film I expect from director David Cronenberg after ScannersThe FlyThe Brood, etc. While I liked those movies, as well as Videodrome, they were much more horror films of the gross out variety. The horror in The Dead Zone is much more rooted in reality and leans more on the psychological side. Although there is one death scene that is pretty terrifying. We don’t see how it ends. But what is suggested is grisly enough. The movie is very grounded and fairly faithful to its source material.

The other reason I love The Dead Zone so much is because of Christopher Walken. He’s an actor we have started to take for granted. And that’s really a shame. He has transitioned beautifully into a character actor, especially in Catch Me If You Can. But in The Dead Zone, you really get to see what a great actor he is when put in a leading role. Walken brings so much warmth and humanity to Johnny Smith that you can’t help but root for him and have your heart break for him when people don’t take his predictions seriously. It would have been easy to overact the part. But Walken really makes you feel his melancholy as well as show you the character’s good nature. He really brings out the pathos of the character. It was one of his last leading roles. And he delivers. Does he ever!

The Dead Zone is one of the best thrillers and easily one of the best Stephen King adaptations done for the big or small screen. I can’t recommend it highly enough.