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.