★★★★ / ★★★★
Detective Lt. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) was one week away from retirement when he was thrusted into a case that involved an obese man who seemed as though he ate himself to death. Enter Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), an ambitious man of the law who was supposed to replace Somerset. In the meantime, the two had to work together in order to catch a killer who was intent on personifying the Seven Deadly Sins. That is, turning each sin against the sinner in grotesque and often very violent ways. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher, “Se7en” was about the two detectives as well as the crimes the killer inflicted on his victims. The contrast between the two detectives went beyond their age and the way they perceived their role in law enforcement. Somerset was the patient intellectual who bothered to read between the lines in search of deeper meaning, while Mills was the mercurial brute arm who had less proclivity toward delayed gratification. As the duo got deeper into the macabre case, we came to observe their strengths and weaknesses as well as learn about their histories. Despite their differences in personality and the way they approached problems, they made a good team. And like all good teams, sometimes they made game-changing mistakes and created repercussions that they just couldn’t walk away from. By allowing us to observe Mills and Somerset as they explored the increasingly cryptic assignment, the film argued that in order for a person to understand evil, one has to be willing to, if necessary, be an agent of the thing he is fighting against in hopes of ultimately overcoming it. Yet nothing was certain and the picture offered no easy answers about motivations, revenge, or redemption. I admired the film’s cold detachment in terms of the details of the crime. I’ve always been a curious person but I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed when Fincher allowed the camera to be as close to the subject as possible. For instance, when the obese man was in the morgue coming off a post-mortem examination, we could clearly see the various discolorations on the man’s skin, every fold of fat and fibrous vein, as well as the points of incision. When such details were so precise that my nervous system couldn’t help but react so strongly, that’s how I know I’m watching a master at work. The picture could easily have been a gimmick about the cardinal sins. But notice that with each passing victim, the camera spent less time on their mutilated bodies. Increasing attention was directed to the two detectives’ varying reactions. Take Mills as an example. He was easy to crack jokes about the corpses. He didn’t do it to be mean or disrespectful. It was his own way of coping with what he just saw so that at the end of the day he would be able to go home and sleep next to his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). “Se7en” had respect for its complex story and, more importantly, it respected us as an audience. Its willingness to stare into the ugly depths of the psyche as well as the bleak streets and underground alleys of sin made it a harrowing and rewarding experience.
The Square (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Ray (David Roberts) was having an affair with a much younger woman named Carla (Claire van der Boom). One day, Carla found a bag full of cash in the attic which she knew belonged to her husband (Anthony Hayes) and his crooked friends. Ray and Carla planned to get the money, burn the house to the ground, and run away together with the help of a hot-tempered third party (Joel Edgerton). Naturally, the plan didn’t go the way the cheating couple expected. “The Square” took a lot of risks with its tone and various twists in the plot. It reminded me of the Ethan and Joel Coens’ masterful “Blood Simple.” but far less realized as a whole because it stumbled on its way to the finish line. Rising action was abound. Ray became increasingly desperate as the body count started to rise around him. It didn’t help that someone kept sending him cryptic letters involving blackmail. Unable to confide in anyone, he needed an outlet to his frustrations. It was like watching someone playing Tetris. It’s a very practical game (as practical a simple stealing can be) but one mistake can lead to another especially when panic sets in. Carla was frustrated as well because Ray was reluctant to leave his increasingly suspecting wife. She also had to mollify her guilt due to an accidental murder in which she was directly related. But a great rising action is only as great as its payoff. Toward the end, I began to feel confused with the way Nash Edgerton, the director, tried to steer the characters away from their respective predicaments. The strand about the blackmailer was immediately dismissed when it should have been tackled head-on because the picture spent a solid amount of time luring our curiosity to the person sending the letters. In a way, I felt slightly cheated. I felt as though the filmmakers didn’t know how to sufficiently end their story so the project eventually imploded. The characters failed to think critically and act practically. There was not one person I wanted to see succeed. I wasn’t necessarily looking for an archetypal good guy but I wish I didn’t feel so detached during the final few scenes and apathetic when it ended. “The Square” was a modern noir with a somber tone that started off with a roar but ended with a barely audible whimper. It needed to work on its themes regarding tragedy, guilt, and betrayal. It dealt with such themes separately but the more important exploration was how the three were interconnected and the pressures our characters went through that could explain why they played the final hands they’ve been given the way they did.
Double Indemnity (1944)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This noir classic about a man (Fred MacMurray) who works for an insurance company who plots with a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) to kill her husband (Tom Powers) was impressive through and through. Unhappily married to her husband because she married him only for the money, Stanwyck suggested to MacMurray that they commit murder, collect her husband’s insurance money of $100,000 (assuming the husband dies on a train–a situation covered under the double indemnity clause) and be together forever. Only things started to go seriously wrong when an insurance investigator (Edward G. Robinson) began to feel like the death was due to murder rather than accidental because everything was set-up so perfectly. I enjoyed the fact that the lead character (played by MacMurray) narrated the picture and told the audiences outright how everything was going to turn out. So then the focus turned to the journey of two conniving individuals so blinded by greed and passion, they failed to consider the ramifications of what could happen after the deed was done. Stanwyck’s character was an expert of hiding her true emotions and an excellent liar; MacMurray’s character was obsessed with details and had a natural ability to think ahead. But both of them needed each other and that was ultimately their downfall (in which a train became a perfect metaphor). I thought it was fascinating how we saw the story through the antagonists’ perspectives. With most noir films I’ve seen, the story is always through the good guys’ eyes so watching this movie was a refreshing change. “Double Indemnity,” directed by Billy Wilder, being a noir film, I expected it to have a great ear when it comes to dialogue and a stunning use of black and white cinematography. What I didn’t expect was for the script to be very amusing, especially in the first half when MacMurray and Stanwyck conversed for the first time. It provided a nice contrast with the film’s darkness and cynicism. This movie kept me on my toes because just when I thought the characters were at the crest of the wave and were going to get away with everything, they hit a trough just as quickly and they started to figure out ways how they could survive even if it meant sacrificing one another.
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve heard a lot about Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” a modern noir about a private detective (Jack Nicholson) who decided to investigate about water dealings in Los Angeles, only to discover later on that what he was onto was deeper than he could tread. I was impressed by this classic picture because even though it was set in the 1930s, there was something about it that was very aware of the noir films that came before. I thought that subtle self-awareness worked in its advantage because although it did follow some of the textbook rules of noir movies, it had the ability to flip some of those rules upside down and I was taken by surprise time and time again. I loved the acting especially by Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. It’s an excellent collision of two great actors because Nicholson played a character who was always asking questions and snooping around no matter what the cost and Dunaway played a character who was a fortress. You never really know what she’s thinking or feeling because she’s so good at hiding certain bits of information that are crucial to her endgame. More importantly, she has the uncanny ability to give away facts that could help Nicholson’s character but still keep her secrets. I also liked the recurring theme of a character thinking he or she knows everything but it turning out to be quite the opposite. In the hands of a less gifted director, I think the messages would have been obvious and less fun to think about. There were also certain metaphors in the film that I found to be fascinating. For instance, that scene between Dunaway and Nicholson regarding a flaw in the iris meant so much to me in ultimately determining whether I was in the right direction of guessing who was involved in what. And in this film, a whole array of things were happening all at once to the point where a less attentive viewer will almost certainly get lost in the maelstrom of intrigues, social commentaries and taboos. “Chinatown” was well ahead of its time because it was able to synthesize remnants of what made the noir films in the 1940s and 1950s so great yet still embrace the very modern moral and ethical conundrums that plagued the era of its release. Perhaps with a second viewing I’ll love instead of like this movie. I recently found out that the more I think about certain movies and the more the events connect in my mind, the stronger my appreciation for them. Given the chance, I’ll be interested in watching “Chinatown’ again in the near future to see if its subtle ways had embedded themselves in my psyche. If it does, that is a sign of a great film.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” was about a man (Billy Bob Thornton) so bored by the ordinariness of his life and so into his head that he one day decided to spice things up by blackmailing his friend (James Gandolfini) after he gets an offer to be a business partner from another man with great ideas. One decision triggered certain events that caused a giant fracture in the lives of the people Thorton’s character had something to do with such as his wife (Frances McDormand), a lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), a girl who played the piano (Scarlett Johansson), and others. Since this was an Ethan and Joel Coen picture, I expected to be astute in its observation of human nature as well as the ability to show its audiences how it was like to be in the main character’s unique perspective. It was more than able to deliver those qualities and beyond because the story took turns that I didn’t expect. Each scene was crucial and it constantly evolved to make us feel for a man who made very bad decisions. While the signature Coen brothers humor was certainly there, it had a certain edge and darkness to make it more than just a film about consequences. I also liked the fact that this was shot in black and white because I thought it reflected the main character’s mindset. I noticed him always considering the very extreme of things, especially when he narrated the picture, and his weakness was that he was partially blind to the (morally) gray. The black-and-white also worked because this was essentially a noir movie. I loved the night scenes especially the ones shot indoors. The angles and composition of the shadows really made the experience that much more engaging. The atmosphere of the time period was also very well chosen because the Coen brothers were able to inject interesting (if not somewhat unexplored) mini-storylines involving extraterrestrials and the craze about them at the time. That one scene when Katherine Borowitz’ character knocked on Thornton’s door and told him certain bits of information about a hidden plot gave me serious goosebumps because it came out of nowhere. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” was full of surprises and I definitely consider it as a must-see for fans of the Coen brothers, or even for people who just want to observe what lengths characters living with the ennui are willing to go through to make their lives more vibrant and regret it afterwards.