The Tree of Life (2011)

2018 #192
Terrence Malick | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Tree of Life

Writer-director Terrence Malick made just five films in the first 38 years of his directorial career, this being the fifth. In the seven years since it came out, he’s made five more. Why the long gaps before, or the sudden increase now? Who knows — Malick is notoriously interview-shy. But the answer may indeed lie with this film, sitting as it does at the fulcrum of his career. It was a project Malick had on his mind for decades (he shot material for it as far back as the ’70s), which for various reasons — primarily funding and technology, I think — it took him until this decade to achieve. Many think it was worth the wait: lots of people love it, including the Cannes jury, who awarded it the Palme d’Or. Many others… don’t: plenty of people regard it as pretentious, or at least too abstruse to care about. It’s a film that, I think, can only elicit an entirely personal reaction. So here’s mine.

The Tree of Life is about… um… oh dear, we’ve hit a snag already. Well, once it settles down (which takes the best part of an hour), what it’s literally about is a family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s — dad (Brad Pitt), mom (Jessica Chastain), and their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). The kids play around doing the kind of thing young lads did in the ’50s — running around in the woods, swimming in rivers, throwing stones through windows, murdering frogs — while being torn between the influences of their parents: their kind, gentle, caring mother, and their strict, authoritative, borderline abusive (or just straight abusive?) father.

But the film also occasionally shows us Sean Penn as grown-up Jack, working some high-level job in a present-day city. And it also shows us an extended sequence about the birth of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. And that’s to say nothing of the epilogue… Or, indeed, the prologue, which introduces a massive event in the family’s life that is then, arguably, unreferenced by the rest of the movie.

So… yeah.

Pondering or ponderous?

Much of The Tree of Life is more like visual poetry than a traditional narrative film. Beautiful images glide before our eyes, some with obvious meaning, others less so. Some of the images resonate or rhyme with each other, urging us to infer our own interpretation of what we’re seeing, and why, and what it signifies. This is mostly true of the opening chunk — which lasts a good 45 to 60 minutes — and the ending. In between, more of a narrative is discernible — the stuff about the young family — although it’s constructed in a poetic fashion, with minimal dialogue, lots of vignettes, fragments of day-to-day life that don’t necessarily have an immediate significance.

To me, it felt like we were watching someone’s dreams or memories, presented as we really remember things: random fragments from our lives. If you think about your memories of childhood, they don’t take the form of a neat narrative in concise scenes with all the important landmarks accounted for. We do remember big events, of course, but also many small things; and some things we remember extensively, but others only fragmentarily. If you could view a person’s memories, they’d create, not a biopic, but an impressionistic collage or our lives — and this film is that, I think.

But that can still leave the viewer to question what it’s all about, especially given the extended sequence of space gases, forming planets, burgeoning microscopic lifeforms, and dinosaurs. Yes, in arguably the film’s most baffling sequence (there are many contenders), we see an event in the life of some dinosaurs. Actually, I say it’s the most baffling, but only if you stick to the film itself: of all the confusing things herein, that’s the one with the most concrete explanation, thanks to visual effects supervisor Michael L. Fink having a little chat with critic Jim Emerson about Malick’s intentions for the scene. Not everyone likes firm answers to this kind of stuff, so I’ll just link to where you can read it if you want to.

Motherly love

That said, some of the stuff I’ve already mentioned in passing I only know definitively thanks to extra-textual sources. Well, if you count the film’s end credits as extra-textual, which I suppose they’re not. But it’s only thanks to those that I know for certain which of the boys Penn was supposed to be, or that the creation-of-the-universe stuff is indeed meant to be that (based on genuine science, donchaknow), and that these scenes show us the “astrophysical realm”, because there are effects credits for that. And more still can be learnt from, of all places, the Blu-ray’s chapter menu: the long creation sequence is indeed called “creation”, in case you weren’t sure. The ending is “eternity”, followed by “was it a dream?” Others include “grief”, “innocence”, “mother”, “father”, “I do what I hate” — all showing us the way towards important themes… maybe. Or perhaps they’re just convenient chapter points…

Praise for the film’s imagery is due not only to Malick, but also cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. And it’s not even the guy’s best work — I’d argue for consistent beauty he’s surpassed it with some of the stunning, Oscar-winning stuff he’s done since — but you can see how he got from here to there: the very best shots in The Tree of Life are kind of what he does all the time in films like The Revenant. As for constructing those images into a meaningful flow, I’m never sure how much is down to an editor’s own creativity and how much is them operating machinery under the director’s instruction — I guess, like most things in the movies, it’s a collaborative mix of both. Anyway, the film has five credited editors — Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, and Mark Yoshikawa — who I’m sure must’ve been vital to the process. (Relatedly, here’s a fun anecdote from IMDb: “an Italian cinema showed the film for a week with the first two reels switched. Even though the film starts with production logos, no one in the theater noticed and thought it was all part of Terrence Malick’s ‘crazy editing style’.”)

Creation

There’s a lot of really great music and sound design as well — something Malick clearly considered important to a Lynchian degree, given that before the film plays the Blu-ray flashes up a notice advising you to “play it loud”. Alexandre Desplat is credited for the music, but a very, very long list of sourced tracks too hints at what actually happened: most of his music went unused in the final cut, with only a few minutes making it in. I imagine that feels quite unedifying, to have your work sidelined; but maybe it’s better than being ditched entirely in favour of a new score, as has happened to plenty of other composers in the past.

It’s easy to get hung up on all this filmmaking when thinking about The Tree of Life, because that’s where its own focus seems to be, as opposed to the usual things a reviewer might think to discuss first, like the screenplay or performances. But there are still actors here, and good ones at that. The movie is really centred around Hunter McCracken, and he’s very good. The casting directors saw thousands of Texan school kids while trying to cast the boys, and the effort paid off; though McCracken hasn’t done anything else since, so maybe not for him personally. The other two brothers don’t have so much to do; in fact, I kept almost forgetting one of the trio existed, so little is he on screen or relevant to events. Ironically, he’s the only one of the three who’s gone on to have a career: it’s Tye Sheridan, most recently seen as the lead in Ready Player One.

As for the adults, Sean Penn is one of the many lead actors in a Malick film whose performances have wound up on the cutting room floor. According to Lubezki, there’s enough deleted footage to make a whole movie focused on Penn’s character. Yep, sounds like Malick! Obviously such a movie would be completely different to this one, but I’d be curious to see it. More screen time is devoted to Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, who both achieve a lot with comparatively little. Chastain is the focus early on, but it later becomes apparent that Pitt has a showier role, in a way, because of his character’s arc. There’s a pullquote on the back of the UK Blu-ray that calls it “the strongest performance of his career”, but considering his performances in the likes of Se7en and The Assassination of Jesse James, or that he’s been Oscar-nominated for his turns in Twelve Monkeys, Benjamin Button, and Moneyball, I thought that was a bit of an outlandish claim to make. To each their own, though.

Affection or headlock?

Anyhow, all this is “technical” stuff quite apart from what The Tree of Life is really about. Not that I’m totally clear on what that is, still. I guess maybe it’s there for us to infer what we like from it, be that religious, scientific, humanistic, or, for many a viewer, just boredom. Whether you love it or hate it — and there are certainly plenty of perfectly reasonable people at both extremes — it’s definitely an Experience; one every person who considers themselves serious about film appreciation needs to have.

4 out of 5

A new edition of The Tree of Life, which includes a different cut that’s 50 minutes longer (but, intriguingly, is not an extended cut), is released by Criterion in the US tomorrow and in the UK on November 19th.

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Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

The 100 Films Guide to…

3 casinos.
11 guys.
150 million bucks.
Ready to win big?

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 117 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 7th December 2001 (USA & Canada)
UK Release: 15th February 2002
Budget: $85 million
Worldwide Gross: $450.7 million

Stars
George Clooney (Batman & Robin, Michael Clayton)
Brad Pitt (Fight Club, World War Z)
Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Jason Bourne)
Andy Garcia (The Godfather: Part III, Jennifer 8)
Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Closer)

Director
Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Magic Mike)

Screenwriter
Ted Griffin (Ravenous, Matchstick Men)

Based on
Ocean’s Eleven, a 1960 film starring the Rat Pack.


The Story
A gang of crooks plot the biggest heist in Las Vegas history: robbing three casinos at once.

Our Heroes
Danny Ocean, a charming con man fresh out of prison, planning his biggest job yet — well, anyone’s biggest job yet. To do it he’ll need ten more men, including right-hand-man Rusty, newbie Linus, explosives expert Basher, inside man Frank, old pro Saul, tech head Livingston, gymnast Yen, general double-act support Virgil and Turk, and all of it bankrolled by Reuben.

Our Villains
Smug Las Vegas big shot Terry Benedict, owner of all three casinos the gang are targeting. Also: he’s shagging Ocean’s ex-wife.

Best Supporting Character
The aforementioned former Mrs Ocean, Tess, who’s shacked up with Benedict in part because he’s a more honest man than her ex. Or so she thinks…

Memorable Quote
Danny: “Because the house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes, the house takes you. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big, and then you take the house.”
Rusty: “Been practicing that speech, haven’t you?”
Danny: “Little bit. Did I rush it? Felt like I rushed it.”
Rusty: “No, it was good, I liked it.”

Memorable Scene
As with any good entry in this genre, the heist itself — which is less “a scene” and more “the third act”, of course — is the highlight of the movie.

Letting the Side Down
Don Cheadle’s cockney accent is less Guy Ritchie, more Dick Van Dyke. But then, as we know, that’s how cockneys are meant to sound anyway.

Next time…
A pair of less well regarded sequels followed in 2004 and 2007 (ten years ago! Time flies), while an all-female spin-off is out next summer.

Verdict

As slick and stylish now as it was a decade-and-a-half ago, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of the Rat Pack comedy-thriller is that rarest of all things in moviedom: a remake that’s better than the original. Apparently Soderbergh said that he saw this as an opportunity to give audiences “pleasure from beginning to end… a movie that you just surrender to, without embarrassment and without regret.” Well, he nailed it. It’s a film packed with likeable characters, memorable lines, snazzy direction, cool music cues, and the raison d’être of a heist movie: a final act that pulls the wool over the audience’s eyes. It’s pretty much perfect entertainment.

Moneyball (2011)

2016 #163
Bennett Miller | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

MoneyballBased on a true story, Moneyball concerns the management of baseball team Oakland Athletics during the 2002 season. General manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) struggles to put a squad together due to a comparatively low budget for players, which has seen all his best ones drift off to richer contracts elsewhere. Fed up with the traditional scouting system, he recruits Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to use statistical analysis to select a cheap team of quality players. The rest of his staff despair, including coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who refuses to play the team as Beane and Brand suggest, which unsurprisingly leads to self-vindicating failure — until they force his hand…

So Moneyball is a movie about sports and statistics — a pair of topics that will bore some people to tears, while still others will enjoy one but not the other. Generally, I couldn’t care less about sport, but statistics? Well, maybe.

Unfortunately, despite what you might’ve heard, Moneyball is more about sport than statistics. Worse, it makes too few concessions to people who know fuck all about baseball. You can follow the general arc, but it’s like turning on a real game of any sport you know nothing about: you can discern some stuff, but the coverage is not being produced for you. At one point it cuts to a match and a caption informs us it’s the “bottom of the 9th”. I’m sure that means something to baseball fans, but I can tell you the rest of us haven’t got the foggiest. Is the “bottom” at the beginning or the end? Or somewhere in the middle? Or is it something to do with score rather than time? The 9th what? And is it the 9th of 9 or the 9th of 10? Or 12? Or 15? Or 18, or 25, or…? Or is it the fact it’s the 9th that’s significant here? Maybe there’s normally only 3 or 4 of whatever it is? For Moneyball as a movie in its own right, rather than some niche special interest thing, this attitude is a drawback.

Brad to batProblems extend beyond the sporting specifics. It’s quite some way into the movie before it gets stuck into the meat of the plan working, and before that it often throws in asides that meander around through Beane’s earlier playing career and current family life. The former has some bearing on the plot, though feels inadequately integrated — as one flashback it might work, but as a series of them it’s not enough to constitute a parallel story. The latter, his family life, provides character texture, but it’s slight, uninformative, and ultimately unnecessary. You could cut it and the film would lose nothing.

Moneyball was going to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, who apparently had some interesting ideas about how to present the wealth of statistical material — ideas that were too interesting for Sony, as it turned out, because they shut down production days before shooting was due to start and kicked Soderbergh out. He was replaced with Bennett Miller, who previously directed Capote, which was fine, and later did Foxcatcher, which I didn’t really like (I gave it 4 stars, but my review reads more like 3 and that’s how I remember it). I’m beginning to dislike the guy. According to IMDb his next project is A Christmas Carol, because we really need another version of that.

On the bright side, Soderbergh’s departure was when Aaron Sorkin came on to write a new version of the screenplay. Swings and roundabouts, eh? But this does not feel like a film written by Aaron Sorkin. Where’s the sparkling dialogue? Where’s the impressive structure? The former is perfunctory and functional; the latter is, if not a mess, then certainly lacking the rigour of his other work. Apparently Sorkin only agreed to do a re-write if previous screenwriter Steven Zaillian kept a credit, because Sorkin felt the script was great “This screenplay's shit.” “Well I didn't write it.”and didn’t need any work, which probably explains why it’s not so Sorkin-y. Zaillian is not a bad writer — his credits include Schindler’s List and Gangs of New York, both of which are in my 100 Favourites, and the US remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I gave full marks — but I wouldn’t say he has a unique voice. Moneyball’s screenplay is fine for what it is, but it doesn’t have that frisson that Sorkin brings.

Baseball doesn’t interest me in the slightest, partly because I’m not interested in much sport, partly because I’m not American. So I watched Moneyball for three reasons: one, because it seemed like it might be more about the stats than a traditional sports movie. It’s not. Second, because it was written by Aaron Sorkin. But the screenplay displays little of his usual verve. And third, because it’s a Best Picture nominee from this millennium and I’m intending to tick all of those off eventually. In that respect, at least, it was a success — of course, it couldn’t fail to be.

3 out of 5

Spy Game (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #87

It’s not how you play the game.
It’s how the game plays you.

Country: USA, Germany, Japan & France
Language: English, German, Arabic, French & Cantonese
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 21st November 2001 (USA)
UK Release: 23rd November 2001
First Seen: DVD, c.2002

Stars
Robert Redford (The Sting, All is Lost)
Brad Pitt (Twelve Monkeys, Ocean’s Eleven)
Catherine McCormack (Braveheart, 28 Weeks Later)
Stephen Dillane (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Hours)

Director
Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire)

Screenwriters
Michael Frost Beckner (Sniper, To Appomattox)
David Arata (Brokedown Palace, Children of Men)

Story by
Michael Frost Beckner (Cutthroat Island, Prince Valiant)

The Story
When a retiring CIA agent’s one-time protégé is captured by the Chinese, he recalls their years training and working together, while battling internal agency politics to free his former friend.

Our Heroes
Nathan Muir is on the cusp of retirement, a former CIA field agent who’s now desk-bound and disregarded by his superiors. Previously, he recruited sniper Tom Bishop into the agency, training him to be a spy with Muir’s own values — which Bishop didn’t necessarily share, and his reaction against has ultimately led him into the hands of the Chinese. But how? Well, that’s what flashbacks are for.

Our Villains
Lots of Johnny Foreigners — but also some factions within the CIA itself…

Best Supporting Character
One of the CIA agents handling Bishop’s capture, and so attempting to handle Muir, is his oleaginous colleague Charles Harker. He’s played by the always-excellent Stephen “Stannis Baratheon” Dillane, who is perfectly snide in the role.

Memorable Quote
Bishop: “You don’t just trade these people like they’re baseball cards! It’s not a fucking game!”
Muir: “Oh, yes it is. It’s exactly what it is. And it’s no kid’s game either. This is a whole other game. And it’s serious and it’s dangerous. And it’s not one you want to lose.”

Memorable Scene
After an asset is killed, Bishop confronts Muir on a rooftop about the morals of what they do and why they do it. See also: Memorable Quote; Making of.

Technical Wizardry
The cinematography and editing haven’t yet reached the crazed heights Tony Scott would later display in Man on Fire and Domino, but it’s not without its affects. The flashbacks occur in a few different eras, so Scott decided to give each period a distinct look to remind the viewer of that time. For example, Vietnam is desaturated to a “strange sepia green”, while the colours in Beirut are heightened to mimic news clips from 1985. Conversely, Scott found the talky scenes within the CIA to be the “most challenging part of the movie” — without all his usual tricks, he had to rely on the quality of his actors to bring the scenes to life.

Making of
For the Berlin rooftop confrontation between Muir and Bishop, Tony Scott asked for more money to rent a helicopter. The producers refused — not unreasonably, when you consider it’s a dialogue scene. But Scott believed it was important and so rented the helicopter with his own money. Robert Redford was reportedly baffled by Scott’s use of a helicopter to film such an intimate conversation, but when he saw the final result he was impressed by how dynamic it made the scene.

What the Critics Said
“beneath the film’s nostalgic veneer and tooth-rattling visual and aural effects lies a mature ambiguity that’s unusual for a holiday blockbuster — and all but unheard of in a Tony Scott movie. […] the portrayal of Muir, Bishop, and their employers as significantly less than moral beacons makes the film surprisingly demanding as a whole. Rather than requiring us to take its desperate heroes and their dubious redemption entirely at face value, Spy Game slips in a refreshing dose of uncertainty with its cinematic jolts.” — Mark Holcomb, The Village Voice

Score: 66%

What the Public Say
“I have seen it three times now, and I still don’t have a full grasp of all the phone calls and cutaways and violent edits. This aspect, rather than being a distraction, is one of the film’s virtues. The idea is that Redford’s Nathan Muir is so smart that he is hoodwinking the CIA. Part of the game that the movie plays is that we the viewers are given just enough of a hint that we can appreciate his cleverness, but even we aren’t intended to fully ‘get it’. Tony Scott’s hectic, pulse-pounding visual style is largely responsible for this mesmerizing and confusing effect. Similar to (but far superior to) Guy Ritchie’s penchant for seemingly random visual tampering, Scott hits more often than he misses in Spy Game” — Ian Kay, Taking a Look

Verdict

Spy Game is not normally considered the pinnacle in the careers of anyone involved, but there’s something about it that really works for me. In part it’s the chemistry between Redford and Pitt, a pair of actors who look like they could be father and son and exude a similar level of connection. The dual timeline structure keeps things rattling along, with Redford entertainingly running rings round the CIA in the present, while the flashbacks consider “the greater good” — how far should they go, and is it ever worth it? Possibly such questions weren’t appreciated on the film’s immediately-after-9/11 initial release, but they’ve since become more relevant than ever.

That’s no moon… it’s #88.

Cool World (1992)

2016 #70
Ralph Bakshi | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Cool WorldSometime recently, I said I was making more of an effort to avoid watching movies I know are going to be bad — when there’s so much good stuff to see, why knowingly waste time on bad stuff? But then sometimes something just catches your attention and you have to see for yourself. It sounds as if no one had anything good to say about Cool World when it came out back in 1992, and no one’s had anything good to say about it since either, but after spotting it on Netflix (I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before that) my curiosity was piqued.

Directed by Ralph Bakshi, who’s probably best known for the animated Lord of the Rings, it’s the story of cartoonist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) who’s created the zany, surreal ‘Cool World’. But Cool World is actually a real place (a real cartoon place, as it were), which Jack ends up getting transported to. He meets femme fatale Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) who wants to escape to the real world, but is being prevented from doing so by Frank (Brad Pitt), another real human who was transported to Cool World decades earlier.

If this all sounds a bit of a mess, it is. It’s not a fundamentally bad story at a conceptual level, but its execution is a jumble, and the twisted Cool World is an unpleasant place to have to spend time. The darkness of the story is actually toned down from Bakshi’s original concept (which had an underground cartoonist fathering a half-real / half-cartoon daughter who tries to kill him), but only so much: it’s still full of sex, references to sex, Holli Would, and she willand general depraved behaviour. It’s clear it got caught in the crossfire between a creator/director who wanted to make a hard-R adults-only animated/live-action movie, and a star and producer who wanted to make something they could show to sick kiddies in hospital. The end result surely satisfies neither, because it pulls some punches to not get that R, but there’s no way this is kid-friendly.

It came out a few years after Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and suffers from the comparison. It’s not just that Cool World is a less successful riff on the same concept, or that its storytelling is more muddled, but it’s less technically proficient too. The animation and live-action elements never gel as well as in Roger Rabbit, with plenty of lazy eye-lines and actions not quite lining up. This probably explains why Byrne and Pitt both give lacklustre performances, not that Basinger fares any better.

There’s some interesting stuff in Cool World, which is why I haven’t sunk it to the irredeemable depths of a single star, but the merits are slight and not worth the effort. Apparently it does have something of a cult following, though, so the adventurous may still feel it’s worth a visit.

2 out of 5

Cool World featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The Big Short (2015)

2016 #161
Adam McKay | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Big ShortYou wouldn’t think the 2008 financial crisis would make good fodder for a comedy-drama — it’s both too complicated and too grim — but Anchorman writer-director Adam McKay clearly felt differently. With co-writer Charles Randolph, he adapted the non-fiction bestseller by Michael Lewis (the author of the books that became awards season contenders The Blind Side and Moneyball) and turned it into… well, an awards season contender — but a funny one.

Specifically, it’s the story of the handful of men who saw the financial crisis coming, and arranged their finances to bet on it, too. It’s not a completely true account but, as it’s presented here, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the only one who actually spots it. He takes out insurance policies or something — look, the whole film is full of really complicated financial stuff and this was right at the start, OK? Here’s the Wikipedia plot description of what he does: “his plan is to create a credit-default swap market, allowing him to bet against market-based mortgage-backed securities.” So, he does that, the investment banks gladly accept his money because they think he’s mad, but a handful of others (including Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt) stumble across his research one way or another, believe he’s right, and begin to make similar investments.

Christian Bale tries to understand the screenplayThe narrative is laden with concepts that are so complicated even people within the industry don’t properly understand all of them (however did the market fail?!), but the movie nonetheless attempts to explain them in an accessible way. It’s half successful: you kind of understand them at the time, about enough to follow along, but the chances of remembering them later are next to naught. One of McKay’s tricks to engage us with these explanations is to wheel in random celebrities to deliver analogies. It’s a fun idea, though it’s success is debatable — I mean, I’ve just about heard of Selena Gomez, and I guess the “famous chef” that turns up must have a TV show in America, or something, maybe? Yeah, the ‘names’ he’s chosen are going to date this movie far more than its 2008 setting ever will.

Indeed, on the whole I could’ve done without McKay’s jittery directorial style, amped up through ADD editing by Hank Corwin. Both were Oscar nominated and I’ve read other reviews that praise the style, but to me it just felt needlessly hyperactive, like the film is so afraid of being dull that it has to constantly dance around in the hope you won’t notice. I did notice — not that the film was dull, just that it thought it was. I guess that’s what happens when a guy more at home making movies like Anchorman and The Other Guys instead makes one about the world of real-life high finance.

Not very impressedThough the conceptual explanations may fade almost as soon as you’ve heard them, what does stick with you is how it all ends. Essentially, the financial industry that destroyed peoples’ lives in pursuit of never-ending profit not only got away with it, but they actually started doing the same stuff all over again, just with new acronyms. What’s even more sickening is that people are clearly aware it’s going on — I mean, we’ve been told as much in an Oscar-winning movie — but they’re still doing nothing about it.

How’s that for a scary thought this Halloween weekend, eh?

4 out of 5

Se7en (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #81

Seven deadly sins. Seven ways to die.

Also Known As: Seven

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 127 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 22nd September 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 5th January 1996
First Seen: TV, 12th June 2001 (probably)

Stars
Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby)
Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, American Beauty)
Gwyneth Paltrow (Sliding Doors, Shakespeare in Love)

Director
David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac)

Screenwriter
Andrew Kevin Walker (8MM, Sleepy Hollow)

The Story
In an unnamed city, two homicide detectives investigate a series of grim murders inspired by the seven deadly sins.

Our Heroes
William Somerset is a detective who works calmly and methodically, and cares more than most. Serving out the last few days before his retirement, he lands a helluva final case. His new partner is David Mills, a hotheaded but idealistic new transfer who’s keen to prove himself. Despite their chalk-and-cheese temperaments, or perhaps because of them, the pair may be ideally suited to catch the elusive killer.

Our Villain
John Doe, a proper psychopath, and on a mission too. I say the detectives are ideally suited to catch him, but, well (major, major spoilers…) they technically don’t and he essentially wins.

Best Supporting Character
R. Lee Ermey’s police captain, purely for the moment when he answers a phone. I love that bit of humour far more than it probably warrants.

Memorable Quote
“What was in the box? What’s in the box? What’s in the fucking box?!” — Mills

Memorable Scene
The climax — just Somerset, Mills, and John Doe, alone in the middle of nowhere… and then a deliveryman shows up. “John Doe has the upper hand!”

Technical Wizardry
The film’s visual style really helps to sell the tone — dark, foreboding, grim. This is in part because it’s always raining, a decision made to increase the sense of dread, and because of Darius Khondji’s cinematography, which employed bleach bypass (see also: Minority Report), a process that serves to deepen shadows. Additionally, for the film’s Platinum Series DVD release it was rescanned from the original negative, meaning the whole film had to have its colour grading re-done. Some of the changes were quite extensive (as detailed in the DVD/Blu-ray’s special features, if you’re interested).

Truly Special Effect
A serial killer thriller might not sound like a special effect showcase, but John Doe’s extreme methods lead to some pretty unusual and gruesome corpses — rendered with suitably sickening prosthetics, of course. ‘Sloth’ is particularly harrowing, though ‘lust’ is so bad it’s left almost entirely to our imagination — though, again, someone had to design and build the… instrument.

Making of
John Doe’s shelves of handwritten notebooks were real and created especially for the film. They took two months to create at a cost of $15,000.

Next time…
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker originally thought of 8MM as a sequel, and David Fincher was interested, but it didn’t happen and we wound up with the only-half-decent Nicolas Cage-starring Joel Schumacher-directed version instead.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Editing)
1 BAFTA nomination (Original Screenplay)
2 Saturn Awards (Writing, Make-Up)
5 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure Film, Actor (Morgan Freeman), Supporting Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Director, Music)
Places with more taste (i.e. where it won Best Film): Empire Awards, Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Awards, MTV Movie Awards; plus Best Foreign Language Film at Blue Ribbon Awards, Hochi Film Awards, Sant Jordi Awards (Audience Award)

What the Critics Said
“designer unpleasantness is a hallmark of our era, and this movie may be more concerned with wallowing in it than with illuminating what it means politically. Yet the filmmakers stick to their vision with such dedication and persistence that something indelible comes across — something ethically and artistically superior to The Silence of the Lambs that refuses to exploit suffering for fun or entertainment and leaves you wondering about the world we’re living in.” — Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Score: 80%

What the Public Say
“The rain never ends. There is seldom any sunlight, or any warmth. The city feels like a city of the damned, as if its denizens are souls trapped in some circle of hell from which there is no escape. A feeling of dread pervades everything; there is never any inclination that anything remotely like justice or hope or salvation is even possible here. […] it’s all style and atmosphere but… to criticise the film for that, almost feels like missing the point — it’s so integral to the piece, the atmosphere is actually one of the film’s characters” — the ghost of 82

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed Se7en quite thoroughly (and, if I do say so myself, quite well) as part of a retrospective on Fincher’s films back in 2011, concluding that “some would claim that Se7en is no more than a standard murder thriller with a stock mismatched pair of detectives. In some respects they’re right, but in enough respects they’re wrong. There’s a killer high concept behind the crimes, but it’s really the execution of the film that makes it so much more. It’s in the performances, the way those stock characters are written, their subplots, the story’s pace, the cinematography, the music, individual sequences like Somerset in the library or the climax that rise not only to the top of the genre but to the top of the very medium of film itself.”

Verdict

When asked, I normally say Se7en is my favourite movie. That’s partly pre-picked just to prevent any such conversations turning into a dreary slog where I um and ah through hundreds of options, but naturally there’s some truth in it. On the surface it’s merely a police procedural, but it’s the way it handles that material that elevates it. It’s a dark film about terrible deeds, which both suits its subject matter (murder isn’t really just a fun little mystery to solve, is it?) and presents a worldview that makes us consider who’s really right and who’s really mad — John Doe is clearly an evil psychopath, but does he have a point? It’s also made with supreme artistry by director David Fincher and his team — I’ve already mentioned DP Darius Khondji, but it’s also superbly edited by Richard Francis-Bruce. And I’d argue it has one of the greatest climaxes ever filmed. There are more easily enjoyable movies in my 100 Favourites, but there are none that are any better made, nor any that better expose the dark heart of humanity.

#82 will be… a big damn movie.

Fight Club (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #29

Mischief. Mayhem. Soap.

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 139 minutes
BBFC: 18 (cut, 1999) | 18 (uncut, 2005)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th October 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 12th November 1999
First Seen: TV, c.2001

Stars
Edward Norton (American History X, 25th Hour)
Brad Pitt (Interview with the Vampire, World War Z)
Helena Bonham Carter (Room with a View, The King’s Speech)
Meat Loaf (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny)

Director
David Fincher (Se7en, The Social Network)

Screenwriter
Jim Urls (Sweet Talk, Jumper)

Based on
Fight Club, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk.

The Story
The film’s nameless narrator is growing increasingly disillusioned with his mundane consumerist lifestyle, when he bumps into Tyler Durden. A free-spirited soap salesman, the pair have a fight for the heck of it. Finally experiencing some kind of genuine feeling, they set up an underground club for fighting, but it gradually becomes clear that Tyler may have bigger ideas…

Our Heroes
I am Jack’s nameless narrator. I am also Jack’s friend, Tyler Durden. Yes, just his friend…

Our Villains
The establishment! Capitalism! What’ve you got?

Best Supporting Character
Helena Bonham Carter hasn’t been fucked like that since grade school.

Memorable Quote
“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club! ” — Tyler Durden

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” — Tyler Durden

Memorable Scene
Called into his manager’s office to discuss his bad behaviour, the Narrator decides the best method of getting his own way is by enacting physical violence… on himself.

Technical Wizardry / Truly Special Effect
For what’s essentially a drama, Fight Club is overloaded with special effects and visual trickery. I don’t know if any are particularly groundbreaking in and of themselves, but several are particularly striking. A personal favourite, thanks to the perfect execution of the idea, is the shot where the Narrator’s condo is transformed into a living IKEA catalogue.

Making of
Marla’s original post-coital line was, “I want to have your abortion.” The studio objected to such an offensive line, so Fincher agreed to change it on the condition that the new line had to be used. The studio agreed, apparently unaware that such an agreement was never going to end well. Fincher wrote the replacement line, “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school.” The studio asked for the original line back; Fincher refused. (It must say something about American values that abortion is considered more shocking than underage sex.)

Next time…
Nothing from the film, but Chuck Palahniuk has continued his novel in 10-issue comic book series Fight Club 2. A second comic series, Fight Club 3, is planned.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound Effects Editing)
1 MTV Movie Awards nominations (Best Fight for Edward Norton fighting himself)
1 BRIT Award nomination (Best Soundtrack — it lost to Notting Hill)

What the Critics Said
“Three factors elevate Fincher’s apocalyptic stew to something approaching art. First is Norton’s performance, as sneaky and shocking as that in his film debut Primal Fear. Second is Palahniuk’s story, which dances on a razor’s edge between life and death, expression and repression, ecstasy and agony. Third is Fincher’s dedication to making a film that looks and sound likes no other, one that powerfully illustrates what dementia looks like from inside and out.” — Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

Score: 79%

What the Public Say
“it’s hard to believe Fight Club is now 15 years old. As I was watching the film last night I found it hard to review because it is so ingrained in pop culture now it would be almost sacrilegious to say something bad about it. […] The first time I saw Fight Club I did not see the twist of [REDACTED] coming. I remember being surprised, but also very confused. I didn’t really understand how it worked then. On the second viewing it is easy to see a million clues pointing to this from the very beginning. Director David Fincher is very clever in how he orchestrates the film by giving you all these hints. He’s very good at walking that tight rope of not giving away too much. The twist is definitely one of the highlights of the film and why it is so memorable. It doesn’t feel cheap to me as some of these things normally do.” — Sherise, The Girl that Loved to Review

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed Fight Club as part of a retrospective on Fincher’s films back in 2011, saying “Fincher’s films often look great, but Fight Club is surely the most visually inventive. A list of exciting spectacles could be endless […] To top it off, the ‘regular’ cinematography is grounded in Fincher’s trademark darkness, as if every shot was conceived as just black and he added only what light was necessary.”

Verdict

A controversial film to this day, Fight Club is a violent, explicit exploration of the turn-of-the-millennium Western male psyche, which hasn’t necessarily lost its relevance in the ensuing decade-and-a-half. Criticised by some for endorsing the anarchic lifestyle it depicts, praised by others for satirising that mode of thinking, and criticised by other others for not satirising it well enough, the film can certainly provoke a spread of views. There’s little doubt that David Fincher’s direction is memorably slick and inspired, however, and it has one of the most talked-about twists in movie history.

#33 will… boldly go where no comedy has gone before.

Snatch. (2000)

2016 #2
Guy Ritchie | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & USA / English & Russian | 18 / R

Guy Ritchie’s second feature met with relative indifference 16 years ago, consensus deeming it Lock Stock Mk.2 and finding Ritchie needed to branch out if he was to meet his debut’s promise. (It only took a further four films to realise that for himself.) The consensus is very different today: taking IMDb’s Top 250 as a bellwether, Snatch is #94 and Lock Stock is #138.

I thought it was like Pulp Fiction refashioned in the style of Lock Stock, but with more-connected stories that play concurrently.

It was fine. Above average, even.

That’s all I have to say about it.

4 out of 5

Snatch was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Happy Feet Two (2011)

2015 #193
George Miller | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | U / PG

Mumble and his penguin pals return for another adventure, in a series the Australian film industry are reportedly inordinately proud of.

Not as fun as the first, Happy Feet Two suffers from messy storytelling that can’t seem to settle on a narrative thread. For example: a massive subplot featuring a pair of Pythonesque philosophical krill, voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, is the film’s most fun element, but never significantly connects to anything else.

At least there are a few good musical sequences, one again re-appropriated from existing pop tunes, not least an Australian-accented elephant seal rendition of Rawhide.

3 out of 5