Contagion (2011)

2015 #108
Steven Soderbergh | 102 mins | streaming | 16:9 | USA & UAE / English | 12 / PG-13

Director Steven Soderbergh takes the methodology he used to depict the drug trade in Traffic — an ensemble cast divided among a portmanteau of colour-coded storylines to examine different aspects of the theme — and applies it to the outbreak of a devastating global pandemic.

It’s a little bit terrifying because it feels pretty plausible, riffing on real-world ‘false alarm’ viruses to suggest there may be a time we’re not so lucky. It’s not as focused as it could be, with some threads too melodramatic and eminently cuttable (one with Marion Cotillard in particular), but it remains sporadically illuminating and largely engrossing.

4 out of 5

Haiku Review

Ev’ry August film
reviewed in haiku form. (And
you thought drabbles short!)

I can’t even remember what gave me the idea, but the other day I started writing haiku-sized reviews of films I’d watched, and before I knew it had written one for every film from August. So, in what may or may not become a new regular feature, I’m going to share them with you. You lucky, lucky people.

Technically a haiku is more than just the 5-7-5 syllable structure most people know: it should be about nature, and (to quote Wikipedia) “the essence of haiku is ‘cutting’… often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (‘cutting word’) between them.” Obviously these haiku have nothing to do with the first of those conditions; as to the second, well, it comes and goes. At times, I’ve tried; others, less so. Hopefully none are just 17-syllable sentences split in three. Nonetheless, I don’t promise poetic quality with these.


Contagion
Gwyneth Paltrow eats,
whole world at risk of grim death.
Scares ’cause it could be.

End of Watch
Cops film selves, sort of.
Inconsistent P.O.V.
undermines reel-ism.

Inherent Vice [review]
Pynchon’s comedy
filmed by P.T. Anderson.
Laughs for weed users.

Interstellar [review]
Two-Thousand-And-One,
A Space-Time Anomaly.
Mainly, spectacle.

Justice League: The New Frontier
Uncommon premise
raises expectations, but
promise is squandered.

Life of Pi [review]
Tiger on a boat:
CG extravaganza!
Better than the truth.

Monsters: Dark Continent [review]
Genre transplanted,
but soldiers pose same quand’ry:
aren’t we the monsters?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
This: way the world ends —
not with a bang or whimper,
but a love story.

Shallow Grave
Danny Boyle’s debut.
Cold cash leads friends to distrust
and dismemberment.

Sherlock Holmes (1922) [review]
Moriarty v.
Barrymore. Gillette-derived
slight Sherlock silent.

Shivers
Amateur work by:
biologist, kills neighbours;
Cronenberg, upsets.

Space Station 76 [review]
Groovy future fun,
undercut by theme of frac-
tured relationships.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Epic history,
too personalised for some.
Piqued insight abounds.

Stranger by the Lake
French gays have the sex
with a killer in their midst.
A slow-burn beauty.

The Theory of Everything [review]
Eddie Redmayne won
awards, but the film’s heart is
Felicity Jones.

The Thing (2011) [review]
Under prequel’s guise,
computers doodle a mere
Carpenter rehash.

The Haiku Review may return next month. We’ll see how things go.

Se7en (1995)

2011 #14a
David Fincher | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 18 / R

Se7enI usually say that Se7en is my favourite film.

I don’t know if it’s just a recent thing, but with the proliferation of online “profiles” thanks to Facebook and, long before that, forums and various other websites*, it feels like we’re asked such questions on a regular basis these days, never mind as a go-to topic when conversation is struggling. So when people or websites inevitably ask what is your favourite film, they expect you to have one. I don’t think they like it if you begin to list 20, or 30, or… So I say Se7en.

This once led to me doing a presentation on the film; specifically, on Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay. It went quite well and I was going to use the notes as the basis for at least some of this review — I’m sure there was something interesting in them. I even listened to one of the commentaries (it has four) to glean extra info (in over a decade of buying DVDs now, I’ve only listened to about ten commentaries). Unfortunately the notes are lost to a harddrive buried deep in a box somewhere, or a hardcopy buried deep in old notes goodness knows where, so that’ll have to wait for another day. I just wanted you to know you were missing out. (Don’t get too upset — I’m sure it wasn’t that good.)

As with almost all films I love, be they ones I’ve held dear for years or newly discovered as part of 100 Films’ primary thread, I’m not sure where to begin praising it. Perhaps the cinematography, an aspect Fincher put a lot of work into both originally and then again to make it look right on the DVD re-release. This may well be because the film is incredibly dark. SlothBlack seems to be its default position — everything else is cut out of the darkness with as little light as possible. Often backgrounds and locations are better lit than foregrounds or actors, making the viewer focus on silhouettes with minimal light offering splashes of detail. Even the scenes that occur at daytime (most, anyway) do so in the middle of ferocious, ceaseless rain that ensures it never gets too bright.

It’s only appropriate, because the story is pretty much as black as they come. For those who’ve made it this far without finding out, Se7en concerns the police investigation into a series of murders themed around the seven deadly sins. In case you haven’t seen it, I shan’t outline any examples, but none are pretty. The worst, in my opinion, is Lust. However many times you see the film, that segment doesn’t get any easier to watch. It’s a three-way combination of an incredible, haunting performance by Leland Orser (in just one short scene); a photograph of the implement, which we see for mere seconds; and the moment when the film that was prepared to show us the ‘living corpse’ of Sloth victim Victor refuses to show us a body. Since the last time I watched Se7en I have seenLust all but one of the Saw films, the uncut Witchfinder General, and various other gory horrors like Flesh for Frankenstein, but none are as gruesomely affecting as the Lust crime.

I imagine it’s contextual. Se7en is, in its way, quite heavily stylised — “dark”, as I discussed — but it’s done so in a very grounded way. To get film studies-y about it, we are asked to believe this is the real world and a plausible series of events are occurring in it. Films like the Saw series, however, clearly exist in a horror movie version of the world (however much some of the filmmakers may be under the impression that it’s a series of grounded thrillers). You view Saw with a horror movie mindset, expecting extreme situations and extreme special effects-driven gore; Se7en, even with its cruel and unusual murders, is always a police thriller. The frame of reference — plus the quality of writing, direction and acting — is what makes Lust so much more affecting.

The acting is brilliant, subtler than some might expect or be aware of initially. To take one example, look at the scene in the bar that (coincidentally) follows Lust. Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) discuss, more-or-less, Somerset’s reasons for retiring. He sets out his stall, his thoughts and reasons, well rehearsed from telling others and himself. Greed, GluttonyMills delivers his riposte with greater hyperbole — of course, because that’s the character — perhaps bedded in a form of naivety and idealism, ending with a repetitious “I do not agree. I do not.” Then we see Freeman’s face, completely static, but you can read in it everything you need to — his anger at Mills for making him realise that it’s all a lie he’s been telling himself, and anger at himself for believing the lie. That’s one scene; Freeman is incredible throughout.

For all the darkness, there’s also a nice vein of humour. Not too much, not a desperate attempt to compensate, but a well-judged amount. One of my favourite comic moments in any serious film (“this isn’t even my desk”); the vibrating home; “if I shaved off a nipple…” From an objective point of view it helps us believe in and, more importantly, like the characters. Which is, really, all in aid of one thing:

The famous ending. It’s a twist, yes, but it’s more than that; and it’s mainly the performances that sell it. The twist, first, is perfectly played. We never see what’s in the box; we’re never even told; but we absolutely, positively, unquestionably know what’s in there, as surely as if we were Somerset seeing it with his own eyes. Even once you know what’s coming, though, it’s what follows the twist that’s incredible: three men in a field, three impeccable performances that bring everything we’ve spent two hours watching to a perfect head. Envy, WrathThis is where liking the characters pays too, because we are on Somerset’s side and we’re on Mills’ side and we agree with both and disagree with both and don’t necessarily know who’s right or what to do or what we would do. I can spend the whole film anticipating this scene, knowing exactly what will happen in it, how great a piece of filmmaking it will be, yet it still makes my hair stand on end.

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, for one thing, but it’s really the execution of the film, not the victims, 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 (arguably, of course) rise not only to the top of the genre but to the top of the very medium of film itself. There’s so much more; this review only scratches the surface. Se7en transcends its limitations in any one area by becoming far more than the sum of its exemplary parts.

PrideThe quality of a crime thriller is often so tied to its mystery that the film can only sustain so many viewings — sometimes, only one — before you know it too well. I have seen Se7en at least seven times now, which for me is a lot — a helluva lot, even — and yet I still get something from it every time. That’s a rarity, that’s a reason to love it, and that is why it may well be my favourite film.

5 out of 5

I watched Se7en as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

* All these people who attribute such things to Facebook, usually in a critical way, are just a bit behind. (That’s a personal bugbear dealt with, then.) ^

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

2009 #63
Kerry Conran | 102 mins | TV (HD) | PG / PG

Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowIf the Indiana Jones series was a bit more sci-fi (even than Crystal Skull, that is), it might be rather like this. First time writer-director Kerry Conran evokes ’40s cinema serials more thoroughly than Lucas or Spielberg ever dared with a globe-hopping tale of a mad scientist’s giant robots doing all sorts of damage in a quest for… well, that would spoil the ending.

In the telling, Sky Captain is every inch a Boy’s Own adventure, packing every facet of that genre of storytelling into its brisk running time. There’s secret bases, ray guns, giant robots, flying aircraft carriers, snow-bound Himalayan treks, creature-infested secret jungle islands, huge underground bases, space rockets, planes that are also submarines, tree bridges over impossibly deep gorges… If it’s part of the genre, it’s probably here, and all finally executed with ’00s-level special effects. In some respects it does move between set pieces and locations in an episodic fashion, but then that’s more a trait of the films it emulates — i.e. episodic serials — than a flaw in Conran’s plotting.

Still, some might view Sky Captain as little more than an exercise in filmmaking — it was one of the first movies to be shot entirely on blue-screen, around the same time as Sin City and a couple of others. There’s more to it than that, but it’s also hard to ignore the style this creates. The shooting process is far from perfect if one were trying to recreate real life, but here the whole look is so stylised that it hardly matters. The period setting is nicely evoked, combining myriad influences into an intricately realised retro-future style, coupled with a lovely sepia sheen over everything. It’s beautifully lit, while individual shots and editing are frequently reminiscent of a style from the ’40s (and earlier). Again, Conran is being deliberately evocative of films of the period, rather than a modern film set then; more La Antena than Star Wars.

Another much-discussed feat of technology is the resurrection of Sir Laurence Olivier as the film’s villain. Unfortunately, his brief appearance is underwhelming. Perhaps we’ve become too accustomed to modern technology resurrecting deceased actors for ‘new’ performances (not that it happens that often); but then again, what was done with Oliver Reed for Gladiator — four years before this — seemed more impressive than the small amount of hologram we see here, even though the digitally created shots were equally brief. It’s a shame, because using Olivier for this key role is quite neat, certainly better than casting a glorified extra. In fairness, then, it’s a part so small that very few appropriately-big names would agree to it, which perhaps permisses resurrecting Olivier after all

Among the real performances, the acting is a bit flat. Perhaps this is deliberately in-keeping with the emulated style, though Jude Law is always this bad so maybe not. Similar comments could be made of the screenplay, if one were being unkind. What it does manage is a good amount of humour — an essential part of the genre, as any Indiana Jones fan will tell you, but it’s by no means guaranteed in these over-serious times (thankfully, the likes of Star Trek and Transformers are occasionally breaking down this barrier to fun).

Breaking free of any self-imposed period constraints, Conran also produces a few exciting action sequences, such as a plane chase through the streets of New York. It’s incredibly hard to create spectacle these days, but Sky Captain occasionally manages it. There are also lots of fun little references to other things for the keen viewer to pick out. 1138 crops up, inevitably, but my favourite is some dialogue lifted from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.

Sky Captain is a healthy dose of retro-styled fun. Perhaps that makes it an acquired taste, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

4 out of 5

My review of the proof-of-concept short that inspired Sky Captain can be read here.