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Film Review: Seven

July 12, 2012 6 comments

Seven (1995; Directed by David Fincher)

A police vs. serial killer procedural thriller that expands its scope to encompass widespread moral decay, Seven is a grim, grimy glimpse into dark corners of human sociality. Progressing along a path paved with clever tortures, bookish obsession, and weary cynicism about the nature of man, it veers onto a superhighway of gut-wrenching moral dread at its climax. This sudden turn almost takes it into the aesthetic ditch, but the production and performance quality keeps it steady.

Its plot and concept is simple but ideologically and narratively rich. A serial killer is on a mission in an unnamed and decrepit metropolis (the movie was shot in L.A., but New York City is the more obvious corollary, and indeed was the urban inspiration for Andrew Kevin Walker’s remarkable screenplay). He is targeting and ritually killing apparently unconnected victims on the basis of the Catholic ethical tradition of the Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Lust, Pride, Envy, and Wrath, in succession.

Two detectives are assigned to the case after the first killing, a murder by forced feeding: dignified soon-to-retire veteran Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and brash, freshly-transferred Mills (Brad Pitt). Somerset, a well-read amateur scholar, suspects the liturgical bent very early on, and converts Mills to his view after subsequent murders leave less and less doubt about the motive. He also gains a fond ally and confidant in Mills’ wife (Gwyneth Paltrow), who shares Somerset’s lack of faith in urban mores and entrusts him with an important secret. As Mills and Somerset get deeper into the case, both the killer’s symbolic project and the detectives’ involvement in it becomes grander, more baroque, more challenging to moral codes, and more viscerally, terribly personal.

Like other notable films of the early part of director David Fincher’s feature career like Alien 3 and Fight Club, Seven physically manifests the auteur’s abiding interest in mankind’s quotidian cruelties with an exquisitely repulsive appearance and mise-en-scène of threatening, decomposing environments. A twisted, ugly exterior setting as a reflection of a similarly damaged psychological interior is Expressionism at its most basic, and Fincher’s early works are the Expressionist documents of a young iconoclastic artist, hungry to make meaningful and provocative film art. It’s a statement of Fincher’s maturation as a filmmaker that his more recent films (The Social Network most notably) have traded in the dirty veneer for antiseptic surfaces and clean-cut privilege, demonstrating a keener awareness that evil is often not innately visually unsightly. He even anticipates the soundscapes of his most recent work, utilizing a remix of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” over the opening credits (Trent Reznor later scored The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with collaborator Atticus Ross).

Mills, of the five-o’clock shadow, unkempt suit, and pack of pet dogs, is more at home in this sort of environment than his pale, fragile wife or his venerable partner. Little wonder that he gets drawn fatefully into its traumatic consequence while Somerset, with his nocturnal library privileges and bedside metronome, holds himself at a relative remove. Pitt and Freeman are wonderfully matched; the former was a fascinating physical actor even in his relative youth, and here his entire self is visible in the motions of his body at all times, while the latter’s stately grace and understatement lends him to internalized characters of considerable subtlety. Mills and Somerset make for one of the great onscreen police duos in recent memory.

Seven is more than a genre exercise, of course, but really only just. Walker’s script adorns the police procedural thriller with decaying nihilism and obstinate scholarship, but his clever (too clever?) twist on the murderer-philosopher (who could only be played by Kevin Spacey, the apex predator of the well-spoken menacing creep role in the middle of the ‘90s) reaches at rendering the film worth remembering and worth discussing, if only at the bar with your buddies after the credits have rolled.

For Walker and Fincher come to a conclusion that is perhaps not as provocative as they believe it to be: human beings are so debased, so morally empty, so irrevocably fallen, that only acts of unsurpassed cruelty can rouse them from their degenerate slumber. It’s a cynical view (and one ripped straight from the pages of vintage Alan Moore comics), and it’s skillfully fleshed out by writer and director. Seven may ultimately be a better film at its technical and visceral levels than at its intellectual level, but at least it manages to operate on all of these levels. Many films of its type can barely manage one such dimension, let alone all of them, and that’s worthy of note.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Film Review: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.

 

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon

 

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Television Review: United States of Food

July 8, 2012 1 comment

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.

United States of Food Premiere: United States of Bacon

 

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Inside Job

July 5, 2012 3 comments

Inside Job (2010; Directed by Charles Ferguson)

Charles Ferguson’s expose of the complex and alarming saga of the still-simmering world financial crisis is full of solid assertions, alarming graphs, and contentious interviews, and it establishes with clear-eyed definition that the global financial collapse was not sudden, unexpected, or abberant. As far as a factual basis for its origins can be ascertained, the dynamite that went off in the middle of 2008 and took billions of dollars with it was just the explosive terminus of a slow-burning fuse that was central to the very profitability of the system itself.

Rife with the usual liberal outrage and excessive price-tag shock typical to progressive documentaries, Inside Job does kind of get lost in the jargon of the financial business here and there. I appreciate a film that doesn’t talk down to me, but a bit more annotation now and again would be useful. I can’t count how many documentaries I’ve now seen about the crisis of 2007-08, and yet I’m still not entirely clear on what derivatives are or how they work, let alone how anyone could have possibly believed that this sort of approach could work in the longer term. But then that’s probably why the folks who know how to rig this system get compensated in the millions to gamble with the life savings of ordinary citizens and I get paid zilch to complain about it on the internet.

Inside Job‘s ultimate problem is that the film’s closing note of defiance and hope, while understandably appealing, is not very well supported by the avalanche of evidence that leads up to it. This documentary works hard and smart to suggest that Wall Street’s crooked greed has not been reined in and is unlikely to ever be so for entirely structural reasons. Ferguson is right that a major course-correction in this sphere is precisely the sort of change that America requires to pull itself out of its self-destructive spiral, but regulation alone is unlikely to curb its enthusiasm in the manner required. Simply “fighting” for change without any strategy or particular hope for success is not exactly the most inspiring of closing messages, but it’s what Ferguson provides here. A very strong documentary overall, but hardly full of either searing revelations or thoughtful remedies.

Film Review: The Art of the Steal

The Art of the Steal (2009; Directed by Don Argott)

Nicely crafted but astoundingly one-sided, The Art of the Steal is another example of that most American of “progressive” message entertainment: the underdog story where the underdog is incredibly wealthy, attractive, or talented, or all three. And yet we’re still supposed to consider them plucky and genuine and worth rooting for.

As an exemplification of the way that the field of play overwhelmingly favours the U.S. monied elite, this documentary nonetheless has its notable points. It tells the story of the private art collection of Albert C. Barnes,  a wealthy Philadelphia-based scientist who used his earnings in the early 20th Century to purchase a large number of then-unfashionable and thus fairly inexpensive Modernist and Post-Impressionist works of art and exhibit them idiosyncratically in his suburban Philly home. His collection includes nearly 200 Renoirs, dozens of Picassos, Cezannes, and Matisse (including a specially-commissioned piece by the latter in a ceiling alcove of the museum-house) and, after his death, was valued at somewhere around $25 billion.

The Barnes Foundation that he left his collection to after his death in his scrupulous will was tasked with preserving the complete collection in his chosen arrangement and location in Lower Merian, Pennsylvania. It also had specific stipulations about limiting the number of visitors to the collection and to use the art mainly for educational purpose, following his particular methodology.

Although a pupil of his followed his will for many years until her death, recent decades have seen a succession of shifting developments in the collection’s administration and the Foundation’s financial fortunes and board leadership that saw the collection go on a lucrative international tour (Toronto’s AGO was among the museums that hosted it), sustain larger crowds of visitors than Barnes’ chosen suburban site could support, and finally has seen it relocate to a more accessible building on downtown Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, just down the way from the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art. Opening this past May, this new site completes the collection’s move into the world of corporatized mass-attendance blockbuster fine art exhibition that Barnes’ will was careful to provide against, and much of the documentary’s outrage is directed at this contravening of his stated posthumous wishes.

But the whole argument for the Barnes Collection staying where it is (or was) comes across as epically snobbish, to say nothing of it being swamped by its own persecution complex. Is the ideal of art really for it to be seen by as few people as possible, to be so completely controlled by the idiosyncratic whims of its owner alone? And what truly separates Barnes’ vision for his collection from the similar exhibitings of the collections of Isabel Stewart Gardner in Boston or Henry Clay Frick in New York? I can sympathize with the Friends of the Barnes’ anti-corporate-capitalism views, certainly, but the art world, so lucrative and so prestigious, seems like an odd place to try and impose them.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews