Movie #111: Se7en (1995)

Director: David Fincher

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow, R. Lee Emery, John C. McGinley

Academy Award Nominations (1996):

Best Film Editing: Richard Francis-Bruce

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Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” I agree with the second part.

Veteran Detective Lieutenant William Somerset (Freeman) and newly transferred Detective David Mills (Pitt) investigate a series of homicides by John Doe (Spacey).  The pattern of murders is unique in that they are each based on one of the seven deadly sins: gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy, and wrath.

This movie is a bit of a mixed bag for me.  I’m not really into the gruesomeness that can come with this type of movie.  David Fincher has done a good job of using just enough of the stomach-churning elements within the story.  With each new murder scene, he slowly builds the tension, each scene upping the ante.  Given the subject matter, it’s also good how he keeps the lighting relatively dark and depressing.

se7ensleeping This is also a great example of casting the right, if not perfect, actors for the central characters.  Morgan Freeman is great as that older calming voice of reason.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Freeman as an actor.  I can’t see anyone else being able to pull this off, and yet Freeman seems to be able to nail this type of character every time.

He is balanced out by Mills, the headstrong go-getter.  Pitt does great in this role, balancing the new job with his home life.  It’s not surprising that Pitt and Fincher have collaborated a few times since Se7en.  Mills and Somerset complement each other in a way that brings a balanced approach to finding the killer.

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Though Freeman and Pitt do well with their characters, Kevin Spacey really steals the show for me.  Though he doesn’t appear until much later in the film, he controls every scene in such a way that only he could do.  Spacey has the look and feeling of that creepy, mysterious guy.  He gives you a false sense of security and then he pulls off his ulterior motive.

It’s also interesting to see all of these people and how much different they are now twenty years later.

Though it’s not the type of film I’ll go out of my way to see, Se7en is engaging and entertaining.  It balances out three great actors, each able to place their own creative stamp within their relatively simple, straightforward parts.  It’s been long enough since I watched this one that some parts of it surprised me, however, I don’t think this is one I’ll revisit anytime soon.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

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Movie #107: Witness (1985)

Director: Peter Weir

Starring: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Danny Glover

Academy Awards (1986):

Best Film Editing: Thom Noble

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen: William Kelley, Pamela Wallace, Earl W. Wallace

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Harrison Ford

Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Stan Jolley, John H. Anderson

Best Cinematography: John Seale

Best Director: Peter Weir

Best Music, Original Score: Maurice Jarre

Best Picture: Edward S. Feldman

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While waiting at the train station, Samuel Lapp (Haas), a young Amish boy, witnesses the murder of an undercover cop.  He and his mother, recently widowed Rachel (McGillis), go into hiding in the Amish community with hard-bitten cop John Book (Ford).  Worlds collide as Detective McFee (Glover), one of the killers, and Book’s superior Schaeffer (Sommer) attempt to kill the only witness and in doing so introduce a world of violence into an otherwise peaceful community.

Witness was interesting to watch for a few reasons.  The thriller elements of this film worked well.  The dramatic elements weren’t over-the-top, and as such the story flowed naturally.  There is a good balance of drama, romance, and action.  None of them necessarily dominated the others.

It was also interesting as a case study in the drastically contrasting cultures of the Amish and then ‘English,’ the outside world.  Though Book is doing a good thing in protecting Samuel and Rachel, he unintentionally brings violence and murder into the Amish community.

Witness was a launching point for a number of big name actors and actresses.  Harrison Ford had been well established by 1985, but this performance really showcased him as a serious actor, and he gives one of his better performances in my opinion.  Kelly McGillis has a good balance and demonstrated she could play a strong yet conflicted character.  Danny Glover had a few notable roles prior to this movie.  Viggo Mortensen also has a minor part in the film.

The chemistry between Ford and McGillis in this film was interesting to watch.  As they slowly progressed in their like of one another, you could see Rachel’s inner struggle as she is torn between her upbringing and her desire.  The love story between them doesn’t feel forced, and though love stories are common in films, this one is done well enough that it’s not just your run-of-the-mill love story that’s thrown in.

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Witness combines a number of dramatic, thriller, and romantic elements to make for a well-rounded and engaging movie.  It was interesting to watch, and I’d recommend it.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie #97: The Conversation (1974)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Robert Duvall and Harrison Ford.

Academy Award Nominations (1975):

Best Picture: Francis Ford Coppola

Best Sound: Walter Murch, Art Rochester

Best Writing, Original Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola

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” We’ll be listening to you.”

Harry Caul (Hackman) is an electronic surveillance expert who owns a small surveillance company and is regarded by his peers as the best of the best.  On his current assignment Caul records Mark (Forrest) and Ann’s (Williams) conversation as they walk through Union Square in San Francisco.   As he deciphers and constructs the conversation, Caul realizes that the couple he’s surveilling may be in danger, and he becomes reluctant to hand over the tapes to The Director (Duvall) and his assistant Martin Stett (Ford).  Caul is an incredibly paranoid, reclusive loner, even to Stan (Cazale), his business partner.  His number is unlisted, he calls his clients from a pay phone, and seems to have very few connections outside of the surveillance industry.

It’s interesting to me how forty years after this film was released, it still seems relevant.  While the technology used in The Conversation has been outdated for quite some time, the thought that someone could be listening in on your conversation at any given time isn’t all that big of a stretch.  This film is a true gem for Francis Ford Coppola, though it is overlooked since it was released eight months before Coppola’s other hit film from 1974, The Godfather: Part II.

Gene Hackman was phenomenal as Harry Caul.  He portrays the technological knowledge needed for a guy in his field, battles with his own paranoid demons, and paces the film well as his crisis of conscience unfolds.  His interactions with Stand demonstrate paranoia and general mistrust of others.  This was the last of Cazale’s films for me to see, and though I don’t remember much of his performance in The Deer Hunter, it’s one I’m looking forward to revisiting at some point.  Hackman’s performance is balanced and complemented by Coppola’s script.  Additionally, the background sound used throughout kept my attention as I wondered at times what would happen next.

The sound quality of this film wasn’t the greatest, granted it’s from the 70s, but I found myself paying particular attention and my own heart rate speeding up as the various piano sequences played in the background.  Though I don’t really like sudden shocking moments in a film, here it worked for me.  The suspense throughout the film helped me enjoy the movie more.

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Harrison Ford’s performance was a bit of a surprise for me.  This was one of his first big roles, and I think he nailed it as the cold, intimidating at times, assistant.  He definitely made the most of his screen time, and the conversation he had with Harry at the end of the film was creepy, but at the same time demonstrating a central theme of the film in that someone is always listening.

theconversationlistening couple  Another thing that was interesting to me was the repetition of the original conversation throughout the film.  Though I thought it would get horribly repetitive and annoying, the way the conversation and overall story unfolded, it really didn’t bother me.

 

 

 

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Though the equipment and technology used in The Conversation has become incredibly outdated, the central themes of the film are still very relevant in today’s society.  Hackman delivers an incredible performance, one he essentially reprised in the 1998 film Enemy of the State, and does a great job of portraying a man who realizes his work has real, tangible consequences and copes with the crisis of conscience that follows.  It’s not one I’ll go out of my way to see again probably, but it’s one I would recommend seeing at least once.

My Recommendation: Rental/Netflix

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

 

Movie #96: The Untouchables (1987)

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, and Robert De Niro

Academy Awards (1988):

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Sean Connery

Academy Award  Nominations:

Best Art Direction-Set Direction: Patrizia von Brandenstein, William A. Elliot, Hal Gausman

Best Costume Design: Marilyn Vance

Best Music, Original Score: Ennio Morricone

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” Word is they’re going to repeal Prohibition. What’ll you do then?”

“I think I’ll have a drink.”

Chicago, 1930.  Federal Agent Eliot Ness (Costner), along with veteran beat cop Jim Malone (Connery), Treasury Agent Oscar Wallace (Smith), and rookie cop George Stone (Garcia) take down Al Capone (De Niro) at any and all cost.

The Untouchables, based on Ness’ autobiography, is a great period piece that makes great use of dramatic effect and incorporates background music to create brilliant suspense.  There’s very little I can be critical of with this film.

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Though he had very limited screen time, Robert De Niro made the most of it as the ruthless crime boss.  His baseball speech worked great, and though it seemed pretty clear that he was going to use the bat on someone, the way in which he gave the speech had a nice build up to that scene-stopping moment.

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This was one of Andy Garcia’s first significant movie roles.  He does great in a more reserved and secondary role.  As a voice of reason following Wallace’s death, I think he does great in portraying how his character knows Wallace was on to something, but he didn’t entirely understand all the legal accounting jargon.  Likewise Charles Martin Smith does great in his supporting role on the task force.  He brings a more light-hearted charter to the film.  De Palma keeps his character as more, for lack of a better word, of a comic relief to a degree.  Even his death scene, though powerful, is not nearly as gruesome as others.

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Earning an Oscar the only time he was nominated for one, Sean Connery steals every scene he’s in.  From Malone’s first encounter with Ness, Connery owns that older, wiser, honest cop.  Though Kevin Costner plays the lead character, he takes second fiddle to Connery’s Malone.  Though I know what will happen when Malone is killed off, the first-person perspective of the gangster is chilling every time I watch that scene.  Great filming coupled with excellent use of background music create the most suspenseful scene in The Untouchables, followed closely by the baby carriage shoot out scene of course.

This is probably one of my favorite Kevin Costner performances.  I find that he does better in these sorts of period pieces compared to other films.  He makes great use of a wide acting range from the embarrassed agent to husband and father and so on.  His progression through the film from wanting to take down Capone by any legal means necessary at the beginning to uses any and all means necessary by the end also allows him to showcase a range of emotions and inward moral struggles that Ness goes through.

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The Untouchables is a great period piece film that has strong acting from many lead and supporting actors.  The cinematography in this film goes a long way in engaging the audience with suspense and build up.  I’d highly recommend seeing this one, though I feel it’s one that I have to take quite a bit of time between viewings.

My Rating: 4/5 stars.

Movie #74: Double Indemnity (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, and Jean Heather

Academy Award Nomination (1945):

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Barbara Stanwyck

Best Cinematography, Black-and-White: John F. Seitz

Best Director: Billy Wilder

Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Miklos Rozsa

Best Picture: Joseph Sistrom

Best Sound, Recording: Loren L, Ryder

Best Writing, Screenplay: Raymond Chandler, Billy Wilder

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Walter Neff (MacMurray) an insurance salesman devises a plan with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) to have her husband killed.  They plan on making it look like an accident so she can collect on her recently opened life insurance policy.  They take it a step further by staging the death to look like her husband fell off the back of a train, one of the circumstances that would grant her double indemnity, or a payout of double the policy’s value.  They run into a huge snag though with Barton Keyes (Robinson), the insurance company’s claims investigator.

The film opens with Neff recording his confession and weaving through the elaborate plan as the murder and subsequent investigation by the insurance company.  This was a great way to tell the story, and I must say I was impressed with the script.  This film is based on a murder that took place in the summer of 1927, where a housewife and her boyfriend killed her husband, attempted to make it look like an accident, and were eventually caught for the liars that they were.  I recently heard a little about the original murder on NPR, and it was significant because it was one of the first major murder cases that got the tabloid treatment and widespread publicity that has since become commonplace.  Insurance fraud is certainly something that has also developed and evolved over the years.

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A film like this needs two strong leads, and both MacMurray and Stanwyck perform wonderfully.  Walter’s character is savvy, but there’s the little hint that he knows the plan will ultimately not work.  MacMurray gives a great balanced, laid back performance.  Stanwyck does great as one of the first femme fatale characters.  Though not overtly sexual in her performance (it was still a major Hollywood taboo), she hints just enough to let the audience fill in some of the blanks.

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Edward G Robinson’s performance as Barton Keyes really tied the film together.  He provides a very strong moral compass, listening to his ‘inner man’ who tells him Phyllis’ husband’s death was no accident.  It’s his instinct to be critical where others might brush something like this off.  Keyes’ exchange with Ness at the end of the film was bluntly honest, superbly acted, and was shot very well.  Wilder had originally shot an ending where Ness is killed in a gas chamber, but changed his mind after seeing the exchange these two characters had.  While I think that would’ve been a fitting ending, it would have paled in comparison to the ending they ultimately went with.

Double Indemnity was an enjoyable film.   It laid a great foundation for this type of mystery film, as well as introduced a model for the femme fatale character that Barbara Stanwyck brilliantly pulled off.  While I won’t see this one again, like many others I’m glad to have at least seen it once.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #63: Memento (2000)

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Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Guy Pierce, Carrie Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Stephen Tobolowsky

Leonard (Pierce), a former insurance investigator, has a condition where he cannot create new memories.  His wife was murdered, and he is out to find the guy who killed her.  Because of his condition, it’s very difficult for him to trust new people, and he carries a number of Polaroid pictures with notes he writes himself.  He also has a number of tattoos with key evidence in his investigation.

The story alternates and ultimately meets in the middle in the film’s finale.  One side starts with a phone conversation he has where he describes Sammy Jankis (Tobolowsky), a man who has the same condition as Leonard.  The other begins where he shoots Teddy (Pantoliano), a cop friend who’s helping him in his search, and works in reverse.

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Guy Pierce does a great job in the lead role.  He can be hit-and-miss on his performances (I didn’t care for him too much in Iron Man 3), but here he carries the film.  He’s a guy you can root for, even if you end up finding out his hunt for justice this time is just another in probably a long line of self-created vendettas.  He describes Sammy Jankis’ condition and circumstances in such a way that it’s believable that Jankis’ life is actually Leonard’s.

Carrie-Anne Moss was a good strong supporting cast member.  Though suspecting at first when Leonard shows up in her now dead boyfriend Jimmy’s clothes, she still helps Leonard and I think cares for him.  Joe Pantoliano does great as a guy you are always skeptical of, but can still enjoy watching.  When he’s shot at the beginning of the film, then appears in the next scene, it keeps the audience on edge and paying attention to what happens next.

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This was Christopher Nolan’s first major motion picture, and although the film only made about $40 million at the box office, it’s $5 million price tag left a lot of room for profit.  More importantly, it received wide acclaim from numerous critics.  It was also nominated for two Oscars, Best Original Screenplay and Film Editing.

Memento is a film you can only watch once, in my opinion.  I found the second viewing to be far less enjoyable because I already knew what was going to happen.  I realize this is the case with virtually every movie, but this one lost a lot of its allure, mystery, and misdirection after the first viewing.  With that said I probably won’t watch this one again.

The only way I could watch this one again is to see the scenes in chronological order, which I guess is a feature on the DVD, though I couldn’t find it when I watched it on DVD.  However, this is a great early work from Christopher Nolan, and his subsequent success should have come as no surprise after seeing a film like this.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

The Departed (2006)

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“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream,” and they both end up getting shot.

Wrong movie, but given the fact that there are two rats in this one, it seems appropriate.

The Departed is a film I’ve seen numerous times.  It has been quite some time since I saw it last, and I have to say I still remember a lot of the memorable lines, and it still surprises me with the way this one turns out.  Martin Scorsese thinks way outside the box, and while it seems like he mostly does crime-related films, he’s good at it, so he’s sticking with his strength as a filmmaker.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon both give outstanding performances in this movie.  I almost get the sense that it was at this point that people started taking DiCaprio more seriously as an adult-type actor as compared to his roles in Romeo + JulietTitanic, and to a lesser extent Catch Me If You Can.  These guys are both convincing in taking on the roles that are opposite from their character’s nature.  Jack Nicholson does a good job in the role he’s given, and Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin deliver many of the memorable lines.

Scorsese uses a lot of throwbacks and references to old crime movies.  Whenever a person is about to die, there is an “X” in some form: the X on the truck right before Sullivan (Damon) stabs the restaurant worker, as Queenan (Martin Sheen) is thrown out the window, when Sullivan shoots Costello (Nicholson), and the Xs on the floor in Sullivan’s apartment hallway at the end of the film.  Another one was with the red lens filter as Costello was at the opera.

Something I’ve always thought was interesting is how the opening title doesn’t appear for the first 20 minutes or so.  Scorsese is also very good as keeping the audience on their toes.  The first time I saw this movie in the theater, I remember thinking at the very end, “Oh my gosh what in the world just happened?”  Part of me was thinking, “no way did that just happen, it isn’t possible.”  I’m talking about the final elevator scene.

When you look at the other films up for Best Picture, it’s one of those times where one rises far and away above the rest.  I have nothing against Babel, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen, and Letters from Iwo Jima, but to me it seemed like The Departed was in a class all its own.  For the record I’ve seen all those films except The Queen, in fact I’ve reviewed Letters for this project: https://501mustseemoviesproject.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/letters-from-iwo-jima-2006/iwojima/

I noticed something this time in the scene where Costello and Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) are discussing the rat in the organization.  I never saw that Costello was drawing rats on his piece of paper.

Overall The Departed is an engaging, entertaining film.  It does go way over the top on violence and language, but given the circumstances, setting, and type of movie this is, that can be expected.  I can enjoy this one still today in moderation, and it’s essential for any Scorsese fan.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.