Se7en (1995)

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Just because he’s got a library card doesn’t make him Yoda.  Police Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has a week left on the job when he is set the task of tackling a final case with the aid of newly transferred David Mills (Brad Pitt), they discover a number of elaborate and grizzly murders. They soon realize they are dealing with a serial killer calling himself John Doe who is targeting people he thinks represent one of the seven deadly sins. Somerset befriends Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is pregnant and afraid to raise her child in the crime-riddled city. By using an illegal FBI trick of tracking certain public library book titles they find a likely suspect and enter an apartment building where they’re attacked by a gunman who just might be their target but there are two more sins to go …  Andrew Kevin Walker’s dense and sharply written script is given an astonishingly immersive workout by director David Fincher and it’s one of the key films of the Nineties. Into those rain-slicked NYC streets run two great movie policemen, the grizzled Freeman and the ambitious impatient young Pitt who take such a long time to get into each other’s working rhythm. And when they do, they’re chasing the man who’s really chasing them.  This is a brutal, violent work which raises torture to a kind of poetic, along the lines of John Doe’s literary inspirations, Dante and Thomas Aquinas. As he works through the various sins the sheer horror of the scenes still shocks. This wouldn’t be the last of Walker’s dark screenplays but in some ways he has never written anything as truly horrifying as the last scene shot in the bright outdoors in stark contrast to the claustrophobic interiors that characterise the sadism at the center of the narrative. There’s a subliminal cut which will make you think you’ve seen something you haven’t. Oh my gosh this is absolutely compelling. Even if his brain weren’t mush which it is he chewed off his tongue long ago.

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Captain Fantastic (2016)

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I’m writing down everything you say – in my mind. Disillusioned anti-capitalist intellectual Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his absent wife Leslie (she’s in a psychiatric facility) and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society,  their kids are being educated them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie commits suicide, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time to attend her funeral in New Mexico where her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) fear for what is happening to their grandchildren and Ben is forced to confront the fact that the survivalist politics he has imbued in his offspring may not prepare them for real life… This starts with the killing of an animal in a ritual you might find in the less enlightened tribes. (Why did killing a deer become a thing a year ago?) Ben is teaching his eldest son Bodevan (George McKay) to be a man. But this is a twenty-first century tribe who are doing their own atavistic thing – just not in the name of Jesus (and there’s a funny scene in which they alienate a policeman by pretending to do just that) but that of Noam Chomsky. “I’ve never even heard of him!” protests their worried grandfather. Hearing the words “Stick it to the man!” coming out of a five year old is pretty funny in this alt-socialist community but the younger son in the family Rellian (Nicholas Rellian) believes Ben is crazy and has caused Leslie’s death and wants out.  Ironically and as Ben explains at an excruciating dinner with the brother in law (Steve Zahn) it was having children that caused her post-partum psychosis from which this brilliant lawyer never recovered. This stressor between father and younger son drives much of the conflict – that and Leslie’s Buddhist beliefs which are written in her Will and direct the family to have her cremated even though her parents inter her in a cemetery which the kids call a golf course. And Bodevan conceals the fact that he and Mom have been plotting his escape to one of the half dozen Ivy League colleges to which he’s been accepted. The irony that Ben is protecting his highly politicised kids from reality by having them celebrate Chomsky’s birthday when they don’t even know what a pair of Nikes are and have never heard of Star Trek is smart writing. Everything comes asunder when there are accidents as a result of the dangers to which he exposes them. This is a funny and moving portrait of life off the grid, with Mortensen giving a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man constantly at odds with the quotidian whilst simultaneously being a pretty great dad. McKay is terrific as the elder son who’s utterly unprepared for a romantic encounter in a trailer park. It really is tough to find your bliss. As delightful as it is unexpected, this is a lovely character study. Written and directed by Matt Ross.

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

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They said I was a valued customer now they send me hate mail! Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) loves to shop. The trouble is, she shops so much that she is drowning in debt. She dreams of working at the city’s top fashion magazine Alette run by the accented dragon lady   (Kirstin Scott Thomas) but, so far, has not been able to get her foot in the door. Then she lands a job as an advice columnist for a financial magazine owned by the same company and run by the very attractive Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy). Her pseudonymous column (The Girl in the Green Scarf) becomes an overnight success, but her secret threatens to ruin her love life and career as the man she describes to her boss as her stalker is actually a debt collector and her best friend and roommate Suze (Krysten Ritter) suspects she is not really attending meetings of Shopaholics Anonymous … Sophie Kinsella’s first two Shopaholic novels get a NYC makeover here and if the plot runs out of steam towards the conclusion you can’t say they don’t give it the old college try. Fisher is fantastically effervescent as the very winning protagonist – when she convinces herself of the joys of shopping at her addicts’ group and runs out to – yup, shop! – you practically cheer. It’s a frothy look at addiction if that’s possible with some very persuasive scenes to those of us who might have succumbed to that jacket in, uh, every colour.  Screenplay by Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert and directed with exuberance by P. J. Hogan who knows how to make a rockin’ girls’ movie. Will the real Rebecca Bloomwood please stand up?! Bright, breezy and a lot of fun.

The Big Money (1958)

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Willie Frith (Ian Carmichael) is the underachieving bad seed of a family of thieves Father (James Hayter), Mother (Kathleen Harrison) and sister Doreen (Jill Ireland), unworthy of his position as number one son.  One day, he steals a briefcase from a dodgy clergyman (Robert Helpmann), which is full of pound notes. But – the notes all have the same serial number, making them hard to spend. Seduced by the big money, he starts passing the counterfeits, one bill at a time. Much of his need for money is to impress Gloria (Belinda Lee), the pretty barmaid at his local pub. She dreams of the millionaire who will come and give her the good life. Unfortunately, he cannot pass the fake money fast enough to keep up with her wants. When she helps herself to some of the counterfeit money, it gets the attention of the police and the mobsters. It all ends in a free-for-all, between the police, Arabs, and mobsters, in disguise. Finally, she has to decide whether she loves him or his money… Bright and breezy and gorgeously shot (by Jack Cardiff and Jack E. Cox) including a sequence at Royal Ascot, this is a fun Britcom with Carmichael typically endearing as the bumbling bungler, Helpmann terrific as the enterprising vicar and a great showcase for the stunning and tragic Lee, who took over a role intended for Diana Dors. Written by John Baines with additional scenes by Patrick Campbell and directed by John Paddy Carstairs.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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I’ve studied you all these years – a little girl in a cage waiting for someone to let her out. In 1928 young Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) inadvertently causes the death of her cruel, authoritarian and extremely wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha lies to the police and Walter (Kirk Douglas), who saw the crime, corroborates the girl’s story. Eventually, they grow up and wed out of convenience; the meek and alcoholic Walter is genuinely in love, and Martha thinks that her secret is safe since she has married the one witness to her aunt’s death. As District Attorney he saw her lie on the stand and put an innocent man to death for the crime. However now Martha is trying to get Walter elected Governor and her childhood pal Sam (Van Heflin) shows up.  Martha knows her dark past may not stay a secret for long and Sam’s romance with Toni (Lizabeth Scott) – an ex-con just out of jail – threatens to come between them …  The film noir as hothouse melodrama, this has Stanwyck at her most manipulative since Double Indemnity but the surrounding performances are impressive as satellites to her cunning. Adapted by Robert Rossen (and an uncredited Robert Riskin)  from playwright John Patrick’s short story Love Lies Bleeding, this plays fast and loose with love and death, desire and obsession, betrayal and murder, marriage and entrapment. The pickup between Heflin and Scott is really something and the dialogue is really striking – just look at the way the Bible crops up at crucial plot points. Stanwyck’s string of extra-marital affairs reveals a longing for sex not often portrayed in Hollywood films of the era. Douglas makes an impressive debut as the weak husband just as capable of lying. The twisting DNA spiral of guilt and secrecy plays out brilliantly as these conflicted personalities bump up against one another in a deadly game. And what a twist(ed) ending! Listen to how the rain hits the windows of that fabulous house during some of the toughest conversations – talk about atmospheric! The cinematography by Victor Miler and score by Miklós Rósza are quite splendid. Directed by Lewis Milestone.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

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Color me gone! A mechanic (Dennis Wilson) and a driver (James Taylor) live only to race and maintain their grey 1955 Chevy. Heading east from California with no particular agenda, they give a girl (Laurie Bird) a ride, and en route she incites jealousy between the men by sleeping with them both. Meanwhile, the trio encounters an overbearing 1970 Pontiac GTO driver (Warren Oates) who makes up stories about his life and agrees to race them to New York, each side putting at stake their most prized possession: their car… Stunningly shot (by Gregory Sandor though credited to union member Jack Deerson), almost dialogue-free, this seminal road movie (when that term really meant something) is a showcase of cinematic poetry in motion exhibiting the performing talents of two of the most important music stars of the era. Taciturnity is their mojo as they engage in this eastern, a reversal of the traditional drift of men across the continent, living in the moment.  It helps if you’re a car freak but it’s not necessary. This is a study of a society without a point. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out. Directed by Monte Hellman from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer (who plays a hot rod driver), Will Corry and uncredited contributions from Floyd Mutrux. Absolutely iconic.

6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain (2017)

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Following a drug-related fall from grace and a car crash, former professional hockey player Eric LeMarque (Josh Hartnett) finds himself stranded on a mountain in the High Sierras during a fierce snowstorm and misses his crucial court date which his worried mother (Mira Sorvino) is hounding him to attend. Coming to terms with his personal demons, he soon rediscovers the power of faith while fighting for survival, suffering excruciating injuries and frostbite and it takes six days for anyone to even notice he’s gone from the cabin in the mountain, snowboard in hand … LeMarque’s book (co-written with Davin Seay) is adapted by Madison Turner in what is no doubt a well-intentioned cautionary tale about drugs and not getting caught on the side of a mountain during a storm. However the structure and the constant badly shot flashbacks don’t assist the dark night of the soul that LeMarque endures while he fights for his life. Mainly because we just don’t see him in action on the rink, just beating people up. It’s nice to see Sorvino back even in the absolutely thankless role of his mother which for the most part she (necessarily) phones in. Zzzzz….. Was that a bear? Nope. Too bad. Just say no, kids! Directed by Scott Waugh.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

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My head’s been shrunk! Oh the horror! The horror! Anthropologist Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) believes that the men of his family have been cursed for generations by the native South American tribe he studies. Shortly after his brother, Kenneth (Paul Cavanagh), discovers one of the tribe’s shrunken heads in his house, he’s found murdered and his head goes missing. In pursuit of the tribesman Zutai (Paul Wexler) and a rival scientist (Henry Daniell) who has become a part of the tribe, Drake attempts to end the curse once and for all…  With career best performances by Franz and Daniell, this is a tremendously atmospheric exercise in genre which belies its impoverished production values. Charles Gemora created award-winning shrunken heads in addition to his duties as make-up artist in this parable concerning race relations and the impact of white men on the New World. Written by Orville H. Hampton and directed by the underrated and enigmatic yet prolific B director Edward L. Cahn, this rivals his early collaborations with screenwriter Tom Reed and may well be the best film ever made.

Message in a Bottle (1999)

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Choose between yesterday and tomorrow.  During her morning jog on the beach, journalist Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn) discovers a bottle protruding from the sand. Inside it, she finds a heartbreaking, anonymous love letter. After her paper publishes the letter, Osborne tracks down the letter’s reclusive author, world-weary widower Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), in the Carolinas. But, as Osborne finds herself falling hopelessly in love with Blake, she becomes wracked with guilt over the real impetus for her visit. As she deals with her own marital mishaps and life back in Chicago with her young son Jason (Jesse James) she can’t bring herself to be truthful with Garret, all the while exploiting his personal tragedy for her newspaper… Adapted by Gerald Di Pego from the Nicholas Sparks novel, it took me a while to see this:  it was released February 1999 and I was travelling from N’Orleans to New Jersey and it seemed to me to be always playing a township or three too far to travel that snowy Spring. It was worth waiting for. It’s a gloriously romantic confection, with conflict, high stakes and a guilty secret or two at its core – there are real lessons to be learned here from the grown-ups with mirroring marital and parenting dilemmas. Penn is terrific as the journo who is basically a stalker and Costner is perfect as the romantic foil whose life is much more complex than she suspects. And guess who plays his father? Paul Newman, that’s who. There are nice bits in the office with Robbie Coltrane revelling in the role of editor and Illeana Douglas as her best friend at work while John Savage is impressive as Costner’s brother in law. This works because it’s tough on the characters even through a rose-tinted lens and the ending, well, it’s not easy but it’s immensely satisfying. It was the first Sparks novel to be adapted to the screen. Love letters?  Message in a bottle? A tragic sacrifice? Death? I hear ya. Just gorgeous cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and music by Gabriel Yared. Sniff. Directed by Luis Mandoki.

The Robe (1953)

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You crucified him. You, my master. Yet you freed me. I’ll never serve you again, you Roman pig. Masters of the world, you call yourselves. Thieves! Murderers! Jungle animals! A curse on you! A curse on your empire!  Drunk and disillusioned Roman centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), wins Jesus’ robe in a dice game after the crucifixion. Marcellus has never been a man of faith like his slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), but when Demetrius escapes with the robe, Marcellus experiences disturbing visions and feels guilty for his actions. Convinced that destroying the robe will cure him, Marcellus sets out to find Demetrius and discovers his Christian faith along the way… This widescreen epic was adapted from Lloyd C. Douglas’ 1942 novel by Gina Kaus, Albert Maltz and Philip Dunne and it has a sense of enormity and place as it is set over 6 years in Rome, Judea – inaccurately called Palestine here – Capri and Galilee, with the might of the Empire amplified by Alfred Newman’s classical score. At its best this is a film of conscience and faith and the origins of Christianity;  at its most entertaining it’s a marvellous sword and sandals outing, among the very best of its era. Directed by Henry Koster, this was the first film made in CinemaScope.