Tuesday, February 28, 2017
(December 2008, U.S.)
This may sound harsh and a bit heartless, but in my humble opinion, SEVEN POUNDS may best be described as practically (and perhaps literally) a step-by-step process on how to plan-down-to-the-last-detail and execute your own suicide. Whatever personal feelings and convictions you may have on such a serious subject, whether religious or moral, is completely up to you, as the film makes no attempt to stress whether or not a broken man planning his own suicide and the generous acts of goodness and atonement he performs prior to such an act is right, wrong, indecent, righteous or even beautiful.
When we first meet Will Smith's character of Tim Thomas, we can easily see he's at the end of his rope, as he calls in a suicide to 911; his own. We can also surmise that he's lost everything that was important to him in a horrible car accident, which also claimed the lives of seven others. In his own personal bid for atonement before he departs from this world, Tim seeks to improve the lives of seven random individuals who will benefit from his own vital body organs after he's gone, including his lung, his liver, his heart, his corneas and bone marrow (he will also donate his California beach house to a desperate family in need). Such individuals, however, must be screened and tested to be sure if they are worthy candidates, even if it means phony acts of cruelty over the phone toward a sensitive blind man (played by Woody Harrelson) to see if he will easily succumb to anger and retaliation. To easily approach people, Time assumes the false identity of Ben Thomas (his brother), an IRS auditor. A genius move, really, because no one is likely to take the chance of brushing off (or pissing off!) a tax auditor. We even take a degree of pleasure in watching Ben "reject" a hospice director when he discovers his acts of cruelty toward an elderly patient. We know that Ben is not a tax auditor, but it's fun to watch the little hospice prick squirm when he thinks that he's pissed off a man from the IRS and they're now going to be coming after him.
Ben is highly determined to carry through with his plan of ending his life. The only other person in on it is his long time childhood friend Dan (played by Barry Pepper) who has vowed a sacred promise to execute Ben's living will to ensure that his organs are properly donated to the right people (I'll get back to Dan in a little while). This determination is apparently not even deterred when Ben finds himself falling in love with Emily Posa (played by Rosario Dawson), the woman he's chosen to receive his heart after he's gone. There is a moment, though, when Ben appears to want to find even the slightest reason to go on living and be with Emily and inquires from her doctor if she would have any chance of living were she not to get a new heart. Realizing that she will likely die, he makes the fateful (no pun intended) decision to finally end his life once and for all so he may not only give to those who need, but to end his pain, as well. Despite Ben's narration of how he was fascinated by box jellyfish as a kid, I still cannot fully account for the significance of Ben choosing to die by jellyfish stings in a bathtub of freezing water. I can only presume that the ice and the stings were a method of preserving his organs so they would not stop or be damaged. The excruciatingly painful death that Ben chooses is very likely part of his own personal atonement for the lives he was responsible for in that deadly car accident, including his fiancée (don't text and drive, people!!!).
So back to Dan for a moment. His role, believe it or not, I find just as intriguing as Ben's. As we learn of the man's pain for what has happened to him and others, as well as his genuine goodness towards others as his last effort on Earth, we can almost come to understand his purpose and intentions in ending his life (whether we agree with it or not). What I find harder to comprehend is the best friend who would agree to support such an act. Loyalty surely comes in many shapes and forms and to honor your best friend's final wish is surely a fine example of that honor. But is it not too unlike agreeing to the act of a crime simply because he's your best friend? Does the true friend express his loyalty by honoring a man's act of suicide or does he do better by being there to help the man heal and forgive himself instead? Perhaps this is where suspension of disbelief comes into play while you're sitting there watching Barry Pepper in the film and asking yourself, "You're going to let him do it??"
SEVEN POUNDS, for all of its bittersweet drama and tender moments of love, is surely also a heartbreaking and emotionally devastating experience. Tim/Ben Thomas is a man you can care about, for reasons of both his horrible personal pain and the final acts of goodness he wishes to deliver to those who truly deserve it. It helps you to recognize the good in other people (even if it's just a movie) when you don't necessarily feel like such a good person yourself all the time (just sayin').
Favorite line or dialogue:
Emily Posa: "Do you wanna play a game?"
Ben Thomas: "What game?"
Emil: "The "what if" game."
Ben: "The "what if" game."
Emily: "What if...my pager goes off...and it's a heart...and...it works? And my body doesn't reject it? And...what if i have time?"
Ben Thomas: "What if? What if we have children? What if we got married?"
Saturday, February 18, 2017
(February 1964, U.S.)
It is the year 2017 and we are currently living in a state of political chaos! This is largely due to the unfortunate fact that there were enough American citizens with the right of free vote who chose to put a "man" like Donald Trump into the world's highest office on Election Day of November 2016. I've told people that it feels like the 1960s all over again in this country, and even though I cannot attest to the events of that era personally because I was only born in 1967, I've ready and viewed my fair share of history to know just how deep we sank into fear, paranoia, protest, political unrest, and violence. So now, as we appear to be reinventing and re-imagining our concept of the Cold War with Russia all over again, watching John Frankenheimer's SEVEN DAYS IN MAY feels not only quite timely, but even necessary to reflect where we once were in history and the potential we are presently experiencing to return to those chaotic days.
Some history first; the film was released in 1964 and John Kennedy was already dead. The original book, however, was written between 1961 and 1962 during JFK's administration and reflected the political events of the time. JFK had accepted the resignation of Edwin Walker, an anti-Communist general who was indoctrinating the troops under his command with personal political anti-Communist opinions. Although no longer in uniform, Walker continued to be in the news as he attempted to run for Governor of Texas and made strong speeches promoting his right-wing views.
In this film (the screenplay by THE TWILIGHT ZONE's Rod Serling, no less), as it's set in the future of the early 1970s, the fictional President of the United States Jordan Lymann (played by Frederic March), mentions General Walker as a "false prophet" offering himself to the public as a new and effective leader over the current administration he feels is weak (sound familiar Mr. Trump??) and in the position of putting the American people at the mercy of the Soviet Union by negotiating away our nuclear arms with them by entering into a disarmament treaty. While public debate and dissatisfaction over this act rages, General James Mattoon Scott (played by Burt Lancaster and intended to reflect the real-life Edwin Walker) is secretly plotting a coup d'etat to remove President Lyman and his cabinet members in just seven days. According to the plan, an undisclosed Army combat unit known as ECOMCON (Emergency COMmunications CONtrol) intend to seize control of the country's telephone, radio, and television networks, while Congress is thereby prevented from implementing the treaty with the Soviets. On the opposite side of this plot, Colonel Martin Casey (played by Kirk Douglas), although personally opposed to the President's position, is shocked by the unconstitutional intentions he's discovered and alerts the President of the potential threat against him. Lyman forms a small inner circle of trusted friends and advisors to investigate the matter. By the time Scott is discovered as the architect of the takeover against his own government, he is hardly sorry or regretful of his actions. He remains determined to step in and place himself as leader of our country in the name of the American people, their anti-Communist values, and his own personal agenda of power.
The film's message is very clear in that we as American citizens in control of our own free lives, are meant to have faith and trust the intentions and the value of our beloved President, and those that would step up against him, even American soldiers, are meant to be the ones we don't want to see win the day. Still, the debate at both ends is valid. Those who remember and experienced the fear of the Cold War and the potential threats from the Russians would likely shudder at the thought of our nuclear arms defenses being given away in a treaty with those who were considered our enemies of the era. On the other hand, those of my generation will recall the crumble of the Soviet Union by the end of the 1980s and the newfound trust we had with our new friends the Russians. Those of today's generation are watching potential secret connections and deals between our newly-sworn-in President Trump (geez, I can't believe I actually have to say that for the next four to eight years!) and Russian President Vladimir Putin. By today's political unrest, the thought of a militry coup against Trump's administration might seem a very welcomed idea, indeed. Is it wrong or is it right? Is it proper justice served? Is it American? These debatable questions don't easily go away, even after more than fifty years!
Favorite line or dialogue:
General James Mattoon Scott: "And if you want to talk about your oath of office, I'm here to tell you face to face, President Lyman, that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its muscles - when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people and told them they could remove that fear by the stroke of a pen. And then when this nation rejected you, lost faith in you, and began militantly to oppose you, you violated that oath by not resigning from office and turning the country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States!"
Thursday, February 9, 2017
(September 1995, U.S.)
David Fincher's crime thriller SE7EN may be the best example of modern day neo-noir filmmaking, with it visual elements of low-key lighting, light and shadow and unconventional camera placement, that I've seen since Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER in 1982. And like that landmark science fiction thriller, it seems to always be raining in this movie, too. SE7EN is also one of the most bone-chilling and frightening tales of the serial killer genre and the painstaking efforts to hunt down and capture him that I've seen on film since Michael Mann's MANHUNTER in 1986.
This film is an enigmatic jigsaw puzzle, to say the least, that in my opinion, goes way beyond the traditional crime thriller. The puzzle begins by not clearly identifying which American city this takes place in. The city is dark, dirty, crime-ridden and full of fear and skepticism toward human nature (could be anywhere in America!). From the moment the first murder victim is discovered at the beginning of the typical work week, a disgustingly-obese man forced to eat tremendous quantities of food until his stomach ruptured, we can clearly surmise that there will be six more events to follow this one, as the word gluttony is discovered at the crime scene. It's right here that I should add that your own personal and religious beliefs in the so-called seven deadly sins are completely up to you. I will say for myself, an atheist, that the religious overtones of the violent crimes makes the entire human (or inhuman) acts behind them all the more fearful and sinister (it seems that in today's world, in particular, there's nothing more unsettling than a fanatic with a religious agenda).
As previously stated, this is a jigsaw puzzle in which we know exactly how many pieces to expect. The second murder victim, a wealthy defense attorney who died from both fatal bloodletting and the removal of a pound of flesh, is not exactly meant to invoke sympathy on our part, as he was the sort of man who greatly benefited by getting the guilty exonerated. Here we find the word greed at the crime scene. As the murders continue through more of the sins, detectives David Mills and William Somerset (played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, respectively), must not only try to unravel the true intentions and purpose of the unknown killer, but must also try and impatiently dead with each other, as well. The murder to represent sloth is particularly gruesome in that its victim (who, for a moment, is the suspected killer) is a well-known drug dealer and child molester, strapped to a bed, barely alive and emaciated, with a series of Polaroid pictures indicating he had been tied to the bed for an entire year. Honestly, I don't know what freaks me out more - being tied to a bed for a year, or the condition of this poor bastard's body when they find him. The murder of the disease-spreading hooker meant to depict lust is noteworthy due to the fact that the perpetrator is an unwilling man forced by the killer (whom we know now as only John Doe) to wear a bladed S&M phallic device on his genitals and to rape and kill her while severely traumatizing him. This "weapon" of sorts is creepy to look at in the Polaroid shots we're briefly shown. From there, our detectives are alerted to their next victim - a beautiful young woman, presumably a model, whose face has been mutilated by Doe. Given the option to call for help and be disfigured, or to commit suicide by taking pills, she chooses suicide; the word pride written on her wall above her.
So by the time five of these murders have taken place, we can only sit and wonder how the last two will be performed for us. This is where the film cleverly makes its first of many climactic twists by John Doe's unexpected surrender to Mills and Somerset. The second twist, I suppose, is in our discovery that Doe is played by Kevin Spacey, whose name is not given during the film's opening credits. Still, there are two deadly sins left and we're practically at the edge of our seat as we try to determine how an unusual drive to a remote desert location between Mills, Somerset and Doe will resolve all of this. Envy, as it turns out, is Doe's own feelings toward Mills' life of tradition and normalcy. Wrath is what Mills will experience when he discovers that a mysterious package delivered to them at this desert site shall contain the severed head of his pretty and pregnant wife Tracy (played by Gwyneth Paltrow when she was still alive in the film). This horrifying revelation proves too much for Mills and he shoots Doe six times until his death completes the seven deadly sins.
Watching SE7EN allows one to consider what exactly is truly scary to them. The film is not classified as part of the horror genre, yet it's darker, more brutal, more relentless, more violent and more haunting than anything else you may have watched in a dark room on Halloween night. The performances are top notch, as each primary character exerts his own sense of style and purpose. Morgan Freeman is generally quiet, but very carefully detailed in his methods and philosophies behind his analytical approach toward understanding the criminal mind at work here. Kevin Spacey, while also quiet and modest, is terrifying in showing us just how meticulous and in control of his actions, though horrible as they may be, he truly is. Brad Pitt serves as the film's wild rogue who, despite his aggressive and impatient nature, appears to be the only person in this film who has any faith left in the good side of human nature. He refuses to believe otherwise.
Favorite line or dialogue:
David Mills (to John Joe): "You're no messiah! You're a movie of the week! You're a fucking t-shirt, at best!"