also showing; Sin has seldom looked so good

SEVEN David Fincher (18) SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT Lasse Hallstrom (15) FOUR ROOMS Allison Anders / Alexandre Rockwell / Robert Rodriquez / Quentin Tarantino (18) ALL MEN ARE MORTAL Ate de Jong (15)
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Two mismatched cops, one young, white and cocky, one old, black and just one week short of retirement, set out on the trail of a serial killer... zzzz. But any expectations of ordinariness are squashed as soon as Seven's opening credits roll: all scratched film stock and dreamy superimpositions, it could be a Sixties avant-garde movie. Seven continues to look extraordinary when the story proper begins and spills on to the street. This rain-drenched, shadowy, seedy city looks like New York (it is never named), except that the climax takes the cops out into the desert under a hellishly blazing sun. With its desaturated colours, expressionist compositions (the cinematographer, Darius Khondji, shot Delicatessen) and intricately spooky soundtrack, the film, which on paper sounds like Lethal Weapon 15, turns out to be more like Eraserhead.

Directed by David Fincher, who made a notable debut with Alien 3, its cleverness is to blend its literary pretentions with the trappings of genre. All the stock story elements are in place: the decoy suspect arrested at an early stage, the chase, the forensic enquiries, even the arch-corny climax at which the cop's wife/ girlfriend is menaced by the killer. But each is given an unexpected twist.

The murders are inspired by the seven deadly sins, and each is executed in the appropriate manner, with greed's victim, for instance, forced to eat until his stomach bursts. The movie is bleak, nihilistic even, and its explicitness will not be to every taste: the killings aren't seen, but the corpses are shown in detail. Yet they have a kind of terrible beauty, as if each mutilated cadaver had been specially designed by Damien Hirst. And the film has much grisly humour in it.

The two main characters sum up Seven's dual nature. Morgan Freeman's cop is the educated one - even his name, William Somerset, has a literary ring - who picks up instantly on the criminal's allusions to Milton, Dante and Shakespeare, and carries out his research in the dusty stacks of the city library. His opposite number is played by an actor cast to pull in the carriage trade. Brad Pitt is the Joe Sixpack character, who speed- reads the classics via Cliff's Notes and in whose mouth the Marquis de Sade is pronounced as though he were a pop star.

All this would go for nothing if there were no emotional pull to the story. It contains two significant weak links: Pitt's insipid, too-good- to-be-true wife and the murderer, a messianic maniac in the Hannibal Lecter mould, but still a cipher (he is known only by that blandest of pseudonyms, John Doe). Pitt, however, is surprisingly good as the know-it-all newcomer who undergoes a baptism of fire.

But the film belongs to Freeman and his quiet, carefully detailed portrayal of the jaded older man who learns not to give up the fight. It ends, poignantly, as he quotes Hemingway: "The world is a fine place and worth fighting for," adding, "I agree with the second part"; within the film's dark fabric, that counts as a hopeful ending. It may sound over-excited in the first week of January, but 1996 will be a very good year if Seven doesn't make it on to my 10-best list come December.

The competition will have to be keener than the other post-festive fare: two fat American turkeys and a Euro-pudding. Starting with the best, there is Something to Talk About, an upmarket, old-fashioned relationships comedy about a dazed young wife (Julia Roberts) who discovers her husband (Dennis Quaid) is cheating on her and shows him the door. The film is directed by Lasse Hallstrom, so it always looks like a class act, and is scripted by Callie Khouri, who wrote Thelma and Louise, and therefore contains the occasional barb - mainly from Kyra Sedgwick, who steals the film as Roberts's tart-tongued sister. But Roberts herself is a drip, and it's a dull story, not helped by a long and equally uninteresting sub-plot about the breeding stables run by Roberts's father (Robert Duvall) and which horse he will ride in some irrelevant jumping show.

Four Rooms was slipped out by the distributor over Christmas before anyone had a chance to review it; nothing to do, of course, with the fact that it's a frightful stiff. It consists of four segments, each directed and written by a supposedly "hot" independent film-maker and all set in the same run-down but funky hotel on New Year's Eve. It's a would-be hip Plaza Suite that makes you long for Neil Simon's square but solid crafting.

The two feeblest segments come first (the directors bow in alphabetical order): from Allison Anders, a yarn about a comic coven of witches who worship Amanda de Cadenet (!) as their goddess; from Alexandre Rockwell, a dreary psychodrama about a man tormenting his beautiful wife; from Robert Rodriguez (who made El Mariachi), the sharpest contribution (although that's not saying much), with Antonio Banderas as an unsavoury gangster who leaves the hotel bellboy in sole charge of his two horrible brats; and from Quentin Tarantino, a slight anecdote about a bizarre bet in which the best thing is the great payoff. No one at all seems to have directed Tim Roth who, as the bellhop linking the segments, tries to do a Jerry Lewis and ends up with a twitching, mugging, achingly unfunny performance that he will come to regard as an embarrassment.

But little could match All Men Are Mortal, directed by Ate de Jong, whose main previous claim to fame was the puerile Rik Mayall comedy Drop Dead Fred. A ghost story set in bohemian post-war Paris, with Irene Jacob and Stephen Rea (both uncharacteristically awful), it has basement jazz clubs cured in the smoke of a million Gauloises, it has an avant-garde actress in an avant-garde production of Hamlet, it has existentialism and a source novel by Simone de Beauvoir - in short it has, and unerringly combines, all the ingredients for disaster.

n On release from tomorrow

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