Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fight Club

Fight Club
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right now: I just watched Fight Club for the very first time two days before writing this review (ETA: which was, in fact, about a year ago, it just took me awhile to post this review, because that’s how I roll, yo.)

“What?” “OMG!” “You’ve NEVER seen it before?” “What’s wrong with you?” “BEST MOVIE EVER!”

There.  Is that out of your system now?  Good, I may continue with my review.

Fight Club pissed me off, but not in the way you’d think.  It pissed me off because as I was watching it, I kept on thinking of how damn GOOD it is.  How, cinematically speaking, it’s both accessible and daring.  And then I remembered that it’s fundamentally a GUY movie.  You know, a guy movie – guys love it, girls hate it.  Dark, gritty, lots of guns and violence, very few female characters.

And that made me mad.

Because the best of the guy movies are awesome.  Seriously, spectacularly awesome pieces of cinema.  In the last twenty-five years, guy movies have given us Seven (same dude, yes, I know), all of Christopher Nolan’s films (Memento, Inception, The Dark Knight), Donnie Darko, Goodfellas, etc.  What fantastic films.  And guys love them.  They are not hard films to love.

What are the “great chick flicks” of the last twenty-five years?  Titanic?  Vomit.  The Princess Diaries?  Are you serious?  Under the Tuscan Sun?  Passable at best.  I can get behind Notting Hill, but Notting Hill is not a cinematic masterpiece.  I mean, it’s awesome, but in a “I can turn off my brain now and the movie will amuse me” kind of way.  It’s hardly challenging.

The best guy movies ARE challenging.  The best recent chick flicks… well… aren’t.

And that made me mad.

Because Fight Club is such a great cinematic work, and it’s so fundamentally masculine, and chick flicks are shitty. 

Why are chick flicks so shitty?  Why does Hollywood think that women are content to settle for utter rubbish as long as there’s a hot guy walking around half naked?  Ladies, here’s a hint – Brad Pitt walks around half naked in Fight Club, and this movie is much more worthy of your time than, say, Letters to Juliet.

Oh, right, I should probably try to review Fight Club rather than just rant about the dearth of quality “female films” being made in Hollywood.  It tells the story of a desensitized, insomniac insurance claim investigator (Norton) who meets childish and arrogant soap salesman-cum-explosives expert Tyler Durden (Pitt).  Together, they form the eponymous Fight Club.  Marla (Bonham Carter) takes up with Tyler, much to the chagrin of our narrator.  Things start to spin out of control when the men involved in Fight Club start branching out from just hitting each other.

For my money, the first half hour of Fight Club is perfect.  Sheer, cinematic perfection.  It’s funny, it’s witty, it’s engaging, and it’s damn unique.  Just when you think you know what’s coming, David Fincher spins the film in a completely new direction.  There’s voice-over narration that blends seamlessly into actual dialogue.  We go from Marla and Norton bickering over which support group the other “gets,” to vibrating dildos in airline luggage, to Meat Loaf’s “bitch tits,” to what you’d name a tumor if you had one.  The camerawork is dizzyingly fresh, zooming through gas lines or up and down a waste bucket, places we wouldn’t expect to see.  The fourth wall gets broken during a brief scene that is so unexpected and so funny, you can’t help but smile.  The film even opens at the neural synapses of the brain and zooms out to Norton’s face, a journey which is disconcerting and takes awhile to place.  The first half hour, man.  It’s so unlike other films.  It’s so entertaining.  It’s funny and sharp and unique.  It’s perfect.

The rest of the film is very good, but it’s not like the first half hour.  With the formation of the actual Fight Club, the film becomes more traditional in its narrative (or rather, as traditional as an out-there story like Fight Club can be).  The ingenuity shown in the filmmaking process of the first thirty minutes gives way to much more straightforward storytelling.  I suppose, in a weird way, it would have been far too exhausting to create a film that was as off the wall as those first thirty minutes. 

Accompanying this shift in technique is a marked shift in tone as well.  The film becomes significantly darker and bleaker as we go into more traditional movie mode.  It’s interesting rewatching Fight Club (yes, this means that I’m watching it twice in two days; rewatching helps inspire me when I write about a movie) and remembering just how funny it starts, and just how dark it becomes.  The narrative is driven to a very frightening place; things go wrong, and it seems as if nothing will ever go right.  Unfortunately, I also feel that, despite the intriguing social commentary, the film starts to feel water-logged.  It gets a bit too heavy, a bit too dreary.  It starts to lag, pace-wise.  It can’t keep up with the fresh and fast pace of the opening.  That being said, Fincher, at the very last moment, brings Fight Club back from the edge of being the most depressing tragedy you’ve seen in awhile and reiterates that what you’ve just watched is, in fact, a comedy.  Technically speaking, in the most basic of all dramatic terms, the difference between comedy and tragedy hinges on death, and for most of the central story of the film, we seem to be careening toward the chasm of tragedy.  There’s funny stuff in the first third, but it becomes so dark and heavy, the “comic” ending feels unnatural for most of the film.  I understand it, though.  It’s bringing the movie full circle, back to the significantly lighter comedy of the opening. 

The two leads, Norton and Pitt, are fantastic.  Norton, as our lead, is the one who takes us on a journey from trapped office worker to rebellious fighter to frightened desperado, and, in what I have come to expect from Edward Norton, is phenomenal.  He’s funny when he needs to be, he’s pathetic when he needs to be, and more than anything, he’s believable.  Dancing around him are the two crazies of Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter.  Pitt is the embodiment of the id, easily flaunting society’s rules by only doing what feels good, then literally rewriting the rules of civilization.  While I don’t think his work here is better than his role in Twelve Monkeys (because I love Twelve Monkeys… which I just realized is probably a “guy movie…” dammit…), Pitt does his half-naked crazy dance well. 

There’s a hyperrealism to the photography in Fight Club that manages to make the movie both ugly and beautiful, real and unreal, all at the same time.  Everything looks like things we know.  The pay phone is a pay phone.  It’s scratched and dirty, like a real pay phone.  But then the camera zooms up close, closer than we expect, and the scratches keep getting thrown into more stark relief, there is more detail than you could possibly have imagined.  The film is full of photographic touches like that; familiar things shot with such excruciating detail that they become artificial.

There was a surprising amount of fairly accurate chemistry in the movie. (Yes, I am now about to nerd out about chemistry.  Brace yourself.)  For the record, as a chemistry teacher, every year I teach the definition of “saponification.”  (the making of soap)  And nearly every year, I’ve had at least one student say, “Oh, like in Fight Club!”  Now I can respond with a tangential discussion of how great the film is, huzzah!  There’s a scene with a chemical burn (I’m guessing it was some sort of hydroxide) that was painful for me to watch because a) I have firsthand experience with chemical burns and b) I actively spend my days trying to prevent such things happening to my darling little students. 

Seriously, you guys, this scene made me cringe because it's exactly what I DON'T want happening to all my lovely little students...

For a film titled Fight Club, I was bracing myself for a level of violence that was damn near unwatchable.  Apparently, my hypersensitivity to violence is mostly confined to war films, because I was surprisingly accepting of the violence in this film.  There is no shortage of deep purple fake blood and plasma, to be sure, and the sound of flesh thwacking against cold hard concrete is distinct and a little stomach churning, but the violence is also not nearly as nonstop as you would imagine.  The focal point, the main message of the film, is much more about eschewing society’s rules (and possible repercussions therein), and much less about violence for violence’s sake. 

Fight Club would make a great double feature with Office Space, made the same year.  I am CERTAIN I am not the first person to associate these two films together, but they both deal with a central character who, tired of the cubicle life, starts to break free from American cultural expectations.  Fight Club makes its point with wild violence and hyperbolic antiestablishmentarianism gestures.  Office Space makes its point with funny gags and a red stapler.  Two drastically different comedies, but an intriguing double feature.  At the very least, I anticipate such a double feature would have you wishing you could properly tick off your boss more. 

Or, in my case, it would make me angry about why guy films are so intriguing and chick flicks are so braindead. 

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10.  Ironically, considering the overall message, I think the film starts to run out of steam in the second half.  But that doesn’t stop the whole movie from being AWESOME!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Killer

The Killer
Director: John Woo
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh

Although I knew this would be a fundamentally different film, I was a little hesitant about popping in the DVD for The Killer based on the complete ridiculous mess that was Once Upon a Time in China, which I had watched only a few days previously.  I kept on repeating to myself, “different director, different setting, different movie.”  I really needn’t have felt even the slightest tinge of worry.  While Once Upon a Time in China has great fight sequences held together with inane and ludicrous “plot points,” The Killer is a very coherent and engaging shoot-‘em-up bloodbath – just what one would expect from John Woo.

A killer, who goes by Jeffrey in the English subtitles (Chow), is a hired assassin with a conscience.  When he accidently blinds nightclub singer Jennie (Yeh) in one of his hits, his guilt drives him to reach out to her to make sure she’s alright.  At the same time, determined cop Inspector Li (Lee) starts hunting Jeffrey after he takes out a corrupt businessman Li was guarding.  When Jeffrey doesn’t get the agreed upon payment for a hit, he starts gunning for those who hired him, all while Li closes in on him, getting more entangled in Jeffrey’s world.  

A great deal of why The Killer succeeds is because of Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee.  Both actors are incredibly charismatic; in his very first scene, Chow Yun-Fat got me on his side, even while pulling off a professional hit, through his sheer force of character.  He’s a killer with a soul, a sense of right and wrong (ironically enough), and he exudes a soft, caring, artistic nature underneath his cool exterior.  When Lee is introduced, it doesn’t take long to establish how awesome he is; he’s intense, brooding, clever, and aggressive, but in an awesomely fantastic way.  Furthermore, both actors are playing very interesting and fundamentally likeable characters.  Despite the fact that Jeffrey and Inspector Li are technically working against one another – lawman versus assassin – it’s hard to pick sides.  They are both so effin’ awesome, so effin’ smart, and so effin’ bad-ass, that I found myself rooting for both of them.  I wanted both of them to succeed.   

And then, just when I was thinking that I couldn’t decide between them, the movie pulls out one of my husband’s all time favorite tropes: the teaming up of mortal enemies in order to fight off even worse enemies.  While my husband probably enjoys that particular story angle more than I do, I like it too, and in the case of this film, it was pitch perfect.  Li and Jeffrey even talk about how alike they are, and the film makes this point very clearly.  The fact that one is an assassin and the other a cop is a mere technicality.  My mother-in-law would call them “twin souls.”  Watching them fight off evil nasty crooked criminals together was a thing of joy.  Their relationship became so intense that the character of Jennie, love interest for Jeffrey and possibly Li as well, felt far more like a clunky plot device than a real character in the film.  I really don’t care about what happens between Jennie and Jeffrey, but I very much care about what happens between Jeffrey and Li.  As the 1001 Movies book notes, the direct translation of the movie title is not “The Killer,” but “Bloodshed of Two Heroes.”  After watching this film, I strongly agree that this title is far more descriptive of the central relationship of the film, focusing instead on the pair of Li and Jeffrey rather than just Jeffrey himself. 

Another part of why I enjoyed this movie as much as I did was the sheer level of bad-assery in this movie.  Seriously, it’s off the charts.  In the opening hit, Chow Yun-Fat, an actor whom I am slowly realizing I don’t know nearly as well as I thought I did, puts all well-known Western action heroes to shame.  He’s so. Damn. Cool.  Throughout the film, he just keeps getting cooler and cooler, and more and more badass.  And then there’s Danny Lee, who’s all badass too, but on the right side of the law, which in a way makes him even MORE badass.  Together, they pull off some crazy bad-ass shit.  A favorite sequence of mine involved the two of them meeting each other at Jennie’s home, each holding the other at arm’s length and gunpoint, all while blind Jennie doesn’t realize the two men are in a standoff.  The fight scenes are beautifully choreographed bloody gun battles, bathed in red and exploding blood packs which allow our two heroes to show off their preternatural shooting abilities and bullet-dodging prowess.  Which, of course, makes them super-badass.  It’s easy to see how this film influenced the likes of Quentin Tarantino, with fight scenes full of such ludicrous bloodshed and body counts where even the innocent aren’t spared, all while occasionally cutting to slow motion to showcase the tranquil beauty of a candlelit church and the flapping of a dove.  Then, of course, Chow Yun-Fat slides across the floor on his back, double-fisting his guns and shooting about a billion bad guys dead, and we’re right back into the insane action yet again.  Like I said: badass.

Although I enjoyed the fight scenes, I do think they are absolutely ridiculous.  Chow Yun-Fat is not physically capable of mowing down forty attackers at once while escaping unharmed in real life.  I am amused by how all of the bad guys in this movie have automatic assault weapons and our heroes only ever seem to have six-shot pistols, and yet all the automatic assault weapons seem to constantly miss their targets, while the two dudes with the piddling little guns never miss a single damn shot (or never need to reload, either).  One or two versus fifty?  No problem!  Watch our heroes mow down every villain in their way despite the fact that they are massively out-manned, out-gunned, and out-maneuvered.  The villains must go to some special school of villainy that teaches them how to consistently miss their targets (this is the same school that the stormtroopers attended as well).  Action movies, to me, are totally ludicrous and completely unrealistic.  But if all the ridiculousness is done well, I can absolutely still enjoy them!  Yeah, it’s not realistic, and yeah, to some extent, it removes me from the film, but magically, I can get past that leap of logic and enjoy the movie.  Throwing logic out the window every now and then is good for the movie-viewer’s soul.

Overall, The Killer is a very fun movie with killer fight sequences (ha ha), two awesome badass main characters doing badass shit who I wound up having a bit of a crush on by the end (threeway!!!!) and more dead bodies than you can shake a fist at.  More poignant than I was expecting, I am now left wondering why on earth Criterion discontinued its DVD of The Killer.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte

When watching this film at the Dryden last night, I came to the realization that despite the fact that I’ve written over 200 reviews for movies from 1001 Movies, I have yet to review a modern war movie.  What fits the criteria of “modern war movie?”  Simple: made in the 1970s or later, after the Hays Code was lifted and films could be a lot more graphic about everything.  And the reason I haven’t yet reviewed a modern war movie is because they are, quite possibly, my least favorite genre of films ever, maybe even less liked by me than experimental films.

In The Thin Red Line, Malick follows the men from C Company as they fight the battle for Guadalcanal in World War II.  We get inner monologues of many of the men, including hungry-for-a-promotion Tall (Nolte), desperately missing his wife Bell (Chaplin), and stoic and cynical Welsh (Penn), but we focus mostly on Whit (Caviezel).  Whit is first seen AWOL, living an idyllic existence with a tribe on an island in the South Pacific.  He sees the beauty in everything, and ruminates on man’s purpose amidst all the chaos of war.  There are the requisite battle scenes, burning scenes, death scenes, fight scenes, bomb scenes, but also Malick’s characteristic lilting shots of nature.  There isn’t so much a plot as there is an examination of the mentality of a soldier in war time.

I think the only fair place for me to start is to explain just why I cannot bear modern war movies.  I can’t take them.  I just can’t.  And it all goes back to Saving Private Ryan, which is a little ironic, considering that was in direct competition with The Thin Red Line during awards season 1998.  Me being a college freshman, who thought I could handle anything thrown my way, went to go see Ryan in theaters, and I left the theater traumatized.  I don’t want to go into too much detail (that’ll be for my review of THAT movie), but suffice it to say there are still scenes from that film that stick in my head and only come up in nightmares.  My threshold for movie violence, which had gotten higher as I got older, was utterly crumbled by that film, and I haven’t been able to stomach much violence ever since.

Which makes me wonder: what’s the difference between a powerful film and one that simply hurts the viewer?  Because I’ve seen powerful films that rejoice me, that lead to a grand catharsis and that ultimately elevate in spite of their crushing power.  Those are the powerful films I love.  I’ve also seen films like Saving Private Ryan that beat me over the head and punch me in the stomach for hours with no intent other than beating me over the head and punching me in the stomach.  Those are the powerful films I can’t abide.  I don’t want to use the word “hate,” it’s not what I intend, but I cannot stomach them.  I cannot deal with them.  They hurt me too much without giving me anything other than pain in return.  I understand that war is hell, I understand the point those directors of modern war movies are trying to make, but I just can’t take it.  Guns terrify me, and war, especially, terrifies me.  Utterly terrifies me.  A war movie is like torture for me. 

So, onto The Thin Red Line in particular, yeah?

Given everything I said above, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I rather enjoyed the first 45 minutes of The Thin Red Line, because it’s the bit of the film that has the least to do with war.  This is where we open with Whit’s new home on a tropical island, see him swimming with the natives, singing, smiling, enjoying nature.  Even when he has to rejoin his ship and we start meeting a cast the size of my high school, Malick maintained the careful rhythm he had established when Whit was on the island.  It was a nice rhythm, a hypnotic rhythm, and I was fairly well engrossed.  But then, of course, this is a war movie, and when the bombs started going off, Siobhan’s eyes shut tight, she grit her teeth, she grabbed her arm, and tried desperately not to give herself new fodder for future nightmares.  There was honestly a full five minutes where I was resolutely not watching the film.  And shots of animals in pain and/or dying were just as bad – I peaked open my eyes for a second to see a baby bird flopping around on the ground and then squeezed my eyes shut again in horror, peaking again to make sure it was over, but it wasn’t.  Most of the remainder of the film followed this path, which is bad for Siobhan.  All the magic of the opening was lost, and although I sensed that Malick *thought* he reclaimed it, that he *thought* he was once again giving me that lyrical loveliness of the opening, it never really came back.  Now it just felt tedious and pretentious, quite frankly, as if he was trying too hard.  But then again, maybe his point was you can never go back.  Hard to tell with Malick, really.

Of the myriad of characters in the film, I responded best to Bell and Whit.  To be honest, however, one of the reasons I responded so well to Bell was because I spent the first hour of the film trying to figure out what I knew Ben Chaplin from, and then, about halfway through the movie, I remembered – The Truth About Cats and Dogs – which made the game less fun, having solved the puzzle.  Chaplin’s character, Bell, is deeply in love with his wife (played by Miranda Otto) and thinks of her often.  I liked these flashbacks, but Malick, interestingly enough, begins to question the veracity of these flashbacks.  Were these real events, or is Bell simply dreaming?  Has it been so long since he’s seen his wife that his memory is starting to play tricks on him?  I like the suggestion about the fallibility of memory, especially for a soldier in wartime.  When do memories become dreams, or dreams become memories?  It’s an interesting point, and I can see Malick going to town on this concept.

Seriously, once I placed him, all I could think of was Truth About Cats and Dogs.

Whit, even amongst a huge cast of mostly anonymous soldiers, is definitely the most stand-alone character in the film.  There’s a voiceover about three quarters of the way through the film that talks about the two ways to interpret death, one being either the inevitability of the event and the sadness, the other being as a means of seeing a glory, a higher power.  Malick is careful never to reference God specifically, instead implying the sheer power of Nature on its own, perhaps.  Whit, as a character, is the embodiment of this second philosophy.  He insists on being with men when they die in order to comfort them and pass them on to this higher power.  He’s almost Christ-like; actually, perhaps a bit too Christ-like (especially considering Caviezel would go on to play Christ in Gibson’s little flick).  Given Whit’s obvious difference in philosophy from his other soldiers, there are too many questions about him that the film never gets around to answering, at least not in a satisfactory manner for me.  You really want to delve into this question, Malick?  I’d love to hear more about it, rather than indulging in too many other tangents to keep straight.  

The cast is preposterously large and filled with famous actors, to the point of actually hurting the movie.  There’s nothing that jars me out of the sort of contemplative mood Malick is so desperately trying to cast than seeing John Travolta pop up with an ugly moustache and horrid acting abilities.  Later on, just as I feel I’m getting into the groove of the movie, it’s “Holy shit, that’s John Cusack!  Hey, right on, John Cusack!  Oh.  Right.  Movie.  Supposed to be paying attention.  Crap, what’s happening now?”  And then, in the denouement, where I am supposed to be contemplating everything I’ve just seen, I’m not, actually, reflecting on the film, but instead thinking, “Hey, George Clooney!  Alright, I like George Clooney!  Oh wait, no, I’m supposed to be all sad now.  Ah, who cares, go Clooney!”  People talk about how characters breaking spontaneously into song and dance distracts them in a movie musical, removes them from the film, as it were.  I know how they feel now, because every time there was a cameo – and there are LOADS of cameos – I fell completely out of the film. 

Ultimately, I can’t come down with a positive assessment of The Thin Red Line for various reasons.  Yes, I liked some questions that Malick touched on, and as always, his photography of nature was stunning (I can understand why Malick, doing WWII, would choose the South Pacific battles over the European battles, that’s more than obvious given his propensity for grass and forests), but it has too many marks against it.  Malick is incomplete in developing his philosophical questions because there are simply too many characters, the film feels pretentious on more than one occasion, and, the biggest mark against it for me, it is a Modern War Movie (honestly not sure how I'll ever make it through Platoon).  And, though no fault of Malick’s, I just cannot stomach such films.  Do I think The Thin Red Line a bad film?  No, I don’t think so, I think there’s some good stuff there.  But it is so phenomenally NOT FOR ME that my rating cannot help but reflect my personal tastes and peculiar issues.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10, mostly because, as I’ve said, I have almost no ability to sit through graphic scenes of war violence.  I want to reiterate that this is not the same as me hating, or even disliking, a film.  I just can’t watch it.  There’s a difference.