Monday, June 29, 2015

Movie Review: "Fight Club" by David Pretty

The first time I saw Fight Club my feelings about it were...complicated. I thought the anarchic finale was irresponsible and the twist ending was improbable. Now, after an inconceivable sixteen years worth of retrospect, I can safely say that Fight Club should have won "Best Picture" back in 2000.

That's not to disparage American Beauty, which is an amazing movie in its own right. But I think it scored the Oscar nomination and eventually won, not because it was the better film but because it was made by and for Baby Boomers while Fight Club was targeted at "Generation X". I don't think it's co-incidence that both films came out around the same time, had a lot of the same plot beats and covered similar thematic ground. It was as if two different age groups wanted to go on record to say that the prevailing social paradigm was complete horseshit before everything eventually unraveled during Y2K.

In order for a film to wring a five-star rating out of me, it has to be technically proficient, vaguely relevant to my existence, challenging to watch, original, revelatory and potentially life-altering. No small order, but Fight Club did all of this and more. As a result it's been on my list of Top Ten favorite films of all time since its debut back in 1999.

The movie's IMDb synopsis ("An office employee and a soap salesman build a global organization to help vent male aggression.") sounds like it was written by someone who never saw the film or at least missed the point completely. Even though Fight Club is told from the perspective of two male characters, the film's themes are universal. It's really about recognizing the debt-ridden, advert-soaked existence that corporations want to mire you in and how to break free from this paradigm of modern slavery. It's not enough that you acknowledge this invisible prison, you have to annihilate it, even if it requires a drastic and painful personal metamorphosis.

Ed Norton is our friendly narrator, an office drone who toils away for a morally bankrupt insurance company. His fleeting moments of happiness seem limited to new acquisitions for his extensive Ikea furniture collection. After suffering from chronic insomnia for months and test-driving every standard medical treatment he infiltrates a support group for survivors of testicular cancer. The catharsis that comes from being viscerally and emotionally re-attached to reality again soon has him sleeping like a baby. 

Of course, this dysfunctional bliss can't last forever and the spoiler comes in the form of rival poseur Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). Her presence is like a psychic splinter, reminding our protagonist that the unconventional solution to his plight is nothing more than a band-aid applied to a sucking chest wound. In a deux ex machina-style co-incidence, another avenue of salvation immediately presents itself in the form of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a "single-serving friend" that he meets on a flight. The narrator is immediately taken by this chaotically-dressed, self-assured, soap-making anarchist and when his materially-defined existence is completely annihilated, he soon falls completely under Durden's thrall.

It's easy to understand his fascination at first since Tyler's insight into contemporary existence cuts to the quick of our modern malaise. In what sounds like the natural extension of Lester Burnham's anti-pristine sofa rant in American Beauty, Tyler declares: "Fuck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let's evolve, let the chips fall where they may."

The establishment of their verboten-to-talk-about titular organization happens not to "vent male aggression" as the myopic blurb above might suggest but to get people back in touch with the base, primitive definition of what it means to be human. Tyler starts taking some drastic steps to ensure the "evolution" of the Clubs and this is where my initial unease with the film began to creep in.

I was fine with Tyler's philosophy but as soon as he began to put his money where his mouth was I wanted to bail on him. When Tyler organizes the Clubs into a bonafide social movement, he starts performing acts of corporate terrorism with the ultimate goal of returning humanity to a more natural state. The lengths that he's willing to go to in order to fulfill this had me squirming uncomfortably in my seat. Clearly, I was still a brainwashed good little serf back then who thought that such actions were genuinely shocking.

Eventually I came to see Tyler Durden as an amalgam of my more challenging friends, one of whom floated his "Thatched Hut" theory a good five years before Chuck Palahniuk's novel was published. This theory maintained that all human beings really need to be happy in life is some sort of menial job, a thatched hut on a beach, friends to keep you company and the ability to get drunk periodically.

At the time I balked at how naive this sounded, since I couldn't reconcile this with my budding Star Wars toy collection or my current generation video game console. As I got older, however, I began to put more credence in Tyler's opinion that "the things you own end up owning you." Then, when you add in many thankless years of work drudgery, discovering the seemingly-limitless depths of corporate greed and realizing how much big business impedes human development, I eventually found myself gravitating towards Tyler's corner. I've even come to the point where the film's shocking denouement seems kinda justified. 

Now I could prattle on endlessly about well-acted, directed and written the film is, but Fight Club almost transcends examination on a mere technical level just because it's so much more than the sum of its cinematic parts. This is a film of tremendous influence and importance and one that I've come to recognize as the embodiment of my own personal credo, a credo that has had a major impact on my life. 

Much like the tortuous "lye test" that Tyler inflicts on the narrator, it's downright painful to unplug yourself from an existence that views the acquisition of wealth and material goods as the ultimate indicator of success. And I'm speaking from experience here. With the ethos of Fight Club still clanging around in my head I decided to opt out of being an interchangeable cog in a corporate machine back in April of 2010. As of this writing the jury's still out as to whether or not I did the right thing. While my heart, soul and mind have experienced a "Durden-esque" Renaissance my finances remain about as bleak as the headquarters of "Project Mayhem".

So when I say that Fight Club changed my life I ain't just whistlin' Dixie.

The ballsy conviction and monetary plate-spinning required to liberate yourself from modern slavery isn't just taxing, it's arguably impossible. Despite this truism I can't help but ponder how many other people have used the mental nitroglycerin contained within the fabric of this film to reboot their own lives. Like the corner store clerk that Tyler threatens to execute if he doesn't take immediate steps to pursue his life's dream, I really felt as if the film was pointing a gun at my temple, ordering me to initiate some sort of positive change. In fact I have no idea how someone can watch Fight Club and then willingly and blissfully sink back into the doldrums of their domestic captivity.

I also can't help but wonder if I'll ever see another picture so relevant, so true and so worthy of recognition that I'll still be singing it's praises sixteen years after its release.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Movie Review: "Gladiator" by David Pretty

Color me surprised when I found myself feeling rather disappointed after watching Gladiator. The trailer gave me the impression that I was going to watch an obscure story about a real-life Roman gladiator who became a martyr after opposing the sick whims of a degenerate Emperor. Instead I got yet another color-by-numbers revenge fantasy without a shred of historical context, tons of grungy cinematography, and dated CGI.

First off I'm sick and tired of screenwriters thumbing their nose at historical accuracy. If you're thinking: "C'mon, Dave, we go to the movies to be entertained, not to be educated" I'd counter with "Fuck you, talented and ambitious screenwriters can do both". There's probably a whole slew of legendary tales in the annals of history about gladiator bravery, honor and rebellion, but scribes David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson weren't content with that. Instead they banged out a bland, predictable and homogenized script likely to appease all of the mouth-breathers out there who aren't content unless they can check off every single box on their "Ahm gettin' mah monies wurth" checklist of cliches. 

If you wanna write a completely fictional screenplay with no basis in reality, that's fine by me. But as soon as you start dippin' into the genre of historical drama, you need to adhere to show at least a modicum of respect for the truth. And not just for the benefit of anal-retentive assholes like me, you really have an obligation to all the morons out there who don't know any better. I shudder to think how many idiots out there think that Hitler was killed in a theater in Paris "thanks" to Inglorious Basterds. Or Robert the Bruce deliberately back-stabbed William Wallace because, well...Braveheart. Or that Americans single-handedly retrieved the German's Enigma code machine just like they did in U-571. The general public is misinformed and under-informed enough without Hollywood adding to the problem.   

And so it is with Gladiator, which completely thumbs (down) it's nose at historical accuracy. Minor liberties I can deal with but the whoppers on display here would have changed the entire course of human history forever. If I had my druthers I'd make Franzoni, Logan and Nicholson write "TRUTH IS STRANGER AND OFTEN COOLER THAN FICTION" a hundred times on the blackboard until they learned their lesson. Call me crazy but I think dramatic tension is heightened when the events I'm watching actually happened to real people.

So is Gladiator a complete and total write-off? Fuck, no. The whole thing kicks off with a massive, on-screen pitched battle between a horde of barbarians and the Roman legionary, a crazy spectacle that rivals anything I've ever seen on screen before or since. Indeed, this was one of the last few times when a major studio production used a real environment populated with real extras, props, cavalry, horses and ballistae to re-create a scene of ancient warfare. Many movies that followed, like Troy for example, opted to use large swaths of cartoonish CGI instead which produced less than stellar results.

This epic scrum is followed by a series of escalating mano-a-mano gladiatorial fights. The down n' dirty Moroccan pit-battle segues nicely into an intended rout involving archers and chariots and then moves on to a bold-faced assassination attempt featuring human mountanoid Sven-Ole Thorsen and a litter of pop-o-matic tigers. Unfortunately things eventually come crashing down with a disappointing and laughably-improbable main event.

Even though the battles are well-executed I really wish that director Ridley Scott had kept the camera back a little bit further from the action to really emphasize the scale of these epic tilts. This is further hampered by Pietro Scalia periodic lapses into ginsu-style editing. Having said that nothing in Gladiator is nearly as offensive as the crap on display in your average Michael Bay / Transformers-style A.D.D. visual fuck-fest.

The tremendous cast helps to make amends for the film's "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!?" desperation to impress. Even though he's about as Roman and / or Spanish as me nan, Russell Crowe is completely convincing as the fictional general Maximus Decimus Meridius. He effortlessly manages to convey the character's power of command, his aptitude in combat and his devotion as a family man. Crowe is a pretty charismatic dude, so he makes it easy to root for Maximus even if our hero is sketched out in the broadest of brushstrokes.

Joachim Phoenix strikes a pretty amazing balance as Commodus. On paper, the Emperor is completely devoid of any redeeming features; he's vindictive, petulant, childish and slimy but somehow Phoenix manages to evoke a twinge of sympathy from time to time. Connie Nielson is appropriately regal and stalwart as Lucilla, even though she's forced into needlessly icky scenes with her on-screen bro and forced to play out the incredibly lazy and seemingly obligatory script contrivance of a past dalliance with Maximus.

Then there's poor Oliver Reed who gives one of the best performances in the film. Unfortunately he died part way through principal photography and was replaced by a CGI doppelganger that looks marginally better than the film's many fake-looking establishing shots. Kinda symbolic.   

And what's with all of the grungy cinematography? I just assumed that the Germania sequences were deliberately shot in a murky fashion to contrast with the inevitable introduction of Rome, or what Maximus wearily describes as the one spot of "light" in the world. But when the action moves to the Eternal City it's just as gloomy, dark and oppressive-looking as anywhere else.

Gladiator was a genuine disappointment to me. It could have been so much more but instead it took the lazy and easy way out by delivering a schlocky, cliche-ridden revenge story that we've seen a million times over.  Even the mighty Colosseum, one of the later-day Wonders of the World, was digitally blown up in scale just to make it more spectacular-looking on screen. And that pretty much sums up the movie to me right there: it isn't content with the inherently-amazing truth of our own human history. It's so pathetically desperate to impress a modern audience that it's willing to blithely adapt tropes more at home in an 80's fantasy film.

Speaking of, since the ludicrous finale seemed less I, Claudius and more Conan the Barbarian, I had to do a bit of independent research.

Yes, there was a Roman Emperor named Commodus. And yes, he liked to participate in gladiatorial games from time to time. But he also liked to dress up like Hercules and was strangled to death in a bathtub.

Now that's interesting.  

  Tilt: down.