Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

2016 #95
Wes Anderson | 90 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Moonrise KingdomOn the New England island of New Penzance in the summer of 1965, a troop of scouts at camp discover that unpopular member Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) has fled in the night. Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, troubled kid Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) runs away from home. Unbeknownst to Sam’s scoutmaster (Edward Norton) or Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the pair of unhappy 12-year-olds have secretly plotted to disappear together. As a violent storm threatens to hit the island, the scouts and police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) hunt for the runaways.

A story of young love, Wes Anderson style, the writer-director has described Moonrise Kingdom as “an autobiography about something that didn’t happen”. That feels like a good way to regard the film. There’s clearly an emotional truth to Sam and Suzy’s discontented lives and their desire to connect with a like-minded individual, especially at an age when romantic feelings are beginning to emerge; but there’s no way the rest of the events — which unfold with Anderson’s typical almost-real / almost-fantastical quirkiness — actually happened. Here Anderson has found a strong marriage of form and content: his idiosyncratic, storybook style suits a narrative about inventive children on an almost-fairytale adventure. It’s like it’s been told from the kids’ point of view, with both an artistic simplicity and an exaggeration of actual events.

I’d also say it maintains Anderson’s penchant for unpredictable narrative development: it reached what I’d presumed was the endpoint a long time before the finale, spinning on in crazy new ways. “You do WHAT to the dog?!”If the film has a fault it’s in this part, where the entire cast engage in a runaround as the hurricane arrives and floods the island; but (to give it the benefit of the doubt) perhaps that plays more smoothly with familiarity. And I don’t know what it is that Anderson has against dogs (nor, it seems, does anyone else, bar theories), but I find myself enamoured of his work in spite of this particular foible.

Moonrise Kingdom certainly has enough else going for it to counterbalance these doubts. With golden cinematography and a story of playful, gentle adventure, Anderson has evoked innocent childhood summers of race-memory: even if you didn’t live them yourself, you kind of feel like you did. Perhaps it is, indeed, an autobiography about something that didn’t happen for anyone who ever felt like an outsider as a kid.

4 out of 5

Moonrise Kingdom placed 18th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Fight Club (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #29

Mischief. Mayhem. Soap.

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 139 minutes
BBFC: 18 (cut, 1999) | 18 (uncut, 2005)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th October 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 12th November 1999
First Seen: TV, c.2001

Stars
Edward Norton (American History X, 25th Hour)
Brad Pitt (Interview with the Vampire, World War Z)
Helena Bonham Carter (Room with a View, The King’s Speech)
Meat Loaf (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny)

Director
David Fincher (Se7en, The Social Network)

Screenwriter
Jim Urls (Sweet Talk, Jumper)

Based on
Fight Club, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk.

The Story
The film’s nameless narrator is growing increasingly disillusioned with his mundane consumerist lifestyle, when he bumps into Tyler Durden. A free-spirited soap salesman, the pair have a fight for the heck of it. Finally experiencing some kind of genuine feeling, they set up an underground club for fighting, but it gradually becomes clear that Tyler may have bigger ideas…

Our Heroes
I am Jack’s nameless narrator. I am also Jack’s friend, Tyler Durden. Yes, just his friend…

Our Villains
The establishment! Capitalism! What’ve you got?

Best Supporting Character
Helena Bonham Carter hasn’t been fucked like that since grade school.

Memorable Quote
“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club! ” — Tyler Durden

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” — Tyler Durden

Memorable Scene
Called into his manager’s office to discuss his bad behaviour, the Narrator decides the best method of getting his own way is by enacting physical violence… on himself.

Technical Wizardry / Truly Special Effect
For what’s essentially a drama, Fight Club is overloaded with special effects and visual trickery. I don’t know if any are particularly groundbreaking in and of themselves, but several are particularly striking. A personal favourite, thanks to the perfect execution of the idea, is the shot where the Narrator’s condo is transformed into a living IKEA catalogue.

Making of
Marla’s original post-coital line was, “I want to have your abortion.” The studio objected to such an offensive line, so Fincher agreed to change it on the condition that the new line had to be used. The studio agreed, apparently unaware that such an agreement was never going to end well. Fincher wrote the replacement line, “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school.” The studio asked for the original line back; Fincher refused. (It must say something about American values that abortion is considered more shocking than underage sex.)

Next time…
Nothing from the film, but Chuck Palahniuk has continued his novel in 10-issue comic book series Fight Club 2. A second comic series, Fight Club 3, is planned.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound Effects Editing)
1 MTV Movie Awards nominations (Best Fight for Edward Norton fighting himself)
1 BRIT Award nomination (Best Soundtrack — it lost to Notting Hill)

What the Critics Said
“Three factors elevate Fincher’s apocalyptic stew to something approaching art. First is Norton’s performance, as sneaky and shocking as that in his film debut Primal Fear. Second is Palahniuk’s story, which dances on a razor’s edge between life and death, expression and repression, ecstasy and agony. Third is Fincher’s dedication to making a film that looks and sound likes no other, one that powerfully illustrates what dementia looks like from inside and out.” — Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

Score: 79%

What the Public Say
“it’s hard to believe Fight Club is now 15 years old. As I was watching the film last night I found it hard to review because it is so ingrained in pop culture now it would be almost sacrilegious to say something bad about it. […] The first time I saw Fight Club I did not see the twist of [REDACTED] coming. I remember being surprised, but also very confused. I didn’t really understand how it worked then. On the second viewing it is easy to see a million clues pointing to this from the very beginning. Director David Fincher is very clever in how he orchestrates the film by giving you all these hints. He’s very good at walking that tight rope of not giving away too much. The twist is definitely one of the highlights of the film and why it is so memorable. It doesn’t feel cheap to me as some of these things normally do.” — Sherise, The Girl that Loved to Review

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed Fight Club as part of a retrospective on Fincher’s films back in 2011, saying “Fincher’s films often look great, but Fight Club is surely the most visually inventive. A list of exciting spectacles could be endless […] To top it off, the ‘regular’ cinematography is grounded in Fincher’s trademark darkness, as if every shot was conceived as just black and he added only what light was necessary.”

Verdict

A controversial film to this day, Fight Club is a violent, explicit exploration of the turn-of-the-millennium Western male psyche, which hasn’t necessarily lost its relevance in the ensuing decade-and-a-half. Criticised by some for endorsing the anarchic lifestyle it depicts, praised by others for satirising that mode of thinking, and criticised by other others for not satirising it well enough, the film can certainly provoke a spread of views. There’s little doubt that David Fincher’s direction is memorably slick and inspired, however, and it has one of the most talked-about twists in movie history.

#33 will… boldly go where no comedy has gone before.

Birdman (2014)

aka Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

2015 #164
Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2015 Academy Awards
9 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography.
Nominated: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.



I started the week by reviewing the first Best Picture winner, and now end it with a review of the most recent — which just so happens to be coming to Sky Movies and Now TV from today (couldn’t’ve planned that much better if I’d tried!)

Birdman isn’t a superhero movie, though if the title sounds like one then that’s no accident: Michael Keaton is an actor who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Well, to clarify, Michael Keaton plays an actor, Riggan Thomson, who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s — the Birdman of the title. Decades later, he’s trying to be taken seriously by starring in a play on Broadway… which he’s also written… and is directing… and has sunk his personal finances into. So it’s probably not a good thing that one of his cast can’t act, his personal life is all over the place, the critics hate him before the play’s even opened, and he’s hallucinating superpowers.

Birdman is a comedy. “How the heck did a comedy win Best Picture at the Oscars?” you might well wonder, because that never happens anymore. Well, it’s a comedy-drama — it’s certainly funny, but drily so, and with lots of Personal Character Drama and a few Issues along the way. As it goes on, and gets a bit weird and kinda arthouse-y (as if it wasn’t to start with), you may forget that’s where it began. Nonetheless, I found it more consistently amusing than other recent acclaimed comedic Best Picture nominees, like the disappointing American Hustle.

In part this is thanks to Keaton, who gives quite an immersive performance as the numbed, self-deluded star. Some people were very much behind him for the Best Actor gong, but I think it found its rightful home: Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking was transformative to the point you forgot you were watching an actor; Keaton is just rather good. Anyway, for me the more enjoyable performance came in a supporting turn from Edward Norton. Norton is a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor… sorry, Norton plays a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor, who joins Riggan’s production and begins to wreak all kinds of havoc.

The rest of the cast are dealt very mixed hands. Emma Stone is good, but was there enough meat on the role’s bones to justify Best Supporting Actress, other than one awards-clip-baiting shouty monologue? I’m not sure. The most memorable thing about her performance is how extraordinarily large her eyes are. Andrea Riseborough is thrown a bone or two; Zach Galifianakis doesn’t showboat like I’d’ve expected a comedian with his background to; Lindsay Duncan appears for one scene, but it’s a pretty good one (sometimes it really benefits American movies that there are swathes of fantastic British actors who are capable of first-rate leading performances, but so low down the food chain that they can be drafted in for single-scene roles); and Naomi Watts is utterly wasted. (At one point Riseborough and Watts kiss, which is apparently a spoiler for Mulholland Drive because she kisses a woman in that too. Oh IMDb trivia section, you will let any old rubbish in.)

Famously, almost the entire film takes place in a single take. A fake one, of course. Well, I say of course — Russian Ark did a feature-length single take for real. I’d assumed this meant the film took place in real time, because that seems the obvious thing to use an unbroken shot for — to show us everything that occurred in the time it occurred. But no. Iñárritu uses that and the fact it’s faked quite cleverly at times, to pull off impossible changes of location. For example, at one point the camera leaves Norton in the theatre’s gods and drifts down towards the stage, where we can see him mid-performance.

The most curious aspect of the single take is: what did it need two editors for?! Everything had to be meticulously planned in advance — apparently, longer was spent on the screenplay than is normal, because once it was shot nothing could be cut — so surely all someone had to do was stick it together at the joins? Some of those joins are actually fairly obvious (your familiarity with filmmaking techniques and where joins might be hidden will dictate exactly how many), but a decent number remain hidden, I think. Well, I presume — I didn’t see them. Anyway, it’s more a feat of logistics and cinematography, the latter of which Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki did win an award for. How deserved that was, I’m not sure. It’s very impressive to work out how to shoot a movie in a single take, even a pretend one, but surely cinematography awards are for the quality of the images, not the logistics of moving your camera around? Birdman is by no means an ugly film, but the best-looking of the year? I’m not so sure.

Birdman is an entertaining film, both funny enough to keep the spirits up and dramatic enough to feel there’s some depth there. It’s also a mightily impressive feat of technical moviemaking, but then I do love a long single take (even a fake one). Is it the Best Picture of 2014? Well, from the nominees, it’s not the funniest (The Grand Budapest Hotel), nor does it have the most impactful performances (The Theory of Everything), nor is it the must gripping or thought-provoking (Whiplash), and it doesn’t feel the most significant (Boyhood). There is an interesting element of having its cake and eating it about Birdman, though, as it berates The Movies for their current superhero obsession while telling the story of a Hollywood actor who sets out to prove those snooty New York theatre critics wrong. Hm, however did this win Best Picture from an organisation whose main voting bloc is Hollywood actors?

4 out of 5

Birdman debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 1:45pm and 10:10pm.

Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut (2005)

2015 #9
Ridley Scott | 194 mins* | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

Kingdom of HeavenRidley Scott’s Crusades epic is probably best known as one of the foremost examples of the power of director’s cuts: after Scott was forced to make massive edits by a studio wanting a shorter runtime, the film’s summer theatrical release was so critically panned that an extended Director’s Cut appeared in LA cinemas before the end of the year, reaching the wider world with its DVD release the following May. The extended version adds 45 minutes to the film (and a further 4½ in music in the Roadshow Version), enough to completely rehabilitate its critical standing.

The story begins in France, 1184, where blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is something of a social pariah. Offered the chance to head off to fight in the Crusades, Balian… refuses. But then something spoilersome happens and he thinks it might be a good idea after all. When he eventually arrives in Jerusalem, he finds a kingdom divided by political squabbling, quite apart from the uneasy truce with the enemy. You know that’s not going to end well.

Kingdom of Heaven is, in many respects, an old-fashioned epic. It’s a long film not because the director is prone to excess and didn’t know when to cut back, but because it has a lengthy and complicated story to tell. It isn’t adapted from a novel, but the structure feels that way, spending a lot of time on characters and what some might interpret as preamble — it’s a long while before the movie reaches Jerusalem, ostensibly the film’s focus, and it completes the arcs of several major characters along the way. The scale of such stories isn’t to everyone’s taste, but, well, what can you do.

A strong cast bolsters the human drama that sometimes gets lost in such grand stories. Bloom is a perfectly adequate if unexceptional lead, but around him we have the likes of Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, Alexander Siddig, Brendan Gleeson, and Edward Norton (well done if you can spot him…) There are even more names if you look to supporting roles. Most notable, however, are the co-leads: both Liam Neeson, as the knight who recruits Balian, and Jeremy Irons, as the wise advisor when he gets to Jerusalem, bring class to proceedings, while Eva Green provides mystery and heart as the love interest. Of everyone, she’s best served by the Director’s Cut, gaining a whole, vital subplot about her child that was entirely excised theatrically. It’s the kind of thing you can’t imagine not being there, and Scott agreed: it seems the chance to restore it was one of his main motivators for putting together a release of the longer version.

It is very much a Ridley Scott film, too. The way it’s shot, edited, styled… you could mix bits of this up with Gladiator or Robin Hood and you might not realise you’d switched movie. As a student of film it frustrates me that I can’t put my finger on exactly what qualities define this “Scott style” — and it’s a specific one to his historical epics, too, because it’s less present (or possibly just in a different way) in his modern-day and sci-fi movies — but I’m certain it’s there. I guess it’s the way he frames shots, the mise-en-scène, the editing, the richness of the photography… The quality of the end result may vary across those three movies, but Scott’s technical skill is never in doubt. (I’d wager Exodus is the same, but its poor reception hasn’t exactly left me gagging to see it.)

Similarly, I can’t quite identify what’s missing from Kingdom of Heaven that holds me back from giving it full marks. It’s a je ne sais quoi edge that I just didn’t feel. I do think it’s a very, very good film, though; one that would perhaps well reward further viewings.

4 out of 5

A version of Kingdom of Heaven is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. Their listings suggest it’s the theatrical cut, though if that’s true then they’ve put in an hour-and-a-half of adverts…


* For what it’s worth, I actually watched what’s now called the “Director’s Cut Roadshow Version”. This was released as the Director’s Cut on DVD, but in the early days of Blu-ray it couldn’t all fit on one disc, so they lopped off the overture, intermission, and entr’acte and still labelled it the Director’s Cut. As of the 2014 US Ultimate Edition, however, those missing bits have been optionally restored, with the set containing ‘three’ versions of the movie. ^

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

2015 #20
Wes Anderson | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.37:1 + 1.85:1 + 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English | 15 / R

The Grand Budapest HotelThe latest from cult auteur Wes Anderson, which managed that rare feat of enduring from a March release to being an awards season contender, sees the peerless concierge of a magnificent mid-European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) accused of murdering a rich elderly guest (Tilda Swinton, caked in Oscar-winning prosthetics) and attempting to flee across the country to clear his name. More or less, anyway, because this is a Wes Anderson film and so it takes in all kinds of amusing asides, tangents, and recognisable cameos.

The film has the feel of an artisan confection: candy-coloured, precisely designed and constructed, sweetly enjoyable, but with a hidden bite. Something like that, anyway. There are many praises to sing along these lines. The visuals are the most obvious. As is apparent even from the trailer, the shot composition is tightly controlled, squared-off but using that formalism to its advantage in various ways. I don’t know if this is always Anderson’s style (this is only the second of his films that I’ve seen, but it was similarly employed in the other), but here it works in ways almost indefinable.

The performances are just as mannered, and equally as fantastic for similar reasons: they exist within very specific constraints, but then push at their boundaries. Fiennes displays a perhaps-surprising flair for comedy in the lead role. Apparently Johnny Depp was Anderson’s initial choice — thank goodness that didn’t happen! You can completely see Depp in the part, bringing his rote whimsy to it, but how much more entertaining it is to have Serious Actor Ralph Fiennes going somewhat against type, and playing the role beautifully too. A host of familiar faces turn up in supporting roles that display various degrees of individualistic eccentricity, and there’s no weak link, but Fiennes is the stand-out.

Not suspicious at allI suppose the kooky idiosyncrasies of Anderson’s brand of storytelling and filmmaking will rub some viewers up the wrong way, looking on it all as vacuous affectations signifying nothing. To each their own, but, whatever the merits (or not) of Anderson’s style as a kind of one-man genre played out across his oeuvre, The Grand Budapest Hotel displays a synthesis of contributing elements that creates a movie that’s ceaselessly inventive, surprising, amusing, and entirely entertaining.

5 out of 5

The Grand Budapest Hotel placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

2015 #33
Clint Eastwood | 146 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilSent to write “500 words on a Christmas party” in Savannah, Georgia, journalist John Kelso (John Cusack) instead finds himself covering a murder trial where he’s become friendly with the accused (Kevin Spacey).

Based on the bestselling book of a true story, Midnight in the Garden (as my TV’s EPG would have it) benefits from that reality to guide it through the quirky locals and unusual turns of its true-crime plot — there’s no doubt that Spacey killed the man, but the exact circumstances of the act are disputed. There’s been some movieisation in the telling of the events (the shooting happened in May; there were four trials, here condensed to one; a romantic subplot for Kelso is a (clichéd) addition), but the sense that enough of the truth remains keeps the film inherently captivating.

That’s handy for the film, which almost leans on the “it’s all true!” angle as a crutch to help the viewer through its own production. Eastwood’s direction might kindly be described as “workmanlike” — it’s strikingly unremarkable. Cusack is as blank as he ever seems to be (have I missed his Good Films that once marked him out? I say “once” because he’s only a leading man in shit no one notices these days). He’s fine, just borderline unnoticeable, which is why the romance subplot feels so misplaced — he’s an audience cipher to access this interesting location and set of events, not a character in his own right. Apparently Ed Norton turned down the role — now he might’ve brought some personality to it. Spacey is worth watching, at least.

What's in the jar? WHAT'S IN THE JAR?Like many an “adapted from a bestseller!” movies, I guess Midnight in the Garden was a big deal in its day that’s faded to semi-obscurity since (see: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, increasingly The Da Vinci Code, and on and on). It’s no forgotten masterpiece, but has enough going for it to merit a rediscovery by the right people who’ll enjoy it. Like me. For that, much thanks to Mike at Films on the Box, whose insightful review I naturally recommend.

4 out of 5

Fight Club (1999)

2011 #16a
David Fincher | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 18 / R

Fight ClubI used to have a friend who loved all kinds of action movies and rap movies and other kinds of violence-obsessed forms of entertainment. He once tried to watch Fight Club, in the wake of the praise poured upon it and no doubt interested in the visceral thrill of the fighting element, but got bored about halfway through and turned it off. He was not impressed. Please note that halfway through is certainly after the titular club, and all its associated antics, begins.

I start with this story because I’m now going to pick on Roger Ebert’s 1999 review of Fight Club. I don’t know if his opinion has changed in the intervening decade — a decade which has seen Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahnuik’s novel quickly canonised as a generation-defining modern classic — but we’ll take his review as an example of all the critical ones (the reasonably critical ones, anyway — unreasonable critics are impossible to argue against after all), because he’s respected and because I can’t be bothered to trawl through too much more of the big pile of reviews Rotten Tomatoes offers up. But more so, actually, because I’d be here forever batting away criticism after criticism if I did.

Incidentally, the film has there an 81% approval rating. This is perhaps negated by the fact it includes more recent reviews — some are of the Blu-ray, for instance — but a debate about whether it should be an archive of original-release critical opinions or of all-time critical opinions is for somewhere else. My point is, critics who dislike Fight Club are in the minority (29 ‘rotten’ reviews vs 122 ‘fresh’ ones), so it might just be a little cruel to go picking on them all. Though rubbish like “Fight Club undermines any seriousness it might have harboured with an avalanche of smirky cynicism designed to flatter the hipper-than-thou fantasies of adolescent moviegoers,” doesn’t so much need rebuttal as offering of some literature to the reviewer. Plus it comes from a Christian magazine/website so it’d be a bit like picking on a kid with learning disabilities.

So, Ebert.Ebert

Of course, Fight Club itself does not advocate Durden’s philosophy. It is a warning against it, I guess

At least he starts here. To miss that would be… well, I’ll return to that point later. On the other hand, he’s surely using it to preemptively cut-off criticism of his criticism — Ebert is adept at predicting ways people might defend a movie and telling them they were wrong in advance, as we have seen.

Although sophisticates will be able to rationalize the movie as an argument against the behavior it shows, my guess is that audience will like the behavior but not the argument. Certainly they’ll buy tickets because they can see Pitt and Norton pounding on each other; a lot more people will leave this movie and get in fights than will leave it discussing Tyler Durden’s moral philosophy.

…whatever Fincher thinks the message is, that’s not what most audience members will get.

This is the primary reason I’ve chosen Ebert’s review to pick on, and it was this paragraph that led to my opening one. My guess is, the kind of person liable to buy in to Tyler’s moral philosophy and engage in similar fights will get bored by the movie and go watch something that’s more straight-up action (or just go get in a fight, of course). To say that only “sophisticates” will be able to comprehend the points the film is actually making does a disservice to most viewers. Now, I’m not going to be one of the first to jump to the defence of the great unwashed — when programmes like The X Factor rule our TV schedules it’s quite clear their cultural taste is highly questionable — but I don’t think you have to be exceptionally gifted to get what Fight Club’s driving at. Tyler DurdenPerhaps I’m coming at it from too privileged a background? I don’t know. But I still don’t believe people would be so easily led as Ebert implies; and those that might be probably got bored and switched off.

Maybe at the time it was a genuine fear that Fight Club would inspire violence (a different review compares the potential effect to A Clockwork Orange’s over here), but history has proven it near groundless. In over a decade since its release, there have been no more than a handful of incidents one might directly and solely attribute to Fight Club’s influence.

And just maybe, it was already covering the thoughts of a generation — rather than being the spark that set them off, it was reflecting back a mentality that already existed and saying, “look, don’t go this far with that thought”. It’s not groundless to think that: Palahniuk interviewed young white-collar workers while writing the novel and widely found opinions which he worked into the novel, about the influence of a lack of father figures and the resentment of the lifestyles advertising promoted. All of this is carried over into the film.

In many ways, it’s like Fincher’s movie The Game… That film was also about a testing process in which a man drowning in capitalism (Michael Douglas) has the rug of his life pulled out from under him and has to learn to fight for survival. I admired The Game much more than Fight Club because it was really about its theme

Hm.

For better or worse, I think Fight Club is far more tied into its themes than The Game is. Fincher’s earlier film, as I discussed yesterday, is a well-made and entertaining thriller, and it does have a similar thematic basis to Fight Club — Douglas’ character is effectively stripped of his lifestyle to show how hollow it isDiscussion and what he’s lacking as a human being. That just underscores the action, however; it adds something to the film, certainly, but there’s nothing there to lead viewers to “leave the movie… discussing [its] moral philosophy”. Fight Club, on the other hand, is more forward about its thematic points. Both the Narrator and Tyler spout philosophical tidbits at various points, and their differing reactions to the path they take considers this too. It still works as a story — it isn’t just facilitating an essay on the subjects of free will and consumerism — but it’s more present, and presents more to consider, and perhaps discuss, than The Game does.

Later, the movie takes still another turn. A lot of recent films seem unsatisfied unless they can add final scenes that redefine the reality of everything that has gone before; call it the Keyser Soze syndrome.

…the third [act] is trickery

Ah, the twist.

Despite what Ebert implies, Fight Club’s twist works. It makes sense. “Sense” in the sense that the characters are mentally ill and we’ve been let into their experience — quite literally, an unreliable Narrator — but that fits. Clues are littered throughout. You can argue they’re not fundamental to the story — most are lines or asides that hint at it — but I don’t think it’s a nonsensical turn of events. In fact, one could argue that it contains perhaps the film’s biggest point: beneath the veneer of consumer-focused office-working modern life, every man has a Tyler Durden who wants to put society to rights. The question becomes, should he be let out; He likes himself reallyFight Club explores what might happen if he were, but leaves it up to the viewer to decide if it turned out for the best (while strongly erring, despite what Ebert suggests, to the side of “no”).

The twist also calls to mind The Game again. Whereas knowing the end result of that film’s twist (or twists, really) can scupper it after only another viewing or two, Fight Club doesn’t suffer in the slightest from the revelation that… well, y’know (and if you don’t, that’s why I’ve not said it). You can watch it again and pick up the clues and see how it works — and, as I said, it does — but you can also still enjoy the film, its story and its ideas without the need for the twist to remain a surprise. A bit like Se7en, I suppose.

Another point that interests me here is the audience’s reaction to a filmmaker who uses twists. As we’ve seen, Fincher produced three films in a row that had considerable twist endings; two of them often number in lists of the best movie twists ever. So how is it that he didn’t gain a particular reputation for twist endings, whereas M. Night Shyamalan gained one after… well, one film. I’m not complaining about this — the constant need to provide a shocking last-minute rug-pull has gone on to scupper Shyamalan’s career — but the difference of reaction/public perception is intriguing. I’m sure there are reasons — the sheer size of The Sixth Sense’s twist relative to those in Fincher’s films (it’s only Fight Club’s, his third such film, that changes everything we’ve seen in the same way); the way Shyamalan appeared to court the reputation; and so on.

As a means of dealing with his pain, [the Narrator] seeks out 12-step meetings, where he can hug those less fortunate than himself and find catharsis in their suffering. It is not without irony that the first meeting he attends is for post-surgical victims of testicular cancer, since the whole movie is about guys afraid of losing their cojones.

That, however, is some reasonable analysis. I liked this.

Bob's boobsTo round off this defence of Fight Club, let’s call up the BBFC (this is the point I said I’d return to). You may remember they cut four seconds of violence from the film (reinstated in 2007. Incidentally, the MPAA had no problem whatsoever with the violence but questioned some of the sex, such as Tyler being seen wearing a rubber glove. American values regarding sex/violence on film and TV are seriously questionable.) In 1999, when asked to ban the film for glamourising and encouraging the kind of behaviour it contains, the BBFC refused, and in no uncertain terms:

The film as a whole is — quite clearly — critical and sharply parodic of the amateur fascism which in part it portrays. Its central theme of male machismo (and the anti-social behaviour that flows from it) is emphatically rejected by the central character in the concluding reels.

Maybe it’s just me, but such a definitive statement — underlined by the relatively informal addition of “quite clearly” — from an authoritative body, one that is (theoretically) objective about a film’s quality in lieu of deciding which age groups its content is suitable for, feels unusual to me; and, by extension, worth taking into consideration. Not as the be-all-and-end-all of the debate, of course, but if the BBFC are prepared to dismiss such criticism of the film with a “quite clearly” — a “if you missed it, you’re dim” kind of phrase — then you have to think it’s pretty obvious.

A couple of stray points before I go:

Tyler...If you’ve not read it, know that the film keeps a lot of Palahnuik’s novel. The narration often takes it verbatim. With the exception of the ending — changed, for the better — it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation.

Fincher’s films often look great, but Fight Club is surely the most visually inventive. A list of exciting spectacles could be endless, but for some: the title sequence, pulling back from the fear centre of the brain, through the brain, and down the barrel of a gun in extreme close-up; the IKEA catalogue condo shot; big sweeping flybys of tiny things — the contents of a trash can, kitchen appliances, bomb wiring; the meditation cave bits; flash frames of Tyler; the “let me tell you a bit about Tyler Durden” sequence, with the fourth-wall-obliterating to-camera narration and the interaction between ‘flashback’ & narrator; the crazy mutating sex scene… To top it off, the ‘regular’ cinematography is grounded in Fincher’s trademark darkness, as if every shot was conceived as just black and he added only what light was necessary.

And a pet peeve: Look at the end credits. See how Ed Norton’s character is credited as Jack? Oh, that’s right — he isn’t. He doesn’t have a name. The film makes a point of drawing our attention to this point: early on, Marla asks him his name; there is no answer. And that’s because his name isI am not Jack's anything (shh, whisper it) (…oh yes, I’m keeping this spoiler-free). There are counter arguments to that being his real name (his colleagues never call him it, only those who met him… after), but that’s beside the point. Stop calling him Jack. (I believe I read somewhere that, on the relevant DVD commentary, Ed Norton says he calls the character Jack. Not good enough reasoning for me.)

That’ll do, then.

At one point consensus seemed to have it that Fight Club was easily Fincher’s best movie, a generation-defining statement, “the first great film of the 21st Century” despite being released in 1999 (I can never remember who originated that quote). I don’t know if times have changed that as a widespread opinion, particularly with the acclaim The Social Network has received. That’s been called a generation-defining movie too, actually — two in as many decades; nice work. But I digress; such talk is for a few days’ time.

I’ve always preferred Se7en myself. I still do. But Fight Club is nonetheless an exceptional film.

5 out of 5

I watched Fight Club as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.