Released in the arguable peak year of a particularly turn-of-the-century form of social consumerism undercut by social discontent, Fight Club is uncommonly similar to fellow Class of 99-er The Matrix. Like the era-defining Wachowski sci-fi smorgasbord of high-flying kicks and high-falling ideas, David Fincher’s conniving would-be exercise in cinematic post-modernism is a startling technical showpiece well-versed in genre mechanics that curdles under the weight of its oppressive, over-baked interpretation of social anomie. Except, while The Matrix eventually gave in and realized it was merely an action film putting on airs, Fight Club, adapted by Jim Uhls from the book by Chuck Palahniuk, takes refuge in its pretentious vision of society until the very end. It would seem that the great, unfortunate secret of the cinematic year of 1999 is that a great many of its biggest hits are stunning visual showpieces hiding deeply incompatible or incomprehensible screenplays (it is no surprise then that the year’s best film, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, succeeds primarily because it is entirely about its visuals, rather than an attempt to marry those visuals to a needlessly over-baked narrative). Continue reading →
Formally an adaptation of what may be the greatest short film ever released, Chris Marker’s New Wave classic La Jetee, 12 Monkeys is another world entirely. This is not, as one might expect, a commercialized bastard son of Jetee’s postmodern commentary on storytelling and film as an art form. It is a more commercial beast, but not commercial Jetee. It is instead commercial Gilliam, very much retaining this particular director’s trenchant exploration of genre fiction, modern anomie, and social lies filtered through nasty dark-water corporate beasts not operating behind closed doors because there are no longer doors to close and hide behind. It’s sharp and prescient, well-directed and with a realist streak seen never before or since in Gilliam’s catalogue, but the film wisely never becomes “of realism”. 12 Monkeys is nothing breathtaking, and it lacks the elegant hellishness of some of its directors more conflicted and subversive films, but his decade and a half of ferocious commitment to personal vision, and three of the few legitimately great films of the 1980s, deserve a present. Gilliam always had trouble finding commercial success, and if conforming slightly to the norms of mainstream entertainment for the sake of a greater paycheck and commercial appeal is his present, who are we to deny him? Continue reading →
Yet 1995 was not simply a year of corporate indulgence; it was also a period where the rampant nihilist streak inherent to much of the cinema of the late ’90s and the 2000s and still running wild today came to fruition in the eyes of one music video director…
You don’t get too far these days without a David Fincher film tying up the woodworks of fall with a Gothic gloom a mile wide that it hides nothing but (briefly) its own self-boredom. Fincher’s aesthetic is so wound-up and ready for battle that it’s hard to remember a time when his way was a new arbiter for the sort of caustic, nihilist, curdled noir not seen since the Atomic Age. Once upon a time, he was one of many young upstarts responsible form the gloomy, grim ’90s – back when gloomy and grim were actually artistic statements rather than cynical cash-grabs. Moving from the music video world to the gaping hole that was the solemn sigh of Alien 3 without much distinction, Seven was a whole other beast, capturing the baroque loss of his previous film and using it rather than abusing it. And what use! Seven is among the finest American films of its decade, bruised and hurting but always nervous and fighting back, thriving on a tension between lively pugnaciousness and mournful wistfulness that never ceases to sting. Continue reading →
Andrew Dominik took a good long time (five years) to release his feature-length follow-up to his magisterial The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That he is re-teaming with his boy Brad Pitt for this film too, and maintaining the quiet despair and slow-going existentialism of his previous work, begs a mighty something indeed, a something the film can’t quite comfortably coalesce into a wholly successful finished product when all is said and done. Certainly, Dominik’s work is solid here, composed and well-formed and structured with intellect and care, but things only truly alight in a few select sequences where he decides he doesn’t need to be burdened with the weight of narrative filmmaking. It’s a good film, but a disappointingly slight one for a director of Dominik’s skill and gasping ambition. With his last film, he only re-wrote the book – or at least brought back out the re-written book after decades of being lost to dust in the attic – on impressionist, opulent Westerns and American identity… no big deal. Here, he tells a fine crime story, but one is left wanting a little by the transition. Continue reading →
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a difficult film to review. Usually this means one of two things: the film was mediocre and I find myself struggling to say something substantive about it, or I’m fascinated by it but I have not yet figured out how to unlock its mysteries. Usually the latter means I will love the film for its confounding, maddening tension and hate it for the same reason, at least until I see it again. Neither of those is the case for Andrew Dominik’s second film. I know exactly what I think of this film, and it is far from mediocre. The issue with this review is quite simple: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was all-but made for me. And gushing over something does not a review make, so I must try to formulate my jumping up and down into something coherent. Here we go.
Quentin Tarantino came back with a vengeance in 2009 after a mostly quiet mid-2000s to redefine his popularity by … really just reminding us of the stuff we’ve all enjoyed seeing him do for a couple decades now. But he has a greater thirst for blood now, and sometimes that’s all it takes. If anything, this is his giddiest production, with its cheerful go-for-broke aspirations masked under the nominally serious façade of a war movie. It’s also, curiously, his most nihilistic, with a sort of “what the hell!” attitude likely driving many of the script’s twists and turns and characters who are suitably marked for, and ready for, death at any point in the film. It is also his most fully-rounded film since PulpFiction, as well as, intentionally, his sloppiest. Within, the film’s seeming flaws (it’s having fun with the dour subject of men at war and general savagery, its lack of any semblance of sensible narrative form) actually become strengths under his subversive, indomitable vision of the world where all films are functionally nonsense and he’s simply reading this reality to its logical extreme by having fun with them. This is a man who will be swayed by no one, and he’s ready to shove our faces in that fact before he goes off laughing to the bank. Continue reading →
The Tree of Life isn’t easily explained through conventional filmic analysis. I don’t have the resources within me, for instance, to explain why Sean Penn is in this movie, or why director Terrence Malick felt the need to spend thousands of dollars on a CGI-heavy recreation of the forming of the world. But, for every fault to be found in the film, none can replace the eternal face that I fell – positively, undeniably fell – under the director’s spell for just about every minute of the 135 minutes I spent watching this film, in a way I never have in a movie theater before. The human story found here doesn’t recall my own childhood in the slightest, and yet watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel connected to not merely the characters but the world they inhabit in a way I didn’t quite understand at first. I felt something that, if I may, might be the foremost (and perhaps only, but that says more about me than the film) spiritual experience in my life. I wasn’t so much watching a film as accepting it and letting it wash over me. I wasn’t “analyzing” shots or dialogue, as I tend to do in order to stake my claim as a film critic worth his salt. I was just there, and also not there – in some sort of weird limbo where I existed less as a physical body and more as conception of myself. It was an experience, but perhaps, a passive one. I let the film take me and it accepted – part of me is still swimming around in there. Continue reading →