Tag Archives: Christopher Nolan

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Interstellar (2014) 3.7/5 (8)

 

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Rating: The Good – 71.5
Genre: Science Fiction, Adventure
Duration: 169 mins
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Michael Caine, Matt Damon

An elegantly directed sci-fi adventure considerably undermined by yet another painfully flat Nolan screenplay, Interstellar charts the epic attempts of a small group of scientists and astronauts to locate a planet capable of supporting the human race as its Earthly sustenance quickly dries up. Mathew McConaughey heads the cast as the mission’s pilot desperate to get back to the children he left behind before they age beyond the point where he can help them while Ann Hathaway’s stiffish scientist and a couple of nicely conceived robots keep him company on board the spacecraft. Back on Earth, Michael Caine is the brains behind the mission, Jessica Chastain is the grown up version of McConaughey’s equally clever daughter, and Casey Affleck is his son who, like the majority of remaining humans, is attempting to farm what’s left of their desertification-headed planet.

Regaining his 2008 Dark Knight directorial form, writer-director Christopher Nolan composes a quite beautiful and thrilling action thriller that achieves a perfect balance between mood and energy with no small help from Hans Zimmer’s sublime score. Making the deftest use of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stark and striking cinematography, he avoids overplaying the CGI card keeping the story front and centre. The story isn’t bad either and, predictable as its key moments are, it serves Nolan’s grand ambitions for a Kubrickian like space epic. More the pity then that the screenplay does not. Bloated with expositional dialogue and artificial sentiment, it bungles its way towards a gargantuan mishandling of a straightforward (“save the world before it’s too late”) premise with the kind of overblown piece of psycho-physical drivel that plagued Inception. Co-penned with his more adept writer-brother (Jonathan sat Inception out), this script at least shows more restraint than that 2010 monument to tedium but not nearly enough to engender its protagonists nor their dilemmas with the depth and cadences that the premise deserved. The well conceived drama emerging from the astronauts ageing more slowly than their loved ones back home is an exception to this and proves to be the movie’s one successful appeal to the audience’s emotions.

Ultimately, the problem with Interstellar is yet again one of Nolan reaching beyond his capabilities by attempting to match the work of masters who simply operated at a level higher than his own (that’s not an insult Chris, most filmmakers toil in the shadows of Kubrick and Tarkovsky!). The innumerable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey eventually feel less like a homage and more like an attempt to disguise that failure, proving far more imitative than emulative. That said, the couple of HAL-inspired robots (the Bill Irwin-voiced “TARS” in particular) work fantastically within the confines of this story, coming alive in a whirl of mechanised motion during the best of the action sequences and adding most of the humour outside of them. And, thankfully, it’s these such lighter more grounded touches that sees Interstellar passing muster as a sci-fi thriller even while failing as an attempt at something more profound.

Insomnia (2002) 3.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 68.4
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 118 mins
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Hillary Seitz
Stars: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank

Al Pacino is excellent as a LA detective sent up to Alaska to aid an investigation into the murder of a teenage girl. While there he accidentally shoots his partner who he was at odds with over their involvement in a corruption investigation and fearing he might be charged with purposefully killing his partner he blames the shooting on the suspect in the murder case (Robin Williams). Insomnia tells a complicated story and it’s handled very capably by Christopher Nolan and Pacino in the lead. Like other films have done so successfully before them, they make the location a central element to the story’s atmosphere: in this case Pacino’s character is prevented from sleeping due to the month of daylight the town is experiencing at that time. Thus, as he attempts to simultaneously deal with his feelings of guilt yet stay one step ahead of the local police and the killer who soon begins blackmailing him, we see him becoming increasingly distraught and unwound. This is a terrific performance from Pacino and one that harks back to his earlier days when scripts of this caliber were the norm as opposed to the exception.

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012) 3.15/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Bad – 57.8
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Comic Book
Duration: 165 mins
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Morgan FreemanMichael Cain

Stunning but only in its capacity to underwhelm, The Dark Knight Rises may have had an army of fanboys defending its name on (and even before!!) its release but this supposed movie extravaganza is nothing but a damp squib. Christopher Nolan’s final contribution to the Batman franchise sees Gotham being held for ransom by a formidable foe named Bane (Tom Hardy) who hijacks the city under the threat of nuclear destruction. Set eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, a physically weakened Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who has hung up his cape these last few years poses little threat to the savage Bane and must rediscover his zest for life in order to defend the city once again. Along for the ride are the usual assortment of characters from Michael Caine’s Alfred to Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon as well as a few newcomers, namely, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a boy wonder type, and Mathew Modine as a bigwig in the police department.

After struggling with the coordination and overall pacing of the multiple subplots in Batman Begins yet seemingly mastering them in the The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises is a return to the hectic, rushed, and just plain muddled film-making of Nolan’s first installment. Side stories are merely introduced and with no time to let them nor the characters they’re built around develop, they’re accelerated, truncated, and fleetingly revisited all with the intention of bringing them together at the end. Unfortunately, given their slipshod construction we could care less about any of those characters by the time they get there. Even Batman elicits little in the way of the audience’s concern as the interminable final act plays itself out.

The character who suffers the most in this is Hathaway’s Catwoman as her early sequences showed some promise as the potentially treacherous nemesis of the Caped Crusader. But like every other character in this movie, the tension she offers peters out and the treachery becomes jarringly ordinary. Yes, it doesn’t help that Hathaway is operating in the shadow of Michelle Pfeiffer’s seminal turn in Batman Returns wherein she came to embody the very essence of feline treachery but in truth she was never even given a chance to compete. Tom Hardy puts in an interesting shift as the bad guy and Nolan sets up his character and introduces him effectively. However, because his brooding menace culminates in nothing more than a bunch of physical beatings he dishes out, the character ends up stagnating and even diminishing in threat.

On the technical front, Wally Phister’s cinematography, Lee Smith’s editing, and the visual effects are undoubtedly spectacular but with such an insubstantial story underlying them, the movie begins to feel like nothing more than a slideshow of striking images. This becomes rather jading and the film feels more and more like a visual marathon. The set pieces are elaborately set up but such is Nolan’s tendency to truncate every aspect of this film that, with the exception of the reasonably impressive opening sequence, they’re never allowed materialise into anything like what we saw in either of the first two installments. In fact, if it wasn’t for Hans Zimmer’s thrilling score we would barely notice the tepid action that this movie repeatedly serves up.

In the end, the abiding memories of The Dark Knight Rises are of the endless yet entirely nondescript hand-to-hand battles (somebody finally teach Nolan how to direct a fight scene, please!) and of Batman flying very slowly away from those fights in his nebulously shaped flying machine (don’t ask!). In fact, one desperately struggles to comprehend why so many have raved about the movie. It’s true that Nolan hires the cream of the industry’s technical talent and so his films have a very shiny gloss indeed but with such confused and unfocused writing and direction it’s all just a bottle of smoke.

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The Dark Knight (2008) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.5
Genre: Fantasy, Action
Duration: 152 mins
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael CaineMorgan Freeman

Gotham’s self-appointed avenger dons the cape once more when a psychotic villain with a painted face begins taking over the city’s underworld with a view to “introducing a little anarchy”. If the biggest problem with Batman Begins was its pacing (and for the first 40 mins, it was!), then Christopher Nolan made up for it in spades with this follow-up as it’s a veritable master-class in that respect. Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, this film starts out at a reasonable pace and gets steadily faster never letting up for a second. The set pieces are bigger and better than those in Batman Begins, the script is tighter, and the story is the most ambitious yet for any of the Batman films. In the previous films, Batman skirts the line that separates his good and dark sides. In this film, he walks it as The Dark Knight attempts to shine a light on the very concept of Batman. The result is an enthralling action thriller.

As with Batman Begins, this movie is littered with heavy hitters who each give reasonably layered performances. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman are again solid in their respective roles of Alfred, Fox, and Commissioner Gordon. Aaron Eckhart is very good as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, while Christian Bale repeats his solid turn as Wayne/Batman. But no matter how good the aforementioned are, they are all battered off the screen by Heath Ledger’s utterly sublime portrayal of the Joker. His incendiary performance is as captivating as you’ll ever see in a comic-book film and worth every word of praise that was written about it. Nolan’s ambition to give the comic book universe a gritty realism was always going to be a difficult task given the fantastical nature of its villains and heroes and, while putting in a good effort in Batman Begins, he didn’t really achieve that aim. As such, The Dark Knight was somewhat of a make-or-break installment in his Batman project and thanks to Ledger’s inspired turn, he was able to convincingly inject a searing realism into the proceedings. In fact, one might say that it was entirely Ledger’s doing but we should probably give Nolan some credit.

Having said all that, The Dark Knight is not perfect. There are quite a few plot holes (albeit minor) and a few broad strokes made in the development of the story and some of its characters. There are several redundant and exceedingly tedious fight scenes which are just as formulaic as the fight-by-numbers scenes of the first film (and most of Nolan’s films) and Bale’s Batman-voice is as grating as ever. But these are minor quibbles in what is the most refreshing super-hero movie in the last 15 years and one superb film in its own right.

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Batman Begins (2005) 3.52/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.1
Genre: Fantasy, Action
Duration: 140 mins
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Christian Bale, Michael CaineMorgan Freeman

Last 90 minutes excellent, first 40 awful. Batman Begins is a case of director Christopher Nolan trying to do too much in one film. It begins with Bruce Wayne in some prison camp – cue token action scenes – and proceeds to tell his story through the use of flashbacks that are completely out of pace with each other. In fact, the overall pacing of those 40 mins is erratic as Nolan attempts to get all the exposition out of the way. So the “more than a man” speech comes far too early and the dialogue in general is wooden, clunky, bombastic (“What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things”) or outright cringe-worthy (“you’re not the devil, you’re practice”). The action is nothing we haven’t seen before and if anything it’s old hat. The ninja scene is straight out of the opening scene of Rambo III which was already lampooned by Hot Shots Part Deux so why Nolan tried to have a serious stab at it is a mystery. There are some good ideas in the opening act though. Wayne becoming a criminal and witnessing the ambiguity of crime, Tom Wilkonson’s speech that prompted Wayne to disappear are all original and thought-provoking.

Happily, once Wayne returns to Gotham, this film really takes off and it becomes quite excellent. Everything becomes more focused. The pacing settles, the score comes into its own and we are treated to one outstanding set-piece after another (with the rooftop sequence particularly standing out). Even the dialogue tightens up and becomes much more effective because of it. The cinematography throughout is splendid but peaks as the night-time cityscapes provide the backdrop to the originally executed action sequences. The seriousness of the film is also counter-weighted in the second act with Michael Caine’s light-hearted portrayal of “Alfred” providing some genuinely funny moments. With the calmer pace, the actors are given room to breathe and Christian Bale starts to show us a much more interesting and charming Wayne (though here too the ‘millionaire playboy’ scenario was rushed). Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman become relevant to the story and add great support because of it. The contrast between the first and final two acts is so stark that one wonders why Nolan just didn’t begin at the 40 minute mark The backstory could’ve been subtly sewn into its fabric with a series of unspoken shots like in Marathon Man (the type of which Nolan did briefly employ in the final act) and the film would’ve been much more fluid because of it. That said the final 90 minutes definitely make it worth wading through the first 40.

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Inception (2010) 3/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Bad – 43.5
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 148 mins
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom HardyTom Berenger

A team of corporate spies who infiltrate the dreams of various business executives to steal their secrets are hired to implant a critical thought in the mind of a CEO so as to manipulate his company’s future. But, as their elaborate preparations begin, things start to go wrong with reflexive consequences.

It’s difficult to know where to begin with a mess of a movie such as this. Okay, firstly, fans say the film takes us into a world unlike anything we’ve seen before. Well it doesn’t really. Anyone even remotely familiar with Star Trek or Stargate SG1 will know that the ‘dreamscape’ episode is a tired staple of the sci-fi genre and, what’s more, they all fall at the same hurdle: a lack of jeopardy – though we’ll get back to that issue later.

(By the way, this is necessarily a long review so for those who think while reading the first few paragraphs, that it has missed the point of what Nolan implies with his final shot, please make sure to read the third final paragraph)

Let’s get the small stuff out of the way first. There are all sorts of forgivable (forgivable if there was one or two of them) movie-making errors littered throughout Inception. The “surprise” ending was so heavily flagged (albeit in one place quite cleverly), and was in fact so obvious, that one was fully expecting it from early in the second act. Worse still, was the lack of bravery in fully committing to it. Instead, we have a final shot that includes a rather cowardly escape clause cloaked in the artificially profound (if it’s obvious, it’s just not profound, no matter how much one wants it to be). The action was pedestrian at best and granted, while it wasn’t helped by the protracted and tediously premised story, the choreography of the climactic battle sequence was truly uninspired and formulaic. This last issue has been a recurrent problem for director Christopher Nolan as even the excellent The Dark Knight was hampered by lazily conceived ‘token’ fight sequences (e.g., the nightclub sequence).

Furthermore, there’s no overt villain in Inception, whom the audience can use to counterpoint the good guys with. Just a series of faceless henchmen. Not that it mattered much as the secondary “good guy” characters were so one-dimensional, it would’ve been difficult to identify with and care for them even if they were facing a visible enemy (and while one may argue that that ties in with the ending, it makes the film less appealing). And then there is the pretentious, bombastic, inaccessible, and just plain artificial dialogue. The script felt like it was written by an adolescent who has just discovered the joy of putting big words together to describe what s/he thinks are profound philosophical quandaries that nobody but her/him has stumbled upon before. Expressive? Yes. Original and disciplined? Absolutely Not!

But these are minor quibbles compared to the major problems that lie at the very center of Inception as a film:

The most unforgivable problem with Inception is without doubt, its appalling story construction. When you’re interested in telling a good story, you set your stall out early on (i.e., establish your universe) and then you get on with telling your story within that universe. Take Star Wars (Episodes IV-VI) for example. 50% of that universe is explained in the opening credits and the remaining 50% is explained within the first 20 minutes. Everything that happens from then on, right throughout Episodes IV-VI, happens within the boundaries of that universe (no further explanations are required). That doesn’t happen in Inception because the writers continue to add new rules throughout the course of the first two acts and even through the final act! Therefore, instead of representing the one unmovable touchstone which the audience can reference at any time to get their bearings, Inception’s universe is constantly in flux. The result is utter confusion and prevents the audience from connecting with the world so that they can get on with enjoying the story.

However, what’s truly unforgivable about this breakdown in structuring is the motive behind it. Rather than serving some deeper profound and even reflexive purpose, each of these aforementioned rules seems to be included for no other reason than to serve some visual flourish the director/writers had in mind. For example, in Nolan’s world, things explode when the characters become aware that they are dreaming. Ever have a lucid dream? Did anything explode? No, more likely you said “hey, I’m in a dream, time for some flying – or something else!” There’s no logic to this rule, it doesn’t make any conspicuous sense in either relation to the film’s premise or to any of the other rules. In such circumstances, it’s clear the writers don’t have a story to tell, just a bunch of ideas they think are cool which they proceed to tie together in the loosest of fashion. Worse still, because these rules have no logical bearing on each other, the characters are forced into explaining the rules to one another in one contrived instance after another – contrived because they’re really explaining it to the audience.

Everything in Inception either just about makes sense or just about doesn’t make sense. The world Nolan creates is so fragile that you daren’t go about pulling on any loose threads lest the whole thing come apart. For example, remember when Ariadne tells Cobb: “Tell your subconscious to take it easy”, Cobb says: “it’s my subconscious, remember I can’t control it”. Well, Saito had no trouble getting his men to do his bidding – and they were projections in someone else’s subconscious! And while we’re on the subject, why weren’t Cobb’s subconscious projections attacking Ariadne from the beginning? After all Cobb knew it was a dream from the beginning and so, therefore, did his subconscious.

A director must be committed to telling a story of substance or else he’s just Michael Bay. When story is paramount, all rules are drawn from the same logical universe. When not, you have a bunch of independent rules all doing different things. But Nolan wanted to saturate his film with flashy special effects so he created a series of rules that defied logic and, in betraying the “idea” of a grounded story for the superficial, he alienated the audience – and this is not even to mention the tiring effort that the audience has to invest in keeping all these rules together which only results in yet further alienation.

The subject of alienating the audience leads us nicely to the other central problem with Inception: the lack of jeopardy that comes with all dreamscape stories. When we heard Nolan was to write/direct such a film, one might have assumed that the writer/director of the clever Memento had come up with a nifty and original way of instilling jeopardy into the story but alas, he didn’t. He merely fell back on the same old clumsy device: you croak in a dreamscape, you croak in real life (Yawn!!!). Okay, so you don’t actually croak, you fall into some nether world described by Cobb as “the shores of our unconscious” (yes, he used those exact words – it doesn’t matter that Jung said them, they’re literal barf!). The result is of course the same pseudo-jeopardy or “I can’t believe it’s not Jeopardy”. This is the reason that all the dreamscape episodes of Star Trek were so awfully tedious – because none of it was real. It was all the loose imaginings of a character that gave us nothing to grab a hold off. Inception is just as tedious but, with the sprawling attempt to contrive an original sense of jeopardy, their nonsensical and endless descriptions of the ‘dream purgatory’ makes it truly excruciating as well.

But surely it can’t be that bad. After all, why do so many people love the film? Now, that’s the most important question. One could argue that people like to feel intelligent and Inception makes a wider band of people feel that way than most films. Inception bases its premise on simplistic, windy, pseudo-psychological ideas but it does so in a garbled, muddled, and nonsensical manner. Essentially, therefore, Inception is neither intelligent in premise nor in writing but because of the aforementioned problem with a universe of disconnected rules, it is convoluted. So in order to figure out what the film is about, one must sit down and pay attention. But this in itself, does not make it clever. After all, one could sit down and spend an hour untangling a series of long ropes. One doesn’t need intelligence to do this but one does need to concentrate and follow every frustratingly random turn the ropes take. In other words, perhaps the fans of Inception merely mistook the convoluted for the complex – and that the half-baked windy verbose dialogue made it easier (or more tempting) to make that mistake. After all, humans are egotistical creatures and we like to process all the ambiguous things we do (those which are open to interpretation) into something self-praising – especially if the information we are processing is crying out for such superficial reformulation. So why not assume that the untangling of what Nolan passed off for a story is something that takes intelligence on our behalf and not simply effort? Just move on and whatever we do, don’t look back at the now untangled mess and begin scrutinising it – lest we see it for what it is.

The other explanation is that Inception works like the fabled naked emperor. With all the effort it takes to keep the various rules in mind, surely many would choose to let them go and just watch the film. They might suspect that it’s crap but hey, maybe they missed something when they stopped paying attention. So rather than coming across as someone who didn’t understand the film, they simply say “yeah, it was great”. Maybe they even convinced themselves it was, rather than admitting to themselves the possibility that they couldn’t understand it. In other words, perhaps people may have mistaken the convoluted dialogue and plot for complexity and intelligence because it was too exhausting to follow the dialogue and plot all the way through and confirm it was all just smoke in a bottle.

Of course, a third explanation might argue that the absence of a logical story is in fact the ultimate confirmation of the ending which Nolan alludes to (attempting to avoid spoilers here!). But wait! We must remember that Nolan left that one open for interpretation which means, in essence, both possibilities *must* be plausible. This is why one can say for certain that the nonsensical universe they created was the result of failure on the part of the writers to write a coherent story and not some devious plan from the beginning. By leaving the ending open, one can only assume they are hoping that the section of the audience who didn’t have the energy to follow all the ridiculous twists and turns through to the end, will fool themselves into thinking it all made sense. Moreover, this is also why we can call the ending a cowardly escape clause. One suspects that Nolan and co. realised they had a bottle of smoke on their hands and so someone had the bright idea to include the “get out of jail free” card, namely, “if the audience *do* realise it doesn’t make sense, then we can claim we never meant it to!” Well maybe *this* is in fact Nolan’s biggest crime of all! – the creation of a context that excuses gross indiscipline on behalf of the writer/director.

Rule No.1 in good creative writing classes has been and always will be: “DO NOT MAKE THE STORY A DREAM. You are cheating the audience of the time they invested in the story if you reveal it at the end *or*, if you reveal it from early on, you are removing any reason for the audience to invest in the story because none of it has to make sense.” To make the mistake of ignoring that rule from the outset and to proceed to *attempt* to tell a coherent dreamscape story is bad. However, to then fall back upon the dreamscape scenario to acquit yourself of your failure in telling a coherent story is entirely worse.

Okay, there are of course some positives that must be acknowledged. Hans Zimmer’s music is good if not a bit overdone and it does its best to carry you through the seemingly endless tedium that is the third act. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is flawless and even astounding in places. Nolan captures some of the movie’s gravity bending scenes well and his pacing in the final part of the hotel room sequence (room sequence not the corridor sequence!) is superb. There is also a healthy array of acting talent with Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Cillian Murphy being somewhat watchable despite playing severely limited roles.

However, none of these small positives come close to remedying the awfully conceived, pretentious, and grossly undisciplined story-telling, not to mention, the totally flawed premise. Cut through all the fluff, and this film is built around the notion that a group of meticulous professionals can craft, manipulate, and exploit a world that defies all such ambitions due to the intangible whimsy that constitutes it. Maybe that’s what forced the writers into a proliferation of disconnected rules (though let’s face it, the lure of shiny effects is strong) but, if true, that was just compounding one failure with another. The big words and convoluted sentences are just a smokescreen designed to stop you discovering that the writers didn’t find a way around that inherent problem.

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