REVIEW: Inception

16 07 2010

Filmmaking is about creation.

The creation of a character, a couple; a feeling, a frame; a narrative, a novelty; a relationship, a romance; a moment, a mystery.  Have no doubt about it, filmmaking is creation, no matter the size of the budget or scope.

But there are very few filmmakers with the knowledge, the willpower, and the vision to create a world.  We all remember the first time we stepped into the galaxy far, far away that George Lucas took us to in “Star Wars.”  Recent examples include The Wachowski Brothers leading us into the world of “The Matrix,” Peter Jackson lifting Middle Earth off the page and displaying it before our very own eyes in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and, very recently, James Cameron giving us a crystal-clear, in-our-face look at Pandora in “Avatar.”

And now, with the release of “Inception,” we can officially add Christopher Nolan to that impressive list of filmmakers.  He unravels before our very own eyes what he envisions to be the world of the dream.  It’s an incredibly complex world, governed by a set of rules that have graver implications that we could ever imagine.  Only he holds the keys to unlocking the secrets of his creation, and he tantalizingly dangles them before our eyes.

Yet he also challenges us to use just the sight of them to figure it out for ourselves.  I have no doubt he left us clues throughout the movie, but it’s not possible to catch them your first time.  You are simply too awe-struck by what’s on the screen, too busy puzzling out the intricacies of the plot, and too preoccupied trying to stay ahead of Nolan to go a layer deeper.  And to go that extra mile, to find what’s really bubbling under the surface of “Inception,” you will have already dug to a great depth.  Some people won’t even be willing to go that far, and they will feel left in the dust by the movie, like a kindergartener sitting in a calculus class.  But Nolan doesn’t design it for those people, making it an even sweeter treat for those willing to take their mind on a journey it won’t always understand.

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NOLAN REVIEW: The Dark Knight

14 07 2010

After the modest critical and financial success with “The Prestige,” Nolan returned to the Batman franchise and released a movie that riskily omitted the name of the Caped Crusader – “The Dark Knight.”

Two years later, how do you review Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight?”  What hasn’t been said?  There’s no one left to convince to see the movie; if anyone hasn’t seen it, they aren’t worth the effort.

After watching and rewatching Nolan’s films prior to this, it only made me realize more that “The Dark Knight” is a perfect realization of all the themes he loves to explore.  It’s about the extent of rules and limits, something he touched on in both “Following” and “The Prestige.”  It’s about the blurriness of morality, a theme he examined in “Memento” and “Insomnia.”  It’s about fear and what it can drive us to do and become, something that we saw a lot of in “Batman Begins.”

But there’s plenty unique to “The Dark Knight.”  It’s a rumination on terrorism as the anarchistic Joker seeks to cause madness in the streets of Gotham.  Batman, the only person with any hope of stopping him, has to consider how far he is willing to go to eliminate the Joker before he himself becomes the villain.  As their fight escalates, Bruce Wayne becomes more and more uncertain that he is the hero in his own story.  Some have read into this undertones of George W. Bush waging war on terrorism against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.  That’s a rather extreme way to look at it, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say that this storyline did tap into the zeitgeist.  We ourselves have wondered where to draw the line in our fight on terrorism as to aggression.  How much counter-aggression does it take before we ourselves become the aggressors?

Of course, you can’t discuss the movie without heaping superlative after superlative on Heath Ledger’s The Joker.  It’s a role that deserves to take its place among the most iconic characters in cinematic history, something Ledger’s unfortunate passing sealed.  His complete immersion and stunning transformation overshadowed pretty much every other performance in the movie, which says a lot because there were some other fantastic turns.  Forget the deep, raspy Batman voice and Christian Bale is flawless, delivering a subtle portrait of Bruce Wayne’s affliction and inner torment.  Aaron Eckhart is compelling as Harvey Dent and Two-Face, as good at being the hero with a face as he is at being the villain with half a face.  There’s solid foundational performances from veterans Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, but the movie’s true unsung hero is Gary Oldman.  As the only truly noble man in the movie, he’s a figure to be admired and respected, and there’s a good chance you won’t even notice it.  But that doesn’t stop Oldman from putting any less sensitivity or emotion into it, nor does he try to overdo anything to make himself stand out more.

Still, it wasn’t Heath Ledger alone that drove the movie to extreme critical acclaim and some of the most enormous box office receipts in history.  Nor was it the look of the film – which, by the way, was spectacular, particularly Wally Pfister’s breathtaking cinematography.  It was Nolan’s script, full of intelligence and insight, that won audiences over.  Such intellect was so unconventional for a movie of the genre, and we had generally allowed ourselves to think that action movies don’t require us to engage our brains.  Yet Nolan challenged our assumption and delivered a movie that successfully blended smarts with action, and we loved the exciting and refreshing change of pace.  Now, we want every action movie to be more like “The Dark Knight.”

So call it a masterpiece.  Call it the most thematically rich and relevant movie in recent memory.  Call it the first shot in a revolution for the comic book, superhero, and action genres.  Call it the movie to define a decade not just of moviegoing but also of American life.

NOLAN REVIEW: The Prestige

13 07 2010

After great critical and commercial success with “Batman Begins,” Nolan went back to the familiar territory of complex storylines and plot twists with “The Prestige.”

Whoever said cinema was magic was clearly foreseeing “The Prestige.”  Christopher Nolan uses his sorcery to conjure up a truly enchanting moviegoing experience, one that draws you in close at the beginning and keeps you gripped for the entire ride.  And it just so happens that the movie is about magic, so the comparison is perfect.

It’s all about the competition as Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play rival magicians in early 1900s England, both of whom vie for the greatest success.  But they soon realize that the only way to come out on top is to eliminate the other, so their rivalry becomes dangerous as they work to destroy each other.  Stealing tricks as the only the beginning; they make decisions that affects life away from the stage as well, throwing friends and loved ones into the middle.

The beauty of the Nolans’ script (Christopher and brother Jonathan collaborated on the movie) is that it picks no favorite magician.  There is no set hero or villain, and Bale’s Borden does as many despicable deeds as Jackman’s Angier.  Thanks to their impartiality, we really just get to watch the events without worrying about the protagonist pulling through.

The movie’s slogan of “Are you watching closely?” is perfectly fitting as Nolan lures us in as if performing his own magic trick.  And indeed he is, following the traditional setup of a magic trick as Michael Caine’s John Cutter says at the beginning of the film.  The pledge, which in magic consists of showing us a normal object, is very much the film’s first act as we see the developing competition between the two magicians.  And just like the turn in magic, which makes the normal abnormal, the tension escalates.  We are looking for the reason, not wanting to be fooled by Nolan’s wizardry.

Sure enough, in the prestige, we get it.  In typical Nolan fashion, there’s a twist, and what we’ve been watching turns out to be something entirely different.  Yet we are willing to be fooled by a magician, and being fooled by Nolan’s “The Prestige” turns out to be quite thrilling in retrospect.

NOLAN REVIEW: Batman Begins

12 07 2010

Nolan rose to a whole new level of notoriety by taking on the rebooting of the “Batman” franchise, taking the series in a new, exciting, and grittier direction.

Although I was alive in the 1990s, I wasn’t consciously aware of the rapid descent of the “Batman” franchise at the time.  Trying to brush up on my knowledge of the series before the release of “Batman Begins” in 2005, I watched these movies that had audiences cringing.  The Tim Burton/Michael Keaton collaborations had some sense of artistic vision, albeit in a fairly corny kind of way.  The Joel Schumacher/Val Kilmer teaming was pretty dreadful, but it doesn’t get much worse than 1997’s “Batman and Robin.”  George Clooney is a fantastic actor, but with his smug, pissy attitude, he was totally the wrong person to play the Caped Crusader.  Plus, the Batsuit had nipples, just a horrific manifestation of how far the series had sunk.

Then along came Christopher Nolan, who was still all the rage from “Memento,” with a darker vision for Bruce Wayne and Batman.  He based his approach to the movie on “humanity and realism” to make the rise of a hero all the more extraordinary.  Rather than delve into exorbitant villains like Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze, whose credibility rests on fantasy, he chose to have Batman fight the kind of men who might actually be on the streets striking terror into the hearts of citizens.

What Nolan delivered was nothing less than astounding.  He built not only a hero but a man, the oft-neglected part of superhero movies.  The priority with the movie was to develop the character of Bruce Wayne, to show what made him tick and why he would become a masked vigilante patrolling the streets of Gotham at night.  Nolan, who also wrote the movie, develops a highly effective psychological profile of Wayne (Christian Bale), who decides to done the guise of Batman to overcome the fear that has come to define his life since the murder of his parents at a young age.  He takes on the symbol of the bat, a fear of his since childhood, to share this fear with his enemies.

And it’s not just Wayne that Nolan goes to painstaking lengths to rebirth.  He also gives Gotham a facelift or rather, makes it a whole lot less glamorous.  I think that the city is one of the few things “Batman Begins” does better than its sequel.  It’s a dirty, graffiti-filled environment that looks like the breeding ground for criminals that it is.  The streets provide a great place for Batman to begin, taking down the mob and other organized crime.  They don’t really spawn much of a villain so much as someone with a threatening voice, Tom Wilkinson as boss Carmine Falcone.

We all know how great “The Dark Knight” is, and it’s easy just to bask in the glory of that.  But for Batman to start fighting a higher class of criminal, he had to learn to take care of the guys below.  In “Batman Begins,” we see just that.  Yet upon watching the movie post-“Dark Knight,” we realize that it has so much more to offer than just setting up a sequel and providing background.  It’s a fantastic movie for both character development and action that’s smarter than your average blockbuster.


11 07 2010

After the smashing success that was “Memento,” Nolan went mainstream and made a movie for Warner Bros. – a remake of the Danish film “Insomnia.”

“Insomnia” is definitely the most conventional and least Nolanesque movie that Christopher Nolan has made in his career, but even that doesn’t stop it from being one great movie.  It’s a great psychological thriller and murder mystery that is well plotted and paced, plus it features three great performances from Oscar champs Pacino, Williams, and Swank.

Tough-as-nails cop Dormer, played by Pacino of course, is sent along with his partner to investigate a murder in summertime Alaska – where the sun doesn’t set.  And the disturbing beating and death of the teenager doesn’t get to Dormer so much as that sun does, which causes him to grow restless.  As if that isn’t enough, his partner is willing to throw him under the bus for personal gain, and he has to put up with a zealous hometown cop (Swank) who learned how to do her job from the lessons he preached.

It’s got that same kind of eerie, psychological vibe as “Shutter Island” gave off this year.  But what makes the pendulum swing in favor of Scorsese’s latest over Nolan’s film is the directorial control.  Scorsese slowly leads us into the mental anguish of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, making us grow more and more anxious until we almost can’t take it anymore.  Nolan in “Insomnia” only hints at Dormer’s torment by giving the occasional visual clue.  At the end, he goes all in and uses the cinematography and quick editing to make us feel nauseous and overwhelmed like the character.  It’s very effective, but the power might have been even greater had it been more present throughout the movie.

In fact, I’d like to see Nolan remake his own movie here in a decade or so.  Not necessarily “Insomnia” itself, but with more filmmaking expertise, he could revisit this genre and give it a masterpiece.


10 07 2010

After “Following,” Nolan adapted his brother’s short story to create one of the most gripping psychological thrillers of our time, “Memento.”

I can’t tell you enough to see “Memento.”  And then see it again.

I’ve only seen it once, but I can easily foresee multiple re-viewings in the near future.  It’s a movie so brilliantly crafted by the fearless Christopher Nolan that it surely can’t be fully comprehended at once.  Plus, I get the feeling that I’ll appreciate how intricate it really is more and more with each time I see it.

I won’t claim to be any sort of expert on the movie, but there’s plenty that I can tell you from one viewing.  The trick is how to describe it without giving too much away.  Nolan adapted “Memento” from one of his brother’s short stories, and he uses ingenious plot devices to tell the story of amnesiac Leonard Shelby, played by Guy Pearce, who lost his memory after witnessing his wife’s murder.  He’s left with almost no ability to store new memories, something that greatly impairs his ability to hunt down his wife’s killer.  Leonard has to leave himself little clues and notes to remember key facts in his hunt, which he does mainly by tattooing them all over his skin.

We get to see his hunt through two different storylines that run perpendicular.  Nolan keeps us guessing until the very end as we feel there’s a twist coming but still manage to wind up completely dumbfounded and stupefied by the conclusion.  I don’t think I’m spoiling the fun for you first-time watchers because I was aware of the presence of a twist ending and was still caught completely off-guard.  It’s too genius to see coming, and if you do, kudos because you are clearly smarter than me.

Just like any movie Nolan directs, the tension in the air can be cut with a knife.  It’s masterfully made, told with a visually arresting style that will have you completely engrossed from the first Polaroid flash.  “Memento” is like a giant puzzle, and it’s one you almost certainly can’t have entirely pieced together once the movie is over.  It may take many, many viewings before all the pieces come together … and that doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 9, 2010)

9 07 2010

As the countdown to “Inception” hits seven days and the nail-biting stage begins, I think it’s a perfect time to look back on the career of Christopher Nolan.  Today is the kick-off for a week long celebration of the director.  I’ll review all of Nolan’s movies leading up to Friday, where I will offer my take on “Inception.”  In addition, I hope to take a look at some of Nolan’s influences, reviewing those movies with particular attention to how they shaped one of the most influential directors of our time.

And it all starts here with the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” Nolan’s first film, “Following.”  It’s a very modest debut in terms of scale; it stars no one you know and is nowhere near as flashy as “The Dark Knight.”  To put Nolan’s success in perspective, “Following” was budgeted at $6,000.  “Inception” cost $175 million to make.  Yet it’s interesting to watch this movie now, twelve years after its release, and see how it set the stage for some of the themes Nolan would choose to explore as a filmmaker.

The film follows a young writer in London, so desperate to find a story that he begins following random people for inspiration – yet another Nolan character living outside the lines.  He begins to set rules to avoid being pulled into darkness and obsession, but eventually these rules begin to fade away as he follows a fascinating and wealthy man.

The man, Cobb, confronts him and introduces him to a world of burglary for a more psychological than material effect.  Before long, the young writer is completely drawn in, consistently accompanying Cobb for robberies.  In typical Nolan fashion, nothing is really as it seems.  Much like “Memento” and “The Prestige,” the movie leads you in one direction and then yanks the rug out from under you in the climactic moments.

It’s amazing how Nolan’s artistic vision and commitment to keeping suspense so taut can still shine in such a small movie.  I hadn’t even heard of “Following” before today, but it packs as much power in its 70 minutes as any of Nolan’s other movies.  Because it is incredibly obscure, the only way I was able to watch it was online.  I want you all to experience Nolan as well, so I took the liberty of embedding the Google Video below.  You can enjoy “Following” without even leaving this blog.