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Entries in christopher nolan (4)

Wednesday
Nov052014

Interstellar

As a general rule, director Christopher Nolan doesn’t make bad movies. While not all have been great, neither have any been bad. In regards to consistency, at least, one could argue he’s the single best director working today and early buzz for his newest film, “Interstellar,” seemed to indicate magnificence. Some reports even stated that it was on a philosophical level of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Having now seen it, I feel like I can definitively say that it’s not quite up to that level. “Interstellar” is a great movie, one that will inevitably end up on many critics’ best of the year lists, but to make such a direct comparison is overenthusiastic hyperbole. It’s Nolan’s most narratively ambitious film to date and it does a good job of exploring complex themes, but its philosophizing doesn’t always land. Still, when most science fiction films these days involve little more than assault-on-the-senses action, one can’t help but appreciate that this one strives to be intellectually more.

And it’s that intellectualism, even when it’s not up to snuff, that gives “Interstellar” its edge. In a real world that seems increasingly anti-intellectualism and anti-science, with societies hell bent on holding onto archaic beliefs and ideologies, it’s a breath of fresh air to see onscreen characters portrayed in a way that highlights scientific curiosity and hope, even in the face of extreme adversity. Matthew McConaughey, in what could very well be his best dramatic performance to date, plays Cooper, a brilliant engineer and scientist who, due to apocalyptic weather patterns diminishing Earth’s resources, is relegated to farming. He’s a naturally curious person and has passed that curiosity down to his children, namely Murph, played by Mackenzie Foy, a young girl who swears there’s a ghost in her room trying to tell her something.

Eventually they learn the strange occurrences in her room are gravitational anomalies that began around 50 years ago. Around the same time, a wormhole in space appeared and has remained stable ever since. Using this wormhole, NASA was able to send its bravest men and women to a new galaxy with potentially habitable worlds. The data they’ve since received indicates a handful of those worlds could work to save the human race, so they enlist Cooper to leave his family behind and embark on a dangerous mission. Knowing that inaction could mean extinction for his species, he begrudgingly agrees.

In many ways, “Interstellar” is the polar opposite of last year’s sci-fi hit, “Gravity.” While that movie was essentially a 90 minute action movie in space with minimal characterization, “Interstellar” nearly doubles that length and is all about character. A few tense action scenes pop up in from time to time, but it’s the effect those scenes have on the characters that makes them so interesting. Before the characters even lift off into space, the stage is set for some wonderful human drama. The relationships are built in a believable way, which allows later scenes to lead to some truly heartbreaking moments. Characters aren’t mentioned in passing like Bullock’s daughter in “Gravity,” but are instead grown and explored through many years and even decades, thanks to a clever narrative mechanic grounded in real life science.

In fact, the lengths “Interstellar” goes to be scientifically accurate are both welcome and impressive. It takes liberties, of course, to form its story, but it dares to show its scientific literacy when other movies would have taken the easy way out. A great example comes in its portrayal of artificial gravity. Nolan could have very easily had the characters flip a switch to turn it on in their spaceship, but he instead has a 10 minute sequence where their ship docks with a circular apparatus that then begins to rotate, creating artificial gravity through centrifugal force. Is this sequence necessary for the characters or the drama? No, but it helps create a real, living world and, though minor in the big scheme of things, it allows viewers to sink fully into the desired immersion.

These details show a genuine love for the subject matter, for space and even for the unknown. The writing from Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, indicate as much. Wonderful scenes that mock Apollo landing conspiracy theorists and early dialogue discussing the merits of scientific study highlight a passion for scientific endeavors as well as the wonders of both the human spirit and the insignificant role we play in the immensity of the cosmos. The visuals similarly show this affection, with truly stunning imagery that looks pulled from NASA’s archives. This is a movie that understands not just the frightening and dangerous nature of our universe, but also its grandiosity and quiet beauty. If you too share such awe, as I do, then you’ll find plenty to love here.

When “Interstellar” stumbles, it’s not due to these things, but rather a narrative that occasionally misses the mark. When the characters start to hypothesize about the meaning of everything, one starts to babble on with silly nonsense about love, about how it could potentially be an extra dimension beyond time and space that we aren’t yet able to perceive. In a movie as grounded as this one, scenes like this are worth little more than an eye roll.

It also loses some narrative momentum in its final moments. Despite a deliberate pacing and a runtime of 169 minutes, its conclusion is rushed beyond plausibility. Although undeniably interesting and unexpected, a specific character comes to a revelation completely out of the blue with little convincing context behind it. However, it must be said that this moment also leads to one of the emotionally impactful moments in the entire film, which makes it easier to forgive such hurriedness.

If nothing else, “Interstellar” goes to show that there are still some great ideas out there that the science fiction genre can lend itself to beyond giant robots crashing into each other. It might not be the intellectual equivalent of “2001: A Space Odyssey” as some have argued, but it’s a wondrous movie in its own right that tackles complex themes, builds believable characters and hits all the right emotional chords while rarely relying on heavy-handed manipulation. Even with its faults, it’s one of the year’s best.

Interstellar receives 4.5/5

Thursday
Apr172014

Transcendence

Wally Pfister is probably one of the most talented, yet unheralded, workers in Hollywood today. Many may not know that he’s actually the man behind the camera for every single one of director Christopher Nolan’s films (aside from his first, “Following,” and his upcoming sci-fi film, “Interstellar”). He even won an Oscar for his cinematography work on “Inception,” so it’s clear the man has talent. He knows how to shoot a movie and evoke emotions through visuals. Since film is a visual medium, that strength is arguably the most valuable to have in Hollywood. In this regard, his directorial debut, “Transcendence,” follows his tradition of excellence (despite being shot by “Hot Fuzz” and “The Spectacular Now” cinematographer, Jess Hall), but it’s lacking nearly everywhere else. Pfister certainly picked some things up from Nolan, but he lacks his penchant for storytelling. With an uneven pace and unexplored themes, “Transcendence” can be described as little more than a missed opportunity.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is an artificial intelligence expert. With many years of research and hard work behind him, he hopes to one day create a machine that will be able to reach singularity—or as he likes to put it, transcendence—that moment in time when a machine reaches superhuman intelligence. It’s a vision that doesn’t seem to be too far off in the future, which sparks a radical movement of extremists determined to stop it. After giving a speech about the future of artificial intelligence, a member of that extremist group shoots him. Although he survives the attack, the bullet is shown to have been laced with poison, which entered his bloodstream, giving him only a month to live. In light of this, his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) comes up with a crazy idea. She suggests planting a nanochip in his brain and uploading his consciousness to a supercomputer, thus ensuring he lives on. Her partner, Max (Paul Bettany), reluctantly agrees to give it a shot, though the odds of success are low. Much to their surprise, however, it works and Will is essentially alive, or as close as one can be to it, in a computer.

These early moments, along with the closing, are perhaps the best in the entire film. Though essentially a sped up tragedy—complete with dramatic music, emotional breakdowns and even a sad Morgan Freeman narration for good measure—it works. The capable actors bring their characters to life, upping the ante for what’s to come. However, anyone who has seen a film about technology achieving sentience will see all of it coming from a mile away, which is to say things don’t quite go according to plan.

This gives way to a plethora of wonderful ideas that, sadly, are haphazardly introduced and never intelligently expanded on. At one point, after Will reaches his sought after transcendence, the film seems to be heading in the right direction and finds its focus. Will begins to heal the sick, even those with long time illnesses that modern medicine hasn’t found cures for yet. He lets the blind see, the paralyzed walk and more. It asks, what if we could be better than God? What if we could fix the mistakes a supposed flawless creator burdened us with? What if we could see everything all at once, as any omnipotent being should? What if we could heal someone’s potentially life threating injuries in seconds, to the point where it’s like those injuries never even happened? These are compelling thoughts, ones that seem wonderful at first, but the complications of playing God slowly reveal themselves, showing that these vulnerabilities and afflictions are what make us human.

Granted, the effects of playing God are hardly breaking new cinematic ground, but they gave “Transcendence” the weight it so desperately needed. Unfortunately, it’s also around this point that it introduces its most absurd idea: the taking over of actual human bodies through the use of nanobots and “connecting” them to Will’s digital infrastructure. While I hesitate to say that such an event is completely out of the realm of scientific plausibility, it nevertheless gives the film that typical Hollywood feel and essentially strips it of the ideas it had just minutes before introduced.

Despite messy narrative and thematic arcs, “Transcendence” still manages to pack a ton of awe into its runtime, mostly thanks to Pfister’s understanding of cinematography. The shot composition is solid, the camera movements are fluid and its interesting focus on seemingly mundane objects ground the film. For those interested in the technical creation of filmmaking, “Transcendence” will be a thing of beauty, but it all goes back to those missed opportunities. Despite similar central ideas, it never quite reaches the bombastic action of something like “The Terminator” or the heartfelt wonders of last year’s “Her.” It tries to combine both into one cohesive whole, one that can tug at the heartstrings while also keeping things exciting, but, ultimately, it collapses under the weight of its own ambition.

Transcendence receives 2.5/5

Friday
Apr122013

Trance

Danny Boyle is one of those directors that can be both brilliant and frustrating. He knows how to tell a story, but sometimes over stylizes those stories with narrative gimmicks and camera trickery. It’s almost as if he’s both confident and unsure of himself, like he loses faith in the story he’s telling and ups the style or takes detours that don’t fit. His most overrated film, “127 Hours,” is proof of this. With ridiculous ghostly visions of Scooby-Doo and long tracking shots that took the viewer out of the terrifying claustrophobic atmosphere its main character was stuck in, Boyle lost much of what made the rest of his movie so grueling. He made similar mistakes with the video game scene from “The Beach” (though it could be argued that movie was beyond repair anyway) and the ending of “Sunshine” that turned a wonderful, thought provoking science fiction movie into a glorified slasher film. Unfortunately, he does it once again with “Trance,” though to a lesser extent. Boyle mixes assured direction and a steady hand with a number of questionable decisions—the abundance of purposeless canted camera angles feel even more so when they’re simple establishing shots—and it’s frustrating to watch. It’s still worth seeing if for no other reason than for James McAvoy’s committed performance, but it’s no master work.

McAvoy plays Simon, an art auctioneer who auctions beautiful paintings worth millions of pounds to the highest bidder. Although he’s been told that no piece of art is worth a human life, there’s nevertheless a procedure in place in case of an attempted robbery. In the commotion, he’s to grab the painting, enclose it in a zip-up bag and drop it down a safety chute to a place where nobody will be able to access it. One night, this procedure becomes practice when a group of armed gunmen, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), show up to steal the most precious painting up for bid. Right before dropping it down the chute, Simon is caught and gives up the bag, but not before getting cold cocked in the head with Franck’s shotgun. This hit causes Simon to lose his memory, which is a bad thing because it turns out that somewhere along the line, he made the old switcheroo. The bag is completely empty. Later, after Simon is released from the hospital, the thieves catch up to him and, with the help of hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), attempt to siphon its whereabouts out of his brain.

Essentially, “Trance” is “Memento” meets “Inception.” It revolves around a man trying to recover his memories while also taking place in a dream state, one that blurs the line between reality and illusion, to the point where it tricks the viewer, unaware at any given time if what they’re watching is taking place in the real world or within someone’s mind. It’s not a bad concept, though it’s perhaps less interesting in a post “Inception” world that already tackled the idea in a better, more meaningful and more complex way.

The one thing that will be hard to accept, especially for the skeptics among us, is its story that revolves around the pseudoscientific nonsense that is hypnotherapy. It’s not the fact that it’s there, or even that it plays a major role in the story, but rather that it’s portrayed in such a matter-of-fact way. It never questions its authenticity and instead treats it as a real and true practice, which of course it isn’t. In a movie like “Inception,” such a practice would be okay because it takes place in a strict science fiction universe. Recapturing lost memories the way Guy Pearce did in “Memento” is okay as well because it at least makes sense and is grounded in some sort of reality. “Trance” feels like it couldn’t come up with a realistic way to explore the same idea, so it included science fiction elements in a story that is anything but science fiction, hoping the audience will fail to notice.

Yet one can’t deny that as silly as it is and as desperate to be unique as it sometimes feels, “Trance” works. McAvoy, as usual for the talented actor, gives a marvelous performance that gradually changes as we learn more and more about his character. By the time the end rolls around and the twist is revealed, things that didn’t make sense before suddenly do and our perception of him has completely changed. Unfortunately, that twist still revolves around the hard-to-take-seriously hypnotherapy the film uses as its crutch.

Frankly, Boyle is at his best when he keeps it simple, his best and easily most enchanting movie being the underseen “Millions.” Here, he has a story that is so elaborate, he can’t seem to keep pace and tries to cover it up with technical flash. It’s one of those rare movies that hooks you without ever providing the suspension of disbelief one would need to truly invest in it. You know full well while watching that it’s a tad rough and its attempt to legitimize hypnotherapy is total nonsense, but you don’t care. “Trance” won’t blow you away and if you’re looking for movies that tackle similar themes, you’re better off watching those aforementioned Christopher Nolan films, but it’s serviceable nonetheless.

Trance receives 3/5

Tuesday
Jul172012

The Dark Knight Rises

There are few people that would argue The Dark Knight is anything less than a fantastic film. Most tend to agree it’s one of, if not the best superhero movie ever made. There are even those who think it’s one of the best movies ever made, superhero or otherwise. That film raised the bar for superheroes so high that it’s likely to be a very long time before one reaches or surpasses it. That philosophy holds true for director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, but luckily, the film is only a disappointment in comparison. It may not reach the brilliance of The Dark Knight, but it’s still the best and most exciting movie of the summer. Dark, violent, terrifying and exciting, The Dark Knight Rises fires on all cylinders.

When we last saw Batman (aka Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale), he was running from the cops. He was taking the fall for the murder of Gotham’s district attorney, Harvey Dent, who the people of the city had put their faith in to clean up their streets. In Bruce’s mind, it was his duty to prove that true good couldn’t be corrupted, which meant making a martyr out of a madman. Now, Bruce has hung up his cape and mask because the city has turned against him, thinking him to be a violent sociopath who deceived their trust. However, a new villain is emerging. His name is Bane (Tom Hardy) and he’s out to destroy the city. He’s a bullish brute and it soon becomes clear that the police force won’t be able to stop him, which forces Batman out of retirement.

The Dark Knight Rises may be a misleading title for the film, seeing as how Batman does more falling (both literally and figuratively) than he does rising, but that’s why these films work. Nolan doesn’t treat his hero as a god. He treats him as he is: a human being. Bruce has demons to wrestle with, first isolated to the anger felt from losing his parents all those years ago, but now combined with the heartbreak of losing his only love, Rachel (played by both Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively), at the end of The Dark Knight. He’s not cracking jokes like Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man (despite the occasional witty moment). There’s too much at stake for such trivialities. His desire to fight stems not just from doing what’s right, but from the pain he’s feeling, his need to restore balance to a city gone mad, a city that took the life of everyone he ever loved. The Dark Knight Rises is a dark adult tale told by a masterful filmmaker who knows how to balance the necessary action with character development and relationships.

If anything, it’s the action that dragged down Nolan’s first film, Batman Begins, which was heavy-laden with too much shaky cam and too many cuts. Whether a product of the time, when the Bourne movies were finding so much popularity with the technique, or simply due to Nolan’s own inexperience with staging and filming fast paced action scenes, they were easily the film’s weakest aspect. But with The Dark Knight, Nolan refined his craft. The camera was smooth for much of the action, moving only to give us a better view of it, not to blur it. Nolan carries that maturity over into The Dark Knight Rises. While large in scope, including an absolutely incredible opening and appropriately epic finale, the action is never too much, never overloading your senses like many action movies these days. It’s presented in a way that feels organic, not forced for the sake of keeping action hungry audiences at bay, and Nolan’s steady hand approach ensures we get to savor every second of it.

But regardless of the film’s strengths, it’s impossible to watch The Dark Knight Rises and not compare Tom Hardy’s Bane to the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. When doing so, there is a clear winner. The Joker was a larger than life personality, one that gave the film a quirky feeling, kind of in the vein of a dark comedy, and the man behind the make-up gave one of the best performances ever put to film. Awarded posthumously at the Oscars that year, Heath Ledger created a terrifying monster, one that frightened, yet delighted at the same time. Bane, on the other hand, is too prophetic to be frightening. The majority of the fear instilled by him comes mainly from his size and brute strength rather than from anything psychological. He intimidates visually, but lacks the personality and off-the-wall insanity that made Heath Ledger’s cackling Joker so terrific.

Of course, Bane isn’t a bad character and Tom Hardy’s representation of him is just fine; they look worse only because Heath Ledger’s Joker was so amazing. The only true problem with the character comes from his voice, which is so modulated (thanks to the ever present mask covering his mouth) it’s sometimes hard to understand what he’s saying. Why such a problem was left unhandled—despite Nolan’s partial admittance to making select modifications after fan complaints from an early trailer—baffles the mind. A few other problems bring about the same reaction, like Bane’s nonsensical villainous plot that, for some reason, takes at least five months to unravel or why Batman would waste time lighting his logo on fire on a Gotham City bridge when he has mere hours before the city is destroyed. These moments don’t necessarily make sense, but they make the proceedings flashy and tense (and it’s impossible not to smile when that logo lights up).

The Dark Knight Rises is bogged down by a bit too much expository dialogue as well, but it more than makes up for it with a plethora of other brilliant little touches, like a sly reference to Killer Croc, another villain in the Batman universe. In an act of extreme skill, Nolan brings this story full circle, wrapping up his take on the character in as satisfying a way as one can imagine (though that very last shot, which I dare not spoil, should have been taken out). It works narratively, emotionally and on a visceral level—if the final 30 minutes don’t get your blood pumping, nothing will. It’s certainly not perfect and if comparing it to The Dark Knight, then it’s a disappointment, but if that’s the case, this is one of the best disappointments I’ve ever experienced.

The Dark Knight Rises receives 4.5/5