Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2012)

8. The Dark Knight Rises

Considering my dislike of “The Dark Knight” but my enjoyment of everything else Nolan has done, I went into the midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” uncertain of what to expect. Honestly, I kind of wanted to hate it. Just because I’m stubborn. I left the theater mad all right. Not out of frustration or disappointment but because I had to eat a whole lot of crow. Goddamn it. He pulled it off. Light spoiler alert for the review ahead.

The movie had me pretty much from minute one. Bane’s aerial escape from his airplane prison is a hugely dynamic action sequence, especially the shot where the camera launches out of the falling airplane. Gotham is in peace and Bruce Wayne lives in solitude, his company slowly falling apart. Once a terrorist with a vendetta and a smart-ass thief enter the picture, a complicated series of plot lines begin to fall into place. Some have called the movie convoluted. No doubt, there’s a lot going on here. Like many of Nolan’s films, it demands your attention. However, unlike “The Dark Knight,” the various subplots and concurrent storylines never falter around needlessly. Watching all the story threads come together is amazingly satisfying. Every scene has importance. This is a very tight ship and, even with a nearly three hour long runtime, expertly paced.

The plot can pretty clearly be split into two halves here, much like “Batman Begins.” The first half is the most fun, as it concerns Bruce being pulled back out of his shell, a new threat emerging, and introducing fascinating new characters. After a serious plot turn, some major characters are waylaid and the story becomes almost oppressively grim. Gotham is turned into an isolated police state, governed by a mad warlord, the threat of nuclear annihilation looming over it constantly. Normally, in a superhero movie, you don’t have to worry about the good guy loosing or lots of innocent people dying. But Christopher Nolan is an auteur. If anybody was going to cross those lines, it would be him. The grimness of the second act makes the hero’s triumphant return and the action-packed finale deeply satisfying.

I frequently joke about the supposed political subtext in the Nolanverse, especially the reading that “The Dark Knight” is an allegory for the War on Terror. (And the less said about Rush Limbaugh’s typically misinformed interpretation, the better.) However, it’s pretty much impossible to ignore the political subtext in “The Dark Knight Rises.” This is a movie about the haves vs. the have-nots. Bruce Wayne starts the film out as a millionaire, protected from the problems of the street, a fact Catwoman is all too willing to point out. Class warfare erupts and the poor and downtrodden raid the mansions and homes of the rich and protected. There’s a deeper, more sinister level to the images of people marching on the streets, since it’s all being engineered by a madman determined to destroy the city. Nolan’s outlook is downbeat. Given a chance to govern themselves, Gotham City quickly descends into a violent state with a kangaroo court system. (Which provides the film’s most amusing cameo.) Bruce’s arc is essentially that of a one-percenter learning to become part of the 99%. Imagine the college term papers that will be written about this one.

Tied into these themes is the character of Bane. I’ve always considered Bane, in the comics, to be a highly gimmicky character with a silly Luchador mask, not much more then the Batfamily answer to Doomsday who quickly suffered villain decay after his initial appearance. Aside from Gail Simone, most writers haven’t been able to do much that’s intriguing with him. Nolan and his team actually make him an interesting character. Bane is the ideological opposite of Batman. He is just as strong, just as smart, as Bruce, even benefits from the same training. While Bruce was raised in privilege, Bane was raised in poverty, in the worse prison on Earth. When he tells Batman that the shadows obey him, you believe it. As the film goes on and the villain establishes his rule over Gotham, he becomes a truly threatening figure. It’s so effective you can easily overlooked Tom Hardy’s muffled, Sean Connery impersonation. His monologue delivered in front of Black Gate Prison is destined to go down as an iconic, lingering moment in film history.

None of this would mean much if the film wasn’t as damn successful as an action movie as it is. I can’t say this Batman is a pussy. He kicks so many asses. Bats and Selina are quickly established as a fantastic battle couple. The rooftop battle when the two first become acquainted is fantastic. However, it doesn’t compare to when the two of them descend into the sewer, picking off henchmen one by one. That’s just two solid minutes of ass-kickery. The one-on-one standoff with Bane is incredibly effective, just as punishing and brutal as it needs to be. (I wasn’t sure if Nolan would use the classic lifted-over-shoulders-and-down-on-the-knee pose, but he did and it’s awesome.) The Bat, the new vehicle which is halfway between the Batcopter and the Batwing, is incredibly versatile. Its extensive use in the second half of the film leads to some fantastically exciting moments. Nolan has finally learned how to direct an action scene and all without compromising his usual style.

Another leveling element is Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. The character adds so much energy and humor to the film. There are several laugh-out-loud moments involving her. I’m a Hathaway fan but I wasn’t immediately sold when I heard her cast in the iconic part. But she really is the perfect Catwoman. If Nolan took lots of liberties with Bane or previous Bat-villains, he hews shockingly close to the source material when it comes to Selina. She’s a criminal but has her own moral code. Her intelligence and attitude has her standing toe-to-toe with Batman, making them a perfect couple. (They even got Holly Robinson in here.) Sassy, intelligent, strong, masking a dark past without letting it define her, she’s definitely one of the best female characters to ever appear in a Nolan film. Not to mention that Hathaway wears the cat suit fantastically. She’s hot on a level that I honestly have trouble putting into words. There are several moments that are jaw-dropping. My only complaint is that she never gets to use a whip.

The rest of the cast stands up. Christian Bale actually expands pass his typically intensity here. The eight years of isolation has changed Bruce Wayne and when he decides to get back into the game, you can actually see him having fun. The movie establishes just how much Alfred cares about him, especially in two heart-breaking scenes. He’s certainly more then just a wise advice dispenser this time. Kaine is wonderful. Commissioner Gordon kicks a lot of ass, essentially filling the hero role while Bruce is exiled during the second half. Along with John Blake, the other new character played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who proves to be just as intuitive and strong a character as Batman is.

I might make fun of his accent but Tom Hardy is imposing and intimidating as Bane, embodying the character’s cunning and crushing power. Marion Cotillard is not as interesting a love interest as Hathaway is. (And the movie seems to drawl a lot of attention to the previously unnoticed mole on her forehead.) She just isn’t giving as much to, at least until the final sequence when a fire blazes up behind her eyes. Hell, even Morgan Freeman is given plenty of stuff to do. Luscious Fox is an active character all throughout the film. You can definitely tell the changes happening to the city are affecting him negatively.

As damn good as the rest of the movie is, I do have a handful of complaints. The most major of which is a last minute plot twist that more or less sells out Bane as a character, undermining pretty much everything that was interesting about him throughout the film. It’s a good twist but I’m not exactly sure it was worth it. The rest of my grievances are pretty much just petty bitching. I still hate the Batsuit. Hans Zimmer’s score, despite making good use of the main characters' theme, is still rather dull. Alfred disappears for a large portion of the story and I do miss him. Liam Neeson’s much publicized cameo comes off as a little silly. Let's just say it brings the phrase "Force Ghost" to mind. It’s fair to say the film drags a tad bit in its latter half. Also, Batman mopping for eight years over a woman who obviously didn’t even love him seems possibly out of character. Nolan continues to not show much skill for giving his villains awesome death scenes. Also, the movie should have been called “Batman Rises,” which is obviously the superior title that rolls off the tongue much better then the somewhat awkward “The Dark Knight Rises.” (I guess if a movie makes a billion dollars worldwide, you’re inclined to make sure people know this movie is a sequel to that one.) I'm willing to forgive most of these.

The ending does some incredible brave things that I can’t imagine any other summer blockbuster daring to do. Everything is wrapped up perfectly. You feel a real sense of loss and awe just when you’re supposed to. Like in “The Prestige” though, Nolan has one more magic trick up his sleeve. I don’t want to spoil anything and I certainly don’t expect another sequel set in the same universe but… At the very least, the adventure continues.

I don’t envy the director who gets the next, inevitable Batman reboot. Nolan is going to be a hard act to follow. My complaints about “The Dark Knight” still stand but the trilogy is certainly wrapped up in spectacular fashion. Is “The Dark Knight Rises” the best Batman movie ever made? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell. I'm awfully close to saying it though. [Grade: A]

Friday, July 13, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2010)

7. Inception

“Inception” is the perfect movie for Nolan. It combines the mind-bending and the psychological, with thrilling shoot-outs and action set-pieces. It is equal parts “Batman” and “Memento,” an epic that takes place completely within the human mind.

Being the sole person on the planet who hated “The Dark Knight,” I was expecting Chris to screw up. Namely, that premise, of sneaking into a person’s dreams to steal or implant ideas, is tricky. “Dreams never make sense,” I was telling myself. However, the movie plans for this but introducing the idea of the architect, someone who literally builds the dream. The writer/director is an architect himself and his quest to make the story work is equally as perilous as the quest of the characters.

This script is so tightly constructed. Nolan is juggling so many different balls here that it’s amazing he pulled it off. Five or six different scenarios are going on at the same time. In the first act, the concept of dream extraction and inception are brilliantly laid out for the viewer. Pay close attention, this stuff will be important later. The movie never feels expositionary though. Ellen Page’s character needs to be introduced to this world so, by showing and explaining things to her, the film is also explaining things to its audience.

It’s not just story aspects that are being set up, but character back story. Leo’s character has a traumatized past that he hasn’t exactly dealt with, as well as legal problems keeping him out of the country. These tantalizing morals are dangled in front of us before becoming vital later on. All of this works as a summer blockbusters too, because of the amazing visuals and the intense Mubai chase scene.

Once the crew is together and all the ground rules set, we head into the real story. Now things get complicated. The idea of the subconscious being taught to defend itself's is slightly gimmicky but it makes sense. Like I said, this is a thriller too. And though the characters all ready have a time restraint to work under, actually having them being perused makes the tension that much more palatable.

And soon we go further down the rabbit hole, experiencing dreams within dreams. It really is a brilliant juggling act. Somehow, despite being completely involving the entire time, the film never lets us forget about the layers, how something else is always going on at the same time in a different place. Moreover, it does this visually but having what’s happening on one layer affect what happens on the other. (The zero gravity scenes in the hotel are one of the highlights of the film.) By the time we go racing into the climax, the film perfectly ties its subplots and emotional charges in with the story at the end, satisfyingly wrapping things up on both a plot and an emotional level. If all of this wasn’t complicated enough, the movie even throws extra wrenches at you, like the Mr. Charles gambit or the fate of Ken Watanbe’s character. Amazingly, it never slips. The whole thing is kept together the entire time.

I don’t know if it’s Nolan himself or his choice in second-unit directors, but the action scenes here are some of the best of his career. Gone are the shaky-cam of the Batman films, replaced with an concentrated, confident focus. The visuals and imagination on display is incredible and shows that Nolan is both a great writer and visual dreamer.

This is an ensemble piece through and through and the cast is appropriately solid. DiCaprio continues to play his tortured loner bit but the film packs that thread with actual emotional, making it work. Joseph Gordon-Levitt really shines here. All the bad ass action theatrics are given to his character and he performs them admirably. I’ve heard some people complain that Ellen Page is distracting but I don’t see it. Maybe it’s just because I’m a huge fan of the actress, but she comes off as whimsical but wise. Because the story is so focused, her character doesn’t get the investment she might merit but it’s still a good performance. I get the impression that Tom Hardy’s part was originally written for Heath Ledger (They even look similar.) but he also does well, being the trickster of the film and often providing some much needed comic relief. Cillian Murphy is mostly puzzled, amazed, or embittered but he ends up saying a lot with only a look or gesture. The best performance goes to Marion Cotillard. I’ve never seen her this pissed off in a movie before. She is a purely emotional character, a physical embodiment of rage, guilt, and loss. The character is ferocious and the performance is fantastic.

Despite being such a brain-scratcher and a crowd-pleaser, the movie doesn’t compromise. I was really afraid they were going to screw up at the end with some “It was all a dream” twist. It doesn’t do that but instead ends on an ambiguous note. Yes, this is a summer blockbuster that actually asks its audience to interpret something. Amazing, right? It is amazing. “Inception” is a high-light for everyone involved. [Grade: A]

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Director Report Card: Chirstopher Nolan (2008)

6. The Dark Knight

Three years after its release, I think we can finally separate “The Dark Knight” from the hype. It’s a movie about Batman and a sequel to a well-received film, so it was all ready going to make WB a gazillion dollars. Heath Ledger was an up-and-coming actor when he took the role of the Joker but his death before the film’s release transformed him into an icon, like Bruce and Brandon Lee before him. The film went on to be embraced by critics, beloved by fans, won an Academy Award, and become one of the highest grossing films of all time. I stepped into the theater having all ready being told by hundreds of people this was a great movie.

I hated it. I knew I was going to hate it. I don’t consider myself a contrarian. I’ve enjoyed plenty of popular films. The months of hype and praise and WB’s manipulative viral marketing blitz told me I was destined to love the film and that just made me skeptical. I knew going in I was probably going to hate it after reading so much about it. But I wasn’t passing final judgment until I saw the film. The film I saw was frustrating and annoying. There’s a new Nolan Batman movie coming out in a couple of weeks though and I decided that I need to give “The Dark Knight” a second chance. Two million movie goers can’t be wrong, right?

I still hated it. Where do I even start? The first twenty minutes are solid. The Joker is given a dynamic entrance that peaks your attention. Batman and Commissioner Gordon are kicking some mob ass. Batman actually uses his skills as the World’s Greatest Detective. The fight scene with the Scarecrow provides continuity to the first film as well as being a solid fight scene in its own right. There’s some humor with Bruce’s interaction with Alfred and the relationship between Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent. I wasn’t real crazy about the copycat Batmen concept but it was still early. On this second viewing, I even found the scene where Heath Ledger’s Joker confronts the mob bosses, really that character’s proper introduction, to be pretty effective.

And then some stuff started to happen. Batman goes to China. Why? To get that one guy and bring him back to Gotham. Okay, sure, but did that need to be a huge globe-trotting adventure? Couldn’t this have been one scene in a back aisle? Liu, the character in question, doesn’t appear again until the film is almost over. His total screen time measures in around five minutes.

This is the first sign that Nolan’s love of complicated, non-linear storylines have transformed into a bunch of narrative wheel-spinning. Further example: The copy-cat Batman plot line leads to one further scene. Joker’s threat that someone will die until Batman reveals himself seems like it will lead to juicy scenes of Joker reaping random chaos. Instead, he kills two characters that help out the mob and that plotline is promptly forgotten until it’s needed again. Admittedly, the death of the Judge and the first Commissioner being intercut is a pretty effective scene.

The Joker targets Harvey Dent and the Mayor. He reveals this plan in a particularly convoluted way, which I guess makes sense seeing as how he is a super villain and all. The movie spending that much time on it is just burning runtime. The scenes of Batman reconstructing bullet fragments in a grossly overcomplicated way in order to figure out a minor plot detail I can no longer remember is just plain unnecessary.

In the comics, Batman frequently makes complicated plans that might seem morally objective at first but work out okay in the end. The film employs this during its first major action sequence, which I’ll remind you is over an hour into the film. Nolan’s hand-to-hand fight scenes throughout the film slip into the similar theatrics of Batman blocking a punch and then making his own blow. He handles the car chases much better. The underground tunnel chase and the flipping semi-truck are cool. It’s also the first time Batman is a badass in the movie. Instead of failing to predict his enemies’ schemes, beating up defenseless goons, or just catching someone in mid-fall, he actually does something proactive. Even then, the central crux of the gambit involves him pretending to be knocked out. It’s more then an hour in before Batman does something badass. In a Batman movie. Am I the only one who sees something wrong with this?

All of this is before the film’s big second act turn, when things really fall apart. Nolan indulges his Dead Wife Fetish. (She’s not actually anybody’s wife, but a fiancĂ©e and a love interest is close enough to count.) Rachel Dawes wasn’t that much of a character to begin with but any development she received was time wasted. She exists to die and inspire angst and other emotions in the more important male characters. The heroes are soundly defeated by the villain. They compromise their morals to get stuff done. That’s fine, fascinating even. What isn’t fine is that the film shows this action through needlessly convoluted plot machinations and talking. Lots and lots of talking. “The Dark Knight” is fifty-five percent monologue.

The movie builds up lots of tension with scenes of Batman dragging people out of buildings and the entire bomb on the ferries stand-off. Hans Zimmer’s score pounds away, letting everyone know they should be getting excited by this. Batman has his final confrontation with the Joker and… It comes down to him getting outmatch by three dogs, the second time that’s happen in the film, and getting whacked in the head with a lead pipe. Instead of any sort of resolution between those two characters, the audience is literally left hanging. “You and I are destined to do this forever!” Except you’re not because you fucking died in real life. Out of all the directors in the world, I wouldn’t have expected Nolan to write for the sequel.

And don’t even get me started on how the ferry subplot resolves. The day isn’t saved by Batman but by a random guy on a boat. After all that build up and talk about bombs, there’s no boom at all. The film throws out resolving plotlines in a satisfactory way in favor of more philosophical lecturing. None of this mentions the numerous plot holes lying around.

I wish the narrative issues were my only problem with the film. Batman sucks in this. With the exception of the one scene I mentioned above, he is outwitted at every turn, failing every time. Batman’s entire shtick in the comics is the fact that he’s ready for anything. I can’t accept an incompetent Batman. All of this ignores Christian Bale’s awful three-packs-a-day smoker’s voice, the goofy new costume, or that the inherent coolness of the Batcave is traded out for a plain white parking garage.

Heath Ledger maybe gives a good performance. But he isn’t my Joker. This Joker doesn’t tell any jokes. He laughs about murdering people and making chaos but is never actually amusing. That makes sense but it isn’t very interesting. He has no Joker venom, no caulk white skin, no killer joy-buzzers, acid flowers, razor playing cards, mallets, or anything else you actually associate with the character. This is like Batman without the ears on his mask, bat-a-rangs, a Batcave, or a Batmobile. (Oh yeah, the film doesn’t have two of those things either.) It might be an interesting character, but it’s not the Joker. This ignores the fact that all he really does is make huge speeches that lazily spell out the film’s themes. Or that he claims several times to not have a plan despite obviously having a very specific plan. I think Nolan read “The Killing Joke” and some parts and stopped there. Ledger’s constant lip licking is distracting.

Alfred is reduced to a wisdom-dispensing siege. Lucious Fox does whatever Wayne tells him to do, despite bitching about most of it. Commissioner Gordon’s family life, the character’s entire emotional core, is pushed to the sidelines until the film needs a damsel-and-some-kids in distress for its last act. Barbara Gordon, the future Batgirl and a hugely important character to the Batman mythos, is given one minor mention in the dialogue and stays completely off-screen.

Harvey Dent isn’t the actual character from the comics. His friendship with Bruce doesn’t exist. Two-Face is transformed into a vigilante, not a crime boss. His split personality, inner darkness, and his obsession with duality are ejected. His obsession with his coin, with imposing strict moral rules on a universe he sees as chaotic, which would have made a perfect juxtaposition with the Joker; are downplayed, barely featured at all. Two-Face is given the most inglorious death to a super villain imaginable. Changing aspect from the source material when adapting to the screen is fine. Removing the things that made the character memorable in the first place is not.

And what exactly is the movie’s point? Vigilantism is bad, except when it isn’t? Sometimes you have to sacrifice personal freedom in order to catch the bad guys and save the day? But, wait, people are inherently good and, despite telling us that chaos reigns for two hours, we find out it actually doesn’t at the very end. Maybe people need a hero they can believe in some times, even if isn’t true? And that hero somehow isn’t Batman? Except it is? What the hell does any of this have to do with comic book superhero blockbuster filmmaking?

Disorganized thoughts: Nolan’s direction is fine, I suppose, even if he has a sudden obsession with Michael Bay round-a-round shots. Hans Zimmer’s score is a bland collection of pounding noise. The performances are beholden totally to the script. Bale’s intensity is restrained and Maggie Gyllenhall is underused. Gary Oldman does okay. There are times when I really think Aaron Eckhart would have made a better Bruce Wayne. He’s got a killer cleft in his chin, if nothing else. The film also makes the crime of putting Black Dynamite in the movie and not doing anything with him. The subplot about the Wayne Enterprises employee who figures out who Batman is just adds more stuffing to the story and, again, has no real payoff. The blue visual tone is sort of pretty. The movie deflates all of the awesome sequel hooks introduced in the first movie.

Say what you will about David Goyer. (Really, go ahead.) Without him adding a proper comic book sensibility to the script, the Nolan brothers indulge their worst tendencies. Feel free to call me a nit-picking comic book nerd but I swear I wanted to like this movie. I really did. Far too serious, “The Dark Knight” isn’t the Batman movie we need, but the one the majority of the public apparently believes we deserve. [Grade: C]

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2006)

5. The Prestige

When I first saw “The Prestige,” I liked it but it didn’t blow me away. I was a little disappointed. Re-watching it now, I realize why. The film really is quite extraordinary. Once again, I’m impressed with Christopher Nolan’s ability to write and structure a screenplay. While the film is impressive in that regard, it’s not the warmest film. There’s not a huge in for the audience on an emotional level. Like something of a magic trick, on second viewing, I am impressed by the spectacle and slight-of-hand. But is there much more to it then that?

There are a lot of intentional parallels in the film. In as few words as possible, the story revolves around the rivalry between stage magicians near the end of the 1800s. We follow both men, Christian Bale as Borden and Hugh Jackman as Angier, each fighting against each other. There’s a fractured timeline here. In a framing device, Borden reads Angier’s journal, flashing back to the previous years. Within the flashback, Angier reads Borden’s journal, further elaborating on events. Borden seems to live a double life, one where he’s a compassionate husband and father, and another where he’s obsessed with his work and having an affair with his assistant. There are two love interests. Both perform different versions of the same trick before updating both of their tricks again. Both characters meet up with Nikola Tesla.

There are other types of parallels. The real-life rivalry between Tesla and Thomas Edison appears in the background of the story, which mirrors the rivalry between Borden and Angier. Angier, like Edison, is a flashy showman and less of a magician. Borden, like Tesla, is the superior in skills but lacks the ability to sell it to an audience. Early in the film, a character talks about how a magic trick has three acts, a set-up, a turn, and a final reveal… Kind of like a movie script, maybe? Nolan fancies himself a magician with this film, playing by his own rules. It’s a film designed for a second viewing. The first time you’re just watching the trick, waiting for the reveal. Watching it again, you know the answer to the mystery and now you get to see the wheels turning. This reoccurring theme of doubles and twins is just one aspect of an intricate story.

The plot really does drawl you in. The non-linear structure works fantastically. The character reads a journal, revealing an amount of information to themselves and the audience. That is until, they reach the conclusion of the writing. The film hides the correct information from the audience, holding off on showing it until the right moment. Any gimmickry you could level at Nolan’s narrative trickery is designed to grab your attention and, more importantly, to keep you watching.

It’s not a totally heartless story, even if I’d say Nolan is more interested in his plot mechanism then the characters. Borden and Angier start out as friends, playful with one another. A friendly rivalry soon goes bitter and the two are compelled to destroy one another. You like both men, even if one is pretty clearly established as the villain by story’s end. Both are flawed people and their insecurities and imperfections make them relatable.

Quite a cast is assembled here. Christian Bale is well known for the constant intensity he brings to seemingly every role, an intensity that sometimes boils over in to real life. You see lots of that in here too, especially in the latter half of the film. It’s his softer moments that are more interesting. When he’s interacting with his wife or daughter or when he’s marveling at the art of magic. It shows Borden as a human being who can do more then just bluster and scowl. As good as Bale is, Jackman is the high-light performances. Like Bale, he starts out with his standard persona, that is someone with a flashy charm. There’s no denying that Jackman is a born showman. (Why else do you think they let him host the Oscars?) As the film progresses, he takes on some of Bale’s morbid intensity. The character definitely sells some of his soul in his quest to out-do his rival. It’s one of the strongest narrative turns in the film.

The supporting cast is equally strong. Michael Caine is good if not spectacular. He mostly does the same old thing. By this point in his career, Caine could play the wise old sage part in his sleep. It’s when his more rakish personality shines through that he’s at his best. As a huge fan, it’s great to see Bowie but I would have like to have seen more of him. Nikola Tesla is an iconic personality in history and I think the filmmaker realized that casting an equally iconic personality in the role would do a lot of the creative heavy-lifting. As Tesla’s assistant, Andy Serkis is having fun in a rare live-action role for him. He’s the film’s primary comic relief. Scarlet Johansson looks awfully nice in the Victorian lingerie but it’s not much of a performance. She’s supposed to be in love with Bale but never really conveys that level of emotion.

You could make the case that the film is something of a love story. A man’s devotion to his wife partially forms the basis of the story. But there’s absolutely zero investment in this part of the film. Nolan’s women characters are always his weakest and this film is no exception. Aside from Johansson’s thin performance, there’s the issue with Bale’s wife. She’s a woman ravaged by the manipulations of her husband and the other men around her. Too frequently, her pleas don’t come off as sad, desperate cries for help, but rather as petty annoyances. There’s a reason for this, we discover, but a character you don’t’ like or can’t relate too doesn’t help things, especially when that character’s fate is an important element to the story. And there’s the dead wife again, two for the price of one. What’s up with that?

The film is more visual then most of Nolan’s work. The entire Colorado sequence is a stand-out. He’s proven before he has a strength for snow and fog. The shot of the town’s lights going out over Jackman’s shoulder is a wonderful act of visual slight-of-hand. Overall, the field of light bulbs is a hugely memorable images. Tesla’s gets an appropriately epic entrance into the film.

The sudden sci-fi element is a neat surprise, even if it presents a plot hole. You’re telling me Tesla accidentally discovered the secret of teleportation? Accidentally? I guess it’s not impossible but you’d think that sort of discovery isn’t the kind of thing you just stumble on, especially when you thought you were just making a flashy light machine. Of course, it does lead to the fantastically grim final act. That last image is powerful enough to make up for the plot hole.

And about that final reveal… It’s pretty ridiculous to assume and I don’t really think it was the filmmaker’s intention. But the way the camera lingers on that last image of Angier in the tank… Is that a bubble I saw? Is it possible that death isn’t even enough to bring this rivalry to an end? I’m not suggesting some sort of far-fetched sequel hook. Rather, I think Nolan was deliberately creating this kind of speculation, just because its fun and makes sense for the characters.

My initial opinion on “The Prestige” still kind of stands. My appreciation for story structure is obviously stronger these days then when I first saw it. I definitely enjoyed it more this time. There’s some character resonance here even if it takes some looking. I like the movie, don’t love it, but I respect the craft put in it. There’s a charming twinkle to it that’s somewhat missing from many of Nolan’s other films. You can tell the guy has a legit love of magic, or at least tricking his audience. [Grade: B+]

Friday, July 6, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2005)

4. Batman Begins

Batman is one of those iconic characters, universally recognized and beloved, that will never go away. Nothing can kill Batman. Not Darkseid, not Joel Schumacher. After that filmmaker buried the franchise for a few years, it was inevitable that Warners Brothers would resurrected it, mostly because there’s too much money to be made but also because people can’t resist telling stories about these characters. And because WB has no fucking clue what to do with their superhero properties, they handed this vast universe over to Christopher Nolan.

The movie sets about reintroducing Batman, at least in live action form anyway, to a new generation. It does this mostly by retrofitting the character for Nolan’s gritty, realistic style. Previous Batman movies had almost been more focused on the villains but “Batman Begins” does a novel thing. It focuses on Bruce Wayne as a character. His psychology, the inner rage that drives him to become a superhero, and his guilt over letting his parents die forms the film’s emotional backbone. We watch Bruce’s journey from his childhood home in Gotham to a Chinese prison, where he ends up being trained in the art of Batman-ing by a secret cabal of ninjas. Fully trained, he returns to Gotham, slowly perfecting his skills and abilities as the nighttime defender of the city. Naturally, his quest to stop the local mob bosses puts him in conflict with a globe-spanning conspiracy.

With a captivating main character, Nolan is allowed to build an intricate plot. The film naturally introduces a number of elements and interesting story angles before bringing them all together in the last act. It’s not exactly revolutionary nor hard to figure out that the primary threat introduced in act one will show up again in act three, but when most superhero movies focus on special effects, it is nice to find one with such solid plotting. Because this is a Nolan film, there’s even a little non-linear storytelling floating around, some lengthy flashbacks to the past.

This is a two and a half hour long movie, which is pretty long. The entire first hour of the film is devoted to retelling Batman’s origin. The hour flies by briskly and the writing makes it easy not to notice, even if there’s not much action and you find yourself wondering how much longer it’s going to be before he puts the Bat-suit on. When Wayne finally gets back to Gotham, it’s at almost exactly the first hour mark. The second half of the movie, set in the brownish urban decay of Gotham, when contrasted against the white mountainous Chinese setting of the first half, almost feels like a different movie. You could probably chop the first half off, thrown in a quick, expositionary montage, and not loose anything. There’s a lot of quiet humor here too, little one-liners or funny aside. It helps deflate any pretensions or self-seriousness that might have brought the movie down.

Especially since the second half of the flick kicks so much ass. It would be easy to say that Nolan’s heart is more in the mystery plotting then in the action movie theatrics, and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. Some of the action scenes, such as Batman’s climatic fight with a Ra’s al Ghul or a horde of ninjas, are too choppily edited. However, there are some amazing set-pieces in this film. The shipment container fight, which doubles as Batman’s big coming-out moment, is as good an introduction as the character has ever gotten. When he descends out of the shadows and takes down a large group of thugs, the film really finds its groove. When Batman pulls Tom Wilkenson out of a car and growls “I’m Batman!” that’s when I’m thinking, “Fuck yeah!”

There are other strong moments. Batman’s first confrontation with Scarecrow in a cramped, abandoned apartment is pretty badass. The film makes it believable that someone that skinny and frail could get an advantage over the Dark Knight. The run through Arkham, which involves grenades blowing through walls, is nicely kinetic. All of this leads up to the Tumbler chase. I wasn’t really sold on the idea of a Bat-Tank at first, but the movie shows off how well that can work. Especially when you’ve got it rolling over cars and flipping police cruisers. After that, the action in the final lap feels a bit underwhelming but by that point the movie has you. All of this is pretty impressive for what’s essentially a character study with some action trappings around the edge.

The cast helps a lot and provides the film with the emotional footing Nolan isn’t always great at. Upon first viewing, I remember being blown away by Christan Bale’s performance. That was before his constant intensity had grown a little tiresome. All that aside, he’s still probably the best Batman we’ve had. He definitely brings an amount of layers to the part and, unlike some other actors, actually seems to consider the part a dramatic challenge. I’m not a big fan of Asshole Bruce Wayne though, the public persona the character puts on. Especially since it just ends up reminding me way too much of Patrick Bateman. The gravelly Batman voice probably could have been better but it’s easy to ignore, unlike in the sequel where it became a serious issue.

The supporting cast makes up for any, mostly minor, issues I might have with the leading man. Michael Caine is a great Alfred, as wise and supportive as the character should be, but with a twinkle and humor in his eye. Gary Oldman, who plays over-the-top so well, masterfully underplays it as Commissioner Gordon. He really seems to be a normal guy somewhat confused by the fantastical events unfolding around him. Cillian Murphy betrays his pretty boy good looks by being legitimately sinister. I’m not a big fan of this movie’s version of Scarecrow, at least on a visual level. A dude with a bag over his head isn’t very intimidating. But Murphy does make it work. You can see a level of calculation behind those big blue eyes. Morgan Freeman doesn’t expand much pass his typical shtick but his Luscious Fox is a source of warm humor. Also, as a fan, it’s nice to see Rutgar Hauer show up in such a big movie. His gravelly meanness is put to good use. Liam Neeson is as solid as ever.

The only performer in the movie that doesn’t really work is Katie Holms, go figure. She never sounds realistic when voicing Nolan’s dialogue, which is frequently a mouthful. (Honestly, if the cast wasn’t so capable, I think you’d hear more complaints about the sometimes awkward dialogue.) The romantic subplot is easily the weakest aspect of the movie and never really pays off. That final scene between Holms and Bale is especially dragging. Apparently being Batman isn’t good enough for this bitch.

There are some qualms I can take with the movie. The nightmare sequences, brought on by the Scarecrow’s fear toxin, never really work. They mostly just throw some trippy camera angles and spotty CGI around and call it a day. Nolan would, surprisingly, not make a very good horror director. Gliding CGI Batman also comes off as a little silly, and far too noticeable. The score is pretty bland and lacks the strong main theme any superhero should have. It’s not bad over all though, adds some intensity, serves its purpose, but is mostly forgettable. The repeated theme of fear is mostly just talk too. This is a character study, first and foremost, and an action flick secondly. Any complaints don’t really distract from the whole.

The ending is perfect. The scene of Gordon and Batman on a rooftop by the Bat-Signal seems to set up a universe full of mythic potential. And when Gordon hands him that evidence bag with a Joker card in it, that gets me so friggin’ pumped for the sequel. It makes me imagine an awesome sequel where Batman kicks a lot of ass, saves a bunch of people, and fights awesome villains that, while being realistic, don’t loose the comic core that make them interesting. I hope that quiet humor sticks around and the movie doesn’t loose sight of being entertaining to a bunch of heavy, pretentious themes. I also hope they don’t cast some pretty boy asshole as a humorless Joker. It’s a shame this was a stand alone movie.

“Batman Begins’ isn’t the best Batman movie that could be made but it’s probably the best we’ll ever get. If nothing else, it shows that Christopher Nolan can keep the aspects that make him an interesting filmmaker even while working within a giant summer blockbuster. [Grade: A-]  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2002)

3. Insomnia

First off, let’s begin by saying I’ve never seen the original Norwegian film that this is a remake of. I intend to, since it sounds awesome, but, as it is now, there won’t be any comparison between the two. That will have to wait for later.

Secondly, the detective genre is, at the risk of sounding obvious, overplayed. In between the million of detective novels, forensic shows, and countless films, we’ve probably seen just about every variation on the police detective formula that you could possibly think of. Especially in the aftermath of “Silence of the Lambs” and “Seven,” the gritty “detective chases murderer” genre is really overplayed. So, when working in such an obviously well-known genre, it’s less about reinventing the wheel then it is spinning around the parts within the machine. While the story of a guilty, dirty cop developing a relationship with the killer he’s pursuing is hardly fresh, “Insomnia” succeeds never the less. It’s the strength of the performances and Nolan’s inventive direction that elevates the material.

One of the things I find really interesting in the movie is that all three of its central stars are, perhaps, as overplayed as the genre they find themselves in. Al Pacino rarely actually acts anymore, frequently giving wildly uneven performances while coasting on his legend in unmitigated schlock. You never know anymore if you’re getting “one of the greatest actors of his generation” Pacino, or “I sure love money!” Pacino. Well, I’ll say this, he actually gives a pretty good performance here. He manages to convey someone who’s consciousness is being slowly eroded away, by the inability to sleep, by a lifetime of guilt, by the tricky case he’s on. It’s ultimately the morally grey ground he branches into that really makes him interesting. He throws himself into the part and makes Dormer a captivating protagonist.

Robin Williams has two modes: Totally out of control manic, crowd pleasing lunatic or melodramatic occasional Oscar winner. He’s shown plenty of legitimate talent over the years but, by now, he’s just as tiresome as Al. This movie came out in 2002 and felt a little bit like the middle chapter of a trilogy for Williams, between guilty pleasure “Death to Smoochy” and the predictable but still captivating “One Hour Photo.” All the movies came out in the same year and in each he played a grossly unsympathetic character. This might be one of his best turns because, amazingly, he’s nether mugging for the crowd’s admiration or the Academy’s. He’s just playing the part to the best of his ability and, surprise, he’s ability is actually pretty extensive. Walter Finch proves to be a fascinating character, not a psychopath but deranged none the less.

I’ve never warmed up to Hilary Swank and, I say this with honestly, this is the first performance of her’s where I just didn’t want to punch her in her big stupid horse teeth the whole time. It’s an organic performance of an intelligent character which you actually like. Of further not, this is a strong female character in a Nolan film that is neither evil or dead by the end. So there’s that.

What truly shoots “Insomnia” over the top is the atmospheric visuals. Wither it be the thick billowing fog, the beautiful nature photography of the glaciers and Alaskan wilderness, or the way constant day is made as unsettling as deep night, a unique, visually arresting picture is created. The short moments when Dormer either hallucinates or almost passes out could’ve been troublesome, overly showy or interruptive. These “shock” moments are ingrained organically. They designed to put the audience even further into the protagonist’s head.

My only real complaint with “Insomnia” is, after an exciting 110 minute movie, the shoot-out climax, though well-done, is a little disappointing. You feel like the talented people involved could’ve thought of a more interesting way to wrap things up but instead fell back on conventional Hollywood theatrics. Though it mostly wins back any lost points with the natural, down-beat ending.

It might not redefine the often-told tale, but “Insomnia” is a worthy effort anyway. If nothing else, it’s an important film for Nolan as a director. This was his stepping stone film from smaller indie efforts to the big studio pictures that would truly launch him to the forefront of the film world. [Grade: B+]

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2000)

2. Memento

When “Memento” first started to hit the festival circuit, it caught a lot of people’s attention. “That movie that plays backwards.” From a marketing perspective, it was a smart decision, a guarantee that anybody who saw the movie would remember it. (Ironically.) It’s no surprise that the film ended up being Nolan’s calling card, making him a hot new director to watch out for. However, “Memento” isn’t just a movie with a gimmick. It’s a legitimately good film. 

A polarizing one though. Critics tended to react to the film, generally, in two ways. The first group, Roger Ebert among them, dismissed the movie as gimmicky. That it’s unusual narrative device was nothing but a way to catch people’s attention. The second group, where I include myself, realize what’s so interesting and exciting about the film and its primary mechanism.

“Memento” is the story of a man with no memory. Leonard Shelby can’t remember what happened ten minutes ago. By presenting the story in reverse chronological order, Christopher Nolan puts the audience in the same position as the character. We, too, are completely unaware of the immediately preceding events. Nolan is sometimes, and not always without good reason, considered a very cold director, someone more interested in writing tricky narratives then warm, lovable characters. By telling this story in the way that he did, it was actually the best thing he could do for Leonard Shelby. The viewer immediately understands his condition and relates with him. It makes a captivating film even more so.

The film certainly does show off the director’s strength for constructing complicated screenplays. If I had to say Nolan has one strength over anything else, it’s his mastery of screenplay construction. Honestly, the dude is a better writer then a director, I think. Because “Memento” has to be one of the best constructed screenplays ever written. Writing a normal screenplay and making sure everything flows and makes sense is super hard. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to write a script like this. You can presume he wrote it in chronological order first and then shifted it around. That was probably followed by another rewrite where he went through and made the time-shift really work, adding all the irony and dramatic reversals that makes the film such a rewarding rewatching experience. And probably another draft or two to make sure it all made sense. That would be my guess anyway. Maybe it came into his head fully formed. The point is it would have been really easy to screw up “Memento.” In an alternate timeline, the film is completely incomprehensive. It’s still not an easy film to follow. Your full attention is required, you have to be paying close attention. That’s not a bad thing, of course, it’s just not a film you can put on in the background. As a whole, it all makes sense.

Except when it doesn’t, of course. There are a couple of story flubs here that, generally, you just have to overlook. The amount of time Leonard’s short-term memory lasts varies in accordance to the story’s whims. Some times he only gets a minute, some times he gets as much as twenty. The film actually has two time lines running concurrently. The main narrative is in reverse. The second, in black and white, are in forward, and mostly gives up the Sammy Jankis back story. In the black and white narrative, Leonard is on the phone for an hour and never seems to loose track of what he’s doing. It’s the most dubious leap in the film and the only one that truly distracts. (Of course, on first view, you’re so busy keeping track of the story that you hardly notice it.) Moreover, there are just the logical truths you have to suspend. Someone like Leonard Shelby would never be able to function in real life. How can he drive? How does he ever get anywhere? How can someone who has to be reminded to shave every day manage to get anything done, much less complicated crime capers? This is a movie so naturally the boring real life waiting gets cut out. In a story where time is so important however, loosing those moments does cause some confusion. You can overlook those things without too much difficulty, assuming you aren’t a total ‘sperg like me. You could also possibly accuse the film of spinning its wheels, throwing in subplots just to complicate things and waste time until the killer final reveal. You could but it would be a dick move.

The topsy-turvy script construction isn’t the only Nolan trademark that shows up here. Let’s take a second to examine the director’s use of female characters. Wives, or the major love interest, are always dead, or will be soon. Every other woman is a duplicitous femme fatale, only looking to lie and manipulate the male protagonist, foolish enough to fall for their feminine wiles. You saw that in “Following” and it appears here as well. Make of this what you will but it’s undeniably a reoccurring quirk in the guy’s work. Maybe Chris just watched too many film noirs as a teenager.

The movie is an astonishingly effective thriller. The story structure leads to that important uncertainty as well. While a second viewing builds so much on blocks laid down by the first watch, you do loose that suspense. Other emotions are brought up fantastically. There’s a surprising amount of humor here, just little funny moments. Like Leonard kicking open the motel room door of some random guy or the classic “I’m chasing this guy… No, he’s chasing me” moment. Anger comes up when you realize just how perfectly Leonard, a guy you’ve come to like, is being manipulated by the people in his life. In particular, a scene involving Carrie Anne-Moss raises as much bile in the viewer as it does in the protagonist. Finally, the Sammy subplot manages to be absolutely heart-breaking. Which sets you up for the film’s ending. Or maybe it’s the beginning.

What makes the film a favorite of flaky lart majors and college drop-outs is just how you can interpret it from a philosophical angle. Opinions will vary, obviously. I tend see the movie as being about personal identity on a major angle. To be wholly truthful, we can never be really sure that anything exists outside our own mind. Even if only what we feel or the sensations we personally encounter are true, that leaves our entire existence on an ambiguous level. If we can never be sure that anything we do is real, why bother doing anything? This is a struggle we all deal with on an every day basis. To go less esoteric, none of us can be sure what the future holds, which is an ambiguity of a different, but similar, sort. What allows us to look past all this doubt and uncertainty are our personal motivations. And when we are uncertain of so much, how can we have any real faith in our goals, instincts, or personal philosophies? “Memento” encapsulates all of these complex dilemmas into one story.

The cast is uniformly strong, packed full of strong character actors doing their thing. Guy Pierce, despite the temptation to think of him as a typically handsome leading man, really does have the chops of a subtler actor. This was a hard part to play, for sure, and Pierce manages to suggest multiple layers with only his facial expressions or a simple line reading. Joey Pantelino hardly expands pass his typical role, but it is a good performance from him. Especially when you realize that, what might seem like an important moment for us, is just him saying something to a guy who won’t remember anything. Carrie Anne-Moss manages to make you buy her manipulations just as convincingly as the characters do. The nervous, quivering, minimalist score is used sparingly but does ramp up the tension when it shows up. And I applaud the use of Bowie’s “Something in the Air,” one of the artist’s most haunting songs, over the end credits. Lyrically, it stands apart from the film but on a tonal level it functions perfectly.

“Memento” has quickly become a classic and essential film-nerd viewing. Say what you will about the rest of Nolan’s career, and I will, but he certainly hit this one out of the park. How many films have a more perfect last line? “Where was I?” [Grade: A]

Monday, July 2, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (1998)

Christopher Nolan is one of the those director who came out of nowhere with one indie kind-of-hit, one huge indie hit, and then somewhere along the way became one of the biggest directors in the world. I think some of his movies are, you know, pretty good.

1. Following

It’s sort of inspiring to see that Christopher Nolan, one of the biggest filmmakers in the world right now, started off his career with a barely-feature length film shot on weekends, over the course of the year, on a budget of pocket money. No professional crew or equipment, amateur actors, and all of it for around 6000 dollars. Considering these limitations, “Following” is actually a pretty decent, if minor, flick.

The movie caters in the same sort of themes and technique that would continue to fascinate the director: Deception, trickery, perception, and nonlinear story structure. There’s a twisting narrative here that keeps building. What the movie is about keeps shifting. At first, it appears to be a story about an unemployed, bored young man who likes to “follow” people for fun. Basically, stalk a random person for a few minutes every day. Despite the first rule he sets up for himself being “don’t follow the same person twice,” the young man finds himself fascinated with a mysterious guy in a suit. Soon, the man confronts him. The followed is a petty thief who calls himself “Cobb,” a name Nolan would use again. Cobb likes to break into people’s house more to invaded their privacy and mess with their stuff then to steal things. The Young Man is quickly drawn into his game. The Young Man gets romantically involved with one of the woman who’s apartment he burgled. Everyone is hiding secrets and looking to double-cross or screw over someone else.

There are three time lines going at the same time here. The Young Man, our protagonist has no other name, is telling his story to an older man. In the second timeline, the Young Man has ratty long hair and is just getting to know Cobb. In the third timeline, the main character has cut his hair short, is wearing nice suits, and deeply involved with the Blonde. The movie cuts back and forth between the three places in its narrative. Sometimes this is done mostly to disorient the viewers. Sometimes a seemingly senseless scene, such as one of the main character coughing up a pair of latex gloves, will flash by quickly. Other times it provides a nice bit of dramatic irony. In one scene, the Blonde is complaining about loosing an earring, while the Young Man wonders if it was just misplaced. The next scene shows Cobb and the Young Man hiding the earring right where he was sitting in the previous moment. I would have liked to have seen the nonlinear device used like that more often.

The performances are pretty good, considering all the actors are non-professional. Alex Haw is definitely the stand-out performance. As is usually the case with films of this style, the corrupter figure is almost always the most interesting character in the movie. It makes sense. In order for his corruption of the main character to be believable, he should appear just as charismatic to the audience as he does to the protagonist. Jeremy Theobald isn’t just an audience cipher, though he starts out that way. He slowly reveals depths to the audience. As will often be the case with Nolan’s films, the romantic subplot proves the least convincing aspect of the movie. Lucy Russell gives an okay performance, even if her affection for our main character never seems genuine.

Which proves to be foreshadowing. “Following,” like Nolan’s future films, takes place in a world of constant betrayal where trust is a fool’s errand. Being a neo-noir, that makes sense, of course. But the descent into double-crossing is honestly a little disappointing. The themes of voyeurism and casually invading people’s lives are the most interesting aspects of the film. Sadly, most of this is abandoned near the end. This becomes a typical story of someone being elaborately manipulating by someone, unknowingly jumping through hoops of betrayals and double-crosses. The eventual pay-off might be worth it, even if the movie becomes less interesting because of it.

“Following’ ends up being most impressive because of its indie roots. Nolan’s strength for plot mechanisms are all ready apparent. The film’s black and white photograph is unpolished but appropriately gritty. The performances are strong enough for the material. It’s not a great film by any means but worth seeking out never the less. [Grade: B]