Tag: christopher nolan

Movie Review: Interstellar

There is a sense of awe and wonder that comes over a lot of people when they behold images from deep space. Astronomers and physicists have long theorized about what awaits us in the void: new habitable worlds, wormholes, distortions of time, and so on. When filmmakers turn their eyes to this material, to what the future might actually hold, their visions take the form of films like 2001:A Space Odyssey and Moon, exploring not only science, but human nature and evolution. Now, Christopher Nolan has taken an exploratory flight into this rich and textured material with Interstellar.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Environmental damage has lead mankind to the point that food is becoming scarce and the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is depleting at an alarming rate. In survival mode, most humans have turned inward, eschewing science and engineering for farming. One obstinate man, test-pilot-turned-farmer Cooper, struggles to both make a living for his family and teach his daughter, Murphy, the truth. A phenomenon in Murphy’s room points Cooper in the direction of a hidden silo, where the remains of NASA have undertaken a daring, last-ditch effort to save humanity by relocating it to another world. The task of finding that world falls to Cooper and NASA’s scientists, but the means of getting to our potential new home will mean that he may not return until Murphy is much older… if she’s alive at all.

Christopher Nolan, as a filmmaker, has a proven record for the correct means to frame and present a shot. The depictions of cosmic phenomena in Interstellar are clear, intriguing, and at times, breathtaking. Nolan has also proven that his films ply towards fidelity for the real and the scientifically possible. One of the hallmarks of his Dark Knight trilogy, for better or for worse, places the world, villains, and gadgetry of Batman squarely in the realm of the feasible. Interstellar‘s physics and science, while at least partially theoretical, are presented with as much fact and fidelity as possible. Between these two aspects, Interstellar has elements that could have lead it to be this generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Courtesy Warner Bros.
Believe it or not, folks, space has three dimensions! Maybe more!

However, Christopher Nolan struggles with one of the most vital aspects of effective filmmaking: the human factor. The moments of awe-inspiring visuals, impressive and breathtaking all on their own, are often interrupted with a scientific explanation or an oppressive orchestral sting from Hans Zimmer’s bombastic, grandiose score. A great deal of this film’s significant run-time is occupied with in-depth scientific explanations of this or that portion of the goings-on, and while the film never makes the mistake of talking down to its audience, it does seem to have trouble properly conveying human emotion in the same way it does theoretical extra-dimensional concepts. This is a stumbling block Nolan has run into before, and he’s still not quite at a level of showing humans being human as, say Steven Speilberg, who was originally slated to direct Interstellar.

Thankfully, Nolan has the good sense to line up a well-rounded cast of excellent actors. It’s unfortunate that he has to make them work so hard to squeeze the right amount of emotional complexity out of his surface-level script, but these are masters of their craft. Matthew McConaughey, who has been enjoying a bit of a revival in his career, is completely comfortable and incredibly adept at conveying everyman pathos that makes scenes with his daughter deeply effective and puts his point of view squarely in line with that of the audience. Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain do the bulk of the non-main-character heavy lifting, every bit as effective and engaging as Matthew, bridging the gap between Nolan’s clinical, distant perspective on the human experience, and the realities of our everyday lives. It’s hard work, and the strain shows in places, but gets the job done.

Courtesy Warner Bros
When you’re not sure how to do the human thing, get the most human actors you can. This is one of them.

That is actually an apt description for the experience of Interstellar as a whole. In terms of a hard sci-fi epic that pushes the boundaries of our notions of what is possible in space exploration, it gets the job done. It’s very well constructed, and definitely takes the audience on a worthwhile journey, but the experience could have been tightened, the moments of wonder more awe-inspiring. There is a moment in Inception where the film stops explaining itself, and lets its story and drama unfold without further comment or pretense. That moment never comes in Interstellar. Its “twists” being either predictable or superfluous and its science suffering from nigh-constant in-universe fact-checking undercut what would have otherwise been a very effective storytelling experience. Interstellar could have been a breathtaking epic of proportions not seen since the days of Kubrick, and clearly had that ambition. The fact that it falls short of that mark just means that its flaws are all the more glaring, at least to someone like myself. It’s quite good, and worth seeing on the big screen, but I sadly doubt it has the kind of staying power we’ve seen with some of Nolan’s other work. What Interstellar does, it does well, but it could have done more.

Shadow of the Bat

Courtesy Warner Bros

The Dark Knight trilogy is over. Nolan’s Batverse is closed, and its story concluded. In the end, what was it all about? What, in the end, was the ultimate point of stripping out the more superfluous and ridiculous elements of Batman, from blatantly supernatural enemies like Clayface to the presence of easy-to-access Bat Anti-Whatever’s-Trying-To-Eat-Bruce-Wayne’s-Face Spray?

Going by The Dark Knight Rises alone, you might be tempted to conclude “Not very much.”

But unlike some movie series who tack a couple movies on after their first one was a success (*cough*THE MATRIX*cough*), I think Nolan had a plan from the beginning with these films. I believe there is a theme that permeates all three stories, in addition to their individual themes of fear, chaos, and pain (in chronological order). By removing the more comic book oriented portions of this comic book story, Christopher Nolan focused more on the characters of this world, and the city they inhabit, showing us what it takes to be these extraordinary people and what sacrifices they must make to preserve their ideals, their homes, and their loved ones.

Ultimately, the Dark Knight trilogy is about perseverance. It’s about never giving up.

Hell, there’s an exchange that happens multiple times in Batman Begins that underscores this very sentiment:

Bruce: Still haven’t given up on me?
Alfred: Never.

The events of Batman Begins shifts Bruce’s focus from personal vengeance to protecting the city his beloved parents built and tried to defend in their own way. But this is only a course correction; he doesn’t really give up or change his mind. He still has the determination to do what he must to become what his city needs, instead of using that determination to fulfill the desires of his own rage. We’re shown this aspect of Bruce rather than being told about it, and it’s why so much time is spent on his training and travels in comparison to his gadgets and gizmos. It’s why Batman Begins works as well as it does.

The Dark Knight raises the stakes by adding another figure who is just as determined, every measure as fanatical, and more than willing to cross lines that keep Batman from becoming a dark reflection of the crimes he fights. What Heath Ledger did with the Joker was put Batman up against a funhouse mirror, a distortion of his will and never-say-die attitude. Throughout the running time of The Dark Knight, Batman and the Joker play a psychological game of Chicken, each daring the other to divert from their course to cause them to fail. The Joker wants to see Batman destroy himself; Batman wants to see the Joker sabotage his own plans. This makes it not only a tense, involving story from start to finish, but the best movie in the trilogy by far.

What, then, do we do with The Dark Knight Rises, if the stakes were already raised so high?

Here’s where Christopher Nolan posits a keen question, one that might have been missed, if we take this overarching theme to its logical conclusion.

“What happens when Batman does give up?”

When The Dark Knight Rises begins, Batman’s been retired for years. Gotham City is being controlled by the draconian measures of the Dent Act, and it seems like Bruce’s type of justice is no longer necessary. He’s let himself decay, felt his resolve erode, and he’s even begun to lose faith in the people he so vehemently defended against the menaces of Scarecrow, Ra’s al Ghul, Joker, and Two-Face. He lets his guard down. He thinks peace can last.

And that’s when Bane slips into the City to tear it down from within.

Bane is the indicator that Bruce giving up was a mistake. He throws Bruce’s lack of vigilance in his face. If he had stayed out there, if he had been prepared, Bane might never have gotten into Gotham in the first place. Instead, Bane sets his plans in motion with only minimal resistance, obliterating every obstacle in his path and nearly killing Commissioner Gordon. And when Batman does confront him, Bane breaks him. Bruce’s body matches his spirit, and he is left a wreck festering in the bottom of a pit wondering why he’s still alive.

This is why the second half of Dark Knight Rises is not, as some might posit, a re-tread of the first. When Bruce dons his cowl for the first time in the film, it’s reluctantly. He steps out of retirement because nobody else can do it, and he doesn’t even want to himself. Even Alfred knows Bruce’s heart has gone out of the fight. When he’s broken and left to rot, he must reach inside of himself and find that ember of rage that sparked the fire inside of him, that part of himself that he tried to bury when he gave up being Batman. He has to find his determination again, and when he does, he rises. It’s the whole point of the film, and of the entire trilogy.

Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.

Nolan’s always been a cerebral filmmaker, espousing the notion of mind over matter. I believe that his Batman films are no different. Behind the trappings of comic book heroism and colorful villainy, Nolan is telling a story of the power of the determination, of never giving up, never saying die. He shows us where that power comes from, how it behaves when taken to its extremes, and what happens when we lose sight of it. It makes the story complete, coherent, and meaningful. The Dark Knight Rises has its share of problems, but in the end, it stands well on its own, and as part of Nolan’s trilogy on the Batman, rounds out the tale of one man’s determination to make a difference.

While Joss Whedon may have the chops to pull off this kind of storytelling without taking three movies to do it, I think it’s safe to say that most if not all other superhero films coming up in the next few years will be standing in the shadow of the bat.

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

My feelings on Christopher Nolan are well documented. I’ve gone in depth as to why the writer & director has earned my trust. Even his arguably weakest film to date, The Prestige, is interesting to me and overall a good film, even if it’s not quite up to the level of Inception or The Dark Knight. And as he closes his trilogy on Batman, Bruce Wayne, Gotham City, and the nature of heroism in the face of cynicism and despair, the question must be asked: is Nolan still worthy of my trust, and that of film-goers around the world?

Pretty much, yeah. The Dark Knight Rises is good. But before I talk about all the things it is, let me begin by telling you what it is not.

Courtesy Warner Bros

The Dark Knight Rises is not an immediate sequel to The Dark Knight. Eight years have passed, in fact, since the Joker’s reign of terror and the death of Harvey Dent. Batman’s act of taking the blame for Two-Face’s rampage has given the police unprecedented power, brutally cracking down on organized crime, throwing even the lowest mob peons into Blackgate Prison without bail or parole, and taking a massive psychological toll on Commissioner Gordon. Bruce Wayne, either the victim of an accident or beginning to succumb to the beatings he has dished out and taken as Batman, has become both reclusive and eccentric. He hasn’t completely lost his chops, though, as he catches a lithe and coy cat burglar making off with his mother’s pearls. And bearing down on the city is Bane, a mercenary with a peculiar speech pattern, utterly brutal methods, and a connection to the League of Shadows, the very organization bent on absolute justice that gave birth to Batman, who then destroyed it, or so he thought. We are told very little about the missing years, and shown even less, but the pieces are indeed in place for a massive endgame for Gotham City, and for Bruce himself.

The Dark Knight Rises is not without plot holes in general. In fact, the structure of the story seems a bit sloppy overall. I don’t mean that facts are missing and the audience is unable to put the pieces together. The story does work and has compelling, touching, and powerful moments. It’s simply assembled in an extremely odd way. The pace feels off at times, characters are explained to us rather than demonstrative in their actions, and as much as I can appreciate dichotomy in storytelling for emphasis and dramatic effect, there were times when the juxtaposition felt mishandled. No character exemplifies these problems more than Bane.

Courtesy Warner Bros
“You are in a lot of trouble, young man. To the principal’s office, let’s go.”

I don’t have a problem with Tom Hardy. I think he (and every other actor involved) did an excellent job. Nor do I have a problem with this iteration of the cerebral powerhouse that breaks the Batman (spoiler alert). I think that removing magical chemicals that make him a big slab of meat is a good move. The problem is that too much emphasis is placed on his ideology and personality and not enough is invested in making him truly intimidating. His malevolence, while keenly felt, is not motivated realistically. He is a monolithic sort of evil, Darth Vader without any of the pathos, and the film suffers for this. It’s not enough to cripple the film, not by a long shot, but it does cause things to limp here and there. The film is most certainly not perfect and, at times, not even all that smooth.

But it also is not a failure. The Dark Knight Rises does succeed in every single way it needs to succeed. It wraps up dangling plot threads from the other two movies. It allows long-standing characters like Commissioner Gordon and Alfred to have truly powerful moments, and also highlights the talents of newcomers John Blake and Selena Kyle. While we’re on the subject, Anne Hathaway was a perfect choice to play Selena. She completely inhabits the cat-like nature of the character, from a fickle streak to a truly independent spirit to loyalty and affection that are given on her own terms. It’s a shame we’ll only see her in this one film! Batman gets new toys, and while he isn’t seen as much as Batman in this film as in The Dark Knight, his presence is felt, just as much as Bane’s is.

Courtesy Warner Bros
The fact that she looks as good as she does is definitely the icing, rather than the cake.

I don’t think The Dark Knight Rises is the best film of Christopher Nolan’s career so far. It certainly isn’t the best one of his Batman trilogy. What it is, however, is very good, quite enjoyable, and an excellent way to bring the trilogy to an end. As much as the disjointed nature of the first act and some unnecessary repetition of themes and motivations don’t help the pacing problems of the story, the connections to the stronger films and the gaining momentum towards the climax of not just this film, but the Dark Knight story overall, carries us through to a satisfying end. I think the three films, as a whole, will stand up for years to come, even if this final entry into the trilogy limps or muffles a line here and there.

Stuff I Liked: John Blake is a great addition to the cast. The systematic way in which Wayne is both broken down and driven into his initial confrontation with Bane. Alfred staying true to his convictions, Lucius Fox cracking wise, and Gordon never giving up. The Pittsburgh location & elements. And do you suppose Nolan called up Aaron Eckhart and got permission to keep using his face?
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Don’t tell me what motivates our heroes, our villains, and the people caught in between, show me. The Batvoice. A couple of Bane’s lines were very difficult to follow completely; even if you can discern the gist, you miss out on a detail or two. The pace of the first hour or so feels very much off. There are undeniable plot holes.
Stuff I Loved: Cillian Murphy’s cameo. Wayne Manor and the new Batcave. Hans Zimmer’s score. Great shot construction and action sequences. The Bat. The dichotomy of Bane’s erudite voice and polite mannerisms with his brutal hand-to-hand skills and intimidating form. The last fifteen minutes. Everything – absolutely everything – about Anne Hathaway’s Selena Kyle.

Bottom Line: This is not Nolan’s best work. But Nolan’s work is always of such quality, such vision, and such passion that it’s hard not to appreciate it as simply good film-making even when it’s not blowing your mind. Because of the technical genius at work, the overall power of the performers, the spectacle of this tale’s climax, and the ways in which this trilogy is drawn to a close, I unreservedly recommend you go and see The Dark Knight Rises.

In Nolan We Trust

Courtesy Warner Bros

I’m very heartened by a few of the things I’ve been seeing in the form of trailers. The Hunger Games looks like it’s being faithful to its excellent source material, Men In Black 3 is promising a return to some of the original deadpan and quirky humor that made the first film so much fun (we’ll see if it delivers), and of course The Hobbit. Singing Dwarves. ‘Nuff said, Peter Jackson, shut up and take my money.

In the midst of all this, The Dark Knight Rises. As much as the trailer featured a smoldering Anne Hathaway, eerie chanting, a glimpse of Gotham during peacetime and the goddamn Batwing, most geeks just want to talk about Bane. Specifically, his voice.

Word round the nerdy campfire is that he was particularly muffled during the seven minute prologue sequence some audiences saw in IMAX theatres before Mission Impossible 4. And while his line to Batman in the trailer is clear – if you’re paying attention – people want director Christopher Nolan to fix Bane’s voice in post. The Hollywood Reporter, however, tells us Nolan will do no such thing.

This is hardly surprising to me. Chris Nolan gave us Memento and Inception. I won’t go into too much detail about Nolan’s earlier work as I’m saving that for the last ICFN of 2011, and my original review of Inception is still available. And remember that cage match I had between Inception and Ocean’s Eleven? Good times. But I’m wandering off-topic. My point is, even in work like The Prestige, Nolan as a writer & director does not make decisions lightly. Let’s consider, for a moment, why he’d choose Bane and go so far as to make these apparent design choices.

Remember how in The Dark Knight, the Joker rarely attempts to deal with Batman in a direct physical confrontation? He uses assault rifles and rocket launchers, goons and attack dogs, head games and innocent people. He never really seems interested in outright killing Batman, opting instead to try and dismantle the man’s faith and motivations. Physicality was about the last thing on anybody’s mind other than the notion that Batman would paste the Joker about seven different ways if it weren’t for his one rule.

Bane, on the other hand, is an extremely physical character. Rather than being divorced from his mind and his will, his body is an extension of it. He’s entirely single-minded and very driven, much like Batman. The substances pumped into him, via head-tubes in the comics and his mask in this upcoming film, allow his body to match the speed and power of his mind. Batman will always be limited by what his body can do and how much punishment it can take. Bane exceeds those limits, and he can and will push Batman past them.

Enter Christopher Nolan. What do you do after you pit Batman against an entirely cerebral opponent? You up the stakes, of course, by making his next foe not only cunning and ruthless but also a powerhouse. You don’t want to tip your hand too soon, though. You have to maintain the mystery. You can’t let the ending of your saga be a foregone conclusion. Maybe Bane will kill Batman. Maybe he’s not the same Bane from the comics for a very specific reason, one that ties into your first Batman film and one of the aspects of a fascinating character born out of the animated series. How do you keep people from taking too many guesses?

Remember, theatricality and deception can be powerful tools.

In addition to encouraging audience members to keep up with you rather than simply pandering to them, conveying Bane’s voice in a realistically muffled way adds a layer of obfuscation to Nolan’s work. It not only makes the character more mysterious and menacing, it gives the public at large and the cynical critics of the Internet in particular something to consider, gripe about and worry over. It distracts them from bigger questions. It waters their enthusiasm. It keeps them off-balance.

I’m not saying Nolan specifically made this choice on purpose to mess with people on the Internet, but at this point, I can’t put it past him. He’s enjoyed so much success so far and done it in such a cerebral way that people can’t help themselves. They’ll go to great lengths to seek out, analyze and ultimately downplay even the tiniest aspects of his work. Nobody can be this brilliant, you see. Nobody can outsmart the Internet. Nobody’s allowed to be this successful without creating a bomb. Remember that bit in the original Spider-Man where Osborn tells Peter that people love seeing a hero fall almost as much as they like seeing them succeed? Nolan’s a hero to many. To set him up for a fall this way can be cathartic. It would mean that everybody is fallible, and if he falls, other film-makers can rise to take his place, even from the relative obscurity of the Internet.

I say let Bane be a bit muffled, a little hard to understand. Make the audience work to fully understand every aspect of the work in front of them. It made Memento and Inception such brilliant works, after all, why not apply the same mentality to a comic book movie? Likewise, if you know the Internet’s going to be going through your work, even a two-minute trailer, with a fine-toothed comb looking for nits to pick, why not give them a cause for concern? Let them blow up over something relatively insignificant rather than ruminate on plot and motivational points. Because, let’s face it, even if Bane ends up losing a word or two to idiots in the cinemas who are too busy stuffing their faces with overpriced popcorn to pay attention, when they inevitably buy the Blu-ray combo pack they’ll just turn the subtitles on. Problem solved.

Looking back over what I just wrote, I might be coming off as a Nolan fanboy and my argument may be dismissed on those grounds. So be it. Such dismissals don’t address what I’m trying to say, which is that Bane is going to be an effective villain, an excellent counterpoint to the Joker, and I for one am really looking forward to discerning every word that comes out of that mask. Incidentally, you notice how the tubes are arranged in such a way to resemble skeletal hands prying his mouth open? I dig that.

Let me hear your thoughts on this. I’m curious. Do you still think Nolan is worthy of our trust? Is he pulling a fast one on the Internet so he can blow them out of the water in 2012?

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