Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Christopher Nolan”

Interstellar

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 9th November 2014

Last summer, I picked Interstellar as one of five movies to get excited about in 2014. I wasn’t being particularly prescient – the clues are in the director (Christopher Nolan), the lead actors (recent Oscar winners but also frequent genre-busters Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway – come on, she sang live in Les Miserables!) and support provided by the likes of Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, Zero Dark Thirty). Even my growing Michael Caine fatigue (he’s one of Nolan’s regulars) couldn’t ruin the anticipation.

Furthermore, following last year’s magnificent Gravity, surely no self-respecting director would ever again dare put out mediocre sci-fi. The webosphere has long been heralding Interstellar for its “accurate science” and its commitment to Kubrick-quality filmmaking. So there was much to get excited about.

Happily, thanks to a sophisticated and involved story co-written by Nolan himself and his brother Jonathan (who wrote the Dark Knight films and The Prestige) we are carried along effortlessly in an epic tale that pits McConaughey against that age-old problem of saving the world. Or rather, finding somewhere for mankind to move to once we’ve messed up our planet beyond repair.

It’s the end of the world as the environmentalists know it, and in this undisclosed future time period we are in desperate need of food. Stricken by dust storms which have ruined crops and are slowly destroying human respiration, McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed father of two who used to pilot but is now a farmer. When events offer him the chance to reach for the stars once more, that old utilitarian chestnut of family versus humanity rears its head. It’s no spoiler to say Cooper joins a team of scientists to tackle the space-time continuum and go where no man has returned from before, in search of a future home.

With a running time of just under three hours, Interstellar must do a lot to live up to its hype – even in the stunning presentation provided by an Imax cinema (if you have one near you, it’s imperative you go), that’s a big ask for even the keenest viewer. Well, if you like your music loud and your picture vast and immersive, it’ll be worth every minute. Even a drive through a cornfield is exhilarating, and that’s just in the first thirty minutes, during which time the setting and set-up evokes an M. Night Shyamalan-like conceit.

Then, as soon as they’re Saturn-bound, the oohs and aahs are provoked by massive seascapes and imagined worlds that are at once harsh and beautiful. Space looks as magnificent as it did in Gravity, and the soundtrack (a curiously old-fashioned beast created by a fabulous cacophony of organ music) takes us back to Kubrick and other old masters, particularly when the photography evokes peaceful balletic moments in between the scenes of urgency and danger.

For those concerned with credibility, rest assured the science sounds sensible and yet is also accessible – apparently ground was broken during the making of the film in terms of how wormholes might be rendered visually, and the result is simply stunning. Jonathan Nolan studied relativity as he wrote the script, and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne acted as consultant on the film. So this is serious stuff.

Clearly dedicated to producing a smart, philosophical blockbuster, Nolan mixes themes of loneliness, family loyalty and self-sacrifice with poetry and classical music. He even attempts to convince us that “love transcends time and space”, so it’s perhaps inevitable that as Cooper falls down the wormhole into a multi-dimensional world, some viewers’ capacity for narrative convenience and pseudo-spirituality may be tested.

But overall, Interstellar is as mind-blowing and affecting as we had hoped, and the running time is a walk in the park. Once again, Nolan has taken a huge idea and run with it. It’s certainly worth the chase.

Transcendence

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 4th May 2014

Cinemagoers who stick around through a movie’s closing credits should recognise the name Wally Pfister and may be forgiven for experiencing a surge of excitement on hearing he is the force behind Transcendence. Indeed, Pfister is best-known as Christopher Nolan’s Director of Photography, and his talent for picturing great stories on screen is a big part of why the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Memento are such terrific films.  

Transcendence marks Pfister’s first step out from behind the camera and into the director’s chair, but unfortunately, despite the film’s starry cast (with a host of Nolan regulars and the return of a post-Lone Ranger Johnny Depp) and a fairly Nolanesque story line, this film won’t leave you blown away so much as underwhelmed.  

Set in the near future in a post-Internet world where electricity and communications are all but kaput (making this a horror movie for some), the story slips back five years to show us how this dystopic reality came to pass. Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a stereotypically vague-yet-brilliant expert in neural engineering and artificial intelligence. On the brink of delivering the product of decades of brainy work, his cause is attacked by activists. It falls to his loving and almost-as-brainy wife (a fairly bland Rebecca Hall) and earnest scientist mate (Paul Bettany) to pursue their technological intentions before a greater danger befalls humanity. Enter Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy (both Dark Knighters) and the story, although it lacks excitement in its execution, starts as nonetheless intriguing.  

Unfortunately, 15 years watching a master at work have not quite transferred to Pfister Nolan’s panache or ability to exhilarate. Transcendence is surprisingly not much to look at, and the soundtrack is so muted it feels like the musical budget was slashed after they’d only recorded two sections of the orchestra. Depp doesn’t help matters with his limp, slightly drunk acting, and when things get a little crazy (and more than a little inexplicable) in the third act, the denouement lands with a dull thud.  

It’s all terribly disappointing, because the initially engaging and curious premise is played out seriously and without haste, that in itself kudos to a novice director who might otherwise have chosen jump-cuts and CGI for his debut. But ultimately Transcendence cannot reach the promise of its component parts nor transcend the limits of its banality.

Man of Steel

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 30th June 2013

If you were hoping for a fresh, new take on the Superman origin story, or even if you never knew the original tale, audiences should be more than happy to spend a couple of hours getting to know this new Clark Kent from scratch.

From the opening scenes it’s all-action – the planet Krypton is going into meltdown, and scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) must protect his newborn son from the evil machinations of fellow Kryptonite, General Zod (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon). The baby safely despatched through space to a foreign land, treachery and murder ensue. The tale then transposes to Earth, where a handsome itinerant worker is failing to make friends or leave a lasting impression, other than by his ability to single-handedly save a bunch of men from a burning oil rig, and then disappear.

As befits an origin story, the film flashes back and forth in time as the young Clark battles sensory overload and powers he doesn’t understand, while restraining himself against bullies. His unconditionally loving parents (an admirably plain Diane Lane and reliable Kevin Costner) support him, though dad recommends early on that the special kid keeps his tricks to himself. This backstory sits nicely against the action unfolding in the present day, as the older Kent is challenged, at age 33, with stepping up as either an enemy or saviour of Earth.

Twinkly blue eyes, dimpled chin and crooked Englishman teeth, with this role The Tudors’ Henry Cavill has shot, straight-armed and at high-speed, into the big time of blockbuster comic movies. Supported by a fine cast that mixes Oscar nominees with commercial dead-certs, Cavill plays the small-town lad with extraterrestrial powers as someone we believe in and even care about.

Unlike Thor and Iron Man, there are very few laughs, and the grainy, bleak aesthetic of director Zack Snyder’s palate espouses the sincerity which all the actors employ in delivering fairly standard “planet in peril” dialogue. Remarkably, given Snyder’s history on the considerably flashier Sucker Punch and Watchmen, he manages to convey gripping drama – albeit interspersed with long and loud fight scenes. No doubt co-writer and co-producer Christopher Nolan (with his solid comic credentials in the latest Batman franchise, and his élan in Inception) can be thanked for this.

That said, it’s not po-faced or humourless – and even though the suit is faintly ridiculous (with no explanation posited as to why a man who can hold up a toppling building even needs one), Cavill plays so earnest and well-meaning throughout that we accept his costume without a sneer. Similarly, his burgeoning love affair with a gutsy Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is touching rather than clichéd.

There are some clever touches – the alien enemy knows humans are umbilically attached to their TVs and smartphones, and the otherwise invincible race is literally deafened into submission (and thanks to Hans Zimmer’s glorious, Inception-inspired score, so are we).

Man of Steel does go on a bit long, there’s an awful lot of carnage, and some may be amused by the Jesus-like posturings of our 33-year old saviour. But if our planet is ever in peril, I know who I’m gonna call.

The Dark Knight Rises

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 22nd July 2012

This final in the trilogy of deeper, darker Batman films places a considerable weight of expectation on the shoulders of director Christopher Nolan.

It was he who brought us the gravelly voiced Christian Bale and one of the first comic book “origin” stories with the excellent Batman Begins, reinvigorating a franchise that had started joyously with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in the 1980s, but had then gone downhill in its sequels. By 2005, the world was clearly ready for a grittier side to this very self-made superhero (don’t forget, Bruce Wayne builds his muscle and relies on gadgets, borne out of anger, not scientific mishap). Three years later, it was Nolan who staged one of cinema’s greatest bank robbery scenes and garnered Heath Ledger his posthumous Oscar in The Dark Knight.

So here we are – hotly anticipated, The Dark Knight Rises’ tagline alleges “The Legend Ends” – and it’d better end good.

Nolan is a great storyteller, and the narrative gets under way quickly. Eight years after Batman was falsely accused of killing district attorney Harvey Dent and his beloved Rachel was killed, we find Wayne holed up in his mansion, a recluse still tended to by the patient butler Alfred (Michael Caine), but physically the worse for wear and clearly not over his grief. The city which once loved Batman now carries on without need of him, as prisoners are locked up under a law enacted in Dent’s name. Clearly, any intended rise for our sallow-faced billionaire is going to be steep.

It takes a bat to catch a thief, as Wayne’s interest is piqued by Anne Hathaway’s cat burglar. Hathaway is superb, not just kick-boxing in six-inch gold heels, but casting out witty lines and welling up in tears with equal skill. The black-suited duo find themselves embroiled in the evil machinations of Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist with a bone to pick against Gotham, and one of the best, most frightening baddy voices since Darth Vader. If Hardy is unrecognisable in his Hannibalesque mask, it’s as much because he has bulked up and is clearly photographed to look gigantic.

One small gripe is Nolan’s reuse of – count ’em – five core actors from Inception. While it can be charming when directors recast their favourite talent in other films (Wes Anderson makes no bones about it, yet people can’t seem to get enough of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson), so much of the tone of this film evokes Inception that seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Hardy and Caine at times distracts from what ought to be a Batman story. Similarly, the predominantly daytime shots of Gotham City make it look like any big American city, and less the comic-book land where a police commissioner might summon a superhero by shining a bat silhouette into the sky. When the roads don’t fold up into the sky, it’s almost disappointing. But not quite. In every other way the film is exhilarating, with a relentlessly exciting soundtrack and some sensational set-pieces, with fantastic police chases and impressive, explosive action.

 

While Bale is consistently good, the standout performances are Hathaway’s cat lady and Gordon-Levitt’s empathic policeman. Neither steals the show quite like Ledger did, but they bring energy and, remarkably, emotional meaning to Wayne’s life, and a superb movie-going experience to ours

Don’t dream it’s over

Thoughts on Inception

(Spoiler alert – though frankly if you haven’t seen it by now, you’re presumably not going to)

If you haven’t seen Inception yet, just go.  Trust me.  Especially if you don’t go to the cinema regularly – hire a babysitter, get decent seats, and make sure you go to the bathroom beforehand.  And stop reading now – with this film, the less you know in advance, very much the better.

SO.  I saw the trailer months and months ago and I think I even did my involuntary quick-hand-clap-of-excitement the minute it said “From Christopher Nolan”, as Hans Zimmer’s wonderful bass soundtrack pounded my brain.  Here’s another example: Anyway, there were shots of cliff-edge cities crumbling into the sea, of Parisian cityscapes folding onto themselves, of backdrops exploding in slow motion while the characters sat, unscathed and oblivious, in the foreground.  Leonardo getting serious.  Joseph doing Matrix-style moves down a corridor.  That lovely Marion Cotillard from La Vie En Rose.  Awesome and exciting.

Months, and a whole heap of hype, later – Inception is so good I’ve seen it twice.  Not that I didn’t understand it the first time – remarkably (for me), I followed the story and its many, many layers and it totally clicked.  But the second viewing enabled me to capture every nuance, appreciate every line, as well as re-enjoy some of the more satisfying performances (Tom Hardy in the bar in Mombasa boasts some of the most natural acting I’ve seen in a long time; Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s acrobatics in the hotel have me in thrall every time).

For me, Inception‘s beauty is all about the concept.  Just as A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s brilliance lay in the fact we all have to fall asleep at some stage, Inception riffs on the various elements of the dream state – something every audience member can identify with (regardless of whether they might question the science of some of the assertions).  It’s true – dreams seem real when we’re in them, and it’s only when we wake up that we realise something was in fact strange.  Sure enough – the action in our dreams feels like it last hours when in reality we’re only asleep for minutes.  The film uses the mystery of our subconscious to great effect – poignantly in the notion that our bugbears will hijack our happiness or good intentions, and ingeniously when the people populating our dream treat us suspiciously the moment we (in the dream) sense that things aren’t quite as they should be.

The very notion of being able to enter someone’s dream, share that dream with others and communicate with them within the dream in full knowledge that it’s only a dream, is frankly mind-blowing.  Further concepts of pain and death within dreams have a basis in our existing experience (that if you die in a dream, you wake up in reality – but if you’re injured in a dream, your brain feels the pain just as intensely as if it were real, since the brain reads pain on an emotional level).

One key element is of course the dream-within-a-dream motif.  The fact that this is stretched further into not just a third, but a fourth sub-dream, makes this all the more fascinating.  On first viewing, I must admit to losing interest in the 4th level towards the end – the action in the snow scenes, necessarily slowed down to allow us to watch the progress within the other three dream levels, is purely perfunctory.  As, appropriately, is the central plot – Cillian Murphy has to change his mind, for himself (not suggested by others), and thus change the course of his future.  Considering the method by which this is achieved has to be so complex, it’s entirely right that the quest is straightforward.  But the other three levels are brilliant, and I gained great pleasure from my second viewing in terms of tracking the characters’ progress in each mini adventure.

Viewers will be divided over Leonardo DiCaprio’s role and performance, but I like him.  I heard a veteran screenwriter say recently that the most important thing is that we (the audience) connect and empathise with the protagonist.   Of course, we know this to be true, and I think this was well achieved over the course of the film’s two and a half hours.  Leonardo’s Dom Cobb can’t return to the US to see his children because of a slowly-revealed criminal charge.  In itself that’s not so interesting.  But Cobb is wanted for the murder of his wife Mal (the lovely Cotillard) who threw herself to her death because she believed she was still dreaming – and as we all know, if you die in a dream, you wake up.  The fact that Cobb carries the guilt of effectively leading her to that place where she could no longer discern dreaming from reality, is compelling and horrific.  We may bear him no ill-will for it, but we still want to see him set her, and himself, free.  The love story in the film is frequently beautiful in its rendering, and Cobb’s unrealistic idealism of his marriage ultimately redeemed by his admission that he can no longer see Mal with all her faults and complexities that made her real to him – hence his ability, finally, to let her go so he can return to reality and move on with his life.

I enjoyed some of the in-jokes (doubtless there are many I did not pick up).  Marion Cotillard is best known for her Oscar-winning role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, and the “wake-up” trigger song in Inception is Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”.  It’s also nice when a director re-uses favourite cast members: Cillian Murphy (from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) and of course Michael Caine (from the same).  He used Carrie-Anne Moss in Memento just after she had shot to stardom in The Matrix, echoes of which abound in this film.

Once again, Nolan has created a film that plays with memory (as in Memento) and riffs on perception (Insomnia and The Prestige), tying in spectacular special effects (many of which were done old-school, that is to say with specially constructed moving sets, rather than as CGI) with a meaningful, universally-accessible story and some entertaining performances.  The set-pieces are breathtaking in their execution (I could watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt leaping and floating around that hotel for hours), and the concept is thought-provoking and compelling.  Even after 148 minutes I didn’t want to wake up.

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