Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Nolan’

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For two decades, the films of writer-director Christopher Nolan have been steadily growing bolder in ambition, scope and dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams mental trickery. From the relatively humble beginnings of “Following” and “Memento” came the genre-defining Dark Knight Trilogy, the mind-tripping shenanigans of “The Prestige” and “Inception” and, most recently, the time-and-space traversing spectacle of “Interstellar.”

From the trajectory, one might have expected Nolan’s next feature to be a smorgasbord of bombast and celestial mystique. But instead, the auteur turned his lens toward the decidedly earth-bound and human setting of World War II and the battle of Dunkirk, the first time Nolan has tackled a historical subject — Nikola Tesla dramatizations notwithstanding.

*Disclosure: While there are many who find Nolan’s shtick tiresome, I am an unapologetic fanboy. Prestige may very well be my favorite movie, and he is one of only a few directors whose filmography I have viewed in its entirety (others including, but not limited to, Rian Johnson, Wes Anderson and David Fincher).*

Interweaving three stories — of land, sea and air — Nolan’s “Dunkirk” follows the evacuation of allied forces from France, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers effectively trapped on the wrong side of the English channel and surrounded on all sides by Nazi forces. On land, young men wait through enemy bombardment for any opportunity to sail across the channel, only to find an equally — if not more — perilous situation on ships targeted by submarine torpedo and dive-bombing attacks. They are aided by civilian ships called in to the rescue effort, and protected from above by a coterie of fighter pilots.

That’s the plot, in a nutshell, as Nolan is less interested in exposition, character and dialogue as he is in setting the scene before a tense, 100-minute exploration of survival and war. For long swathes the film is silent but for the haunting Hans Zimmer, which adds suffocating weight to moments of hopelessness and agonizing claustrophobia as men are trapped inside a series of sinking ships or blindsided by enemy gunfire.

There are a few familiar faces along the way, including Kenneth Branagh as a stoic commander, frequent Nolan collaborators Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, and boy-band alumnus Harry Styles as a rank-and-file soldier. But the movie isn’t interested in star power, relying on a largely unknown supporting cast and spreading the running time throughout its characters in lieu of a clear protagonist. The result is, paradoxically, a more personal tale of war, bolstered by breathtaking aerial photography and the minimalist action sequences that highlight Nolan’s career. He knows that death and destruction don’t require window dressing, and the film is better for it.

While comparatively a much more traditional film, the elements of Nolan’s chronological and visual trickery are still present. He uses the spinning camera work of “Inception” for the interior shots of his sinking ships. And the three main storylines move forward and backward through time — a la Memento and Prestige — to cover overlapping periods of one week, one day, and one hour. Events are shown out-of-sequence and repeated from various character viewpoints while plot is doled out only as needed.

It works incredibly well, resulting in an impactful film in which every second feels significant and climactic, while the mechanics are veiled by a screen of simplicity. There’s no 5th-dimensional beings, dream machines, dueling wizards or masked vigilantes, but “Dunkirk” dazzles all the same. It’s a neat trick, even for a magician like Nolan, resulting in what is easily one of the best films of the year.

Grade: A

*Dunkirk opens nationwide on Friday, July 21.

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Despite his status as the most iconic of comic book superheroes, Superman has always been (in my opinion) a rather boring character. He is effectively indestructible and quasi-omnipotent – possessing super strength, super speed, x-ray vision, heat-ray vision and the power of flight to boot – and has been historically prone to feats that stretch the suspension of disbelief, such as reversing time by flying backwards around the earth or relocating the moon to combat a photo-sensitive foe.

He’s also a Boy Scout (in the non-political sense of the term) standing for truth, justice and the American way. That sort of metaphorical Manifest Destiny nostalgia worked in 1938 in the wake of the great depression and on through the years of the creeping Red Threat but in today’s cynical, hyper-connected, “there are no front lines” society, the Last Son of Krypton comes across as a little, well, quaint.

Enter Man of Steel, the latest attempt by director Zach Snyder to insert Superman into modern relevance. It’s a respectable offering, considerably more so than 2006’s milquetoast Superman Returns, making Clark Kent a stranger in a strange land (in this case, Earth) rather than a spotless idol. But at 143 minutes long, Snyder’s creation is both overly-long and unsatisfyingly-empty, jumping from one dramatic moment to the next without giving the viewer a reason to care before culminating in a dull, roaring bout of skyscraper-crashing fisticuffs between two seemingly immortal beings.

The plot begins on the planet Krypton during an elaborate and visually-enchanting prologue that sees a military coup led by General Zod (a fuming Michael Shannon) in response to wasteful leadership that has brought the planet to the brink of destruction. Jor-El, Krypton’s chief scientist, retrieves an item called the Kodex and ships it and his son Kal-El off to Earth to safe his race from utter extinction.

From there we meet a grown Kal-El, now the Kansas-raised Clark Kent, drifting hunter-gatherer style before finally ending up at a NORAD dig in arctic Canada where the U.S. government and Pullitzer-prize winning journalist Lois Lane are investigating a mysterious craft buried beneath the ice. Clark and Lois share a meet cute and a dose of Kryptonian exposition follows, followed by a time-consuming sequence of Lois tracking down the mystery man with the bulging biceps.

At this point you’re halfway through the movie before Superman dons the iconic red and blue suit and the villainous Zod returns, threatening Earth’s existence if Kal-El is not surrendered to him. His plan, we learn, is to rebuild Krypton from the ashes of Earth and he needs Kal-El and the Kodex to do so.

The latter third of the movie is consumed by a series of escalating skirmishes between the alien visitors, who relentlessly attack each other despite the rather apparent knowledge that no damage can be done to them.

But damage can, and is, done to the puny human ants that attempt to intervene and the structures they’ve erected. A very New York City-esque Metropolis is all but decimated in a sequence reminiscent of The Avengers, only without that film’s sense of fun or emotional tension. When the music stops and all is finally quiet, you feel more viewer relief than celebration.

Amy Adams, at 38, is an odd choice opposite the 30-year-old Cavil. Independently, each actor brings a fresh take to their respective roles but together the chemistry falls flat. Of the supporting cast, Russel Crowe’s stoic Jor-El stands out while the remaining characters have little time to do anything beside gape in wonder.

Man of Steel is burdened by the task of rebooting a familiar origin story. Snyder makes attempts at elevating the story, including a few interesting allusions to Plato’s The Republic and the just city, but much like 2005’s Batman Begins (which was directed by MOS producer and cinema-extraordinaire Christopher Nolan) the film is burdened in back-story but shows promise of future growth now that the requisite set-up is out of the way. It could very well end up being the weaker first entry in an otherwise strong franchise but for now, fans and newcomers alike will have to settle for a modern Superman that flies, but fails to soar.

Grade: B

*Man of Steel opens nationwide on Friday, June 14.

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Christopher Nolan’s third and final installment in his Batman franchise arrived Friday, marred by tragedy and bogged down by seemingly insurmountable expectations. How do you follow the greatest superhero film ever made, one of the best action films ever made, and end one of the greatest trilogies ever made? How, in essence, do you deliver perfection when only perfection will be accepted?

The task is daunting and as the millions of you who, like myself, set aside time opening weekend to see the film already know, Nolan has, for the most part, succeeded.

That’s not to say that TDKR is a better film than TDK, or that it even should be. Empire is greater than Jedi. X2 is greater than X3. Two Towers is greater than ROTK (yes it is). Second films are, typically, the strongest of a trilogy in that they raise the stakes and set the stage for the finale. The challenge, then, with a third film is to provide a satisfying conclusion to the story and also stand alone as an exceptional film. The only comparison that need be made is between the film itself and the entire library of American cinema.

Or, in other words, TDKR is not as good as TDK, but it doesn’t have to be and is still miles and miles ahead of everything else at the cinema.

Rises’ curtain opens on a peaceful, safe Gotham. Eight years have passed since the Joker’s reign of terror and the end of organized crime, thanks to a lie engineered by the caped crusader and Gotham’s police commissioner Jim Gordan. Batman is little more than a memory and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, nursing wounds both physical and emotional in the east wing of his now-completed Wayne Manor.

But trouble is brewing. A mercenary named Bane arrives (in spectacular fashion) in Gotham with a terrorist cell-esque entourage  of religiously devoted henchman and the financial security of Wayne Enterprises is threatened after a shuttered sustainable energy project and the devious meddling of a cat burgler.

I’ll leave the synopsis at that, in part to avoid spoilers and also because you’ve all likely seen it already. Now for the analysis.

As a stand-alone film, Nolan has delivered yet another complex genre-bending film that combines originality, spectacle and emotional depth. Especially rewarding is how Nolan, while making Batman his own, still stays true to the inspiration of the source material. While the word “Catwoman” is never uttered, Selina Kyle nonetheless fulfills the role of the DC-universe frenemy, bouncing her loyalty back and forth and sparring both physically and flirtatiously with our hero.

As Bane, Tom Hardy is terrifying and (thankfully) easier to understand than the original footage made us believe. After seeing the 8-minute prologue before MI:GP last fall, it is obvious that Nolan went back in to clear up some of the dialogue from the mussled beast. Bane is an unstoppable physical force, a calculating mastermind and a ruthless killer, BUT without saying to much, his weaknesses and ultimately the motives behind his crusade hearken back to the original comics in a way that was both surprising and completely rewarding.

The action is superb, the ethos is fascinating and the sheer scope of what Nolan presents is something out of a dream (within a dream).

But it is as a finale to a larger story that Rises truly excels. Seven years after Bruce Wayne mastered his fears in Batman Begins, the theme resurfaces with an entirely new perspective on what motivates us and what role “fear” plays in our survival. A series of flashbacks both remind and inform that narrative of a man motivated first by revenge and then by the desire to become more than just a man. We are treated to old characters and old scenes that prompt both nostalgia and a sense of “oh, I didn’t realize that would be so important later.” (sidenote, keep your eyes peeled for a very small detail. When the camera shows a wide shot of the entire city, you can see where Nolan has digitally inserted the multiple-level elevated train from Batman Begins in Downtown. God is in the details and Nolan is the god of movies.)

And then it ends, in a way that is natural and predictable and yet unexpected, with Nolan hanging up his cape and walking away from the franchise he brought back from the dead.

Rises is not without its faults. The citywide battle that makes up the film’s climax does not fully deliver on the buildup and anticipation. And Bane and Batman’s final joust pales in comparison to the underground scuffle in Act II.

I preferred Gotham when it wasn’t so obviously Manhattan, as Nolan makes no attempt whatsoever at hiding the very real location where this fantasy is occurring. You would also think that a movie that is nearly 3 hours long wouldn’t leave loose ends, but I can think of a handful of questions left unanswered (One for those of you who have seen it. How exactly does a certain someone get back into a certain someplace when no one can get in or out?) and with so many new characters, I can’t help but feel that two old favorites in particular were mostly left out of the fun. Most notably, for a franchise that prides itself in the (relative) realism of its plot, I can’t help but question the city-under-siege scenario that plays out, but since the plot depends on it I’m mostly willing to let it go.

Ultimately, Rises was what I wanted it to be. Yes, I felt the absence of Heath Ledger’s joker and Bane may have been missing a certain je ne sais quoi. But I also felt myself sitting at the edge of my seat, mouth gaping open and eyes wide like a kid in a candy store. I left the theater more than 24 hours ago and I’ve had little luck since then thinking of anything else.

As a lifelong Bat-fan, I felt that my expectations were met and my passion rewarded. As a cinephile, I marveled at Nolan’s mastery. As a writer, I thought the emotional-arcs were genuine and true to the characters. As a guy that likes to watch stuff explode, Rise blew. my. freaking. mind.

Thank you Mr. Nolan. It was magical, as always. B+

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