Review: Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Kubrick, always Kubrick.

Why is it that whenever a new and ripe filmmaking talent comes along, some critics feel a need to make a comparison to the late, singular Stanley? Besides being a lazy comparison, it’s a dead weight around the person being praised. It gives them a shadow they’ll spend forever trying to escape (A notable recent example was Jonathan Glazer, whom more than one critic nominated as an heir to Kubrick in reviews of Under The Skin). When Memento launched his career proper (Following is a fascinating but problematic experiment), Christopher Nolan was suddenly encumbered with the Kubrick comparisons, and they’ve never totally disappeared. But they make no sense. He’s based his career to date on thrillers with a sci-fi edge. Presumably too many people are still reeling from 2001: A Space Odyssey to remember there are other sci-fi directors, or that Nolan’s yet to make a black comedy or a war film.

Now, Nolan actively invites the Kubrick comparisons with Interstellar, a film grappling with heady themes and huge effects-driven set-pieces similar to 2001, not to mention Hans Zimmer’s organ-led Strauss-baiting score. One has to praise both Nolan and his film for their gumption; they’re going after something far bigger than their contemporaries could ever manage. Mainstream films don’t generally ‘do’ ideas as grand as the effect of a black hole on the driving power of love, but Interstellar isn’t really all that mainstream. Yes, it’s from the director of the Dark Knight trilogy. Yes, it stars Mr. ‘Alright Alright Alright’, Catwoman and Jessica ‘Scannain‘s reviews editor wants to marry me’ Chastain. Despite all this, Interstellar is aiming higher. Therein, however, lies the film’s inherent risk. Comparisons between Nolan and Kubrick do neither much favour, but to compare this new space opera to Kubrick’s opus will only serve to demean the new pretender. Take it on its own terms, because Interstellar is too indebted to 2001 for it to step out of the monolith’s shadow.

It begins promisingly enough, with talking head interviews of older people recalling a crisis we have yet to experience. A global blight threatens our food supply; indeed, it has done so for years forcing much of the population in this distant future to take up farming to provide sustenance. One such farmer is engineer and former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). Like many Nolan leading men, Cooper is widowed and struggling to do right by those left behind. In this case, he’s trying to raise two children in this massive dystopian dustbowl. His son Tom (Timothée Chalemet) is destined/doomed to be a farmer, but daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) is more scientifically inclined, like her pop. This father-daughter relationship drives Interstellar; it carries across galaxies and through black holes, like a constant anchor. It’s good to have something so solid to cling to when the rest of the film demands a few leaps of faith.

The first leap of faith sees Cooper being led to a covert NASA base. Here, a search for a new planet for humanity to inhabit/destroy/do what we will is being headed up by Prof. Brand (Nolan’s good luck charm, Michael Caine). Brand and his theories on black holes are modelled on the work of astrophysicist (and Interstellar producer) Kip Thorne. His ideas of the possibility of interstellar travel are the basis for Nolan’s script, co-written with his brother Jonathan. In this case, a black hole near Saturn is a gateway to at least three planets that might host us. Thus, off go Cooper, Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and fellow scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), plus robotic assistant TARS, a source of much-needed levity voiced by Bill Irwin. From the start of the film until the eventual blastoff is when Interstellar is at its strongest, effectively establishing a world and a populace under threat, even if we’re not sure when the film’s set or why the blight is so rampant. Having fine actors like John Lithgow and David Oyelowo inhabiting even small roles does help. Meanwhile, McConaughey continues his winning streak with another committed performance, all slow-boil emotion and weariness.

It’s not long after blasting off into the second act that Interstellar begins to lose its footing. Within this black hole, there are large time loops to contend with; depending on the planet, minutes could be weeks, months or even years back on Earth. Nolan played with a similar structural gambit in Inception, but the distances and passage of time in Interstellar deny it the same immediacy. It’s hard to get pulses racing about wasting years in the space of an hour when characters are too far away from each other to feel the effects. Cooper wants to get home to his children, but his children grow up into Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain in the blink of an eye. The children themselves are battling to maintain what lives they have left, all the while not knowing whether their father is alive or not. This is Interstellar‘s failing; its plotting is far, far too ambitious. The second act attempts to dovetail the Earth and space story strands via simultaneously-occurring conflicts, but it doesn’t quite work. 2001 was relatively plotless next to its stirring imagery; Insterstellar tries too hard to explain its earlier leaps of faith. The brothers Nolan cannot make a virtue of exposition as Inception did.

In addition, Interstellar’s underlying emotionality is problematic. Cooper’s love for his family, his daughter especially, is his driving force through this intergalactic chaos. Again, Nolan has covered this story before, but he attempts to give it more air than usual. He goes so far as to introduce the concept of love as a scientific variable. At one point, Hathaway’s Dr. Brand explains her motivation for the mission as an extension of love; it’s the point at which audience goodwill may get sucked out of the airlock. It’s a noble and poetic idea, but any scientist caught saying this in reality may find themselves a laughing stock. Next to this, it’s the moments of more recognisable love and humanity that prove most compelling. The remaining Earthlings send one-way video messages to the crew. One particularly spiteful message from Chastain’s Murphy to her long-gone pop threatens the tear ducts. But next to the over-reaching theories of love in the blackness of space, it’s a wonder the film gets near that level of emotionality at all. The Cooper-Murphy story works; there’s just too much else getting in the way.

If the script threatens to derail Interstellar‘s efforts, the technical skill on show elevates it. The special effects are necessarily impressive, but their heft comes from the efforts of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her). Space is none more black, against which the stars dazzle. In one of the most stirring shots of any film this year, the spacecraft carrying our heroes passes by Saturn, a tiny twinkling diamond rapt to the ringed gas giant. The visual thrills of Interstellar demand as big a screen as possible. Mile-high tidal waves, frozen clouds and an explanation-defying climax will stretch the eyelids to bursting point. Nolan elevates theatricality to artistry, delivering money shots worth every penny. As for that climax, the time loop is closed in a baffling sequence that seeks to explain all. Is Nolan being too neat about this? Probably, but you’ll be astonished he even dared to try.

To date, the films of Christopher Nolan have been accused of lacking in emotional resonance. With Insterstellar, he tries too hard to redress the balance, taking too long and too many liberties to make his point. Interstellar gets to its intended destination, somewhere under a Saturnine ring, but was the scenic route really necessary? Caine’s Prof. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas upon blast-off, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Nolan has raged and rallied against mainstream complacency in his oeuvre, but now might be a good time for him to calm down and come back down to Earth.

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Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Director: Christopher Nolan

****

In a summer boasting the likes of Avengers Assemble and Prometheus, it’s no mean feat to be considered the most anticipated film of the year. Yet that’s exactly what The Dark Knight Rises is. Since the end of The Dark Knight, the expectation for Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy has been utterly huge. The size of the hype is matched only by the film’s scope.

The epic size and scale of TDKR is what will linger in the memory after the credits roll. Here is a film that travels halfway across the world, juggles characters old and new and yet still manages to maintain the basic themes and conflicts of the first two films. Set eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse since his pointy-eared alter ego disappeared into the night and took the rap for the crimes of Harvey Dent/Two-Face. His reclusiveness, informed by his mourning for his parents and his late love Rachel Dawes, addresses one of the problems of the last two Batman films. Nolan has been accused of favouring the head over the heart, his intellectual leanings swamping any potential emotionality. This time around, Wayne is visibly wounded and grieved. Having taken this journey with him so far, we arrive at the emotional climax that we have arguably been denied to this point. Bale gives his most intense and invested performance as Wayne third time around; this is probably the most in-depth we’ve been with Wayne, even more than in Batman Begins. As promised, Nolan returns to the themes and ideas laid in that film. He also brings the focus back squarely onto Wayne/Batman after the Joker pilfered the last film with little more than a pencil and a cackle. Mind you, there’s no lack of an arresting villain here.

Bane (Tom Hardy) is your threat for the evening. His plan is a standard ‘destroy the city’ ploy (pg.34 of the Master Criminal’s Handbook, Vol. 4), but what sets him apart is the ferocity of his plan and his physical and mental dexterity. Bane and his gang essentially hijack central Gotham and sever it from the outside world. If anything tries to get in or out, he destroys the city. Its boldness reflects that increased scale and scope Nolan’s going for. Bane is also a physical match for Batman as well as a psychological one, and he drags Batman back into his past and back to his experiences and his training years before. Between the two, on the borderline between friend and foe is cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). She’s never referred to as Catwoman, but then this isn’t Michelle Pfeiffer redux. Hathaway’s Kyle is truly feline; she’s a self-interested predator, but that doesn’t mean she can’t seduce and charm with little more than a purr. Hardy is truly intimidating, but Hathaway is the standout of this ensemble. Her vulnerable sexiness is one big furball in the face of her naysayers.

As if these two weren’t enough, we have plenty other new characters along for the ride. The main ones are honest cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a right-hand-man to Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon, and Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, the newest member of the Wayne Enterprises board. Matthew Modine’s also new in town as Deputy Commissioner Foley, and we still haven’t discussed the returning old hands, Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). There’s the nugget of The Dark Knight Rises’ main problem; there’s a lot of characters and a lot going on here and, at 164 minutes, one has to wonder how much of it is necessary. The Dark Knight Rises never drags (a complaint The Dark Knight couldn’t even overcome), but the first hour is an overload of information. The screenwriters, Nolan and his brother Jonathan, seem compelled to spell out what’s happened in that eight year gap, and it can sometimes confuse. Not that we’re not interested in the power politics of Wayne Enterprises, but information revealed early on does factor in later, so paying attention is required, even through sometimes choppy dialogue (To judge from the way he talks to Wayne, Alfred must be taking a night course in public oration). Further on, the spelling out of detail segues to weeks flashing by in seconds. Someone, pick a pace! Meanwhile, a disappointing audio mix means Hans Zimmer’s score frequently threatens the dialogue.

All that said, once the exposition has been exposed, on comes the pain, the loss and the redemption. Mainstream Hollywood has never been as dark and despondent as this. Bane brings the pain, Bruce pays the price and the Dark Knight does indeed rise. As exposition melts into introspection, any niggles will be forgotten as the final half hour rolls in to constantly deliver moments that will have your lower jaw on the ground. As all the loose ends get tied up, Nolan delivers Imax-lensed action on the grandest scale possible, infused with a genuine pathos and emotion that may well leave you weeping come the final reel. This ending, this film and this trilogy, for all its flaws, are no less than either Batman or his audience deserve. Hats off to Christopher Nolan; he sure does have a taste for the theatrical.

Review: Inception (2010)

Director: Christopher Nolan

*****

At one point during Inception, a crack team of dream invaders led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb attempt to enter a person’s dreams despite the fact that they are all in fact already inside a dream, which is itself within another dream. Are you following? If not, it helps that one team member, Ellen Page’s Ariadne, chips in with the question “Who’s mind exactly are we going into?”

One possible answer to Ariadne’s question is the mind of director Christopher Nolan. Eessentially a giant ‘thank you’ for making The Dark Knight the success that it was, Warner Brothers gave Nolan $160 million to create worlds and images that have been in his mind since he was a teenager (by the director’s own reckoning). He pitched Inception to Warners while making Insomnia in 2002, and wrote the script over the following 6-7 years. Given the complexity of the resulting script, its long gestation period is not surprising; Nolan has created not just a fascinating representation of the dream world, but a believable and realistic one too, with its own rules and regulations. It sounds like The Matrix meets Dreamscape (with more than a dash of Paprika), but Inception differentiates itself from these titles by means of combining involving storytelling with visual chutzpah. Cobb explains to Ariadne how dreams are made and how they work; she then experiments by mentally folding the Parisian cityscape over itself like origami (this shot was glimpsed in most of the trailers and TV spots).

There are so many rules in the dream state that man of them pass by on a first viewing. Second helpings reveal the true depth of the story. Cobb is wracked with demons of his own in the form of memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard, mysterious to the last) which threaten to derail the processes of dream extraction. Indeed, her mysterious death forbids Cobb from returning to the US, but when a Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers to help Cobb get back home in return for planting an idea (the ‘inception’ of the title) in the mind of rival suit Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Cobb feels he has no choice. The true theme of Inception is choice, and how the decisions we make affect our entire reality. Choosing plans, choosing routes, choosing truths in which to believe: these decisions and many more play key roles in Inception. It’s a lot deeper than Iron Man 2, during which the only choice to contemplate was “More popcorn or an ice-cream?” That said, depth can be balanced with stuff blowing up and fight scenes, and any fight scene that borrows from Fred Astaire deserves a positive appraisal.

On the CVs of everyone involved, Inception will be seen as a progression. It certainly is for editor Lee Smith; this is a cleaner-cut film than The Dark Knight, and juggling four simultaneous dream states in one go is no easy feat. With Nolan guiding him, however, Smith does it with aplomb. For this critic, this year has seen the first two films starring DiCaprio in which he didn’t look prepubescent. As evidenced in Shutter Island, Leo has grown into a hungry and immersive actor, and his performance here is excellent. No showboating, no freaking out, just coiled pain and occasional lashes of anger.There’s still a chance Leo could suffer an acne outbreak at 40, but Gilbert Grape is gone, leaving only Dom Cobb, Teddy Daniels and the like. For Ellen Page, despite being mostly expository in nature, Ariadne is the first role that actually allows her to play someone her own age, and not before time. Michael Caine and Tom Berenger do well in small roles, while Cotillard and Murphy hold the screen with their big blue/brown (delete as appropriate) eyes. Watanabe’s presence is awesome, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur and Tom Hardy’s Eames steal the show with playful banter and subtle glances. Expect rapid career progression in both cases.

Has Nolan progressed? From The Dark Knight, he has progressed out of the shadow of studio sensibility and franchise ties to create a personal, profound vision. It would be equally fair, chronologically at least, to see this as a regression to Memento, and the fractured workings of the mind therein. On the evidence of that film and this latest masterpiece, Nolan is a creature who works best unfettered and free to create his own visions. What does Chris Nolan dream of? Like Sam Lowry in Brazil, he probably dreams of flying free of the system to do what he pleases. If this is the case, we can only hope that dream comes true.

Cynical Corner: Trailer Trash

In recent days we have seen the release of trailers for two of the most anticipated films of next summer. First came the teaser for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, followed by the trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield as the eponymous web-slinger. The content and reception for these trailers (The Dark Knight Rises’ one, in particular) has caused this critic to consider the role that trailers actually play in the advertising of a film. They’re a big business, with editors and composers specializing in trailers, and releases of trailers for the biggest films are gradually becoming events in themselves. The problem is that they are not necessarily representative of a director’s vision; naturally, since they are usually cut by studio-approved editors. Thus, it can happen that a trailer can ultimately fail to represent the themes, ideas or plot of a film because of the differences between the studio mindset and the directorial vision.

We shall have to wait to see the finished product to be sure, but this difference between director and studio may have led to the lukewarm reaction to The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) teaser. Teasers arguably have an easier job than full-length trailers; all they have to do is provide a snippet of footage or dialogue from the film to whet the appetites of the movie-going public. This is borne both out of marketing sensibilities and necessity, since teasers often come out long before the film is released, and the editor may have very little footage to work with. This is certainly the sense one gets from TDKR’s teaser. The fresh footage it offers does whet the appetite, with Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) in a hospital bed, presumably after an attack by Bane (Tom Hardy). What happened to him? Why? These are the kinds of questions a teaser should provoke. To cap it all off, we get little glimpses of Bane, and a final shot of the bulked-up baddie approaching a barely-standing Batman (Christian Bale) to some very creepy chanting on the soundtrack (Apparently, the choir is saying “Matalo, matalo” (“Kill, kill” in Spanish).

On the downside, however, is the opening of the trailer, with footage and dialogue from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight alongside cheesy inter-titles (“Every hero has a journey”). As well as being patronized with that attempt at a recap, the sound mix sounds very rushed, with Gordon’s dialogue verging on incomprehensible, as he pleads for Batman to come back to save Gotham. Also, since he’s talking to Christian Bale, but not as Batman, doesn’t that presume he must know Batman is also Bruce Wayne. Think about it, and you get a potential spoiler.

The problem with trailers is that, for all the bombast they can provide, their primary function is as a sales pitch. The editors must do their best to provide an apt summary of a film in 2 1/2 minutes or less; if they can’t do that, they’ll throw in the edgiest, most interesting clips they can find. In The Amazing Spider-Man (TAS-M) trailer, we get brief clips of the great supporting cast (Martin Sheen, Rhys Ifans, Sally Field), but the focus is on the scenes people will recognize from the Spider-Man origin story; the spider bite, trying out his new powers, the suit. Apart from relying on familiarity, this trailer does also highlight the film’s potential pointlessness, as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy remain fresh in most people’s minds. Neither one trailer nor one film will cause the originals to fade into history, no matter how hard studio executives wish otherwise. As with TDKR’s trailer, TAS-M’s trailer feels a little rushed, especially in the final clip, a first-person view of Spidey launching himself through the New York skyline. That CG needs a touch-up, stat!

Compare these trailers to two other recent trailers. Firstly, the trailer for David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo made an impact with some tight editing, blistering images and a brilliant cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ by Trent Reznor and Karen O. This is a classic example of what a teaser trailer should do: establish atmosphere and attitude, but merely hint at the plot. The murder mystery at the heart of Dragon Tattoo is sidelined in establishing the film as a gritty and dark tone, in a potentially similar vein to Fincher’s own Se7en or Fight Club, with glimpses of the cast and highlighting the Girl herself, Rooney Mara, and her transformation into the pierced and inked Lisbeth Salander.  Like the film’s heroine, the Dragon Tattoo trailer is brash, uncompromising and impossible to ignore.

Similarly, the trailer for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy boasted classy visuals, with a focus on the great cast and the intrigue of the plot without going into too much detail. A traitor is in the ranks, and he must be found. That’s all we need to know. Couple that with some great shots (Benedict Cumberbatch stood absolutely still behind an opening door, the man with the pipe smoke, etc.) and tense violins (from Danny Elfman’s score to The Wolfman, trivia fans), and consider public interest piqued!

So, what can we learn from these trailers? There isn’t necessarily anything novel about their construction, but there is a difference in intent that is clear. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may not have the blockbuster ‘oomph’ of Nolan or Webb’s films, but they showcase what they do have (atmosphere, great casts, intrigue) and it’s more than enough to sell the film. On the other hand, TDKR and TAS-M make an announcement, draw attention to themselves and end up being damp squibs. They make their point, but at the cost of subtlety and distinction. Blockbuster trailers are all too similar in both content and tone, and given the anticipation surrounding these superhero sagas, it makes their lowest-common-denominator pandering all the more disappointing. Less truly is more; less clichés, less triumphalism and less posturing. Trailers should entice, not pander.