Saturday, July 18, 2015

Review: Insomnia (2002)

Nolan hits it big and the proving grounds are another sunny, noir-ish thriller with a huge star at the helm. Luckily for all of us, he pulls it off with great skill, making a beautiful setting feel ominous, turning sunlight into an oppressive overlord, keeping most of the complex themes of the original intact. He even managed to fit in the same question from his previous films: "How good are you, actually, at doing your job?" A lesser helmsman would find some way to soften Dormir's corruption, scenes of ends justifying the means. Instead we get small glimpses of only Dormir's crime, in the form of fast cuts that keep him awake at night. His prison is one he has built for himself (again!), one that handicaps him and renders him outmatched by someone who can hide in broad daylight. Each route becomes increasingly complex and impossible to escape with a zero-sum. It will end in a stalemate, the killer will get away with it. Our main character is not the hound, he is the fox. It may even be an unpopular opinion but I think the film is better than the original. Perhaps its only edge is the ambiguity of the climax, which this version drops in favor of a clear winner. Eh, sometimes your voice cracks.

Review: Memento (2000)

My love affair with Memento extends all the way back to the year 2000, where Entertainment Weekly's review of it began with the headline "Cool So is Thriller This" and a rave review and an A+ ranking followed. I remember there was also a website,, that offered an extended glimpse into Leonard Shelby's universe through newspaper clippings and mysterious Polaroid photos. So hopefully you'll understand and forgive the slight bias. The movie is rad. I love it when style and content work together. Besides having a pretty kickass story, I don't think there is, currently, a better use of non-linear editing structure. Two different timelines run parallel, one running backward and one running forward (and sure, a third that takes place way before the movie began). At first they seem like independent moments in the main character's life, until slowly, creepily, they begin to share similarities. The approach is not only novel (as in Pulp Fiction, Following), but symbolic of Shelby's mental state. We are the main character, and what the hell were we doing two minutes ago? As the film goes on, the implications of Leonard Shelby's crusade become clearer. "How long have I been doing this? Is winning impossible?" It isn't easy to pull off the Oedipus ending, especially in a gimmicky small budget thriller, but goddamn does it ever. This makes the re-watches a markedly different experience. The first time is a roller coaster ride, every time afterwards is a depressing character study. We watch a man construct his own prison, his own hell, dutifully performing a job that he will never finish.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review: To the Wonder (2012)

Imagine you are Terrence Malick. All of your films thus far have centered around some large event (murderous spree, The Depression, Guadacanal, Pocahontas, all of fucking Creation) where you can hang all of your overindulgent shots of nature and whisper poetry into our ears. The inventor of the steadicam is screaming in the background "What hath I wrought?!" but you ignore him because it's already time for your next movie! What now?

Maybe you shrug and say "I guess I got divorced once..." and five seconds later, you deem that worthy enough a concept for a feature film. Why not try nothing at all for the framework this time around? Uh-oh, the boring two-thirds of your last movie centered around your memories, so perhaps there is enough room to add a B Story of a priest questioning his faith. Will that make the movie too high octane? Who are we, Christopher Nolan?

Where once you had your own style, you're now resigned to doing a Terrence Malick impression, because what has worked for Scorsese and Wes Anderson will work for you. You forget for the moment that "work" is the operative word because -- jesus -- living is expensive these days and ya gots to strike while the iron is hot, ya just gots ta. So you trick some investors, hire some famous people and a great DP, lock in some locations, look for beauty in the large and the small. If a story puts itself together in the hurricane, so be it. Bonus.

To the Wonder has things you may recall movies having: themes, a story, a plot... A film should have a plot, right? I mean, probably. The supporting argument is, what, Malick made this for himself? To digest some painful memories and explore the limitations of the medium? That is his right and any filmmaker's right, from the top studio director to the film school student to the kid in Kansas playing with a webcam. They just don't have a pedigree to waste. Remember that the end result of this is that the film also has to be released eventually. To, y'know, an audience. Eh, screw it, this is about Terrence. He needs to work some stuff out the only way he knows how. Who cares if that makes him a con-artist.

Watch it or, y'know, don't. The film takes way too many liberties with your time, your grace, your willingness to trust someone who hasn't hurt you before, not that much. Make no mistake, it does not mind wasting your time. It thinks nothing of you.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: The Dark Knight (2008)

Feelings require some distance in order to ignore them. I can have clearer thoughts about The Dark Knight now that I have given it the proper pause, especially now that the world has remembered that anybody can play The Joker. Anyhow, in some ways a color negative to Batman Begins, some mischievous scamp took Nolan's usual stylistic clarity and sliced them to ribbons, scattering them in a high wind caused by a hospital explosion. The film is a fucking mess. There are some incomprehensible action scenes and the usual Three Things Going On at Once shit, and now there are baffling non-conclusions to major set pieces (What happened after Joker pushed Rachel out the penthouse window and Batman jumped out after her? Did he... slaughter everyone up there? I guess he just left...). The Dark Knight undeniably aims very high and every once in awhile, it hits the bulls-eye. Unfortunately, it is so reliant on the momentum it creates that when it is gone, during the dreaded re-watch, the strings are visible and a great many of them aren't attached to anything. A whole sequence where Bruce gives up being Batman lasts minutes but seems much longer, is quickly discarded, could ultimately be cut from the film with no impact. Rachel Dawes is still here and that's a bummer given that she has no function other than to show up in dangerous situations.  A courtship of Gotham between three characters is muddled by a literal romance and eventually, a plot for revenge. Harvey Dent doesn't need justification to lose his mind if Gotham won't let him be sane. Nolan might think we're smart enough to handle all the simultaneous Stuff but too stupid to take two steps into the unraveling of a character's mind. We need a sexual crutch, do we? Harvey is fucking her -- he clearly loves her. Bruce is no longer fucking her -- he's clearly jealous. Listen: I don't think I should be rooting for the villain here... perhaps tells these other guys to fucking cool it a little. The Joker may kill people but at least he doesn't WHINE.
[This review is a rewrite.]

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: Following (1998)

Micro-noir. Three characters interact, each are lying to the other two. One lie ends up being really important, hidden behind the others. By the end, the characters suffer three fates: hell, limbo, and the one who got away with it. It's a tasty enough story but served with the bonus narrative structure cocktail, nonlinear puzzle pieces which seem impossibly complex at first but fall into place easily, as though Nolan knew how our minds with put it all together from the beginning. It's the work of a craftsman. It's so SIMPLE. A twisty, intense story can be told with small tools and very little money. Whenever this happens, the feeling of delight is its own reward, outside of the film itself. Maybe this means that the stunt outshines the material. A re-watch is a cold experience, one where you could have sworn you remembered the room being a little bigger. It's okay. This room is fine. After all, look at what this guy is doing now... making smaller rooms with bigger tools.

Review: Batman Begins (2005)

It turned out that Christopher Nolan could exist in the mainstream quite comfortably and we could all breathe a sigh of relief. He sure wasn't afraid to sink further into it. In what seems like a huge risk in hindsight, he approaches the story of Bruce Wayne in a novel fashion, using a lot of the same narrative trickery from Memento and some pretty heavy themes given that this is about a man in a costume who punches bad guys (Like Leonard Shelby, Bruce IS the plague on Thebes). The efficiency of the first half is Nolan operating at full capacity, or at least very near it, so I'm not quite sure what happened to the second half. It's possible that killing off the Rachel Dawes character in the second act could have cleared up the action (it certainly would have helped The Dark Knight immensely). And yeah, sure, the suit looks a little dumb and the Tumbler is never cool, but they have little to do with how suddenly preachy and overbearing the film's characters get. Was there no better way to dispatch the villain than via one-liner that sounds like it belongs to a different superhero? Whew, good thing that news report says no cops died in that stupid, reckless chase through the city or I might have to question how good I am at doing my job. "Is this a time to joke, Alfred, when there's a flaming log on my chest?" Should we really let Gordon drive the Tumbler? Ehhhh. Of the three Nolan Batmans, this is the strongest stylistically, the weakest in content, a film I want to like more until I remember what happens in it.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: Interstellar (2014)

As with Inception, it is with the same sort of excitement you feel sitting down with an original science-fiction film, experiencing it for the first time, immersing yourself in a strange world, uncovering its mysteries, walking through someone else's imagination. If Inception is a ray of light, Interstellar is the dark shadow it casts, when that journey is not nearly as rewarding, where the visceral excitement is replaced with a brief grace period, followed by bitter curiosity. An objective autopsy. What went wrong here? Why don't I care enough about the characters or the mission? Why these narrative decisions: a watch, a bookcase, a crowbar, narration? Turns out love is the answer? PFFFFFFFFT. Nolan's weaknesses, the blunt statements of subtext vs. the barrage of dual narratives perform here at their worst. A shame, because the film is beautiful, the robots are cool, and Hans Zimmer is in top-form and injects actual excitement into an otherwise baffling sequence involving space madness and a sped-up docking sequence (the film's good scene). This and Inside Llewyn Davis made me think that the secret geniuses of all these movies are actually the cinematographers. I hope it's a coincidence because otherwise, this whole Following Directors thing is a total crapshoot. Yeah, c'mon, Soderbergh is his own cinematographer and that doesn't keep the quality of his films consistent. People are allowed to have bad days, bad years, and bad really expensive productions dedicated to an incredibly flawed script.