Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Christopher Nolan Film Review

I was a fan of movies before I was ever a fan of directors, and I was a fan of Christopher Nolan before I even knew who the man was. The first Nolan film I saw was also his full-length feature film debut, Memento, which was a brand new film experience for me. At the time I was 15 or 16, still a casual film fan, and had no idea you were even allowed to structure a movie like that. Next, I watched Insomnia, because I'm a sucker for detective vs. killer crime stories. It wasn't until The Dark Knight was released that I realized Christopher Nolan had directed all of these films. Even to this day, it's a great feeling to be scrolling down someone's IMDb page and find that they've had a part in films you love. This week, I finally got around to seeing The Prestige, and I've now officially watched Nolan's filmography.

Nolan has made a name for himself over the past decade in the realm of crime and science fiction films. He's always stood out to me for his unique storytelling style. He never tries the same set-up twice (except for the Dark Knight trilogy, of course), and he isn't afraid to craft a film the way he wants it to look and feel, even if it's unpopular in the mainstream. I find his films, for the most part, to be creative, exciting, and thought-provoking. Nolan is a controversial director in the fact that for every dedicated and impressed fan he has, he also has an enraged critic. I think this split in fan-ship comes down to the fact that his films are truly dedicated to the world he is creating, to the message he's trying to send, and to the stories he's telling. If you don't understand why Memento is told backwards, or why Inception takes itself so seriously when it has such a ridiculous sounding plot, or why he would choose to adapt a Batman triology, then you probably won't like Nolan. I don't always agree with his film-making choices, but he's daring enough for me to at least give him a try. In his next project, The Man of Steel, Nolan will be in the role of producer, and I can only hope that he manages to reign in the over-ambitious and self-indulgent director Zack Snyder.

Below, I've ranked Christopher Nolan's films based on my own enjoyment, the execution and cinematography, and most importantly, the re-watchability factor. A thousand different Nolan fans would rank these movies in a thousand different orders, but here's how I'd break it down.

1. Memento, 2000: This is the obvious choice, but that isn't stopping me from ranking it as my favourite Nolan film. This was his major film debut, and among Nolan fans, is still considered to be his signature piece of work. Based on a short story titled Memento Mori, written by his brother Jonathan Nolan, Memento tells the story of a man trying to find his wife's killers, which is a very difficult task because he suffered brain damage in the attack and is unable to form new memories. That storyline alone is enough to pique my interest, but the fact that the story is told in reverse order, with the most film's 'final scene' appearing first, and the narrative working its way back to the 'beginning'. As far as challenging films go, this film takes a few close watches to fully be able to appreciate and understand the whole story, even if the film's lead, amazingly portrayed by Guy Pearce, never really figures it out. At age 15, just when I thought I had film-making figured out, Nolan came along with this masterpiece and changed my perceptions of how a story could be told on film.

2. The Dark Knight, 2008: I was never really a fan of any of the new wave of superhero films, until The Dark Knight came along. As a lifelong Batman fanboy, it was pleasantly surprising and thrilling to see that Nolan had avoided releasing a cheesy popcorn flick in favour of a more realistic and dramatic adaptation. It's pretty easy for me to say that this is a perfect film. Sure, it gets a lot of hate for it's over-the-top storylines and flaws in logic, but like I say, if you can accept Batman as a character, then you can accept pretty much anything the Gotham universe has to offer. My favourite aspect of this movie is that there isn't just one main narrative where the villain has a major plot and has to carry out a few minor schemes to pull it off. Rather, The Joker, played masterfully by Heath Ledger, has many violent plans that work towards his main goal of having Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart, fall into madness and bring Gotham down with him. While the film can be overwhelming at times, Nolan manages the action well, creating characters, even evil ones, that we are fascinated with. For any fan of Batman, crime and action movies, or just exciting movies in general, this is a must-see.

3. Inception, 2010: This film, other than maybe Memento, is Nolan's most passionately debated piece of work. Some call it genius film-making, others call it utterly contrived. I find it interesting that this is Nolan's only film where he had full credit for the writing. Inception isn't an adaption or a co-operative effort, it came completely from the mind of the film-maker himself. I feel like this film is almost too smart for it's own good and alienates a lot of film-goers who dislike the process of mentally breaking down a film and want everything to make perfect sense. I also think that a lot of the film's critics completely overlook that this is a work of science fiction. I can accept the fact that Nolan creates a world where it's possible to infiltrate another person's dreams, because at least it's creative. I recognize the criticisms that the film is too complicated, pretentious, and that the plot is corny, but Nolan's execution of the source material makes all the difference. With mind-blowing special effects, creatively stylish cinematography, and a great cast, Nolan managed to make an over-the-top unbelieveable story work within the context of the film. That all being said, South Park does a great job of satirizing Inception's absurd plot in the episode 'Insheeption'.

4. The Dark Knight Rises, 2012: Last month, I wrote an extensive review of The Dark Knight Rises, probably the longest review I've ever written. So I won't talk about it too much here for fear of repeating myself. Generally, I thought this film was a success. I liked that Nolan and company focused a lot on character interaction and development, and balanced the exposition well with breath-taking action. I loved the character design of Bane, right down to that eerie and iconic voice, and I thought that the cast was at their absolute best. It scratched every bit of my Batman fanboy itch, so I was able to forgive problems with pacing and some of the story choice. The film acted as a very satisfying finale to the Dark Knight trilogy and I'll definitely return to it in the future.

5. Insomnia, 2002: This was the second Christopher Nolan film I ever watched, and at the time, it was the perfect film for my tastes. The film is actually a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, and it's interesting to note that this is the only film in Nolan's filmography where he had no hand in the writing (the screenplay was adapted by Hillary Seitz), he was purely a director. The story is about an aging homocide detective (Al Pacino) who is called to Alaska during 24-hour daylight to help hunt a killer (Robin Williams). The title Insomnia also happens to be the 'gimmick' of the film, as the endlessly bright setting and the haunting details of the case keep the lead detective awake the whole time he's in Alaska. This is a classic cop vs killer scenario, and aside from creepy cinematography and an interesting set-up, there's not much else here. I'm not usually a fan of Al Pacino, I'm never a fan of Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams can be good in the right role. It's also interesting to note that this was William's first turn as a film's villain, and he seemed to have no problem flicking the switch from comedy to suspense thriller. Since originally seeing it about ten years ago, I've only returned to this film once. It's entertaining for what it is, but not as timelessly classic as most of Nolan's other directorial efforts.

6. The Prestige, 2006:  I just saw this movie a couple of days ago, so it's still fairly fresh in my mind. I've been a Nolan fan for a while now, and I've always been aware of The Prestige, but the fact that I rarely enjoy period pieces, especially based in the 1800s, had kept me away until now. I decided to give it a fair chance, and I was mostly impressed with the film. I was pleased by the fact that although the story is set in 1899, the setting is just that, a setting, not a major focal point of the film. The Prestige (based on the novel by Christopher Priest) is very much about the two lead characters, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, who are up-and-coming magicians turned bitter rivals after a tragic incident. I do love a good film rivalry, but I found the plot to be a little messy, and the editing was a bit jumbled and confusing. The story is told in non-linear fashion, which I have no problem with, but the way the plot progresses can be mind-boggling if you aren't paying close attention. The highlight of the film is the lead performances, and my major criticism is that the film itself seemed to suffer from an identity crisis, resulting in an somewhat awkward movie-watching experience. As entertaining as the film is, I have a hard time ranking it above Nolan's more organized and well-executed efforts.

7. Batman Begins, 2005: Don't let the low ranking of this film trick you, I really do believe that it is well-made adaptation of the Batman universe and does a great job of setting up the rest of the trilogy. However, I've only fully watched this film once and have never really had the desire to return to it, I got the point the first time around I feel like a film should never feel like a chore, and with the overly dry pacing of this film (though it does have its more exciting moments), I found my attention wandering. From my perspective, this film served more as an introduction to the films that follow than a stand-alone story. I do absolutely love Cillian Murphy's role as The Scarecrow, and it's probably the only reason I'd return to the film. If I need my fix of Nolan-style Batman action, there's better ways to get it. And to be a bit blunt for a moment: What the hell was Katie Holmes doing in this movie? Should have been Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel all along.

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