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Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan is one of the rare filmmakers in the world that can do anything he wants. He’s reached a level of critical and commercial success that he has earned the leeway to tell the stories he wants with a blank check. Apparently he’s been eager to tell the big screen story of Dunkirk, the mass evacuation of 400,000 Allied troops on a French beach in World War II, and it would be the first film of his career to not have a crime or science fiction slant. If this is what he has to turn into in order for mainstream Oscar attention then please go back to making your sci-fi puzzle boxes, Mr. Nolan, and let someone else make the underwhelming WWII epics. Don’t believe the effusive praise from critics saying this is Nolan’s masterpiece or the finest of his career. Dunkirk is Nolan’s least engaging film and maybe even the least ambitious of his otherwise storied Hollywood career.

Dunkirk is less of a cohesive movie and more a series of moments, never eclipsing the next or coalescing into a larger, more meaningful, more satisfying whole. We keep cutting from primarily three perspectives (air, sea, land) but it fails to feel more than a check-in before moving onto the next vantage point. It’s a shame because the opening ten minutes launch you immediately into this world of danger and Nolan sets up the different perspectives with effective visual clarity. I thought it was a great moment having the soldiers collect the fluttering propaganda fliers meant to remind them about how the enemy surround them. The initial burst of violence is visceral and unnerving. The burial of a soldier in the sand is a somber moment. Things were getting good, and then I kept waiting for the movie to escalate, to hit a new gear, and it never came. Instead it repeated the same plotting that just forced the bland characters from one curtailed escape to another. Screenwriting is about setups and payoffs, and that is strangely absent throughout Dunkirk. Bad things just kind of happen, and then they happen again, and then you tune out. That’s even before Nolan throws in needless non-linear elements that I was ignorant about. Dunkirk is Nolan’s first film under two hours since 2002’s Insomnia, and yet it could still stand to lose even more. After a while, your mind drifts when all you’re watching is poorly written characters, many of whom you can’t identify, jump from one crummy situation to another without a stronger storytelling drive. If you want a more personally involving retelling of the heroes of Dunkirk, just watch the film-within-a-film of the underrated 2017 gem, Their Finest.

The miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation is really lost in this film. Without a more involving story, it’s hard to get a sense about the personal sacrifices and risks of the evacuation. The scope feels mishandled. We’re told that 400,000 men were rescued but I did not get any sense of that scale. We’re stuck to a small corner of a beach, or a small section of the sky and sea, for the far majority of the film, which again traps the film at a lower register. We don’t adequately sense the monumental scale of what is at stake. The embodiment of the threat is condensed down to a single German fighter plane that Tom Hardy has to chase for half the movie. It’s like this guy is the freaking Red Baron. Another aspect that exacerbates this issue is Nolan’s haphazard command of screen geography. When the camera is inside the various ships, your sense of space is uncertain. When things go bad, it just all feels like a mess, with no clear indication of where the characters are, their proximity to others, or even the interior design of the ships. Without a coherent sense of geography, the action and suspense is going to be inherently limited. Nolan locks into a claustrophobic sensation at the expense of audience clarity, and without better-developed action and interesting characters, it’s a decision of diminishing returns.

The characters are so indistinct that most of them in the end credits didn’t even merit names (Irate Soldier, Shivering Soldier, and Furious Soldier are among the lot). This is one of the biggest mistakes of Nolan’s movie. By not providing characters that an audience can engage with he’s handicapped how much an audience can care. We don’t learn about any of the main characters we follow, with the slight exception of Mark Rylance’s even-keeled seafaring father. I challenge audience members to even remember a who’s who of the young men because I don’t think I’d be able to identify them in a lineup. I was still trying to recall which of them may have died. I haven’t had this much trouble keeping people straight in a war film since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. With Dunkirk, there are faces we follow really more than characters. The most recognizable is Tom Hardy and that’s because he’s Tom Hardy and not because of anything related to his character. Kenneth Branagh’s character just seems to be here to stare off into the distance with awe and say something about “seeing home.” It’s as if Nolan had no interest in telling a war story from a human perspective, which is a vastly strange approach considering the large-scale human cost.

Nolan is a smart filmmaker. He has to know these characters are thinly sketched ciphers at best, so the question becomes why is Nolan choosing to make Dunkirk this way. If I had to hazard a guess I think Nolan was trying to accomplish a visceral, immersive war experience to echo the hopelessness and confusion of those men in jeopardy. They’re meant to be faceless everymen. This would explain why it feels more like a series of moments, of jumping from one failed escape to another and one fraught encounter to another. Nolan does a fine job of introducing conflict (in a wartime setting this also shouldn’t be too hard) but without more distinction he runs the serious risk of everything feeling like more of the same. At the end, thousands of soldiers are ferried back to England and congratulated. One of them is incredulous, not feeling like retreating is worth the fuss. “We just survived,” he says. “Well that’s good enough,” the other says. It’s like Nolan intended to place the audience into a crucible where just getting out was enough to satisfy demands. I don’t think it is.

From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk is often breathtaking, no more so than in its mesmerizing sound design. Nolan uses brilliant sound tacticians to heighten your senses and build a sense of dread. An oncoming fighter plane tearing through the sky can raise the hair on the back of your neck. The sound does the heavy lifting when it comes to creating tension. The score by Hans Zimmer is very effective in that regard as well. Its central musical element sounds literally like a ticking clock, which instantly heightens any scene. Granted adding a ticking clock sound against anything would make it more fraught (you’ll never fill out boring paperwork the same way again). Visually, the aerial photography is gorgeous with the IMAX cameras able to take in such startling depths. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) has some beautiful visual compositions, especially as different boats capsize and the water rushes in at odd angles. This is a film that has commendable technical achievements. It’s Nolan who lets down his team.

War movies often run the risk of being overly reliant upon broad themes of heroism, nationalism, patriotism, sacrifice, and such, which can be in replacement of a strong narrative and well developed, interesting characters. War is a film genre like any other, and there are inherent genre shortcuts that can be abused. However, it’s like any other genre in that, regardless of the setting or situation, you are expected to tell an interesting story with characters the audience cares about. Nolan sacrifices all for the immersion in his war experience machine, providing listless, interchangeable characters and a story that amounts to a collection of harrowing moments but not a movie. My pal Joe Marino chided the movie as akin to visiting a planetarium, sitting back, and taking in the wonderful visual spectacle but walking away unmoved. It’s like Nolan has created the Dunkirk Experience: The Ride instead of an actual worthwhile story.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Free Fire (2017)

I don’t understand the praise and hype heaped upon filmmaker Ben Wheatley. He’s got a nice eye for visuals but whenever I see his name attached as a screenwriter, my expectations sink. His 2016 film High Rise was on my list of the worst films of last year. To my mind, Wheatley is Nicolas Refn (Neon Demon) lite, and I don’t even care for Refn. With that being said, the premise and star power for Free Fire looked enough to even out my immediate hesitation about watching another Wheatley film. It looked like fun. How could it not be? Well I’m now debating whether I disliked Free Fire more than High Rise, a scenario with no real winner.

In 1978, two gangs meet in a Boston warehouse to make an exchange of guns and drugs for money. Things go wrong, tempers flare, and bullets are exchanged. Both parties are pinned down, fighting for cover, and looking to come out alive and on top. There’s Cillian Murphy, Oscar-winning Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, and Sharlto Copley among this dingy dozen.

Exiting my theater screening, I got into a discussion with my pal, Ben Bailey. He was adamant that the story premise of Free Fire could not be done as a feature film and was, at best, the sort of material for a 20-minute shoot-em-up short. I argued that with the proper development there could be a scraggly feature film here but the key phrase is “proper development,” something that is sorely lacking from Free Fire. Ultimately it feels more like Ben’s assessment: 20 minutes of thin material and thought stretched out to an interminable 85 minutes.

Once the shootout commences, it feels like Wheatley just succumbs to the cacophonous confusion of the action and more or less gives up. For a solid twenty minutes or so, the movie is nothing more than a series of disjointed shots of people firing and people taking cover from wooden boxes and planks, rarely if ever coalescing to produce a sense of direction, momentum, and geography. I didn’t know where anybody was and especially in relationship to anyone else. That is a crucial factor in action sequences especially in a limited location action sequence. You need to know who is where and establish different mini-goals and new challenges. Wheatley only introduces new elements late into the proceedings, and when he does they are anticlimactically resolved.  When complications do arrive they are brushed aside and we go back to shooting. Why not involve the guns in those crates as something to be fought over to gain extra leverage? That seems like an obvious goal but not to the characters on screen. I lost track of which characters were with which side, and the movie even tries to make the same joke, as if knowingly acknowledging this aspect forgives Free Fire for its plotting misfires.

As minute after minute of blind shooting went on, I started making connections to a question I have had with Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, Song to Song) movies, namely how does one edit these things? If you’ve never seen a modern Malick movie, first consider yourself fortunate, but the man is known for his whispery, stream-of-consciousness spiritual connections with nature. My question with Malick movies: how does someone know that this shot of light through the leaves needs to be here, and definitely before this shot of a caterpillar moving along a tree branch? How do you edit what is bereft of a traditional coherency? I wondered the same question during Free Fire. Without those mini-goals, how does one edit just gunshot after gunshot after gunshot without any credible change in the story’s impetus as guidance?

Compounding my boredom and general confusion is the reality that these criminal lowlifes are dull characters and not worth the investment. Wheatley and co-screenwriter Amy Jump fail to provide interesting personalities or quirks or anything memorable to enliven these tough-talking bad-shooting bad guys. Some of them have accents, one of them is a woman, one of them likes to smoke pot, but really they’re all slight variations on the same excitable, profane, and shallow archetype, the kind of character that gets their own poster in marketing with a nickname like “The Kid” or something cool-sounding like that, but it’s all posturing. I thought that Free Fire might be reminiscent of the rise of Tarantino knockoff films in the 90s (The Big Hit, 2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Suicide Kings) but this movie actually made me yearn for a Tarantino knockoff.

These people are so lifeless. I didn’t care who lived and who died. They were all boring. Some faces are recognizable like Hammer and Smiley and Murphy but a majority of the characters are not, at least initially visually distinctive. It’s a failing of creativity to separate them, make them distinct. Much of the acting is just reacting to squibs going off and squirming on the ground. If you have a fetish for Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island) wriggling, this is your film. By default the best actor is Copley (Hardcore Henry) as he seems to be on an uncontrollable improv stint, rapidly saying whatever things comes to mind. Something has to fill the audio between gunfire.

Free Fire wants to be a scuzzy, crazy, fun movie that knows it’s trashy and revels in its bad taste and loony characters with nose-thumbing glee. Instead, Free Fire is a nihilistic and tedious enterprise lacking entertaining characters, coherent action, and most importantly any general sense of fun. Watching characters that are unmemorable, who you don’t care about, fire guns indiscriminately for a long time is not a movie, and it’s most certainly not a good movie. It’s a glorified training manual for firearms. Free Fire takes too long to get started with poorly developed characters and when it does kick into action the movie doesn’t really improve too much. Free Fire is a Tarantino knockoff that doesn’t have the courage of its own B-movie convictions. It thinks just dressing the part is enough, substituting style and a blithe attitude for not even substance but the appearance of substance. It only has one truly memorable, queasy death, so even when it comes to bizarre violence it falters. This is one movie that wants to look cool and irreverent but ends up merely firing blanks.

Nate’s Grade: D+

In Time (2011)

Andrew Niccol is a filmmaker that has earned my respect and my hard-earned money. After The Truman Show, Gattaca, and Lord of War, this guy has me hooked. I forgive him 2002’s S1mone, which had some good ideas in need of a better plot. Lo and behold, his latest film, the sci-fi thriller In Time, falls victim to the same issue. Niccol’s premise is more intriguing than the people onscreen.

In the near future, science has solved the age-old question or mortality, for a price. Every human has an internal clock somehow embedded in his or her arm. It kicks in at age 25 and then people have one year remaining. Time is the only currency that matters. People work jobs to add minutes to their time. When it comes to a cup of coffee or a bus fare, you pay in minutes off your time (a hooker says, “I’ll give you ten minutes for an hour”). The rich are well stocked in time but the poor must fight every day just to keep alive. Sam (Justine Timberlake) works in a factory just to make ends meet. His mother (Olivia Wilde, we should al be so lucky) gives her son an extra 30 minutes for his lunch; humans can “pass” time from one to another through touch. This will come back to bite her. One day Sam meets a tall dark stranger who’s lived for over 100 years and is tired of it all. He donates all his time to Sam. This is a no-no in the future. The timekeepers are a police force, lead by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), that polices time allowances. They’re paid to basically make sure that time remains the property of the upper class. Sam hobnobs with the elites, including Philippe Weiss (Vincent Kartheiser), a man who owns thousands of years. When the (Van Damme-less) time cops come looking for Sam, he makes a run for it, taking Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) as his hostage. The two eventually fall for one another as they dash across the country stealing time.

In Time has all sorts of ideas running through its system. What it doesn’t have it much of a plot to go with its heady sci-fi setup. Will is a fugitive but he never really formulates any sort of tangible plan. There’s no higher plot or goal here other than “sticking it to the man” but what exactly does that mean in this context? I understand he’s upset about losing a loved one, but his plan for vengeance or justice or whatever you want to call it lacks needed clarity. It feels like he and his cohort are just making it up as they go along. The film is at its worst when it descends into a populist, sci-fi Bonnie and Clyde, where Sam and Sylvia storm these time banks and redistribute the minutes, becoming heroes to the day-to-day drudgers. The ease that these two people have at knocking over bank after bank, armed only with a handgun, seems hard to swallow. The banks aren’t going to have tougher security especially after word gets out? Niccol adds plenty of chase scenes to fill out his plot but it doesn’t do much more than pad a half-baked story. The end confrontation goes in a direction I shall shamefully describe as “action movie idiocy.” You’re going to tell me that a timekeeping pro doesn’t pay attention when his clock is minutes away from death? Furthermore, I’m stunned that the people onscreen don’t act with more urgency when their time runs out. When death is on the line, I imagine a human being would resort to any kind of irrational desperation just to get a few minutes more, yet In Time shows a demoralized populace that just seems to give up. That makes the heroes-as-revolutionaries storyline even more implausible. Here’s a tip to Niccol: if it’s Sylvia’s last day on Earth, maybe you don’t have her racing for her life in heels. I’d think the gal would have purchased some decent running shoes by this time.

The ideas presented are compelling, though I wish Niccol had continued to push further. The social satire is pretty on-the-nose about the class system. I would have liked Niccol to be more biting in his social critique, perhaps carving up the rich as more venal than pampered. It’s true that they can live forever… unless something violent happens. This may be the future but there’s still no cure for a bullet to the head. The rich may live but they must live in sheltered, insular communities; a life encased in bubble-wrap. There is much potential there that goes unexplored. I also wanted a global sense of what was happening. Is time traded on the stock market? Are there different values placed on human time based upon geography? Is a Japanese life more valuable than a Ukrainian? The glimpses we do get about how the world operates are enticing and clever. The time roadblocks, tolls asking increasing amounts of time to pass into more affluent communities, feel authentic to the world and a cruel way to limit class mobility. When Sam pays for his expensive dinner he tells the waitress, “And take a week for yourself.” The timekeepers are only allotted a day at a time, so they can’t get carried away (I think it’s the futuristic equivalent of having the pizza delivery guy only have twenty bucks on him so he’s less likely to be the victim of theft). For the most part, In Time feels like it has some of the neat sociological quirks down but misses the psychological ramifications of its premise. People stop aging at 25. What does that do to a person’s sense of self? What about the peculiarities of dating? There’s definitely a sexual farce waiting to be written here. But let’s focus on the main dilemma – scrapping every day for just enough to stay ahead of the countdown. It’s an apt allusion to the working poor, but we never really see the tremulous stress that such a situation demands. This is life and death stuff, folks. The panic of inflation should also have been something Niccol paid more attention to. Just upsetting their time budgets could rock people’s world. There’s a lot more human drama inherent in this story that Niccol ignores, or flat out dismisses, for some standard Hollywood frills, namely chases and contrived romances.

Timberlake has shown that he has some chops when it comes to acting in shrewd supporting roles (The Social Network, Black Snake Moan). His skills aren’t really well utilized by In Time. The role of Sam is pretty bland, lacking edge or depth. This part could have been played by anyone not befitting Timberlake’s genetic credentials. Timberlake can make a credible action hero, though his charm covers up for his lack of intimidating presence. There is one regrettable moment where he wails at the death of a loved one, and it hits the wrong notes and feels laughably awkward. Seyfried (Red Riding Hood) also turns on a dime from being a scared hostage to a romantic partner. Her role gets reduced to being dragged by the hand by Timberlake; she’s human luggage. Murphy (Inception) does a fine job of being a dogged, Tommy Lee Jones-style pursuer. Kartheiser works that reptilian sleaze he’s perfected on Mad Men. The guy is like a younger version of Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Daybreakers), possibly the most reptilian of all living actors. The strangest part about casting is that it’s an Alpha Dog reunion (Timberlake, Seyfried, and Kartheiser all had supporting roles).

In Time is a better idea than a movie, and it’s an idea that deserves more examination. Niccol’s film has some interesting ideas and concepts, but it seems too slavish to a typical Hollywood blockbuster boilerplate. The characters are pretty bland and the thrills are too. I wanted to spend more time in this brave new time-obsessed world; I just wanted to spend it with other characters. The populist Bonnie and Clyde plotline doesn’t seem to gel. If the rich can control the arbitration of time, why don’t they just ungodly raise the price of things? In a a generation or two, the rich will weed out all lower classes thanks to near literal social Darwinism. The social commentary is a bit heavy-handed and simplistic. I wish Niccol had ditched his young heroes/lovers and explored the particulars of his world more, especially the portent psychological implications. In Time doesn’t feel like a complete movie, just a finished one. Ultimately, the film’s greatest sin may be that it wastes too much of your own time.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Inception (2010)

Without a doubt, no movie has piqued curiosity like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. After breaking all sorts of box-office records with The Dark Knight, Nolan earned some capital. He wanted to make an expensive, intellectually demanding, high-concept movie that takes place mostly in the realm of dreams. The studio said yes, anything to keep their golden goose happy before a third Batman can roll out. Nolan has been tinkering with the script for Inception for almost ten years, trying to scale it down but never being content. This is a story that called for the biggest stage, which required a heavy price tag, and could only be fulfilled once Nolan was an established hit-maker. Early images of shifting gravity and folding cityscapes got people buzzing but then the concern was whether Inception would be too smart for audiences to embrace. You know, the same public that made two Alvin and the Chipmunks films blockbusters. Two weeks running, Inception has made a sizeable portion of money and become the “must-see” movie of the summer. Score one for the public.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert extractor. He can sneak into your dreams and discover whatever secret you’re hiding from your self, your wife, even your shrink. All for a tidy sum, of course. He’s on the run from U.S. authorities because they believe he killed his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). A rich businessman, Seito (Ken Watanabe), promises to clear away the pending charges if Cobb can perform one important job. Instead of stealing an idea, Cobb will have to plant an idea, known as inception. A young upstart (Cillian Murphy) will inherit his dying father?s empire, and Seito wants the guy to break up that empire and sell it off. Cobb enlists the help of a skilled team to pull off what is believed to be impossible; Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as the point man, Ariadne (Ellen Page), as the architect of the dream world, Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger who can convince the mark he?s other identities, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist that creates a compound to put the team under a deep sleep. They’ll need it because Cobb plans to go three levels deep, a dream within a dream within a dream in order for inception to take root. The only way out is a “kick,” the sensation of falling that will awaken the dreamer. The team is under great risk not just from the dream world, but also from Cobb. He?s been secretly keeping memories of his dead wife alive and she keeps intruding into shared dreaming, causing havoc, relying on the same info that Cobb knows. The deeper they go into the dream the deeper they also go into Cobb’s memories.

Inception can be many things to many people, as is the nature of dreams. I found the movie to be a master class mousetrap. Watching Nolan and his origami-like script fold and bend and connect is a true pleasure. However, the movie is not a great character piece. Cobb is the only person on the entire team allowed any sort of back-story or inner lives or even personality traits. What do we know about Arthur, Ariadne, Eames? Nothing. They are all members of the team, but it is Cobb who is the only one allowed to have supporting details. Despite Cobb’s tragic past with his wife, emotionally the movie can best be described as a bit distant (not cold, distant). Nor does Inception deal with the psychology of dreams or the interpretation of the subconscious and its links to our own reality; this movie does not have Freudian psychoanalysis in mind. What Inception does deliver is a brilliantly staged heist that takes place in the realm of dreams, and if that doesn’t sound like a fun concept then I don?t know what does. To get to that heist, the audience must slosh through about 90 minutes of solid set-up and exposition (Pages character is essentially an exposition device). There are a lot of rules to digest in order for the final hour to have the impact that it does. If you nod off for a portion of that time, like my father, you will be lost as to why anything is exactly happening. Having seen the film a second time, I can say that once the hyperactive “Oh my gosh, this is awesome!” haze of newness wears off you do realize that the pre-heist portion of the movie can be a bit slow. I think that for future DVD-viewings I will skip to the start of the heist and sit back and relax (much like skipping the first hour of King Kong).

After talking about what Inception is not, let’s focus on what Inception is. It is a massively entertaining, brain-tickling thriller with eye-popping visuals that verge toward the iconic. Nolan isn’t the greatest orchestrator of action (a foot chase in Mombassa is pretty lackluster short of a narrow alleyway) but the man knows how to put together tremendously memorable set pieces. From Paris folding upon itself to a fistfight in a revolving hallway, Inception is packed with stimuli to ignite the senses. It’s the first movie in years that I walked out and thought, “How did they do that?” It renewed my sense of mystery and wonder with the movies. And the last hour is ridiculously fraught with tension as the movie descends level after level of subconscious, juggling four separate action set pieces with mounting climaxes. The revolving hallway fight is perhaps my favorite action scene in years. I still got goose bumps the second time. Gordon-Levitt hops from ceiling to floor like he’s Spiderman, or Gene Kelly, all while the camera remains fixed. Gordon-Levitt gets a lot of zero gravity experience in this movie. He might have qualified for a free ride on the space shuttle.

Like the alternate reality of The Matrix, people can manipulate the world of dreams, which allows for some imaginative visuals. Aside from the dreams-within-dreams impacting one another, there aren’t really playful distortions of reality. There?s a few M. C. Escher-inspired staircases but nothing too out of bounds. Nolan devises a reason for this since the dreamers do not want to call attention to altering the dream. They want to hide among the subconscious projections; get in and get out without being noticed. You do wish that Nolan played to the potential of his flexible reality, but on the other hand, it’s still fairly mind-bending to reach inside a magician?s hat into another magician?s hat and so on. I wonder if there was another story that could have succeeded in this setting, namely competing thieves that have to race against time within the world of dreams. Think about it next time, Nolan. That one?s on me.

But the most exciting aspect of the movie is how intellectually stimulating it is. The movie is jam-packed with ideas like Nolan’s other works, so much that it’s hard to fully process everything the film offers in one sitting. The pieces do fit together and the movie follows its own internal logic, so if you didn’t skip out on any bathroom breaks, you should be able to follow along reasonably. On first viewing, Inception is bristling with intelligence and narrative complexity, and it rarely stops to pander to an audience. It expects you to keep up for the rewards that will follow, and they are indeed rewarding. The movie isn’t as complicated to follow but it can definitely get complicated when you try and explain action beyond a literal level. Nolan laces all sorts of narrative stops and peculiarities that can be targeted for an alternative thesis statement on the ending. The very ending shot is ambiguous perfection. It keeps the mystery of what constitutes reality while providing an out for people that want to formulate a happy ending. There’s plenty of room for interpretation and analysis but it doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. Hollywood is pretty risk averse when it comes to anything that makes people think, let along anything expensive that requires active synapses. Nolan has long been a filmmaker of intellectual heft and non-linear narratives. His narratives are complex puzzles that snap together with airtight precision. The joy of a Nolan film is surrendering yourself to his narrative origami and waiting to see the Big Picture. There are new insights to discover with every viewing. Nolan may not be the second-coming of God, as those frothing at the mouth on Internet message boards proclaim, but I can think of no other director working today who harnesses Big Ideas on such a big stage.

Inception is a $160-million dollar studio film with substance, but it also looks like money well spent. The film looks amazing. The cinematography by Wall Pfister (Dark Knight) is gorgeous without being self-consciously arty, pleasing the senses without drawing too much attention away from the story. But with a screenplay that makes all kinds of leaps, you need the help of a good editor to guide the proceedings. Lee Smith (Truman Show, Master and Commander) is that man. While the repeated cutbacks to the van falling in slow motion can be giggle-inducing, Smith gamely holds everything together thanks to his skill in juggling all the parallel storylines/dreamscapes. Finally, the score by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Gladiator) is full of ominous, blaring horns that send shivers and get your blood pumping. Johnny Marr (The Smiths, Modest Mouse) even added an assist by strumming the guitar licks on the score. Apparently Zimmer’s key score themes are actually the tune “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” the Edith Piaf signature song used to signal “kicks,” played at a slowed speed. At the risk of sounding like one of those frothing from the mouth on the Internet, that’s insanely cool.

The acting is uniformly good with a few bumps. DiCaprio (Shutter Island) might need to do something light after continuous roles where he inhabits mean weighed down by guilt and dead wives (three in a row for those counting). He’s a good emotional anchor. Watching the star of 500 Days of Summer and Brick as a suave, cool-as-can-be action star is improbably awesome. Hardy (Bronson) is a scene-stealer mostly because he?s the only member of the team that has a sense of humor. Cotillard (Nine, Public Enemies) who won an Oscar playing Edith Piaf in 2007’s La vie en Rose, gets her best part since then. She gets to do many things as Mal, a projection of a character. This means that she must be limited in how she fills out the character because she is defined by Cobb’s fading memory. Yet she can be malicious, playful, spiteful, loving, vulnerable, and more. Cotillard and her big, glassy eyes do a great service in selling a romance we only see after the fact. Page (Juno) just feels out of place. She seems like the kid among a group of adults. And while the elfin actress will always look youthful until she applies for an AARP card, Page just seems in over her head. Her performance is fine if a bit mealy-mouthed but she still feels miscast.

Inception. Expect it to become a fanboy religion in a matter of weeks. It wears its influences on its sleeve, from The Matrix to Abre Los Ojos (or the American remake, Vanilla Sky). Thrilling, stimulating on different levels, and supremely engrossing, Inception is just about everything you could wish for in a summer blockbuster, except when it can also feel mechanical, distant, and free of emotion and character development save DiCaprio (perhaps this is further evidence that it was all a dream?). Regardless, Inception is easily the brainiest movie of the year, and usually those don?t get packaged as big-budget Hollywood spectacle. Just make sure to bring your totem the second time you watch the movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

Sunshine (2007)

Danny Boyle is one of the more interesting film directors out there today. He seems to dabble in every genre. He’s done paranoid thriller (Shallow Grave), substance abuse drama (Trainspotting), zombies (28 Days Later), and a genuine family film (Millions). Boyle has a bountiful imagination. Now he and his 28 Days Later partner, writer Alex Garland, are going where many have gone before in the film world – outer space. Just don’t confuse the film with the 1999’s Sunshine where Ralph Fiennes plays three generations of a Jewish family with rotten luck. Come to think of it, both Sunshine movies fall apart in the final act. Note to filmmakers: just stay away from this title. It will doom your ending.

Fifty years into the future, the sun is dying. Earth is under a solar winter as it undergoes less and less light. The crew of the Icarus II has a very important mission: restart the sun. Attached to their spacecraft is a giant bomb intended to create a new star inside an old one. They have a giant reflective shield to protect them from the direct heat of the sun. The ship has eight crew members, including the physicist responsible for the bomb (Cillian Murphy), a botanist (Michelle Yeoh) with a garden to provide recyclable oxygen reserves, and a hotheaded handyman (Chris Evans) that believes nothing could be more important than their mission. As they drift closer to the sun they pick up a distress call that belongs to the previous Icarus I spacecraft which vanished under mysterious circumstances seven years ago. The crew decides that two bombs are better than one and changes course to intercept the Icarus I. anyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows you don’t go poking into the spooky place when you don’t have to.

Boyle sure knows how to make things look pretty, or interesting, or pretty interesting, and this helps because Sunshine is rather shopworn with familiar sci-fi staples. The premise itself almost seems identical to a 1990 film called Solar Crisis, a movie I only remember marginally because of the female nudity my young eyes caught glimpse of (in those days we didn’t have any of yer fancy Internets). Besides this, the film borrows liberally from 2001, Solaris, Star Trek, Alien, Event Horizon, The Core, and the super crappy Supernova. Most every aspect of Sunshine can be traced back to a different science fiction film, but sci-fi is one of the few genres that don’t necessarily suffer from being derivative. A cookie-cutter sci-fi movie is forgivable as long as the filmmakers treat the audience with respect and attempt to be smart with their story. I don’t care that Sunshine reworks plot elements that have been worked since giant alien carrot people frightened necking teenagers in the 1950s, and that’s because the genre is built for being borrowed.

Sunshine is often beautiful to watch with awe-inspiring images of that great ball of fire, our sun, but even better is the fact that the film is pretty much the opposite of Armageddon – it’s smart. The movie discusses the realities of space travel, communication, oxygen levels, trajectories, sub-zero temperatures, sacrifice, and how to live so close to the sun where the human eye can only safely look at 3.1 percent of its light emissions for 10 seconds. It’s a bit slow but rather fascinating just to witness how day-to-day life functions for the crew and how the time, or lack of discernible time, plays with their psychology. This respectful intelligence helps when the crew debates altering their mission to inspect the mysterious space vessel. The audience knows that only bad things will happen but the crew argues with reasonably sound logic about the potential benefits.

Sunshine is a thinking man’s sci-fi treat for its first two acts and then it completely devolves with a disappointing turn of events; it becomes a slasher film in space. There’s genuine awe and intrigue, along with some brainy scientific discussions and some considerable religious/philosophical pondering… and it all just stops dead for a madman chasing people with pointy things. Sigh. It’s an artistic free-fall that Sunshine never quite fully recovers from. Boyle makes the strange decision to keep his space slasher out of focus so the audience never gets a clear look; even stranger are camera shots where the killer will walk into frame and then transform his area to an unfocused blur like a blurry infection. It’s an artistic choice that doesn’t quite work (“The blurry man’s coming to get you, Barbara!”). The film then morphs into your standard race-against-time and then balloons with trippy computer effects and snazzy light filters. Sunshine was exceedingly more entertaining prior to picking up the unwanted visitor.

The cast does a fine job mulling their life-or-death options, but the two standouts are Murphy and Evans. Murphy and his piercing baby blues make for a strong lead. He provides soulful glimpses into his stock scientist role. Evans is the surprise of the film. Best known as the Human Torch in the dreadful Fantastic Four films, he exhibits a wider range of emotions from macho hardass to duty-bound soldier. This is a film heavy with noble sacrifices, and Evans is the reminder of all that is at stake.

Sunshine is visually pleasing and intellectually stimulating, especially for a sci-fi film built from the discarded pieces of other films. It’s a tense and exciting time, that is, until the movie just throws up its hands and transforms into a laughable slasher film. This movie did not have to go this tiresome route; there could have been an on-board mutiny when they discussed the idea of killing one of their own so they had enough oxygen to complete their mission, there could have been further psychological torments from within the crew, or even easier, the spaceship could just have undergone more malfunctions. Sunshine is a thoughtful, slightly meditative sci-fi thriller, but then it loses all of its better senses.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Red Eye (2005)

Red Eye is something of a comeback for Wes Craven, the horror master that’s been somewhat grasping at straws for several years (for further proof see Cursed). The concept is ripe for tension and the film has little fat on it, clocking in at a meager 80 minutes. It’s divided like so: 20 minutes set-up, 40 minutes on the plane, and 20 minutes off the plane for the conclusion. Red Eye is so enjoyable when we’re trapped on that flight, catching the icy stares of Cillian Murphy, that I personally would love an additional 20-30 minutes more in the air. There’s a nice chain of cause and effect, as the audience is with Rachel McAdams (fast becoming the Hollywood It girl) as she tries to think her way out of her jam, each time thwarted by the chilling Murphy once more. It’s a great duel of wits. The last act of the film is too conventional and predictable to close out such a great claustrophobic pressure cooker. It’s also a bit insulting that she’s ultimately rescued by a man after we watch 80-minutes of her plucky ingenuity and courage. Red Eye is a solid thriller carried by two great performers on the rise.

Nate’s Grade: B

Batman Begins (2005)

I have been a Batman fan since I was old enough to wear footy pajamas. I watched the campy Adam West TV show all the time, getting sucked into the lead balloon adventures. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was the first PG-13 film I ever saw, and I watched it so many times on video that I have practically worn out my copy. Batman Returns was my then most eagerly anticipated movie of my life, and even though it went overboard with the dark vision, I still loved it. Then things got dicey when Warner Brothers decided Batman needed to lighten up. I was only a teenager at the time, but I distinctly remember thinking, “You’re telling the Dark Knight to lighten up?” Director Joel Schumacher’s high-gloss, highly stupid turn with Batman Forever pushed the franchise in a different direction, and then effectively killed it with 1997’s abomination, Batman and Robin. I mean these films were more worried about one-liners and nipples on the Bat suits. Nipples on the Bat suits, people! Is Batman really going, “Man, you know, I’d really like to fight crime today but, whoooo, my nipples are so chaffed. I’m gonna sit this one out”?

For years Batman languished in development hell. Warner Bothers licked their wounds and tried restarting their franchise again and again, only to put it back down. Then around 2003 things got exciting. Writer/director Christopher Nolan was announced to direct. Nolan would also have creative control. Surely, Warner Brothers was looking at what happened when Columbia hired Sam Raimi (most known for low-budget splatterhouse horror) for Spider-Man and got out of his way. After Memento (My #1 movie of 2001) and Insomnia (My #5 movie of 2002), Nolan tackles the Dark Night and creates a Batman film that’s so brilliant that I’ve seen it three times and am itching to go again.

photo016cqThe film opens with a youthful Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in a Tibetan prison. He’s living amongst the criminal element searching for something within himself. Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) offers Bruce the chance to be taught under the guidance of the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the leader of the equally mysterious warrior clan, The League of Shadows. Under Ducard’s direction, Bruce confronts his feelings of guilt and anger over his parents’ murder and his subsequent flee from his hometown, Gotham City. He masters his training and learns how to confront fear and turn it to his advantage. However, Bruce learns that the League of Shadows has its judicial eyes set on a crime ridden Gotham, with intentions to destroy the city for the betterment of the world. Bruce rebels and escapes the Tibetan camp and returns to Gotham with his own plans of saving his city.

With the help of his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Bruce sets out to regain his footing with his family’s company, Wayne Enterprises. The company is now under the lead of an ethically shady man (Rutger Hauer) with the intentions of turning the company public. Bruce befriends Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the company’s gadget guru banished to the lower levels of the basement for raising his voice. Bruce gradually refines his crime fighting efforts and becomes the hero he’s been planning on since arriving home.

Gotham is in bad shape too. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), a childhood friend to Bruce, is a prosecutor who can’t get anywhere when crime lords like Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) are controlling behind the scenes. Most of the police have been bought off, but Detective Gordon (Gary Oldman) is the possibly the city’s last honest cop, and he sees that Batman is a figure trying to help. Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) is a clinical psychologist in cahoots with Falcone. Together they’re bringing in drug shipments for a nefarious plot by The Scarecrow, a villain that uses a hallucinogen to paralyze his victims with vivid accounts of their own worst fears. Bruce is the only one who can unravel the pieces of this plot and save the people of Gotham City.

photo_39Nolan has done nothing short of resurrecting a franchise. Previous films never treated Batman as an extraordinary character; he was normal in an extraordinary world. Batman Begins places the character in a relatively normal environment. This is a brooding, intelligent approach that all but erases the atrocities of previous Batman incarnations. Nolan presents Bruce Wayne’s story in his typical nonlinear fashion, but really gets to the meat and bone of the character, opening up the hero to new insights and emotions, like his suffocating guilt over his parents murder.

Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer (the Blade trilogy) really strip away the decadence of the character and present him as a troubled being riddled with guilt and anger. Batman Begins is a character piece first and an action movie second. The film is unique amongst comic book flicks for the amount of detail and attention it pays to characterization, even among the whole sprawling cast. Nolan has assembled an incredible cast and his direction is swimming in confidence. He’s a man that definitely knows what he’s doing, and boy oh boy, is he doing it right. Batman Begins is like a franchise colonic.

This is truly one of the finest casts ever assembled. Bale makes an excellent gloomy hero and really transforms into something almost monstrous when he’s taking out the bad guys. He’s got great presence but also a succinct intensity to nail the quieter moments where Bruce Wayne battles his inner demons. Caine (The Cider House Rules, The Quiet American) is incomparable and a joy to watch, and his scenes with the young Bruce actually had me close to tears. This is by far the first time a comic book movie even had me feeling something so raw and anything close to emotional. Neeson excels in another tough but fair mentor role, which he seems to be playing quite a lot of lately (Kingdom of Heaven, Star Wars Episode One). Freeman steals every scene he’s in as the affable trouble causer at Wayne Enterprises, and he also gets many of the film’s best lines. Oldman (The Fifth Element, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) disappears into his role as Gotham’s last good cop. If ever there was a chameleon (and their name wasn’t Benicio del Toro), it is Oldman. Holmes works to the best of her abilities, which means she’s “okay.”

The cast of villains are uniformly excellent, with Wilkinson’s (In the Bedroom) sardonic Chicagah accented mob boss, to Murphy’s (28 Days Later) chilling scientific approach to villainy, to Watanabe’s (The Last Samurai) cold silent stares. Even Rutger Hauer (a man experiencing a career renaissance of his own) gives a great performance. Seriously, for a comic book movie this is one of the better acted films of the year. And that’s saying a lot.

Batman Begins is such a serious film that it almost seems a disservice to call it a “comic book movie.” There are no floating sound effects cards and no nipples on the Bat suits. Nolan really goes about answering the tricky question, “What kind of man would become a crime-fightin’ super hero?” Batman Begins answers all kinds of questions about the minutia of the Dark Knight in fascinating ways, yet the film remains grounded in reality. The Schumacher Batmans (and God save us from them) were one large, glitzy, empty-headed Las Vegas entertainment show. No explanation was given to characters or their abilities. Likewise, the Gothic and opulent Burton Batmans had their regrettable leaps of logic as well. It’s hard not to laugh at the end of Batman Returns when Oswald Cobblepot (a.k.a. The Penguin) gets a funeral march from actors in emperor penguin suits. March of the Penguins it ain’t. Nolan’s Batman is the dead-serious affair comic book lovers have been holding their breath for.

BATMAN BEGINSThe action is secondary to the story, but Batman Begins still has some great action sequences. Most memorable is a chase sequence between Gotham police and the Batmobile which goes from rooftop to rooftop at one point. Nolan even punctuates the sequence with some fun humor from the police (“It’s a black … tank.”). The climactic action sequence between good guy and bad guy is dutifully thrilling and grandiose in scope. Nolan even squeezes in some horror elements into the film. Batman’s first emergence is played like a horror film, with the caped crusader always around another turn. The Scarecrow’s hallucinogen produces some creepy images, like a face covered in maggots or a demonic bat person.

There are only a handful of flaws that make Batman Begins short of being the best comic book movie ever. The action is too overly edited to see what’s happening. Whenever Batman gets into a fight all you can see are quick cuts of limbs flailing. My cousin Jennifer got so frustrated with the oblique action sequences that she just waited until they were over to see who won (“Oh, Batman won again. There you go.”). Nolan’s editing is usually one of his strong suits; much of Memento’s success was built around its airtight edits. He needs to pull the camera back and let the audience see what’s going on when Batman gets physical.

Another issue is how much plot Batman Begins has to establish. This is the first Batman film to focus solely on Batman and not some colorful villain. Batman doesn’t even show up well into an hour into the movie. As a result, Batman Begins perfects the tortured psychology of Bruce Wayne but leaves little time for villains. The film plays a shell game with its multiple villains, which is fun for awhile. The Scarecrow is really an intriguing character and played to gruesome effect by the brilliant Cillian Murphy. It’s a shame Batman Begins doesn’t have much time to develop and then play with such an intriguing bad guy.

Batman Begins
is a reboot for the film franchise. Nolan digs deep at the tortured psyche of Bruce Wayne and come up with a treasure trove of fascinating, exciting, and genuinely engrossing characters. Nolan’s film has a handful of flaws, most notably its oblique editing and limited handling of villains, but Batman Begins excels in storytelling and crafts a superbly intelligent, satisfying, riveting comic book movie. The best bit of praise I can give Batman Begins is that I want everyone responsible to return immediately and start making a host of sequels. This is a franchise reborn and I cannot wait for more of it.

Nate’s Grade: A

Cold Mountain (2003)

Cold Mountain (2003)

Premise: At the end of the Civil War, Inman (Jude Law, scruffy) deserts the Confederate lines to journey back home to Ada (Nicole Kidman), the love of his life he’’s spent a combined 10 minutes with.

Results: Terribly uneven, Cold Mountain‘s drama is shackled by a love story that doesn’t register the faintest of heartbeats. Kidman is wildly miscast, as she was in The Human Stain, and her beauty betrays her character. She also can’’t really do a Southern accent top save her life (I’’m starting to believe the only accent she can do is faux British). Law’s ever-changing beard is even more interesting than her prissy character. Renee Zellweger, as a no-nonsense Ma Clampett get-your-hands-dirty type, is a breath of fresh air in an overly stuff film; however, her acting is quite transparent in an, “”Aw sucks, give me one ‘dem Oscars, ya’’ll” way.”

Nate’’s Grade: C

28 Days Later (2003)

Zombies have generally seemed one of the “little brothers” of the horror genre. Certainly not as complicated or Freudian as Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde, and no where near as seductive as vampires and werewolves. Zombies are stumbling, bumbling cement-shoe wearing monsters. They’re usually conduits for some kind of social message, like George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. The scary part of zombies is the methodical eventuality they exhibit. They may be stupid, they may be slow, and they may be really stupid, but they’ll keep coming. They’’re dead and they got no where to be. And there’’s the pull –– that they will eventually get you. You’’ll give in, something will happen, and they’’ll seize upon that unfortunate misstep (I did an extensive paper on the symbolism of zombies in Romero’’s films and the connections between religion and horror. I think I deleted it though, so this is the best analysis you’’re gonna get). Now there’s director Danny Boyle’s indie horror flick, 28 Days Later, which gives the zombie genre a few good shocks to the system.

We open up with stark television clips of violence, genocide, and all around mayhem around the world. It’s basically what the cable news stations are now, except in this case, the viewership of these broadcasts are monkeys. Yes, it seems that the British government is experimenting on the nature of rage by strapping monkeys onto slabs and forcing them, A Clockwork Orange style, to watch all kinds of icky video. Animal rights activists break into the facility and plan on freeing the primate prisoners. A lab assistant tries to deter the monkey theft. He says alarmingly that the animals are infected with “rage” (as are most drivers it seems), and that this infection is highly contagious. The animal rights activists scoff at his concern and open the cages to the primates. For their altruistic virtues the activists are instantly attacked, bitten, mauled (can one be mauled by monkeys? It just seems like bears and lions have a monopoly on this verb) and infected with this deadly rage disease. This is likely the worst PR set-back for the animal rights activists since PETA clubbed baby seals. Look it up.

Flash to the titular 28 days later. Jim (Cillian Murphy) comes to in a hospital bed, and like previous films, Boyle finds an outlet to shoehorn in some full-frontal male nudity. It’s almost like a director’s trademark. Jim’s a bike messenger and has been in a coma for about, oh, let’s just say for the sake of it, 28 days. Jim wanders through the vacant hospital calling out for anyone. He hits the streets of London to find them startlingly empty, like some Twilight Zone episode. City kiosks are papered with numerous pictures for missing relatives or good-bye letters. A scattered newspaper says London has been evacuated. Jim meets two other survivors, Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris). They wax chunky exposition to tell us what we already know: the virus got out, spread rapidly, is transmitted through the blood. Selena does have more unsettling news about the nature of the disease. It turns out that once infected a person has about 10-20 seconds of rational thought left before they fully turn into the rabid, crazed not-dead zombies. Jim demands to see his parents and the two agree to lead him to his home in the morning.

The next morning the surviving trio trek through the empty streets and residential areas. Jim enters his home calling out for his parents. He immediately has to cover his nose with his shirt sleeve. He walks into his parents’ bedroom to find both curled up next to each other long dead. On the nightstand are a bottle of wine and a slew of pills. His mother holds a picture of Jim as a child. On the back Jim reads: ““We left you sleeping. Now we’’ll be with you again.”” At the bottom it says, “”Don’’t wake up.”” Jim is devastated.

They find refuge in the apartment building of a Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). The two have been surviving since the outbreak. Frank is delighted to find other survivors. He shares a radio message he picked up. The message, though slightly garbled, is from a military base a way’s away. They say they have discovered the answer for infection and will provide shelter for any survivors. The foursome pack up their belongings in Frank’s car and head for the military base with a new sense of hope.

The cinematography of 28 Days Later is wonderful. It’’s the best I’’ve ever seen digital video. The choice of shooting on that medium also amplifies the horror and creates a more immediate sense of danger. The musical score could have been written by one of those popular Brit-rock bands. It’’s propulsive, effectively building, and wonderfully sonic.

Harris is the star of the film, whether the makers know this or not. She’s one tough cookie but also reflects great moments of vulnerability as she opens up to the group and starts kindling some feelings for Jim. Gleeson is one of the best character actors out there, as evidence by a great turn in Scorsese’’s Gangs of New York. Acting is never the strongest suit for horror flicks but 28 Days Later has some nice exceptions to this norm.

28 Days Later has a resonating sense of truth to it, if that can be said about apocalyptic cinema. When one character regrettably becomes infected they order their fellows to stand back, but before succumbing they say, “Just know that I love you.” This felt so genuine to me. Like if a comet was hurtling to decimate the planet within seconds, and your loved ones were around you, would you not act the same way? How does one compress all their feelings and appreciation and love in closing seconds? Something tells me it’s something like what is displayed in 28 Days Later.

Boyle, as has been ingrained into me from the blurb-heavy ads, has indeed reinvented zombie horror. However, what you may not know is that zombie horror doesn’’t exactly have many titles to it. I think I’’ve already mentioned most of them. Boyle’s zombies aren’’t dead, just infected human beings. They don’’t move at that lumbering drag-your-feet speed of classic zombie lore, no these not-so-undead move with great velocity and ferocity, like rabid junkyard dogs. The new touches here and there provide some interesting dynamics to the genre.

Perhaps what is different than most zombie films is that the audience grows to like the characters and root for their survival. In most horror films the characters are either too stupid or sketchy that it allows the audience to wait in amusement for their eventual horrific deaths. It’s simple: we want to see these people die because it’s titillating (Maybe I was wrong about all the zombie analysis I still had in my head).

Boyle does service a slight message in his zombie film when the group gets to the military base. Perhaps, he muses, our military and trusted leaders are no better than those rabidly wandering the streets. The idea of a thriller set against a biological pandemic also feels very timely and relevant. The film kind of drags in the middle during the stretch between London and the military base. And the end was a bit too much Die Hard for my taste, but is suitably climactic.

Boyle has crafted a creepy, smart, and engrossing piece of entertainment. I hope people don’t confuse this film with that Sandra Bullock clunker, 28 Days. They may be spending the entire time wondering where shirtless Viggo is and when Bullock will start her endless pratfalls (You knew I was going to talk about that movie somewhere).

Nate’s Grade: B

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