Christopher Nolan is an exceptionally divisive cinematic figure. But before The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Interstellar (2014) split opinion of him, he was beloved. And perhaps no film was more responsible for his adulation by cinephiles than the non-linear murder mystery Memento (2000).
At its simplest level, Memento is the story of Leonard, a man trying to solve the mystery of who killed his wife. The film is perhaps most famous for the manner in which its non-linear narrative literally unfolds. Leonard, who has amnesia, slowly pieces together what happened to his beloved and records the memories he needs to hold on to in tattoos. This structure, along with the performances, are the chief joys of the film. One issue for me is that both the structure of the film, and the establishment of Leonard as a character, means the success or otherwise of the film is predicated totally on the twist that is obviously coming. In the end it fell slightly flat for me, perhaps because I had seen similar before (though admittedly, they may have been made after this film). Having said that though, whilst the main twist has been seen plenty of times before, there is plenty of embellishment around that which satisfies here.
Coming relatively close to L.A. Confidential (1997), Memento represents the golden age of Guy Pearce as a Hollywood leading man. He continues to ply his craft in a range of really good supporting roles, but in terms of carrying a film, he is seemingly not held in the same regard these days. Here, Pearce conveys a man obsessed with routine and structure, two things he considers to be his salvation from the existential weight of his condition. Along with the excellent Carrie-Anne Moss, Pearce also brings a strong emotional core to his character which drives the narrative along and pushes it in different directions. I always like it when a film approaches a genre in a totally different way. Memento is a police procedural encased in a structure you would more associate with sci-fi. It’s a combo that works really well, even making the tired Groundhog Day (1993) style structure feel ingenious. Nolan chooses to start the film with the central mystery (seemingly) being solved and unfolding back from there, which to any fan of crime fiction, immediately invokes our favourite reveals at the end of crime stories. But the director toys with those expectations throughout, always a step or two ahead of us.
Verdict: Perhaps seeing it for the first time in 2014 has diminished the impact of Memento for me. On one level, I don’t quite see the hype. But on another level, this is a very good film, which feels nicely quirky and small in comparison to much of Nolan’s later work. Stubby of Reschs
Here is this week’s trailer. Albeit a little later than usual, so apologies for that. Also the ongoing neglect of everyone else’s blogs as I travel and fight crappy internet connections.
I am not all that familiar with Christopher Nolan’s non-Dark Knight work. But this trailer has me pretty excited. It looks like Terrence Malick has made a sci-fi flick. And if the end product turns out anything like that, this will be one hell of a film. Not to mention it has Matthew McConaughey who has managed to go from laughing stock to one of the most reliable actors in the world in remarkable time. What do you guys think of this one?
In the first look at a Michael Caine for the week, Jon Fisher from The Film Brief blog and podcast takes a look at Batman Begins.
It speaks to the deceptively rapid passage of time that it has been nearly a decade since Batman Begins (2005) was released. In the time since this movie, superhero movies have returned in a big way, a way that likely wouldn’t have happened unless this movie or something like it had come along to reinvigorate interest in comic books films as super-profitable ventures. Iron Man (2008), Thor (2011), Captain America (2011), and the other Marvel Avengers all owe Batman Begins, at least in part, for their existence so it’s worthwhile to look back at Nolan’s breakthrough piece and consider what, if anything, it did for the aesthetics of the superhero movie.
First of all, it should be pointed out that superhero stories shouldn’t be discounted as lesser films simply because of the source material. The late Roger Ebert once wrote that a movie isn’t about what it’s about – it’s about how it’s about it. With regards to superhero movies, the poor track record prior to 2005 wasn’t due to the innately vapid source material. Rather, it spoke to the puerile way that most film-makers treated the material handed to them – mining morally complex and visually exciting material for the sake of lowest-common denominator, throw-away bile, before defending it by intimating “They’re only comic books…”
Thus, Nolan deserves some credit for treating the material seriously in the first place. His Batman Begins is an origin story – (briefly) chronicling Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) troubled childhood, his encounter with the League of Shadows, and the trial-and-error process that resulted in him esablishing the structure we identify as the Batman universe. This includes Alfred the Butler (played the ever-so-consummate thespian Michael Caine), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and some lesser known characters from the comic book series (the Scarecrow, for instance, played by Cillian Murphy). All of this is presented with choppy, non-linear narrative – a Chrisopher Nolan signature ever since his intriguing first short film Following (1998) and the outstanding Memento (2000).
The film, overall, is a good and entertaining one, although far from a perfect one. Nolan certainly nails the film’s tone – dark, introspective and murky. He uses fine cinematography, suitably morose performances and a Hans Zimmer score that has become synonymous with the Caped Crusader to achieve this tone. The film’s shortcomings mainly lie in simple storytelling errors – which have plagued the subsequent sequels, The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). These are mainly minor, but are certainly irritating for rationalist film buffs. One example – during a scene in which the League of Shadows demands that Wayne murder a simple thief to complete his ‘graduation’ from their training, Wayne refuses on moral grounds. He explains in the screenplay’s classically succinct and modestly poetic style: “When I go back to Gotham, I will fight men like this, but I will not become an executioner.”
Wayne goes on to flick a flame stick onto a platform above him stacked with gunpowder (you can imagine Ra’s Al Ghul invoking Homer Simpson and stating “I… keep some gunpowder there), which ignites the entire fragile structure of the building, and after a brief fist-fight, Wayne manages to escape, choosing to save Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), the man who trained him but just revealed himself to be a morally simplistic, basically nasty and untrustworthy person. Wayne apparently doesn’t mind that he clearly just sealed the fate of the man he initially refused to execute.
Moments like this pop up from time to time throughout the trilogy (there’s a doozy in The Dark Knight when Harvey Dent shoots a driver in the head in order to force the car to crash and kill its passenger – no visual explanation of how Dent escaped the car before it crashed). Usually they are minor irritations, but they prevent the Nolan films from being the super-perfect saga most people so desperately wish them to be. And it’s best not to get started on the way the trilogy (and the Batman mythology generally) uses the cover-all excuse of “he’s a billionaire” to explain away any number of truly unbelievable technological set-ups. This is acceptable as an ‘all in good fun’ approach to a point – but when investing 11 or so hours of one’s life to a trilogy that insists we take it seriously, audiences deserve a little more of a cerebral approach from the film-makers.
I still prefer to focus mainly on the things that Christopher Nolan does right in his Batman films. He re-crafted Bruce Wayne as a morally complex man, truly tortured by his past, unable to express himself emotionally to those closest to him. He transformed Batman from a caricature (i.e. the Joel Schumacher produced and directed films of the 1990s) into a character. Along the way Nolan also created the most iconic (and, as it turned out, tragic) villain of modern times in Batman Begins’ sequel… But that’s a review for another day.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Jonathan Fisher is the creator and writer of (the kinda defunct but hopefully coming back) The Film Brief website and podcast. Be sure to check out his site as well as like his page on facebook here and follow along on twitter @thefilmbrief.
With The Avengersand Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy both out of the way, Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot Man of Steel is probably the most anticipated comic book film in active production.
After the dirge that was Superman Returns, a lot of people are hoping for a Nolan-esque shot of life for Superman. Those financing the film are obviously hoping for that too as he has been brought on as a producer for this film. This could go either way. Snyder, love him or hate him, is one of the most original directors out there. I want to see his take on the Superman universe, with a little of Nolan’s assured touch in there. I do not want to see Snyder, trying to be Nolan. And on the basis of this trailer, that is what I fear may happen – it’s all very Dark Knightey. What do you guys think?
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- Not Suitable for Children (2012), Peter Templeman – A cracker of a script brings this inner-west Sydney comedy to life. Not afraid to confound expectations, the film also delivers a healthy quota of genuine laughs. Refreshingly frank about booze, drugs and sex this excellently performed piece is the kind of Aussie film you really hope finds an audience. Also features the most fantastically awkward sex scene ever.
- East West 101: Season 1 (2007), Steve Knapman & Kris Wyld – This is an intriguing Aussie cop drama. There are definitely annoyances – shaky, hyperkinetic camerawork and individual storylines that are not always satisfying – but the storyline of Malik and his father is really well drawn out. The exploration of race, despite some initial clumsiness, also comes to satisfy by the season’s excellent (and genuinely shocking) conclusion.
- This Means War (2012), McG – I’m a big fan of all three leads in this – Pine, Witherspoon and Hardy. This is nice and light, there is no real sense of tension but the action scenes are good. The script is not great, especially the early establishment of Pine’s character and the motivation of all the characters is often warped. But in the end, this is genuinely funny and well performed, with Chelsea Handler as Witherspoon’s best friend almost stealing the show.
- The Amazing Spiderman (2012), Marc Webb – This is a fun film that looks great. But there is no denying that much of what is covered was done better by the first Raimi film. Andrew Garfield is a little hit and miss in the title role but Emma Stone is her usual delightful self. Unfortunately very little of the welcome humour that characterised the trailer is transferred to the final film. But despite all of this, the film is still more than enjoyable enough popcorn fluff.
- Batman Begins (2005), Christopher Nolan – This incredible film has come to sit somewhat unfairly in the shadow of its phenomenal sequel. Nolan’s first Batman flick is a really dense, multifaceted origin story which remains extremely accessible to non-comic book readers. The script expertly establishes the characters’ values and psychology above all. Katie Holmes’ performance in this is really underrated; I think she does better than Maggie Gyllenhaal who replaced her in the sequel. The film finishes on one of my all time favourite sequel setups as well.
- The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Christopher Nolan – As a standalone film, this is imperfect. However as the closing film of the trilogy, it is pretty darn close to perfection. The quibbles for me include the late twist, OWS references which veer into the overwrought and resolution of the main action that is not 100% successful. But I loved much of this. There is a couple of cracking action set pieces, the setup for the sidequel/spinoff is masterful and personally I was a huge fan of the ending. Michael Caine is amazing in a small role whilst Joseph Gordon-Levitt in detective mode is very good.
- Magic Mike (2012), Steven Soderbergh – I really liked this. On the surface this is a tale of male strippers. But there’s some (not too much) added depth here. Channing Tatum has a real charm and presence about him onscreen, as does female lead Cody Horne who is delightful despite occasional stilted line delivery. Biggest accolades must go to director Soderbergh though who is in good form, keeping proceedings zipping along rapidly, even as the action threatens to become predictable.
Not Worth Watching:
- Brave (2012), Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman – As far as animated films go, this is decidedly average. For a Pixar film it is utter pants. Technically, they continue to improve but it seems too much effort has gone into making Merida’s hair look amazing, and not enough into making the narrative amazing. This is a tepid tale, totally lacking in any Pixar distinctiveness or subversiveness.
- Safe House (2012), Daniel Espinosa – Cool idea. A CIA traitor just saunters into the American embassy in South Africa. Especially when you add in the fact that the traitor is played by none other than Denzel Washington. But this film never gets off the ground, making you wonder why anyone bothered. The action scenes are surprisingly sparse, and when they arrive they are annoyingly, shakily shot. Denzel is surely the most watchable actor of his generation, but even he can’t make this worth your while.
If you only have time to watch one The Dark Knight Rises
Avoid at all costs Brave
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No doubt by now you have all heard of the horrific events that took place at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. I do not want to dwell on the events too much. This is not a news site and it is not really my forte. But I have spent many hours over the past two days thinking about what occurred and I feel that I should share some thoughts.
The massacre is a devastating event on so many levels. Because of the societal ramifications, for the filmmakers to have had their work corrupted in some way; and the fact that such evil exists in this world. But the main reason is that people have died. People have died for absolutely no reason.
One of the reasons that this event has had such an effect on me is because, without knowing any of them, the victims were people just like me. They were cinema goers, movie fans. A day before I had sat shaking with excitement as The Dark Knight Rises began. The victims were people who would have been just as excited as me, if not more. The kind of people who venture out at midnight to see a movie because they simply can’t wait any longer. And I cannot begin to fathom the unimaginable terror of what took place as they sat and watched the film that they had anticipated so much.
Christopher Nolan has released a statement following what occurred in Aurora which reflects the manner in which the horror of what has occurred will not pass soon for many people, including film fans: “Speaking on behalf of the cast and crew of The Dark Knight Rises, I would like to express our profound sorrow at the senseless tragedy that has befallen the entire Aurora community. I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theater is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me. Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families.”
Inevitable at some stage, a light will be turned on the guilty party and why he did what he did. Already Nolan’s second Batman film The Dark Night and the iconic graphic novel, The Killing Joke, by Allan Moore have been referenced as possible inspiring factors for the killer’s rampage. Anyone who kills is in a sense mad. No matter what they read. It is not the fault of artists such as Nolan or Moore that this man did what he did. I have seen The Dark Knight and read The Killing Joke and I took inspiration from them as I do any great work of art I consume. But no sane person is motivated to kill by a work of art, no matter how dark or violent. A violent, murderous rampage in a cinema has nothing to do with any of these works. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And if someone you are with says something like that, pull them up on it. I agree with Jon Fisher from The Film Brief, who in a podcast with me following the events, said that if anything, the killer was just narcissistic and knew that The Dark Knight Rises would be the big news story and wanted a part of that fame.
As an Australian I do not have the intimate knowledge to really comment on American gun laws, which to me seem utterly ludicrous. I will draw one parallel though. In 1996, one horrific day changed gun control in Australia forever. In Port Arthur, Tasmania, Martin Bryant – armed with a semi-automatic rifle – massacred 35 people. In response, the Howard government made possibly the only decision of their time in power that I agree with (for those unfamiliar with Australian politics, the Howard government was a conservative government that had little time for human rights and led public debate in this country down some very dangerous paths). The Howard government immediately severely restricted the availability of all automatic and semi-automatic weapons and announced an amnesty for those weapons already in the community to be offered up to police so they could be destroyed. Yes, there have been gun deaths since. But the bold and swift actions of the conservative government resulted in no tragedy approaching that of the Port Arthur massacre occurring since. One horrific event can change the way a nation works, the way that people access weapons with murderous potential. I can only hope that the Aurora cinema massacre can be that one event for America. All it needs is someone brave enough to stand up and make the change happen.
I’ll finish up this little piece with the same quote that I use to close the discussion with Jon on The Film Brief podcast a couple of days ago. These words come from Jamie Kilstein, a stand up comedian, podcaster and massive superhero film fan on facebook: “I want to write about gun laws,racism, and idiots on the news, but after meeting so many great people at a midnight show last night in NYC, so many outcasts, so many nerds, so many people excited to watch a movie about a superhero, I’m just sad.” So am I.
The Dark Knight Rises is for me, a great film, even a 5 star one. Go and see it. Enjoy it, and be thankful for all that you have.