Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Glynn-Carney, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan, James D’Arcy
In May of 1940, the British Expeditionary Force, along with the French army, had been driven back to the Northern coast of France by the Nazis. 400,000 British troops were trapped on the beach at Dunkirk, sitting ducks to aerial attacks. While only 26 miles from home, so close you can practically see it, the shallow waters made it impossible for large vessels to get in and collect them. So the British Navy implemented ‘Operation Dynamo,’ requisitioning all available small civilian vessels – fishing boats, yachts and tugs – to cross the channel and retrieve them. The ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ is a treasured piece of British history. When their boys couldn’t get home, home came to get their boys. Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, takes this tale and transforms it into immersive cinematic spectacle in a way that only he can.
Dunkirk brings us the story from three perspectives: the mole (as in a pier), the sea and the air. Continue reading
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Bill Irwin, Matt Damon, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Topher Grace, Casey Affleck
And so it has arrived. Arguably the year’s most anticipated film, the film which had blockbuster lovers and serious cinephiles alike impatiently counting down: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. As the first step in Nolan’s post-Dark Knight Trilogy career Interstellar delivers exactly the sort of bold, ambitious and audacious filmmaking we have come to expect from this British director who has established himself as today’s premier large-canvas filmmaker.
In the not too distant future a still very recognisable Earth is on the verge of being uninhabitable. Ravaged by dust storms and a major blight that has caused the death of most crops – the only thing that still grows is corn – making sure that there is enough food to keep people alive has become humanity’s first and only priority. Once a NASA pilot, Cooper is now a frustrated farmer, living in the Midwest with his son Tom and daughter Murph, but still maintaining the heart of an explorer. By this time NASA has become an underground organisation; at times like these the government cannot be seen to pour money into something as frivolous as space exploration. There Professor Brand is working on a plan to ensure the long term viability of humanity. While there are no other inhabitable planets in our galaxy, a wormhole has opened up near Saturn which has given them access to other stars and galaxies and twelve planets with potential have been identified. When an unusual occurrence lands Cooper on NASA’s doorstep, Brand invites him to pilot the exploratory mission. So, motivated by the chance of ensuring the survival of his children, Cooper joins the crew and sets off on a mission to save humanity.
Interstellar takes us into the world of theoretical physics. The narrative is built around concepts of time and relativity. As the crew explore different planets of different masses, it impacts the relationship between their time and Earth time. In one instance, a three hour stopover to investigate a water covered planet ends up equating to 23 years on Earth, an occurrence which is emotively captured through the lifetime’s worth of video messages from home that await the team when they return to their ship. The film attempts to explain relativity in simple, visual terms in order to keep the audience on board, so you don’t have to be a physicist to understand what is going on. That said, Nolan has always been a filmmaker who prefers to trust his audience to keep up rather than over-explain things. Consider the reverse chronology of Memento or the multi-layered narrative of Inception. Likewise, here he trusts his audience to glean enough from the film’s many discussions of theoretical physics that they will be able to follow what is happening even if they don’t completely understand the concepts.
California Institute of Technology physicist Kip Thorne, known for his work on traversable wormholes, was a script consultant for the Nolan brothers (Christopher’s brother Jonathan was co-writer) and receives an executive producer credit on the film. As such, Interstellar has been praised for the unprecedented accuracy of its depictions of black holes and wormholes. But even for those of us who are none the wiser on such matters, the visuals of these phenomena are still very striking. These impressive visual effects are complemented by the use of stunning location shooting for those scenes which take place on foreign planets. The result is that Interstellar is very much a big screen movie.
Science fiction, particularly when you move away from the action-adventure end of the spectrum towards the more ideas-based narratives, is often accused of being cold and emotionless. Nolan has faced similar criticisms of his own filmmaking, that for all the spectacle and grandeur, the scope and scale, his films lack a beating human heart. In Interstellar the filmmaker seems to be searching for that balance, accompanying the theoretical physics which inform the story with an exploration of human themes of hope and sacrifice. Interstellar sets itself up as a very scientific film, in which people act pragmatically, but it then introduces emotion, love and the bonds between people as motivating forces which must be factored into this scientific equation. The film also contains more humour than we have previously seen in Nolan’s work, mostly courtesy of TARS, the artificial intelligence robot which accompanies the crew. However, in seeking to bring a human warmth to his film, Nolan arguably overcorrects and in the third act takes the film in an overly sentimental and fantastical direction.
With a runtime of 169 minutes, Interstellar is a long movie. Christopher Nolan hasn’t made a film under two hours since Insomnia in 2002 – most have been around the 150 minute mark – so the length here shouldn’t be a surprise. Of course, length is not, in itself, a problem if a film can maintain your interest for that period of time. But while Interstellar is never slow and crams a lot into its runtime it still feels long and the multiple codas that make up the film’s last twenty minutes drag.
At its best, Interstellar is very impressive indeed. It is hard to watch this film without thinking of Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Given that film is one of Nolan’s favourites, the similarities are likely no accident. Unfortunately, Interstellar does not maintain that high standard for the entirety of its runtime. It is not always engrossing, despite an impressively deep cast some of the characters are thinly drawn, Hans Zimmer’s score (which has shades of Vangelis) at times overpowers the dialogue, and the film’s third act and coda will frustrate a lot of people. Interstellar contains some major cinematic achievements, but does not deserve to take its place in the science fiction pantheon.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Interstellar? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne
After successfully resurrecting the dormant Batman franchise with his Dark Knight Trilogy, DC Comics and Warner Brothers turned to Christopher Nolan with a far greater challenge: Superman. At a time when audiences seem to prefer their heroes flawed, either with a sense of damage and menace (Batman) or an overly well-developed ego (Iron Man), was there still a market for an idealistic boy scout in a blue suit who fights for truth, justice and the American way?
Whereas the last attempt to resurrect the franchise, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, tried to follow on from the Christopher Reeve series, Man of Steel takes us back to the beginning. Rather than working chronologically, the film jumps back and forth, relying heavily on flashbacks to fill in the story of how Kal-El became Clark Kent and then Superman – a handy device to avoid the usual origin story problem of requiring the audience to wait too long before Superman starts being super. No sooner has Clark learned the truth about his heritage, he is called upon to protect his adopted home from invaders from his ancestral home, with the banished Kryptonian military leader General Zod mounting an invasion of Earth, with the intention of establishing it as a new Krypton.
The “invaders from outer space” nature of the threat in Man of Steel makes it feel more akin to Transformers or Independence Day than other spandex-clad superhero movies. That is the biggest difference between this and previous screen adaptations: Man of Steel is a science-fiction movie rather than a fantasy. It looks like a science fiction movie, with the ice-crystal set designs of the Christopher Reeve films abandoned for a design seemingly more inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien, and it sounds like a science-fiction movie, complete with terrible dialogue about world engines, codexes and Phantom drives.
Like many a Superman adaptation before it, Man of Steel flirts with the allusion of Superman as a Christ figure – an ironic tradition given the hero was the product of Jewish creators Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster. Our hero’s father, Jor-El, tells his son, “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time they will join you in the sun. In time you will help them accomplish wonders.” The Christ allusions in Man of Steel aren’t as overt as they have been in the past – in Superman Returns he was “the light to show them the way,” literally sacrificing himself for the sake of humanity only to be resurrected a couple of days later – instead preferring to focus on the idea of Superman being a symbol of hope.
With Nolan acting as producer, directorial duties were given to Zack Snyder, who is known for his highly stylised use of digital effects in films like 300, Sucker Punch and Watchmen. While he sticks to a pretty simple aesthetic here, his experience with digital effects results in the most visually impressive Superman film yet made, with the little touches – like the way you see the sound barrier being cracked when Superman flies away – being more impressive than the huge effects we are used to seeing in this kind of movie.
A big movie like this one presented as an epic story needs a big-time cast to carry it. British actor Henry Cavill makes for a good Superman, with the appropriate combination of broad chest, chiselled jaw and trustworthy eyes. Amy Adams gets more to work with than past Lois Lanes, with her incarnation of the plucky journalist being courageous, resourceful, and finally intelligent enough to be able to recognise the object of her affection even when he puts on glasses. But it is the depth and quality of the supporting cast which really helps to give the film an epic quality, with the likes of Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner and Lawrence Fishburne all putting in solid supporting turns.
While it is certain to perform strongly at the box office, ultimately Man of Steel runs into the same issues that Superman stories always seem to: that the build-up is more interesting than the climax. In this case the interest is in the existential journey of a young Clark Kent who is trying to work out who he is, why he is here and what he should do with his abilities, and in the way people respond to him and what he represents. But an adventure story climax requires a level of threat that is hard to muster when your hero is practically invincible. In this case he has an adversary who is equally invincible, and watching two of them hitting each other starts to get a bit tedious after a while.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell
Before Christopher Nolan was the man who reinvented the superhero movie with the brilliant Dark Knight Trilogy, before he was even “the guy who made that backwards movie with Guy Pearce” (Memento for those of you playing along at home), he made an interesting little noir-thriller called Following. It is the story of Bill, an aspiring writer who decides to start following people at random, just to see what they do, thinking it will give him special insight for his writing. When one of his targets, a burglar named Cobb who breaks into people’s homes not so much to steal things as to voyeuristically look into people’s lives, approaches him, Bill finds himself involved in a very strange relationship.
Nolan’s debut feature, Following is a no-budget film shot handheld in grainy, black-and-white. Nolan wrote, directed, produced and shot the film himself. For cast and crew, he used friends and acquaintances, with the picture being shot over a period of about a year, shooting on Saturdays whenever people were free. I quite enjoy watching the really early films from directors who go on to become big names – the Directors Suite released a great DVD of Martin Scorsese’s early short films which is really worth a look – because it is interesting to see what traces of the filmmaker they would become can be found in those early, often much smaller scale, works.
The primary feature of Following is its narrative structure. Nolan takes a linear story, divides it into four sections and then inter-cuts them, delivering to the viewer a non-chronological narrative which tells us the young man’s story through a series of flash backs and jumps forward. Innovations in the realm of narrative form have become one of Nolan’s chief attributes as a filmmaker, with films like Memento, The Prestige and Inception all playing with form and narrative structure different ways. Following gives us an early, and much simpler example of the kind of innovation Nolan would employ as his career progressed.
The other thing which is great about Following is that it is only 70mins long. In a time when it is becoming increasingly common for films to go well beyond the two-hour mark regardless of whether they really need to or not, it is refreshing to see a filmmaker show that a good story can be told in under 90 minutes.
If anything lets this film down, it is they quality of the performances. However this is to be expected given the amateur cast – none of whom have added many credits of substance outside of small cameos in later Nolan films – and the disjointed nature of the production.
There is also a nice little moment of Nolan serendipity for the movie nerds out there. After Bill and Cobb break into a man’s apartment, we see them leave through a front door which proudly displays a Batman logo.
While it was really his next film, Memento, which established Nolan as one of the upcoming filmmakers of the early 2000s, Following did win a few awards, most notably at the San Francisco Film Festival and the Slamdance Film Festival, and announced Nolan as someone to watch. Following has recently been released on Blu-Ray as part of the Criterion Collection, and includes a commentary from Nolan, an essay by film critic Scott Foundas and Nolan’s short film Doodlebug.
Rating – ★★★☆
By Duncan McLean
Yesterday the first full trailer for Zack Snyder’s Superman movie Man of Steel hit the internet, and it made for some interesting viewing.
For mine, this is an excellent trailer. It’s bold and operatic. It gives you a sense of what the film is about thematically without giving away any of the narrative. If you didn’t know what you were watching, you could get about a minute into the trailer before realising it was Superman.
Christopher Nolan is a producer on the film, and it appears that they have taken a leaf out of his Batman blue-print. He has said in a number of interviews that one of the primary goals of Batman Begins was to get the audience to care about Bruce Wayne and not just be impatiently waiting for him to put the suit on. It appears Snyder is taking a similar approach here with Man of Steel, trying to get us invested in Clark Kent as a person. Even in this first trailer we are being confronted with the questions and decisions facing this young man.
We get little glimpses of what is a very impressive supporting cast – Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Shannon – but really, this trailer is all about Henry Cavill, and he definitely looks the part (apart from one awkward shot where he looks a bit made up).
The film is due out mid-2013 and I’ll be very interested to see how it goes. The big question for me, which is still hasn’t really been answered, is can they make Superman an interesting, complex and flawed enough character for a 21st century audience to get behind. Look at the superhero movies that have succeeded over the last few years. Nolan’s Batman is an emotionally damaged vigilante. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man is a arrogant, narcissistic playboy. Is Superman, as a concept, too perfect for contemporary audiences? And is the rest of the world still interested in a superhero who fights for “Truth, Justice and the American way”?
As the end of the year draws closer the top ten lists from different critics, magazines and institutions are coming thick and fast. Today the American Film Institute named its top ten for the year and there were a couple of surprises. The list was unranked, and looks like this:
Argo (Ben Affleck)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
The Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
The Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
There are two major surprises for mine, one an inclusion and one an exclusion. The Dark Knight Rises making the list was a bit of a shock. It was undoubtedly one of the most anticipated and most ambitious films of the year, but it didn’t quite reach the heights a lot of people were hoping for and has been absent from most of the other top tens that I’ve seen.
The big absence is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. An intensely interesting film, whose links to Scientology guaranteed a level of controversy and exposure a film of this kind would not otherwise have received, The Master has been a bit of a critical darling. It won gongs at the Venice Film Festival (Best Director for Anderson and shared Best Actor between Juaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman) and is talked about as a big time Oscar contender, and has appeared in a lot of top ten lists already, including topping that of the prestigious British film journal Sight and Sound. So it’s failure to rate a mention from the AFI is notable.
The other thing about this list that is exciting for myself and other movie lovers on this side of the world is that so many of these films haven’t come out yet. With Django Unchained, Les Misérables, The Life of Pi, Lincoln, The Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty all due to hit screens in the next couple of months, we have a quality summer of movies to look forward to.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman
With the exception of perhaps Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, no film released this year has had to contend with the immense weight of expectation that met The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Dark Knight Trilogy, when it hit theatres in July. Nolan’s films had re-written the rules of comic-book movie-making, combining box office success with critical reverence.
The Dark Knight Rises sees Bruce Wayne living in self-imposed exile after the events of The Dark Knight. When the terrorist Bane releases thousands of Gotham’s most dangerous criminals from Blackgate Prison, and succeeds in prompting a class war which brings the city to its knees – all the while obscuring his even more devastating plan – it becomes apparent that Gotham has no other hope, and Wayne is forced to once again don the Bat-suit.
When the first film in the trilogy, Batman Begins, was released, much was said about this being a ‘darker’ approach to Batman. But the darkness wasn’t really anything new. Tim Burton’s films, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) had been dark. Frank Miller’s comic The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One had been dark. Batman had always been a character who suited a dark, gothic interpretation. Rather, what made Nolan’s take on the Batman mythology different was his intent to ground it in the real world, asking the question “How would this work in real life?” This emphasis on grounding the action in the real world then allowed for the film to engage with real world issues.
While other comic book adaptations like The Avengers and Iron Man have been incredibly successful, their pure escapism lacks the real-world relevance of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were both very much products of the War on Terror. The Dark Knight Rises draws on the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement to deal with themes of revolution, capitalism and economic imbalance (as Nolan said in an interview, “You can’t really deal with Bruce Wayne without eventually acknowledging the massive wealth he’s a part of”).
Likewise, this grounding of the Batman story in a real world means that in Nolan’s films we see explorations of the consequences of Bruce Wayne’s decisions and actions. The Dark Knight Rises is a film about consequences – physical, emotional, psychological.
Each of Nolan’s three Batman films have been generically quite different. Batman Begins had a very mythological feel to it, with Bruce Wayne travelling to the farthest ends of the earth to learn his craft from a mysterious cult. The Dark Knight largely abandoned that mythological sensibility, and instead became an urban crime thriller (Nolan often compared the picture to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995)). The Dark Knight Rises again changes direction. This time Nolan is taking us into the world of the historical epic.
Whether or not you think that The Dark Knight Rises succeeds in what it is attempting, you can’t help but admire the ambition of the film. Nolan is attempting to tell a historical epic (not the persistant allusions to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution) on an epic scale, resulting in filmmaking on a scale that has not been seen in Hollywood for a long, long time. The scale of the picture is immense, with this size emphasised by the fact that so much of it was shot in IMAX format. The magnitude of some of the set pieces, literally employing a cast of thousands, harks back to the epics of classical Hollywood and a style of filmmaking we just don’t see in the CGI era.
The Dark Knight Rises does not quite reach the lofty heights of its prequel, but then very few films have. It is, none the less, a very good film and a satisfying end to a very impressive trilogy. It is pleasing to see a filmmaker with the conviction to take a very popular film franchise and bring it to a close rather than giving in to the temptation to drag it out. In closing the story of Bruce Wayne with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has retained the integrity of what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the key film franchises of the early 21st century.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean