★★★★ / ★★★★
Those expecting character, or characters, to latch onto, to understand, to care for, are setting themselves up for disappointment because writer-director Christopher Nolan is more interested in the motion of chess pieces across the board than he is at psychoanalysis in “Dunkirk,” one of the most efficient and beautifully photographed war films in recent memory. Every minute serves a purpose with the ominous score looming above and between the horrific evacuation of four hundred thousand Allied soldiers from the titular beach where tides change every three interminable hours.
Tension builds in a consistent manner despite the viewer not knowing the names of soldiers and civilians the story follows. Survival is the central motivation of every person on screen and it is the only element required to create a sense of urgency. Precise with lingering shots of hollowed and pallid soldiers during heavy silences and agile camera work when action and barrage of noise move toward the spotlight, a mesmerizing rhythm is established as the project dives in deep to underline the disasters of this particular evacuation and goes up eventually for a breath of air, of hope, but only for a fleeting moment. Nolan’s laser focus in telling the story equals that of his unique vision for the material.
Perhaps the most impressive chunks of the picture are those that contain no standard dialogue. Pay close attention to the opening scene, for example, as hurried footsteps, rapid breathing, and bullets ricocheting do the talking. Meanwhile, the veteran writer-director ensures to capture the eyes of the target (Fionn Whitehead), who looks more like a boy than a man, as desperation turns to hope and back again. Clearly, with this particular story being told in such a specific way, making room for classic or expected character development would only impede the momentum of the material. Nolan is correct to strip it away for what he intends to deliver is a visceral experience.
Despite images detailing the horrors of war, they are not without astounding beauty. Aerial shots of endless lines and rows of men in dark uniform against the bright sand, ships tilted to the side and being swallowed up by cold water before our very eyes after being bombed, dogfights requiring incredible attention as threats can and do appear at every direction are only some of the examples of the film’s visual feasts. Despite these stunning images, however, we never forget about the bullet-ridden bodies, cold corpses buried in the sand, drowned individuals who were eager to get home just a few moments ago. Couple these images and impressions with carefully executed dialogue of old men sending young boys to fight the war that the former started. A tragic feeling pervades the material.
“Dunkirk” is a top-level war film without sentimentality. Those who require selfless heroism shot in a grandiose way as score crescendos, designed to render the viewers emotionally vulnerable, are certain to be letdown by this most capable and confident work. In my mind, there is no doubt that the film will endure the test of time.
★★★ / ★★★★
These days, when a Christopher Nolan film comes out, it is an event. The reason is largely because he is willing to set the bar quite high for himself as a filmmaker and storyteller that sheer ambition and verve usually tend to inspire or impress many. But those willing to inspect closely will notice a chink in the armor: Like his weaker pictures, “The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Interstellar” is beautifully shot and photographed, even exciting superficially, but it is overlong and overblown.
Most problematic is the so-called revelation during the final quarter which delves into a perceived supernatural presence acknowledged early on. It is entirely predictable. At that point, I felt my body sinking into my seat, almost embarrassed but certainly in disbelief that Nolan, despite his admirable quality of constantly striving for boldness or originality, has actually utilized one of the oldest tricks in the book. Worse, it is employed for the sake of sentimentality. I did not buy it and neither should any intelligent viewer. It is important that we know we deserve more.
What should have been done instead is to leave a bit of mystery for audience. Clearly, the film is influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s challenging “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It is disappointing that the script by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan has chosen to traverse a more accessible path, easily digestible, some might argue spoon-fed, providing all the answers by the time the screen fades to black. The final thirty minutes comes across messy, amateurish, and not fully realized.
The basic premise is this: Earth’s atmosphere is now largely composed of nitrogen, rather than oxygen, and so the planet is on the verge of becoming uninhabitable. As a result, a shortage of food spans the globe. It is without a doubt that mankind is facing extinction. When ten-year-old Murph (Mackenzie Foy) begins to receive strange messages in her room, she and her father, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), are led to a hidden facility where scientists (led by a character played by Michael Caine) have come up with a plan to save the species. Cooper, currently a farmer but formerly a test pilot and engineer for NASA, is asked to participate on a mission which involves visiting potentially habitable planets outside of our known solar system.
Perhaps the most suspenseful sequence takes place on a bizarre planet where it appears to be composed of only water. The sequence demands attention because of two factors: we do not know what to expect from the seemingly calm environment and we are not yet aware if Cooper and the team (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) will be able to work together effectively. On top of these, spending time on this particular planet carries a special risk. Cooper has promised to return to his daughter.
One of the picture’s limitations is its tendency to jump back and forth between the intergalactic mission and the happenings at home. While it is important we are consistently reminded that time is of the essence, both on a personal and a global level, we need not observe the drama between Cooper’s grown children (Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck) because it all seems so insignificant compared to the decisions their father must face. Video transmissions aboard the ship would have sufficed. Sometimes showing less communicates great sophistication while more is just overindulgent.
“Interstellar” is well-acted by the performers across the board; they deliver what is expected of the roles they must play. A few images are a marvel, particularly those of icy mountains that seem to go on for miles and a spacecraft set against the darkness of space—with no sound. But the picture fails to drill completely into Cooper’s roles as a father and a potential savior of the human species. It goes to show that although a filmmaker is provided a sizable budget to employ talent that will grace the screen and hire technicians to make images look just right, when the screenplay is not sculpted to near perfection, an otherwise ambitious project that can potentially set a standard may end up just satisfying rather than transcending.
Dark Knight Rises, The (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Eight years since the death of Harvey Dent, a former District Attorney and one of the leaders of the fight against war on crime, organized crime had been completely exorcised from Gotham City. Since Batman took the fall for the demise of the white knight and several police officers, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) had been living as a recluse. This temporary peace in Gotham, however, was threatened by the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a thewy mercenary who recently kidnapped an important scientist. But Bane was not a typical mercenary: he was a former member of the League of Shadows, the same group that trained Bruce before he created Batman, and personally exiled by its leader, Ra’s al Ghul. “The Dark Knight Rises,” directed by Christopher Nolan, delivered an absorbing exposition by allowing us to feel sympathy for the true hero that afforded Gotham citizens the kind of city they’ve always wanted. More than ever, Bale was allowed to shine in the way he meticulously but naturally portrayed a character who was no longer needed by his creators. There was drama not simply because Bruce felt lost and depressed, it was due to the fact that we knew that he deserved fulfillment, a life he could call his own, outside of the mask. No other person could understand the man behind the mask more than Alfred (Michael Cane), Bruce’s help, best friend, and father figure. The most emotionally moving sections of the film involved the two clashing in terms of what the city really needed versus how Bruce should go on with his life. Cane was so good with his line deliveries, I teared up a bit when Alfred mentioned his yearly vacation in Florence, Italy and what he hoped to see across from him while sitting in a restaurant. There was a much deserved complexity in Alfred and Bruce’s relationship which was more than I can say about Bane’s plot to so-called give the people exactly what they wanted. While the action scenes held an above average level of excitement, such as when the villain made his first public appearance, there were too many characters running all of the place–characters who were worth knowing more about. There was Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), conflicted in terms of whether he should reveal Dent’s true colors to the public; Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an ardent young man willing to fight to preserve the good in his city; and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who wished to wipe her criminal past clean. And then there was Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), Bruce’s romantic interest that came so far out of left field, I found it completely unconvincing. There was already little chemistry between Cotillard and Bale and the writing didn’t help them in building something the audience could get behind. Each of the supporting characters was given the spotlight one way or another but the screenplay didn’t have enough time to really drill into what made them more than pawns in the people’s liberation against Bane’s grasp. And so when the denouement arrived, some of the revelations, one of which I found predictable in a fun way, did not feel entirely rewarding. Based on the screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, while “The Dark Knight Rises” was undeniably entertaining, it could be observed that perhaps it attempted to take on too much. It wasn’t a breezy bat-glide to the finish line.
Dark Knight, The (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Just when Gotham City seemed able to completely delouse itself of its gangster and crooks, a makeup-wearing man with green hair and scars around his lips, known as The Joker (Heath Ledger), emerged and threatened to send the city back into its original state: crime-ridden, a general lack of hope for the future, and citizens living in fear. “The Dark Knight,” based on the screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, was a menudo of complex ideas, from what it meant to be a symbol of justice to what could happen if that symbol was driven to an extreme and then derailed, coupled with thrilling action sequences with enough tricks up its sleeve, to describe the experience of watching it in one word would be “transportive.” What I loved about the screenplay was its treatment of Batman (Christian Bale) in terms of his relationship with Gotham City. While the earlier scenes showed him capturing crooks of all levels, there was a certain level of detachment between he and us. Scant information was given about his personal life; he was defined by his actions as a man with a mask and as Bruce Wayne when he expressed his intentions to Alfred (Michael Caine) and what he felt he could do better for the city. Despite sporting a cape and a mask, it was made clear to us that he was a civil servant first and that felt refreshing. Other civic servants in the film included Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), a police lieutenant, and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a district attorney who felt equal passion as Batman and his comrades to overturn the Gotham underworld and to rid the streets of crime. I enjoyed that much of the attention was on Dent and how he responded to the stresses incited by The Joker. While there was a clear character arc in Dent, it was an unpredictable course because, like a real person, although he valued many things, not all of them were of equal importance. As more of his buttons were pushed, the pressure increased until the inevitable breaking point. Eckhart had to be lauded because we had to be with his character every step of the way. As Gotham’s white knight, Dent didn’t prowl the streets at night to capture bad guys but the actor found a way to communicate to us why he was a heroic and ultimately a tragic figure. Another performance worth nothing included Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s friend since childhood and Dent’s romantic interest. Gyllenhaal found a balance between intelligence and spunk so I cared about Rachel when she eventually had to confront The Joker and was threatened to have her face carved with a permanent smile. Lastly, Ledger gave a performance so magnetic, I relished every sound that came out of his mouth and obsessed over the subtle body movements he embedded within his deranged character. While the script was very sharp to the point where just about anyone could read it and sound evil, Ledger made it his own, techniques ranging from strange ticks to awkward pauses, allowing The Joker to be evil and fun without being silly or cartoonish. The film was a rousing entertainment partly because it had an excellent villain. I likened The Joker to a super-bacterium, a microorganism resistant to antibiotics. Batman, government officials like Dent, and the police were the drugs meant to cure its host, Gotham City, of an affliction. While they were able to get rid of regular bacteria like Falcone and his successors (Eric Roberts), The Joker was immune because his mind functioned differently as a super-bacterium’s wall composed of various unexpected defenses which made it impervious to the effects of drugs. This made The Joker a real threat, mirrored by his realistic-looking terrorist attacks in the city. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight,” though slightly longwinded toward the end, gave us credit by not just being about right or wrong or which side would win ultimately. It was about the process of reaching a goal which meant taking a magnifying glass on victories, big and small, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, failures. There’s a chance for growth in failure and unfortunately, in our society plagued with cynicism, that isn’t emphasized enough.
Batman Begins (2005)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) was sent to solitary confinement for fighting six fellow prisoners, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), representing Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), invited the richest man in Gotham City, currently on the other side of the world and anonymous, to train and join the League of Shadows. Still angry from the murder of his parents (Linus Roache, Sara Stewart) in the hands of a desperate man (Richard Brake), Bruce accepted. “Batman Begins,” based on the screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, had a gravitational pull so potent, its more sensitive moments actually managed to rival its most thrilling action pieces: it offered us a believable story that we could sink our teeth into instead of simply expecting us to lick a plate full of sugar and fluff that would inevitably leave us unsatisfied. The level of screenplay was impressive because it focused on the story of Bruce the man through first exploring his formative years prior to delving into Bruce the Batman, a symbol meant to inspire and nudge citizens of Gotham out of their apathy involving the city being ruled by criminals and the corrupt. While Bale was convincing as a man full of rage and thirst of vengeance, his character arc was even more involving despite the fact that the material jumped forward in time several times, especially toward the beginning when one detail after another regarding Bruce’s past were thrown on our laps. By keeping its dramatic momentum intact, it caught and maintained our attention; since we could follow its strands almost every step of the way without too much strain, the rewards were fulfilling. The film had a dark atmosphere, especially with its talk of the undetected depression serving as a catalyst for the common people’s desperation, it managed to have fun without being cartoonish and breaking the mood. For instance, Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne’s longtime butler, caretaker, and Bruce’s remaining father figure, was given amusing comments regarding his master’s nightly extracurricular activities. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), formerly a member of the board in Wayne Enterprises but exiled to the basement after new power took control of the company, also had his share of the spotlight when Bruce paid him a visit for nifty and very expensive gadgets. This gave way to questions I’ve always wondered about such as how the Batcave was discovered, how the Batsuit was assembled, and how the Batmobile looked in its early stages. It even featured one of the most beloved treasures in my toy box when I was a kid: the batarang. The picture was also notable for its intelligent use of its antagonists. Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), one of the biggest crime bosses in the city, was not an ostentatious figure that craved attention. He actually preferred to operate in the shadows but he wasn’t afraid to make threats in public if necessary. Still, he was notorious for his reputation. Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, zealously creepy behind those glasses), the eventual Scarecrow, was actually more interesting divorced from his mask. No DNA mutation here, just a regular human so willing to push his experiments to the extreme, he was no better than the criminals he surrounded himself with. The topic of fear ran in the veins of “Batman Begins,” directed by Christopher Nolan, and it was handled with profound insight. The screenplay explored the various meanings of the word and how it changed contingent upon the stakes on the table. The film showed respect by treating the audience as thinkers.
Prestige, The (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale) were gifted magicians. They used to work together up until Alfred accidentally caused the death of Robert’s wife during a performance. Her death triggered Robert’s obsession to have a better career than Alfred, a difficult feat because his rival could effortlessly think outside the box, a natural magician, although he lacked a bit of drama in order to establish a solid rising action and truly engage the audience during his performances. As the two attempted to create more complex tricks, everything else in their lives began to fall apart. Alfred’s wife (Rebecca Hall) became unhappy with their marriage and Robert’s lover (Scarlett Johansson) began to feel used when Robert asked her to spy on his former colleague. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” was a curious film for me because no matter how many times I watched it, I failed to see why it’s loved by practically everyone I know. I admired the performances. Bale was wonderful as a family man who was completely invested in his craft. Every time he spoke about magic and being on stage, I felt passion in his eyes and the subtle intensity of the varying intonations in his voice. Jackman was equally great as a man who was never satisfied. I felt sad for his character because despite his many achievements, what he truly wanted was an impossibility–for his wife to live again. The dark hunger consumed him and he became unable to question his motives or if vengeance was even worth it. The story was interesting because its core was about how being a magician defined a soul. Its labyrinthine storytelling, jumping between past and present, kept my attention because it was like solving a puzzle. However, the picture committed something I found very distasteful. That is, when Robert’s greatest trick, with the help of a scientist named Tesla (David Bowie), was finally revealed, it was borderline science fiction. Imagine a magician who, using a white cloth, made a pigeon disappear right before our eyes. We wait in heavy anticipation for him to bring back the pigeon. Once the “Tada!” moment came, what laid before us was not a pigeon. What appeared was a blue mouse or something not similar to a pigeon at all. The magic trick had turned into a joke. That was how I felt when all cards were laid on the table. Some critical pieces made no sense. I felt cheated because I had the impression that the magic trick was supposed to be grounded in reality. It wasn’t and, I must admit, I felt angry for spending the time in trying to figure out the secret. “The Prestige” wore out its welcome but was kept afloat by its morally complex characters and their willingness to destroy each other for the sake of nothing.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The film started off like a spy film: the glamorous and exotic locale, fashionable suits, femme fatales. But unlike typical espionage pictures, the first half of the characters’ goal was not to steal a valuable object but an idea located deep inside a target’s dreams. The second (and more difficult) half was to get away with it by allowing the target to wake and continue living his life as if nothing had been taken away from him. This simplified two-step process was known as “extraction,” in which Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a leading expert. Cobb was not allowed to return to the United States to see his children so Kaito (Ken Watanabe) made an offer that Cobb simply could not refuse: to plant an idea in a future corporate leader’s mind (Cillian Murphy), known as “inception,” which had rarely been done before. If this last massion was successful, it would lead to Cobb’s freedom. In order to accomplish the mission, Cobb had to assemble a team (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao) with very special talents and they had to dive in the target’s subconscious while navigating their way through defenses set up by the mind and the secrets Cobb kept from his unsuspecting team.
When the movie started, I barely had any idea what was happening. I knew something exciting was happening on screen because of the intricate action sequences and splendid visuals but as far as the story went, it was still nondescript. However, that was not at all a problem because the film eventually established the elementary elements required so that we could have an understanding of what was about to happen. Despite its two-and-a-half-hour running time, I was impressed with its pacing. There was an assigned time for getting to know the lead character in terms of his career, his past, and his inner demons. Once I had a somewhat clear idea of his motivations, I immediately felt that there was something wrong with the way he saw the world and the specifics were eventually revealed in an elegant, sometimes emotional, and often mind-bending manner. Their missions were often sabotaged by Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb’s projection of his wife who had passed away, due to an unsolved guilt that he constantly pushed away. Throughout the course of the film, that guilt, like Mal, became more powerful and became a hindrance that the main character and his team could no longer set aside. Anyone with a background in Psychology will truly appreciate the film’s level of intelligence in terms of Sigmund Freud’s revolutionary idea involving the subconscious manifesting in our every day lives and maintaining our mental homeostasis. But what impressed me even more was the minute details in the script such as the characters mentioning topics such as positive and negative emotions interacting and which side had more power over the other, one’s sense of reality while being in a dream… within a dream, and even questions like “If we die in our dreams, do we die in real life?” were acknowledged. That’s one of the things I loved about the film: it was able to present ideas we are aware of but it just had enough dark twist to create something original.
As with most movies with grand ambitions, I had some questions left unanswered. What about those instances when we are aware that we are dreaming and we can control what will happen in our dreams? I have experienced such a phenomenon time and again (and I’m sure others have as well) and I was curious if and how the movie could explain such a strange occurrence. And what about those moments when we sleep but we are not yet dreaming? What if our dreams are interrupted? Sure, the team injected chemicals in their bodies to stabilize the feeling of reality in dreams but, as the movie perfectly illustrated, nothing completely goes according to plan. Perhaps I’m just being more analytical than I should be thanks to the fascinating sleep studies I encountered in Neurobiology and Psychology courses. But I believe a mark of a great film is open to question, interpretation and debate. I say we question because we have embraced the material and we are hungry for more. That’s how I know I’m emotionally and intellectually invested in a film. That absolute killer final shot and the audiences’ collective sigh of anticipation for the clear-cut answer as the screen cut to black was simply icing on the cake.
“Inception,” written and directed by Christopher Nolan, was certainly worth over a year’s wait since it was still in pre-production. I remember trying look for more information about it during my midterm study breaks (and getting so caught up in it) so I am completely elated that it was finally released and it turned out to be one of the finest and most rewarding movies of 2010. It may not have been its goal but “Inception” certainly adds a much needed positive reputation to mainstream movies, especially in a season full of sequels and spoon-fed entertainment. I was optimistic early 2010 in terms of the quality of movies about to be released in theaters, especially when Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” came out, but now I am more than convinced that the film industry is experiencing a drought of refreshing and daring ideas. Some critics may compare “Inception” to “The Matrix” (both great movies) but I think “Inception” functions on a higher level overall and it has an identity of its own. Perhaps an injection of new blood that is “Inception” will inspire movie studios to take more risks in terms of which movies they green light. There is no doubt that mindless, swashbuckling popcorn adventures or even extremely diluted romantic comedies have their place in the market. But with the critical and mass success of “Inception,” it shows that audiences are always ready to be inspired by new ideas and to dream a little bigger.