(On Cable TV, May 2018) Writer/director Christopher Nolan rarely disappoints, and Dunkirk is no exception—after striking box-office gold and rapturous critical acclaim as often as he has, Nolan has earned the right to do whatever we want, and a recreation of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation is just as good a starting point as any. Of course, Nolan being Nolan, it’s not quite your average war movie—Dunkirk does clever things with time in meshing, through savvy editing, three stories that respectively take place over one week, one day and one hour: they all converge during a furious climax, but the thrills are nearly constant along the way: Thanks to impressive practical re-creations and aggressive sound editing/mixing, this is a war movie that pummels viewers as much as its characters. (Seriously, the sound is top-notch—I was annoyed that Dunkirk swept the sound categories at the latest Oscars over Baby Driver, but having now seen both, I can now understand why they were in competition.) Clearly presenting the situation, Dunkirk does hit upon most of the event’s highlights—the plight of the soldiers stuck waiting for evacuation, the role played by fighter pilots and more intriguingly the sense of duty felt by so many ordinary British citizen called upon to drive their boats to France and back in order to rescue the beached soldiers. It’s been touched upon one or twice in movie history (in my head, I can almost see Mr. Miniver somewhere in the background of the evacuation scenes) but not in this way. Otherwise, Dunkirk uses the modern panoply of action movie techniques, always in a controlled-enough fashion for maximum effectiveness rather than confusion. The editing is terrific both at a macro and micro-scale, whereas the actors distinguish themselves despite not being particularly diverse by virtue of historical demographics. Dunkirk is another solid hit for Nolan and while it may not have the conceptual giddiness of such a high-flying genre piece as Inception or Memento, it’s a solid war movie that deftly wrestle with contemporary expectations and sensibilities—never “Nazis” or “Germans”; always “the enemy”. But mostly, a movie about heroes that doesn’t always require them to kill.
(On DVD, March 2016) Most black-and-while no-budget independent movies of 1998 have faded in obscurity by now, but Following has one crucial distinction: It’s the first full-length feature film by now-famous auteur Christopher Nolan, and considering Nolan’s rabid fan base, it doesn’t take all that much effort to find on DVD these days. Quite a bit of the attention is warranted: From an unusual beginning (a bored writer starts following people by accident, but is discovered by a sophisticated thief with existential motives), the film plays with chronology, motivations and allegiances. It eventually turns full-noir with femme fatale, elaborate double-crosses and greed-inspired plots. Making the most out of visibly limited means, Following works best as a promising calling card from a filmmaker busting to do better. While it directly influenced latter movies such as Memento (in its fractured chronology and noir affiliation), it still stands apart in the Nolan oeuvre so far. Following does have some entertainment value beyond simply being “Nolan’s first movie”—and at less than 80 minutes, it’s not as if it overstays its welcome.
(Video on Demand, April 2015) Some movies are more difficult to approach in a capsule review than others, and while Interstellar is certainly one of them, the fact that I saw it with a raging fever doesn’t help matters at all. My expectations about it were running high: Christopher Nolan is an ambitious director, and daring to present an original hard-SF space exploration spectacle at a time where superhero franchises are the rage would be ironic even if The Dark Knight Returns hasn’t directly financed Interstellar. The film certainly delivers on its promises: With a two-and-a-half hours running time, it tackles new frontiers of science (thanks to physicist Kip Thorne’s collaboration), time-travel (in a way), an extinction-level crisis, weighty family matters and humanity’s future in one big wide-screen package. Matthew McConaughey stars as an intrepid engineer bucking against a subsistence-mode Earth, selected to lead a mission that may offer a way out of a decaying environment. The rest of the film is an interlocking puzzle of big ideas brought home through very personal stories, exploiting the dramatic possibilities of physics in a way often realized in prose Science Fiction but rarely attempted on-screen. The result is like a good solid hard-SF novella brought to life, with careful direction and mind-expanding sequences. I liked it a lot, but surprisingly enough didn’t quite love it like I loved Inception. The length of the film is an issue, and so are some of the shakier elements of the world-building in which the story takes place. I couldn’t sufficiently suspend my disbelief when it came to Earth-side matters, although some of the dreary details were all-too-vivid. Still, I enjoyed toying with the film’s ideas and theme, and think that this is a major Science Fiction film in the way it successfully manages to feel like a mid-seventies hard-SF novel, combining a decent amount of science with a decent amount of fiction. I’m half-tempted to blame my fever for not being bowled over by the result, but it may also be that Interstellar is designed to be admired more than to be loved… which, in itself, is a very hard-SF intention.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) Is it possible to follow-up a modern classic such as The Dark Knight without making a few missteps in the process? Probably not, but writer/director Christopher Nolan makes fewer mistakes than most in trying to provide a definitive conclusion to the cycle he launched with Batman Begins: In The Dark Knight Rises, he’s willing to toy with the archetypes of superhero movies (Batman doesn’t make an appearance until 50 minutes in the film), blending it with real-world elements in order to deliver a thrilling, hefty, sometimes-philosophical take on the place of extraordinary people in society. Christian Bale once again stars as Batman/Bruce Wayne, once again flanked by Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, and this time ably supported by Tom Hardy as supervillain Bane, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt as a capable partner and less-ably by Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. (Let us be blunt: Hathaway has old-school grace and beauty, but it’s not the slinky-sex-kitten quality that the best Catwomen should have.) Still, the script is the most interesting element of the picture: it blends real-world markers with superhero crutches (so that we get CIA extraction planes, professional football games and references to social inequality alongside cities cut off from the rest of the world by hoodlums, people dressing up in amusing costumes and a quasi-mythical “League of Assassin”), scratches a little bit to reveal character motivations, re-uses elements of the previous two films to good effect and tells a surprisingly satisfying story despite numerous small flaws. For anyone else, The Dark Knight Rises would be an impressive achievement: as big and bold as an action blockbuster should be, while handled with a surprising amount of depth, darkness and complexity. Still, compared strictly to Nolan’s previous two films, it’s a bit of a letdown: the themes aren’t as strong as in The Dark Knight and the ingeniousness of Inception is considerably toned down. But never mind the comparative let-down: The Dark Knight Rises is an enormously successful film, another example that entertainment doesn’t have to be entirely brainless. It’s a spectacle with some depth, a daring way to handle an immensely popular protagonist and a subversive way to follow-up its previous two installments. It easily ranks as one of the good movies of 2012, and it should please even the most demanding fans.
(In theaters, July 2010) It’s tough to review Christopher Nolan’s Inception without sounding like a gushing fanboy, but here goes: One of the finest SF movies in years (even so soon after Avatar and District 9), Inception cashes Nolan’s Dark Knight chips and goes on to deliver a masterful cinematic experience that combines big-budget entertainment, thematic depth, weighty characters and splendid action sequences. Good enough for you? While it’s not a perfect film (lengthy snow sequence, insufficient exploitation of dream logic, some weak actors/roles), Inception wipes the floor with other big-budget action films thanks to unusually ambitious goals, pitch-perfect sequences, savvy storytelling and multiple levels of understanding. It’s a measure of how successful it is that much of it appears simple, even obvious. But when the film starts with “it’s a dream within a dream” and works its way to five (maybe six) levels of overlapping reality without losing its audience, it’s hard not to be impressed. Ever since Memento (with high points at The Prestige and The Dark Knight), Nolan has proved himself to be an unusually skilled writer/director with a gift for infusing popular entertainment with weighty thematic consideration. So it is that Inception effortlessly touches upon dream logic, moviemaking shortcuts, personal grief, human mythmaking, memetic madness and subconscious sabotage without seeming to break a sweat, all the while delivering a heist film according to the well-worn conventions of the subgenre. Watching the film is like falling into a pleasant trance, emerging from the experience a lot like the characters coming back to reality. Subtle and not-so-subtle touches add to the experience, such as a deliriously effective shifting-gravity fight sequence, an iconic sequence in which Paris serves as an exposition background, and a frame-perfect last shot that will please both those who want a definitive ending and those who don’t. Brainier viewers will be pleased to watch a film that finally dares viewers to keep up. Science Fiction fans will be particularly satisfied to see a film that uses SF devices for their emotional power while delivering some good old-fashioned sense-of-wonder at interlocking realities. While the actors are a bit hit-and-miss (I’m still not convinced by Leonardo DiCaprio, nor by Ellen Page’s mushy-mouthed lack of affect, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic as the picture’s lead action hero), the real star is Nolan as screenwriter and director, because Inception is beautifully controlled from beginning to end, combining the precision of The Prestige with the non-linear storytelling of Memento and the action rhythm of The Dark Knight. Inception is, in a carefully chosen word, amazing, and a shoo-in for year’s end top-10 lists. Expect to see it more than once.