Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Christopher Nolan Retrospective Part 6: The Dark Knight Trilogy

The Christopher Nolan Retrospective continues! Last time, we delved into the many dream-layers of Inception to see how it provides insight into the director’s mind itself. Today, in the final installment of the Christopher Nolan Retrospective, we take a look the trilogy that made Nolan an icon to thousands of movie fans: His Dark Knight Trilogy.

As always, I’m going to mention that there will be major spoilers in this discussion, except for The Dark Knight Rises since I know that not everybody has had a chance to see it yet. I will definitely be going into some plot details in The Dark Knight Rises that aren’t necessarily spoilers, but I know that plenty of people have been trying to know as little about the film as possible so that they can have a clean experience with it, so be advised on that regard. If you haven’t seen the other two movies (But seriously, who hasn’t?) they’re available wherever DVDs are sold or rentable.

With that being said, let’s glide across Gothan to analyze Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy…

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The Dark Knight Rises Movie Review


[The Dark Knight Rises
Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and Tom Hardy
MPAA: PG-13 – For Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, Some Sensuality, And Language]

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The Christopher Nolan Retrospective Part 5: Inception

The Christopher Nolan Retrospective continues! Last time, we examined how The Prestige was the key to understanding the films of Christopher Nolan. Today, we’re skipping The Dark Knight to look at what many consider to be Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus: Inception.

As always, I’m going to point out that the Batman films are being saved for a special Batman trilogy installment at the end of the retrospective; which, coincidentally, is going to be the next one. This will coincide with my review of The Dark Knight Rises, so that we get to look at the ways the three films work together as a trilogy. Another thing to point out is that there will be major spoilers in the following discussion, so if you haven’t seen Inception (Which isn’t really likely) then you can rent it anywhere discs can be rented, or even buy it anywhere on DVD or blu-ray.

If you would like to read the other installments of this retrospective, click on the following links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

With that being said, let’s dive right into the many different dream layers of Inception

“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

All throughout this retrospective, I’ve kept hinting at a film that I considered to be the best of Nolan’s filmography and my favorite of his work. Well, prepare for your minds to be blown because I’m talking about it right now. Inception is my favorite Christopher Nolan movie. A lot of people will probably agree with me, and a lot will probably disagree as well; but regardless of what you think of the film it’s impossible not to admit that this is Nolan’s most ambitious, audacious, and imaginative film he’s ever conjured up.

In the last installment, I kept bringing up how The Prestige was the Nolan Rosetta Stone, a.k.a. the key to understanding all of Christopher Nolan’s films; because it contained every single theme and character type that Nolan was obsessed with and had them in an almost meta display on how he constructs his films. Well, if The Prestige is the key to understanding the films of Christopher Nolan, then I’m going to argue that Inception is the key to understanding Christopher Nolan himself.

Inception follows a man named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who specializes in subconscious extraction. He uses special devices that allow people to share dreams and uses them to sneak into a target’s mind, steal their secrets, and gain a profit from it. The only thing he longs for is the home he’s been exiled from and the family he left behind there, because of a crime he didn’t commit. When a lucrative Chinese entrepeneur named Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires him for a job that he would reward with a lifting of his sentence, Cobb accepts right away only to discover that the job in question is more challenging than he expected. What Saito wants isn’t an extraction, but an inception. Rather than stealing an idea, he wants him to plant an idea into someone’s mind.

Inception–pardon the (intentional) pun–works on so many levels. It works as an action film, it works as thought-provoking sci-fi, it works as a character study, hell I even belong in the minority of critics who think that it also works as a tragic romance. The film shouldn’t have worked. There are so many different moving parts and ideas all fighting for space that it’s almost overwhelming, but Nolan pulls it off beautifully thanks to incredibly sharp writing and masterful editing (Seriously, the editing isn’t credited enough or this film).

As an action film, Inception is an incredible spectacle to behold. Christopher Nolan isn’t usually the best at action scenes. They’re normally decent at best, because you could at the very least tell what is going on in all of them and there are actual stakes involved. Here, however, not only are they comprehensibly shot and edited, and not only are the stakes there; you witness some of the coolest things you’ve never seen in an action film until then. The hallway fight scene alone, as brief as it is, is one of the most incredible, original, exciting, and imaginative set-pieces I’ve seen in an action film ever.

As a sci-fi film, Inception is rife with so many ideas it’s almost too much to handle. The film sets up the rules of the world in a way that is expository without being boring. Is it a lot of heavy-handed exposition? Yes. In fact, some people have cited the fact that you spend an hour learning about the rules of dream-sharing and getting accustomed to the vocabulary (kicks, totems, architects, etc). I never had a problem with it, though. For one thing, it never felt like an hour (at least for me it didn’t). For another thing, the way everything is explained is so visually rich and imaginative that I didn’t mind re-watching these scenes in the slightest.

I’ve heard detractors of the film claim that the film has no imagination; that for a film about dreams, it doesn’t take full advantage of the crazyness that dreams can provide, opting more for a realistic look with only slight tinges of surrealism. This is a semi-legitimate complaint, only it falls apart when you learn this one crucial fact about the film: The reason why the dreams don’t really resemble one’s usual surrealistic dreams is because everything in the film is literalized. I’ll get more into this later, but for now, the simplified version: Every single idea and theme in the film is literalized into a recognizable, physical form. The other parts of people’s subconscious take the form of random civilians, the place where secrets are stored is literally a safe, and the only way to wake up from the dream is to take your life from it (i.e. kill yourself).

It also makes sense that the dreams have only subtle hints of surrealism since the entire film is about deception. To be fair, almost all of Nolan’s films have characters that deceive one another. But what makes Inception different in this regard is that instead of the main characters (and the audience) being deceived, it is the main characters that do the deceiving when they trick oher people into thinking that dreams are reality. The only time the protagonists are deceived is when they themselves can’t tell the difference between dream and reality (Which ties into one of the two primary Nolan themes that we’ll discuss later).

I’ve also heard some of the film’s detractors say that the film “isn’t as smart as it thinks it is” simply because it isn’t confusing. They’re right in that it isn’t confusing, they’re absolutely wrong in saying that it isn’t smart. The film is complicated, yes, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t confusing. If anything, the fact that it isn’t confusing is a testament to how strong the world-building is and how well-written it is. Even though there’s tons of exposition thrown at the viewer, there’s never a point where Nolan treats the audience like an imbecile. He expects you to follow along, and rather than holding back bits of information to rope you along in mystery like he does in his other films, he gives you all the pieces and expects you to follow everyone along…only to subvert you again in the end.

However, what not many people seem to appreciate (at least not as much as I do) is how well Inception works as a character study. While it’s definitely not quite up to Wild Strawberries levels, I still found myself oddly moved by the tragic story of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and the fact that his guilt literally interferes with his work.

I mentioned in both my Insomnia and Prestige pieces the specific character type that Nolan likes to use in all of his flms: Each of his main characters from Batman to Leonard Shelby are specialists who hold professionalism and strict order as their highest virtues, but experience their downfall when emotional interference comes into play. The simplified version: The conflict between logic vs. emotion; head vs. heart.

To paraphrase a quote Bob Chipman’s review of the film: In Inception, that isn’t just a character type; that’s part of the plot. Because everything in the film is literalized, Cobb’s emotional crisis takes on a physical (at least, in the dream world) state in the form of Mal’s shade. Whenever Cobb is trying to get a job done, parts of his subconscious start leaking into his subject’s and begin to interfere with his work. To put it more bluntly: In a film where everything is literalized Cobb’s emotional guilt doesn’t just internally interfere with his work, his emotional guilt literally interferes with his work.

It’s because of this that I think that it’s Nolan’s most emotionally satisfying film next to Memento. It’s not subtle, sure, but it fits the universe, the final catharsis Cobb has with Mal feels satisfying, and the performances from both DiCaprio and Cotillard are excellent.

It’s also because of this that I think Inception offers some insight into how Christopher Nolan’s mind works. Think about it, why do all of these films have the exact same character type for their protagonists? Lazy writing? Well, that would be a viable criticism if all of the characters weren’t so different in the more specific details and scenarios.

There’s always been the phrase “write what you know”. In fact, this phrase is referenced in Inception, when Ariadne (Ellen Page) constructs a large bridge in the dreamspace, only it turns out to be based on a bridge that she crosses all the time that exists in the real world. Cobb then says that she isn’t supposed to do that. You’re only allowed to create new things, and you can’t derive things from memory because it’s the easiest way to lose your distinction between reality and fantasy.

Now, imagine Cobb saying that exact same sentence, about only being allowed to construct original ideas rather than copying them from real life, but this time imagine Cobb saying it to a writer. Now you may start to see the connection. Constructing elaborate dream worlds? Relying solely on professionalism to get the job done? Emotional interference ruining that work? Sticking with what you know making the creator lose themselves in their work? If this isn’t a glimpse into the way Christopher Nolan’s meticulously structured mind works, I don’t know what is.

There are two primary themes in Nolan’s work that I’ve kept mentioning throughout these retrospectives. The first one is the relationship between order and chaos, which isn’t really the thematic focus of the film, even though you can argue that Cobb’s conflicting professionalism and emotional guilt could qualify in that category. It’s the second theme, though, that is truly at the center of Inception: The idea that objective reality can be shaped by subjective perception.

Much like everything else in the film, this theme is literalized. It’s more than just a thematic element that is driving the film; it’s also the definition of the film’s title. The whole film centers around the premise that you can plant a simple idea into someone’s subconscious, and it would change them as individuals and, in turn, the person’s perception of objective reality. This doesn’t just apply to the heist at the center of the film. It also refers to the plight of Mal, who started to believe that reality was just a dream because of Cobb’s mistake of planting a simple idea in her head.

And depending on your take on the infamous final shot of the film, this could also apply to Cobb himself. Much like Memento’s Leonard Shelby, he could’ve very well just lied to himself about what reality truly was just to attain happiness and purpose in his life.

I know that the mere act of discussing the ambiguity of the final shot has become something of a cliche. There are countless arguments all throughout the internet, and I personally don’t choose a single side in the “Did the top topple over?” debate. Nolan made it ambiguous for a reason: Because there is no right answer. In the Nolan universe, where subjectivity can shape objectivity, the simple cutaway from the spinning top is the ultimate summation of one of Nolan’s primary themes. There is no right answer solely because objective reality is whatever the individual chooses it to be. It can be anything. There’s either no right answer at all, or everything is the right answer.

Throughout his films, Nolan has made many of his main characters endure the struggle of figuring out what the true objective reality was. It is with the final shot of Inception that he finally gives that conflict over to you, the audience. All his characters have chosen. Leonard Shelby lied to himself to achieve purpose, Alfred Borden gave up his life for the sake of mere illusions, and Mal believed that killing herself was just another way of waking up. Learning from all these characters’ mistakes, it’s now your turn to choose the objective reality. Because something as simple as a photo, or a spinning top, or a magic trick can change who you are. But unlike the movies, in real life we get to decide whether the top spins or falls.

Inception went on to be a massive pop culture phenomenon, while also raking in a Best Picture nomination at the 2010 Academy Awards (Despite no Best Director nom for Nolan himself). After achieving an impossible feat with making his most complicated script one of his most comprehensible, Christopher Nolan went on to perform a more difficult task: Closing out his Batman trilogy.

Tune in next time for both my review of The Dark Knight Rises and the final installment of the Christopher Nolan Retrospective in which I tackle the entire Batman trilogy.

That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 &@ThatGuyBrady.

See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go look for Harvey…

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The Christopher Nolan Retrospective Part 4: The Prestige

The Christopher Nolan Retrospective continues! Last time, we analyzed what made Insomnia so very different from the rest of the Nolan filmography. Today, however, we skip Batman Begins (Saving it for a later installment) and move straight on to the exact opposite of Insomnia in what many people argue to be the Nolan-iest film in the Nolan catalogue: The Prestige.

As always, I’m going to point out that I’m skipping the Batman movies and saving them for a special Dark Knight Trilogy installment to close this series off with, which will coincide with my The Dark Knight Rises review; and I’m also going to warn you that this will contain some major spoilers. So if you haven’t seen The Prestige yet, I’m sad to report that it’s not on Netflix Instant, but you could still rent the disc wherever discs are available.

If you would like to read the other installments of this retrospective, click on the following links for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

With that being said, let’s dive right into The Prestige

“Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”

I mentioned in the last installment that The Prestige is the only Nolan film that I’ve somehow skipped. I don’t wanna get to into it, but let’s just say that when this film came out in 2006 (I was only 11), it came out at around the same time as another film about magicians called The Illusionist and silly little me decided to watch that one instead. Because of that, when I finally got into movies two years later and started going through Nolan’s work, I never got around to seeing that particular one because of my shame for skipping it for a much inferior film.

Well, I finally saw it, and while it may not be my favorite film of Christopher Nolan’s, I do think it’s one of his best and definitely belongs in his top three. The other two I’d consider are Memento and another film which we’ll discuss in a later installment.

The Prestige follows two magicians named Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) in the late 1800s, when electricity was still not fully implemented into society and the art of magic tricks was just as much of an art as the art of the theater. The two were very passionate colleagues together, acting as assistants for another magician, hoping to one day to make it to the big leagues themselves. That is, until a grave accident happens in one of their tricks, causing the death of Angier’s love.

When Angier discovers that perhaps her death could’ve been caused by Borden not using the proper rope knot, the two are flung into a rivalry that lasts for years as they each keep upending each other for their audiences and the secrets behind their tricks.

The Prestige engages the audience right from the gate. The opening perfectly establishes the eerie mood with a haunting image of hundreds of top hats lying alone outdoors, and then cutting to the infamous monologue from Michael Caine in which he explains the three steps of a proper magic trick: The Pledge, in which something ordinary is introduced; the Turn, in which the ordinary becomes extraordinary; and finally the Prestige, in which all the twists and turns enrapture the audience. He then says that the nature of surprising an audience comes from the way we generally want to be surprised. The best magicians play on that truth. They make you just curious enough to wonder “how did it all work out”, without ever giving you the chance to ever figure it out.

In case the analogy isn’t clear enough, the magic tricks in the film aren’t the only ones being performed. The film is the magic trick.

I’ve heard many people describe The Prestige as Christopher Nolan’s rosetta stone; if you understand The Prestige, you begin to notice all of the things that connect his work and begin to understand his storytelling method. Now that I’ve finally seen it, I can’t agree more. The Prestige has just about every established Nolan theme in the book, it has the exact Nolan character type that I mentioned in my Insomnia analysis to a tee, and it is still able to surprise and even shock you, just as every Nolan film is able to do.

But before we get into the big themes, which I generally like to save for the end, let’s look at what’s actually on screen…

It’s interesting to note that there aren’t really many movies that are about magicians. Oh sure, there are plenty of movies that have magicians in them, but it’s rare to see one that really delves into the world of magicians the way The Prestige does (Keep in mind that I don’t even remember anything about The Illusionist at all).

In The Prestige, magic feels less like a side-show act and more like it’s own underground society. Each magician longs to know the other’s secrets, some of them even devoting their whole lives to playing an act just to subvert all the other magicians.

Making a film that revolves entirely on magic tricks is kind of difficult to actually achieve. Part of what makes magic tricks so enthralling is that they’re being performed right in front of your very eyes, and you yourself are the judge of how the magician was able to do it. But that doesn’t usually translate well in film, where you can always tell whether something is a special effect and that it isn’t true magic you’re watching.

The odd thing about The Prestige is that it still maintains the sense of wonder you get from watching a good magic trick while still breaking the first rule of magicians pervasively: A magician never tells his secrets.

Part of what’s so interesting about the way The Prestige plays out is how we see the ways magic tricks are performed and the secrets behind them. This makes the magic tricks interesting in the first place, because you are always inherently curious on how they actually do it in the first place and seeing the ways they’re executed step by step taps into that natural curiosity. But then you get to a trick where you can’t possibly imagine how Borden or Angier pulled it off, and that curiosity is tapped again. Because the characters are just as interested as learning the secrets behind the magicians, the audience wants to know how the hell they do it too.

Of course, the rivalry between the two is the strongest aspect of The Prestige. It’s the best kind of cat and mouse game, set against the incredibly imaginative backdrop of magicians. Each one keeps on upending the other using everything at their disposal: From disguises, to turning their own assistants against them, and even by using their own magic tricks off stage. Everything keeps escalating to more and more ridiculous and over the top levels, but the gothic mood and the performances ground things just enough or you to accept the film’s logic and rules.

Speaking of the performances, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are perhaps the biggest reason why the rivalry between Angier and Borden works so well. Both actors are very good at displaying a certain intensity to them. I mean, no matter how many crappy X-Men movies we get, Hugh Jackman plays the Wolverine so well we still watch them anyway just for him. And Christian Bale is so talented we still turn up to watch him in anything even though it’s been proven that he may just be completely crazy in real life.

In The Prestige, they each up that intensity they’re so good at harnessing, but they make it even more intense by, ironically, restraining themselves. There are times where it’s almost like a battle of manners. They’re not simply just going at each other with guns and chasing one another through the streets whenever they see one another. It’s more about wits and sabotage, less about making sure the other is dead and more focused on damaging one’s reputation so the other would live an empty life. And the way each scenario gets deadlier and deadlier makes the suspense almost unbearable. We all know it’s going to end in death, considering the opening scene in which Angier is killed during his greatest trick, and just waiting for it to finally reach that point fills each scene with tons of menace and dread.

While the film mostly shows things from Angier’s perspective, neither he nor Borden are the heroes. In fact, there aren’t really any heroes in this story. Borden may be the more secretive one of the two, but by the end of the film, we question whether Angier may have taken things too far and become unsure of who to really root for.

Christian Bale arguably has the more difficult role, considering he lives an entirely secretive life. Plus when it’s revealed what the true nature of Borden’s relationship with his assistant Fallon is, we realize just how deceptive and secretive even Bale was with his performance. But Hugh Jackman’s transformation from a wronged man who wants revenge to a complete monster who is comfortable with taking away every ounce of Borden’s life, is equally impressive. Both of them each have their own rights and wrongs, and the way they equal out is a testament to bot their performances and their writing.

It’s also worth noting the way Christopher Nolan diabolically lays out twist after twist with almost no effort. Just when we think we have a handle on how everything works, much like Memento, new bits of information reveal themselves and make you question even the beginning of the film, giving old scenes new meaning and making sure the audience can’t trust either Angier or Borden. Plenty of Nolan’s films are worthy of watching multiple times to get the full picture, and The Prestige is without a doubt one of his most deceptive films.

So it’s interesting to see how Nolan is able to imbue the artificial magic with an actual sense of wonder and escalate the rivalry between Angier and Borden to greater and greater lengths of tension and menace. But how is The Prestige Nolan’s Rosetta Stone? What makes it the key to understanding Nolan’s work?

Let’s look back at all the things that I’ve brought up as recurring elements in Nolan’s filmography. We have the two main themes: The relationship between order and chaos, and the idea that subjectivity can shape objective reality. Then we have the sub-theme: the inner struggle between logic and emotion (a.k.a. “head” vs. “heart”). And finally, the sub-theme leads to a specific character trait that is found in all of his films: the professionalist character whose downfall is brought up by emotional interference.

The order/chaos dichotomy is obvious from the get-go. Magicians rely solely on order in order to keep their secrets from being unveiled and in order to pull off the trick effortlessly without giving away the workings behind it. And of course, when the two magicians start to make it personal, they slowly descend into chaos until neither of them can tell the difference between the trick and what is actually going on.

This of course, ties directly into the character types. Both main characters are professionalists who hold order as their highest virtue and are led to their downfalls through emotional interference. This is also seen in Batman, Leonard Shelby, Dom Cobb, and every single Christopher Nolan protagonist he’s ever created.

But most interestingly of all is the way he brings back the theme of subjective reality shaping objective reality. Much like how Leonard couldn’t tell the difference between memory and truth, or how Cobb couldn’t distinguish between dream and reality, the main characters double-crossed so constantly that they and the audience start to wonder if any of what they just saw actually happened or whether the whole thing was one big magic trick.

And it’s not just the trick-or-no-trick confusion that constitutes this theme. When it’s revealed that Fallon and Borden are, in fact, the same person, they literally are the same person. There’s never a moment where Borden ends or Fallon begins. They are the same entity, split. They’ve become so used to switching places, and pretty much playing one big trick on everyone they’ve ever known for their entire lives that they’ve lost sight of what their true reality is. If their whole life is a magic trick, that magic trick defines their objective reality.

But that’s not all. This theme is brought up again when Angier harnesses the power of Tesla’s cloning machine. When he uses it, a copy of himself is created and teleported to another area of the room. He uses it to create the single greatest illusion ever seen in the magician landscape. However, he uses it so many times in his act and in practice that a fear starts to grow in him. When he comes out of the trick, will he be the original or the copy? Is he the man that stepped into the machine, or the prestige who steps out on the other end to shock the audience?

Despite how different each character is, they both end up having the same conflict in their subjective view of reality: The double. What defines them? The real them? Or the trick? The doppleganger? The clone?

In devoting their life to the art, they end up destroying each other. The only one with a chance of redemption is Borden/Fallon, who is now rid of his twin and can now live with his daughter. But even then, there are darker undercurrents and things merely hinted at. Is Borden in a fitting psychological state to keep this redemption? And what exactly happened to all those clones of Angier? We saw him shoot one of them the first time he tested the machine on himself. But did he do the same for the rest? Could he still be out there?

Not only is each and every single one of the typical Nolan elements and themes present in the film, the way the film shows the relationship between the magic tricks and the audience is very much like the relationship between Nolan’s films and his audience. Both Borden and Angier are the audience and the filmmaker, and the way they each wish to desperately learn each other’s secrets is very much like how the audience wishes to piece togeter the mystery. Not just the mystery of The Prestige, but for Memento, Following, and Nolan’s films in general.

It’s not as overtly meta-textual as something like Cabin in the Woods, but the connections are there. We all want to seek the mystery, yet we still allow ourselves to be subversed by the magician. It’s like Christopher Nolan is just dangling the secret behind the effectiveness all of his films like a carrot, only to subverse us again and still get away with it.

The Prestige could’ve been about anything other than magic. It could’ve been about rival painters trying to copy each other techniques, or maybe rival architects who create deadlier and deadlier designs for their buildings just to one-up each other. Or, perhaps if Nolan wanted to be obvious, it could’ve been rival storytellers (or even filmmakers) creating exceedingly more imaginative stories just to spite on another, until they suddenly lose themselves in their own work.

But the magic trick analogy was a perfect fit. Much like a magician, the filmmaker uses expert timing and manipulation in order to achieve a desired effect from the audience. Part of it is just an act, part of it is genuine emotion and heart, the other part pure deception. The anatomy of a magic trick is very much like the anatomy of a good thriller. You look for the secret, but you’ll never find it. Because like all good magic tricks, you want to be…fooled.

After The Prestige, Christopher Nolan went on to take over popular culture with the record-breaking sensation that was and is The Dark Knight. Because of the insane success that it brought both financially and critically, Christopher Nolan was then given the influence to do whatever the hell he wanted with as big of a budget as he could imagine. What happens when an auteur such as Nolan is given an unlimited supply of budget and time to create a film for a script that he spent ten years writing? Find out in the next installment in which I analyze Inception.

That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.

See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to just spin this top. And there’s nothing that will cut me mid senten–

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The Christopher Nolan Retrospective Part 3: Insomnia

The Christopher Nolan Retrospective continues! Last time, we examined the film that put Christopher Nolan on the map: Memento. Today, we look at his anticipated follow-up Insomnia and see how this one out of all of them seems to differ the most from the rest of Nolan’s filmography.
Just as before, I have to mention that I will be skipping the Batman films for now and save them for a Dark Knight trilogy special (Which will include The Dark Knight Rises) at the end of the retrospective. Also worthy of note, this article will feature major spoilers of the film being discussed. Thankfully, Insomnia is on Netflix Watch Instantly at this very moment so if you’d like to catch up with this marathon, you can watch along.
And if you’re just tuning in, you can read Part 1 on Following and Part 2 on Memento.
With that being said, it’s time to see Christopher Nolan’s first foray into Hollywood filmmaking…

“You and I share a secret. We know how easy it is to kill someone. That ultimate taboo. It doesn’t exist outside our own minds.”
It’s difficult to compare Insomnia to the rest of Christopher Nolan’s filmography because of how different it is. This is the least Nolan-y of his films, is what I’m getting at, here. The most obviuos difference this time is, of course, the fact that Christopher Nolan didn’t write this one. He’s written every single movie of his from Following to Memento to Batman Begins to Inception and so forth…except for Insomnia, which was written by Hillary Seitz who unfortunately went on to write the preposterous action-thriller Eagle Eye. On top of all that, Insomnia is a remake of a Norwegian film of the same name that starred Stellan Skarsgaard. I’m not going to get into how this film compares to the original film because a.) this is an article about Nolan’s filmography, not a review, and b.) I haven’t even seen the original film so I’m not one to judge.
But those are just the obvious differences. There are a few more that make this one stand out from the rest of Nolan’s work. One thing that I’ve noticed in all of his work is that no matter how long his films are, from an hour and ten minutes (Following) to two and a half hours (Inception), it never feels long because of his propulsive pacing. His films, no matter how dialogue or action-heavy they are, always feel like they’re moving forward. Nothing about them meanders, every scene has a point and builds off one another. That’s why so many people love to revisit The Dark Knight even though it is such a long film. As long as it is, there’s never a moment where you’re not engaged and there’s never a scene that doesn’t feel important to the big picture.
Insomnia is quite different in that its pacing is more of the slow-paced, meandering quality. That’s not an insult or a compliment, because that slow pace actually fits the material. If anything, the first half of the film feels like a mixture of the small-town murder plot of Twin Peaks crossed with the cold atmosphere of Fargo sprinkled with a bit of the quiet intensity of No Country For Old Men (Which is odd considering this came out quite a few years before No Country).
Christopher Nolan isn’t normally associated with low-key, atmosphere-driven movies, but Insomnia fits exactly into those categories. This is his most quiet, mood-driven film, that relies just as much on the unique midnight-sun setting as it does on its powerhouse cast.
Insomnia follows a police detective named Will Dormer (Al Pacino) who is sent to the town of Nightmute (Stray-observation: Is that not the most awesome name for a town ever?), a place where the sun doesn’t set for months, to investigate on the murder of a teenage girl named Kay. Dormer has a lot on his mind after an Internal Affairs investigation back at home that could ruin him, and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) says that he must go through with giving out a testimony on Dormer’s past cases.
While chasing the murder suspect in a wilderness swept with fog, Al Pacino accidentally shoots and kills his own partner, unable to see him because of the thickness of the fog. Knowing that as much of an accident as it was it will still look like he did it to get rid of Eckhart’s testimony, he lies and says that it was the killer who shot back. The investigation of the murderer continues further, but soon guilt starts to consume Dormer. And the merciless, unsetting sun doesn’t help things, as Dormer can’t even find solace in darkness or sleep.
The sense of place that Nolan achieves for the town of Nightmute is one of the biggest strengths in Insomnia. This is the first film in which Nolan starts to evolve in terms of imagery. Following and Memento were both very effective films, but none of them are very appealing on a visual standpoint. Here, because the atmosphere is so prevalent, the imagery is incredibly effective at creating an eerie mood that gives the film a psychological tension that manages to be low-key without being boring that absorbs the viewer. Because this is Nolan’s first time directing a film he didn’t write, you can see him trying to put his stamp on the film, and he does this through visuals and mood in an effective manner.
It’s worth noting how quiet the film is. Like I said, this is a mood-based film, and Nolan’s most restrained picture of his entire career. He lets each of the scenes play out naturally, sometimes with absolutely no background music, letting the actors and the visuals do the heavy lifting. You really feel a great sense of place for Nightmute, and Nolan effectively brings across how strange and alien the town is to Dormer. The consistently shining sun is just one of the many otherworldy touches brought to the film. There’s one scene that takes place in the evening in the middle of a street, but because of the unending daylight, it looks less like a sleeping town and more like an abandoned ghost town that could rival Silent Hill if it was given a few monsters.
Speaking of monsters, the most effective part about Insomnia is the performances. Sometimes, when novice filmmakers are given big-name actors at their disposal, they tend to not direct them because they’re either not good at controlling their egos or they would revere them so much that they wouldn’t direct them at all, thinking they already know what to do. Nolan exhibits fantastic control in the dialogue scenes. Like I mentioned before, he lets each of these scenes play out naturally, but at the same time each actor still feels restrained and never over dramatizes each scene.
Al Pacino doesn’t usually have many good performances in his recent career, but this is probably one of his best of that tier if not the best. His weary face communicates so much, while his line delivery has pain etched around his voice. Here is a man who is surrounded on all sides by guilt, and he is in a place that is forcing him to face it so strongly that not even the sun will set so he could hide in the darkness.
Robin Williams is especially good in one of his most unsettling dramatic performances next to One Hour Photo. He too shows so much pain through just his face and voice, except he plays the polar opposite of Al Pacino. Whereas Dormer can’t seem to live with his guilt, Williams’s Walter Finch is a man who holds his guilt as something not to be ashamed of. And when the two interact, it’s like watching water and oil co-mingle together and it’s highly fascinating.
Now, one thing I’ve always liked doing in these articles is finding the themes that link all of Nolan’s work. I found two themes that can be found in just about every Nolan film: The relationship between order and chaos (Following, The Dark Knight), and the subconscious shaping objective reality (Memento, Inception). None of these themes are especially prevalent in Insomnia, however, seeing as it wasn’t written by Christopher Nolan at all. If anything, the main theme is a pretty common one about how all your past misdeeds will always come back to haunt you and what goes around always comes around. There are hints of Nolan-isms such as the quote I put up in which Walter Finch says that death and the act of murder “doesn’t exist outside our own minds”, but they’re left to the side for the more prevalent theme that you can’t escape your past crimes.
So what was it that attracted Nolan to the material? I mean, of course being able to work with Al Pacino and Robin Williams in a bigger-budget studio film must’ve been part of it, but what about it made Christopher Nolan want to make this movie in the artistic sense?
It is at this point, we get to what could be considered a third theme that can be found in all of Nolan’s work, but I consider it to be less of a “theme” and more of a certain “character type” or a “character trait”. This little “sub-theme”, I guess you can call it, is the relationship between reason and logic vs. emotion.
This could be considered a variation of the “order vs. chaos” thing, except there’s kind of a difference between that and “logic vs. emotion”. For one thing, order and chaos have to do with the world around us and who we are in an external context (See Following). “Logic vs. emotion” meanwhile, has to do with who we are as individuals. In short, “Logic and emotion” are basically the “order and chaos” of our own minds.
Okay, so there is still a connection to that theme, but you get what sets these two things apart, see?
In all of Christopher Nolan’s films (And I mean all of them), the main characters hold professionalism as their highest virtue, but they are ultimately brought down or damaged by emotional interference. In Following, Bill had to detach himself from the people he followed so as not to complicate things, but when he does it ruins him. In Memento, Leonard relied solely on facts and objective evidence, but when he lets his desire for purpose and vengeance get in the way, he ends up creating himself an unsolveable puzzle so he could live in blissful ignorance of his true actions for the rest of his life. It’s because of this that you realize why Hollywood saw Nolan as the perfect fit to handle Batman: Because Batman himself fits that character type. He’s an emotionally damaged man who must rely on detaching himself from his own emotions by creating an altar ego to pent up his frustrations in order to achieve his goals.
In Insomnia that’s Detective Dormer in a nutshell. Just take a look at the scene in which he confesses to planting a blood sample on someone’s shirt in order to have a man arrested. It wasn’t by the book, it shouldn’t have been personal, and he knew it was wrong, but he had to do it. He thought it was the right thing, he thought that following his heart would get the man deservedly arrested. But it ends up becoming his death knell. Now, he constantly has guilt on his mind, and it’s led to an even worse crime in lying about the accidental death of his partner, which leads to when he ultimately cooperates with Finch.
It is because of this that critics of Nolan’s work like to say that his films are emotionally cold. And while I have to strongly disagree with those critics (I found Memento to have some powerful moments, and I’ll tell you about another movie that I think is Nolan’s best later in this marathon), perhaps that coldness is supposed to be the point. It’s there to show how these characters’ minds work, and thusly make us closer to them.
Insomnia isn’t really a “great” movie by any means. Hilary Swank’s character isn’t given much to do, and it ends in a shoot-out scene that feels very obligatory, like the studio forced it on the writer. But it’s an incredibly effective, subtle thriller with tense moments and fantastic performances.
So while Insomnia can be considered one of Nolan’s lesser films (despite how good it is), it’s still an important part of his filmography. Not only did he show that he could sustain his talents as a director without needing his own script, but it also showed that he could work on a studio film with an A-list cast without having to conform to the pressures of the studio…most of the time.
You can almost say that Insomnia‘s dreary mood and powerhouse performances mixed with Memento‘s imaginative storytelling helped Nolan get his gig as the helmer for Batman Begins. But we’ll save that discussion for our special Dark Knight Trilogy round-up. Of course, I can say that Batman Begins was Christopher Nolan’s biggest financial success at that time and put him on the map for mainstream audiences, but what happens when he follows that up with a more personal project: A period-piece about warring magicians.
Tune in next time for my analysis of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. And prepare for the biggest shock of all: I still haven’t seen The Prestige yet, and it’s the only Nolan film that I’ve forgotten to check out. Until now. An exciting discussion awaits!
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to confront my greatest fear…no, it’s not bats. It’s mailmen. Bye!

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The Christopher Nolan Retrospective Part 2: Memento

The Christopher Nolan Retrospective continues! Last time, we delved into the twisty potential in Nolan’s debut feature Following and how it contains the themes that would eventually become benchmarks in all his work. Now, we move on to one of Nolan’s most lauded films, said by many to be his masterpiece, Memento.
Before we begin, a few notes: Again, I’m going to be skipping the Batman movies for now and I’ll be saving them for a special Dark Knight Trilogy special at the end of this retrospective that also ties into The Dark Knight Rises, so we’ll get to those much later.
Secondly, I did my best to avoid spoilers in my analysis of Following but it’s pretty much impossible to really delve into the themes and structure of Memento without getting into incredibly major spoilers. So if you, for some reason, haven’t seen Memento yet and you’re just delving into this marathon, do yourself a favor and see it before reading this.
With that being said, let’s dive right into The Christopher Nolan Retrospective Part 2: Memento.

“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?”

Following may have been the movie that introduced the world to Christopher Nolan’s talent, but Memento was the one that showed the world that he wasn’t just another clever screenwriter. He was the real deal. With Memento he quickly became one of the most buzzed about new talents in the biz, landing him a project with Al Pacino in the lead (More on that in the next installment). Memento wasn’t just one of the most original movies of the 2000s, and it wasn’t just another twist-ending thriller (Which was becoming the big “it” movie after the success of The Sixth Sense); Memento was also a tragedy that bordered ever so closely on Shakespearean levels.

Memento follows the story of a man named Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) who is under the worst sort of predicament. His wife has been raped and murdered by a lowlife criminal known only as John G., and he is intent on tracking John G. down and getting the revenge he deserves for ruining his life. But that’s not the worst of it. When he attempted to save his wife as she was being raped, he was delivered a brutal blow in the head that caused serious brain damage. Because of this, he now has short term memory loss and can no longer create new memories. That isn’t going to stop him from finding the guy though, but it will definitely complicate things further on his pursuit for vengeance.

Given the daunting task of telling a movie with a character with short term memory loss, Christopher Nolan ended up devising a brilliantly original structuring method to give audiences the confusion and paranoia of short term memory loss: Reverse chronology. Reverse chronology isn’t totally new, in fact I’m pretty sure it was used in a few movies before Memento, but few have employed it in such a stylish and intelligent manner. The film was, of course, told backwards as each scene in the thickening murder plot goes further and further back, revealing more and more details that change the course of the film. And these scenes are intercut with yet another plot-line that is told in black and white (Not unlike the timeline method he previously used in Following). The scenes in color begin at the technical “end” of the chronology, while the black and white scenes begin in, well, the technical “beginning” of the chronology.
Thanks to the smart melding of reverse and normal chronology, Nolan is able to make each scene still build off the other, as we slowly start to realize that at some point the two plotlines are going to meet the closer they get to each other. The suspense is still there, and each scene still feels like it leads into something important, even though we already “technically” know the end result. Like I said in my Following article, Nolan always has a good reason for each time he uses untraditional structuring, and he never wants to be confusing for the sake of confusion. He generally wants te audience to follow along.
But the main reason why the semi-reverse chronology works so well is because it fits the material. Also like I said in the Following article, Nolan isn’t merely using non-linear structure just for the sake of being clever, and this is doubly true for Memento. Usually, when you watch a non-linear movie a part of you feels sort of left out because of the state of confusion that the non-linear structure generally brings; like you’re being left out of the club and the movie is keeping secrets from you. And Memento is mostly no different except for the fact that the main character is just as much out of the loop as the viewer is. Because of his short term memory loss, Leonard Shelby is just as confused as the audience is, creating an emotional through-line that is able to make us want to make sense of the mystery as much as Leonard does.
However, the same is true, perhaps even more so, vice versa. It isn’t just that Leonard is just as confused as the audience, giving us a way to connect with the structure. It’s also there to make the audience as confused as Leonard. In a traditionally structured film, there would probably be no way to really put viewers in the mindset of a man with short term memory loss because it’s not like the audience suffers the same condition. It’s practically impossible, something that not even the best actors can probably pull off. But with the non-linear structuring, when we see Leonard wake up in a strange woman’s house, we’re just as confused as he is on how he got to that point and what he’s doing there, and we’re just as invested in figuring out the why as he is.
So having to act out that confusion and paranoia would be impossible to convey in a traditionally structured movie, but how does Guy Pearce manage with the non-linear structure? The answer: Tremendously. Guy Pearce doesn’t play up his condition too much and as a result gives an incredibly subtle performance that makes Leonard a real character rather than a spaz who can’t remember anything. He’s calm and collected in just about every scene he’s in, especially with his stream-of-consciousness narration that describes everything in the most matter-of-fact way humanly possible. For example, re-watch the movie (It’s on Netflix Instant, you know) and listen to Pearce’s delivery of the line “Oh, looks like I’m chasing this guy. No wait, he’s chasing me.”
I’ve heard a few people complain that having such a cool, confident character doesn’t fit with the short term memory loss plot point. Roger Ebert himself, thought it was a plot hole that a guy with short term memory loss who is supposed to have his last memory be the sight of his dead wife can be able to remember his own condition. And indeed, Ebert does bring up a fair point. However, I was never taken out of the movie from this because of how well Pearce establishes this character. He plays Leonard as cool and confident because that’s the only kind of guy who would be able to even carry out a quest for revenge while still retaining short term memory loss. Does it stretch the realms of plausibility? Yes it does, but Guy Pearce embodies the character so well and Christopher Nolan approaches the material with such skill that you buy into it in the first frame.
Revisiting the film, I was struck by the amount of small details and nuances that Nolan and Pearce bring to Leonard that makes him feel fully realized and his condition as real as humanly possible. My favorite of these tiny touches is when Leonard is walking into the motel he’s staying at and he slams into the door, unaware he was supposed to pull it rather than push it. Small details like that go a long way with subsequent viewings, and the best of these in Pearce’s performance is his face. As calm and collected as Leonard is, Pearce delivers these brief moments that show pain and vulnerability with the most subtle movements in his face. The way his eyes move, the way his lip would kind of twitch or tremble or something when his memory seems to “reset”. Hell, just his blank stare is able to convey the confusion and almost cluelessness of his character to incredible effect.
Last time, I brought up how each Christopher Nolan movie seems to center around one of two themes that he seems to be obsessed with. With Following, it was the realtionship between order and chaos (Something that will be brought up again in the Batman Trilogy discussion). With Memento, we get something that Nolan is perhaps even more obsessed with: The idea of a subjective reality. There were hints of this in Following, but this theme becomes the center point of Memento and a lot of Nolan’s later work.
Think of it like this: How can we ever know if there is even such a thing as an objective reality? We all see everything through the lens of our own mind, so how can we know for certain what the objective truth is? Can there even really be facts, because of this? Can the mind be trusted? This idea gets into deeper territory when you start to add this complication to the mix: If reality is something that can be shaped through subjectivity, then can we end up shaping our own realities with just a single “false” idea? If that is the case, is that idea even really false to begin with? After all, as long as it’s real to you, it’s real, period. Do our actions still have meaning in such a world?

Memento is entirely about the idea that your mind can shape your reality. Because Leonard can’t keep all his memories, he externalizes them in order to preserve them with the usage of photos, notes, and permanent tattoos that all detail the facts about his pursuit for the killer. Leonard said himself earlier in the movie that memory is an unreliable thing, and the only thing you can count on is the objective reality: The facts, the evidence, the notes, etc. But what happens when he externalizes his memories, and those become his facts. What happens when the subjective reality becomes the objective reality? What happens when instead of memories being supported by the facts, objective reality is shaped by memory?

This is especially prevalent in the subplot involving Sammy Jenkins (The great Stephen Tobolowsky), who had a similar condition to Leonards, only it seemed to exist on a mental state rather than a physical state. Leonard tested him to see whether Sammy could still learn things through instinct and conditioning rather than memory by using a test to see whether he’d stop picking up a shocked object through said instinct. This brings us to the idea that someone can be conditioned to learn something, but can a man be conditioned to, say, become someone else?
This leads us to the final twist, in which we learn that Leonard has already found and killed the man responsible for his wife’s rape an entire year ago. On top of that, she never even died when she was raped by the mysterious criminal. She did, however, die by Leonard’s own hand when it is revealed that the man known as Sammy Jenkins was actually a con man who was given features from Leonard’s own life. Sammy wasn’t the one that tragically killed his own wife with an insulin overdose, rather it was Leonard who overdosed his own wife and conditioned himself to place it under a different man’s name.
There is no mystery to solve, no John G. to find; just the fleeting satisfaction of revenge, an unsolveable puzzle that could give his life meaning. And after all, what does it matter to him? He has no reason to live now that he can’t create new memories and his last memory was the seemingly dead body of his wife. All he really has to live for is avenging his wife, and finally obtain a brief moment of “peace” even if it inevitably will be taken away. It doesn’t matter to him what the objective reality is. It doesn’t matter that his wife actually survived, that he actually killed her, that he already caught the real perpetrator, because that stuff can never be real to him anymore. The only thing real to him now is the pursuit of vengeance.
It is because of this that I personally think that Leonard is an incredibly tragic character. Forced to repeat the same cycle of revenge forever, creating his own unsolveable puzzle just so he could give him a purpose for the rest of his life, who knows how long he will continue this endless loop blissfully ignorant of the objective truth? Leonard Shelby isn’t just a tragic hero because he will forever be stuck in this loop, he’s a tragic hero because he is an embodiment of something that all of us have done and will continue to do in our lives: Lie to ourselves just so we can be happy.
Memento is one of Christopher Nolan’s masterpieces and in my opinion his second best film (We’ll get into my personal favorite much later). It is much more than just an incredibly clever thriller, like Following was (Even though there were small moments of insight in that film, which I discussed). This is also a deeply human, if somewhat emotionally cold story about what we do to give meaning to our lives, the lengths we will go to achieve that sense of purpose, and that sometmes, purpose is nothing more than an outright lie.

It’s easy to see how many of the biggest names in Hollywood suddenly found a great interest in Christopher Nolan after Memento. But what happens when Christopher Nolan is given a task that is perhaps just as if not more difficult than making a movie about a man with short term memory loss: Directing a movie that is a remake of another foreign film, stars big name actors, and takes away something that makes Nolan’s films special: His writing. Next time, we’ll talk about Insomnia, directed by, but not written by Christopher Nolan.
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta cover these damn windows. The light…it never ends!

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The Amazing Spider-Man Movie Review

[The Amazing Spider-Man

Directed by Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, and Rhys Ifans
MPAA: PG-13 – For Sequences of Action and Violence]

Reviewing a remake is a thankless task because you simply shouldn’t review it based on the merits of the original source material and just stick with the actual merits of the new film itself. However, it’s impossible to do that with The Amazing Spider-Man simple because “too soon” isn’t enough of an exaggeration for just how unnecessary this reboot was. Yeah, I know that this is supposed to be a reboot and not a remake, but there really is no way to separate your feelings towards this film with your feelings towards Sam Raimi’s 2002 version of Spider-Man starring Tobey Maguire.

So I might as well get this much out of the way: The original Spider-Man movies from Sam Raimi are a huge part of my childhood. The first film came out when I was in the second grade, it was the first PG-13 movie I had ever seen, the first superhero movie I’d ever seen (Though I’d seen the cartoon enough to be familiar with the material), and it blew my fucking seven-year-old mind. The second movie ended up being better than the first to my nine-year-old amazement, while the third movie was…yeah, you know.
So when I heard that a reboot was coming along, the first thought in my head was “why?”. Well, it was to make money obviously, but they could’ve easily just gone ahead with a fourth Spider-Man film without Raimi, or Tobey, etc. Why reboot it?
Another thing that critics shouldn’t do is talk about the production of the film in question, but of course, this being The Amazing Spider-Man, there are just too many behind-the-scenes misfire stories to simply just ignore. The main thing I can discuss without boring you all to tears is that Sony doesn’t wanna give away their Spider-Man franchise rights to Disney/Marvel, mostly because it’s one of their most lucrative franchises, well, ever. And one of the reasons why their franchise is so successful is because of Raimi, Maguire, and yes, Kirsten Dunst too. So a Spider-Man 4 without any of those factors would make the general moviegoing public angry, but a reboot will give them an excuse for starting things over with a new cast and director up for the taking.
That’s it. The main reason why we’re getting a new Spider-Man reboot so soon is because Sony didn’t want to share their toys with another company. Really. The main reason why we have a new Spider-Man movie is because Sony needed an excuse for a new Spider-Man movie. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this movie is just dull, pointless, and completely and utterly hollow.
You all know the story so you might as well sing it along to the tune of the TV show’s theme song: Peter Parker is a high school outcast living with his aunt and uncle who ends up getting bit by a radioactive spider that gives him superhuman abilities. He can walk on walls, spin webs, has increased strength and agility, and can sense danger with his signature spidey-sense. Look out, here comes your friendly neighborhood derpy derpy doo.
But this version has the nugget of an interesting twist to the story! Rather than just shrug off the death of his parents, in this reboot Peter starts to unravel clues that something about his parents’ deaths might not have been an accident. It then turns out that his father had something to do with cross-species genetics, which of course leads him into crossing the species barrier by having a run-in with the radioactive spider.
It’s an interesting twist, it gives the movie something to surprise audiences who are already familiar with the original films with, and…then doesn’t do anything with it. Huh…
The main problem with The Amazing Spider-Man is that the script just sucks on the most basic levels. Characters are inconsistent, plot threads are left unfinished and dangling in the air, and the tone is all over the map. You can tell that the filmmakers were going for a darker, grittier, less cheesy tone than the original Raimi films, except because Spider-Man is inherently cheesy, there are still some moments of awful humor and cheese that get in the way of it. And even then, the serious tone doesn’t fit either.
The original films’ slightly cheesy tone worked because it was aware of how silly the material was, but then undercut that with moments of genuine drama that worked. That was because the guys behind those films had respect for what the material was. Because they understood that the material needed to be cheesy at moments, they were able to let the viewer buy into the film’s world and therefore buy into the dramatic moments. Here, however, that doesn’t apply. The dark tone feels less “gritty and serious” and more “angsty and mopey“. Meanwhile, the moments that are actually cheesy feel grating and facepalm-inducing.

But that’s not the biggest problem. Usually good performances are enough to sell an uneven tone. Thankfully the performances aren’t bad at all. Emma Stone is charming as Gwen Stacey, Rhys Ifans does nice work here as Curt Connors, Sally Field isn’t given much to do as Aunt May but she’s fine in what little she’s in. The one that really shines is Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben, who really feels authoritive and caring in the best possible way. And the icing on top? He gets more screentime than the original Uncle Ben.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the main problem in the casting: Andrew Garfield. Now before you start throwing your tomatoes at me, let me just point out that I really like Andrew Garfield. He gave one of my favorite performances of 2010 for The Social Network, he’s got serious talent and acting chops, and I like seeing him get the mainstream attention he deserves. Also, he isn’t bad as Peter Parker. He is bad, however, as Spider-Man. A lot of people say that that was the big problem with Tobey Maguire’s rendition of the character, but I think it’s doubly true in Garfield’s case. At least when Maguire donned the costume, he didn’t act like a jackass. Garfield is effectively awkward and sympathetic when he’s under the Parker persona, but when he puts on the suit, it’s like he’s a completely different character. The thing that makes Spider-Man so appealing is that he’s an everyman. When you take away that aspect and he starts to feel more like a cartoon than anything else, you lose that everyman quality and you cease to root for him.

This can be credited more towards bad screenwriting than Garfield himself, but he shouldn’t be totally excused either. Because while the writing is bad, Garfield could’ve at least acted his way around that haul by making the two personas act consistent even when the dialogue suggests otherwise. But as Spider-Man, he just acts and sounds like a douchebag, a smart-ass, and just overall annoying.

Because of this, Peter Parker feels less like a character and more like a cipher. He talks and acts in the specific way that the screenplay demands him to talk and act, but not in ways that are consistent to his previously established character or arc. He’s just a blank-slate, he’s nothing, and try as Andrew Garfield does to make him likeable and charming and sympathetic and nuanced, he’s just poorly written and Garfield doesn’t use his previously established talents enough to mask that fact.

The other thing about the acting that doesn’t work is that Garfield and Stone have a lack of chemistry in their scenes together. This was appalling to me since it turns out they’re actually together in real life and this was directed by the man behind (500) Days of Summer which is a romantic comedy with incredible chemistry between the leads. Here, it doesn’t feel passionate, natural, or even believably awkward. It just isn’t there, it’s completely and utterly hollow. There’s really no way for me to describe what it was that made it feel hollow since something like romantic chemistry is made up of unidentifiable factors, but they just didn’t exactly fit for some reason.

Then, of course, we have the villain. Like I said, Rhys Ifans does a good job as Curt Connors. It’s just such a shame because the Lizard just doesn’t work as a villain. As hard as Ifans tries to inject some personality into Connors, we can’t really sympathize with him because his sole “flaw” is that he has one arm. That’s it. There’s really nothing else about him as a character that is made clear to make us sympathize when he ultimately becomes a monster. And then, when he makes the jump to being evil, it’s made unclear how exactly it happens because he’s a generally good guy in the earlier scenes. Yet for some reason, transforming into a giant lizard-man turns him into a fascist dictator-like figure who wants everyone to be lizard-men because…because lizard-men are just better than humans? And even if that is the case, why suddenly turn evil at the drop of a hat when Connors has been previously established as a generally good guy? Because, well, the screenplay demands it. His transition is just entirely unnatural, and isn’t explained to any good effect.

But back to the screenplay, I can go on and on about how many basic script problems there are in the film, but the most glaringly obvious ones of all are that two of the three main plot threads of the film, the ones that define Spidey’s motivations. First is the “fresh” take: Parker trying to discover the origins of his parents. And indeed, it starts out with him trying to discover what really happens with his parents. Hell, the film has been marketed as “The Untold Story” of Spider-Man, so you’d expect them to actually tell the god damn untold story. But they don’t, stupidly enough. In fact, all of that stuff is instead replaced with a lame post-credits sequence that promises more answers IN THE SEQUUEEELLL. So all that stuff that is promised is left ambiguous. Except unlike Prometheus, which was a good movie that left a lot of things hanging in the air and ambiguous, it doesn’t raise thought-provoking questions or leave the audience giddy with anticipation for the sequel. It’s just unsatisfying on the most basic level.

Secondly, it’s no spoiler that Uncle Ben is killed in act one. With great power comes great responsiderpyderpydoo, we’re all on the same page here. However, instead of having Peter exact quick vengeance on the man that killed Uncle Ben, in this version we see Peter fail to catch the perpetrator the first time and spend the rest of the movie going from criminal to criminal looking for him. There’s nothing wrong with going with this kind of structure so long as it’s interesting. Except it ends up feeling more like unnecessary padding in an already unnecessary movie.

And worst of all: There’s no payoff to this plot thread. The guy is never caught, but that’s okay because we can at least have a scene in which Peter learns that revenge is not the answer and it’s time to move on…except that doesn’t happen either. They just abandon this plotline without giving it any lip service because apparently the giant lizard-man is more important. It’s because of this that every scene feels pointless. They don’t build up to anything, they just feel like a random assortment of stuff. It’s barely a story, it’s just stuff. This is just lazy, lazy screenwriting that makes me cringe at the fact that paid professionals wrote this crap.

Now, this wouldn’t be a superhero blockbuster without some action, and the action is…there, I guess. The action sequences aren’t terrible, but they aren’t particularly thrilling either. The CGI is decent, certainly a step above the dated CG of the original trilogy, but since we don’t feel stakes, it doesn’t give the viewer the same satisfying thrill of something like The Avengers. It is worth noting, however, that they try to pull a Spider-Man 2 by throwing in a moment where the citizens of New York help Spidey defeat the bad guy, except this time around it ends up being one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie since the dance sequence in Spider-Man 3. Yeah, it’s that bad.

I’ve heard a lot of defenders of this movie talk about how this one is better because it’s closer to the comics. Firstly, I can’t attest to that since I myself haven’t read the comics and only barely remember the animated television series, so I’m not the best judge on whether this one is more accurate to the source material. Except I don’t care. I don’t care because it shouldn’t matter whether it’s “closer to the source material”. What matters is whether it’s a good movie, and saying that it’s good for no other reason than “it’s closer to the books” is just as short-sighted as people who think that something automatically sucks because it isn’t merely a retread of the original source material. Making a good movie should come first, appeasing the fanbase should come second.

All in all, the biggest complaint I can give to The Amazing Spider-Man is that it just doesn’t have a soul. Yeah, I know we all like to crap on Spider-Man 3 for being ridiculously lame, cheesy, and bloated; but there was an earnestness to that film that showed that Raimi was desperately trying to make the material work in spite of the fact that the studios forced him to put Venom in it. They were actually trying in Spider-Man 3 is what I’m trying to say, and there’s a cynical sense that nobody involved in The Amazing Spider-Man cared about the material this time around.

The Amazing Spider-Man is just a mess for all the worst possible reasons: Not because the creators didn’t know what to do with the material, even though that is part of it; not because there was no talent involved in it, because there are some talented people involved in it; but because this is a movie that looks and feels like it was manufactured by soulless accountants that are desperately trying to take your money. And in some cases, that is the worst offense. I wouldn’t say this is the worst superhero movie ever made (We all know that crown proudly belongs to either Batman & Robin or Fantastic Four), but I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the laziest and most cynically made.

Final Verdict: Some good performances and decent action can’t mask the fact that The Amazing Spider-Man is an astoundingly poorly written film. The pacing is dull, the characters are inconsistent, the romance between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey is lackluster, the movie doesn’t know which story it wants to tell, the villain is laughably bad, and the way it haphazardly throws away important plot threads is appallingly bad. A boring, nearly worthless movie with no reason to exist other than to cash in the general public’s love of a much better movie.

That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.

See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, here’s a picture of a side-by-side comparison between Spider-Man and Stupid Sexy Flanders. Bye!

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The Christopher Nolan Retrospective Part 1 – Following

The Dark Knight Rises is coming in just about two weeks, and like everyone else on the internet, I’m getting more excited the closer it gets. Like it or not, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are one of the defining pictures of the superhero genre and having their grand finale is kind of a big deal. It’s especially a big deal for Christopher Nolan himself, who has become one of the most influential and important filmmakers of our generation. The way he’s able to get mainstream audiences into seeing some very dark, mature, and intellectual material in an age of whiz-bang pacing and fireworks is a testament to his propulsive pacing and imaginative storytelling.

Christopher Nolan pretty much has every director’s dream trajectory: He started out with two very small independent films, got noticed, slowly got bigger and bigger actors and projects, built his reputation, and before you know it BAM, he’s become one of the most lucrative auteurs in the business. It’s fascinating to see such an evolution from his small thrillers to his epic blockbusters, and it’s especially interesting to see all the themes that connect all of his work.

So interesting, in fact, that I’ve decided look back at that trajectory from the very beginning and go film by film viewing the evolution of Christopher Nolan. Starting today is my Christopher Nolan retrospective, where we analyze that evolution and see how his stamp starts to form over the course of his career, starting from his first indie films all the way up to my review of The Dark Knight Rises when it releases.

But do take note that I won’t be doing the Batman films until after The Dark Knight Rises, mainly because it will be more interesting to compare those two films with the conclusion that they ultimately build up to. However, expect me to talk about the rest of your favorites, including Memento, The Prestige, Inception, etc.

Without further ado, our marathon starts with Nolan’s debut, the black-and-white noir thriller Following.

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“It was supposed to just be completely random. And when it stopped being random, that’s when it started to go wrong.”

Following is on the exact opposite end of the spectrum of Christopher Nolan’s blockbusters. It’s shot in black and white, has a relatively small scope, relies mostly on dialogue, and is so confusingly non-linear that it makes Memento looks as straightforward as…well, The Dark Knight I guess.

It’s also one of his most different films when compared to the rest of his filmography. While it’s told in a very original non-linear structure, it’s mostly a standard noir story about a guy who’s in over his head as he’s embroiled in various levels of crime. Because of this, Nolan doesn’t just rely on the structure to keep things fresh, he also relies on mood. Nolan isn’t the most atmosphere-driven director, but there’s a palpable sense of menace that hangs over Following like a deep fog.

Set in the UK, Following follows a man named Bill (Played by Jeremy Theobald) who becomes obsessed with following random people. Not quite stalking them, but he’s fascinated by where they go, who they meet, what interests them, who they are, what makes them as individuals. At first, it’s done to gather material for potential novels in his career as a failing writer, but soon he starts doing it as a hobby. It is at this point, that he creates rules, one of which he breaks by the time the film is just getting started: Never follow the same person twice.

Soon, he becomes acquainted with a man named Cobb (Played by Alex Haw, and HEY doesn’t that name sound familiar?) who has his own little obsession: Breaking into other people’s homes, taking and misplacing random stuff, and as a result disrupting their private lives just for a moment. Like Bill with his following people, Cobb has his own rules about breaking in, and just like before, Bill breaks one of the most important rules.

The movie is told in a non-linear structure that I like to call a “Triangle Narrative”. There are three separate “timelines” that take place throughout the film, each one goes in order but the way they intercut between each other causes confusion. We have the Part 1, which shows Bill as he’s first being suckered into Cobb’s schemes; then Part 2, in which Bill has pretty much become Cobb and is starting to get involved with a mysterious blonde woman; then part 3, in which a beaten up Bill is starting to do some shady things. Each one goes in order, but they cut between each other. For example, we’ll see part of Part 1 before it cuts to a scene from Part 2, without even having completely finished Part 1, and so on.

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As confusing as the structure is, we’re still able to follow it. Christopher Nolan is an incredibly smart director in the way he entrusts the audience to follow along. He never treats the viewer like an idiot who won’t get it, even in a movie like Inception that is filled with expository dialogue. Nolan uses some very smart visual cues to distinguish which “timeline” we’re viewing. Much like how Memento used colors to distinguish between the two converging timelines, Following uses something a little more subtle in the way of the protagonist’s appearance. In Part 1, Bill has long hair and a beard. In Part 2, we see him more clean-cut and shaven. And in Part 3, his face is covered in bruises and scratches.

The best part about Nolan’s use of non-linear narratives is that he always has a good reason for doing it. Most people just like to do it to look cool and intelligent without having to do anything genuinely clever, but Nolan always find a way to make it fit the story. In this case, he uses it in a way that makes us genuinely interested in Bill’s various transformations. We want to see how he gets from point A to point B to point C and Nolan constantly delivers by slowly feeding in information bit by bit with each passing of each timeline. This allows the audience to be an active participant in the story, as you are piecing the mystery together just as much as Bill is.

Nolan is smart about involving the audience and having us do as much of the heavy work as his characters. He doesn’t want to merely just pull the rug from under us. He’s not trying to be confusing just for the sake of being confusing. He wants the audience to feel something, to think about something, to learn something about the characters and the situations they’re in. He genuinely wants you to follow along, and his movies are like tests to see if you’re worthy enough to reach the bottom of the rabbit hole.

So Following shows signs of Christopher Nolan’s knack for audience involvement, but what about the themes? One of the most interesting things about auteurs is that there are usually very specific themes that they like to callback to throughout their work. Malick is obsessed with nature; Cronenberg is obsessed with the relationship between the psyche and the body; Aronofsky is obsessed with…well, the nature of obsession itself; what about Nolan?

To me, I’ve always noticed two major themes that are constantly in his filmography. The first theme that Nolan constantly portrays is how subjectivity can shape our realities. Could our subconscious shape what’s real to us? Is there even such thing as an objective reality? Can we trust our minds? Could our illusion of what we think is real shape who we are, or even change us? This theme isn’t really in Followingmuch but there are traces of it there in the different transformations of Bill. When Bill starts seeing things in a new light, through following people and following Cobb, he starts to change as an individual until it shapes who he is. But we’ll get into more detail on this theme in the upcoming discussions for Memento and Inception.

The second theme that seems to permeate Nolan’s filmography is the relationship between order and chaos. This is what Following is mainly about. The whole film’s theme can be summed up in this quote that’s in the prologue of the film: “It was supposed to just be completely random. And when it stopped being random, that’s when it started to go wrong.” Do we live in a society of order? Do we live in a constant sea of chaos? And depending on which interpretation floats your boat, what would happen if a dash of the opposite one was injected into your life. In Following, there is a specific order to the way Bill approaches his followings. He sets up rules, doesn’t attempt to make it creepy (even though it totally, totally is), and tries to do everything in a set pattern. When he steps off that pattern, and starts to inject a little chaos in the proceedings, things go very wrong for him.

Soon, his entire life is chaos. People aren’t who they say they are, he’s double-crossed, and then triple-crossed, and finally he realizes that all of that chaos that followed him, was all part of the plan of another (a.k.a. Order). What was chaos for him, was order for the man that deceived him. The universe works in mysterious ways, and sometimes the line between order and chaos is simply relative.

Following is not a perfect movie by any means. It’s noticeably low budget in a bad way. Some of the acting is flat when it comes to more dramatic scenes, there are some fight sequences that are very poorly choreographed, and thinking about the ultimate “plan” that is revealed about the end shows a few plot holes. But the tight screenplay, the crazy structuring, and the devilishly clever twist at the end are so engrossing that they are more than enough to make up for those flaws.

Compared to the rest of Nolan’s career, this has the smallest scope out of all of them. It’s only an hour and ten minutes long and rushes by rather quickly, even though it definitely sticks with you long after its over. I will say it’s probably his most confusing film. That’s not a good or bad thing, just an observation. Part of what makes movies like Memento and Inception so well-crafted is that in spite of all the different levels it’s play in, you can still understand them. Following is much harder to understand, not just because of the structure but also because of the way character motivations change in a blink and how their plans align with so many different moving parts and unquantifiable factors coming into play.

While I didn’t totally understand it, I was still able to get the gist of it, and I was still able to be absorbed by it’s grainy mood, twisty narrative, and deeper subtext. Following is a damn good debut feature, but it’s one that only hints at the potential within Christopher Nolan.

Next time, we will look at what happens when that potential is totally fulfilled with his next movie: The 2000 classic Memento.

That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by following my blog and my Tumblr, as well as following me on the Twitter-machine @CGRunyon to hear more of my general ramblings on film, video games, and other such things. By following me, you not only get an endless stream of updates on what’s going on with my articles, you get to stroke my massive ego in the process. Do at your own risk.

See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta find a pen. Gotta find a pen, gotta find a pen, pen, pen, pen, pen…

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