Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Christopher Nolan - Interstellar and 8 more Cinematic Masterpieces

With the release of Memento in 2000 I was immediately a fully paid up member of the Christopher Nolan fan club. All subsequent films have been released to great fanfare and expectation from me.

Constant human themes pervade his films: our memories and indeed our memory, the workings of the human mind on how we perceive identity, uniqueness, dealing with loss and questioning what is really possible beyond the realms of what we actually believe to be possible. But for me in 2000 it was seeing a film so perfect, so twisted and so challenging that led me to fan club status. Every new film has been watched and re-watched on or close to release date, such is the anticipation of every new film released by Nolan. Aside from the well known back story to Batman, "his" trilogy and now the eagerly anticipated release of Interstellar, there are five further stories, each uniquely different, each treating the audience as grown ups, with no pandering to them with elongated exposition.

It is not my intention to provide huge spoilers for the coming nine films but rather a flavour for the films as I do not want to spoil these great films for you in any way. Moreover, all of my film blogs are written purely from a fan's perspective and in appreciation of film's crafted by a wonderful Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy his creations. Here are Christopher Nolan's nine films to date (1998-2014), lovingly appraised in chronological order.

Following (1998)

"When I started to follow people, specific people, when I selected a person to follow, that's when the trouble started"

Christopher Nolan's debut feature as director is a low budget thriller shot entirely in black and white and featuring just four main characters in a small cast list of just 26 actors. Sharp editing between the main characters enhances the tension, as does the longer/wider shots of "Bill" aka "The Young Man" (Jeremy Theobald) as he people watches and follows seemingly random people. During the early narration from Bill, he explains, to both an unseen character, then to the audience in general, how, as a budding writer, he uses the act of following people simply to observe their behaviours, actions and everyday life as inspiration for his writing. He narrates his simple rules for the audience, however as he admits during the first five minutes of the film, he breaks an early rule, that of never following the same person twice. As a result, he meets "Cobb", a standout performance from Alex Haw, as a sharply dressed and self assured thief. Lucy Russell as "The Blonde" is quickly introduced as the third main character, a girlfriend of a local Club Owner and a fourth character "The Policeman", with John Nolan (Christopher Nolan's Uncle) in a cameo, yet crucial role.

Regular flashbacks and back to front narrative similar in tone to the coming Memento, there are several plot twists in a film running time of just 69 minutes. This is clearly a forerunner and blueprint for the more successful and polished Memento. But as a stand alone film it improves still further with repeated viewings. It engages you immediately, with the narration, flashbacks and "looping" between scenes posing more questions than can be answered in one viewing. A low budget gem and a low budget masterpiece in which Christopher Nolan wrote, directed, acted as his own cinematographer and also edited. A real triumph of a film and well worthy of 69 minutes of your time.

Memento (2000)

"Remember Sammy Jankis"

Based on the short story "Memento Mori" by his brother Jonathan, this is a cinematic triumph in every way for Christopher Nolan. Director of Photography Wally Pfister deserves early praise for the immersive lighting of the black and white scenes and a distinctly different and more gritty, real life feel to the standard colour scenes. This was to be Pfister's first of seven collaborations as DP on a Christopher Nolan film. Editor Dody Dorn also deserves early praise, as does David Julyan who returns to provide another subtle and haunting "electronic hum" of a soundtrack. He also provided a similar score to Nolan's earlier film "Following" and re-teams with the Director on his next two films. As a music fan, the score is a particular favourite of mine reminiscent as it is of the 1980's style of synthesised score, simple yet mournful and brooding. As a Radiohead fan it pleases me that Director Nolan originally wanted their eponymous track "Paranoid Android" to play over the closing credits but due to rights issues David Bowie's "Something in the Air" is used. Even as a Radiohead fan, the use of Paranoid Android wouldn't have fitted the film. 

A back to front film in every sense of the word with the very first scene over the opening credits shown in complete reverse, setting the tone and theme of the film. It also announces to the audience to keep up, stay alert and solve the coming constantly changing riddle wrapped in an enigma. Accompanied by a simple, methodical narration from "Leonard Shelby" (Guy Pearce) over the flashback scenes (always in black and white), we revert back to traditional colour for the "present day" scenes. Towards the end of the film, this process is also reversed, but it's the looping of the narrative that immediately immerses you in the film. Scenes loop together with a crossover of the previous scene and not always in the ways you'd imagine even after re-watching several times. It disorientates the audience on purpose and can either be seen as a genius piece of cinema (me) or an immediate reason to disengage with the story. I enjoy the process of the looping thereby giving me more detail, more character and more layers of the film.

In a towering performance, Guy Pearce plays Leonard, striving to find the identity of his wife's killer whilst suffering from the inability to form new, present day memories. His longer term memory is intact and, via the black and white flashbacks, we see Leonard as an Insurance Investigator and his main case, that of "Sammy Jankis" (great performance from Stephen Tobolowsky). Unable to form or remember new memories, Leonard resorts to tattooing numerous clues and statements to his body and lives by a constantly changing set of polaroid photographs. All social encounters are portrayed awkwardly, as Leonard, unaware he's had the same conversation previously, stares blankly ahead, with the line "I'm sorry I can't remember you. It's nothing personal" particularly telling. His blank stare grates on every character yet we are as aware as anyone that his actions are genuine  and with no malice intended. These awkward interactions drive the film and combined with the looping effect again reveal layer after layer of the film and of our character's real intent.

There are only fourteen characters in the entire near two hour film, two of whom share the majority of screen time with Leonard. Carrie-Anne Moss is superb as the calculating "Natalie" and Joe Pantoliano matches the intensity of performance by Guy Pearce, as "Teddy"
All three main characters have a depth and duality. The constant flashbacks and looping progressively displays their duality whereby we see their extreme sides, both positive and negative, yet invest so much in them that we care in their outcome. All three main characters have a decidedly dark and harmful side yet the twisting of the narrative persuades you to like them. Why are Teddy and Natalie helping Leonard, and to what ends?

With the repeated use of these looping scenes, this excellent tale unravels and some of the twists can be anticipated but by no means all. As a first time viewer and now repeated viewer, you simply don't piece the clues together as information overkill and intense story often distract you, which is the film's biggest compliment and is in no way a criticism. It continues to remain fresh and challenging on repeated viewings and when watched recently I noticed that the first overt confirmation "clue" coming just fifteen minutes before the closing credits. Far superior to it's early predecessor Following, it's a triumph and masterpiece in every way. Trying not to give spoilers for this film in particular is very difficult! But equally I can't do this justice from a review perspective either. It's so unique and fresh even 14 years after it's release. Should you be reading this and haven't seen the film, go see it.

Interestingly, many of the themes of the film are incorporated into his film "Inception", still 10 years away. They both share common themes of disconnection from life, memories versus fact, seeking revenge, the passing of time and the rationalisation of emotions. How do you rationalise emotions when you won't remember them? Detailing his condition (again!) to Natalie mid-way through the film, Leonard tellingly states "The world doesn't just disappear when you close your eyes".

"Now, where was I?"

Insomnia (2002)

"Let me sleep"

Nolan is reunited with Cinematographer Wally Pfister, Editor Dody Dorn and David Julyan who again provides an understated, yet effective score as we enter the Alaskan town of Nightmute on the trail of a murderer. His third film is often regarded as his weakest but I retain a strong affinity for it, understated and subtle with an imposing and absorbing story surrounded by a constant reference to being awake and unable to rest. There are many superb performances, and two marquee names usurped by an excellent performance from Hilary Swank. It's also another early Nolan film with only a minimal cast of only 25 actors involved.

Swooping early shots of the town and it's outskirts show vast, open and vacant expanses of countryside in the company of "Will Dormer" (Al Pacino) and "Hap Eckhart" (Martin Donovan), two Detectives assigned to tracking down the killer. The town of Nightmute itself becomes an additional "character" in the film, although actually shot in Squamish, British Columbia. The town and outskirts are a key ingredient to this absorbing film, depicting a rundown industrial backwater juxtaposed with more modern interiors of the local school and police station, it never gets dark and is always seemingly in daylight, is cold, dank and desolate. Wide shots of waterfalls and vistas of snow capped mountains add to both the character of the town itself and the claustrophobia of a town that is always in daylight and never sleeps. What is the time? Is it daytime or should it be night fall? 

Pacino's Dormer appears tired, gruff and self absorbed. An analytical and measured Detective, he is clearly troubled by a past that may be catching up with him and quickly we see extremely brief glimpses in the form of flashbacks, inter cut with the brooding Pacino of past events and the murder he is in town to investigate. Cleverly, further flashbacks of the murder are shown, again briefly and without being graphic, as we see Dormer struggling to sleep and rest amongst his thoughts.

Ellie Burr 
(Hilary Swank) The film's real star as a fresh faced and eager to please local Detective and investigator. Within the first few scenes of this absorbing film are numerous edits, from Swank to Pacino, with Swank continually admiring the experience of her more illustrious Partner. 
The glances and nods and smiles of appreciation from a pupil to a teacher are evident throughout. The fourth main character, local fiction writer "Walter Finch" is perfectly underplayed with a surprisingly quiet tone by Robin Williams. His first on screen appearance is over an hour into the film and is a beautifully shot, matter of fact conversation between Pacino's Dormer and Williams' Finch on a local ferry. It's a short scene but powerfully sets up the remaining hour of the film and all scenes between the two are compelling. However, further back story is filled via numerous telephone conversations between the two during the early scenes of the film, and it's not a spoiler to suggest Finch is the murderer! This is quickly shown and explored within the First Act, thoroughly dissected and with evidence provided. But why? How? When?

If the murderer is already known, then where is the suspense? All is cleverly played out against the backdrop of a claustrophobic all encompassing atmosphere, and soon it becomes clear that the hunter may in fact become the hunted.

An intriguing tale of deception, of cunning and as the title suggests, insomnia, and how this can affect a human's judgement and rationality. But the overall theme which runs constantly throughout the film is the Machiavellian concept of "The end justifies the means" and is a very real exploration of this. Does it? Who does it affect? And if the end justifies the means, what does it really matter to those affected in it's wake? This particular theme runs through many of Nolan's films, and is perfectly encapsulated here.

A remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, Hillary Seitz wrote the screenplay based on the original by writers Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaeg and this is the first film where neither of the Nolan brothers have written or adapted for the screen. In addition to David Julyan's musical score are snippets of "Sparks" by Coldplay and "Don't Wait for the Sun" by American Hi-Fi.

Batman Begins (2005)


"He's here!. The Batman"

An early disclaimer - I am neither a comic book to film adaptation fan, nor a Batman fan boy. For what it's worth, I love the "original" Tim Burton helmed Batman and of course Jack Nicholson as the irrepressible "Joker" and am a fan of the films but not as obesessive as the comic boy fanboys. I'm more a fan of the director as you may have noticed! However, this is the beginning of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and my personal favourite of the three brilliant films he has directed. As such, we begin at the very beginning with a short back story to the boy Bruce Wayne enjoying a loving, exclusive and wealthy childhood with his parents and childhood friend Rachel. From here the story is quickly completed with his fear of bats before fast forwarding to the now adult "Bruce Wayne" (Christian Bale) in a foreign jail for unspecified crimes, fighting for his life and his first meeting with a future mentor "Ducard" (Liam Neeson). The quick changing time line depicted here is a constant theme in many of Nolan's films and is ever present and evident throughout.

The opening of the trilogy sees the introduction of both familiar characters in the Batman series and constantly running familiar themes in Christopher Nolan films. The stars of this first film encapsulate this perfectly with Christian Bale imperious as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and let's be honest here, who doesn't know that Bruce Wayne isn't Batman?! Equally, Liam Neeson as his early mentor and guide Ducard is near career best especially in their early scenes together. The comic book theme of the duality of character and indeed character names is evident, but I'll limit these as much as possible for fear of obvious plot spoilers, but it's interesting to note immediately the duality of each of our two stars here with their portrayals. A young idealistic man seeking revenge for his parents death yet not wishing to kill in order to do so and taking on the persona of a revenging angel against that of his more experienced and wise mentor, skilled in the art of killing and wanting to take a different path to exert his revenge.

In support of these two headline roles are Katie Holmes as the charming  "Rachel", ambitious childhood friend and the love of Bruce's life. Michael Caine plays "Alfred" with a quiet assurance, similarly Morgan Freeman as "Lucius", inventor and creator of Batman's suits and equipment. These two roles in particular allow the film to breath, with occasional gags and one-liners and nods to previous Batman films and TV shows. There's also a stand out performance (what else?) from Gary Oldman as "Jim Gordon", Gotham City local detective. Aside from Katie Holmes, all of the three other actors named star in every film of the trilogy, each having larger, developed roles as the trilogy progresses with Michael Caine and Gary Oldman both superb in The Dark Knight Rises and Morgan Freeman particularly effective here. There are also smaller yet cameo roles here for Rutger Hauer as "Earle", Mark Boone Junior as "Flass" and Linus Roache as "Thomas Wayne".

As with the majority of previous Batman films, there are a number of villain roles, with Liam Neeson as Ducard being the ultimate highlight. However there are three further villains, two of which are cameo's, for Tom Wilkinson as "Falcone" and Ken Watanabe as "Ra's Al Ghul". Cillian Murphy is excellent as "Dr Crane", a character more fully explored and developed with an alter ego that pervades the trilogy.

Act one is mainly back story with inter cutting scenes and fluctuating time lines with the introduction of the above characters. It also introduces us to a magnificent, thumping film score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. The violin led "hum" that accompanies the early scenes is particularly striking. The excellent and fast paced editing is provided by Lee Smith, who would go on to edit future Nolan films.

But this is a Batman film and Christian Bale is triumphant throughout. Characterised as a brooding teenager, early 20's fighting for his life in that foreign jail, to the Bruce Wayne who returns to Gotham City. This is "his" film and he dominates the screen. We also see a very different Batman to one seen before in previous films and the eponymous television series. Here he's vulnerable and fallible, trying to juggle being Bruce Wayne as well as his developed new alter ego. He's not simply a superhero, but a man adjusting to life whilst taking on this new persona. The fight scenes are explosive, edited quickly, but with the camera always moving. The violence is brief but never graphic. Batman staples of car chases and set pieces are present, as are the famous Batman "toys" and equipment so beloved of the fan boy! The train sequence with Batman and Ducard is a stand out scene and the film's signature set piece.

A further character worthy of note is Gotham City itself. Nolan shows both sides to the city, the gritty decay of the lower levels of the city, against the affluent sectors elsewhere. Beautifully shot and designed, it is however the lower levels that are concentrated on, shown as dank, dark streets, with the colour deliberately drained from these shots to give an even darker, murkier feel. Regular collaborator and Director of Photography Wally Pfister deserves great credit here and throughout the trilogy, gaining an Oscar nomination for his wonderful work on this film.

The best all round of Nolan's trilogy and my personal favourite. Great story and character exploration, shot beautifully and perfectly setup for "The Joker" to take centre stage.

The Prestige (2006)


"Are you watching closely?"

"Every magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary, a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object, perhaps asks you to inspect it to see that it is indeed real"
"But of course, it probably isn't. The second Act is called The Turn. The Magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. 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 wanna know. You want to be fooled. But you won't clap yet"
"Because making something disappear isn't enough. You have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third Act. The hardest part. The part we call The Prestige".

With so many twists and turns and unexpected events, this is another masterpiece that is difficult to describe and do justice to without spoilers, so please bear with me as I try! And as I say so many times to so many people, if you haven't seen this film before, you simply have to. And you'll watch again and again as you piece together the multitude of little hints and nods as you watch for a second, third or fourth time. It's a multi layered treat of a film with some stand out performances which I'll come to after a brief admission as to my own obsession with magic, tricks and illusions. I've always been obsessed by magic from an early age but of recent times David Blaine and particularly Derren Brown are my heroes in this regard as they continually produce illusions and tricks that truly boggle the mind and have you grasping for the reason or "The Prestige". It truly brings out the child in me and fascinates and perplexes me in equal measure. And for that I'm forever thankful. And it's never quite what you expected, is it?. Anyway...

Starting with the cast, and what a stellar cast it is. Some of the best character actors of our generation are here: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson and Andy Serkis ably supported by Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall and a scene stealing cameo from David Bowie. To the screenplay: written by Christopher and his Brother Jonathan based on Christopher Priest's novel of the same name. Wally Pfister is again masterly as Director of Photography, and David Julyan again returns to provide a haunting score throughout. The closing credits play out with Thom Yorke's great song "Analyse" and how very, very apt. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The film opens with the very premise of the whole movie, that every magic trick or illusion comes in three parts or acts. Part one is The Pledge, two is The Turn and three is The Prestige. Quickly this is shown through edited snippets of various different tricks showing the three acts but before you can fully absorb this process, the film moves quickly to a court scene, describing in detail how such a past act had gone horribly wrong. This court scene is near present day, but set around the turn of the 20th Century. The continuous back story is provided by an intense narration and the reading of two diaries, from two different characters, in two very different locations and circumstances. Often cut between the two characters, writing and reading the diaries, the outline detail is provided, but this is very much just the beginning. From the ill fated trick onward, the film constantly deceives you, delights you, pleases you, challenges you and often breaks your heart.

The ill fated trick splits the friendship of two magicians. "Alfred Borden" (yet another powerful performance from Christian Bale) and "Robert Angier" (a stylish Hugh Jackman). Friends and rivals, they are seeking the ultimate illusion and are surrounded by equally rich in depth characters. "Cutter" sees Michael Caine as a magician's Ingenieur, a creator of the physical aspects to the illusions, and Caine is brilliant throughout. "Olivia", a magician's assistant is played brilliantly by the underrated Scarlett Johansson and completing the triumvirate of wonderful female supporting roles (in a very much male dominated film) is "Julia" played by Piper Perabo and "Sarah" by a brilliant Rebecca Hall. Character detail has been left deliberately vague so as to not hint at potential spoilers. There are two further performances worthy of note: "Alley" sees Andy Serkis on top form, assisting "Nikola Tesla", with David Bowie in a stunning cameo. The minor drawback here is the scant few scenes with Bowie who is flawless. It's also interesting to note how Nikola Tesla leaves our screens and cue the age old conspiracy theory! But there's far more fact than fiction (or indeed "Theory") where this is concerned, but I'll leave that for another day. Rather, here's a brief dissection of his two albeit brief scenes:

Angier is striding purposefully towards Nikola Tesla's mountainside retreat after finally securing a desired audience with the inventor. Entering his "workshop" he is greeted by an electrical current running throughout the room and especially in the corner of the room and looks aghast. Alley, reassures him "It's perfectly safe".
Shortly thereafter, Tesla comes striding through the electrical current and greets Angier with a firm handshake after complimenting him on his magic shows. He then shows Angier an example of what is possible as they hold hands again, with Angier's free hand holding an unconnected light bulb: "What's conducting the electricity?" asks an astonished Angier to which Tesla's reply is a simple "Our bodies, Mr Angier, are quite capable of conducting and indeed producing energy". A brief cut scene follows as all three men enjoy lunch on a balcony enjoying the hills and mountains that surround them. Alley is only briefly in shot whilst the camera is continually back and forth between Tesla and Angier as they tellingly discuss love, dreams, their obsessions, their life's work and of course Angier's request for Tesla to build the ultimate illusion machine, his purpose for being here today. Before we reach this conclusion and the end of a very short scene, David Bowie steals the scene brilliantly:

"The first time I tried to change the world I was hailed as a visionary. The second time I was asked politely to retire".

A film of constant deception, of obsessively striving for that one unique trick, of envy and how that eats away at the soul. It's also a further, and indeed heightened take on the question of does the end justify the means? It can also be viewed as a tale of redemption. But ultimately it's a tale of broken friendships and a total devotion to the art of magic and producing a unique illusion. The rivalry throughout even encompasses that of Tesla and his competitor Thomas Edison but it centre's on a working class magician prepared to "get his hands dirty" and that of an aristocratic showman seeking the adulation of the crowd for his one, ultimate unique trick. Christopher Nolan infuses his own devotion to the art of film making here, to bring us a film so unique, so well told, so well layered and so beautifully shot and captured that it remains a joy to watch, and watch again. Both Wally Pfister (Cinematography) and Kevin Kevanaugh (Art Direction) were nominated for Oscars, both ultimately losing out. However, this film is a real treat and a cinematic masterpiece that never ages.

The Dark Knight (2008)


"Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos"

Vastly different from Batman Begins, The Dark Knight immediately opens with sweeping camera shots of a cleaner, more affluent Gotham City and you're immediately struck by the crystal clear cinematography from returning Director of Photography Wally Pfister. This quickly cuts into the first of two completely different bank heists, and our first introduction to The Joker. Batman meanwhile, is now seen as a vigilante' by Gotham Police and now has many copycats for company, but continues to keep the streets of Gotham safe, with added gags and wisecracks! Whereas the first film is slow, meaningful exposition, The Dark Knight immediately sets the scene for the ultimate duel for Gotham City and Batman versus The Joker.

Written again by the Nolan Brothers and ably assisted by David S Goyer (Story) and Bob Kane (Characters), regular collaborators also return as they feature in all three trilogy films and all assist Christopher Nolan again produce a masterful film. Wally Pfister produces a crystal clear and defined picture throughout, lighting the set and production designs of Nathan Crowley brilliantly. Lee Smith returns as Editor and James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer again produce a wonderful musical score that beats and hums along as a perfect accompaniment to the film. Nominated for eight Oscars, this wonderful film should have won in far more categories than the two it did, for Best Sound Editing and of course for Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger's astonishing portrayal of The Joker.

The Joker (Heath Ledger) Whilst a Batman film, Heath Ledger's performance is so astonishing as to steal the film completely in much the same way as Jack Nicholson did so brilliantly in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman. Both times the Batman characterisations are excellent, both here from a returning and brilliant again Christian Bale and Michael Keaton's underrated portrayal in 1989. Here though is Ledger's stage and his take on a favourite character of many people's youth, but twisted and adapted for the 21st Century. His psychopathy is balanced unevenly with his regular turns of phrase and cutting gags which are interspersed with brutal violence and a complete detachment from the situation. The drivers for his psychopathy are immediately evident yet as the film and performance progresses these can be disregarded as The Joker wants one thing, and one thing only. Batman takes second billing to a phenomenal tour de force performance from Heath Ledger which is astonishing and his portrayal without equal. Every head tilt, his languid style, poise and presence is perfection, and his use of the screenplay and his particular cryptic language is superb. Every scene that Ledger is in (though less than you would imagine if you haven't seen this film) you are drawn to his performance, and every second he is on screen he is mesmerising. A real loss to film and a loss to life itself, this is both The Joker's finest moment, and Heath Ledger's cinematic legacy.

"Whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stranger".

Based on a simple premise of Batman assisting Gotham Police tackling the Mob/Mafia and with The Joker offering to help his fellow villains by killing a host of Gotham Politicians with the ultimate aim of reaching new District Attorney Harvey Dent and ultimately Batman. The haunting, violin led musical score is again used to great effect, often bridging cuts between scenes and the set pieces and chases are of typical Batman stock. There are many excellent set pieces as you'd expect in a Batman film which lead to the ultimate stand off between two Gotham ferries, as the film reaches an epic, climatic finale'. 

Returning from the first film are Batman stalwarts "Alfred" (Michael Caine), "Rachel" (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and "Lucius" (Morgan Freeman). Also returning as the now "Commissioner Gordon" is Gary Oldman, "Scarecrow", the alter ego of "Dr Crane" played again, and excellently as ever, by Cillian Murphy and a key new addition and fan boy favourite "Harvey Dent" (Aaron Eckhart).

Heath Ledger: 
April 4th 1979 - January 22nd 2008

Inception (2010)


"Wait. Who's subconscious are we going through exactly?"

Beginning at the end of the film, or does it? Is it all a dream? Is it limbo? Confused already? Well you should be! Yet another Christopher Nolan film that is difficult to describe without giving away plot spoilers and yet another Nolan film with a twisted time line. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, this is also another of his films based on an original idea (dream stealing) he wrote as a treatment and sketchy outline many years before it was actually made, and I for one am eternally grateful it was made. It's an astonishing film which when seen on the big screen is a treat and so immersive but remains a true joy when re-watching. A film of many themes but the obvious opening one is that of dream stealing and being in a state of lucid dreaming, of being aware you are dreaming yet your dreams take bizarre and surreal circumstances. Which raises the question: what is Inception? It's the planting of an idea into someone to think/believe they actually thought of the idea themselves.

The cast is both a stellar collection of the finest character actors around, and also a truly international one. Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all take centre stage, ably supported by cameo roles from Michael Caine, Tom Berenger and Pete Postlethwaite. Long time Director of Photography Wally Pfister is again on board, but Hans Zimmer providing the musical score this time, a majestic one and highly recommended at that, and to great effect. The immersive musical score is again an electronic "hum", dense and melancholic and a real treat. Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smith's guests on guitar and the beautiful "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" from Edith Piaf is used continually throughout. This is another Christopher Nolan film to garner several Oscar nominations (8) and winning in four categories, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Cinematography, thereby securing Wally Pfister's first Oscar after being nominated on all three previous Nolan films.

You truly have to suspend your disbelief and maybe even your actual beliefs from the very outset. "Cobb" (DiCaprio) is an extractor of dreams who is desperate to return home to be with his family, but takes solace in re-tracing his dreams to keep alive his dead wife "Mal" (brilliantly played by Cotillard). The return home, and the ending of his "dreams" that are tearing him apart is provided by "Saito" (an excellent Watanabe), provided he can perfect an Inception into the life of his business rival "Robert" (Murphy). Back to the premise: Cobb has to assemble a team for his "final job" and via his Father in-Law and Mentor "Miles" (Michael Caine) he seeks an architect. To enable the dream to take root in the mind of the subject, an architect "Ariadne" (an excellent Ellen Page) must build a unique, maze like dream world for everyone experiencing that person's dream. Stay with me here! Three further team members join, "Yusuf" (Dileep Rao), "Eames" (Tom Hardy) and "Arthur" (Gordon-Levitt). The chemistry and interplay between Eames and Arthur lend the film a much needed breather and genuine light relief. However, it's quickly clear that this "final job" will require more than simply Inception. It will require three levels within the dream: a dream, within a dream, within a dream. As the dream(s) unravel, it's clear that due to the deep nature of the dream(s), death in a dream will not result in waking in "real life" as is normal in Inception. This is far too deep in the subconscious mind for that, and death will result in Limbo, a raw, infinite subconscious of the shared mind where any mind can make drastic changes and lasts for 50+ years. And this is just the beginning!

We are treated to numerous juxtapositions of slow motion action shots and explosions, against a backdrop of characters seemingly oblivious to this. We are also constantly jolted from such scenes to scenes of seeming tranquillity, as the characters are attached to the dream machine and laying motionless and asleep. Is this present day? But what is present day? What is a dream, and whose dream are we currently in? The CGI is superb throughout, as buildings and constructs are moved 180 degrees, demolished and conversely, created by The Architect, from nothing. These scenes are given a real surreal feel to them and are a real joy.

You really have to see this film. And if you've already seen it, kick off your shoes and watch again! A redemption film, it shares common themes on lucid dreaming with the underrated Cameron Crowe film of 2001, Vanilla Sky. Inception is far, far superior in every way, but lucid dreaming, and the feeling of "am I dreaming?" are common to both. The excellent "bullet time" sequences take The Wachowski's The Matrix trilogy use to much higher levels and the slow motion shots throughout are a surreal delight. Themes of memory and challenging the world around you are evident but ultimately it challenges the audience to pay attention, suspend their disbelief, challenge your every day beliefs in the world must be as it is because it's here, it's now, and go along for the ride. And what a ride it is!

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)


"You don't fear death, you welcome it. Your punishment must be more severe"

Christopher Nolan's unique take and Batman trilogy concludes with another iconic villain, Bane.

Bane (Tom Hardy) Immediately introduced as a fantastic, James Bond style skyjacking develops and a brilliant opening set piece that remains breathtaking on repeated watches. A fan boy favourite for many years, Bane splits opinion, not so much the portrayal, more the mask he wears, which often makes what is being said difficult to understand and comprehend. A minor criticism, as Hardy is excellent and dominates the screen with his presence and intensity. He is often shot slightly from below, adding to his size and screen presence and this is cleverly used. An imposing presence throughout the film and a back story that maybe only true fanboys would appreciate, Tom Hardy is another personal acting favourite of mine and provides an astonishing portrayal.

From the breathtaking opening scene, we cut to a memorial for Harvey Dent, and in a further juxtaposition, a glossy, affluent looking Gotham City. Wanted for the murder of Dent (my first plot spoiler for ages, come on!), Batman is now in hiding and consequently Bruce Wayne is now a virtual recluse. However, with Gotham City under siege, can Batman and Bruce Wayne return?

Three main characters return, "Lucius" (Morgan Freeman) "Alfred" (Michael Caine in the best and most powerful performance across the trilogy) and "Commissioner Gordon" (Gary Oldman). Together with Bane, there are several new characters introduced: "Miranda", a socialite desperate to spend time with, and explore ideas with Bruce Wayne, is brilliantly played by Marion Cotillard. "Selina", a thief, is superbly played by Anne Hathaway and "Blake", a young, idealistic Police Detective is played quietly and assuredly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. These final two characters are blended into the life and back story of Bruce Wayne, and the interplay is superb. There are also numerous hints way before the climatic finale' as to both Blake's and Selina's future roles in the life of Gotham City. Christian Bale of course returns as Batman and is again on imperious form. A star of four of Christopher Nolan's eight films, he has pipped Michael Keaton to become the ultimate Batman and synonymous with the role. Spectacular set pieces (especially at the Stock Exchange and the football game), together with the ultimate fights between Batman and Bane are clearly inspired by their comic book roots. "The Bat" will no doubt split the fan boys! But the final twenty minutes builds to a pulsating climax that will split opinion on many levels. But leaving plot spoilers aside, it is truly a cinematic triumph and is infused with so many Christopher Nolan themes.

"A hero can be anyone"

Throughout the trilogy and Nolan's films in general there are common themes running. Rejection and abandonment. Human loss. Redemption. Justice and decency. But ultimately, the key is the duality of character and the fine line between good and evil and the blurred lines in between. From "The Young Man" in Following, "Leonard" in Memento, "Will Dormer" in Insomnia, numerous characters in both The Prestige and Inception, to Batman/Bruce Wayne himself. Between 1998 and 2012 Christopher Nolan wrote and directed eight of the finest and most intriguing cinematic masterpieces, films which I heartily recommend and films that continue to delight even with extended and repeated viewings. In line with all of my film blogs I've tried to keep spoilers to an absolute minimum so as not to spoil your enjoyment of these fine films and so it is we move to the present day and another masterpiece from the directorial eye of a modern day great and his eagerly awaited Interstellar.

Interstellar (2014)

"We used to look up into the stars and wonder"

Well the wait is finally over! Two interminably long years since wrapping "his" Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan has finally gone into space and off world via the unexplainable scientific mediums of the space time continuum, wormholes and black holes. Co-written with his brother Jonathan, Nolan also served as Producer as well as helming this latest cinematic wonder and a wonder it is, lest it has numerous minor flaws. Watching from the dark confines of your local picture house is the only place to see Interstellar, and on the biggest screen possible for it is a magnificent, immersive and almost operatic achievement. However it's the first Christopher Nolan film that I haven't instantly fallen in love with but I do greatly admire the astounding cinematic achievement in yet again producing a film that continues to break boundaries and expand the sense of what is possible as well as challenging an audience, filling it full of wonder, adventure and dreams whilst juxtaposing these themes with frustration, isolation, desolation and the eerie silence of outer space. There are clearly nods to M Night Shyamalan's mysterious "Signs", Robert Zemeckis' "Contact" and huge inspiration has been taken from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" but Nolan has also referenced back to his own incredible film of four years previously, "Inception" with it's continuous time shifts whilst challenging the possibility of time itself, it's constituents and it's limitations. Interstellar is far more than a simple dying earth/outer space story as Nolan again leans on many of the themes he's employed in his previous films as he explores the concepts of reality, time and the Machiavellian principle of the end justifying the means. But above all it's another Nolan film with human beings and the human spirit at the core of his film, of a Father's love for his family and his determination for their continued survival. 

With a very keen eye on plot spoilers, the premise of the film as a whole sees a post apocalyptic near future earth on the verge of dying, ravaged by dust storms and with crops failing, food is fast running out. This is established very early in the film in one of it's many narrative strands that intertwine throughout the film as the narrative weaves from present day to future "talking heads" sequences describing the horrors of living in the dust storms, through to the Kubrick inspired space voyages. The concept of time is always prevalent as the earth is simply running out of time, "Professor Brand" (Michael Caine) is "afraid of time" while trying to manipulate it through his many scientific theories in his capacity at NASA. When "Cooper" (Matthew McConaughey) and daughter "Murph" (Mackenzie Foy) "stumble" upon the earth's "best kept secret" they soon discover that NASA has been working in secret on a space exploration project which is ready for launch and ready to seek planets that can sustain future human lives. However "they", and whoever "they" may be, are also manipulating time through dimensions, wormholes and black holes and have seemingly directed Cooper, an accomplished pilot, into NASA and into a life changing decision: Does he embrace his adventurous spirit and guide the Endurance spaceship interstellar or does he remain on Earth with the family he loves and adores? Following his Oscar winning performance in "Dallas Buyers Club" and star turns in "Magic Mike" and "Killer Joe", Matthew McConaughey excels as the All American Hero Cooper, struggling to raise crops on a dying earth as well as raising two young children with only his gruff, disillusioned Father in Law "Donald" (John Lithgow) to help him. Cooper is fiercely protective of his young children and both Murph (a brilliant, heartbreaking performance from Mackenzie Foy) and "Tom" (Timothee' Chalamet) share their Father's spirit as Tom is determined to drive the family farming business despite the inherent problems and his younger sister shares her Father's dreams and aspirations. The concept of time pervades every narrative strand of the film and this is never more prescient than when our intrepid interstellar heroes, joined by "Amelia" (Anne Hathaway) a NASA scientist, visit prospective earth friendly and viable planets. Time accelerates rapidly compared to life on earth with every hour spent exploring a prospective planet spanning many earth years, but rather than any further plot spoilers I will simply add that this concept, whilst one of many of the film's themes, introduces the audience to many supporting and cameo roles during Interstellar's near three hour run time. Jessica Chastain is superb as the older Murph, still mourning her Father's absence but seemingly determined to follow in his footsteps, Casey Affleck supports her ably as her older brother (in every sense) Tom and Matt Damon performs well as disillusioned "Dr Mann". Any further character exposition will simply hint at spoilers and this is not my intention of this appraisal.

So, 24 hours after seeing Interstellar, is it any good? The simple answer is a categorical yes and an overwhelming and stunning achievement. The early set piece on earth of the drone chase is a wonderful early example to live up to but where Interstellar comes into it's own is in the spinning chasm of outer space and the eerie silence that envelops it. Regular Editor Lee Smith excels throughout and huge credit must be paid to Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography as he brings to life a dusty, arid earth with a "dry", colour drained lens before capturing space in league with his contemporary Emmanuel Lubezki in Alfonso Cuaron's multi Oscar winning "Gravity". Oscars will surely follow here too, for Van Hoytema's cinematography, Nathan Crowley's production design and Hans Zimmer's eclectic and beautiful musical score. However the greatest praise lies with Director Nolan for producing yet another thought provoking film of weighty ideas shrouded in the science of quantum physics, the dimensions of time, space and relativity without losing the heart of the story, a human story of existence and of an adventurous spirit bound by the love of the families we all cherish. 

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