Friday, August 28, 2015

Christopher Nolan makes mostly boring movies

Following, the first film by Christopher Nolan, is has the out-of-sequence narrative style of his American film breakout hit "Momento", detailing, in a notably shattered way, the intensely strange relationship between a would-be writer, desperate for things to write about, and a professional burgler. While the viewer has a task assembling a linear storyline from the piecemeal details offered, the movie is compulsively watchable, and there is a sense of a the "normal" everyman being seduced by a bad influence and used as means to achieve dishonorable ends. Well done.


Interstellar was good in terms of being a technical marvel and an example of what well-composed camera shots can get you, but the film wasn't so stellar as a thought provoking masterpiece that director and co-writer Christopher Nolan likes to attempt making. It has what one could term the "Apocalypse Now" syndrome, where an ambitious director of acknowledged skill and accomplishment attempts to grasp and discuss , in visual narrative form, a series of intellectually daunting notions that, for all the spectacular visuals and endless minutes of characters pondering metaphysics, resist an convincing transition to film.

As much as I have enjoyed "A.N." (I have watched a dozen times easily since its original theater release) , Francis Coppola didn't evoke "the horror" nearly as cogently as Joseph Conrad did in the movie's source material, the short story "Heart of Darkness"; as brilliant as many sections of the movie was , the Viet Nam saga relied on spectacle over interior rumination. Prose fiction has definite advantages over film with respect to seducing the reader into the private cosmology of heroes and villains. But beyond the keen distinctions between what prose and film are able of conveying, it's clear that Nolan is a terrible plotter; he cannot write a third act that provides a satisfying ah-ha!To coin a phrase, the harder he tries for significance beyond the thrills and visceral confirmation of what passes as truth, justice and irony in our popular culture, the more trying his films become to endure.

Coppola, to his great credit, had a genius for creating outstandingly comic and absurd scenes even if the all-together philosophy that was to give Apocalypse Now gravitas wasn't achieved, not nearly. It is a watchable, memorable film. Nolan is serious like surgery, humorless, dour, vaguely depressed, mumbling in half-heard abstractions. Not fun."Interstellar" , in turn, concerning a mission to the far reaches of known space to ostensibly find a habitable planet for the population of a dying earth to migrate to, sub themes like love, honor, loyalty and the like are handily mixed in with hazier , not easily rendered subjects, physics and metaphysics alike, which means , of course, that there far too many instances where the otherwise attractive likes of Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are sitting in their technological huts literally talking about the meaning of life. It is a ponderous exposition that makes the pace of Interstellar sluggish . Nolan, is at an instance where he has no other method to make his movies move forward. Nolan has a problem writing coherent third acts, most notably in his third Batman film and inInception". Nolan's fondness for large vistas and other sorts of visual exposition, both in "Inception" and "Interstellar". The tendency is chronic in the new film, with grand and sweeping shots of corn fields at the film's beginning and later, on one of the planets being investigated for possible human habitation , large, high contrast panoramas of frozen ice and mountain ranges.

The problem , as usual with Nolan, isn't execution, but duration. The cameras dwell too long on the shots, lingering sleepily. There is in 'Interstellar", as well, an overbearing music score, soundtrack, composed by Hans Zimmer; often times Matthew M's trademarked gritty whisper turns into hushed garble. Entire swaths of dialogue are lost in the conflicted soundtrack. It swells up at moments when there is an explanatory bit of conversation going on. Even the least interested person in the matter of how effective music background can be in creating dramatic tension has the innate awareness of when it works and when it does not; how anyone can leave this production and not feel manipulated , coaxed and otherwise coerced by the noise level to a level of nervous anticipation is, I believe, impossible. Direction, motivation and coherence diminish even more and one is puzzled why the music is bearing down on you when nothing interesting is happening. It is a mess, a hurried, hasty, careless mess. Nolan does not engage the senses, he bullies them.

The final sequence of the film is quite fantastic , a fanciful illustration of another kind of existence, and this is a sequence I would watch the movie again for, but there is the nagging feeling that the plot twist at the movie's mid point was less a what-the-hell?!-moment than it was a set up for the sort of deliberate virtuosity that was lurking around the corner. There is always a sense in Nolan's recent work that he was bored with the process of perfecting his script and rushed into production without really a clear vision of what he was trying to convey. It should be noted as well that Nolan mistakes length and vaguely outlined ideas as narrative poetry, as a sign of greater depth. I think it is actually a sign of weight, not gravitas, and that weight sinks the enterprise altogether.

 
Inception was a colossal strain on my attention span , as was director Chris Nolan's previous film The Dark Knight. Both the films were well mounted and the available budgets were well used--as they say, you could "see the money on the screen"--but Nolan mistakes plot confusion and ambiguity for some variant of poetic ellipsis; some issues are unresolved, or forgotten about, it seems, as the crowded confines of I and DK pile on the dialogue, the mid-chase explanations, the chaotic , jagged cuts between parallel scenes. The plot concerns of Inception are the stuff that made Phillip K.Dick such a brilliant, if harried science fiction writer; Leonardo DiCaprio as a high tech industrial spy who has the skill and technology to enter a subject's mind during sleep and extract professional secrets for business rivals. The problematic point , though, is that he's haunted by the death of his wife, who's image keeps appearing in the dreamscape he and his team construct to fool the sleeping subject. She is the ghost that follows the team leader in whatever scenario he concocts-- her appearences no good.

Nor do they bode well for cohesive story telling; after a splendid first thirty minutes in which the viewer is landed in the middle of the action--a tasty variation of the James Bond tuxedo-ed assassin ploy--the film chokes on back stories, flashbacks, and stretches of dialogue that seek to contextualize the hurried scenes.

Had the film been a leaner, less cluttered tale, attempting, as it does, the sort of convoluted layering a competent commercial novel might have, Inception might have been an intelligent adventure film: issues of love, morality, political economy, redemption could have been discussed in conjunction with concurrent action. The abstract (a conventional set of ethical challenges , really) would have been realized cogently in the narrative flow. The movie, though, stops again and again and yet again with a flashback, an extended pause in the momentum, so DiCaprio can discuss his feelings, make a another emotional breakthrough.

Confusion and ambiguity were the working idea behind Momento, and to the degree that Nolan conceived his idea and worked through the variations of a memory-impaired man attempting to advance a plan of vengence in a present he couldn't keep in mind, it worked splendidly, wonderfully. The film had an ironic twist--a real one, not one of those cookie cutter conclusions that wallow in the irresolution of a conflict--which made the fractured plot coherent, finally,and illustrated consequences beyond what the hero or the villians could imagine.The various scenarios at play in Inception, though were, of themselves , simple enough, but Nolan's problem was pacing and, sorry to say, the inability to make the characters connect with a believable emotion. The film was rather frantically edited , and the cutting between the three dreamscapes in the last third of the film were long in duration. The effect on this viewer was a loss of interest in a mission who's impetus was more hysterical than urgent. 

All this makes Christopher Nolan a lead-footed action director who is intent on turning the pleasures of pulp genres into think pieces and talky existential dioramas. Economy is the key, of course, and decisiveness is the quality needed the most; conviction about the genre your using to get your narrative ideas across. A fresh idea would have helped , though, or at least a fresh approach on using old ones; Inception has deep echos of The Matrix, Heat and Solaris during it's length, the result being an interesting, if tedious distortion of what seems to have started out as an interesting idea.

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The Dark Knight Rises has inspired a dedicated coterie of nay sayers who complain that the film is a lugubrious  bore, muddled in plot and spectacularly pedestrian in superhuman feats; considering that the director is Christopher Nolan , an artist who chases bad ideas with the same meticulous ambition he pursues good ones, the charge might have credibility if one hadn't seen the film. Chris Nolan's last film "Inception" was a superb example of what this director does with an idea when he decides to worry the notion and overwork it to the extent that it becomes a slow, waddling crawl of a film bloated with intellectual pretensions that cease to be parts of an intricate premise and more a case of a screenwriters who have fallen in love with the sound of their own voice In other words, this auteur of bleak proves himself capable of being hung with the many strands of his own ideas--so many loose strings left untied. "Dark Knight Rises", though, benefits greatly for having comic books as its source material, a form that demands a leaner, straight forward narrative.

Not that TDKR is a simple tale--it's a murky terrain of moral ambivalence, self doubt and ambivalent morality--but Nolan provides a masterful tone to all of this, a noirish brooding contained in this film's dark corners, and moves along the plot points at a relatively brisk pace, considering the length of the film. It is a murky film, but it is an epic murk, a series of catastrophes wherein in it appears that not just the characters fight for what it is good and decent in this world, but also the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, struggling to free itself of many foul diseases that have invaded its body politic. The Dark Knight Rises has a Gotham City that is a noble force battling every bit of foulness a malevolent universe can toss at it. It is an epic tale and to witness this is enthralling. Nolan, who can indeed be pretentious and vague in his work, did well, very well this time out.



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