Monday, September 5, 2016

Retro Trio, Christopher Nolan Edition: The Prestige (2006); Inception (2010); Interstellar (2014)

This little themed set of reviews started with a late-night viewing of The Prestige, and ended up with my discovering that I had never reviewed Inception, which I did re-watch only about a month ago. From there, it was a small jump to add Interstellar, which I only saw once when it was released. 

The Prestige (2006)

It speaks well for a movie when you put it on late at night with the intention of watching maybe 30 minutes while you drift into sleep, and then you realize that it's past midnight and you have every intention of watching every last second of the remaining hour of the movie. This is even more impressive when it's a movie you've seen several times already, as I had with The Prestige before this most recent viewing.

Coming out a little over a year after his true breakout smash hit, Batman Begins, this movie solidified just what Christopher Nolan can do with a large budget. Though completely different in subject and presentation than his take on the famous DC superhero, The Prestige bore all of the hallmarks of Nolan's writing and directing: a non-linear narrative; a surprise ending; a dark general tone; extremely slick visuals; Michael Caine. Nolan's films virtually all blend these elements into solid films.

The Prestige tells the tale of two rival magicians (or "illusionists", as Gob Bluth would demand) in the early 20th century who become viciously obsessed with defeating each other, at first professionally but eventually in every way. Getting their start together as assistants to a more established stage magician in London, one of them accidentally has a hand in the death of the other's wife. This sets of a chain of events in which each one attempts to sabotage the other's act while establishing himself as the premier stage magician in London. The sabotage attempts grow ever-more-dangerous, even leading to maiming and an eventual arrest for murder.

Borden and Angier, two budding magicians before their lethal
rivalry develops. There is refreshing shift in just who is the
more sympathetic character as the plot progresses.
The story has plenty of intrigue built into it already, but Nolan enhances it with his narrative choices. Similar to his approach in Memento, he tells the story by alternating between past and present, giving us a chance to see the steps that led to the deadly opposition between two past colleagues. And not unlike that earlier movie, this is one that is likely to inspire you to want to see it again immediately after your first viewing, just so that you can follow the meaning of the earlier parts of the movie better, once you have the complete picture. I always appreciate how Nolan has fun with how he orders his narratives, and he has a strong enough grasp of the technique that it adds solid entertainment value.

This isn't to say that the movie is flawless. Similar to other Nolan movies, the romantic relationships are never really fleshed out. Despite having very good actors in the key roles - Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johannsen, and Rebecca Hall - the romance between the different pairs never feels completely natural. It's hardly the most essential part of this movie, but it is relevant enough so that the lack of completely authentic emotions results in a dulled impact at certain moments in the movie.

I suppose the one other minor criticism that I can level at the movie is that there is a truly supernatural element thrown into a movie which is otherwise all about the art of slight-of-hand. This element of the truly fantastic works quite well, given how it is introduced and used, but I would understand if some viewers find it more than a little out of place. Perhaps even as a slight bit of cheating, even.

Among Christopher Nolan's films, I would actually rate this among his very best, which for me are The Dark Knight and Inception. Anyone who happened to miss this one would do well to go back and watch it.

Inception (2010)

One could divide Nolan's movies into "original" and "adapted" groups. While the former group would include the Dark Knight trilogy and a remake like InsomniaInception would fall into the latter category. And like few directors, Nolan's originals are equal to or arguably better than his adapted films.

If you haven't seen it, Inception focuses on Cobb, an expert in the field of extraction - a method of entering another person's dreams and retrieving ideas. Cobb's services are highly prized by corporate raiders who seek to pull valuable corporate secrets out of the minds of their competitors. However, Cobb is on the run from U.S. law enforcement, as he is the prime suspect in his wife's murder. To clear his name in order to return home to his children, Cobb accepts a highly risky but possibly life-changing job of performing the questionable act of inception - the technique of implanting, rather than extracting, an idea into a person's mind. Cobb assembles a team to help him create a complex series of dream worlds through which they can enter their target's mind and incept the appropriate idea.

In keeping with the stories that Nolan usually tells, Inception unfolds on several levels. Early in the movie, we are introduced to the concept of extraction and even the notion of a dream within a dream. In the third act, though, we eventually are watching a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream (that's five levels, if you didn't count). It can be a bit disorienting or even frustrating, if you're not paying close attention. If you are, however, it can be a really fun and creative ride. Each dream takes place in a distinct environment with its own look and feel, with each one offering some new insight as to how the concepts of inception and extraction work. It helps that there is a tension and urgency built into each dream level, allowing the suspense to pull us along. Nolan has always had fun with how he plays with narratives, and it seems like he was having a blast with this one.

The dream-world hotel hallway fight scene is one of the most
cinematically dazzling sequences in recent times.
The visuals are possibly the best in any Nolan film, which is saying something. He has done some spectacular things on film, but Inception probably features several of his most iconic images. From the folding cities to the slow motion world explosions to the fight in the rotating hotel room, this movie offered a ton of scenes and sequences that are unlikely to be forgotten once seen. Add these to the sleek look and feel of every shot and frame typical to Nolan's pictures, and you have a movie that is visually wondrous to behold.

Upon this most recent viewing, something else finally dawned on me - the terror in the concept of being infected with an idea that you cannot banish. And if that idea is urging you to kill yourself and your loved ones? That is truly the stuff of nightmares and insanity. Inception teases this idea out and drives it home in dramatic fashion, and it was only recently that I recognized just how disturbing it is.

I remember really enjoying Inception  when it was first released, while still having a few gripes about it. There were a few questions I didn't feel were fully addressed, and some parts of the movie tried my patience a bit. Now that I have re-watched it a few times, though, I find it easier to accept the flaws as minor. The movie is actually a rarity for the last decade - a high-quality, big-budget movie that is completely original. Nearly every other mainstream, popular movie has been adapted from a book or series (Harry Potter, anything YA), has been a remake of an earlier movie or franchise (Star Trek, Star Wars), or is a sequel to a previous blockbuster (The Fast and the Furious, among others). This fact makes me root for movies like Inception and appreciate them all the more.


Interstellar (2014)

Nolan shot for the literal and figurative stars with this one. My original review is here.

Upon a second viewing, this film holds up fairly well, and I felt a tad more forgiving about a few of the elements which puzzled or annoyed me back in 2014. Matthew McConaughey's voice is still a nuisance, but a few of the performances which I previously questioned no longer agitate me. And I actually found a little more enjoyment in a few sequences which I felt dragged during my first viewing.

I still consider Interstellar one of Nolan's weaker movies, but this is very relative. Even his worst films are considerably better than most large-scale, epic Hollywood films. Curiously, I think that it will ultimately be looked upon by future viewers much more kindly than the previous year's critical darling Gravity - a movie which amazed me once but which I have never felt the need to watch again, and whose weaknesses are jarring and more obvious with every passing year. I do not foresee such a fate for Interstellar. It's not 2001 or Tarkovsky's Solaris, but it is strong enough to earn a mention and some comparison with those titans of science fiction films about space exploration.

I generally haven't changed my original feelings about the movie, except for one main aspect. I've come to a slightly better acceptance of the forces which bring Cooper back in touch with his daughter. Slightly. I do still find it rather sentimental to use the premise that love spans any breadth of space or time, but I appreciated just how the story is organized and weaves the concept into the overall tale.

Cooper and his crew on a new planet. This was arguably the
most stunning sequences among several strong
contenders. Nolan never slacks on visuals.
One other merit which I failed to fully appreciate on my first viewing was the music. The score, composed, by longtime movie score maestreo Hans Zimmer, is wonderfully affecting. Maybe it's just my love of organ music, but I could find myself watching some of the visual sequences multiple times just to take in the pairing with the music.

Nolan's movies make up an unusually high percentage of the rather small number of movies that I own (out of the 30 blu rays that I have, 4 of them are Nolan films). I'm obviously someone who enjoys his films enough to splurge for them, knowing that I will watch them repeatedly. Yet I still feel no need to buy Interstellar. I think it is a good movie, but not one that I will need to watch again any time soon, if ever.