Christopher Nolan


Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) is approaching rarefied air, that upper echelon of filmmaking where greatness is expected. With no obvious missteps in his impressive repertoire, his subject matter has been varied yet consistent. When extolling the virtues of film, I often cite its ability to educate and inform rather than merely entertain. In Dunkirk, Nolan masterfully brings to screen a significant but relatively unknown (at least to me) World War II battle. The quintessential auteur, Nolan has given us a beautiful film, both in spirit and aesthetic.

It’s the dawn of World War II and German forces have driven the British (and a few French allies) to the outskirts of Dunkirk, France, pressing them towards the beach along the northern coastline. Approximately 300,000 soldiers are stranded, making easy prey for passing bomber planes or foes approaching by sea. Just as 300 introduced me to the Battle of Thermopylae, Dunkirk educated me on the similarly harrowing Battle of France. That battle would eventually become a rescue and evacuation mission code-named Operation Dynamo. It may seem antithetical to describe a war film as beautiful, but the visual elements of the film were stunning. Nolan’s austere backdrop was captured perfectly on 70 mm film, the wider format adding an extra layer of realism while immersing the viewer.

The film is told from three distinct perspectives, beginning with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier who finds himself stranded at Dunkirk after narrowly escaping from behind enemy lines. The second perspective belongs to civilian Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies) and his sons George and Peter, private citizens courageously responding to their country’s call to action. The third viewpoint is shown from the perspective of two fighter pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy, The Revenant) and Collins (Jack Lowden, England is Mine), who don’t hesitate to enter the fray despite being low on fuel, changing course to head into what seems like sure disaster.

War films represent a diverse genre that I’ve come to appreciate over the years. From Saving Private Ryan to Platoon, the genre has consistently raised questions of morality and explored the psychological consequences of warfare, from the grief at losing a comrade to the ethical questions faced when atrocities are committed in the name of patriotism. Some war films focus on battle where others delve into the impact of war on the human psyche. Dunkirk was unique in its brilliant bifurcation of the narrative, fleshing out each character’s emotional motivation as they converged on the beach in successive heart-stopping intervals. War films often show strength in the form of violence or brute force, but there is tremendous quiet strength in just surviving. The ability to simply endure is as human a quality as there is, and Nolan captured this beautifully through Tommy and his dogged will live to live.

Nolan is sort of the anti-Tarantino here, utilizing sparse dialogue and relying more on atmosphere and the attendant action of an epic narrative. He showed two sides of the human spirit: one characterized by hope, resilience and valor, the other fraught with a sense of futility and resignation to an inevitable fate. Each act of survival was a minor miracle, and the emotional resonance of the film cannot be denied. Dunkirk was amazing in its portrayal of the human spirit and in its understated visual simplicity. Buoyed by strong performances (including newcomer Harry Styles), deft direction, and incredibly inspiring source material, Dunkirk lives up to the hype and further solidifies Christopher Nolan as one of best filmmakers to emerge in recent memory. Grade: A

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Ever since Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) was announced as the next iteration of the Caped Crusader, movie buffs and fan boys alike have been waiting with baited breath to behold this epic clash of titans in Batman v. Superman. Most fans have maligned Affleck’s selection, but I reserved judgment. Affleck’s career experienced a brief downturn during the J-Lo era, but I thought he rebounded nicely as early as 2006 with Hollywoodland. I like Ben Affleck and if anyone tells you he’s what’s wrong with this film – they are mistaken.

I looked forward to this, cautiously optimistic about what director Zac Snyder (300, Sucker Punch) would do with the franchise after taking the helm over from Christopher and Jon Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises). Batman v. Superman begins with the familiar exposition of the murder of Bruce’s parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne. We then move forward to the recent past, and the inception of Batman and Superman’s mutual disdain. When one of Superman’s epic battles leaves an avalanche of destruction in its wake, including the decimation of one of Wayne Enterprises’ properties, Bruce is furious. Meanwhile, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, The Man From UNCLE) is none too fond of Batman, bristling at the cavalier vigilante who has won Gotham’s heart by taking the law into his own hands. To be clear, Batman doesn’t trust an alien with god-like abilities; conversely Superman thinks the billionaire is reckless and should be contained.

The stage is set for battle, after a young Lex Luthor (played by a terribly miscast Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) pits the two against one another. Luthor and LexCorp have weaponized kryptonite, in the event that Superman ever needs to be neutralized. After Congress denies his request for government approval, he moves forward with another plan, hoping that the two heroes will take each other out. The plot was a little thin, and I was never emotionally invested in any outcome for either hero. When Batman and Superman finally square off, it is laughably apparent just how overmatched Batman (a mere mortal) is when facing a real superhero with powers beyond a utility belt. Only with the tried and true trick of kryptonite can he keep pace with Superman. Affleck clearly bulked up for the part, which makes sense – but why was he a slow, lumbering oaf with little agility and quickness? It looked as if even the likes of Daredevil could handily dispatch Batman.

I thought the movie was just ok. It wasn’t as horrible as the blogosphere is making it out to be, but it was rather underwhelming, plagued by poor casting and an underdeveloped, nonsensical plot. Eisenberg was miscast as Luthor. Instead of a criminal mastermind, Lex Luthor seemed like a bratty, petulant teen – hardly a worthy foe to a much more mature Batman or Superman. Batman seemed slow, and the fight sequence wasn’t as jaw dropping as I expected. One scene involves Superman 1) retrieving some kryptonite and 2) using it to kill something; how is this even possible?! There were some cool, entertaining moments, but they were few and far between. Moreover, I don’t really like the way Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Triple 9) was incorporated. The character wasn’t properly integrated in the storyline. Perhaps she was supposed to be mysterious, but I never felt like I understood her motivations or history.

Lastly, I just can’t get the Nolan’s interpretation of Batman out of my head. It was just a superior trilogy, and I don’t particularly care for what Snyder has done thus far. I’m still curious to see what Ben Affleck can do in the role, whenever he gets a solo Batman film. I thought he looked the part, but I would like to see more in the future. Superman is just a boring character to me, and Henry Cavill didn’t do much to change that opinion. Superman has all the power and none of the personality, easily distracted like a simp when Lois Lane (Amy Adams, American Hustle) is in danger. Corny! The cinematic edge still goes to Marvel, and all this movie did was make me anticipate Captain America: Civil War even more. Grade: C


Science Fiction is hit or miss for me. I enjoy the imagery and special effects associated with the genre, but if the plot is mired in the technicalities or minutiae of science, it tends to go over my head. When it came to Interstellar, it was director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) that got my attention. I’m a big fan of his work, so the mere attachment of his name to a project is enough for me to consider checking it out. Moreover, star Matthew McCounaghey (Dallas Buyers Club) made quite the case for the film while making the rounds on its press junket.

The film opens in an unspecified future time, when the world has been ravaged by famine. The entire globe is struggling for resources, and in America corn is the only remaining crop after what appears to be a devastating drought. McCounaghey stars as Cooper, a former pilot and father to a teenaged boy and adolescent daughter. They live in America’s heartland, where an omnipresent layer of thick dust serves as a reminder of lost vegetation. Cooper is a loving, doting father and he staunchly defends his children, particularly his daughter Murphy. “Murph,” as she is affectionately known, has a fiercely independent spirit and idolizes her father. She is curious, and believes their home is being visited by a supernatural force with which she communicates via Morse code. Their future is uncertain, but Cooper has carved out a life for his family, including his late wife’s father Donald (John Lithgow, This Is 40).

One day after communicating with the apparition, Murphy reveals a “message” from the otherworldly visitor. The message leads them to a hidden NASA location, where they are made privy to a master plan for the population’s survival. A scientist named Brand (Michael Caine, Now You See Me) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables) explain the options to Cooper, whose expertise as a former pilot proves valuable to the scientists and astronauts. Cooper determines that he will execute their mission, traveling to the outer reaches of space in hopes of finding a planet that can sustain human life after Earth becomes uninhabitable.

Well folks, we’ve just about reached the limits of my comprehension, because I couldn’t recount the finer points of the plot if you paid me. I had a very basic understanding, but for me the film’s strength lay in its emotional portrayal of a father who is faced with an unbelievable moral dilemma. Cooper’s decision to travel in space has mammoth repercussions, not the least of which is the temporary abandonment of his family for the greater good of humanity. He has every intention of returning, but the mission is risky and time elapses quite differently in space than it does on Earth.

McCounaghey proves once again that he has the emotional depth to convey the most vulnerable aspects of the human condition. Cooper was courageous, yet frightened, self-interested, but capable of immense sacrifice. My only negative observation of his body of work is that he has yet to ditch his omnipresent Southern twang, though it was not out of place here. He has turned his career around, and there are no discernible signs of regression. Although this was ostensibly a big budget movie, he still chose a vehicle that allowed him to sink his teeth into the emotional elements of his character. Hathaway was also effective, and she too was successful at evoking empathy in the viewer. Finally, Jessica Chastain’s (Mama) performance was worth mentioning. She portrayed Murphy as an adult, and the casting was superb. Although it wavered momentarily, the bond that she shared with her father held the film together, especially when I felt bogged down by the science.

This is another movie that may not be for everyone. The film’s first act focuses on Cooper’s family, and the middle act markedly shifts to another realm. At just under three hours, I had to make an effort to focus on what was happening, particularly when the more nebulous aspects of the storyline emerged. Fortunately, the movie’s emotionality and the talented cast kept me invested. Grade: B+

Man of Steel

As other superhero franchises have recently established themselves as powerhouses (Batman, Iron Man), the venerable Superman franchise seemed like an afterthought.  Brandon Routh is somewhere salty as hell.  You’re probably like, who the hell is that?  Exactly.  Routh wore those famous blue tights only once in 2006’s Superman Returns, and now he’s a distant memory.  It seemed like Superman was lost in the iconic days of Christopher Reeve…until now.

Once Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) was attached to the project, I think people were amenable to giving it a chance.  Just conjuring images of The Dark Knight franchise gets me excited, and Nolan brought instant credibility to the film.  The addition of director Zac Snyder (300, Sucker Punch) also ensured a fresh departure from the last Superman attempt.  The movie begins on Krypton, with a frantic Lara and Jor-El (Russell Crowe, Broken City) facing the destruction of their planet.  General Zod (Michael Shannon, Mud) has attempted an unsuccessful coup and been subsequently banished to an intergalactic prison.  Krypton and its inhabitants will become extinct as the planet comes to a tumultuous, destructive end.  Anticipating such an apocalypse, Jor-El and Lara planned to send their newborn Kal-El to another planet where he will thrive and ensure the survival of his race.

As the familiar story goes, Kal is given the name Clark and raised by the Kents – the couple who discovered him (and the vessel that brought him) on their farm.  However, after leaving Krypton the movie shifts to Clark’s adult life, as he grapples with finding his place on Earth, given his otherworldly abilities.  Nolan’s influence was apparent, as he offered a non-linear approach to Clark’s story.  Instead of following his upbringing chronologically, the movie flashes back to key events in Clark’s childhood that shaped his current existence.  We’re introduced to him as an adult, a nomadic laborer of sorts who lives in relative obscurity.  Clark consistently struggled with the two distinct messages given to him by both fathers.  Jor-El believed that he was special and could be a symbol of hope to many people.  Conversely Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner, The Company Men) cautioned his son that people will fear what they don’t understand, and that mankind would reject him.

When General Zod is released from his interstellar prison, he locates Kal on Earth and pursues him there, spelling dire consequences for humanity.  This new development is what forces Clark into action, causing him to confront his obligation, if he even has one.  I’ve purposefully omitted a lot of plot details, because I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, plus I think they are inconsequential to my discussion of the film.  There was an earnest quality to the film, though not quite as dark as the Batman movies for which Nolan is known.  This subtle restraint in storytelling made the interpretation unique, and I can say that Man of Steel was not like The Dark Knight or any of the Iron Man movies.  Whereas Batman seems affected by external forces, Superman’s struggle is largely an internal one – at least in this first edition of the reboot.  The structure of the movie was flawless, and the viewer feels as if he or she really understands Clark’s conflicting duality – revelation vs. obscurity.  Couple that with a lifelong feeling of being the only one of your kind, and it’s easy to see why Clark felt confused and alone.

In addition to the storyline and character development, I thought the casting was also effective.  Henry Cavill (Immortals) is perfect as the new Superman.  He looks the part and he is believable.  Those are big tights to fill, and I’m sure the role is his for a while to come, especially since Man of Steel 2 has already been announced.  The casting of Amy Adams (Trouble With the Curve) as a more intrepid Lois Lane was also successful.  Russell Crowe is incomparable; you already know this.  What more can I say?  The movie was nearly flawless.  In fact, the only criticism I have is minor and probably misplaced.  I’m no expert, but I had a small quibble with the editing.  I thought a few scene transitions were not seamless – but again, what do I know?  The special effects were incredible, and no self-respecting movie buff would go more than a week or two without seeing this movie.  What are you waiting for? Grade: A


The Dark Knight Rises

Whenever I review movies that the fan boys love, I have to issue disclaimers.  As I’ve stated before, the only thing I claim to be passionate and knowledgeable about are movies.  If a movie was based on a novel, I may or may not have read that novel. That being said, I didn’t grow up reading comic books.  So I don’t approach The Dark Knight Rises as a person who is checking for accuracy or wants to make sure director Christopher Nolan “gets it right.”  The only measuring stick for me is other movies: other “superhero” movies and the first two Batman movies of Nolan’s trilogy.  I was looking forward to it because The Dark Knight, Nolan’s last edition – was simply outstanding.  It’s one of my favorite movies, and I saw it three times in the theater.  I also think that Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception) is brilliant, so I’m inclined to see nearly anything he’s attached to (within reason).

When we last saw the Caped Crusader (Christian Bale, The Fighter), he was allowing Harvey Dent to live on in the hearts of Gotham as a hero.  Although Dent devolved into the nefarious Two-Face and held Commissioner Gordon’s son at gunpoint, Batman sacrificed his own reputation rather than shatter the city’s image of its fallen district attorney.  Sacrifice is the recurring theme throughout the trilogy, as Batman selflessly gives his all for Gotham’s residents, though the city doesn’t always appreciate him.  Eight years have elapsed since that fateful night where Dent and Batman swapped destinies, and Bruce Wayne has been a recluse ever since.  Having lost the love of his life and been vilified by many, he has been holed up in his mansion, and Wayne Industries has suffered significant financial losses.  This is where we find our hero, down and quite possibly out for the count.  The time is ripe for any one of the comic’s infamous rogues gallery to emerge and wreak havoc while Gotham is vulnerable.  The city passed The Dent Act, which resulted in the incarceration of many dangerous criminals – but the drop in crime lulls Gotham’s residents into a false sense of security.  That coupled with Batman’s prolonged absence leaves Gotham vulnerable, setting the stage for our latest villain.

Enter Bane (Tom Hardy, This Means War, Inception), successor to The Joker and Two-Face as Gotham’s newest tormentor.  Bane can best be described as a wrecking ball with legs.  He is simply massive, and ably portrayed by Tom Hardy in what is probably his most brutal role since his turn as a notorious British prisoner in Bronson.  Bane escaped from prison and subsequently organized a coup, funded by American businessman John Daggett, a competitor of Bruce Wayne.  Daggett brings Bane to the United States so that he can obtain a clean energy reactor held by Wayne Enterprises and turn it into a nuclear weapon.  Bane’s plan will come to fruition unless the Batman ends his self-imposed exile and more importantly proves himself a worthy adversary of the most physically imposing villain he’s ever faced.

I don’t want to fall into a recitation of the entire plot; nor do I want to give away too much.  There were many plot twists and turns, and several very good performances. The Dark Knight Rises delved deeper into Bruce Wayne’s psyche.  He wasn’t just reacting to things happening around him, rather we see him in a prolonged state of despair, pain, and defeat.  I felt like we journeyed with him as the familiar senses of justice and duty were rekindled within.  This time around we are also treated to Catwoman, played by Anne Hathaway (Love & Other Drugs, The Devil Wears Prada).  Hathaway is a very good actress and I thought she balanced the role perfectly.  Not too campy and corny, strong enough to help Batman instead of merely requiring his rescue.  While I didn’t grow up reading the comic books, I did watch the cartoon series that aired in the 90s.  I remember that Catwoman was a bit “on the fence.”  She wasn’t always Batman’s ally, but she wasn’t out to foil him at every turn, like The Riddler or The Joker.  The same was true of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, as she betrays Batman one minute and saves him the next.  Also featured were strong supporting roles by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, 500 Days of Summer) and Marion Cotillard (Contagion).  Gordon-Levitt plays an idealistic young police officer that was orphaned as a youth, much like Bruce Wayne.  He instinctively knows Batman’s true identity and gently implores him to help Gotham.  Cotillard was effective as Wayne’s business investor, brief love interest, and…I won’t tell you anything else about her.  You’re welcome.

The best thing about the film was the way Nolan captured the atmosphere of a city on the brink of anarchy.  It always felt like something big was about to happen, at any minute.  But brace yourselves, because this was not “the best movie ever,” as people born in the 1990s might have you believe.  Pump. Those. Brakes.  This wasn’t the best movie made or even the best superhero movie ever made, because it wasn’t superior to The Dark Knight, in my opinion.  How can you be the best movie ever made when you’re not even the best installment of your own trilogy?  The Dark Knight had a more complex villain with a richer backstory and a more layered performance.  I’m not knocking Tom Hardy, and I’m not saying there is anything more that he could or should have done.  Nor am I saying there’s anyone who could have done it better.  I’m just saying it was different, that’s all.  Additionally, The Dark Knight explored deeper psychological themes, and I thought Two-Face nearly stole the show.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy came close, but there was no secondary performance that really jumped out at me.  But you know what?  Forget all of that, I can give you a very simple complaint that I had with the film: I couldn’t even understand what Bane was saying the whole time!  I know I’m not the only one who strained to decipher the dialogue when he spoke.  I liked the inflection of Hardy’s voice, and I noticed an almost imperceptible West Indian accent creep through.  When I researched his role after the movie I discovered that he did draw on his Caribbean (who knew?) heritage in the interpretation of the part.  That’s impressive, and it didn’t go unnoticed – but I couldn’t always understand what he was saying!

Of course I think you should go see The Dark Knight Rises, what are you stupid?  Nothing should stop you from seeing it; it will probably be the biggest movie of the year.  Some movies just feel big.  They feel like an experience.  I’m sure it will obliterate existing opening day records, despite the tragic shooting that took place at the midnight screening in Colorado earlier this week.  Now that the trilogy has concluded (Nolan’s not doing any more), I can safely say that it’s probably the greatest trilogy.  But don’t confuse that with me saying that The Dark Knight Rises is the greatest movie.  It’s not, for the aforementioned reasons.  But it was damn good. Grade: A.

The Avengers

My mom reads my reviews, so I’ll censor myself a bit for this one.  Suffice it to say that the excitement I feel when I see a good movie trailer is akin to the adrenaline that coursed through the veins of the women who used to throw their panties on stage at Marvin Gaye et al.  When I saw The Avengers trailer, I didn’t throw my panties at the movie screen.  But I could have.  Oh yeah, I wanted to.

This is my favorite movie going time of the year.  The Oscar movies tend to come out some time in the fall, but it’s the summer (and early spring) that gives us the popcorn fare we love.  There was no question I’d be front and center for The Avengers, even if I couldn’t swing the midnight showing.  The excitement in my theater was nearly palpable, and we were all in for a treat.  If you’ve seen Iron Man, The Hulk, or Thor – you’ll at least be somewhat familiar with these Marvel mainstays.  The movie begins with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Meeting Evil), head of S.H.I.E.L.D., a covert government organization charged with protecting American interests on domestic and global levels.   It picks up where Thor left off, as Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth, The Cabin in the Woods) nefarious brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, War Horse) has obtained the tesseract, an otherworldly energy source that can destroy the planet.  He wants to harness its power and bring humanity to its knees, enslaving the populace.  Fury knows that he can’t stop Loki on his own, after witnessing him take out an entire room of armed security forces.  His first call is to the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, We Bought a Zoo), a spy who is already in the fold.  The other members of the team will require varying degrees of persuasion.  Starks (Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) is in.  Thor comes forward of his own volition to battle his brother and fellow Asgardian.  Captain America (Chris Evans, What’s Your Number?) is a soldier who is accustomed to taking orders and as such, requires the least prodding.  Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, The Kids are All Right) is the most reluctant of the bunch, as he’s spent the better part of a year trying to keep his cool.  Rounding out the group is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, MI: 4), a recently rogue agent who was temporarily under Loki’s powerful spell.  Hawkeye and Black Widow are a tandem, bound by a shared mysterious past.  The movie highlights each hero’s skillset, and by the end they have accepted the values of teamwork and cooperation while forming an unbreakable bond.

The plot wasn’t terribly important, and it’s about what you’d expect: good guys unite to defeat the bad guy, whose wish list includes the subjugation of all mankind.  Some have an issue with the simplified plot, but I don’t.  I mean, it’s always a variation of the same theme.  I didn’t have a problem with the plot but I did have an issue with Loki’s reasoning that humanity’s natural desire is to be enslaved.  Quite the contrary, humans have an innate desire for freedom – so I thought writer Joss Wheedon could have tweaked that element a bit more.  It’s my only very minor criticism in a movie that was otherwise perfect.  What I enjoyed most about the movie was the interplay between each superhero.  Each character in his/her own right is capable of saving humanity, but it will take a concerted effort to defeat a foe as formidable as Loki, who has enlisted an entire interplanetary army to help him.  There was a natural chemistry among all the actors, and I can tell they genuinely had fun making this movie.

The Avengers succeeded where other superhero movies have failed.  Just because a movie is family-friendly does not mean that it has to be corny.  Spiderman 3 was horribly cheesy, and Superman Returns was equally bad, for similar reasons.  There has to be a middle ground between the darkness that Christopher Nolan brings to the Batman franchise and the corniness of those two aforementioned movies.  I believe The Avengers had the right balance of heft and fluff, if that makes sense.  It wasn’t all smiles and sunshine, as Black Widow has a shady past, Captain America is woefully out of touch, Thor is dealing with the worst form of sibling rivalry, Hawkeye needs redemption, and The Hulk is just trying not to spazz out.  The dialogue and interplay between characters was well worth the price of admission.  I think people should refrain from superlatives though.  This was not the best superhero movie ever made.  As long as Batman is still considered a superhero, that distinction remains with The Dark Knight.  That being said, The Avengers is a must-see summer blockbuster.  Grade: A+