Famous Filmmaker : Forgotten Film | Christopher Nolan : Insomnia

This will be the first in a weekly series of articles aimed at unearthing the often great films of well known directors that are rarely discussed when considering their filmographies. While the goal of this series is to raise awareness and draw attention to these films, it will also serve as an opportunity to recommend some really terrific movies that have sadly been overlooked in recent years.

Insomnia

Fifteen minutes into Nolan’s third feature length film, it seems apparent why this is the least discussed movie in his filmography. Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) and the other guy are two LA detectives called up to the small town of Nightmute, Alaska to investigate the brutal murder of a 17 year old girl. The film has all the markings of a typical slow paced detective thriller, substituting the dim streets of Los Angeles for the well lit backdrop of the rural Northwest in summer, where there is daylight twenty four hours a day. However, while tamer than his later works, Insomnia still reflects Nolan’s penchant for twists within his films, as the film shifts focus as Dormer descends into madness and paranoia. Dormer is under review back in LA for potentially unsavory actions he took while conducting investigations back home, and matters are made worse when he is forced to cover up a murder he commits while pursuing his Alaskan suspect, all while losing night after night of sleep to the harsh, blinding Alaskan sunlight.

Nolan is often lauded for his keen visual style, and though traces of this can be seen in his previous films Memento and The Following, Insomnia is his first aesthetically stunning work. Due in no small part to Nolan’s career long cinematographer Wally Pfister, Insomnia is a spectacular in its visual coherence, as the camera work perfectly captures the mounting psychosis of Dormer as his sleeplessness drives him to the point of delusion. Pfister’s mark on the film is not limited to solidifying thematic ideas, the action scenes within Insomnia are tense, and kinetic, though one chase scene across a port used by Alaskan logging companies seems stand out as a definitive high point.

In addition to Insomnia being Nolan’s most cohesive film, as it avoids the unresolved, lofty ideas that have proved themselves to be an underlying issue in his more recent films, there are myriad reasons to give this film the viewing it deserves. The script is strong and tight, drawing heavily from the Norwegian Insomnia that inspired this fantastic remake. Though Pacino shines in the majority of the film, Insomnia has a stellar auxiliary cast, including Hilary Swank as a naive Alaskan cop, and Robin Williams delivers a terrific performance as a local crime writer who becomes intertwined with Dormer as his sanity and morality slip through his fingers. I am the first to say that I am not a huge Nolan fan, but Insomnia is by far my favorite entry in this generally beloved filmmakers admittedly impressive filmography, and definitely well worth your time.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Stand Up Guys Review

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There was a time when men were men; when a man’s word was inviolate and as good as gold. There was a time long before swag when panache was supreme. I am of course referring to a hypothetical golden age which never actually existed, but it’s this time which Stand Up Guys nevertheless harkens back to. Painting the modern gangster as a romanticized urban cowboy isn’t exactly breaking new ground, but imagining what life would be like after their heyday proves to be an enjoyable and uniquely engrossing experience.

Directed by the generally inexperienced Steven Fisher, and featuring some truly exceptional cinematography from Michael Grady, Stand Up Guys is a visually enthralling film and it’s the subtle things that make a huge difference. Masterful lighting, a provocative palate and even the simple use of lines and space put in on, or at least very close to, the the level of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I still consider to be a benchmark of excellence as far as visuals are concerned.

Starring the legendary talents Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin, the amount of star power we’re working with here is almost overwhelming. Walken’s calm, almost effortless charisma serves as the ideal foil for Pacino’s larger-than-life personage. With Arkin in the mix, even for a short time, it’s a tag team worthy of the history books. All three perform virtually without flaw as their respective clever-by-half characters spout some slightly Tarrantino-esque dialogue, simultaneously providing comic relief and context into the deeply fraternal relationship of these men.

The thing that I really appreciate about Stand Up Guys is that it knows how to have fun without being a one trick pony, so to speak. Given the strengths of each of its cast members and direction, it could have easily crossed the line into gritty monotony and simply stayed there for the duration of the production. Instead, the trio know how to both make us laugh with witty dialogue and also make us feel some heavy emotion in the appropriate situations. Furthermore, the film is paced in such a way that the tonal transitions don’t seem abrupt and inelegant, but rather seem to flow naturally and effortlessly, which undeniably helps keep things interesting.

A dyed-in-the-wool comedy, this film is not, in the same way that it isn’t solely a drama or action movie either. A drama would be closer to the mark, however, with some action/adventure elements added in along with tasteful and well-timed comedic relief. Genre bending films, at least in my experience, seem to enrage many critics (probably because their carefully categorized movie collections become jumbled) but I find that ambiguous themes, plot elements, and genre classification, so long as they’re done correctly, can be incredibly refreshing and may nudge an otherwise decent film into the realm of greatness. Granted, in an attempt to branch out, a film might find itself in a ‘jack of all trades, master or none’ kind of situation, in which case I would likely commend it for at least trying to mix things up.

This film is definitely for a certain kind of person. Yes, you can enjoy the film if you appreciate the talents of Walken, Pacino, and Arkin. Yes, you can likewise enjoy it if you want something that changes up the tried and true action formula. It’s the fans of the larger than life and sometimes melodramatic crime movies of the 80’s who will appreciate Stand Up Guys most of all though. In some ways, though not quite in the way one would expect, the film is a heartfelt, brilliantly acted, visually beautiful love letter, pining for days gone by.

Rating: 4 out of 5

PS: Oh yeah, the sound track was pretty good, too.