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

The Place Beyond the Pines Review

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Returning to the director’s chair after his hit indie film Blue Valentine, with The Place Beyond the Pines Derek Cianfrance proves that he can be considered a truly great, new director. A sprawling two and half hour long epic, The Place Beyond the Pines is a story in three parts that delves into themes of morality, determinism, and closely examines the effects fathers have on their children, and visa-versa. This film is an emotional powerhouse, with a fantastic performance from Ryan Gosling, as well as strong performances all around. Expecting to dislike this movie, I was absolutely blown away by the film.

The film takes place in the small New York town of Schenectady, which interestingly enough is a name loosely taking from a Mohawk word that translates to “Place Beyond the Pines.” The movie first centers on Ryan Gosling as “Handsome” Luke Glanton, a professional and heavily tattooed motorcycle rider who goes city to city with a traveling carnival. However he gives this life up when he is informed that a woman he has slept with in Schenectady is raising his now one year old son. Luke turns to a life of crime and starts robbing banks in order to provide for his newly born son. Bradley Cooper’s character Avery, a police man and moral paragon, is then introduced and the film shifts its focus to a tale of police corruption and Avery’s struggle with it. Finally, the third and most interesting act of the film is about the friendship and conflict between the sons of the earlier protagonists, as they struggle with their respective relationships with their fathers, as well as dealing with the history between Luke and Avery.

While much of the talk about this film has been glowing praise for Ryan Gosling (let’s be honest here, this is nothing new, he’s great), the acting all around is pretty excellent. Specifically, Eva Mendes’s portrayal of Luke Glanton’s poverty stricken baby mama is a step away from her usual roles, as well as a highlight of the film. However, some of the best acting in the film comes from Dane DeHaan, who is likely best known as the lead in last year’s found footage superhero flick, Chronicle. As Luke’s 17 year old son, DeHaan is tragic and compelling, bringing a much needed emotional center to the latter half of the film.

What makes this film achieve a level of excellence, however, is not the acting but rather the thematic through lines of the film. The film is ambitious in its approach to tackling issues of paternal relationships, as well as morality, which raises an interesting conversation about how morality relates to cultural standards and laws. At the same time, the film does a perfect job of not overextending thematically, by which I mean the film doesn’t try to tackle anything that was too lofty to wrap up by the end. This movie leaves the viewer with a desire to ponder the films themes, without leaving any serious unanswered questions. It’s a hugely emotional film, as well as a film with just the perfect amount of depth. I could not recommend this film more highly.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Netflix Movie of the Week #8: In the Loop

As an avid movie goer, it always seems difficult to find a balance between intelligence and laugh out loud humor in comedies.  With that in mind, this week’s Netflix Movie of the Week is In the Loop, a British political satire from the people who are currently making the HBO show Veep. Poking fun of all the political nonsense that has been going on in recent year regarding involvement in the Middle East, In the Loop is a hilarious and over the top portrayal of what is wrong with modern government, or specifically the people who run it.

In the Loop is about a run of the mill government bureaucrat, Simon Foster, a minister of international development, who without thinking says he believes “war is unforeseeable” to a news reporter.  After scrambling to recover from the fallout of his gaff, Foster, the easily angered Malcom Tucker (Peter Capaldi), and a handful of interns travel to Washington D.C. to discuss the idea of British Military support for conflict in the Middle East.  While this all may sound incredibly dry, this movie is simply hilarious, lampooning the failings of modern politics while providing some of the wittiest, characteristically British dialogue I have seen in a good while.

The cast of this film is also pretty brilliant, and through a combination of strong comedic actors and writing, they are able to keep the movie moving at a decent pace, where this movie goes beyond simply being clever yet not actually funny, a problem that many satires suffer from.  This is not just a movie that you will smirk through, it is a legitimate comedy and not just a movie made for the purpose of making a statement.  If anything, the movie just breeds the feeling that most of the bureaucratic government system is completely absurd.  If you like this movie or think it is something you’d like, I would also recommend Veep, it is pretty similar and also a very solid comedy.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Holy Motors Review

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Easily the most interesting movie of the year, Holy Motors is a film begging for interpretation.  While the film seems to be a commentary of some sort on the nature of acting, or the different roles we portray throughout our lives, this movie is so rich with completely baffling and unexpected material that a case could be made for any myriad of interpretations.  Throughout the film I found myself grasping for some kind of concrete theme, but director Leos Carax refuses to make things that easy.

The film does not have a real plot, in the traditional sense.  It instead follows the daily activities of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), as he travels through Paris performing a series of increasingly bizarre and disjointed tasks as though they were monotonous and perfectly reasonable things for a rich man in a limousine to be doing. While never explicitly clear, Oscar is a contract actor of sorts, though his motivations are never explained as he navigates through the city taking on various, often ridiculous personae.  He is a murderer, a lunatic, a father, throwing himself completely into these roles how over psychotic they may be.

Though I will not pretend to have any of the answers on this film, it is clear that it is a film about identity, and by my estimation, social interaction. At the end of the film, Oscar is clearly exhausted by these tasks that he must perform every day, for seemingly little purpose.  My personal interpretation of the film is that it is a commentary on the ever changing state of our personalities told through hyperbole.  More specifically, Oscar’s jobs are representative of the various roles he is expected to perform in real life, as at one time or another; we are all doing some amount of acting ourselves in our daily lives.  Though I acknowledge the film has much more to offer than just this interpretation, having only seen the movie once, I do not feel comfortable making wild guesses at what appears on the surface to be an exercise in complete insanity.

While Holy Motors is in many ways a creative masterpiece, it was an intensely frustrating movie going experience.  This movie challenges the viewer to analyze the film at breakneck pace, yet it is unapologetically complex, making it next to impossible to synthesize all the vignettes within the film into anything that resembles a definite interpretation. Though this movie did not make my top ten list of 2012, it is a film that I would highly recommend as I can guarantee there is very little else like it.

4.5 out of 5