Walking into the theater to see Godzilla, a trailer was already playing on screen. As soon as I realized it was for Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, I did what I always do during trailers for movies I'm excited about: I shut my eyes tight, stuck my fingers in my ears, and hummed loudly. (Call me crazy, but I like to know as little as possible about a movie before I see it). As you may have guessed, I'm a big fan of Nolan. Inception is one of my favorite summer blockbusters of all time (and yes, he's still in). Not only did The Dark Knight accomplish what I once felt was the impossible task of making a truly great Batman movie, it's also the best film ever made about the war on terror.
Going back, though, we see Nolan, right from the start, has been making terrific movies. I'd like to take a look at three of them.
A recent Amazon Prime selection was The Frozen Ground in which the always watchable Nicholas Cage plays an Alaskan cop hunting a serial killer played by John Cusack. It's a pretty good movie, but reminded me of strongly Nolan's third feature, Insomnia.
The Frozen Ground, like Insomnia, takes place in Alaska. Like Insomnia, it concerns the hunt for a serial killer. Like Insomnia, a total overacting ham plays the lead (Al Pachino in Insomnia, Nicholas "Can You Put Some Ketchup On This Scenery" Cage in The Frozen Ground.) In both, a normally comic actor steps out of their usual persona to play a killer. (Robin Williams for Insomnia, John Cusack for The Frozen Ground). Weird, right? Weirder that Insomnia is based on a Norwegian film of the same name and The Frozen Ground on true events.
Insomnia is a great film and one a lot of people probably haven't seen in awhile. The normally over-the-top Al Pachino is (mostly) restrained and Robin Williams is eerily effective as a creepy serial killer. The story device, 24 hour daylight in Alaska combined with Al Pachino's guilt over accidentally shooting his partner, leaves him unable to sleep, really works. Pachino's exhaustion is a living thing in this film. Someone as chronically sleep-deprived as I am can only sympathize.
Two exceptional set-pieces show off Nolan's talent: a tense game of hide and seek in the foggy woods and a chase across floating logs. Definitely worth a second look if you've seen it, and a first if you haven't.
Taking one more step in the past brings us to Nolan's first feature film, Following. Following is a terrific little film noir, shot in black and white no less, that tells the tale of a young writer who takes to following people during the day, seeing what they're up to, seeking inspiration for a novel we know he's probably never going to write. But one of his subject turns the tables on him and lures him into a world of burglary, blackmail and murder.
The film is obviously low-budget but (except for a few rough moments) never feels low budget. One of the things you notice right away is if there is a guiding intelligence behind the plot.
Watch the first few scenes of Collateral and, no matter what you think of the film, you know someone is in charge making deliberate decisions about where the camera is to be placed. Watch five minutes of any Hitchcock picture for a masters course in directorial design. For a truly awful example from the opposite side of the spectrum, try the 80's Patrick Swayze flick Next of Kin where the camera seems to have been dropped at random with the actors scurrying to get in front of it to spout their awful dialogue. And while this will probably get me into trouble, one of the worst-directed movies I've ever sat through is The Princess Bride. You know there's no guiding intelligence based on nothing more than how bad the lighting is in the wrap-around story and how pedestrian the coverage is. You might as well be watching a bad TV pilot.
Following was made by a filmmaker. A guy who understands that lighting, camera placement, acting, blocking can all add up to something more than the sum of the parts. As a story, it's also fantastic. While it borrows heavily from classic noir movies, it pulls off some twists even I didn't see coming. And that takes effort.
But my favorite detail? The protagonist of the film has a Batman sticker on the door to his apartment.
Coincidence? Or does Christopher Nolan have a time machine?
Watching his films, you sometimes wonder if he doesn't.