Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk (2017) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 07/23/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Dunkirk is a pretty impressive bit of filmmaking by one of the more interesting and ambitious directors working in the Hollywood mainstream today. Eschewing his trademark headtrippy convolutions, Christopher Nolan poses the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 through a somewhat experiential lens, following three main story sites with differing timelines and interweaving narratives and cross-cutting action throughout the film.

The aerial scenes, centered around Tom Hardy as a flying ace picking off German aircraft as they can, capture the vistas of the sea and air and the beaches, are the film’s most stunning elements. Many potent scenes play out almost wordlessly, sometimes entirely so.

I’m a bit at a loss for what more to say. I sense that Dunkirk will be regarded as Nolan’s best film. I also sense that it may go into the pantheon of great war films ever made. At least, these seem likelihoods.

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 04/03/2015

And thus we complete the Christopher Nolan Batman cycle (the 2nd time through for me).  This was for Felix, who was keen on the series and is keen on Nolan himself.  I actually gave Clara the pass on this nearly three hour long piece of work, which I think she would appreciate.

When I watched Interstellar (2014), I pondered if Nolan had made his first M. Night Shyamalan film, suggesting that it was an ambitious, intentionally head-trippy, convoluted flop of a film.  Initially, I undercut myself on that, but lately I’ve been leaning to believe I might have been onto something.  And oddly enough, re-watching The Dark Knight Rises has only pushed me a little further in wondering if Nolan has jumped his own shark at some point.

The film suffers from its massive length but also its amazing weight of pomposity and self-importance.  But more than anything, I was struck by the film’s lack of variety in its pacing and rhythms.  Set to the score by Hans Zimmer, the film is a constant boom of import and boding.  And while the cinematography is slick and pretty, the sensation I developed was one of incessant building and looming impact, while no one sequence seemed to deliver on the release or climax.  It struck me as the tone of a three minute trailer, booming the drum of drama and promise of important stuff, just extended to three hours.

Really, what is Nolan saying?  The villains beat the drum of social change, while the hero is the rich philanthropist, who stems the tide of change by restoring the social order.  There are a variety or readings from multiple sides claiming the film as representative of their ideologies, while Nolan has taken a non-committal approach in claiming his work as representing an ideology, all while stoking the flames of the catch-phrases and flashpoints of ideas.  So what is it ultimately about?  Doesn’t that matter?

In the end, I don’t know.  And I don’t know that I feel the urge to delve into an analysis of the material.  It’s really long.  The whole Nolan Batman trilogy is really, really long.  And while I’m glad Felix liked it — and I liked aspects of it — I’m kind of glad to put it to rest and move on from it.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight (2008) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 01/24/2015

So, the kids and I are working our way through the Christopher Nolan Batman films, largely at Felix’s behest.  I hadn’t personally revisited any of them since first seeing them in the theater in their day, in the case of The Dark Knight, a day in 2008.

This is the best of Nolan’s trilogy, which I would credit to what I still think is true of a good superhero movie, which is simply having a good villain.  The better the villain, typically, the better the movie.  And to be a good villain, you need some relationship with the hero.

Heath Ledger’s Joker (which won a posthumous Oscar for the actor) still stands tall.  Seven years out, it’s a striking creation, visually and in character.  The kids liked him, too.

I still think this is the best of the three films, but it’s long and it’s convoluted and packed with tons of plot.  The kids kept getting a bit lost and I had to stop the film to explain stuff to them throughout.  And then the ending, in which Harvey Dent’s Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart)’s crimes are blamed on Batman to keep the tarnish off of Dent and his legacy — the kids totally didn’t get that.  “Why blame it on Batman?  Why not blame it on The Joker?”  And while this might seem a trivial point to bring up, I think it’s testament to the fact that this massive enterprise has such grandiose import and complexity that it nearly stumbles on itself.

Nolan, his brother Jonathan Nolan, and story writer David S. Goyer packed in the social commentary.  From surveillance to terrorism to human rights, there is a lot going on in the film and interestingly themes that permeate all three films.  The villains all seek chaos as change to the social order.  It almost makes you wonder if there is a part of Nolan that shares this perspective as he imbues his criminal geniuses with anarchy, chaos, and a just anger at the status quo.

Felix really liked it.  He said it was “the best superhero movie” he’d seen.

It’s interesting, as I noted before in writing about Batman Begins (2005) how Nolan’s commitment to practical effects and a realistic or “real world” action film for his superhero Batman is in such stark contrast to the CGi-heavy Marvel Universe which is presently dominating the Hollywood pipeline.  I have to say that I think Nolan’s films will hold up in contrast, perhaps in part to his commitment to this vision, this naturalism, but I also think that it will be all the more anomalous as more and more movies come pumping out of Hollywood featuring superheroes.  I don’t think anyone else is adhering to that sensibility – at least not at present.  It will make Nolan’s films that more unusual in the landscape of the genre.

Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins (2005) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 01/11/2014

Having recently worked our way through the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman cycle, my 13 year old son was now hankering for the Christopher Nolan films.  And fair enough, they are probably superior and more relevant in many ways to a child of his day.  For me, though, I hadn’t really felt like revisiting them as yet, maybe with the one exception being The Dark Knight (2008), which I had considered the best of the trilogy.

I’ve sensed, rightly or wrongly, that Christopher Nolan is the filmmaker that most young filmmakers want to be right now and his Batman films are likely their gateways to his oeuvre.  So, I would expect that a lot of people have watched and re-watched these movies over and again many times, while this is actually the first revisit that I’ve paid any of them.

At 2 1/2 hours, it’s a long haul, but Nolan was going for epic here and what with his two sequels, I hope that he feels that he got it.  Nolan returns to an origin story for Batman, here played by the amazingly fit Christian Bale.  Not only the death of his parents, his discovery of the bat cave under his stately home, but also his trip to the Himalayas where he trains in fighting, discipline and ideology under the tutelage of the League of Shadows and Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson).  We’ve also got the up and coming detective Gordon (played by Gary Oldman), an origin story of his own.

It’s a dark world (literally and figuratively), Nolan’s Gotham.  And the villains, which also include the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) are ideological in their bents, seeking to purge the ills of society through mass chaos and death.  For Nolan’s interest in realism and humanism, the film finds grounding (especially when contrasted to Schumacher’s two Batman movies.  And once it gets going, it’s a pretty good ride.

Both Felix and Clara enjoyed it.  Felix was asking why he didn’t see it when it first came out and I had to remind him that he was only four.  This film is 10 years old now.  That’s freaky in itself, isn’t it?

With the new Fox TV show, Gotham, we’re entering an era of further evolution in which even the Nolan Batman films will be old reference points.  Gotham is interesting as it goes back to the origins of the characters of Batman to the days right after the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and focuses on a young James Gordon and a kid Bruce Wayne with his young Alfred Pennyworth.  Felix was wondering about the next Batman movie, the first that he might see in the theater and I mention, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as it is currently known, sequel to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) and I don’t think that Felix has yet developed the inner groan that those of us have about this being a Ben Affleck Batman.

Nolan’s Batman films were game-resetters, if not game-changers, when they came out.  But given where we are in superhero moviedom, I reckon that Marvel is currently ruling the roost in current styles and expectations, either based on the coming Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) or even last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  It’s a constantly changing game at this point.

But we will doubtlessly be revisiting the other Nolan films.  So, more to come.

Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar (2014) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 11/08/2014

Did Christopher Nolan just make his first M. Night Shyamalan film?

Actually, this thought crossed my mind in the first 1/2 hour of nearly 3 hour epic about mankind’s exploration into interstellar space travel.  And, no, Nolan has not made his first M. Night Syamalan picture, but I would suggest that he’s flirting with cinematic and narrative conceits, plot twists meant to be head-trippy, and a depth that is intensely striven for but barely scratched.  He may not have made his first Shyamalan, but he’s easily made his weakest film to date.

It’s still pretty good, though.

Nolan is at the top of his game, the top Hollywood writer/director, whose films rake in the blockbuster bucks, is obsessed about by fans, overanalyzed and pored over, and truly does have an excellent track record of really very good films.  And it’s exciting when he’s working on new material.  His Dark Knight films might be what have given him commercial credence, but it’s his other movies like Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006), and Inception (2010) that have been intriguing and original.  And yeah, even after this less satisfying feature, I’m still on board for what he has up his sleeve next.

Interstellar takes place in a near future where crop diseases have wiped out food supplies on Earth, and with this and other resultant catastrophes, the planet is soon to be uninhabitable.  Matthew McConaughey (no matter how many times he shows up I have to check the spelling of his name!) plays an astronaut-turned-farmer.  You see, he’s a farmer because the greatest minds in the world have had to turn to farming to try to save the planet’s food supply.  McConaughey may be a lot of things, but a convincing genius?

This bit of dialogue I found well-nigh hilarious:

Principal: “You’re a well-educated man, Coop, and a trained pilot.”
Cooper: “And an engineer”

The story is that McConaughey meets up with NASA as a result of some strange goings-on at the family farm, and has to abandon his family, most specifically his daughter Murphy, to pilot a last-shot spacecraft into a wormhole in hopes of finding a habitable planet on which humankind can move to or repopulate.

Only this is the main plot up through the first hour.  The rest of the film unfolds in a space adventure wriggling around black holes, the fifth and sixth dimensions, time travel, and relativity, adhering its science as much as it can to posited principles (theoretical physicist Kip Thorne acted as involved scientific consultant).  What this ultimately opens up is one of Nolan’s favorite infinitely loop of logic endings, mirrors inside mirrors, opening questions and debates about what really happened, desired re-seeing of movies, to figure out the ornate complexities within.

I won’t begin to debate the science (though many already have and will continue to) nor will I debate plot holes or logic issues (already popular topics).  I will just say that the whole thing is pretty damn long and actually quite plodding and slow through much of the film.

On the positive side, the robot TARS (voiced and acted? by Bill Irwin) is probably the film’s most successful and compelling creation.  And some of the film is quite thrilling when it digs into it, like the landing on the first water-covered planet (maybe the film’s best sequence).  And the scene of McConaughey in the black hole visualization of myriad dimensions.  That has some interesting aesthetics, for  sure.

The biggest upshot is that the film tries to trade on Americana, family, and in particular this father-daughter emotional relationship as the crux of its heart and soul.  And believe me, it swings for the fences as a tear-jerker…but flies out near the warning track…if you will.  It’s a big, thoughtful, impressive but unmoving piece of filmmaking.  And it verges on the boring and tedious as well.

It will be interesting to hear people rip it to shreds over the science and logic and then the people who will doubtlessly love it come and defend and debate the movie.  It’s certainly going for a classical place in science fiction debate with its key comparison point being Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (which note to self, I really need to get around to seeing again).  But oddly, the movie that came to mind for me so much more was Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013).  Though nowhere as head-trippy, the film’s title is a key figure in Interstellar, and while the films are drastically different in a multitude of ways, strangely Interstellar made me think of how much I appreciated Gravity‘s simple elegance all the more.

Hey, what do you want?  These are my opinions.  Not facts.

Memento (2000)

Memento (2000) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 08/11/2014

I saw Memento back in 2000 when it came out, like a lot of people did.  I really liked it and it certainly is one of those kinds of movies that seems to call out for repeat viewings, especially with its intricate reverse chronology that creates the mystery out of trying to figure out what’s going on.  But all these years since, I hadn’t ever seen it again.

Unsurprisingly, Christopher Nolan has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most successful big name artist-type directors.  Arguably, he’s only made one other movie in the complex, convoluted nontraditional narrative style for which Memento is so well known.  That would be his also head-trippy Inception (2010).  And while both of these two movies are among his best, maybe you don’t want to become the guy whose whole style is based on strange narrative gimmicks.

The thing is, Memento is good, quite good.  I’ve long thought since this film that Guy Pearce only seemed to appear in really good movies.  Carrie-Anne Moss…what a beauty.

The mystery of the guy whose short-term memory is shot, having to write notes to himself, even onto himself, as he tries to figure out who murdered his wife.  It’s become one of those short-hand cliches, “you know, like that guy in Memento?”  And the whole reverse chronology thing, it’s a kind of exemplar of a type of film where the writer/director concocts a very complex puzzle for the audience and for those who dig it, they think it’s genius.  How many film students tried to make their own Memento?

It does occasionally err to the overly clever.  It is clever.  But it’s also aware of its cleverness.

Kudos to Nolan that he has continued to craft films that are typically a cut above most.  I look forward to this year’s Interstellar even though it stars Matthew McConaughey.

This may still be his best film.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 07/21/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Much has been made of Christopher Nolan’s Batman as a post-9/11 superhero. One who deals with modern, global terrorism, the state of militarized reaction, corporate insinuation in the whole.  The Dark Knight Rises is the final film in his trilogy, attempting to channel not just these realities but also the zeitgeist of the Occupy movements, the banking disasters, and responsive justice, vigilante or otherwise.

Sadly, the meta narrative has expanded beyond anything that Nolan and his collaborators have created for the film.  The attack that occurred in Aurora, CO during a midnight premiere of the film brought terrorism physically into the movie theater.   The post-9/11 superhero film now has its own new precedence, a brutal act infamous on its own.

I watched The Dark Knight Rises at a Saturday matinee, a day and a half after the shootings in Colorado.  Long before the chaos had subsided, long before anyone could begin to eke meaning from it.  I felt its echo throughout much of the experience.

There had been so much preamble to this film already, largely by fans, largely on the internet, spawned by the passionate reception to The Dark Knight (2008) and its predecessor Batman Begins (2005).  Next to Prometheus (2012), it’s hard to know if there was a more hotly anticipated film this summer.  With Heath Ledger’s death prior to the release of The Dark Knight in 2008, tragedy has shadowed the films, but has not obscured their impact.

Nolan has definitely tried to tap into societal currents of strife and fear to define his version of Batman through his three films, quite specifically via chaotic terrorism wrought against the people of Gotham (City) a.k.a. New York.  In Batman Begins and now again in The Dark Knight Rises, the villains are connected with the “League of Shadows,” a group that wants to destroy Gotham in madness and bloodshed, a politicized doctrine, essentially a judgment on Western civilization, couched in language not dissimilar to that of some radicalized Islam.  Ra’s ah Ghul led a siege on Gotham in Batman Begins, invoking literal terror by means of toxins supplied by The Scarecrow that would cause the entire population to hallucinate nightmares and go mad and murderous.

This time the hulking mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy) plans to destroy the world order by destroying Manhattan.  In both films, the motivation for the onslaughts arise as judgment on the decadence of Western Civilization, as embodied in “Gotham”.  In aligning any of this rhetoric to intimations of a “class war” or touching on the Occupy movement’s tones of protest over disparities between the rich and poor, Nolan leaves room to project upon the film various ideological stances. Various pundits have been grasping at the straws to espouse their own agendas (even before the film came out).  Much had been made of how hard it is to understand Bane when he speaks (through his mouthpiece), but the ideological statements that he espouse are doubly muddled.  Is there meant to be meaning to his madness?  Or does Nolan intentionally muddle Bane’s verbalized politics to suggest these platitudes are as garbled as his voice?

And then what about Catwoman (Anne Hathaway)?  She’s another voice of the proletariat, though one in flashy outfits.  Is she hypocritical, too?  She speaks of the coming storm, the devastating chaos meant to purge the world of its decadence.  She’s very well-heeled for one of the 99%.

I think that the Joker was a much more apt and uncanny terrorist.  There is no rhyme or reason, just madness and chaos, to his method.  Random senseless violence.  Largely without explanation.

Frankly, I found the film a bit disappointing.  Though it has a lot of power and style, the film is long, overlong perhaps.  If you ask me, The Dark Knight hit a high point for the franchise.  So it’s not unrealistic to have had heightened expectations going into a follow-up so full of self-importance and rabid anticipation.  The Dark Knight Rises is portentous. It booms onscreen and on the soundtrack with great emphasis.  But for my money, it was even more convoluted, illogical, sprawling.  This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it.  Just not as much as I’d hoped, not as much as The Dark Knight.

I’ve probably spent more time (though it may not show) editing this post than any one other of which I can recall.  For many attendees of the film over the last weekend, a police presence accompanied screenings, further physical reminders of terror wrought and the vigilance engendered in response.  The screening I attended had no police presence, but all the same, the shadow of those events were inescapable.



Inception (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 07/17/10 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The summer of 2010 has been a dire one in regards to the movie scene.  Christopher (The Dark Knight (2008), The Prestige (2006), Batman Begins (2005)) Nolan’s latest film, Inception, looked to be the potential savior of the summer movies of 2010.  With its striking trailer with M.C. Escher-like visuals of impossible cities and stairways and flying fight scenes that looked to re-invent what’s cool since The Matrix (1999), the complex, intellectual and head-trippy film looked to be the lost hope of big summer movies for this very wan year.

Nolan, since his breakthrough film Memento (2000), has looked like one of the more interesting writer/directors in Hollywood.  The Dark Knight seemed to prove him out to be the intelligent and stylish deliverer of American cinema (yeah, I know that he’s English), or at least to prove out that people responded to that film with the sort of ardor usually reserved for the films of the Star Wars canon.  But frankly, his whole body of work continued/s to show promise and so hope for this film seemed genuinely real and palpable.  And the rest of the summer was making it that much more stark a comparison.

Inception, however, isn’t all that it’s trying to be cracked up to be.  It’s cerebral, sure.  The whole thing is about guys who break into people’s dreams to steal information, but who are put on a job to break into someone’s dream to “plant” an idea.  So this is a complex flavor of science fiction, featuring an ornate set of rules (in a dream, when you die, you wake up, but if you are overly sedated, you might end up in a limbo; for every “dream within a dream” time expands exponentially, etc., etc.).   Lots of complicated innuendo and rules, stuff that makes it hard to follow unless you’re really paying attention in detail, and even if you are paying attention, it still might be hard to take it all in.

That’s the thing, really.  The film gives you a lot to take in and not a lot of time to take it in, and then tries to set its story against that background and expects the audience to be engaged and invested and comprehending.  As good as some of the sequences look, as trippy as some of the ideas, I have to say, Man it’s hard to keep up.  It’s sort of like all the ornateness and complexity assumes that you’re along for the ride.  And maybe if you feel you are, this film is freaking genius.

But from the opening sequence, in which the realities are nested like the Russian babushka dolls, and the levels of awareness of the dream thieves is being rapidly peeled back from the onion skin of the narrative, I was already a little lost.  Leonardo DiCaprio and his team are inside Ken Watanabe’s dream, and the rules and complexities (the dream within a dream, the “kick” sensation of falling that can wake you up), and just what exactly they were up to, I don’t know that I ever fully understood.  Watanabe is their employer, yet he’s trying to hide something from them, and succeeds so they fail and they need to hightail it out of wherever they are and move on.  But then Watanabe offers them another more complicated gig, which DiCaprio is open to because he’s a wanted man and somehow Watanabe can fix that.  It’s a lot to take in.  I mean, I got the gist of it, but in this head-trippy narrative, where you’re constantly meant to be saying “Whoa!” when some new level of complexity is revealed (what is reality? are any of these levels real?), it’s hard to know if you care.

The cast is excellent, with DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Lucas Haas, Michael Caine… (many of whom have worked with Nolan before).  And some of the visuals are super-striking and cool.  The fight sequence in which Gordon-Levitt flies at zero gravity with a constantly turning hotel hallway really does look like the most interesting fighting shot since The Matrix re-invented the visuals of the fight sequence.  And when Page’s experimenting with controlling the architecture of a dream landscape, folding Paris onto itself, it’s really pretty cool-looking.

But in the end, that was all in the trailer, what made the film “look” like several strokes of genius and whet the appetites of film-goers and enthusiasts.  I mean, this summer has outright sucked.  And many writers were looking at Nolan as the second coming of Stanley Kubrick.  And so where does that leave us now, with this film, which has a lot going for it, but ultimately isn’t all that one would hope it to be?

Well, less satisfied than one would have hoped.  And thinking that Nolan, who is indeed quite good and quite interesting, has yet to really make a film of the true caliber of greatness (though I’m certainly thinking of revisiting Memento now, because I recall thinking that it really did deliver on its concepts and promise at the time it was released).

But as much as I’m stating disappointment in Inception, I’m not trying to suggest that it, like so much of the films of 2010, that it’s garbage.  It’s strikingly designed, entertaining and trippy, challenging and pretty darn interesting.  It’s just not all that it was hoped to be, and for much of us, that will be a bit of a downer.  What have we to look forward to?  More superhero movies?  I for one, hope that Nolan continues to develop films in this direction, but manages to achieve something more than he has as yet.

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Christopher Nolan
viewed: 07/18/08 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

After re-working the Batman franchise with 2005’s Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight (pleasantly simply titled sans colons and so forth), has been hotly anticipated.  Of course, that anticipation only skyrocketed with the death of actor Heath Ledger, whose performance in this film of the Joker is bound to become one of the iconic images of not just the genre, but of film characters in general.  And the film has taken on an added darkness and interest, morbid as it is, that has people lining up around the blocks as I write.  It only premiered last night at midnight.

Ledger’s performance is by and far the most stand-out thing in the film, which is saying something because the film is a pretty solid action film, pleasantly much more grounded in physical special effects and relying far less on digital than any other of its superhero bretheren of 2008 summer entertainment.  There is something much more tangible in the setting and characters, even with some pretty big set pieces and some flashy action (I can only imagine the gushing excitement many fellows probably feel when they see the emergence of the bat-motorcycle, which is pretty damn slick).

The character of the Joker pervades the film with a maniacal, anarchic villainy, a detached sense of evil, an evil that isn’t anything more than chaos, a destructive, unflappable villain who simply acts to act.

The film plays up some dualities, leading up to the creation of the other villain of the film, Harvey Dent (a.k.a. Two-Face), who is the literalization of the goals of good versus evil, the “white knight” versus “the dark knight”, who in the end mirrors the image of his scarified two headed coin, in whose randomness he seeks direction in meting out justice and punishment.  The Joker, who sends Dent on his merry way into madness and villainy, is far more interesting, lacking either side of the coin, who is all about the flip and not about the results.

While this dualism or duality plays significantly throughout and can probably be traced throughout Batman/Bruce Wayne’s narrative trajectory in the film as well, it’s not so overdone that you’re choking on it.  While the film is not exactly subtle, it embeds its strength the the chaos and unexplained character of the Joker.  He offers more than one little faux backstory about how his face became mutilated into a permanent smile, indicating that nothing is really true that he says.

It’s clear from the arc of the story that there were plans for a follow-up film with Heath Ledger as the Joker, carrying forth the chaos that he ignited in this film.  And with Ledger’s sad and untimely death, there will be a severe challenge to any reimagining of this character again anytime soon.  From the art design of the splotchy make-up and stringy, barely green hair to the dapper yet slummish suits, he’s a well-created figure, an image that we’ll be living with for some time to come.

Overall, the film is good stuff.  It’s dark.  It’s heavy.  It’s not the peppiest of the summer action films, but I think anyone could have seen that coming.

It will be interesting to see what they do with the next one.

The Prestige

The Prestige (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Christopher Nolan
viewed: 10/31/06 at Regal Cinemas Manchester Mall Stadium 16, Fresno, CA

Director Christopher Nolan teams back up with Michael Caine and Christian Bale to squeeze in a non-super hero movie between installments of their freshly revived Batman series of films, and it’s typically a good one.  Having made his name with Memento (2000), Nolan has come out on top as one of the better directors in mainstream Hollywood and he often works with dark, interesting material.

The Prestige is a tale of an unhealthy rivalry between two magicians somewhere near the turn of the 20th Century and is based on a novel by Christopher Priest with which I am unfamiliar.  It’s an interesting topic for film, as magic and illusion and showmanship have clear cinematic parallels.  Nolan doesn’t particularly exploit these, which I actually found sort of to be a good thing…maybe it’s too obvious to dwell on these connections too overtly.   Still, deception and trickery, narrative sleights of hand are what make this film clever and a pretty good cast pitches in.  David Bowie as Nikolai Tesla is pretty fun.

It’s weird that there is another “turn of the century” magician film out there right now, too, The Illusionist (2006), which isn’t supposed to be too bad either.  I have never really understood the phenomenon about how competing big budget films on similar themes come to a head in the same seasonal market.  It’s not like the world was teaming with such films prior to this point.  It has happened many times and I am sure will continue to happen until someone figures out that it’s just a bad idea.

The drama in this film is largely okay, though it flails a bit at times when it’s trying to deliver the emotional whammies.  When Hugh Jackman tries to explain that the reason for striving to be a magician is the “expression” on people’s faces when they question their beliefs in fathoming “magic”, it’s pretty weak.  But the film is good, solid, and entertaining.  Not overly remarkable, but definitely enjoyable.