Sunday, December 18, 2011

Movie Update 32: Nolan and Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is one of the best directors who ever lived, and I think that Christopher Nolan is on his way to earning that distinction. In the last week I've watched the few remaining movies by both of them available for streaming on Netflix.

The Age of Innocence

Love stories are often passionate, but few let that passion boil just under the surface as much as it does in The Age of Innocence. Daniel Day-Lewis plays a lawyer from a wealthy family in 1870s New York City (only a few years after the chaos and violence depicted in Scorsese's other film Gangs of New York) who becomes engaged to a woman played by Winona Ryder, but when her cousin played by Michelle Pfeiffer returns from Europe, he realizes how much stronger his feelings are for her instead. Wealthy families always want to avoid scandal though, and Pfeiffer is already damaged goods since she's considering divorce from her powerful husband, and they struggle with whether to take a chance or avoid causing a stir. Innocence is a well made movie with really good lead performances, but because it's so wrapped up in that distant old wealthy people mode, I didn't really find it gripping for most of its duration. A good movie, but I didn't find myself very invested.

Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha was Scorsese's first film that wasn't connected to his student projects, and it took a while for me to figure out what was off about it. Eventually though, it hit me - it's an exploitation movie. Not a terrible one, and it's one based on unusual concepts for that sort of thing, but it's still an exploitation movie. It uses issues like labor unions and race relations to make a movie about a girl who gets naked sometimes and robs banks and shoots people with her partners. It's sort of a second-rate Bonnie and Clyde with worse acting. I don't want to be too harsh on the movie, because it does some interesting things that most B movies you'd compare it too wouldn't. But it still never reaches very high, so even its solid execution results in a movie that's decent at best.


Following is Nolan's first film, shot independently in black and white on a very small budget. It concerns an unemployed aspiring writer who decided to start following random people to learn about them and get inspired. Eventually he repeatedly follows the wrong guy, and gets pulled into a world of small-time burglary and betrayal. Much like his next film Memento, Following has a complex plot that is further complicated by the script's non-linear approach to structure. It jumps back and forth between time periods, always revealing things that end up clarifying or contradicting what came before. The actual truth behind what's going on when it's finally revealed can be looked at in two ways. On one hand, it's really kind of an absurdly complicated scheme to resolve what wasn't that difficult of an issue, and it's sort of unlikely that the whole thing would come together correctly. But on the other hand, it's still a really fun mystery to unravel, and the fun of noir movies is always that moment of realization when it all finally makes sense. It's a really good first effort.


Insomnia is the only film Nolan's directed that wasn't based on his own screenplay, and it shows a bit. He was proving to studios that he could handle a larger budget and more recognizable cast, and he does a good job of that, though the movie underneath is merely solid and definitely the least interesting thing that he's done. It's pretty much a boilerplate detective story with a plot that wouldn't be out of place in a random episode of most cop shows, but there are a few things that make it work. The first act twist that provides Al Pacino's Detective Dormer with an internal conflict does a good job of complicating an otherwise standard plot, and the ensuing insomnia that plagues him adds a lot of flavor to the whole movie. The acting by him and Robin Williams is good, and it's a really well-shot film, particularly in a few really tense sequences that are unlike what you'd usually see in this type of story. Hilary Swank's character seemed really badly written, and there are a few other hiccups, but mostly it's an above average Hollywood mystery/thriller. Nolan's best asset is probably his screenwriting, but I think with Insomnia he shows it's not the only thing he can do.

The Last Temptation of Christ

Based on a book besides The Bible, The Last Temptation of Christ tells the story of Jesus Christ in a very different way than we're used to. Willem Dafoe's Jesus is tormented by his knowledge and his communications with God, and he is a much weaker man than he is ever depicted as being in the New Testament. The movie hits a lot of the expected notes from the few years that he worked as a prophet, from his wandering in the desert to his sermon on the mount to turning water into wine to the healing of the sick and of course, his arrest and crucifixion. But it shows these moments in different ways than we're used to, and considering these stories in a different light, seeing them as the actions of a man with weaknesses and desires that he must sacrifice rather than an all-knowing and serene son of God is very interesting. The most memorable and controversial sequence comes near the end, when we see Jesus as a man who raised his own family rather than one who died for our sins, but the resolution of this sequence, when everything finally comes together, is extremely powerful, and strikes me as something that would restore faith rather than challenge it. Definitely one of the best religious movies I've ever seen.

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