Insomnia

Insomnia is a 2002 psychological thriller mystery film directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Hillary Seitz. It is a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. The film stars Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, Robin Williams, and Martin Donovan. Insomnia is the only work in Nolan’s filmography so far in which he does have at least a co-writing credit, although he did write the final draft of the script.

Pacino stars as Detective Will Dormer, a reputable Los Angeles homicide detective who, while under an intense investigation by Internal Affairs, is requested to travel to the small Alaskan town of Nightmute to solve the murder of a 17-year-old girl. Nightmute’s chief of police is an old friend of Dormer’s, and it is implied that he requested Dormer and his partner Hap Eckhart to get the heat off of them for a while. While conducting the initial investigation, Eckhart informs his partner that he feels he must testify on behalf of Internal Affairs, who offered him a more lenient sentence for cooperation. This angers Dormer immensely.

While setting an ambush for the killer, Dormer, lost in fog and disoriented, shoots Eckhart and kills him. While dying, his partner accuses him of killing him to thwart his impending I.A. testimony. Dormer, knowing it will look highly suspicious, covers up the friendly fire incident. Plagued with guilt over his partner’s death, Dormer begins experiencing insomnia, further exacerbated by the perpetual daylight. He is also taunted with phone calls from the suspect, who witnessed the shooting of Eckhart.

The focus of Insomnia is not the mystery of who killed Kay Connell. That aspect of the film is actually very straightforward. Insomnia is rather the effects of guilt on a person’s psyche. Anchored with talented performances by Pacino and a surprisingly menacing Robin Williams, Insomnia also features a very tight and focused script by Seitz that is very effective in getting at the deeper themes of the story. Featuring brilliant cinematography from longtime Nolan mainstay Wally Pfister and a fittingly dark score by David Julyan, everything about Insomnia is effectively focused on portraying a man plagued by guilt over his actions and paranoid that the web of lies he spun to hide them will be broken at any given moment.

As Nolan’s first big-budget feature following Following (ha!) and MomentoInsomnia is another demonstration of the British auter’s talent and prowess concerning stories of a deeply personal and emotional nature, which is most likely the reason he was given the duty of reinventing (and rehabilitating, thanks to the laughingstock that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin in 1997) Batman with 2005’s Batman Begins, the launch of the trilogy that not only re-introduced Batman to a new generation and gave us the best imagining of The Joker to date, but also cemented Nolan’s status as one of the most popular filmmakers of the last ten years.

Momento

Momento is a 2000 neo-noir psychological thriller film co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based upon a short story titled Momento Mori by his younger brother Johnathon. Johnathon’s story would later be published in a 2001 issue of Esquire Magazine. The film stars Guy Pearce, Carrie Ann-Moss, and Joe Pantoliano. Pearce plays an insurance investigator named Leonard Shelby. Leonard has developed anterograde amnesia after being clubbed in the head by one of two men who broke into his house and raped and murdered his wife. Leonard was able to kill one of the men, but the second escaped. Anterograde amnesia affects the brain’s ability to make new memories, meaning Leonard wakes up every day with his last memory being that of his wife’s murder. Leonard, despite his condition, takes it upon himself to exact revenge. Using a series of tattoos, notes, and polaroids, Leonard develops a system so he can continue hunting the man despite not being able to store recent memories and sometimes forgetting conversations after having them.

Momento, like Nolan’s previous directorial debut Following, is presented in a complex non-linear narrative that includes two distinct time frames, one in black and white, and one in color. The black and white sequences come first, followed by the full-color sequences, which are shown in reverse. For reference, I have included a diagram of the film’s structure which, although containing spoilers, should visually spell out the film’s narrative complexity.

Memento_Timeline (1).png

This complex and at times confusing plot structure adds to the mystery of the film and left me invested, trying to figure things out. Though I feel specific plot details of the film are difficult to explain due to this complex structure, I will simply say that it very much works to the film’s advantage and should draw the viewer in, as I certainly was.

Momento’s engrossing plot is punctuated by brilliant performances from Pearce and Moss. Guy Pearce, who rose to stardom with the brilliant neo-noir mystery film L.A. Confidential in 1997, is, in my opinion, a vastly underrated actor who seemed to disappear from the spotlight as soon as he found it, with his most recent work of note being Aldrich Killian in the somewhat disappointing Iron Man 3, to the best of my recollection. He is great in this film, and he makes Leonard extremely empathetic and engrossing. Carrie Anne-Moss is also excellent here, and the two leads show great chemistry (and lack thereof, when need be).

There isn’t much else to say about Momento without getting into spoilers. It is another well-directed, well-scripted, and well-acted film by a man who would eventually become one of the most popular directors of my generation. Momento continues to receive critical acclaim and is often touted as one of the best films of the 2000’s, in addition being known as one of the most realistic and factually accurate depictions of anterograde amnesia in fiction. Some consider Momento to be Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, though I personally feel that honor belongs to The Prestige. Featuring very poignant acting and dialogue and a complex and mysterious plot that is sure to generate interest, Momento is a brilliant film that is well worth a viewing.

Following

Following is a 1998 British neo-noir crime thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan in his directorial debut. The film stars Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell, and John Nolan, Christopher’s uncle. Following tells the story of a struggling, unemployed, and unnamed (like all of the characters in this film) writer who takes to following strangers around the streets of London. This strange new hobby draws him into the city’s criminal underworld after he takes his odd, yet ultimately innocuous hobby too far.

Being Nolan’s directorial debut and being straight out of film school, Following was shot on an official budget of $0.00. The most expensive part of filming was the actual 16mm film stock, which Nolan paid for with his own salary. The film was intended to be as inexpensive as possible to produce. In order to economize the expensive film stock, scenes were painstakingly rehearsed ahead of time in order to get a perfect scene in as few takes as possible. The cast and crew, if you can call them that, all worked full-time during the week, limiting film production to Saturdays. Fifteen minutes of footage every Saturday was shot over the course of four or five months. The decision to shoot the film in black and white came from the fact that Nolan did not have access to lighting equipment, forcing him to only use natural, real-world lighting. Even on a no-budget shoot, Nolan described the production as “extreme.”

Following is a very impressive film. Often, low-budget productions are just plain bad, but this film is proof that you don’t need money to make a movie, though I will admit a budget of some level will usually help a lot. Low-budget films are often bad because the filmmakers try to be flashy and reach for levels way outside their budget. Christopher Nolan, even as a young man fresh out of film school, is smart enough not to do that. Following is extremely barebones, and it is, in fact a better film because of it. The core elements of a good noir film are there and, due to the fact nobody had the time nor the money to focus on anything else, those core elements are perfectly constructed and brilliantly executed. There’s nothing extraneous here, only the stuff that needs to be in the film is in the film. Following, from a plot perspective, is very tight and focused, an aspect of filmmaking I think Nolan, admittedly still one of my favorite directors, has forgotten in his more recent work.

Following is also surprisingly very well-acted. The cast, made up entirely of unknowns, even 19 years later, is very talented. The unnamed main character comes off as an everyman, even with his odd, some might even say creepy, pastime. He seems like a slightly odd but relatable guy. Cobb (which Nolan reused as the surname for the main character in 2010’s Inception) is as charming and witty as he is scummy.

Following uses a non-linear narrative to keep things interesting, something that has become a staple in Nolan’s films. The dialogue, like the overarching plot itself, is sharp, witty, focused, and on-point.

Following is not the greatest neo-noir film ever, not is it Nolan’s best work. It is, however, an interesting early work of one of today’s most well-known filmmakers, and is a great showcase of his talents as a director. Clocking in at only an hour and ten minutes, Following is a scrappy, smart, and interesting noir film and the testament of what a filmmaker can do given will, determination, ingenuity, and intelligence.

Hysteria

Hysteria is a 2011 period romantic comedy film directed by Tanya Wexler. The screenplay was written by Jonah Marsh and her husband, Stephen Dyer. The film stars Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathon Pryce, Felicity Jones, and Rupert Everett. Dancy stars as a fictionalized version of Dr. Mortimer Granville, a physician who invented the vibrator as a treatment for female hysteria. I have done background information on this and have confirmed everything I am about to say to you. In 1880, female hysteria was a very popular diagnosis for crabby, apparently crazed women. In extreme cases, patients with “hysteria” would be confined to asylums and undergo hysterectomies. It took the world until 1952 to figure out that women were just sexually frustrated and needed release, but medical practitioners somehow figured out that it had something to do with the “sensitive area,” so treatment would usually involve a hand massage of the genitals, known to induce what was termed a “hysterical paroxysm,” later discovered to be what some would call a mythical or illusive event known as the female orgasm. If you don’t believe me, Google it! The strain and inconvenience of doing this by hand causes the young Mortimer, working under Dr. Robert Dalrymple, with the help of his friend Edmund, to create vibrator for use on hysterical patients. Meanwhile, Mortimer draws the attention of both Dalrymple’s daughters, Emily and Charlotte.

Due to the… interesting subject matter, the film has tons of comedic ammunition at its disposal, which it uses very well. I found myself chuckling a lot during this film. I normally hate rom-coms with a passion, and although Hysteria is ultimately a flawed film which hits a lot of the generic rom-com beats, it does enough with its premise to be worthwhile and enjoyable. Hysteria uses its unique premise to its advantage; instead of focusing only on the romantic aspect of the film, which is honestly extremely underdeveloped and leaves much to be desired, the film also cleverly and entertainingly explores exactly how women were treated back in the day (not very well) and the start of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

Hysteria does have a lot of problems, the main of which is the fact that, aside from Mortimer and, to a lesser extent, Charlotte, nobody undergoes a real character arc. Everyone besides those two are exactly the same at the end of the movie as they were at the beginning, and characters without arcs are difficult to get invested in. Emily Mortimer, in particular, played by Rouge One‘s Felicity Jones, is just there for Mortimer to fall in love with and then realize Charlotte’s the one. The romantic part of this romantic comedy, is, frankly, somewhat confusing, underdeveloped, and not very good.

That being said, it still has its positives. Hugh Dancy, who I only know from his role as Will Graham on Hannibal, could charm his way out of anything. Seeing as Graham, the mentally unstable FBI agent, is not very charming, I was very surprised to learn that Dancy was known to everyone else as the exceedingly charming English pretty boy. He is great here, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is good, as well. For what it’s worth, I saw this film at Ebertfest yesterday, and both Dancy and Tanya Wexler gave an excellent Q&A. I did not stay for the whole thing, but Dancy seems like a natural comedian, and Wexler revealed that some of the comedic bits in the film were of Dancy’s own design. (Sneaky Hannibal reference)

He jokingly mentioned he made some changes to the script. He presented himself well, and seemed much more intelligent than anyone would think to give him credit for, and Hysteria works much better, I think, because of him.

Hysteria is a flawed, yet ultimately entertaining romp, and I feel that its lead actor, who deserves much better than what he gets, is the reason for that. It’s a funny film which would be better served jettisoning it’s paper thin romantic plotline for something else entirely. The characters are thin, but the actors do a good job, especially its lead. Hysteria is not great, but it is good, and I ultimately enjoyed it, because it was able to subvert enough of the vomit-inducing rom-com tropes to actually be funny, though it falls into enough of those holes to, sadly, miss out on a lot of the film’s potential. If anyone is in need of a lighthearted, lowkey viewing with some good laughs, than I would recommend this film.

 

Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead is a 2004 comedy horror film co-written and directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg (who also co-wrote the film) and Nick Frost. Shaun of the Dead is the first in Wright’s “Three Flavours of Cornetto” trilogy, followed by 2007’s Hot Fuzz and 2013’s The World’s End, all of which were written and directed by Wright and star Pegg and Frost. Shaun of the Dead lead to Wright’s mainstream success, cult status, and popularity as a director.

Shaun of the Dead follows Shaun, an underachieving electronics salesman with no direction or sense of purpose in life. He lives with his old friend from college, Pete, and his childhood friend Ed. Ed is a slacker and moocher who does nothing with his life and constantly holds Shaun back from his potential. After Shaun’s girlfriend Liz breaks up with him, the two go out for a night of wild, raucous drinking, which annoys the increasingly ill Pete. They awake in the morning, initially oblivious to the zombie apocalypse that had been slowly taking form over the past few days.

(Note that Ed asks Shaun for a Cornetto. In the proceeding films, similar references are made to the popular ice cream brand, hence the informal title for the trilogy.)

After comically realizing the gravity of the situation, Shaun and Ed make plans to A. Kill Shaun’s (conveniently infected) mean step-dad, B. Save his Mom, C. Save Liz, and D. Hide out at the pub the two young underachievers frequent.

As one can expect, none of this goes entirely according to plan, leading to both mishaps of the comical variety, and some of the less-comical variety as well.

Shaun of the Dead is both hilarious while also managing to be very heartfelt and meaningful when given the chance. It is also very stylized and very fast. Director and writer Edgar Wright does a wonderful job here, assisted in the writing of the script by star and future frequent collaborator Simon Pegg. Pegg’s acting, as it always is, is excellent. Pegg is a masterful comedian, especially in movies like Star Trek Beyond or any of the recent Mission: Impossible films, because he is never a buffoon. In fact, in every movie I’ve seen Simon Pegg in, his character is a competent person who also just happens to be funny, which is something a lot of comedy actors don’t seem to think is a thing. Yet, it is this that makes Pegg so good at comedy, both in his writing and in performance. Shaun is neither a bumbling moron nor is he a supremely effective hero protagonist, he is simply a guy, an aspect that works to the film’s tremendous advantage. Nick Frost plays a great obnoxious but lovable douchebag, for what that’s worth.

Of course, good acting and performances is not what makes a comedy movie good, it’s the comedy that does that. Thankfully, as I mentioned before, Shaun of the Dead is a very, very funny film. Unlike most parody films of this generation (although the film does not lampoon a specific zombie film, so I wouldn’t necessarily call it that), Shaun of the Dead never really goes for the lowbrow, sophomoric humor, except for an actually funny (Yeah, I’m dead serious!) fart joke that comes back in the end, opting instead for some really intelligent humor and gags.

Readers should be made aware of the upcoming minor tangent. Before I decided to review The Cornetto Trilogy this weekend, I decided to watch the historical romance film Allied that came out last year. I have a friend who saw it in theaters and it made her cry. I, on the other hand, also cried… tears of boredom. I was more emotionally invested in the entirety of Shaun of the Dead than I was within the first hour of Allied. I know that sounds like I’m not saying much (which I’m not), but there are some truthfully emotional moments in this film, which is more than I can say for Allied.

Shaun of the Dead, like most of Wright’s films, as well as the man himself, has gained a very large cult following in the years following its release, and for good reason. Shaun of the Dead is a hilariously impressive comedy film by itself, and a more than admirable start to a comedic trilogy that I have been told for years is rather excellent, but never bothered to check out until now. Boasting great acting, a great script, and some great filmmaking on the part of a great director, Shaun of the Dead is a brilliant comedy film that I feel I was late to the party on; it’s one that everyone should check out if they haven’t already.

Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises is a 2007 British-Canadian-American crime thriller film written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight and directed by David Cronenberg. The film stars Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, and Armin-Mueller-Stahl. This film marks the second time Cronenberg and Mortensen have collaborated following 2005’s excellent A History of Violence. Eastern Promises follows Anna, a nurse and midwife of Russian-British heritage living with her mother and uncle in London. Anna delivers the baby of a 14-year-old Russian girl, who dies in childbirth. Anna finds the diary of the young woman in her personal effects, and learns that she was tricked and forced into prostitution by the Russian Mafia. Anna also finds a card for a restaurant owned by Semyon, an old Russian mobster. Anna sets out to discover the identity of the baby’s father, in order to find the child a home. She is drawn into a vast conspiracy involving Seymon’s unstable son, Kirill, and the mysterious driver Nikolai, soon realizing she may be in way over her head.

Eastern Promises is a rather bold film that chooses to explore rather dark themes that not a lot of films do. For some reason, filmmakers are fine exploring the world of drugs and murder, but I have not seen a lot of films explore the crime of sex trafficking; it is a rather uncomfortable subject nobody likes to discuss, especially in the realm of fiction. I understand why, as I personally find it to be one of the most heinous and disgusting crimes ever to exist. Nobody likes to think about it, which is why it takes guts to put it front and center in a crime thriller ostensibly meant to entertain. The effect that sex trafficking has on the many people involved is front and center here, and Knight’s script sugarcoats nothing. I applaud Steven Knight for bringing this up; even though it is, on the surface, a mere work of fiction, it should get the audience thinking, or make them aware of, the horrific crime occurring worldwide today right under our very noses.

Like any good crime film, Eastern Promises focuses as much on the criminals as it does on the ordinary people. The inner workings and mentality of the Russian Mafia, specifically the idea of vory v zakone is discussed in-depth in this film. Through some excellent writing, mobsters Kirill and Nikolai are as empathetic characters as Anna. You know what they want, you feel for the both of them. Kirill wants respect from his brutal and sadistic father, and wants to bring his (much more capable and competent) friend Nikolai along for the ride. Kirill is a raging dick, but watch him suffer torrents of abuse by his ungrateful father, and you begin to understand him. Empathy for the villains is what turns a good movie into a great movie, and Eastern Promises is, in my opinion, a pretty great movie.

Director David Cronenberg is famous for the brilliant body horror films Scanners, The Dead Zone, and The Fly. With both A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, it may seem as though Cronenberg has gone completely out of his comfort zone. However, make no mistake; Eastern Promises may lack monsters or exploding heads, but this film is unflinching and brutal in its depiction of violence and murder, and although never what I personally would describe as “horrific,” Cronenberg is easily able to succeed in making the viewer feel uncomfortable, using techniques he no doubt picked up in his career as an auter of horror.

Cronenberg also avoided using guns in the movie at all, opting instead for knives. Cronenberg has stated that this was for the purposes of realism, as knives would be easier to conceal, but considering the somewhat exaggerated effects of these knives when they are used in the film, I would say Cronenberg’s horror traits were simply showing again, not that it is at all a bad thing.

The brilliance of Eastern Promises also owes itself to top-notch acting by almost everyone involved, especially Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen, who shows off supreme talent and acting ability here. The underrated Danish-American actor will, it seems, be forever known by the masses for his role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and not for other roles like this one. The character of Nikolai is the most interesting and mysterious character of this film, and that lends just as much to Mortensen’s flawless acting as it does to the great script.

Eastern Promises is a great film filled with violence, intrigue, and empathy that has the guts to explore something that occurs in the world that many people fear to acknowledge. With word on the street being a sequel will begin production soon, I would advise picking up this movie ASAP if you are interested. To conclude, with the help of a brilliant and accomplished director, a brilliant writer, and extremely talented actors, Eastern Promises is an impactful, entertaining, and thought-provoking crime film that I enjoyed, and I think a lot of my readers will, too.

Ghost In the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell is a 1995 Japanese animated science-fiction techno-thriller film based upon the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow. The film was written by Kazunori Itō and directed by Mamoru Oshii; it is a Japanese-British co-production, and is one of the works, if not the single most prominent work, that led to the modern popularization of Japanese animation, known as anime, in Western culture. Anime experienced a surge of popularity back in the 1960’s with Speed Racer and Astro Boy, but it didn’t stick. Since the advent of the internet, however, anime has become progressively more and more popular outside Japan, with many appreciating the various art styles and dramatic flair that can be found in many animes. Ghost in the Shell, however, is considered to be the one that started the surge, and has remained immensely popular, even in the two decades since its release.

Ghost in the Shell takes place in 2029. The world is interconnected and many people have become cyborgs with prosthetic and cybernetic enhancements, with many possessing fully cybernetic brains, with their “ghost” being an individual’s personality and memories, hence “Ghost in the Shell.” The film follows Major Motoko Kusanagi of Public Security Section 9. She is one of few people with a fully cybernetic body, with no real human parts to speak of aside from her “ghost.” Section 9 is an elite cybercrime and intelligence organization on the hunt for a mysterious hacker known only as “The Puppet Master.” The Puppet Master apparently possesses the ability to ghost hack: hack into individuals and take over their body without their knowledge. Considered a very dangerous individual for obvious reasons, the film follows the hunt for The Puppet Master while The Major and Section 9 are drawn into a vast and far-reaching political conspiracy.

Ghost in the Shell features top-notch animation, which was created using a unique process called Digitally Generated Animation, a combination of traditional cel animation, computer graphics, and audio that is entered as digital data. It was the goal of animation director Toshihiko Nishikubo to depict film movements realistically. In fact, the animation team performed extensive research into firearms and bullet physics, noting, for example, that a bullet will create a spark upon striking metal, but will not do the same against stone or rock. The team also made character movement seem more realistic; The Major’s movements seem much more mechanical than her more human counterparts.

The most interesting part of Ghost in the Shell is the world itself. Set in an unnamed, post-World War III Japanese city, it almost feels like a real place. The characters in the story interact so fluidly and naturally with everything around them that you sort of almost forget you’re watching a science-fiction film, somewhat akin to the world of Blade Runner, which this film seems to draw from in terms of its “futuristic but natural-feeling” setting. Due to the setting feeling so organic and real, that makes the extremely deep themes explored by the film’s plot easier to digest.

Ghost in the Shell’s most striking aspect is its exploration of extremely deep ideas wrapped up in what would seem on the surface to be a straightforward techno-thriller. This film, however, is so much more than that. Through it’s main character, the film presents an intelligent discussion on what exactly it means to be human. The Major’s body is entirely machine, so what makes her human? Is it her brain, her personality? Is she human at all? What defines humanity? Is it something physical like organs, or is it simply sentience? These questions are the driving force of the entire film, and the whole film drives these ideas home in a flawless manner.

*Please keep in mind that I watched this film in the original Japanese with English subtitles, the voice acting in the dubbed version leaves much to be desired, and I would recommend the original audio*

Another question the film sees fit to ask is a question about the nature of reality. There is a point wherein The Puppet Master uses a normal truck driver as a puppet and a patsy to get him to ghost hack government officials. The Puppet Master does this by implanting false memories about a wife and kids that he doesn’t have.

Ghost in the Shell is an excellent and well-made anime film with enough entertainment to go around even if the philosophical questions do not interest you, but it is hard to deny that the philosophical questions are what permeates through the most. Ghost in the Shell has explicitly influenced many filmmakers and their techniques. Most notably, this film is a favorite of the Wachowski Siblings, being a very large influence in their 1999 magnum opus The Matrix, which borrows a lot thematically and stylistically from this 1995 film. The opening credits to The Matrix were directly inspired by Ghost in the Shell.

For several reasons, most notably the film’s philosophical intellect, as well as just being a generally very well-made film, Ghost in the Shell is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, works of anime ever made. Its influence can be seen even outside of Japan in several Western productions. Its influence is the reason for the entire medium of anime being repopularized in Western countries. With gorgeous animation, a fully-realized world, interesting characters, and an interesting plot to boot, Ghost in the Shell is an excellent film that I would recommend to anyone, not just anime fans.