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.

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is a 2005 American neo-noir crime comedy film written and directed by Shane Black in the Lethal Weapon screenwriter’s directorial debut. The film stars Robert Downey, Jr, Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan. The story takes place in Los Angeles, California. Harry is a petty thief who accidentally wanders in into a screen test while running from the police. Harry, who had his witnessed his partner-in-crime be shot and killed moments earlier, has a mental breakdown, which is mistaken for character acting by the producers. He is sent out to L.A. and is to be given private detective lessons by experienced P.I. Perry Van Shrike, A.K.A Gay Perry. Harry also reconnects with an old friend and the girl of his dreams, Harmony, an aspiring actress. Harry and Perry accidentally stumble upon a murder mystery while on a routine surveillance job, while Harmony and Harry attempt to solve the mysterious death of her twin sister.

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is a great film in every way. I don’t think I really have anything bad to say about it. It is hilarious while also providing a tight and interesting mystery plot. It accomplishes everything it sets out to do, it definitely gets the neo-noir feel right, it’s an interesting mystery, and it is laugh out loud hilarious. Harry regularly provides sarcastic, fourth-wall-breaking commentary throughout the film, delivered in only the way RDJ and Ryan Reynolds can do. Shane Black is a witty comedic genius, with a sense of humor unlike even the most experienced screenwriters. The “Definition of an Idiot” scene had both me and my friend dying of laughter, and it may be the most simplistic joke in the history of comedy, and it is awesome.

The movie is able to keep the laughs going throughout, but it also makes you genuinely feel about the characters. This is, I think, Robert Downey, Jr’s specialty. Even pre-rehab and pre-Iron Man, Downey as an actor had been graced with likeable “everyman”-type qualities that are in full effect here. You root for him, you root for Harmony, you root for Perry. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, in addition to being hilarious and even engaging from a mystery aspect, also has a very honest and sweet quality about it, and that is what takes the film from “great” to “excellent.”

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is so good, in my opinion, that I honestly can’t think of a whole lot more to say. The film, full of hilarious, endearing, and downright interesting moments, owes a lot to its actors and their abilities, but owes a whole lot more to its brilliant and underrated writer/director Shane Black, who, a decade and change later, still does not get the credit he deserves. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is a cult classic film and a high watermark for both the comedy and neo-noir mystery genres that should be enjoyable for everyone, and you should definitely check it out. Although I just discovered this film recently, it is now one of my favorites.

Westworld (Pilot) [SPOILERS]

Westworld is a science-fiction psuedo-Western mystery drama television series created by Jonathon Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. It is based upon the 1973 film of the same name by Michael Crichton. The series stars Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffery Wright, James Marsden, Luke Hemsworth, Simon Quarterman, Anthony Hopkins, and Ed Harris. Westworld premiered on October 2nd. I have been anticipating the series for quite some time, and it is finally time to see if my high expectations can be met.

Taking place some time in the future, Westworld is a hyper-realistic theme park populated by lifelike androids called hosts. Regular programming updates occur, managed by head of the Programming Division, Bernard, the successor to the brilliant and enigmatic Dr. Robert Ford, the creator of both the Host androids and Westworld itself.There are also updates to the main narrative of Westworld, managed by the arrogant but creative Lee Sizemore. Theresa Cullen is the Operations Director of Westworld, working closely with Bernard to deal with any malfunctioning Hosts or other developments. Hosts that are either outdated or begin to malfunction are sent to cold storage. Bernard is usually able to fix the bugs and send them back into rotation. Westworld Hosts begin to experience a number of bugs and glitches. Bernard discovers that these glitches are due to Dr. Ford’s “reveries.” These reveries are subtle gestures Hosts use that make them seem more human and lifelike to the guests. Hosts have their memories purged regularly, but Dr. Ford discovered a way to access them, creating a subconscious of sorts. The updated Hosts are all killed in a robbery orchestrated by the team and rolled back.

Meanwhile, we follow Delores, a Host in Westworld. She wakes up every morning and goes down to the station (where guests arrive) and normally, barring any interruptions by the guests, encounters Teddy, another Host and the love of her life, who arrives on the train with the guests every morning. A peaceful day with Teddy is interrupted by The Man in Black, a sadistic and mysterious guest with a hidden agenda, who spends the episode searching for answers to his unknown query. The Man in Black ruthlessly murders Delores’ father, mother, and Teddy, and presumably rapes and kills Delores. It is possible and probable that guests kill the Hosts, but Hosts cannot, due to their programming, bring harm to any living thing, even a fly. Hosts kill other Hosts all the time. One of the Hosts glitches out, killing several other Hosts in a psychotic rampage. Throughout the episode, Delores must deal with the turmoil in her life caused by the glitched out Hosts and the mysterious Man in Black. Of course, she has no memory of these events after being killed.

The film on which the series is based is a rather straightforward narrative about AI gone bad with hidden depths. Westworld as a series is so much more than that. Instead of AI gone bad, we are presented with an Asmovian tale of the android Hosts and their benevolent and omnipresent masters behind the scenes. Delores is the series’ de facto protagonist, as it seems. You end up caring more for the Hosts than you do about the humans, who are presented in a more antagonistic vibe, though you can understand and empathize with everyone’s perspective. as well. The Hosts have thoughts, beliefs, emotions, much like humans, but they are treated as tools. Peter, Delores’ father, discovers a picture of a guest from the real world, which causes the android to have nothing less than a complete and utter breakdown.

In the film, the robots go bad in a big way, but I don’t think that is what the series will focus on. We are one hour in, and there are already many questions, both philosophical and narrative ones, that need to be answered, questions about the nature of reality, the nature of artificial intelligence, ethics when it comes to technology, and humanity’s reach exceeding its grasp. Westworld is truly a work of narrative brilliance.

The acting in Westworld is flawless. Evan Rachel Wood, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffery Wright, James Marsden, Ed Harris, and Louis Herthum are all great. Westworld has a budget of $100 million. With this massive budget, series creator, writer, and director of the pilot episode, Jonathon Nolan, is able to create a believable Westworld, and a believable future, as well. Subtle visual effects were used to make the actors seem more robotic.

Westworld is as intense as it is philosophical. The events that occur in Westworld itself are brutal, violent, and vicious. The series is as much a straight western as it is a sci-fi. To me, the most important question isn’t what’s going on with the Hosts at large, but what is up with the Man in Black? What does he want, and why is he torturing and slaughtering Hosts to get it?

Speaking of black, Westworld showed off its musical stylings and cinematic flair in one very interesting and engrossing scene. Using an orchestral cover of Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones, the saloon robbery is possibly the most notable scene of the entire episode.

Featuring a score by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, the music of Westworld is as haunting as it is addicting; it is another wonderfully constructed piece of the wonderfully constructed puzzle that is this series.

Westworld’s premiere episode had the network’s highest viewer count since True Detective in 2014, drawing in 3.3 million viewers. It is already well on its way to being HBO’s flagship series following the soon-approaching end to Game of Thrones. This excellent revival of an excellent film is certainly a must watch for me, and it should be for you, as well. The pilot episode is free to stream right now. As for any further reviews, I will most likely wait until the season is over to share the entirety of my thoughts on it, I just felt it necessary to get the word out, because this show is awesome and it can only get better.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a 1965 Cold War spy film starring directed by Martin Ritt, with a screenplay by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper. It is based upon the bestselling 1963 novel of the same name by John Le Carré. The film stars Richard Burton as British Intelligence officer Alec Lemas and Claire Bloom as Nan Perry.

I have discussed le Carré’s career at length in my review of the recent miniseries The Night Manager. A valid criticism of that review is that I spent too much time focusing on Le Carré’s long and illustrious career, both as a British Intelligence officer and novelist, when I should have been focusing on the miniseries itself. As such, I will provide a brief summary on why le Carré’s work is so interesting, while at the same time complicated, and then move on to the film.

David Cromwell was an agent for military intelligence stationed in Austria briefly following World War II, acting as a German-language interrogator for defectors from the Iron Curtain. He returned to Britain and finished up his studies on foreign languages (his specialty) at Oxford University, where he covertly informed on radical/Communist groups for MI-5. He was an MI-5 officer from 1958 to 1960 before transferring to MI-6, AKA The Circus, where he returned to Germany under the official cover as “Second Secretary” at the British Embassy in the city of Bonn. He was later transferred to Hamburg as political counsel. It was there Cromwell wrote his second novel, A Murder of Quality, in 1962 and this novel the year after, both under the pen name John le Carré, which is French for “John the Square.” The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was a momentous success. Cromwell left the intelligence field in 1964 due to disastrous intelligence leaks caused by Soviet double agent Kim Philby. le Carré has since become known as one of the best spy fiction writers of all time.

le Carré is a brilliant writer, and the adaptations of his works have been known to be equally as brilliant. However, his work as well as their various adaptations can be difficult to recommend to the uninitiated; somewhat of an antithesis to James Bond, le Carré’s work is grounded in the real world. The majority of his novels are very cerebral and drenched in true-to-life tradecraft. le Carré presents the espionage world as it truly is. It is a world of moral gray areas, trenchcoats, secret meetings, back-door politics, and very little violence. There are no climactic shootouts, gadgets, or glamour. le Carré presents the real deal, with very little handholding. As such, his work, though excellent, is potentially inaccessible to a layman, either due to confusion or a feeling things are too slow. le Carré and films based of his works are great, but you have to know what you are getting into beforehand. Don’t expect Skyfall or Jason Bourne. Much like the stereotypical Dad with a weird fascination with American Civil War history, espionage is my weird fascination, so I enjoy both le Carré’s novels and films.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold follows MI-6 officer Alec Lemas, head of station in Berlin. Lemas, a seasoned and extremely cynical man who considers himself “an operational man,” becomes exceptionally disillusioned after a defector fails to bluff his way past security at the Berlin Wall and is subsequently shot down and killed. Lemas is returned to London and resigns rather than be put to a desk job. Lemas finds a bookkeeping job in London and falls in love with a naive but well-meaning Communist named Nan Perry. Lemas deals with his inner-turmoil by getting drunk. Lemas loses his job after causing trouble at a local grocery. He is then approached by agents of German Intelligence, having been singled out for defection for obvious reasons.

This decision sends Lemas down a dangerous path of treachery, lies, truth, and betrayal. Lemas has no delusions about what he is. The very cynical and somewhat nihilistic man does not believe in “God nor the words of Karl Marx.” That isn’t why he does what he does. The protagonist in this film is so nihlistic and cynical that he believes in nothing, except perhaps love. His leanings are so in contrast with his Communist girlfriend that everything finally comes to a head in the closing moments of the film.

What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the Word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They are just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: Little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing Cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives! Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?

le Carré faced endless criticism from his former peers in the intelligence community after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was published. Former spies who turn to writing often do, but for le Carré, it was not potential violation of the Official Secrets Act, but because his philosophy on the intelligence community angered them. Many of his peers saw espionage as fighting the good fight, a moral cause, the greater good. Not him. He portrayed the intelligence world as it is: a dirty, rotten business.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold benefits from a flawless screenplay on top of its excellent source material. The film does a great job at making people think, about making you care, about making you understand how this secret world works. The dialogue is poignant and masterfullly crafted. There is also some rather brilliant cinematography on display here by Oswald Morris and a pretty great score by Sol Kaplan, too. Richard Burton is a marvelous actor. He is much more than Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, that’s all I have to say on that subject.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was arguably even more of a massive success than the novel. The film won several awards at the 1966 British Academy Film Awards, winning Best Actor for Richard Burton, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best British Film. The film was nominated for Best Picture and Richard Burton was also nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards that same year.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a intelligent, cerebral spy film, executed to the highest standard. Inspired by a spy who really did come in from the cold, this film is a look into what being one really is like, the strain it takes on your morals, your health, and your relationships, both personal and professional. It is a great classic film that I would recommend to anyone looking for a cerebral film with great acting to go along with it.