As a student of the human condition—with a specialty in the more retarded aspects thereof—I spend time lurking various internet fora. The less essential the subject, the more entertaining the forum. As much as I love movies and am consumed by them, I will grant that there are more important things in the world. You'd never get that concession out of your average imdb forum regular.
Matters of life and death are discussed on imdb, thousands of times a minute. Whether The Shawshank Redemption, The Dark Knight, or Avatar is the greatest movie ever made. Multiple, endless threads entitled “Quentin Tarantino: Does He Steal or Pay Homage?” And, most importantly for what I'm leading up to talking about, everyone's “My top 5 directors” list. The greatest thing about these lists is that a good 90% of them consist of the same five directors in various order, and if you relied exclusively on imdb for your assessment of who was who in movies, it would not be difficult to come away with the impression that the following five men are the only people who've ever directed a movie:
Not a bad group of directors, by any reckoning. The wallpaper on my desktop is a self-portrait Stanley Kubrick took at the age of 16, so you won't get me to knock Kubrick (“misanthropic” and “fucking Martian” are terms of endearment.)
Kurosawa I've never much liked, but for subjective reasons—his importance to the cinematic canon is indisputable (though I do have my doubts as to how many of the 16 year old Andrew Sarris manqués on imdb have actually seen his pictures; his name is impressive to drop, especially by a 16 year old against another 16 year old).
David Lynch is fuckin' great, but he's so weird that you can't compare him to anybody else. Maybe Buñuel, but even Buñuel made more sense than Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr.
David Fincher is probably his generation's premier visual stylist, but every now and then (lookin' at you, Panic Room, stop trying to hide) he gets bushwacked by a shitty/mundane script. The 16 year old fanboys, on the other hand, recommend David Fincher for literally every single unoccupied directing job in the studio system. The Fantastic Four? Oh, Fincher should direct. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? Gah, you're even debating this? Hire Fincher! “Man, you know, WALL-E would have been so much better if David Fincher had directed it.” Still, as ridiculous as some of that shit can get (“Dude, Gandhi would have been so dope if Fincher had directed it, bro”) and as much as I stupidly sometimes blame David Fincher himself for the esteem in which 16 year old retards hold him, there's no getting around the fact that he directed Se7en. He directed Fight Club. He directed Zodiac. Aside from the clamoring of high-pitched voices demanding that David Fincher direct a remake of Lassie, he deserves respect, and his place among his generation's elite directors.
And so we come to Christopher Nolan, who by virtue of directing Batman Begins and The Dark Knight has ensured that no white male between the ages of 12 and 35 will ever need Viagra again. Well, except me. Not that I need Viagra (not when one can freeze frame that shot in The Player where Gina Gershon is wearing glasses and a business suit). But I don't get as excited about the comic book movies as most people seem to, because my favorite comics (golden age Heavy Metal, Watchmen, Maus, Transmetropolitan, et al) are unfilmable. As uncool as it is to say these days, I don't consider the gay Adam West Batman to be any kind of crime against humanity (and how gay could it be with Julie Newmar in that catsuit, people?) Sure, The Dark Knight Returns is great, The Killing Joke is brilliantly disturbing and a masterful artistic achievement. Yaaaawwwwwwwn.
The other major result of Nolan's forays into comic book hagiography is his “A CHALLENGER APPEARS” style advent in the middle of discussions about whether David Fincher should direct a remake of She's All That. “LOL you're retarded, Christopher Nolan would be much better and he should cast Christian Bale as Freddy Prinze, Jr.” “STFU you *beep* retard, ONLY DAVID FINCHER CAN DIRECT THE REMAKE OF SHE'S ALL THAT.” (Note, the fact that you can't curse in an imdb forum leads to hilarious teenage Internet Tough Guy swagger-fest posts with dozens of *beep*s peppered throughout.)
But, you may ask, sure these dumbasses who annoy you think that he and David Fincher are the only directors currently working within the Hollywood system, the issue is, can Christopher Nolan actually direct? By the (very low) standards of the Batman series thus far, sure he can. Christopher Nolan is as superior to Joel Schumacher as the Yankees are to my intramural softball team at Bard where I used to have to swing the bat one-handed so I wouldn't spill my beer. He is also—and yes, I am going there—a clear superior to Tim Burton, who is probably the most overrated living director (seriously, keep Ed Wood—which is only marred by the presence of the hideous Sarah Jessica Parker—and toss the whole fucking rest of his career).
But, you may point out, with increasing annoyance that I still haven't gotten to the fucking point yet, just because he's better than Joel Schumacher—he of the Mr. Magoo camera eye—and the lucky bastard who gets to fuck Helena Bonham Carter, that I haven't yet answered the long-delayed thesis topic of this post: CAN CHRISTOPHER NOLAN DIRECT? Let's take a look at the ol' curriculum vitae:
Not a bad first feature, and very stylish considering the non-existent budget. Gained some cachet when everyone was blowing each other about Memento when the hipper-than-thou resorted to their standard “you only like x because it's popular” gambit and started telling everyone Following was so much better than Memento, which was generic mainstream crap just because it had actors you'd seen before. As a result, a lot of pissed-off Memento fans went in to Following without the generous, expansive, patient attitude you need to watch experimental films. Ultimately, the problem with Following is that it's just interesting enough to keep you watching, but not deep enough to have any kind of satisfying totality. Still, for a first time out with no money, not bad at all.
Clever is not a four-letter word, but it was treated that way by a lot of people who thought this was too gimmicky. Sure it was self-consciously clever. Sure the backwards structure was a gimmick. The structure was neither as lame as the naysayers said or as earth-shatteringly profound as the furiously fapping fanboys insist to this day. Me? I thought Memento was just a damn fine night of entertainment. Guy Pearce shoots Joe Pantoliano in the opening scene and we spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out why. Pass the popcorn, baby, I'm hooked.
We spend a while explaining Guy Pearce's amnesia, which seems variously bullshit contrivance and kinda half-ass plausible, but a whole lot of time looking at his crazy tattoos, trying to figure out just who the hell Joe Pantoliano is, just who the hell Carrie-Ann Moss is, and seriously, trying to figure out who Guy Pearce is. The story unfolds at a nice, brisk clip, and all kinds of cool little touches are thrown in, like the classic:
Guy Pearce (voice-over): Okay, so I'm chasing this guy . . .
Other Guy fires gun at Guy Pearce.
Guy Pearce (voice-over): Scratch that, he's chasing me.
A lot of people don't buy the ending. Not me, I think it's terrific. But the reason I've always liked Memento is because—in spite of its low budget and bona fide independent status—I judge it by the same standards as a normal Hollywood thriller. Because, in spite of all the cute writing, Memento is shot and cut in a very dull, stiff, conventional fashion. It's not even in that unobtrusive Sidney Lumet style where he's pulling his Network false humility “I don't want to get in the way of the script” routine. Memento is actually really boringly shot. That doesn't get in the way of it being good, since the script is the thing here, but still. It's the one Achilles heel Memento has.
It's actually this movie that made me decide to do this post, because I've been up for about 36 hours for a variety of highly entertaining reasons. I'm not quite at the point Al Pacino is toward the end when he's supporting his entire body weight with his beer bottle while Nicky Katt tells the greatest joke ever: “What has two thumbs and loves blowjobs? [points thumbs toward self] Thissssss guyyyyyyyyyyyy . . .” But don't fuck with me. Because I'll explode.
Insomnia was first a Norwegian picture with Stellan “THESE ORDERS ARE SEVEN BLOODY HOURS OLD” Skarsgard, easily one of the coolest actors currently breathing. The original Insomnia was pretty good, it was a little stiffly paced and flat visually, but Stellan Skarsgard gets fuckin meshuggeneh (always fun to watch).
The remake is a borderline pile of horseshit involving Al Pacino's inability to sleep because it's sunny 24 hours a day in Alaska in the summer. Actually, the real reason Al Pacino can't sleep is because Robin Williams is running around overacting and for truly stupid reasons has decided that he's going to announce that he's the killer to the cops. And he lights up Al Pacino's partner—the guy from the Hal Hartley movies—right in front of Al Pacino, which leads to some gravelly-voiced angst. And a whole lotta not sleepin'.
Now, I'm not one to poke holes in verisimilitude unless you pull some Straw Dogs shit on me and I have no choice. But I have insomnia. Insomnia doesn't mean you're awake all the time. When it hits you bad, what happens is, you watch X-Files reruns until 5 in the morning and then putter around your apartment singing Bob Dylan songs to yourself until the 6am morning news starts, and about a half hour into the morning news you blink your eyes and it's 10-11 and time for coffee. Also, that rarely happens consecutive nights without a couple hundred dollars worth of cocaine, and I've never had a couple hundred dollars worth of cocaine. Anyway. Al Pacino being awake for five, ten, however many bullshit amount of days in a row it's supposed to be is just fuckin dumb. I don't care if he is Al Pacino, he'd be dead, or permanently insane.
Oddly enough, even though it's fucking retarded and there are about ninety annoying flaws—many of them in the movie's central nervous system—Insomnia is not that bad a movie. Partly because Chris kind of learned how to shoot, or at least without that fucking arthritic shooting and cutting he had the last time out. Partly because, until pretty recently, sending in Al Pacino to save a shitty movie about MEN was so reliable you could set your watch by it. In any case, it's not worth rewatching, but it doesn't suck, and it served its purpose in proving that Chris could direct a studio picture.
Batman Begins (2005)
My first exposure to this movie was in the form of a phone call from my friend Steve in Chicago. I waded through a little screaming and hyperventilating, about thirty-five fucks, and various and sundry expressions of frustration and displeasure before I realized Steve was talking about how badly filmed the action scenes in Batman Begins were.
Me: “They're really that bad, that you notice they're that bad? They're not just undistinguished?”
Steve: “No, dude, they fucking suck. Motherfucking the whole thing is fucking shot in fucking closeups and shit is so blurry you can't even tell who's fucking doing what to fucking whom!”
Me: “Well, scratch going to see Batman.”
Because, really, life is too short. I did finally see Batman Begins but not until it was on HBO, and the action scenes sure did look like shit, but I wasn't sure whether it was just pan-and-scan mutilation or what, so I Netflixed it for the sole purpose of determining whether the action scenes actually did suck that much. Sadly, something was lost in translation seeing the whole-screen image: the action scenes still sucked, but they didn't suck balls. I had been kind of excited watching Christian Bale kick ninjas in the nuts while making that Welsh taking-a-dump sound on HBO, because the possibility existed that in viewing the totality of the image a level of ineptitude yet to be glimpsed in the history of mankind, let alone cinema, might present itself. But no.
The rest of the movie isn't that bad, although they take for-goddamn-ever with the origin story and the villains, aside from Cilian Murphy as the Scarecrow, are gay. Not good gay, not George Sanders saying “read my column, the minutes will fly by like hours.” Gay. 7th grade gay. First of all, Batman fighting the fucking Mafia? And Gerald from the fucking Full Monty is not only an American but Italian? Fuck outta here. Ra's Al Ghul. Feh.
But, like I was saying before I got sidetracked, the movie really isn't that bad. Christian Bale does a decent job, though I must have missed the part where he has his vocal cords removed every time he puts on the Batman outfit. However, when he gets done doing donuts in that military vehicle and says to Morgan Freeman, “Does it come in black?” Yeah, I surrender, that was good. And I don't care if I'm the one cranky old fart left who remembers that the pre-Scientology brainwash Katie Holmes was hot. She was. Sure she was in over her head in this movie. The fucking director was in over his head in this movie.
Again, that Insomnia caveat. In spite of all this, not that bad. And, unlike Insomnia, rewatchable. But make sure you have some friends and some beer so you can movieoke the action scenes Rocky Horror/The Room style.
The Prestige (2006)
Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are rival magicians who get competitive at the expense of innocent people's lives and their own souls. Scarlett Johansson shows a lot of moxie trying an English accent. Michael Caine manages to stay awake long enough to act in a couple scenes. But—and note, the universe decided to put “Cat People” on my iTunes right when I started talking about this movie—David Bowie plays Nikola Tesla in this. Which means that The Prestige is awesome.
The movie looks great—Chris, a couple weird choices like having a couple exteriors in Victorian London be modern-day LA notwithinstanding, has been coming along nicely with the visuals—and the constant mindfucks that Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale lay on each other (and the audience) are entertaining up to a point, but the third act feels as long as the whole first two put together, just because there comes a point when shit just gets a little too “get the fuck out of here.” And so The Prestige is ultimately three-quarters of a pretty sweet movie, but that three-quarters is damn fine. (For comparison's sake, see also The Illusionist, which isn't as good but compensates by being a bit more laid-back and having a more satisfying ending).
Minor aside: DAVID BOWIE PLAYS NIKOLA TESLA. Note the following massive achievements in David Bowie's acting career:
---managed, in The Man Who Fell To Earth, to look more like an alien as basically The Thin White Duke than he did as Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane.
---played the Elephant Man.
---those tight pants in Labyrinth.
---responsible for the single strangest sequence in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, for which he should receive an honorary Oscar, the Nobel Prize, and a brand new car.
---nailed Andy Warhol. As in, played the part of Andy Warhol well. I don't know if he ever nailed nailed Andy Warhol, I've only heard the same Mick Jagger rumors you have, though “Angie” was not about Angie Bowie, it was about Anita Pallenberg.
---turned in the single coolest cameo ever in Zoolander. Don't look at me like that, it was great.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Rectifies a huge problem with the first Batman by introducing a proper villain: The Joker. Heath Ledger was the truth, RIP. The whole cast is pretty great, too; Aaron Eckhart in particular is tremendous. Christian Bale, though, still has that weird removed-vocal-cords voice as Batman.
One really surprising thing here is that out of nowhere Chris jumped in his progression as a visual stylist from retard to functioning retard to average Joe to HOLY FUCKING SHIT. The Dark Knight is not only a gorgeous-looking movie, it's gorgeous with a swagger, like, yeah bitch, watch this crane shot, that'll show you motherfuckers raggin' on the crappy framing in Memento.
Although Chris always was a pretty good writer, his writing took a similar evolutionary leap as his camerawork. There are dozens of meticulously constructed subplots, little touches of brilliance, and the script provides Tiny Lister with the best part of his career since he played the president of the universe in The Fifth Element (the shame of being told “you got knocked the FUCK OUT” by Chris Tucker in Friday now a distant memory).
Alas, the one caveat with The Dark Knight: it's too fucking long. But you have to hand it to Chris, at this point in his career, that's less of a flaw than some of the millstones he was dragging around earlier. Movies that are too fucking long are in fashion. But this really is too fucking long. After the Joker blows up the hospital the pacing falls off the rails and the resolution—which is goddamn depressing, dude—takes forever to come together even though it's so obvious as to be foretold. But, again, like The Prestige, the first three-quarters makes up for the rest. And the first three-quarters of The Dark Knight can hold its own with anything in cinema. The only reason dickheads like me harp on it not being perfect is because it was so close to perfection.
This will serve as the conclusion, since Inception's not out yet. But I'll answer the long-ago posed question (“Can Christopher Nolan direct?”) by saying, I'm every bit as excited about Inception as all those fanboys I insult constantly. Yes, Christopher Nolan can direct. His pictures are flawed, but who among us is not? Even when his movies don't work, he still has a level of intelligence and balls uncommon among mainstream directors. And when his movies do work, they can even make someone like me become passionately invested in a comic book movie. That takes skill, boys and girls.
So, come join me over on imdb, where we can read about the rumors about Chris Nolan and David Fincher's heated competition to snag the Little Orphan Annie reboot! But proceed with caution, and think before you post.