Monday Morning Critic – Why The Unhinged Ambition Of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar Might Be The Best Thing For Film Goers … And Why He’s The Director George Lucas Should’ve Been

MMC

This is actually a fairly impressive weekend for film, as we get Disney’s animated superhero fare Big Hero 6 coming out as counterprogramming to Christopher Nolan’s with Interstellar , his first project since ending his run behind the camera for Batman with his Dark Knight series. I prefer to call it that because we’re going to have a new Batman franchise in short notice, with the Justice League becoming DC’s answer to the Avengers. The further we move past The Dark Knight Rises the further it’ll be an era of film-making in the genre, and an era in Chris Nolan’s career.

To be fair … Ben Affleck is going to get a standalone Batman film at some point as the comic book fad will be milked for as much money as possible. Batman is still a billion dollar franchise, especially with 3D becoming such an integral part of ticket sales, and we’ll most likely be calling it something like the Batfleck movies. We’ll have four eras of Batman by the end of this; the Adam West series, ‘90s Batman (The Schumacher/Burton series), The Dark Knight Era (Nolan) and Batfleck. Plus at a minimum calling it the “Dark Knight” era separates it from the ‘90s series that has not aged all that gracefully in the near two decades since George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger nearly killed the franchise dead with bad puns, terrible dialogue and a sort of 90s version of the campy 60s show.

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Plus the less said about Bat-nipples the better, I suppose.

I’ve written on Nolan’s post Batman future before and we’re seeing the first act of what should be the defining act of Christopher Nolan’s post-Batman career. Interstellar was a very curious choice when announced in the same way that The Prestige and Inception were. Those two films were strategic choices in between Batman films, allowing him 3-4 years between each film to properly design his trilogy. The one thing that symbolized the Nolan era of Batman is that there wasn’t a rush to get things out.

In the decade plus since Memento made him into a director to watch, and Warner Bros. threw caution to the wind and gave him the keys (and discretion) to launch Batman Begins in a way he saw fit, the one thing about Nolan’s career that has come into focus has been one thing: ambition. When we look at his career so far the one thing that pops out is that Nolan is the director we wished George Lucas could’ve been, the one that all the millions from Star Wars toys ruined.

The one thing you can tell from early Lucas that coincides with early Nolan is that there’s an ambition to them. You can see the development in Lucas the story-teller from American Graffiti and THX 1138 to Star Wars in the same way Nolan developed from The Following and Memento to Batman Begins. There’s a development as a story-teller from very good to excellent from their first two films, which gave them notice to the mainstream, to their big first big blockbuster.

I always wonder what sort of director George Lucas could’ve been if Star Wars had never hit in the area of marketing like it did, allowing Lucas to be able to insulate himself from the studio system. Lucas’s ability to do what he wants, and have a regular repeating income stream from the sheer whoredom that he managed to pull off with his signature franchise, was a double edged sword. On the one hand it allowed him the freedom to craft the original trilogy to his heart’s content, allowing for Empire Strikes Back to be one of the great sequels of all time. On the other it gave us Ewoks, Jar-Jar Binks and a franchise more concerned with toy sales than anything else. Lucas’s ability to just partner up with studios as distribution partners, giving up part of one revenue stream significantly smaller than the ones he garnered more money from, allowed him to have that echo chamber where only his voice mattered.

And thus that ambitious young film-maker wound up turning into the greatest film marketer ever. Lucas turned into the Gene Simmons of film, focusing more on how much money he can squeeze out of his fans as opposed to being a film-maker. The prequels reflected it, as well, and Lucas’s desire to make quality cinema left him when the money train came in. It’s why Phantom Menace was filmed off a first draft and there was an insular, navel gazing arrogance from Lucas following the film. He knew that no matter what he did people would come out, as Star Wars fans are the most reliable of film-goers if there’s a prequel (or sequel) to be found.

This was a man who didn’t have ambition to be a film-maker anymore; what made him into a great film-maker, the ambition to challenge the genre, faded away once he made “Wrath of God” money off of toys. The prequels reflected a director who wasn’t challenged and didn’t want to be challenged. It was easy to go “action” and “cut” from the comfort of a chair in Skywalker studios, counting on animators to flush out his vision. He was a producer looking to finish up a product, having left behind anything that can be called genuinely artistic from a story-telling standpoint.

That train left the station decades ago. It’s why his sale of the franchise to Disney was perhaps the best thing for it.

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It’s why Interstellar is such a fascinating pick by Nolan as a follow up to one of the most lucrative comic book franchises of all time. He could’ve said “Show me the money” and continued on with Batman following Rises, somehow managing a way to soldier on, or picked something else more commercial than a film that contemplates the big picture subject of man’s place in the universe. In the same way he didn’t pick something more commercial between Batman films, as a film about competing magicians or a heist film set in the human mind don’t scream commercial and yet he managed to have two legitimately great films that also happened to make money at the box office.

Nolan has never lost that hunger after his career launched with Batman Begins the same way it cripples a lot of directors. The vestige of success took Justin Lin from someone with an interesting viewpoint into the modern Asian-American experience to the guy who kept taking paychecks for Fast & Furious sequels with no imagination, for example, and many indie directors have gone from being a cinematic auteur to a paycheck cashing studio hack once they sniff that big check that comes with cranking out franchise films based off of old television shows, et al. You don’t take on the sort of challenges as a director that he continually does without wanting to continually push that outer limit of how good a film he can make. He may fall down and fail, as my thoughts on the third film of the franchise pissed a lot of folks off, but the one thing he did do was try to make something better.

Someone without that sort of hunger would’ve done something perfunctory to give us a nice conclusion. Nolan went for everything and tried to top the greatest film in comic book history. That’s the mark of someone not willing to settle with one film as a signature moment in the genre. It’s the sign of a director who wants to do better even after climbing the mountain and planting his flag on the summit.

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It’s this sort of ambition that defines Nolan the film director. And it’s why he’s one of the few directors in Hollywood who truly matters on every profound level. It would’ve been easy to make the most commercial angle to follow up Batman Begins and not push yourself as a story teller. Christopher Nolan has never taken his foot off the gas pedal in that regard. A director that isn’t trying to push himself regularly doesn’t commit to making a film like Inception, perhaps the biggest $200 million risk in recent cinematic history. Nolan is a superstar director, one who has a big enough name that any time he makes a film it feels like an event.

Few actors have that clout anymore and Nolan is in that rare air of a James Cameron where his name means a lot of people will blindly buy a ticket opening weekend. It’s why I’ll do one for Interstellar; Christopher Nolan isn’t throwing a film out into theatres that isn’t an attempt at something ambitious. I wish more directors had that sort of ambition … and Nolan’s the sort of director we wish George Lucas could’ve been.

Stuff for General George S. Pimpage, Esq

Travis tackled Nightcrawler and enjoyed it.

I reviewed Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary America, which is mainly his conservative take on the Michael Moore style of documentary filmmaking.

Joe Corey continues his assault on Vincent Price.

If you want to pimp anything email it to me with a good reason why. It helps to bribe me with stuff, just saying ….

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

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This week’s DVD – Snowpiercer

Chris Evans best film of the year was a film based off a comic book … but it wasn’t Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Snowpiercer came out on VOD and into select theatres this summer and got great word of mouth but couldn’t find an audience stateside. It didn’t clear $5 million in theatres, making almost all of its $80 million plus box office overseas, as it had the stigma of going to VOD and theatres. Mostly that’s a sign that the film isn’t all that good, at least subconsciously, and thus people don’t pursue them unless it’s a genuine hard sell.

It’s why I avoided it until it came to Netflix; in my experience any film that has a simultaneous VOD/theatrical release is just trying to avoid a DTV release and arguably pretty terrible.

Snowpiercer posits that global warming is both real and effective, turning the world into an effective ice age. Humanity exists in a train that travels the globe, separated into compartments and powered by a perpetual motion device. Everyone is separated into class systems based on their position on the train; the tail section is filled with the poor and disenfranchised, feeding on protein bars and kept in profound levels of poverty. The front of the section is filled with the rich, who get to eat real food and have their every whims taken care of.

But a revolt is brewing and it’s being led by Curtis (Evans), who has one task at hand. Get to the front of the train and take it over. But it won’t be easy. Curtis has to first pull off the jailbreak of a security genius (Song Kang-ho) to be in position to take down the minions of the woman in charge of it all, Mason (Tilda Swinton). The film follows Curtis and his dwindling numbers as they push forward in their attempt at breaking the chains that bind them and taking over the train itself.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the Captain America sequel, as I thought it was good but not quite as good as the first film, so calling this a better film than that isn’t as big a compliment as it could be. This is a good film, much better than it has any right to be, but the film’s problem is that it doesn’t know how to end. The film’s final 30 minutes are a bit mystifying because the film doesn’t know quite how to end and thus it goes for the big twist that no one (except those who read the comic book) knows that’s coming.

I liked the film a lot up until that point. The ending just sours it a little bit for me, taking it off my Top 10 of the year list and into that “liked it, didn’t love it and wouldn’t feel bad getting it on DVD for Christmas” kind of deals.

Recommended.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 tall boys of Red Fox and community college co-eds with low standards at the Fox and Hound

Interstellar – The Earth is dying. Matthew McConaughey is charged with saving humanity by finding us a new home.

See it – Christopher Nolan gets my money every time he makes something.

Big Hero 6 – A 14 year old creates a robot to fight crime. He then assembles a team of superheroes, apparently.

See it – I’m normally not a fan of animation that isn’t Pixar, obviously, but I’m curious if this comes

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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