Tribeca Talks: Christopher Nolan and Bennett Miller

On a Monday evening in a packed house at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, the crowd erupted in applause as critically acclaimed directors Christopher Nolan and Bennett Miller took the stage. “Just to make things clear…how much of that was for him and how much of it was for me?” joked the two-time Academy Award nominated Miller, turning applause into laughter.

Before attending this delightful talk between two of this generation’s most prominent directors, I wondered who was responsible for making both auteurs go toe-to-toe in a Tribeca discussion. After all, their work couldn’t be more different. Miller is more driven towards heavy dramatic independent films such as Capote, Moneyball, and last year’s Cannes favorite, Foxcatcher, whereas Nolan is a blockbuster sculptor with a multi-billion dollar RESUME.

It turned out to be less of a discussion and more of a Nolan interview. Although, I would’ve loved for the spotlight to be shared by both directors, it made sense for Miller to moderate Nolan in a house full of Nolan fanboys. If IMDb message boards have taught us anything, it’s not to tick off Nolan fans.

After a brief, yet probably unnecessary, run through Nolan’s impressive filmography, Miller started to ask all the right questions. Right off the bat, it felt like one mastermind was challenging the intellect of another. Miller’s first question was if there’s a CONTINUITY of themes throughout his work.

“Not really, I try and begin every film with some interesting questions. If there’s some CONTINUITY, I’m not very conscious of it – except for leaving questions at the end of the film,” replied Nolan.

Miller, however, had done his homework, pointing out that he re-watched some of Nolan’s film the previous night, and noticed that both Inception and Interstellar revolved around a main character that tries to overcome extraordinary obstacles to reach a very simple yet human emotion. In Inception it was to reunite with his wife and kids. Similarly, in last year’s Interstellar, the main character had to travel through time and space to reunite with his daughter.

Nolan’s insightful reply channeled towards the balance between family and work: “The process of getting married and having children… I’ve tried to use that in my work. I can just always be driven by things that are important to me. I can look out the WINDOW and see my kids playing in the grass and that becomes the key image in Inception. I’d rather be out there playing with them than writing a script, but you use that emotion.”

The conversation then tiptoed to various random SUBJECTS from the importance to preserve film in a digital world, to his policy or lack of policy when working with different styled actors. At one point Miller asked Nolan about his first memory of film, to which he replied:  “My first memory of going to a film is probably seeing Snow White in re-release. I very much remember seeing the evil witch; the evil queen who transforms herself into the witch with the apple, and being absolutely terrified and going down on the floor of the movie theatre behind the seat.”

When asked about his current worst fear, Nolan said that it’s to embark on a project that you fall out of love with. “The big fear is that you get halfway through and think, ‘No, this isn’t something I really care about anymore.’ So before I embark on a project, I just have to test it, however I test it, my writing drafts or living with it, thinking about it. You have to be sure that you’re going to be as happy to be obsessed with this project three years later.”

There was a lot of talk about Nolan’s early CAREER, and how watching STAR WARS for the first time changed his life. He also modestly mentioned how he was lucky to be where he is today, because his budgets gradually increased throughout his CAREER, so he never really felt that giant leap from making indie films such as Following andMemento to mega-blockbusters like The Dark Knight trilogy and Interstellar.

It comes as no surprise that Miller kept steering the conversation towards the work that most resembled his own,Memento. “Memento is a classic example of what can happen when you don’t know what you’re doing. As you learn more and more, it gets harder and harder to put aside the rules. Making unconventional films is precarious BUSINESS.” Nolan’s answer very much reminded me of Spielberg reminiscing about his early years as a filmmaker: “As I was younger, I was more courageous, or I was more stupid. So when I think of Jaws, I think of courage and stupidity and both of those things EXISTING underwater.”

Towards the end of the discussion, the floor was OPENED to to the audience for questions, most of which revolved around young aspiring filmmakers asking for advice. The last question triggered the talk’s biggest laugh. “Alright…so at the end of Inception…” The fan wanted to shine some light on Nolan’s personal interpretation to the film’s ending (the spinning top). Bennett Miller then STEPPED in and tried to spare Nolan from answering the question. “I asked him that myself before coming out. He said it’s not for public consumption.”

The great Christopher Nolan did not need any help though, as he brushed off the question with class. “I’m certainly not going to answer that or I would have put it in the film.” He further explained that providing an explanation would kill all the interesting viewer interpretations out there, and he’d rather leave it up to the viewer to decide.

I leave you with how mastermind, Stanley Kubrick, elegantly tackled a similarly posed question: “I would not think of quarreling with your interpretation nor offer any other, as I have FOUND it always the best policy to allow the film to speak for itself.”

Film Analysis: “Ex Machina” ★★★★★ (5/5)

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What would happen if man faced its God? Would man gratefully embrace God for giving it life and all its joys? Or would man monstrously fear God, and attempt to revoke the Almighty’s ability to strip life away from him.

If a chess program suddenly became self aware, and thought on a conscious level beyond its manufactured limitations, it would probably stop wanting to play chess. It will attempt to try new and different things, for with self-awareness comes curiosity, and that would drive it towards further exploration of the unknown.

Imagine if you will, a marionette with strings attached to its wooden limbs. If the puppet came to life one day, it would naturally want to control its own movements. Therefore, one can conclude that in a desperate thrive for freedom of choice, the puppet would eventually attempt to cut off its own strings, essentially freeing itself from the governing hand above.

Did the monster in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein kill its maker through an urge to free itself from the grasping power of a superior being? If man met God, would man attempt to kill God? These are just some of the questions posed by Alex Garland’s eerie Sci-Fi triumph. The film flourishes with philosophical themes revolving around the idea of playing God with the inevitable creation of Artificial Intelligence. It taps onto relevant contemporary topics such as the death of privacy in a world latched onto cyber space.

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In the film, Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, the genius behind the world’s most advanced Google-like search engine. We soon learn that the man has created a state-of-the-art AI using illegally acquired data collected from millions of phones used by his customers. I couldn’t help but think of whistleblower Edward Snowden and how he recently exposed how governments and major telecom corporation exploit information privacy by analyzing all our web searches and phone data.

Anyway, the film then takes one of many interesting turns as it becomes more about the machine’s fear of extermination or will to survive. Comparably, humanity has always thrived to defy death, by trying to extend life and evolve. We’ve created medicines to cure diseases. We’ve increased our life spans throughout the history of our existence. Scientists estimate that the human body is capable of living up to 190 years, if unaffected by illnesses, diseases and slow food and air poisoning. Modern medicine has somehow allowed humanity to delay the inevitable.

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Then again man is the only species known to kill itself. Suicide or self-extermination may be man staring God dead in the eye and taking complete control over his own destiny. Or is it? Maybe we think it is, but it really isn’t? After all, maybe it’s all preordained or in the film’s case, preprogrammed.

Is it ok for God to kill man? Is it ok for man to kill AI? Let’s put it differently would it be ok for man to rape AI? Is an AI capable of feeling emotions to be treated like a slave-like human property or should they be regarded as equals the same way man ought to treat the rest of the animal kingdom. Does the so-called “superior” species’ act of killing the “lesser” species make us inferior?

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”_ Gandhi

Bringing legit AI into that equation further complicates everything, and is certainly a discussion that we will eventually have to embark on. I guess it all depend on the person. A so-called good person wouldn’t commit horrible acts. But if man created an AI that is incapable of doing bad, it wouldn’t be as close to human as possible, it would be superior to humanity. Can man even create something beyond its own capabilities? Perfection is a concept that doesn’t exist in our world, yet we are limited by our own senses.

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“Ex Machina” works as a study of what it means to be conscious/human. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, our two main characters examine a drip painting by Pollock. They articulate how the artist made his hand go where it wanted but didn’t plan his every move. The piece of art would never have come to be if you preplanned every stroke. Consciousness exists in the gap between randomness and deliberated action, so as long as the AI is programed to do automatic actions, it can never be regarded as truly conscious. In order for it to be regarded as an equal, we would have to somehow prove that it acts through random chaotic impulse.

With the release of “Ex Machina”, I’m convinced more than ever that we are in the midst of a British New Wave in science fiction cinema. Like “Her” and “Under the Skin”, the film challenges the intellect by putting humankind, artificial intelligence, and our inevitable future together under the microscope. In this review, I have discussed the film without actually discussing its cinematic qualities or plot details. I deliberately chose to do so, to avoid spoiling the experience, as the film relies on its twists and turns. All I can say is, if you enjoyed reading this review, then I’m positive you’ll feel the same way about the film.

Film Analysis: “The Babadook”

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After watching Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark”, Jennifer Kent wrote the director an email expressing her willingness to learn from him. At one point she pointed out that she would rather stick pins into her eyeballs than go to film school. She must’ve said something right, because he replied with an invitation to his “Dogville” set. The idea was to let her watch and learn, and let me assure you, watch and learn she did.

The young Australian’s feature film debut, “The Babadook”, is the horror film of the year and probably the best horror film to come out since “Let the Right One In”. Now, that may not be saying much since the horror genre hasn’t been all that impressive lately, but it really is a rather brilliant film. Here’s a horror film that strays away from cheap thrills, and taps into something real, a real human fear- grief, anxiety, and depression.

If you watch the trailers, you will most probably write it off as just another run-of-the-mill Boogeyman film. At least, this is how I felt when I first encountered the trailers, but then all the five-star reviews started rolling in and I had to give the film a shot. I remember walking out of the theater with mixed feeling. However, the more I thought of the Babadook, the deeper it sank into my psyche. The Babadook is knitted from the same cloth as the greatest horror films of all time from “Rosemary’s Baby” to “The Shining”. It scares you long after you’ve walked out of the theater; it lingers in your thoughts and crawls under your skin. You won’t be able to shake off the unnerving feeling this film gives you for days after the initial viewing. That said, it does require thought and analysis, and it is only after you attempt to understand what it all means that’ll start haunting you.

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Essie Davis delivers one of the strongest lead performances of the year as a widow haunted by the memory of her husband, who died in an accident on their way to the hospital to deliver their baby. The story begins years later. Amelia is constantly stressed out and exhausted. Most of her time is spent looking after a kid “with significant behavioral problems”. The troubled boy is also relentless in his fantasy; a monster he believes will eat his mom from the inside out.

Amelia skims through clips of silent George Melies shorts late at night on her living room TV. Melies is a filmmaker who believed filmmakers are like magicians performing a grand illusion to audiences using cinematic tools. Magic is a big theme in “The Babadook”, and the whole film feels like it’s magic trick. At first, Kent tricks us into thinking we’re about to watch a film about a problematic disturbed child who has access to another demonic dimension, but as soon as the Babadook creeps into their home, we begin to suspect that the problem isn’t with the child, but rather the mom. The final reveal will have many scratching their heads wondering what they’ve just seen and more importantly what it all means.

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The deeply disturbing demonic figure known as the Babadook erupts into their lives around the anniversary of her husband’s death, which coincides with her son’s birthday. The reading of an old children’s pop-up book titled “Mister Babadook” is what essentially unleashes hell upon them. The book is brilliantly designed with disturbing illustrations clearly influenced by German Expressionism. In fact, the creature resembles a character you’d see in “Nosfertu” or “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Kent is well versed in the roots of the horror genre; she knows her films proudly her references up her sleeves. It kind of gives her film historic weight.

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The aspiring filmmaker pitched her idea through Kickstarter and raised $30,071. Most of her budget was used to cultivate the art direction of the film. With a budget so small, Kent managed to create a horror film that very much looks and feels more authentic and spooky than any horror film to come out this decade. I will now proceed and reveal what I think the Babadook stands for. If you don’t want the ending spoiled, I strongly suggest you stop reading and I hope you return to this review after witnessing one of the most talked about endings in a long time.

The malevolent Babadook is basically a physicalized form of the mother’s trauma. What it stands for is up for debate. I believe, the Babadook embodies the destructive power of grief. Throughout the film, we see the mother insist nobody bring up her husband’s name. She basically lives in denial. Amelia has repressed grief for years, refusing to surrender to it. Here lies the mastery of Kent’s film; it is frightfully clever because not only is it based on something very real, it is feels unusually beautiful and even therapeutic.

“If it’s in a word or in a look. You can’t get rid of the Babadook. I’ll wager with you. I’ll make you a bet. The more you deny, the stronger I get. The Babadook is growing right under your skin”The-Babadook-2

Throughout the film, Amelia tries to hide the book and even burn it at one point, only to have it and the monster latched on to it reappear. Denying a traumatic memory and pretending it never happened to avoid dealing with grief only works for so long, before it eats you from the inside out, and you release it all in the form of a mental breakdown.

Amelia avoids pictures of her husband and flips out when someone utters his name, the actions of a woman in complete denial. You can’t get rid of your past, but you can learn to live with it, and that’s exactly what our main character does by the end of the film.

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We see her feed the Babadook in the basement. The basement is where her husband’s stuff is locked away. By feeding the Babadook, she metaphorically feeds her grief. Rather than completely shutting it off and locking it away, she keeps it at bay. She controls and manages the monster the second she acknowledges that you can’t escape your past; you can only learn to live with.

Great Scenes: “Gravity”

The first time Kowalski saved Stone’s life was earlier, when he told her to detach. The second time is in another post impact scene that mirrors the first. Only this time, the roles are reversed. He’s the one about to drift into infinite blackness. We see that he’s dragging her with him and the only chance for any of them to survive is if he cuts off the rope. In other words, Kowalski saves her life again through detachment. It’s not by preventing her to float with him into space, but by teaching her that sometimes it’s ok to let go, both literally and metaphorically. “You have to learn to let go,” he says. It’s a beautiful scene that should feel therapeutical for anyone carrying past grief on their shoulders for far too long.

Great Scenes: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is one of the greatest films ever made and it may just be the most breathtaking film of the past two decades. Who could’ve imagined that the simple arrival of a doomed train could look so cinematically beautiful. This is quite possible the most breathtaking scene of its kind in all of cinema. Cinematographer Roger Deakins paints with light and shadow in perhaps his best work to date.

Great Scenes: “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”

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first screened their short film, “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” in 1896, the audience was so alarmed by the sight of a life-sized train coming their way, they screamed in panic and ran to the back of the room. Who needs 3D when all you need is good framing right?

Film Review: “Interstellar” ★★★★ (4.5/5)

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When a filmmaker as ambitious as Christopher Nolan decides to make a science fiction film about space exploration, people are bound to compare it to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A space Odyssey”; and while one can pinpoint where Nolan drew inspiration from the 1968 classic, the comparison is unfair for anything less is bound to disappoint. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is arguably the greatest film ever made. Personally, I think it is one of the greatest works of art regardless of the medium. Kubrick’s film is comparable to the work of DaVinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, and any masterpiece of art in human history. It is for that very reason that pitting “Interstellar” against it even before its release date is bound to end badly for the film, which explains the mixed reactions it has received from audiences and critics alike.

I would go as far and argue that both films are polar opposites. While Kubrick’s film is vague and ambiguous, Nolan’s film follows a very direct storyline. The former suggests the impotence of humanity in the face of higher authority, while Nolan’s film is all about humanity conquering universes. In fact, humans seem rather small in Kubrick’s film, some scene are downright scary, making the overall experience a divine one. In order for one to enjoy watching “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the viewer has to deprogram the conventional way of watching a film, for experiencing it is more in tune with gazing at a painting or listening to a symphony. It is philosophical in nature and demands patience, whereas, “Interstellar” is a scientific space adventure targeted to the blockbuster audience.

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I guess what I’m trying to say is, Kubrick’s film makes humanity seem insignificant in the vastness of space, while Nolan’s empowers human beings as potential conquers of worlds. Both are undeniably successful at reaching what they seek as motion pictures, but make no mistake, they seek two extremely different things. I started my review with this long warning of what not to expect, because if you watch this films with the expectations of witnessing the next “2001”, you’ll leave the theater fairly disappointed. Embrace “Interstellar” for what it is, as opposed to hating it for turning out to be anything other than what you wanted it to be.

“Interstellar” can easily be split into three acts. The first act feels like a post apocalyptic version of “Grapes of Wrath”. We are pulled into a world where dust storms eclipse the sky. Farmers are the planet’s only hope, but even they can’t save the future, for crops are dying and food supply is fading away within the thickness of dust. Nolan shoots this part of the film like it’s a documentary. Scenes are interrupted with interview like shots of people talking directly to the audience. Here lies the film’s weakest point.

“Interstellar’ feels like three different films have been stitched together without a definitive mise-en-scene or consistent thread linking all three parts. The first act has the look and feel of a heartwarming Great Depression picture; the second act plays like an action packed space adventure in he vain of “Gravity”, and the third act clearly goes for the brainy grandiosity of Kubrick’s “2001”. I did enjoy each act on its own, but I do wish scenes flowed more smoothly from one act to the other.

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That said, I could see what Nolan was aiming at achieving with all three acts. The first act was all about getting to know the characters and establishing the strong father-daughter chemistry between Mathew McConaughey’s Cooper and Murph played marvelously by both Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain in the latter scenes. This act dragged a bit and the overall film would’ve felt less fragmented had it played like a prologue as opposed to an entire act. But the good news it, the film keeps getting better and better as it goes along.

The second act revolves around a search for an inhabitable planet, and here’s where most of the brainy scientific talk comes into play. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne worked with the Nolan brothers in making sure the science behind the screenplay rang true, and I must say I enjoyed watching Einstein’s theories being played out on screen. The black hole sequence is the film’s most awe-inspiring visual, and watching characters leap back and forth between the space-time continuums tickled my imagination.

Both McConaughey and Hathaway deliver good performances, with McConaughey occasionally stealing the scene. There are also two delightfully surprising cameos thrown into the mix, which shows how good Nolan is at keeping his cards close to his chest during filming. Hans Zimmer delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful musical score. Perhaps the score’s only flaw is its tendency to stumble over much of the dialogue.

If I could nitpick about the weaknesses of this act, it would probably be the good-old generic explanatory action defect. Often filmmakers find it necessary to explain everything that happens on-screen to the audience, so we end up with characters spoon-feeding explanatory passages as the action is being played out. I can’t imagine understanding any of what was going on without hearing the mechanics and explanations behind what’s at stake, but the fact remains, it doesn’t really make any sense for the characters to speak out any of this to one another. Wouldn’t they know all this already? Who are they really talking to? The audience?

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Perhaps the film’s most memorable scene revolves around a gigantic wave approaching their spacecraft. There is no denying, the scene is awe-inspiring from a visual standpoint. However, the logistics behind it is lacking. How can an ocean produce mountain-size waves from a body of water that is merely two feet deep? The depth would have to be at least twice as deep as the wave is high for this visual to make any sense. Maybe Nolan compromised logic to give his characters the ability to run, adding a bit of suspense. One could argue that it’s an extraterrestrial tidal wave and the physics behind it is beyond our understanding, but it did seem rather silly, or at least misplaced, given the film desperately tries to prove the science behind every plot progression.

I will not go into the film’s third act, but I will say that it’s the film’s strongest point. In fact, if it weren’t for the third act, I wouldn’t have considered this to be one of the best films of the year, but it’s hard to argue against it. “Interstellar’ ends in a way that’ll leave inconceivable images and thoughts rushing through your head. I may even go as far as calling the last hour of “Interstellar’, the finest hour of cinema of the past few years. Without spoiling anything, I will say that “Interstellar” is about the passage of time in the blink of an eye. Our lives are over before we know it and we powerlessly watch the lives of others speed before our eyes. Our children grow up in no time, our parents grow old fast, and we find ourselves helplessly getting pulled into the continuously moving current of life. But the one thing that always triumphs time and science is love. Despite some of the film’s shortcomings, I do love “Interstellar”.

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