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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Insomnia (Blu-ray Review)


I am huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s films especially Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but I’ve also really enjoyed his other movies as well.  While I haven’t seen his earliest work on Doodlebug and Following, I did see Memento which catapulted him into the public consciousness in a big way.  Nolan obviously has recurring themes throughout all of his movies as they all contain elements of obsession, psychological and physical pain, guilt, and characters who try to succeed despite their hardships.  Nolan also likes to keep the audience guessing by using non-linear story-telling and cross-cutting scenes to keep viewers as off-balance as the characters. As he said, “I think audiences get too comfortable and familiar in today's movies.  They believe everything they're hearing and seeing. I like to shake that up.”[1]  

After the success of Memento, Nolan liked the concepts of the original Insomnia so much that he wanted to remake it but with a few new twists: “I think it has a fascinating and very evocative psychological situation.  A great moral dilemma that is taken one direction in the original movie, and I think it’s a great movie, but as I saw it, it occurred to me that you could by changing the characters take the same situation, the same intense psychological relationship between the two main characters and take it in a rather different direction and create a different kind of moral paradox.”  [2]  Nolan’s Insomnia leaves behind the grittiness of Memento but still retains the trademark realism that is present in all of his movies.


Film (4 out of 5 stars)

The film opens with veteran Los Angeles detective Will Dormer (played by Al Pacino) and his younger partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) flying to Nightmute Alaska to assist an old colleague with a murder investigation.  It is quickly discovered that both men are currently under investigation from Internal Affairs for improprieties within their Robbery Homicide Division.  Needless to say there is tension between the two as Eckhart is willing to compromise Dormer by cutting a deal to save himself.  It seems that a teenage girl has been murdered and found in the city dump and the killer is still on the loose.  Rookie detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) who has followed Dormer’s career with admiration becomes their guide to the quiet town where the sun never sets.  Dormer, already burdened with the stress he carries from L.A., doesn’t adapt well to the new conditions and can’t fall asleep which begins to tax his sanity and constitution. 

Plot spoilers from here on: Things come to a head when during an attempt to trap the killer goes disastrously wrong when the killer is accidentally tipped off to the ambush and makes a run for it shooting a cop during the escape.  Chasing the suspect through a thick fog, Dormer sees a silhouette in the fog and shoots and accidentally kills his partner.  The rest of the police officers believe Eckhart was shot by the killer, and Dormer takes advantage of that assumption and doesn’t refute it.  What Dormer doesn’t realize is that the killer watched the shooting and knew the truth which makes this plot twist so different than previous movies.  The killer (Robin Williams) sees Dormer as a partner in crime and starts calling his hotel room to recruit him to help each other.  The concept is very Hitchcockian, in that two men, one a killer, and another a morally tainted detective are forced by circumstances to help each other to save their own skins.  The killer, a local mystery writer named Walter Finch ensnares Dormer into a cover-up by blackmail and appealing to his own sense of self-preservation.  In a fascinating juxtaposition, despite Dormer’s efforts to save himself he still puts himself at risk of detection by making sure that his adoring protégé Ellie Durr do a comprehensive job investigating the shooting of his partner.  While Dormer may have bent some rules in the past and in the present, he doesn’t want Durr to make the same mistakes he made which will play a heavy part in the ending of the movie. 

Nolan has assembled a great cast for this and this is one of Al Pacino’s greatest performances. His Dormer looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders and you can’t but feel bad for him while he is undone by guilt and lack of sleep.  Robin Williams is also excellent as the chilling matter of fact killer whose reasonable justification for murder and the framing of an innocent person make the character even more unsettling.  His Walter Finch is no raving psychopath; he could be your next door neighbor which makes it even more disturbing than the usual way killers are portrayed.  Hilary Swank also does a good job as a rookie cop who is torn between her admiration of Dormer and her duty as a cop and is ironically shown the correct path by Dormer himself.  Setting a movie about murder and guilt in the Land of the Midnight Sun is an inspired choice.  The ever present sun acts almost like a spotlight, illuminating all of the ugliness of the case, and the guilt and selfish motivations of both Dormer and Finch.  As Nolan said, “To me the film is about responses to guilt, and you’ve go two characters who deal with guilt in opposite ways, in fact that’s what makes the relationship between them quite interesting. I think on thematic level the film says something about the role of guilt in defining morality or suggesting morality. Both characters in some sense have transgressed to cause their reacting to guilt.”[3]



Video (5 out of 5 stars)

This picture quality for Insomnia is incredible. This is a pristine 1080p/VC-1 transfer and the gorgeous photography by Wally Pfister is well served by this Blu-ray.  From the sno-capped glaciers to the lush green forests, the colors just pop out with amazing clarity.  Flesh tones are pleasing and there is a high amount of detail in every shot.  The blacks are deep and satisfying and there was only one shot that had some minor ringing but that also could have been done for effect as it wasn’t present anywhere else in the movie.  The landscapes are well defined and just extraordinary to look at as it almost feels like you are there.  This is truly one of the best catalog transfers I’ve seen and it’s totally worth replacing your DVD for. 


Audio (4 out of 5 stars)

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is also impressive.  This is the kind of movie that veers from quiet dialogue to loud gunshots along with an active atmospheric and ambient sound field and they did a great job on it.  I did find however, that I had to turn up the sound to hear the phone conversations between Dormer and Finch but I believe that was a creative choice and not a technical one.  Overall, the dialogue was crisp and clear and I liked how the ambient sounds were distributed through the side and rear speakers when appropriate such as the chase across floating logs and the subsequent crashing of the logs as they roll over Dormer as he tries to break the water to get air.  The LFE is used sparingly but that’s to be expected on this type of movie.  The sound field may not be as bombastic and it is for some movies, but it perfectly suits this movie and they all work well together when needed.   


 Special Features (4 out of 5 stars)

·         Director's Commentary (106 minutes): Christopher Nolan provides a unique commentary for the movie where instead of just doing it like usual, the commentary for the film is presented in the order of it’s shooting sequence, with subtitles identifying the production day and the corresponding scenes.

·         Scene Specific Commentaries (42 minutes): Individual scene-specific commentary tracks are available from actress Hilary Swank, Production Designer Nathan Crowley Editor Dody Dorn, Director of Photography Wally Pfister, and screenwriter Hillary Seitz.  There is an option to "Play Combined Commentaries" which allows users to listen to the scene specific mini-tracks in one sitting.

·         Day for Night (SD, 8 minutes): A short behind-the-scenes featurette in which Nolan and his cast and crew discuss making the movie, the story, and more.  Short but informative.

·         180 Degrees (SD, 17 minutes): Nolan and Pacino sit down for an unscripted conversation six months after making the movie and discuss the movie and other topics.  It’s a short but wide-ranging conversation as Pacino discusses the movie and his past movie roles, and Nolan describes his directing process.  This was my favorite special feature and I wish it had been longer.  Both men are well spoken and had very interesting observations.  It was also great to hear Pacino tell stories about his past working relationships with Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet.

·         In the Fog (SD, 12 minutes): Cinematographer Wally Pfister and Production Designer Nathan Crowley discuss footage they shot during preproduction to establish the look and design of the movie.

·         Eyes Wide Open (SD, 7 minutes): A short featurette that interviews several people that really do suffer from insomnia and how they deal with it along with some sleep experts discussing the condition.  Not really worth watching.

·         Additional Scene (SD, 3 minutes): A single short scene with optional director's commentary.

·         From the Evidence Room (HD, 23 images): A basic stills gallery from the movie.

·         Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes)

 
Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

Insomnia continued Christopher Nolan’s incredible track record that led him to the phenomenon of The Dark Knight.  In this movie, the scope is smaller but Nolan weaves the same themes of morality and guilt just as skillfully and created a taut psychological thriller that still works.  This is a great movie and it’s filled with great performances from all involved.  This is in a sense the return of Al Pacino the actor instead of the scenery chewer he’s been in a lot of his movies this last decade.  His unaffected low key performance is the backbone of this movie but Robin Williams and his chilling Walter Finch is equally good.  Not only is the movie really good but combined with exceptional picture and sound quality it makes this a must buy for movie fans.




[1] http://www.christophernolan.net
[2] http://www.christophernolan.net
[3] http://www.christophernolan.net
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