Category Archives: Ellen Page

Inception: A Cinematic Dream

The modern American blockbuster is without a doubt a hive of deplorable, inarticulate nonsense. In the past few years we’ve been “treated” to films like “Transformers,” “Twilight” and “2012.” These are event films – movies only meant to earn money by offering big budget effects and supposed escapism. It’s hard to say American audiences deserve a masterpiece blockbuster after spending so much money on garbage like this but this summer delivered the first major film of the decade with Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” The film has a wonderful case of classic cinematic ambiguity – something that has been thrown away by even the most artful users of its design (Martin Scorsese, we all saw “Shutter Island” – you can do better).

The film has a very intricate plot, involving a dream thief or “extractor” named Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio, in a role characteristically similar to his in “Shutter Island” but acceptably so because the character is much more deeply written and performed less extravagantly than in Scorsese’s flick) who, with a team of highly trained individuals including his partner-in-crime Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), will remove a simple thought or idea from someone by kidnapping them and then tapping into their dream. Cobb is hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) to perform inception – the seemingly impossible act of planting an idea in one’s head unconsciously (so that the receiver of said idea is unaware they are the victim of inception). Cobb hires a new team including Ariadne (Ellen Page), Eames (Tom Hardy) and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) to research their target, Robert Fisher Jr. (Cillian Murphy), whom Saito wants to dismantle his dying father’s company. The team enters Fisher’s dream, but Cobb’s daunting past and inability to control his malicious dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) from entering the dream turns the mission upside down.

The film is the third in a series of modern films about the dream. The first was the groundbreaking 1999 film “The Matrix” directed by the Wachowskis and the second was Michel Gondry’s mind-erasing low budget feature “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The Matrix was a cunning film, using the sleeping human mind as a metaphor for the many different ways we are unconsciously controlled by the world sociologically both by government and the media. The characters’ stasis resulted in their ability to control their environment based on their understanding of its rules and of their “programming.” In “Eternal Sunshine,” Gondry portrayed the effects of memory erasure and through both his directing style, Ellen Kuras’ underrated cinematography, Charlie Kaufman’s script, Jon Brion’s score and the performances of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, he was able to show the unconscious psychological effects of dreaming and by its process that we make life decisions.

Nolan’s film feels like a lurid dream after a marathon of those two films. In “Inception,” Nolan uses the ambiguity of his ending (an open ending that questions whether or not Cobb has been dreaming the whole time) to create the mood and metaphors of his film. Is Cobb dreaming or not? In fact, are we dreaming? It is in this sense that Nolan is being compared to Kubrick in the way that “2001: A Space Odyssey” is able to break the barrier from questioning the film to questioning one’s own existence. Nolan performs inception through the act of making this film – by placing a simple thought into his audience’s mind, therefore changing the way we think about the possibilities of how we decode cinema. Last year, James Cameron successfully duped audiences all over the world into thinking he had created the new “2001: A Space Odyssey” with his unnervingly boring and useless “Avatar” (he even told Charlie Rose this was his intention), but little did he know that Nolan would beat him artistically by a long shot. “Inception” will last, “Avatar” will not.

Nolan has been getting compared to Kubrick, and for good reason. In films like “Eternal Sunshine” and Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” – the cinematography works with the concept of the film. In “Eternal Sunshine,” the camera is often set up in such an unorthodox way that it feels like you’re in a dream. The films feel like dreams or hallucinations because they are filmed as such, with characters often changing point of view. It breaks the classical style of cinematography in a way that we are able to delve into the concept of the film. This is Nolan’s fifth film working with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has always done an excellent job (his work on the Batman films in terms of their looks are impeccable and quite similar to Frank Miller’s comic style). In “Inception,” Pfister does not stray from his particular style of shooting. At first glance this could seem to be the film’s only problem – but it isn’t. Interestingly, this is where one can begin to question the ending of the film. Is the cinematography of the world we see within the dreams the same as the real world because the real world is a dream world? The beauty of “Inception” is its ambiguity and that the viewer has the choice in how they want to the film to end.

What’s interesting about Nolan’s film making style is that he doesn’t have Kubrick’s misanthropy – his style both works on a level that transcends the modern blockbuster in terms of the audience’s thought process and also in a way that embraces current trends through action sequences and big name stars. Nolan doesn’t have Kubrick’s madness and is working in a time where one’s artistic intentions must be held back if one has monetary expectations to fulfill. Thus his films will never be as consummately ambiguous but he really seems to be the only one who’s trying. Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” had the makings of being a modern day version of Jack Clayton’s unabashedly ambiguous “The Innocents” starring Deborah Kerr (which happens to be one of Marty’s favorites) but his adherence to the source material stunted what could have been his best work in years.

Nolan does take a leap of faith in the fact that these people are so incredibly able to control their dreams. Very few dreams allow the sleeper to keep such a focus on one idea, let alone completely several missions. We could assume that the devices that put Cobb and his team to sleep allow them to work at a different level of consciousness, but that is never addressed. When Page’s character Ariadne joins the team, she is almost immediately able to work seamlessly in the dream state. Again, this could lend itself to the concept of the ending of the film as the introduction to the film’s ambiguity. The team’s unbelievable ability to work within the dream could be a dream itself – conjured up by Cobb’s father (played by Michael Caine). Caine’s few scenes in the film – specifically placed – add another level of intrigue as to whether or not Cobb is in control.

There are several more reasons why the film works on so many levels. First of all, the music transcends the film world into the real world. In the film, Cobb and Arthur use Edith Piaf’s “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien” (translated roughly to “I regret nothing”) to alert themselves that soon they’ll wake into either the real world or another level of dreaming (if they’ve set themselves up to dream within a dream). A few years back, Cotillard won an Academy Award for playing Piaf in the biopic “La Vie En Rose.” Interestingly, Mal (Cotillard’s character) is a character whom Cobb feels great regret for and in his dreams it is her appearance that is the first sign of danger in the mission at hand. This motif is Nolan’s indication of the transcendent potential of film itself. Also interesting is Hans Zimmer’s score for the film. It consists of very loud and deep horns that rise up very similarly to John Williams’ “Jaws” theme. However, their similarity to the rousing open notes of Piaf’s number is eerily allusive. In fact, there’s a comparison that’s been floating on the internet that undoubtedly proves this determination.

Another interesting aspect of the film is its use of computer generated effects. Nolan is infamous for being very anti-CGI and in “Inception” he utilizes them in a very particular way. The effects are far from perfect, and like the camera effects used in “Eternal Sunshine,” they mirror the concept of the dream style cinematography. Visions within one’s dream are not entirely perfect and neither are the special effects of the film. They seem detached – like an unfinished thought.

The characters of the film are also essential, and the performances of the actors only rectify their necessity to the concept. Dicaprio is in top form – Cobb is probably his best role to date – not too understated, but still mysterious. Leo’s a master of the conflicted in that he never overacts. Dicaprio portrays Cobb on two main levels – one that is absolutely in control and the other that shows a distance, which may suggest that he in fact is not in control. Cobb is a very distressed man, who holds all of his secrets within. When Ariadne lets them out, all hell breaks loose. Page also creates a distance to her character – like someone thought up in a dream but that may also be more aware than the film initially suggests. Ariadne is hired as the “architect” of Fisher’s dream but soon becomes more interested in finding out what Cobb’s been hiding. It almost seems as if she has an alternate motive, in that she could be the one trying to attempt inception on him. That and her mysterious connection to Caine’s character are also conjecture toward Nolan’s big cinematic question.

Hardy and Gordon-Levitt are also superb in the film. While the performances of Dicaprio and Page are excellent – it’s these two who sort of ground Cobb and Ariadne’s laboriousness with a subtle sense of humor. Even Murphy’s performance is crucial – playing the same kind of familiar distance to Page and Dicaprio (in certain parts, such as the Hoth-like mountain base sequence, he seems to fit in the process just fine). It’s also apparent that Nolan, in his casting decisions, is very concerned with having only good-looking people in his films.

For all the reasons that the ending of “Inception” is seemingly explained by certain aspects, there is a major aspect of the film that denies the concept that Cobb is dreaming the entire film. The film goes out of its way to over-explain the rules of dream extracting. Both Cobb, Arthur and Eames have to educate the very new Ariadne on the guidelines of how they do what they do and how her job as architect is the most essential. She is tasked with learning how to make the impossible possible, through maze-making lessons with Arthur in which he teaches her how to construct Escher-like structures (an artist whose work strongly influences the film – to understand Escher is the first step in being able to conceptualize the film). Most of these scenes feature only Arthur and Ariadne. They are the few scenes in the film that do not feature Cobb at all. In all of best films of this sub-genre of the ambiguous film, the character whose sanity is questioned, such as Kerr’s Miss Giddens in “The Innocents” and Peter Weller’s Bill Lee in “Naked Lunch,” is in the film at all times. It is entirely shot in their character’s point of view. If Ariadne and Arthur were in on a conspiracy then it would be apparent in their interactions away from Cobb.

We also learn that Cobb’s inability to let go of his deceased wife becomes extremely problematic in the dream extracting process. However, it is never really a problem in the so-called real world. Within the real world, Cobb has Yusuf conduct dream tests on him so that he can try to keep Mal trapped within his dreams so they can’t infect the others’ during the missions. While Ariadne’s obsession with freeing Mal from Cobb seems almost too intense to not be intentional, it seems as though she’s so out of the loop that it would appear impossible for her to be the wiser. However this could all be controlled by a greater power and the only way to get Cobb to free himself is to make himself think he’s in a dream. Again, Both Page and Dicaprio’s performances subtly steer into both territories of the real and of the concept.

There is one small scene that is so ostensibly vague that it must be considered against all other arguments. After the first major sequence, we find Cobb sitting in a hotel room speaking on the phone with his children. The conversation is awkward, mostly about how Cobb isn’t sure if he’ll ever return home and that Mal is in fact dead. On the first level of the film, it appears to be a very heartfelt scene of a father trying to reach out to his children. If you look deeper within the concept of Nolan’s ending, the scene could imply it’s all part of Cobb’s dream – an insinuation of the control he may be under. However, the scene ends with Cobb twirling Mal’s spinning top (known as his “totem,” one of the main motifs of the film) and putting a gun to his head. If the top teeters and falls this means that he is in fact in the real world. If it continues to perfectly spin, he knows he’s in a dream. Cobb puts the gun to his head and then puts it down when he sees the top fall. It’s as if he subconsciously knows he may be in a dream. This suggests that he may in fact be more in control than Nolan is letting on through his concept. It could also infer that after the final spin of the top at the end of the film that it indeed does fall and Cobb has finally come home both mentally and physically.

“Inception” is a rare film for our times. It’s a high concept, Kubrick-style film disguised as a major Hollywood action thriller. Like a Kubrick film, it will split many audiences – but if the box office numbers are any indication of the film’s artistic success, it’s obvious that people might be ready for a little ambiguity in their local multiplex. Heck, even the porn version (“Insertion,” anyone?) of the movie would be more interesting than most of the shlock event movies that we are bombarded with every summer. This could be a major step forward in terms of left-brained film making in modern American cinema – a symptom that things could be looking brighter for a brand new era of young directors. Directors like Marc Webb (“(500) Days of Summer”) and Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) proved that there’s still artistic talent that is eager to step up to the plate. However, Nolan goes a step further – into territory no one expected. He might be the best thing we’ll get to our Kubrick – if he doesn’t go crazy.

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Filed under Christopher Nolan, Ellen Page, Inception, Leonardo Dicaprio, Marion Cotillard

The Summer Has Begun

I’m finally free from my school obligations, and now I’ll be on movie-mode for the remainder of the summer. I want to see what Big Bad Hollywood has to offer, of course… but I hope that the arthouse films will continue to bring the hard-edge excellence that I can always depend on (such as the amazing indies of last summer including “Joshua” and “Sunshine,” to name a few).

I’ll also have a lot of non-2008 write-ups, because I’m really trying to hone my craft as a film scholar/critic and it helps to write on classic DVDs and read your feedback. I really enjoy writing about older cinema, especially in a world of very different filmmaking styles… I like to use my perspective as a fresh key to the past.

Back to ’08 – Here’s a few films I plan on viewing this summer, both of the industry known as Hollywood to the dark indies that ALWAYS deserve a bigger audience.

MAY:

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – Indy’s return to the screen in surrounded by mysteries that only its title character could unravel… also – mediocre early reviews. No matter what, the movie seems to be in the vein of the original trilogy (unlike another Lucas trilogy sequel… hmm…) and just looks like a whole lot of fun. It also features the best actress working today: Cate Blanchett – As the creepy villain. Spielberg, “Iron Man” jump-started my summer of fun, please don’t put a damper on that.

The Visitor – Actor Tom McCarthy’s directorial follow-up to one of my favorite films of all time: 2003’s indie dramedy “The Station Agent.” This is technically an April release, but it’s still in theaters so I hope I get to see it before it runs away from my closest arthouse theater. Richard Jenkins is one of our most underrated character actors (a similarity to the film’s director) and to see him in a starring role in a serious drama, I can honestly say that this may be an undeniably lovable film.

Mister Lonely – A group of celebrity impersonators live on a island together. An original idea from indie king Harmoney Korine (“Gummo”) starring the absolutely gorgeous Samantha Morton as the fake Norma Jean, and Diego Luna as the King of Pop. A very intriguing trailer drew me in, and I can’t wait to experience it.

The Tracey Fragments – I feel bad for Ellen Page. She gets a lot of flack from the blogosphere for playing the same character in every film. From what I’ve seen, this is completely untrue. The trailer for this particular film blew me away. This looks to be a superbly different role – and if it doesn’t come to theaters in my area, it’s thankfully coming to DVD this summer as well.

The Foot Fist Way – Danny McBride. That name doesn’t mean a lot to American audiences… yet? McBride made this extremely indie comedy a few years ago, and with the help of a few friends including some guy named Ferrell this Tae Kwon Do laugh-fest is finally hitting theaters. The trailer isn’t completely encouraging, but I have faith. McBride had a small role in the unfortunate-looking “Drillbit Taylor” earlier this year that had me laughing hard (I watched a clip online – I, like many Americans, would never pay to see the movie). Basically, this could be the “Napoleon Dynamite” of the year.

JUNE:

The Happening – M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to the dreadfully self-indulgent “Lady in the Water” looks… promising. Mark Wahlberg has the potential for leading man status, and this might be the vehicle that brings him the respect he deserves (watch him in “I Heart Huckabees,” I guarantee you’ll agree with me that the man has talent… and that he’s unjustly overlooked because of his rap career that ended over FIFTEEN years ago). Shyamalan has my attention with an interesting premise looks to be a return to form for the once respected auteur.

The Incredible Hulk – I don’t have a lot to say about this. It could be terrible, and looks to be only a step above the horrible 2003 Ang Lee travesty… We’ll see if the bad trailers will deliver an equally bad film.

Get Smart – I love Steve Carell, although I can’t stand his present career path. He hasn’t made a good film since “Little Miss Sunshine” and this project – which was announced right after his success with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” seemed to fit the comic actor like a glove. I’m confident in the cast, let’s see how it plays out.

Wall-E – Looks like it could be one of the best films of the year, and possibly Pixar’s best. I was in the minority of people who weren’t completely fond of “Ratatouille” (it just didn’t wow me… I felt as though they had made their first incomplete feature), so for me, “Wall-E” looks to be a reinstatement for my unwavering love for the billionaires that brought us “Toy Story” and “Cars.”

JULY

Hellboy II: The Golden Army – I’ve never read the comic series, but I had a heck of a lot of fun with the first film. After “Pan’s Labyrinth’s” success, it appears that Guillermo del Toro was given a lot more creative control on this sequel. The trailer was fantastic, the action appears to be flawless… hopefully it’s a bit shorter than its predecessor and a bit more cohesive.

The Dark Knight – I can’t wait… Do I need to say anything? Sure, Heath’s Ledger’s death has surrounded this with a shroud that will either turn away the audiences or bring them in droves… but I can’t help but feel this will be his greatest performance -adding a bittersweet nature that we’ve never seen before on the screen. I’m going on the record now as saying that a posthumous Oscar nomination will be perfectly alright…

The Wackness – The Sundance Film Festival always serves some of the best indie-cinema, but unfortunately can bring some disasters. Last year we were told that “Rocket Science” would be the Sundance fave of the year… that turned out to be a total misfire. This film was the critical hit of the fest, and even though the teaser trailer scared me (not in the good way) I’m willing to see if Josh Peck is the new actor of a new generation.

Lou Reed’s Berlin – I’ve been a long-time fan of Mr. Reed and his fantastic music – and a short-time, yet devoted fan of Julian Schnabel. The artist/director brings us the second concert film of the year… this one I might actually see. I could still see “Shine a Light,” but I’ve never really been a big Stones fan, and my perspective may have be misleading so I decided to pass. I guarantee that I totally plan on seeing this.

(no trailer yet)

American Teen – This was another Sundance hit… which boggles my mind. The trailer made it seem like a feature-length MTV series in the vein of shows like “Made” and “My Super Sweet Sixteen.” It just appears to be a chance on banking on those shows by making a new docu-genre, that’s not really new at all.

AUGUST

Tropic Thunder – Could be the summer’s big comedy hit, if “The Foot Fist Way” doesn’t get as big an audience as I believe it might. Stiller, Black, Downey (in black-face!), Coogan, and the return of the dreaded Cruise… Could either be a recipe for success or could blow up in their faces. No matter what, Downey seems to be having an amazing year.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Looks disappointing, but I can’t say no to a Star Wars film in the theater. I wish I had the power to put WHATEVER I wanted into theaters like Lucas… He could film mayonnaise for 10 minutes, and it would be distributed all over the world.

Hamlet 2 – An indie musical comedy starring Steve Coogan as a failed actor who writes a sequel to the bard’s tragedy and puts it on a high school stage… forget what I said about “Tropic Thunder” or “Foot Fist Way”… this will be the surprise hit of the summer. Who can say no to a musical film that features songs called “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” and “Raped in the Face?” I can’t… I can’t. Watch the trailer – it’s amazing.

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Filed under Batman, Ellen Page, Get Smart, Hamlet 2, Hellboy, Indiana Jones, Mister Lonely, Preview, Star Wars, The Foot Fist Way, The Happening, The Hulk, The Visitor, The Wackness, Tropic Thunder, Wall-E

Review: Smart People

What is the price to pay for being excessively smart? For Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) and his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), the chances of happiness and sanity are squandered because they are just too smart for their own good. In first time director Noam Murro’s new film “Smart People,” the characters face extremely hard forces of nature that ultimate keep them from the simplicity of being happy. The film isn’t perfect, but it is truly worth of discussion and viewing.

Lawrence Wetherhold is not the most well-liked professor of Victorian literature at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s an incurable grump, with the inability to remember the names of his students or get along with his coworkers. On top of that he has to deal with the arrival of his slacker, adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). He also happens to be terrible at parking, which leads his car in the impound lot. Lawrence attempts to retrieve his briefcase by hopping the fence, after which he wakes up light-headed in the hospital. Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), his doctor, was once a former student of his – but of course he can’t remember.

During the accident Lawrence has a seizure, leaving him legally unable to drive for six months. Unfortunately for Lawrence, this means Chuck has to stay in the picture. Chuck moves in, much to the dismay of Lawrence’s super smart and school obsessed 17-year-old daughter Vanessa.

“Smart People” has the good fortune of having an excellent script from Mark Poirier (his first produced screenplay). The film is a lot smarter than its characters. Lawrence and Vanessa are truly depressed characters and are certainly worthy of our sympathies. Vanessa is an especially sad character, unable to express her emotions in fear of showing her weak side. She’s terribly awkward and as the film progresses we learn that she has no friends and even though she strives to impress her father she never gets the gratitude that she truly deserves. Lawrence is also in an unfortunate situation. His book is deemed by a large percentage of publishers to be “unpublishable” and, recently widowed, he can’t let go and thus his blooming relationship with Janet seems to be going nowhere.

The film is exceedingly depressing but very interesting and rarely lags. Dennis Quaid hasn’t fit so well in a role since his turn as Jerry Lee Louis in “Great Balls of Fire.” His performance feels completely lived-in and behind the scholarly beard, protruding gut, and curmudgeonly attitude, he is completely unrecognizable. Ellen Page, fresh off her Oscar nomination for the wonderful “Juno,” takes a bit of a while to get used to. Her character is quite annoying, although necessarily so, and her performance initially seems a little too forced. The role could have been played by any young actress, but in the second half of the film she truly blossoms into the part.

The stand out performance of the “Smart People” belongs to Quaid, but Thomas Haden Church infuses the humanity and humor that lacks from the rest of the Wetherhold family. Church (Oscar Nominee, 2004’s “Sideways”) has the inimitable talent of delivering his lines in a very comedic way and with perfect timing. Playing Quaid’s poetry writing son James is Ashton Holmes (“A History of Violence”). James is the most level-headed member of the family, and Holmes’ performance is quite fitting but unfortunately not very memorable. Sarah Jessica Parker is also non-memorable and while she performed well enough, she just didn’t fit the part.

There are a few issues that could have been avoided with this film. There are multiple storylines that are never really tied up well, or even at all. Vanessa is a girl with some real psychological problems, and her character’s revelation never really feels merited. She also has an awkward sexual tension with her Uncle Chuck, and the resolution just doesn’t feel deserved. The musical soundtrack also feels a bit awkward. There’s an unwelcome, rambling guitar theme that doesn’t fulfill any emotional gaps, and the surplus of similar pop/folk songs are ill-suited.

“Smart People” is not a film for everybody. At many times it feels a bit too quirky, and the film’s overall depressing nature may turn off a lot of viewers. The performances are top-notch especially due to the odd casting choices. Fans of “Juno” may find themselves interested due to Page, but that film was more upbeat and lighthearted than this film by far. The best part about this movie is the career-changing role for Quaid, who’s been in a bit of a lull lately and it’s a fresh re-ignition of a very talented actor. A very thought-provoking film, “Smart People” is worthy of praise, and isn’t too smart for your average audience.

Grade: B+



Originally published in Framingham State College’s The Gatepost

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Filed under Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Review, Smart People, Sundance Films, Thomas Haden Church