The East

We are born with a chance

Ellen Page/Brit MarlingThis is the moment whereupon we can all say, in reference to Brit Marling, “We knew her when.”  The East is the third film she’s both written and starred in, and to call it “ambitious” would be similar to calling the collected works of Franz Kafka a “decent read.”

The East, to me, felt a bit like a reunion with old friends.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen Ellen Page in a prominent and layered role (and not just because I don’t care about Woody Allen), and Marling’s Another Earth seems like it happened years ago.  Actually, it did.  The film is Marling and director Zal Batmanglij’s second stab at a story centered around a cult-like group, but this one doesn’t rely on concept and a “twist” ending.

The duo’s newest effort follows Sarah Moss (Marling), the cover name for Jane, an agent working for a private intelligence firm connected to the FBI.  Sarah is contracted by her tight-fisted employer, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate The East, an “eco-terrorist” group, who have promised to “jam” several multi-billion-dollar corporations in order to make them see the error of their ways.  But the people Sarah encounters are not quite the evil Emmanuel Goldstein boogeymen the popular media paint them as.  Led to The East’s HQ by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), Sarah meets the entire group, all of whom use pseudonyms: Izzy (Ellen Page) is aggressive, distrustful, and extremely passionate about her work; Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) is gently manipulative and keeps the hair and beard of an anarchist Jesus; Eve (Hillary Baack) is deaf and immediately bonds with Sarah due to their shared skill of sign language, but as far as her role in the group, doesn’t get to do much other than act as sentinel; the aptly-named Doc (Toby Kebbell) is a former med student who has seizures due to side effects of an anti-malaria drug he prescribed to himself and his sister; Thumbs (Aldis Hodge) is a hardhead; Tess (Danielle Macdonald) is an incomparable hacker and someone you’d want as your best friend.  Sarah spends three weeks with the group and practices “Freeganism,” known in some circles as “dumpster-diving,” which entails eating nothing but food discarded by others in order to illustrate the wastefulness of modern society.  The practice involves every aspect of living on the grit of society and ensuring that everything is free – people share services, ideas, food, and so on.

There’s a formula for films like this.  That is to say, films that involve a cop or fed infiltrating a group of criminals in order to take them down.  You know the formula; it’s mostly the same as the one used for heist films.  Usually, the mole ends up getting made at a critical moment after bonding with a certain member of the group (see Reservoir Dogs, City On Fire, The Departed, etc.).  Whether or not the infiltrator switches sides is variable.  Here, yes, the members of The East abide by the tropey “each member has a special skill” convention, but in this case – a moneyless group living in a torched hotel building and working with a skeleton crew – it makes sense that the essential personnel would be varied.  Also, yes, of course Sarah switches sides, because exploiting deadly capitalist practices, including a poisoned water supply that results in brain tumors in children, is what good guys do.  However, Brit Marling wrote this, so it’s not as simple as all that.

Sarah’s interactions with the group are organic from the outset, and the wonder of it is that we don’t know how genuine she’s being in her spoken dialogue, since she’s undercover.  Content with revealing the true identities of The East to her boss, who has every intention of locking them up forever, Sarah still seems to truly care about them as individuals, which makes her both the perfect agent and a dangerous liability.  She immediately convinces Eve to leave the group, and she does it at a moment when she really doesn’t have to – she could sell the latter out just like she plans to do with the rest.  But no, not this hero.  She knows the group is using Eve, and the spot Eve leaves would be a major empty hole in the movie if it weren’t for the fact that Sarah fills her role.  Because she’s human before she is the embodiment of her work, Sarah sympathizes with the situation of Doc, who can barely perform his work anymore due to the severity of his Parkinsons-like symptoms, and even tries to befriend Izzy, who immediately wants her to leave.  The group fashions Benji as its leader despite his insistence that everyone has an equal say – remember how “long cons” work?  The conman involves the victim by making them think the entire thing was their idea?  Yeah.

One of the film’s many centerpieces is a “spin-the-bottle” scene, which according to Marling and Batmanglij, was entirely improvised.  During this, the collective, including Sarah, spin a bottle and ask the chosen person for some kind of favor that will allow the two to know each other better.  For example, “Can I shake your hand?”  The other can answer, “Yes,” or alternatively, suggest something lesser but related, such as “How about we high-five instead?”  The scene, which features a kiss between Brit Marling and Ellen Page, achieves a true openness and intimacy barely ever seen onscreen.  Moreover, none of this is done for titillation (an idea reinforced by the fact that Izzy’s suggestion that she and Sarah kiss was apparently ad-libbed).  Men also kiss men in the scene, and Skarsgård’s character does some other interesting things.  In a lesser film, this scene and another wherein the characters bathe each other in a lake, may have become one big orgy.  But it is this very restraint that makes the scenes intimate, so that when Sarah removes a browning apple from a garbage can and devours it in front of her boss, it’s real.  She’s been there.  We know it, we’ve seen it, and we’ve been there with her.

The East is a movie about saying “Enough.”  It was filmed concurrently with the BP oil spill and the dawn of Occupy.  It deals with the world as we know it now, wherein the fear of impermanence causes us to consume, throw away, and forget in excess.  It’s about omnisexuality and openness.  It’s about how quickly we’ve absorbed into our very beings things that we not only don’t need, but that have only been around for a few years (YouTube, iPhones, the current DNA of social media, and so on).  It encourages activism, but opposes militancy, and never presumes to tell anyone what to do.  This isn’t to say that it doesn’t hold its moral ground – there’s a very clear anti-apathy theme – but instead of taking a “side,” it brashly suggests that we are all on the side of humanity and Earth, that all of us should take a look at the injustices going on – the atrocities of billion-dollar companies and conglomerates, the gross unbalance of accountability, the mistreatment of wildlife, the masses’ acceptance of a world in which we worship pictures of photoshopped women and men – and be disheartened by the status quo.

Go in cold.

The East (2013); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård, and Toby Kebbell.

Inception

There’s still no spoon

I’m starting to realize something: when someone says a film was “hard to follow,” chances are that person does not read.  In our current world, rarely does a film come along in which you actually have to remember anything that happened in the previous scene.  There’s a lot of loud noise, flashing lights, quick cuts, unconvincing CG, violent pulses that pass for music, and distracting 3D nonsense.  This brings me to Inception, Christopher Nolan’s newest effort.  I’ve read/heard from a variety of sources that the film was “confusing” or “hard to follow.”  I’ve also heard the word “deep” used to describe it, though “deep” has such variation in meaning that it’s hard for me to tell whether someone thinks Inception was thoughtfully written or whether they’re going to base an entire religion on it.

Have these people ever read a novel?  I’m guessing not.  Inception is nearly three hours, and everything in the story is relatively spelled out for the audience.  Of the five or six main characters, only Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his past are truly highlighted, while everyone else has a specific role to play in relation to the plot action and Cobb himself (not so much their own lives and demons and what have you), therefore almost zero sideplots exist.  On one hand, you’ve got the mission: plant an idea in the head of a businessman (Cillian Murphy) by entering his dreams; on the other hand you have Cobb’s obsession with his dead wife Mallorie (Marion Cotillard) and how his memory of her affects the dreams he enters.  If that’s hard to follow, I can help you no further.  In fact, Nolan holds our hand through the entire film by having characters take turns saying things like “Wait, so whose subconscious are we in now?”

The film features a diverse ensemble cast including leading lady Ellen Page (who is really starting to make a name for herself now, and one can see why) as Ariadne, an architectural prodigy who is placed in charge of manipulating the scenery in the dream world; Tom Hardy as Eames, a “Forger,” a witty thief who impersonates others in dreams; a deep-voiced Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in one of his most mature roles to date) as Arthur, the team’s point man and DiCaprio’s fall guy; Dileep Rao as Yusuf, a creator of heavy sedatives and the team’s getaway driver; Ken Watanabe as Saito, a Japanese businessman with an intriguing proposition for Cobb; and even Tom Berenger in a nice supporting role as Browning, Cillian Murphy’s sidekick.  The immortal Michael Caine appears in a cameo role as Cobb’s mentor and Ariadne’s college professor.  Every performance is impeccably handled and every character is necessary to complete the plot puzzle.

One of the most impressive features of this film is one that might be easily overlooked once the story and the hype take your senses over: Inception is not an adaptation.  Christopher Nolan wrote and directed this monster from his own mind – as with every film ever, it takes influences and inspiration from elsewhere (i.e. every heist film from The Killing to The Hot Rock), but it’s not directly based upon anything.  It’s something new.

Nolan still has problems writing female characters, in that they continue to be little more than mismatched support beams for the macho male hero.  This film has a million men and two women.  Mallorie is an exotic beauty with a French accent – clearly an intentional retention, as Cillian Murphy stifles his heavy Irish accent throughout the film.  Where Mal came from (France, I assume) and how she became Cobb’s wife is never touched upon.  She ceases to be a person and becomes little more than a dark temptation for Cobb (and Nolan’s decision to make her dead only adds to the convenience of the situation).  Ariadne is said to be a genius, but she never gets to exercise that.  She acts disloyal and disobedient, to which we are supposed to respond with “Ugh; why’d she have to do that?” but she always has Cobb’s best interests in mind.  There is no mention of her personal life or desires.  See further examples of this problem in Nolan’s The Prestige and The Dark Knight.

Inception is a heist film disguised as a psychological thriller.  The ingredients are all there.  One might immediately draw comparisons to The Matrix, but this film is smarter and without all the popcorn sci-fi nonsense (and hopefully without broken, sloppily-done sequels).  This is not a film where you look up a plot summary beforehand and then go see it if you think it looks good (which is why I’m not providing one here).  It’s a film to go out and experience.  Possibly more than once.  Just don’t tell me it’s hard to follow.

Inception (2010); written and directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

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