Ellen Page & Zal Batmanglij – The East

June 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the dramatic thriller “The East,” filmmaker Zal Batmanglij (“The Sound of My Voice”) tells the story of an anarchist group that uses extreme means to hold corporations accountable for their shady practices. Oscar nominee Ellen Page (“Juno”) plays Izzy, a longtime member who doesn’t trust a new woman who joins the collective, but is really an covert operative for a private intelligence firm.

During interviews with me at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, Batmanglij and Page talked about the inspiration behind the script and whether or not they think having debates about important issues like global warming and corporate greed really is enough to spur change.

Zal, you mentioned in the Q&A after the screening that you’ve been dumpster diving. Can you talk more about that since it’s one of the ways the characters in your film are able to survive living off the grid?

Zal Batmanglij: I’ve dumpster dived quite a bit in my life. It sounds really strange when you say it to people, but it really isn’t that strange. There is a lot of food thrown out because it has to be thrown out because it’s passed the “sell by” date. But the food hasn’t gone bad yet and it’s totally packaged. So, there are cartons and cartons of bread thrown out in a dumpster in back of a grocery store. All you have to do is learn how to pick the lock of the dumpster and you have all this food. So, instead of it going to the landfill, it goes to feed you or other people who are really hungry.

Ellen, the film is very open ended in terms of the message it’s trying to deliver about big business and political corruption and knowing what powerful people around us are doing. What kind of issues do you hope a film like this brings up?

Ellen Page: I think the movie is tapping into what people are feeling right now, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat or atheist or Catholic. I think there’s a lot of frustration – frustration with injustice and unfairness in the world; with corporate greed and what we’re doing to the environment. I think this film takes a lot of those ideas in a relentlessly suspenseful way and presents them and allows a lot of these questions to be asked that hopefully then people will ask themselves and their friends. I hope it creates this very ethically murky and complex view of a lot of these issues and how we deal with them. Hopefully people will walk out with new ideas and new questions that they continue to think and talk about.

Ellen, do you consider yourself an activist in real life? If so, are there any issues you’ve been really close to over the years that maybe you’ve felt dialogue and public awareness wasn’t enough to change things?

EP: I would imagine a lot of people feel like that right now. You can’t ignore what we’re doing to the environment. It’s not about how little is being done about it. It’s about how much more is being done to perpetuate the problem like tapping into the Tar Sands in Canada and building the Keystone Pipeline. I don’t think you can look at the world right now and not see incredible injustice done to a lot of people, to minorities, to the Earth. These are things I think about and like to talk about.

But is dialogue enough? I mean, we’ve been talking about the hole in the ozone layer for decades. In “The East,” these characters are taking matters into their own hands and doing something different to confront these challenges.

ZB: We’re going to confront these challenges whether we like it or not. If you were in a garage without any air and turned your car on you’d die because the exhaust is poison. I mean, how many cars are there on the road today? How is that poison not going to catch up with us? It might not be tomorrow or next week, but it will catch up to us. The question is: Do we make a change before there is an emergency? I feel in our culture when all of a sudden there are all these [school] shootings, that’s when we want to do something about the state of mental health or gun laws in the country. But if we had done more to make changes beforehand, then maybe we wouldn’t have all those dead people. I think you have to deal with issues early on because they grow out of control. I think we’re in the midst of a lot of dangerous things right now.

Were you worried at all people might see this film and feel like they should do something as extreme as the characters in this movie? I mean, there were people who saw “Fight Club” and followed that anarchist group’s lead and made their own statements.

ZB: We’re there?

Yeah, even as recent as 2009, there was a teenager who bombed a Starbucks in Manhattan all in the name of Project Mayhem.

ZB: I feel like we’re getting out all our frustrations somehow. Yeah, maybe articulating it can be dangerous because it could give someone a road map, but it also may be a release valve that lets people’s frustrations and energies out so they don’t do eye-for-an-eye justice. I think the people who are actually prone to doing those things will do them regardless of this movie.

Ellen, you’ve talked about how a script this well-written is hard to come by in Hollywood. Some people might’ve though after your Oscar nomination for “Juno” that these kinds of scripts would come across your desk all the time. Is that not how it works after you get such amazing praise for your work as an actress?

ZB: Well, for the record, I think some scripts did come across her desk like “Inception.”

EP: “The East” was just incredibly original. It was tapping into what is in the current zeitgeist of thought and the discomfort we were talking about in the world right now. When you’re given a script that is about things I am already personally interested in, then, yes, you jump at the chance to do it.

The East

June 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij (“Sound of My Voice”)
Written by: Zal Batmanglij (“The Sound of My Voice”) and Brit Marling (“Another Earth”)

If you’ve ever wanted to live off the grid – just disappear one day and survive by adopting an anti-consumerist lifestyle – take a look at director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij (“Sound of My Voice”) and actress/co-writer Brit Marling (“Another Earth”) who did exactly that in the Summer of 2009. They’re little adventure together (dumpster diving and hopping trains) would later inspire them to write the screenplay for “The East,” a high-intensity espionage thriller with an eco-friendly message of sorts. While “The East” only scratches the surface of its eco-agenda, it manages to draw some blood when it matters.

Marling stars as Sarah Moss, a former FBI agent turned private intelligence operative who is assigned to a little covert work by her boss (Patricia Clarkson) to protect the companies their firm represents. There’s an anarchist collective known as the East starting trouble for their clients and it’s up to Sarah to find the individuals responsible and infiltrate their group to gather information.

While the script allows Sarah to find who she is looking for a bit too easily, it’s when anarchist members start to trust her that the drama begins to boil over. Included in the group is Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), a charismatic and enigmatic group leader who allows Sarah (now calling herself Jane as part of her undercover mission) into their lair, much to the dismay of Izzy (Ellen Page), a longtime eco-terrorist who trusts no one.

Nevertheless, Sarah is able to weasel her way in and uncover what the East is doing. For example, early in the film the group holds a big oil company’s CEO responsible for spilling millions of gallons of crude into the ocean (think BP oil disaster of 2006) responsible by flooding his home with petroleum. It’s through these “jams” (attacks that are a bit more thought-provoking than, say, what Project Mayhem does in “Fight Club”) where the East is trying to make a social statement.

What Batmanglij does with “The East,” however, isn’t making any broad declarations about the state of America and what we as a country are allowing to happen by turning our backs on certain problems. Batmanglij points many of them out, but gives his audience a chance to figure it out for themselves. Can the East justify their actions because they’re doing it for the greater good? We may not get the answers were looking for but Batmanglij and Marling find fascinating ways to ask tough questions about issues that are many times swept under the rug.

“The East” was screened at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.

To Rome with Love

July 6, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni
Directed by:
Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”)
Written by:
Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”)

Even at the age of 76, Woody Allen remains one of the most prolific filmmakers working today. So prolific, in fact, that he has produced at least one movie in which he has written and directed every year since 1982 and a dozens of other movies going back to the mid-60’s. Last year, Allen struck gold with “Midnight in Paris,” a whimsical time travel-centric romantic comedy which brought him, among other things, an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and the biggest box office success of his lengthy career. Still, with so many films being churned out, there are bound to be some that are less successful than others. Using a beautiful European city as a backdrop once again, Allen returns with “To Rome With Love,” a messy romantic comedy that is desperate for a focus.

The film is told through four vignettes of different stories taking place throughout Rome. The most successful of these is the one involving Allen himself, in his first acting role since 2006’s “Scoop.” In a random meeting while visiting Rome, Hayley (Allison Pill) and Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) quickly fall and love in get married. Hayley’s parents Jerry, (Allen) a man retired from the recording business and Phyllis (Judy Davis) fly into meet Michelangelo’s parents including his father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) who has a talent that Jerry wants to utilize. Allen gives himself the best material in the film, as this vignette contains the wittiest and most well written moments of the film. Allen’s return to acting is also welcome, with his neurotic babble and sharp one-liners firing on all cylinders. While the latter half of this story gets a little silly, it manages to maintain its cohesion and form the strongest portion of the movie.

In the next vignette, we see architect student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) living a comfortable life in Rome. This all changes when Sally’s good friend with a reputation of making men fall in love with her, Monica (Ellen Page) shows up after recently being dumped. As Jack tries to not fall for her, another fellow architect named John (Alec Baldwin) constantly shows up to Jack advice to give him advice. There are some good things to come out of this section of the film. The chemistry between Page and Eisenberg really works, with Page as a standout in particular. One might think that Eisenberg would be the perfect actor for an Allen movie, but his dialogue feels incredibly forced and scripted. There is also something bothersome about the omnipresence of Baldwin. While he is fine on screen, his constant appearances don’t add much and are hard to take seriously.

In another vignette, newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are on their honeymoon in Rome. As they are about to meet Antonio’s very important family, Milly sets out and gets lost in Rome and a prostitute named Anna (Penelope Cruz) mistakenly shows up at Antonio’s door. While Milly is lost, she stumbles across a movie set and gets to spend time with her favorite actor while Antonio must pretend Anna is his wife. Indifference is the best way to react to this portion of the film. Most of the dialogue is subtitled, and the only recognizable actor on screen is Cruz. Unfortunately for this part, cheesy sexual jokes and gags are told at Cruz’s expense and they tend to fall pretty flat.

Finally, the fourth story involves everyday businessman Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) who wakes up one day and is a massive celebrity for no apparent reason. This story is the most unsuccessful of the group. While it is clear what Allen was trying to get across with this story, there is literally no reason that Leopoldo should be famous. It’s a preposterous concept even given Allen’s penchant for whimsy. It provides for some amusing moments at first, but the story very quickly wears out its welcome.

If there’s one thing that “To Rome With Love” is begging for it is a common thread. There are hints of themes of adultery in three of the four vignettes, but other than the shared backdrop of Rome, the audience is truly left with four completely unrelated stories. While Allen does a fine job at balancing time and switching back and forth between the vignettes, only one of them truly stands out which makes for an uneven and unsatisfying overall product.

Super

May 6, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler
Directed by: James Gunn (“Slither”)
Written by: James Gunn (“Slither”)

At the tail end of a lively two-and-a-half-minute crayon animation that kicks off the dark comedy “Super” – the opening-credits montage features bad guys breathing fire and feasting on bunnies and a dance sequence rivaling anything out of Bollywood – we watch as the entire cast of entertaining cartoon characters stands with fists held high. They’re hyperventilating as if they have just run the Boston Marathon. If only their human counterparts in the live-action movie that follows gave as much effort we might’ve actually had an odd superhero adventure to appreciate.

Directed by James Gunn – who returns to the big screen for the first time since his 2006 debut film “Slither,” a B-movie horror about parasitic alien worms – “Super” tackles some of the same themes examined in the last couple of years by movies like 2009’s scarcely-seen “Defendor,” starring two-time Oscar-nominee Woody Harrelson (“The Messenger”), and last year’s overrated fanboy fantasy “Kick-Ass,” starring Aaron Johnson (“Nowhere Boy”). In both movies, an everyday citizen decides to become a crime fighter.

Taking the lead in “Super” is comedian Rainn Wilson (“The Rocker”) who plays Frank D’Arbo, a miserable fry cook with nothing to live for after his recovering addict wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) relapses and leaves him for Jacques, a douchebag drug dealer (Kevin Bacon) with a posse. In one of the funnier and more revealing scenes of the film, Jacques shows up at Frank’s house looking for Sarah, invites himself in for breakfast, and declares Frank’s “egg-cooking gift” impressive. It’s a scene that not only shows Jacques’ lack of respect for his heartbroken nemesis, but also proves just how spineless Frank is for not even questioning why a strange guy he’s never met is at his front door asking for his wife.

After Frank has a bizarre spiritual experience, which includes God literally reaching in through his ceiling and clearing his mind of all its muck by running a corndog across his brain, he decides to man up and change his life by becoming a costumed superhero vigilante to be known as the Crimson Bolt. Venturing into the city ready to serve up justice with a pipe wrench, Frank is guided by signs from God as well as by a bubbly comic-book store employee named Libby (Ellen Page), who becomes his cute kid sidekick Boltie.

Besides Frank’s feelings of dejection, there’s not much motivation behind his choice to run around breaking peoples’ jaws with a plumbing tool. At least in “Defendor,” you got a sense of Harrelson’s lack of mental stability, which drove him as an avenger. With Frank and Libby, there’s not much more than character buffoonery and Gunn’s low-budget, ultra-violent gimmickry to seal the deal.

It’s difficult to tell if Gunn really is trying to play for laughs, because so much of the one-liner humor is inconsistent. There’s also no telling what Gunn was trying to get out of a female-on-male rape scene that plays out as awkwardly as a brother-sister make-out session. Whatever his intentions, Gunn has a long way to go before he realizes satire is not the same as shock value.

Inception

July 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page
Directed by: Christopher Nolan (‘The Dark Knight”)
Written by: Christopher Nolan (‘The Dark Knight”)

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan is known for the complex worlds he creates, but nothing can prepare you for the trippy and surreal adventure he guides us through with “Inception,” the seventh feature film from the London-born director whose narratives sometimes feel like the cinematic equivalent of mathematical proof theories.

Unlike filmmaker David Lynch (“Blue Velvet”) who can become nonsensical at times, Nolan provides us with all the answers. While there is some wiggle room for interpretation, Nolan’s approach is more forthright. Still, if his other films like “Memento” and “The Prestige” required a couple of viewings before everything really added up, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone if mainstream moviegoers walk out of his latest intricate offering with looks of bewilderment. It might be as frustrating as it is awe-inspiring, but there’s no doubt once you stitch the pieces together it’s remarkable.

In “Inception,” dreams and reality become limitless in the hands of Nolan who introduces some lofty ideas into this espionage mind thriller. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, a man whose job it is to enter the dreams of individuals and steal their ideas and secrets. When a wealthy industrialist Saito (Ken Watanabe) confronts Cobb and asks him to enter the dreams of a business competitor (Cillian Murphy) and plant an idea in his mind (a technique known as inception) Cobb takes the challenge, although his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Grdon-Levitt) is sure it can’t be done.

Also entering the dreamscape with Dom and Arthur is Ariadne (Ellen Page), an intelligent college student who is brought onto the team as the architect of the dreamy scenarios they will enter. Ariadne is also the only one on the team who knows that despite Cobb’s masterful talent, their work can all be destroyed if he allows the memories of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) to affect him while he is navigating around in someone’s subconscious.

It would be pointless to explain any more about “Inception” other than these basic points. It’s a film to be experienced not clarified. It’s unfortunate there will probably be plenty of people that will dismiss the narrative as too confusing to fully enjoy, but the originality of “Inception” carries it through to the end even when some of its more emotional aspects end up being a bit underwhelming.

Whip It

October 2, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig
Directed by: Drew Barrymore (debut)
Written by: Shauna Cross (“Taking 5”)

While former wild child Drew Barrymore proves to have some potential as a filmmaker, there’s still much to be desired in her directorial debut “Whip It.” She and author/screenwriter Shauna Cross (“Taking 5”) know the kind of hipster movie they wanted to make, but their ideas don’t translate into the edgy feminist bash they were hoping for.

In “Whip It,” Academy Award-nominated actress Ellen Page (“Juno”) leads the mostly all girl cast as Bliss Cavendar, a small-town Texas girl who decides she can’t bottle up her true personality any longer just to please her parents.

Bliss is not the type of girl who enjoys the beauty pageants her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) holds in such high regard, but she does them anyway because there’s really nothing else that interests her.

But when Bliss and her best friend Pash (Alia Sahwkat of “Arrested Development”) sneak away to attend a roller derby match in Austin, Bliss finally realizes what she’s been missing in her life: a stiff combination of roller skating and face bashing performed in front of hundreds of people. It only takes one night of the brutal sport for Bliss to stop her prim and proper charade and trying out for the punkish league.

What Bliss lacks in power she has in speed and therefore becomes the newest member of the last-place team known as the Hurl Scouts. But as soon as Bliss laces up her skates, puts on her helmet, and picks a witty skate-name (Babe Ruthless), the team starts to think they can win a few games. Even Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), league bad girl and captain of the defending champs, notices a change in the misfits’ confidence and feels threatened.

It all leads to a predictable coming-of-age story that might have worked better if director Barrymore was able to actually capture the essence of the sport. On the track, there is entirely too much mediocre camerawork that takes us out of the action. We want to be riding on the skate straps of these bruisers, but instead Barrymore simply doesn’t know what angle to shoot from. Even worse than the lackluster skating scenes is when she tosses us in center ring with an unfunny Jimmy Fallon who cameos as the league’s play-by-play announcer.

The rest of the secondary characters aren’t much more exciting. Talented women like comedian Kristen Wiig (“Adventureland”), stuntwoman Zoe Bell (“Death Proof”), and even Barrymore herself are wasted and one-dimensional. Sure, they all look great doing their best Suicide Girl impressions, but Barrymore forces “Whip It” into a place reserved only for movies that 11-year-old girls would watch at slumber parties.

Smart People

April 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page
Directed by: Noam Murro
Written by: Mark Poirier (debut)

Director Noam Murro isn’t director/writer Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding”) when it comes to scathing witticism between family members, but in his feature film debut “Smart People,” he manages to get in a few solid shots below the belt to give his characters enough spirit to last them through the entire fight.

In “Smart People,” Murro and screenwriter Mark Poirier tell the snarky story of the dysfunctional albeit intellectual Weatherhold family, who are well aware of their above average intelligence and carry themselves in such a manner.

Lawrence (Dennis Quaid), is a tenured college professor who doesn’t really like teaching anymore and always seems on edge probably because his manuscript is continually being rejected by important publishing houses. His daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), is basically the mirror image of her father – bookish, lonely, and a tad mean. Her only worries in life include the number of academically-admirable extracurricular activities she can add to her resume and scoring a 1600 on the SAT. There’s also a brother character, but his role in the film is inconsequential except for the childish arguments he has with his sister.

When Lawrence suffers a seizure after falling from a fence while trying to illegally retrieve something from his impounded car, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Paker) orders him to follow the law and stop driving for six months. With no one in the family willing to step up and become their dad’s chauffer, Lawrence’s slacker (and adopted) brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) moves in despite objection from Lawrence who knows the only reason he is volunteering is because he wants something.

With everyone under one roof, the family dynamic becomes more uncomfortable as Chuck attempts to get his niece out of her shell and Lawrence jumps into the dating scene again by asking the good doctor Hartigan out for dinner. At times, it almost feels like “The Royal Tenenbaums” with less snappiness and stylistic fervor.

The film hosts a wonderful, offbeat cast especially with Church as the cool, middle-aged uncle who smokes out and buys beer for his teenage niece. Call Church officially reestablished in the industry. With a gem like “Sideways” and now this, he can be a nice addition to any cast. The same goes for Page, who is coming off her best year as a young actress for her Academy Award-nominated portrayal of the titular character in “Juno.” In “Smart People,” she’s just as charming, but in a depressing and Republican sort of way.

In all, “Smart People” is a cleverly-written little picture that will probably slide under the radar unless your part of the indie house crowd. If you’re not, you’re definitely missing out on a stark, character-driven dark comedy that anyone with a bit of a snobby side can enjoy.