Whip It


Whip It

Ellen Page flies around the track, hoping her Juno reputation isn't following her.

(Fox Searchlight) Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern, Eve, Alia Shawkat, Zoe Bell. Directed by Drew Barrymore

The movies have had a love-hate relationship with the roller derby. A number of fine documentaries have been made on the subject of the skaters and their passion for this sport that many dismiss as pro wrestling on wheels (and those that do are ignorant of how physically taxing it is) dating back forty years, but few feature films have captured that world.

Bliss Cavendar (Page) lives in a tiny Texas town outside of the state capital of Austin and like many trapped in tiny Texas towns knows that there are two things expected of those being raised there; that the boys will love football and try out for the team, and the girls will love cheerleading and enter into beauty pageants, which is what Bliss’ hyperthyroid mom (Harden) is pushing her into. Bliss despises it and despises what she is expected to conform into being. She and her friend Pash (Shawkat) are octagonal pegs in rhomboidal holes.

Then, while on a trip to Austin, Bliss spies a flyer for a female roller derby event, and thinking it might be fun, convinces Pash to attend with her. Bliss realizes that this is something that speaks to her, watching girls beat the crap out of one another while whirling around a banked track. Bliss apparently has some sadomasochistic tendencies deep in her teenaged DNA.

She wrangles a try-out with one of the league’s sad sack teams, the Hurl Scouts (so named because they dress like girl scouts…all the teams have gimmicks like that) and to her surprise, she makes the team. She adopts the skater persona of Babe Ruthless (and yes, these are the kinds of names the real skaters take) and quickly becomes a break-out star in the league. She also finds kindred spirits in fellow skaters Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem (Wiig), as well as a surly rival in Iron Maven (Lewis) who skates for another team, the high and mighty High Rollers.

Of course, the manure hits the fan when mommy finds out and while her henpecked dad (Stern) is all for it, her mom forbids her lil’ angel from competing in a sport where she actually might get…bruised. You see, she neglected to tell her team she’s underaged, a major no-no. With a big match coming up and the clutches of conformity reaching out to grab her, Bliss has to make up her mind to decide to be what others expect of her or to find her own way.

Barrymore makes her directorial debut and quite frankly it’s a pretty good one. Like Barrymore herself, the movie has charm, wit and heart, and an excellent indie rock soundtrack. While Barrymore seems to be at home acting in romantic comedies these days, she actually pulls together this coming of age dramedy quite nicely.

It helps that she has a nifty cast to help pull it off. Harden is making a nice niche for herself as the overbearing mom, and she pulls it off without a hitch. Stern, who was a presence in the 80s and 90s and has gone largely MIA of late, is also satisfying as the dad.

The roller derby sequences weren’t a disgrace either; most of the actresses did their own skating and a number of actual skaters play minor roles in the film. You get a sense of the physicality of the sport and the conditioning needed to be any good at it, which sets it above a lot of sports movies these days which rely overly much on treacle to sell their storyline.

There are a few lapses in logic however. For example, the movie is set in Texas but nobody other than Harden seems to have the twang. I guarantee you if you got this many people together in Austin more than one of them would have the distinctive Texas twang. Also, I find it hard to believe that a mom like Harden would have missed the bumps, bruises and cuts that her daughter surely would have after a full-contact sport like roller derby. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Bliss would escape each of the matches without a scratch.

The movie has a fine empowerment message and looks at the sport and those who participate in it with some fondness and even reverence, which is a change from the low regard it is often held in. For my money, this is some superior entertainment that establishes Barrymore as a director with a future, and adds a little depth to Page’s resume as well.

WHY RENT THIS: The girl empowerment theme is done nicely. Page and her skating cohorts are believable in the derby sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not enough Texas twang here, as well as other lapses in logic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is on the crude side there are certainly some sexual situations and drug usage but mild enough that most teens should be okay to see this, although the more impressionable sorts should get a long look before putting this in the DVD/Blu-Ray player.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Shauna Cross was once a real-life skater in the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and took several of the character names, team names and backstage plot lines were taken from her experiences there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Perhaps owing to the movie’s disappointing box office receipts, there is a dearth of interesting features here; however, a Fox Movie Channel “Writer’s Draft” series on screenwriter Shauna Cross is a welcome addition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.6M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

For those interested in the real thing, the TXRD website (the league depicted in the film) is here.

Inception


Inception

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's world is all askew.

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Lukas Haas, Tai-Li Lee. Directed by Christopher Nolan

In perhaps the most famous soliloquy of all time, Hamlet muses “To sleep, perchance to dream.” In this speech, he’s referring to death, wondering what the dead dream of. Perhaps death is a dreaming in a way, the ultimate dream. Maybe life itself is the dream – who’s to know?

Dom Cobb (Di Caprio) is a corporate thief with an unusual technique; he enters the dreams of CEOs and billionaires to extract the secrets that their mind has locked in those dreams. It’s an apparently lucrative profession; he seems to have a fairly extensive bankroll. However, Cobb isn’t a happy man. His wife Mal (Cotillard) died recently, and he was implicated in her death. Their children are being cared for by Mal’s mother, and Cobb hasn’t seen them in awhile, although he longs to.

Getting back to them is problematic, until Japanese billionaire Saito (Watanabe) comes up with an offer. He can take away Dom’s fugitive status if Dom will do one job for him, but instead of stealing an idea, he wants one implanted. This process, called inception, is deemed impossible…by everybody except Dom, who claims to have done it on one occasion.

Dom puts together a team of experts, including his right hand man and researcher Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), con man, impersonator and demolitions expert Eames (Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Rao). The last they need to put the subject into a deep sleep, deep enough so that the dream architecture doesn’t collapse, because in order to make the idea work without his mind removing a foreign idea from itself (similarly in the way antibodies tackle viruses), the idea must be implanted so deeply that the subject thinks that the idea is his own.

The subject is Robert Fischer (Murphy), the son of a billionaire energy mogul whose father (Postlethwaite) is dying and stands to inherit his company. That company, which supplies nearly 80% of all the earth’s energy needs, has become too big to stand against and is in danger of becoming a power rivaling that of nations.

Dom also needs a dream architect and for that, he visits his father-in-law (Caine), who teaches the architecture of dreams and who helped Dom become what he is (although dear old dad-in-law disapproves of how Dom utilizes his gifts). Dom needs one of his students, a particularly gifted one, to create a realistic enough world that will fool Fischer into believing he is awake. That student is Ariadne (Page), who in Greek mythology led Theseus safely through the labyrinth on Crete where he slew the Minotaur.

This Ariadne is required to construct a labyrinth, because once the mind realizes that there are intruders in it, it sends what are called constructs to remove the intruders. The maze serves to keep the constructs off your back, at least for a little while. Not forever, however, and once the constructs arrive they are well armed and willing to shoot first and ask questions not at all. Once you are killed in the dream, you wake up – quite a different take on the usual Hollywood mythology which has dreamers dying in real life when they die in dreams. However, because they are going so deep into the dream, those who die in this dream will be sent to a limbo of the subconscious where they will slowly go mad until they awaken.

There is a time dilation too – while in a normal dream, five minutes of real time equates to an hour of dreamtime, the deeper level you go to, the more pronounced the dreamtime – to the point where five minutes can equal ten years.

There is also another wrinkle. Dom has never really been able to get over the death of his wife, and she is a powerful figure in his subconscious, so powerful that she has been able to manifest in the dreams of others and wreak havoc. This is why Dom needs another architect instead of doing it himself. Her presence in his subconscious is becoming more and more pronounced and only Ariadne, who went into one of Dom’s own dreams to figure out what was going on, knows the truth. Will Dom be able to overcome his own subconscious in order to win him the freedom he so desperately desires?

Nolan began writing this when he was filming Memento (2000), and it took him eight years to complete it. That’s largely because of how densely layered a tale this is; this is one of the most complexly plotted movies you’ll ever see. Pull one thread out and everything collapses.

Fortunately, Nolan is a good enough writer that he can pull it off. First, he has to create a believable dream mythology. Secondly, he has to create characters that the audience can relate to and care about. Thirdly, he has to inject a real sense of jeopardy. Finally, he has to make the plot simple enough for a general audience to keep up with, yet complex enough to make all the elements work.

He succeeds in all these points. The mythology is believable; the science may suffer from a little bit of what I call “mumbo jumbo science” – an overuse of technobabble – but it isn’t so much that you shake your head and feel stupid. The characters aren’t cardboard cutouts; they live and breathe and seem real.

The jeopardy part is accomplished by a series of car chases and shootouts which rankles some critics; “My dreams aren’t about car chases,” grouses A.O. Scott of the New York Times, which apparently means nobody else’s are either; of course, nobody has ever accused Scott of a lack of hubris.

All right, that was a bit of a below-the-belt shot at a fellow critic. Still, when one is discussing dreams, it’s a given there are no rules. Perhaps the dreamscapes that Nolan invents for Inception aren’t as outside the box in some ways as What Dreams May Come, that doesn’t mean there isn’t invention here. The sequences wherein Ariadne folds Paris onto itself (having cars driving Escher-like down vertical streets), or when Arthur fights a construct in a corridor that is revolving (the reason for which is explained nicely in the movie) are as breathtaking as anything you’ll see this summer.

I have a soft spot for movies that make you consider the nature of reality and leave you to form your own conclusions about what just happened. Roger Ebert says correctly that this is a movie about the process more than the plot; I can give you spoilers about plot points but the full effect isn’t as bad because those spoilers lose their effect because it’s more about how we reached that point, not about the point itself. Is this a dream? Is it a memory? Is it reality? Is there a reality? There are no easy answers to that, and Nolan wisely allows the audience to reach their own conclusions. If he has his own ideas, he keeps them to himself.

Di Caprio has never been my favorite actor – he’s a bit too angst-suffused for my taste – but this is surely one of his best performances ever. He plays Dom as a man who appears to be emotional on the surface, but the deeper we delve into the character the more we realize he represses his emotions to the extent that most psychiatrists would probably see him as borderline disturbed.

This is the kind of movie you can spend hours in discussion about. Is it a masterpiece or a conversation piece? The answer is it’s a little bit of both. Certainly people will be talking about the ending and its meaning for quite awhile. Movies that can satisfy the need for visceral action sequences and stimulate the mind simultaneously are rare indeed, and Inception does both. In a summer plagued by weak box office and mediocre movies, Inception easily shines as the best movie of the summer season.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking science fiction with some amazing visuals. Di Caprio gives one of the better performances of his career and his terrific supporting cast doesn’t disappoint.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is hard to follow along with in places, and there is a high degree of mumbo jumbo science going on.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of action and some violence (a lot of shooting). The themes are sufficiently adult enough that I might think twice before bringing very young children who might have trouble following the plot; otherwise, this is suitable for mature pre-teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of Leonardo di Caprio’s character, Dom Cobb, was also the name of a main character in Nolan’s first movie, Following (1998) – furthermore, both characters are thieves.

HOME OR THEATER: The amazing visuals in the movie are best experienced in a movie theater and are even better in the IMAX format if you have an IMAX screen nearby.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Five Minutes of Heaven

New Releases for the Week of July 16, 2010


July 16, 2010

Paris is beginning to look more and more like San Francisco.

INCEPTION

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger. Directed by Christopher Nolan

In the future, Dom Cobb is a thief who specializes in extracting the secrets of others through their dreams. He is very skilled at what he does and has made a lucrative living, but he has paid a heavy price. A fugitive, his skills have cost him everything he holds dear. One last job will give him a chance to redeem himself; but rather than taking secrets, he is going to implant an idea instead. However, standing in the way of him and his team is a hidden enemy who seems to know every move they make before they do. Is this the perfect crime or the perfect set-up?

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, interviews and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard and IMAX

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action throughout)

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

(IFC) Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Melissa Rivers, Don Rickles. The iconic comedienne is the subject of this surprising documentary that shows her struggles in maintaining her career in a culture that worships youth and discards the elderly. Through the words of her friends, family and the legendary performer herself, we revisit the tragedies and triumphs of a groundbreaking female comic who became a household name in an era when the stand-up world was dominated by men.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language and some sexual material)

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

(Disney) Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer. An ancient sorcerer has been protecting Manhattan against his evil nemesis, but it is becoming apparent that the sorcerer needs help. He takes on a reluctant apprentice and gives him a crash course in the ways of magic. The new sorcerer will need to learn quickly and work with his mentor perfectly or risk losing everything to an evil beyond measure.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for fantasy action violence, some mild rude humor and brief language)

The Square

(Apparition) David Roberts, Claire van der Bloom, Anthony Hayes, Joel Edgerton. In the grand tradition of Double Indemnity and Body Heat, this Aussie-set suspense movie sees an affair between a married man and a married woman. When her criminal husband hides his illicit loot in plain sight, she hatches a plot with her lover to steal the money and utilize a professional arsonist to hide their tracks. The plan backfires and things go from bad to worse in this acclaimed thriller.

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for violence and language)

Standing Ovation

(Rocky Mountain) The 5 Ovations, The Wiggses, Alanna Palumbo, Joei DeCarlo. A national tween music video contest pits two groups of friends against each other. They will leave everything on the stage as they set outdo each other in music, choreography and costuming while enduring the wackiness of modern tween life. Someone pass me the insulin.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for some rude behavior)

The Stone Angel


The Stone Angel

Ellen Burstyn is still a powerful actress, even in her sunset years.

(Vivendi) Ellen Burstyn, Ellen Page, Cole Hauser, Wings Hauser, Dylan Baker, Christine Horne, Kevin Zegers, Sheila McCarthy, Devon Bostick. Directed by Kari Skogland

Regret is a powerful thing. It can color your perceptions and order your actions. The longer you hold onto it, the stronger it can get until it completely takes you over.

Hagar Shipley (Burstyn) thinks she’s going for a Sunday drive with her son Marvin (Baker) and his wife Doris (McCarthy). However, it turns out that they are taking her to a nursing facility “just to see,” as Doris puts it. Hagar has been living with Marvin for some time and her needs and ailments are becoming too much for them to handle.

Hagar’s suspicions about the place are not allayed by the petunias at the entrance, nor the sight of senior citizens playing canasta like the living dead. She realizes deep down that sooner or later she’s going to end up if not in that specific home, in one a lot like it. Impulsively, she decides to steal away on one last adventure and winds up in a broken down old beach house, there to reminisce about the events of her life.

The daughter (Horne, playing Hagar as a young woman) of a prosperous Manitoba merchant, she marries Bram Shipley (Cole Hauser), a farmer her father deems beneath their station. He expresses his disapproval by leaving her out of his will, instead leaving all his riches to the city to build a park named after him. She responds by snippishly trampling the petunias planted there.

However, she has inherited more of her father’s attitudes than you might think, and she tends to rub Bram’s face in her family’s superior breeding, which leads to marital difficulties which in turn leads to Bram’s drinking problem. She tries to instill her attitudes into her sons John (Zegers) and Marvin (Bostick) with varying degrees of success. John (her favorite) breaks her heart by falling in love with a wild girl (Page) and marrying her against Hagar’s wishes. Hagar’s fiercely independent nature will carry her through, but it will also cause her a lion’s share of heartache before her time is through.

This is based on a novel by Canadian writer Margaret Laurence and has been a staple of Canadian high schools for the past 40 years. It is set on the sprawling prairies of the beautiful province of Manitoba, and that’s exactly where they filmed it. There are those who wonder how a seemingly empty vista of endless prairie can inspire such devotion and love in the people who live there, but those who see this movie will get a good chance to see precisely why that is.

I will admit to having a great fondness for Manitoba. My mom is from there and I have many relatives and friends who live there and whom I look forward to seeing every time I venture up there, but that isn’t all of it. There is something about the windswept prairies, the city of Winnipeg  and the small towns on the outskirts, the great farms of wheat, sunflowers and other crops, the grain elevators and silos rising like silent sentinels…it just speaks to me, perhaps from a deep genetic place. You should know about that affection before reading the rest of this; my review is certainly colored by it.

One of the movie’s bigger successes is in the casting. Burstyn takes on the role of the feisty Hagar with a certain amount of panache. She’s a consummate actress, an Oscar winner who knows when to go over the top and when to reel it in. She brings Hagar to life as a Canadian icon, a woman who chafes at the strictures of her role in her time and ultimately becomes her own woman, defying the stereotypes of the era.

Horne is almost the spitting image of Burstyn, and on top of that she can act, too. She makes the young Hagar shine almost as brightly as Burstyn’s older Hagar. The two performances mesh nicely, as does the father and son acting team of Wings and Cole Hauser, playing the older and younger Bram respectively.

However, while the movie was written in the early 60s, more contemporary novels by authors like Nicholas Sparks that share a similar storytelling style especially regarding the conceit of an older woman telling the story of her life as a young, spirited girl. Some may find this movie suffering in comparison to movies like The Notebook.

Even so, there is a lot to recommend this movie. I’m not as familiar with the source material that is the novel, but I’m told it is a sprawling, magnificent work, along the lines of Giant and Gone with the Wind. For my money, any movie that tells a compelling story, particularly when it is set in a land that I love as much as Manitoba and its people, is worth recommending.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed and well acted. The casting director not only got some top-notch talent for this film, he managed to get people who resemble each other to play the lead roles at different times of their lives.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie suffers from Nicholas Sparks-itis; although the novel it is based on pre-dates Sparks, the presence of movies like The Notebook and Prince of Tides makes this one seem cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and a bit of rough language but otherwise suitable for any audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While looking over the call sheet, Burstyn discovered a long-lost relative who was working on the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: August

New Releases for the Week of October 2, 2009


Ricky Gervais is bummed because his cardboard box clashes with his suit.

Ricky Gervais is bummed because his cardboard box clashes with his suit.

THE INVENTION OF LYING

(Warner Brother) Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., Tina Fey, Jeffrey Tambor, Fionnula Flanagan. Directed by Ricky Gervais and Matt Robinson

In an alternate universe, it hasn’t occurred to anybody to lie. People just let loose with the truth whenever they speak. For Mark, the truth is pretty painful; he’s unattractive to women, not popular in his job where he is about to be canned and generally unhappy with his reality. When he discovers that he can say something that isn’t the truth and have it be believed, his reality changes. However, as lies are wont to do, they begin to spiral out of control until he discovers that he has everything he ever dreamed of, but not what he wants the most.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for language including some sexual material and a drug reference)

Amreeka

(National Geographic) Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat. A Palestinian woman living in the occupied West Bank wins a lottery for a U.S. Green Card and decides to take her teenage son with her to “Amreeka,” as they pronounce America, leaving her mother and brother behind. Once there, she encounters prejudice and economic instability, trying to make ends meet in a world just as harsh in many ways as the one she left behind.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for brief drug use involving teens, and some language)

The Other Man

(Image Entertainment) Liam Neeson, Antonio Banderas, Laura Linney, Amanda Drew. When Peter’s wife disappears, he is devastated. When he finds out she was receiving e-mails and text messages from another man that indicate she was having an affair, his emotion turns to hurt and anger. Against the advice of his daughter, he goes to Milan to confront the other man and, hopefully, find his wife.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity and language)

Toy Story/Toy Story 2

(Disney/Pixar) Starring the voices of Tim Allen, Tom Hanks, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn. The two movies that essentially created the CGI Animated Feature industry (which today rakes in billions of box office dollars) are being re-released as a double feature, together for the first time. On top of that, see Woody, Buzz, Rex and all your favorites in 3D, adding a whole new dimension to what has become a family favorite for more than one generation now. Also, get a special glimpse at next year’s Toy Story 3 which is one of the most anticipated movies in 2010. This will be playing for a limited engagement of only two weeks, so don’t wait too long to get to the multiplex!

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: G

Whip It

(Fox Searchlight) Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig. When a Texas girl gives up beauty pageants for the siren call of roller derby, folks are going to raise a Texas-sized eyebrow at the very least. The directorial debut of Barrymore has a young girl pursuing her dream, despite the disapproval of those closest to her and the derision of the skaters who think of her as a bit of a pansy. Now, if they could have only gotten a cameo from Raquel Welch in her Kansas City Bomber jersey…

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including crude dialogue, language and drug material)

Zombieland

(Columbia) Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone. The world has been overrun by zombies. Don’t you just hate when that happens? So do the survivors; Tallahassee, a kicker of zombie tush and Columbus, who much prefers running away and hiding, preferably with a girlish scream. With the living in short supply, these two misfits will have to fight off armies of the rampaging undead – and each other – in order to survive.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for zombie horror violence/gore and language)