Tag Archives: Ellen Page

Inception (UK/US 2010)

(Cobb) Leonardo DiCaprio and Fischer (Cillian Murphy)

I see that Inception is now No 3 on IMDB’s all-time hit list. I guess it is good that the only Summer blockbuster so far this year to offer a story for grown-ups has indeed attracted so many fans. Like everybody else, I’m not sure what all of it meant but I was impressed by the casting, the performances and the production ideas. I could do without about an hour of the action sequences – which I now realise are supposed to represent a videogame (especially the last one in the snow). I’m too old for all that and just get bored. But the ideas behind the film are interesting and for once I’m not pissed off by another poor rip-off of Phil K. Dick. I’ve seen various possible Dick novels/stories mentioned as inspiration with Ubik as frontrunner, though I think that there is another one as well. I’m sure Dick wrote about a drug you could take that had an effect on other people when you dreamed about them – but possibly my brain is frazzled!

There must be so much written about the film already and I don’t want to repeat it all, so I’ll just pull out a few observations, most of which refer to its status as ‘global film’. The first thing I noticed is that we get Ken Watanabe and a Japanese-set sequence and I wondered how deliberate this ploy was from a Warner Bros perspective. A few years ago, Warner Bros after a disappointing Batman pic in Japan started to hold premieres there with Japanese stars like Watanabe.

The film felt ‘not American’ in many ways. Apart from DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt, the other leading cast members are Canadian, British, Irish, Japanese and French – and Asian-American. The writer-director is British. The locations were all outside the US and the ‘feel’ was ‘international’. So, here’s my first question. Why choose a setting to be Mombasa when you know that you are actually filming in Morocco? Why not just name it as Casablanca or Rabat or Marrakesh? Perhaps because it isn’t meant to be a ‘real’ location? Mombasa is the setting where the South Asian character is introduced – which makes sense because there is an Indian diaspora population in East Africa, but this raises a number of other questions. Why not shoot in India and use one of many Indian actors who could handle a blockbuster shoot? My guess is that Hollywood style shooting is too difficult in interesting Indian city locations (unless it is a Hollywood film directed by Michael Winterbottom or Danny Boyle). And why not an African actor for a Mombasa shoot? Again I’m guessing that the casting director was unaware of African talent – it is certainly there but Hollywood tends to take African-Americans to its productions, often based in South Africa.

I’m not criticising Dileep Rao, the American-Asian actor in Inception (I haven’t seen Avatar, which I think he was in), merely noting that global film production only tends to go so far. I blame CGI and I do rather hanker after the 1950s and 1960s when shoots would move to Kenya for a month or so and show us something of a ‘real location’.

Inception has been released in India. It has been the Number 1 film in the ‘International’ film market (i.e. outside North America) for five weeks now but I wonder how the complex plot goes down in territories like India? The usual film industry assumption is that the Hollywood blockbusters that do well in India are action films with little dialogue or culturally specific knowledge required. Of course, there is a significant slice of the Indian audience that has the same viewing habits as American and European audiences and the reviews in the Indian Press reflect this with a generally high regard for the film. But I did come across one Hyderabadi poster suggesting that half the audience were asleep during the film.

The other interesting aspect of the film’s success is that is a 2D film able to compete with the 3D offerings. On the other hand it is also an IMAX film and I’m wondering what difference it makes to re-imagine the scenes for a much squarer albeit larger image. My own preference is to stay with ‘Scope.

Smart People (US 2008)

Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page in Smart People

Smart People offers mildly diverting entertainment, but overall is possibly a disappointment. It’s the story of widowed Eng Lit lecturer Lawrence (Dennis Quaid), something of a pompous windbag, his children Vanessa (Ellen Page), the straight A high school student and James (Ashton Holmes) the university student who feels his father has forgotten him, and finally Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), the no-good adopted brother of Lawrence. The ‘smart’ people of the title are arguably Lawrence and Vanessa who are brilliantly learned but socially inept. (Chuck and James just get out of the way much of the time.) 

The ‘inciting incident’ is an accident that takes Lawrence to ER where the head physician turns out to be an ex-student who swapped to biology and then medical school. This is Janet played by Sarah Jessica Parker. I think this is the fault line in the narrative. The ‘romantic comedy’ that follows is conventional and not particularly comic, whereas the other antics of the family quartet are worth watching. This isn’t a criticism of Ms Parker, rather of the writing which creates a relationship I didn’t find believable.

The most entertainment in the film comes in the opening section when Lawrence is being curmudgeonly and horrible to his students who give back as good as they get. I’m not sure that there is a filmic equivalent of the literary genre of the campus novel, but that’s the repertoire that this narrative should have drawn from. The nearest equivalent film from recent years is Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire. (Which used the same university, Carnegie Mellon in some scenes, both films being made around Pittsburgh – does West Pennsylvania have a significance I’m missing?) Wonder Boys scores by keeping its plot much more clearly linked to university life. In the UK, we’ve had two great TV series based on campus life – The History Man (1981, based on Malcolm Bradbury’s novel) and A Very Peculiar Practice (1986) – plus adaptations of David Lodge novels. In America there have been Alison Lurie novels and others based on the politics of campus life. These make great comedy. Smart People tries hard to be literate but wastes the opportunities that scholarly bickering throws up. In a Lodge novel, the Sarah Jessica Parker character would have been an academic carving up Lawrence’s reputation – and perhaps taking him to bed for fun. A limp romantic comedy isn’t a substitute.

Ellen Page is remarkable, but wasted here, I fear. Dennis Quaid has a wonderful sloblike demeanour – I spent most of the film wondering if his paunch was prosthetic. In the end, perhaps I’m being harsh on a new director and a new writer. It is entertaining, but could have been more. As is often the case, the most fun is to be had reading the IMDB user comments and the ratings. As usual, the most positive ratings come from ‘Females under 18’, but the lowest ratings are given by ‘Females aged 30+’ – perhaps, like me, they found the Janet character too underdeveloped.

Juno – the ‘indy’ that defeated Hollywood

Juno (Ellen Page) with the potential adopters of her baby, Veronica (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman)

Juno (Ellen Page) with the potential adopters of her baby, Veronica (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman)

It’s not quite true of course. Juno, although officially an independent production, was produced from within a network of Hollywood relationships between two smaller production companies, Mandate Pictures and Mr. Mudd, and Fox Searchlight, the independent brand of the major studio 20th Century Fox. Nevertheless, Juno works as a case study for any analysis of what the demarcation lines between studio and ‘independent’ might mean and also the cultural differences between mainstream and more specialised cinema and their audiences.

In business terms, the bald facts are there to see on www.the-numbers.com. Juno cost under $10 million to produce. The marketing and promotional budget will have been large – bigger than the production cost probably. But the revenue has been substantial with $230 million worldwide (nearly two-thirds from North America) and DVD sales of $50 million in North America alone. On top of this, the film’s soundtrack has been a No1 bestseller.

The producers

Mandate Pictures is a Los Angeles based independent production company formed in 2005. In 2007 it was bought by Lionsgate, the independent studio-distributor, but Mandate continues to operate as an independent brand. Mandate’s pictures have included a number of low-medium budget pictures, some, like The Grudge, being made with Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. Others include comedies such as Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. Mr. Mudd is also an independent producer and involves producers Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith, in partnership with the star actor John Malkovich. Mr. Mudd was also a co-producer of Ghost World and John Malkovich has helped to produce a range of films, some outside Hollywood including The Terrorist (India 1999). To further emphasise the network of independents, Mandate, now in a two year ‘first look’ deal with Mr. Mudd, is also planning to make a film with erstwhile teen star Drew Barrymore. Whip It!, starring Ellen Page is scheduled for 2009 with Barrymore directing and executive producing through her company Flower Films. Earlier, Barrymore had co-produced and starred (as an English teacher) in Donnie Darko, like Ghost World a smart film, but not a mass audience crowd pleaser like Juno.

An indy sensibility?

Juno reached a mass audience. In North America it was given a platform release – steadily growing over several weeks. The US distributor was Fox Searchlight. In the UK, the film was released as a mainstream wide release under the 20th Century Fox banner on 363 prints in second place on the UK Top 10 and with a screen average higher than any other film except for the (platformed) release of There Will Be Blood. So in the UK, it was ‘mainstream’ not specialised. Did it keep any sense of being ‘indy’? Probably not for UK audiences. In the UK we tend to see only ‘quality’ US TV on terrestrial channels and overall UK understanding of US teen culture is limited by both access to aspects of the culture and alienation from US politics and especially conservative social values. Nevertheless, Juno did receive some flak for seemingly promoting the ‘pro-life’, ‘anti-abortion’ cause. I’m not sure about this. Though I am firmly behind every woman’s ‘right to choose’, I think it’s problematic to see the choice to keep the baby in narratives like Juno as supporting the anti-abortionist stance. It is argued that the overall positive message of Juno and adult (i.e. not ‘teen’) comedies such as Knocked Up leads to complacency in the audience because no real moral dilemma is explored.

If Juno is an indy film that appeals to audiences willing to reflect on how characters approach life, there shouldn’t be a problem. But if the film is mainstream entertainment, does the viewing context change how the audience is asked to view the film? I don’t think the mainstream audience is less intelligent or less perceptive, but the context is different. It’s this quandary that makes Juno interesting for me.

I think it’s a shame if the wonderful language of Juno puts off audiences in other, non-English speaking countries. I’m waiting to see attendance figures across Europe, but the film generally did not do anywhere near as well outside the US/UK. The current figures suggest only 37% of box office was outside North America (when the norm is more like 55-60%). How well did the subtitling/dubbing convey Juno‘s use of language?

Useful Links for studying Juno:

An interesting blog with lots of comments on the film: http://www.pajiba.com/juno.htm

Scroll down this blog from Filmbrain to find some juicy comments on Diablo Cody and Juno (re the critiques in Cineaste)

Reverse-shot, another blog with a distinct downer on the film and some interesting comments on how indy film is attempting to be accepted by the mainstream – not a good idea?

Ellen Page – the biggest fansite

Official Juno website

An interesting Guardian article by Tom Porretta (author of Election) on the 1980s ‘Brat Pack’ teen movies by John Hughes