Tag Archives: Ellen Page

CAPSULE: HARD CANDY (2005)

DIRECTED BY: David Slade

FEATURING: , Patrick Wilson

PLOT: A teenage girl turns the tables on a sexual predator, subjecting him to torture in retribution for his misdeeds.

Still from Hard Candy (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For regular consumers of torture-based horror, the turnabout of predator and prey in Hard Candy is an interesting surprise. But twist aside, what’s notable about the movie isn’t how strange it is, but how it uses the genre to address heavy questions about guilt, justice, and gender roles.

COMMENTS: In January of this year, confessed serial child molester Larry Nassar was forced to sit quietly while 156 women confronted him about his crimes and the pain they have endured ever since. And Larry Nassar did not like it. This man, whose systematic abuse was aided by America’s top gymnastics coaches, abetted by the country’s gymnastics federation, and protected by Michigan State University, submitted a letter to the judge protesting that having to endure the testimony of his many targets was detrimental to his mental health and asserting that he was a good person who was being unfairly victimized by hateful, hateful women. Suffice it to say, the letter was poorly received.

The reason I bring this up—aside from maybe wanting to add just one more link on Google that reminds the world that Larry Nassar is heinous slimeball—is because Hard Candy does a fantastic job of getting inside the deluded mind of the privileged sex criminal: rejecting the existence of a crime, then mitigating its seriousness, and finally claiming victimhood for himself. The film’s subject, photographer Jeff, uses all these techniques to deceive us into sympathizing with him, even as we watch him go through all the steps of sexual predation: grooming, leading passively, shifting guilt back onto his targets. And he’s good at it, so when the 14-year old girl he’s been expecting to seduce drugs him, ties him up, and proceeds to insult and threaten him, there’s still this lingering sense that he’s a decent guy who has just gotten himself into a real pickle.

The plot evokes memories of Audition, which is appropriate, as Brian Nelson’s screenplay was evidently inspired by news reports of gangs of girls in Japan who lured businessmen into traps online. But where the earlier film hides its intentions behind the tropes of romantic comedy, Hard Candy quickly adopts the conventions of horror, including bondage and body mutilation. The film’s innovation is to flip the script and turn the diminutive (Page is a full foot shorter than her co-star), incautious heroine into the diabolical, unstoppable engine of terror. The result is that she can be read as a violent lunatic, when it is vital to remember that the man she is tormenting is a very bad person.

Movies can be victims of changing times. In 2005, many reviewers called Page’s Hayley a psychopath and lamented the film’s second-half descent into cat-and-mouse thriller. But today, she comes across more as an avenging angel come to force the guilty to acknowledge their sins. It’s noteworthy that the scene that falls the flattest—Page has to sidestep Sandra Oh’s inquisitive neighbor—is the one that tries the hardest to impose the conventions of a thriller onto a battle over the nature of evil. Hard Candy turns out to have been ahead of its time.

Page is truly magnificent, by the way; this was her breakthrough performance, and she has never since had a role that equals it in power. But it’s worth noting that she has a good partner in Wilson, who hits all the right beats for a character who is innately gifted at evading, deflecting, and denying responsibility for his actions. His bland dismissals and patronizing defenses are essential in pushing her forward, validating her anger and justifying her ultimate plan.

The final woman to stand up to Larry Nassar in court was the woman whose testimony triggered his downfall. Rachael Denhollander— whose name also deserves to be remembered—demonstrated unbelievable magnanimity by promising to pray for Nassar, that he find true repentance and forgiveness. And that is probably the most moral and decent response that anyone could hope for under the circumstances. Hard Candy suggests an alternate response, and while it plays more toward wish fulfillment and is by no means appropriate in a civil society, in the face of an evil that is often unspeakable, the movie shows why it still has appeal.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Hard Candy is one sick movie. Sick and horrifying. Sick and mesmerizing. Sick and well-scripted, well-acted, well-directed and well-shot. Sick and comical; sick and suspenseful; sick and surprising; sick and sickening. Maybe if I take another shower, I’ll feel less scummy for enjoying it so much.” – Amy Biancolli, Houston Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by ralph. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SUPER (2010)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Nathan Fillion

PLOT: A schlub of a fry cook (Wilson) takes drastic action after his wife (Tyler) leaves him for

her drug dealer (Bacon), deciding to become a superhero called “The Crimson Bolt” to win her back. Teaming up with a lively comic store clerk (Page), he experiences the pain and very real violence that isn’t detailed in the comic books he reads.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s yet another “regular guy becomes a superhero” story, equally mixing dark humor and gritty drama while throwing in some comic book action segments. It stands out for its more realistic portrayal of the premise and unexpectedly unsettling moments, but never exceeds “offbeat” on the Weird-o-meter.

COMMENTS: At its core, Super offers nothing new. After a life-changing event, a “normal” loser realizes how easily he can dress up in a funny costume and run around at night surprising “bad guys” with a blunt weapon. Wearing a mask and taking out his frustration with his own bad luck in life makes him feel powerful and gives him a new perspective, etc, but he also learns that being a fake superhero has real-life consequences. It’s only the bleakly comic tone set against hyper-realistic violence that makes the film stand out from an over-slicked, stylized effort like Kick-Ass.

Attempting to balance kooky jokes and drug-fueled shootouts, writer/director James Gunn capriciously changes moods from scene to scene. One moment Rainn Wilson is delivering delightfully deadpan narration, and the next he’s unleashing a crazed fury indicative of a truly unsettled mind.  One moment Ellen Page is excitedly extolling the fun of superhero-dom, and the next she’s purposefully crushing someone’s legs with a car.  Kevin Bacon cracks wise over a strange breakfast of scrambled eggs, and later encourages his seriously drugged-up girlfriend to give herself over to a horny drug lord.  There is a constant tugging at the audience’s emotions and affections, and honestly, my nerves.  I was more often uncomfortable or just turned off by the proceedings, especially when the unnecessary religious angle was added followed by a stupid attempt to give Page and Wilson a romance.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find Super very funny at times, primarily a result of the talented cast.  Wilson has his share of cute, quirky moments, while Nathan Fillion’s all-too-short appearance as a Christian TV superhero is gleefully hammy. Bacon impressed me with an unexpectedly entertaining performance. It’s really Page who stands out though, infusing comic nerd Libby (aka “Boltie”) with as much bubbly enthusiasm as she does unhinged sadism.  Boltie’s more outspoken and petty than the Crimson Bolt, and just as easily incited to violence, serving as whatever the opposite of a “conscience” would be.

Super never finds its footing, resulting in an uneven attempt at a realistic superhero movie, though I’m sure Gunn was aiming for a unique and more in-depth exploration of the concept. It’s primarily a comedy, but the heavy doses of drugs, violence, and relationship drama make for a confusing watch.  Some of the action sequences are exciting, but more often than not they feel out of place.  It’s watchable for the cast (especially the ever-likable Page), but doesn’t excel in any other area, except perhaps for a very cool animated opening credits sequence.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the end, this diffuse and off-balance film—one that weirdly combines cardboard characters and emotional urgency, high conceptualism and visceral rawness—does come together, albeit in a strange, and strangely fitting, way.”—Nathan Heller, Slate.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PEACOCK (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Lander

FEATURING: Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, Bill Pullman

PLOT: After a train accident destroys his privacy, a mentally ill bank employee leads

a double life, playing himself and his own wife, as he navigates his relationship with a poor single mother and his own worsening psychological state.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although Peacock‘s gender-bending premise suggests all kinds of weird possibilities, the film’s execution doesn’t capitalize on any of them, and the final product is a muddled, small-town drama with only the occasional hint of slight weirdness.

COMMENTS: Set in the fictional Nebraska town that gives it its name, Peacock begins with an average day in the life of its disturbed protagonist, John Skillpa (Murphy), as he eats the breakfast prepared for him by his wife Emma. The twist, however, is that John is Emma, and that he’s built an illusion of idyllic family life within the house he inherited from his abusive mother. The first few wordless minutes set this up promisingly, as Murphy capably portrays both halves of this quiet household going about their daily business.

Then a train caboose flies off its tracks, knocking Emma unconscious while she’s hanging laundry; instantly, the Skillpas become the talk of the town, and a rallying point for local politicians. This could be the start of a tense psychodrama… but instead, it soon fizzles out and degenerates into half-baked histrionics. Although Murphy is commendable in his dual roles, switching back and forth between the ultra-jittery John and demure Emma with a convincing change of personality, his performance can’t overcome the often shaky writing. This worsens considerably toward the end, as a series of out-of-left-field twists and turns torpedo the film’s already questionable logic.

The other actors also fare poorly. Most unfortunate of all is Ellen Page, brutally miscast as a hash-slinger and sometime prostitute who also happens to be raising John’s child. Although Page has found phenomenal success playing precocious teenagers in movies like Hard Candy and Juno, she sounds hopelessly out of place as the put-upon, provincial Maggie. Susan Sarandon, as the mayor of Peacock’s feminist wife, brings some well-needed warmth and humor to the film, but she too is wasted as the film quickly stops using her interactions with Emma to explore gender roles, and becomes a dour, poorly paced thriller instead—one without any real suspense or fear of discovery.

Outside of Murphy’s oddball, over-the-top performance, Peacock is disappointingly conventional and just as mixed-up as its protagonist. Sometimes it acts like a satire of wholesome small-town values, as its supporting cast members all speak in the same exaggeratedly folksy dialect and share the same dull conversation topics. But by the end, it’s clear that Peacock is just an anemic rehash of Psycho‘s less plausible parts, with plot holes deep enough to bury a body. First-time director Lander, who also co-wrote, drops every potentially interesting angle by the wayside, and in so doing squanders a plum cast. If you want to see Cillian Murphy in drag, you should probably just watch Neil Jordan‘s Breakfast on Pluto instead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Lander’s thriller wannabe is a confusing jumble of badly developed ideas which happen to be acted out by a talented group of actors who are squandered away in a film that is so concerned with creating a mystery that it overlooks the fact that it also needs to be a good movie. A sad waste of a great cast.”–Marina Antunes, Quiet Earth

CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Dileep Rao

PLOT: Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary with a unique skill set—he breaks into targets’ subconsciouses as they dream in order to steal business secrets—assembles a team to enter the mind of an heir to a billionaire’s fortune; but will his preoccupation with his lost wife, which is poisoning his own subconscious, destroy the mission?

Still from Inception (2010)

WILL IT MAKE THE LIST?: There’s a rule around here: no movie officially makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time until it’s released on DVD, so that we can pore over individual scenes at our leisure. That said, Inception is probably on the borderline. That’s not to suggest it’s a bad movie; in fact, Inception may well be the best movie released so far in 2010, and has surely already nailed down an Oscar nomination and a spot on most critics 2010 top 10 lists. The question is, is it weird? By Hollywood standards, a psychologically thriller about professional dream infiltrators is damn weird; so out there, in fact, that only someone with the clout of a Christopher Nolan could get it made and released as a summer blockbuster. (Though to be honest, the subject matter is not as weird, to a studio executive, as is the concept of purposefully releasing an movie with a script that’s so complicated and tricky it throws viewers into a state of total bafflement within the first ten minutes). Nolan’s latest is pop-weird; it creates just a little bit of pleasant confusion that viewers trust will be substantially resolved by the end. It’s not a movie that will risk leaving us stranded in a psychological limbo. Nolan’s dreamscapes are surprisingly based in realism, carefully constructed from cinematically familiar parts—mainly old heist movies, film noirs and spy flicks—rather than from abstruse symbols, Jungian archetypes, and monsters from the id. With its focus on action and self-contained narrative rather than mysticism and mystery, Inception has more in common with crowd-pleasers like The Matrix or Total Recall than it does with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker. (Although, if we were forced to select the weirdest movie of 2010 in July, we’d be forced to go with this one; thankfully we have five more months of movies to select from).

COMMENTS:  I wondered going into Inception: if I was making a thriller about dreams, one Continue reading CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)