#371. Stories through Time

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is partly due to those people who don’t learn from history and are therefore doomed to repeat it. While most movies usually span a short timeframe, there are a few out there that manage to cover almost the entirety of human existence. Some even go so far as to speculate what the future would bring for humanity. After all, if humans keep making the same decisions and mistakes in the past, what could possibly change that habit in the future? These parallel storylines are often used to prove some point to the audience. While it can be interesting to see how people in ancient times acted in the same way we do, sometimes the message the filmmaker is trying to make is beaten home too much. This week’s two films use multiple stories throughout time to tell a story.

IntoleranceIntolerance
Year: 1916
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 197 minutes / 3.28 hours

In telling multiple stories that span a long time period, each individual story is practically a short film in itself. The epic scale of the run-time for these films is merely a product of the multitude of stories that need to be told. During the early days of movies, short films were the norm, so stringing four of them together to tell a larger narrative was certainly doable. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) manages to span a timeframe from 539 BC all the way to 1914 AD, stopping off around 27 AD and 1572 AD in the process. This film was so impactful, not only as a form of apology for The Birth of a Nation (1915) but for inspiring at least one parody: Buster Keaton’s Three Ages (1923). Both films highlight the fact that humans have remained the same for a very long time.

Throughout the ages, intolerance has been a problem for humanity. The similarities between Cyrus the Great of Persia (George Siegmann), the Pharisees of Israel, and the Catholics of France all show how being intolerant of others leads to great destruction, pain, and death. Sometimes, the people being affected by the intolerance have their own intolerance against their persecutors, with a few notable exceptions. Even in modern times, money fuels the prejudice between businessmen and the workers they exploit. In the end, this intolerance isn’t necessarily based on the color of one’s skin, but instead on how one group of people has a prejudice against a different group of people who might threaten the wealth and power they’ve grown used to over the years. Aside from the obvious lesson that intolerance has been around for a long time, we also see that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 172 minutes / 2.87 hours

While Intolerance covered about 2.5 centuries of stories, some modern films have gone from the beginning of time to the present day. The Tree of Life (2011) didn’t have nearly as many stories to tell, but the range was much greater. In contrast, Cloud Atlas (2012) only covers just over 450 years. However, Cloud Atlas examines the future as well via its parallel stories. While other movies that cover long timespans in short chunks will use the collective history lesson to sell a moral, Cloud Atlas speculates what the distant future will be based on what we know about human behavior. More to the point, Cloud Atlas shows us how individuals can span centuries in various forms, sometimes taking the spotlight or sometimes acting in a supporting role. Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, I think we can all agree humans have the same basic thought processes that affect global history.

Actions have consequences, even if they’re not immediately apparent. Individuals who support the abolition of slavery in 1849 could affect the post-apocalyptic world of Hawaii in 2311. For instance, the 1849 journal of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) could influence Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), who gains credit for “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” via blackmail. This piece of music could influence Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a journalist in 1973 San Francisco who escapes an assassination attempt after uncovering a nuclear conspiracy. Rey’s life could be novelized and read by Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), who is accidentally committed to an asylum. Cavendish’s memoir could be turned into a movie that helps shape the revolution of the human clone known as Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) in 2144 Seoul. This revolution leads to Zachry (Tom Hanks) and his tribal people worshipping Sonmi-451 in 2331.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 timeless tales

#334. Amnesia

What were we talking about? Oh yes, amnesia. While this trope is usually associated with soap operas, it has been used in a variety of diverse formats and for a variety of different reasons. Sometimes the effect can be used for humorous purposes, much like the plot of 50 First Dates (2004). More often than not, amnesia is used to make the protagonist more relatable to the audience. Everything the main character re-learns is new information to the audience. In fact, this trope is typically used to not only provide lengthy exposition but to also give the plot a good twist at the end. If anything, amnesia can make characters more dynamic: acting one way as they regain their memories, then having to make the decision to either revert to their former life or pick up their new one once they learn the truth. This week’s two films highlight amnesia as a plot device.

UnknownUnknown
Year: 2006
Rating: PG-13
Length: 85 minutes /  1.42 hours

The largest appeal of amnesia as a plot device is the erasure of any memories the main character would have that would bias their decision-making process. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). The little hints the main character gives himself to avenge his wife’s death only act to propel him into an unintentional bias that drives him to vengeance. While Memento covers a medical condition, temporary amnesia has its uses as a plot device as well. When key memories fall into place for temporary amnesiacs, the plot is driven forward by the exciting revelations. Films like Total Recall (1990) and Unknown (2011) hide assassins in plain sight. However, when the entire cast of characters contracts temporary amnesia, figuring out who’s who and each individual’s alliances makes for exceptional drama.

Not to be confused with the Liam Neeson film of the same name, Unknown (2006) starts with a group of men regaining consciousness and trying to figure out why they’re locked in an abandoned warehouse. They also need to deduce why one of them was tied up, another shot, and why the rest of them have other, various injuries. Slowly, they begin to piece together that they are part of a failed kidnapping due to an accidental chemical leak that put them in a temporary coma and erased their memories. As their memories return, each individual realizes they’re either a kidnapper or the kidnapped. When the mafia returns to unlock the warehouse, they proceed to eliminate the witnesses, not knowing that one of the individuals has just remembered his actual job: acting as an undercover cop to infiltrate the mob.

The Bourne IdentityThe Bourne Identity
Year: 2002
Rating: PG-13
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours

Memories are the moments that define our lives. We are who we are via the collected memories of our lives. These memories shape us and inform our decisions in life. If memories are erased, an individual can be molded into almost anyone. If a government can erase memories, they can create docile and obedient soldiers, much like was seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Of course, memories are much easier to erase when they’re part of a cybernetic interface. Films like Robocop (1987) and Ghost in the Shell (2017) show this digital memory erasure still comes with some problems, though. But what if a well-trained super soldier loses their memories? Would they continue to call upon their ingrained training, being able to perform all their duties without knowing how they got that way? Would they continue to kill without knowing why?

After an unidentified man is found floating in the Mediterranean by some local fishermen, he only has one clue to his identity: a safe deposit box in Switzerland. While he doesn’t know who he is, he does retain a plethora of useful skills. Opening the box in Zurich, the man learns he has multiple cover identities and opts to use the one of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Unfortunately, his presence is soon identified, and he has to run away, mostly unsure why he is being chased. As he comes in contact with more people from his past, Bourne learns he was a highly-trained assassin and part of Operation Treadstone. Because he carries no memories of his time as a CIA black ops operative, he decides he’s better off cutting ties with Treadstone. Unfortunately, Treadstone does not want to lose an asset as valuable as Jason Bourne and will fight him to bring him back into the program.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 awesome amnesias

#248. Erased Memories

We all have memories we want to forget. Whether it’s the trauma of abuse from our youth or the stupid thing we said in an important meeting, everyone longs for a simple solution to erase our memories. Memory is such a fickle element of our minds, but it is usually driven by emotions. We are more likely to recall happy memories of a summer day when we smell a sun-drenched field. We are more likely to recall a hurtful breakup when a special song plays on the radio. We are more likely to recall an embarrassing firing when we see a particular business’ building. While just removing the stimulus for these memories is one way to help us forget, the underlying emotions still linger. As scientists research methods of restoring the memories of Alzheimer patients, nobody is performing the corollary research to help people forget. This week’s two films look at the repercussions of erasing one’s memories.

                                      Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Year: 2004
Rating: R
Length: 108 minutes / 1.8 hours

One of the most emotional times of a person’s life is during a relationship. There are the highs of the original infatuation, lingering thoughts, and spontaneous romance, but there are also the lows of disagreements, fights, and (sometimes) an eventual break-up. Needless to say, a break-up is one of the most depressing events that can happen in a person’s life (right up there with losing a job). Because the ending of a relationship is such a difficult set of emotions to deal with, all the previous, enjoyable emotions and memories are spoiled by the eventual split. We tend to associate songs, places, and items to our relationships that would otherwise have no emotional link in our lives. In removing our memories of these things, we can completely forget the relationship, were it not for the gaping hole in our heart that is still left behind.

Lacuna, Inc. is a firm based in New York City that can remove memories from a person’s brain. The main application of Lacuna’s technology is to remove memories of relationships. After Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) had her memories erased, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) followed suit, undergoing the procedure after he learned she erased the memories of their time together. While in his subconscious, Joel attempts to save the good memories of the relationship, while having the bad memories fade away. Of course, Lacuna, Inc. is not above reproach in these procedures, their many employees using the technology to establish relationships with clients and erase their own infidelities. One of the employees learns about this and manages to steal these reports and disseminates them to all of Lacuna’s clients, giving them a second chance to decide their own fate.

Total RecallTotal Recall
Year: 1990
Rating: R
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours

Because neural science is such a delicate field of medicine, little can be done to restore or erase memories. Granted, erasing memories can be easily achieved by blunt head trauma, but restoring them is a bit trickier. Perhaps this is why the idea of erasing and restoring memories is such a good topic for science fiction. Philip K. Dick has two short stories that deal with targeted memory erasure (like in Paycheck (2003)) and targeted memory restoration (like in Total Recall (1990)). Of course, the memory restoration in Total Recall is merely an accident, as the true ability of Rekall’s equipment is to implant false memories into a person’s mind to make them think they had actually done something they never had. Restoring true memories to a person’s mind is much more difficult, mostly due to the numerous variables at play when a memory is created (like in Inception (2010)).

Unlike Lacuna, Inc., Rekall is a company that implants memories of relaxing vacations into its clients’ minds. Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is an unassuming working-man who decides to get the procedure to satisfy his dreams of going to Mars. When the technician encounters a problem, Rekall erases the memories of Quaid’s visit to their facility. However, upon being attacked on his way home, Quaid finds the “secret agent” memories that were supposedly part of his Rekall vacation are still in his mind. In reality, he was a secret agent all along, but the memories of his job were erased after he was no longer needed. Now that his secret agent abilities have been reawakened, Quaid proceeds to take a trip to Mars to fulfill the dreams that had haunted him and provoked him to visit Rekall in the first place.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 missing memories

#226. Meta-writers

Many years ago, shortly after I started this blog, I wrote about the idea that a film could be “self-aware.” As a reminder, these films know what genres they are a part of, and use that to their advantage to poke fun at the genre, while also being fully complicit in it. The “awareness” of these movies is a behind-the-scenes nod to the audience to let them know everything they are watching is all in good fun. That being said, there are a few films out there that take the more out-in-front approach to “awareness.” These films not only show you they are aware of their existence; they often feature the writer of the plot as its main character. As such, the screenwriters of these movies would be considered “meta-writers,” since the film self-references itself via its writer protagonist (or antagonist). This week’s two films feature meta-writers.

Stranger than FictionStranger than Fiction
Year: 2006
Rating: PG-13
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours

Narration can be an interesting way to tell a story. Sometimes, the narrator is the main character. Sometimes, the narrator is an eternal entity like God or Death. Sometimes, the narrator is a third-party observer. Whoever the narrator ends up being, they bring a personal touch to the plot because the story is being told by somebody. The most common forms of narrators are in stories that are either a first-person narration or a third-person omniscient. An author who does not want to constrain themselves to a single character will often use the latter “voice” when narrating a story. In this way, the audience will sometimes know more than the main character, adding to dramatic tension. But what if you suddenly started hearing the author’s voice, narrating your life in the third-person omniscient voice? What would you do?

Writer’s block is as much a problem for new writers as it is for experienced ones. Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is known for writing novels where the main character tragically dies, but she’s having trouble figuring out how to kill off her most recent character, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). To make things worse, one day Harold shows up at her home and says he’s been hearing her voice narrating his life. This revelation concerns Karen, who now wonders how many real people she has killed in her novels over the years. Unfortunately, this meeting leads to Karen finishing a draft of the final scenes where Harold is set to die. Having met Harold, she is conflicted with publishing this ending. While it would make the work a masterpiece with Harold’s death, she can’t bring herself to kill an innocent man who lives in the real world.

Seven PsychopathsSeven Psychopaths
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 110 minutes / 1.83 hours

Much like the looping and repeated timelines that frequent science fiction films, many meta films will end up revealing their origins within the very story they are currently telling. A fine example of this would be the 2002 film, Adaptation. In it, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (portrayed by Nicholas Cage) has some writer’s block as he attempts to adapt a book into a film. In the process of breaking through his block, he ends up writing himself into the film, thus resulting in the meta-writer recursion. If anything, these types of films allow for a fusion of the first-person narration and third-person omniscient voices, just due to the fact that the “god” who creates the story of the film is also often the main character. Another such example of the meta-writer recursion can be found in the 2012 action-comedy, Seven Psychopaths.

As is usually the case in these meta-writer films, Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter struggling to pad out his screenplay for Seven Psychopaths. He already has two or three of the psychopaths figured out, but when his friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), puts an ad in the local paper for any psychopaths in Los Angeles to contact Marty, he soon finds himself face-to-face with Zachariah Rigby (Tom Waits) a serial killer who killed serial killers. Meanwhile, Billy continues his dog-stealing business, which causes Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), another psychopath, to come after Billy and Marty after his Shih Tzu is stolen. To add to Charlie’s ire, Billy just killed his cheating girlfriend, revealing himself to be psychopaths #1 and #7. With their friend and fellow psychopath, Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken), the group heads to the desert to finish the manuscript and have a final shootout with Charlie.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 meta manuscripts

#172. Blindness

In a medium that so heavily relies on visuals, blind characters make for interesting plot points. It can be easy to show the audience something that other characters don’t get to see, even if they aren’t blind. However, when the audience sees the events unfolding around a blind person, they’ll want to shout out, knowing that the character cannot see what’s happening. Often, this is used for comedic effect, since the oblivious character has no idea how close to destruction they have come. On the flip side, the audience is impressed if a blind person can avoid danger, but even more impressed if they can fight it off. We are often inspired by those who can overcome their handicaps, and blindness is just such an example. This week’s two films examine some characters who are affected by blindness.

City LightsCity Lights
Year: 1931
Rating: G
Length: 87 minutes / 1.45 hours

There have been a few blind people who have become famous for being able to overcome their blindness. For instance, Helen Keller was not only blind but deaf as well. She still managed to live an inspiring life. Fortunately for the world of music, Ray Charles wasn’t deaf. However, he made it a point to not let his handicap hinder his life. He may have been blind, but he never let it stop him from changing the musical landscape into what we hear today. Still, even though many people can live normal lives with blindness, those of us who can see will often give them charity. Blindness does limit a person’s life somewhat, so we are more than willing to help those who cannot see. When it comes down to it, the kindness of strangers can be brought out through the simple acts of helping those who need help.

On a day like any other, a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) was selling flowers on a street corner when a man came by and bought one of her wares. She tried to give him his change, but he had already left. The next day, the man continued his generosity by buying out the girl’s entire supply. He then drove her home in a very fancy car, which contrasted the small apartment where she lived with her grandmother (Florence Lee). The man reads a letter to her, which informs them that the two women will be evicted from their apartment soon if they don’t pay up. Feeling moved by their plight, the man promises to help obtain the money. Furthermore, he has learned of an operation that could restore the girl’s sight, which is also expensive. When the girl receives the money, the man disappears. Now that she can see, she keeps watch at her flower shop for a wealthy benefactor, only to find the man is not who she thought he was.

The Book of EliThe Book of Eli
Year: 2010
Rating: R
Length: 118 minutes / 1.97 hours

Blindness can be caused in many ways. Sometimes it’s a medical abnormality that steals someone’s sight. Other times, it’s caused by external forces. Your mother always told you to never look directly at the sun and to not sit too close to the television because she didn’t want you to go blind. However, what if your eyes were damaged from something else? In the case of the superhero known as Daredevil, he was blinded by chemicals but soon finds his other senses heightened to the point that his blindness is actually a superpower. In these instances, fighting in conditions like darkened rooms and heavy fog can actually be an advantage to the blind. But, what if the world enters a post-apocalyptic era where the sun could easily blind someone, even if they don’t look directly at it? Will it become a case of the blind leading the blind?

For 30 years, the world has been reeling from a nuclear apocalypse which has caused the sun to shine a much harsher light on the land. A traveler by the name of Eli (Denzel Washington) makes his way into a town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman). It turns out that both men can read, which is a rare skill after the apocalypse destroyed most of the literature in the world. When Carnegie learns Eli has a particular book in his possession, he sets out to get that book. Unfortunately, Eli is skilled at fighting and can fend off wave after wave of attackers. SPOILER ALERT Eventually, Carnegie gets the book Eli was holding: a copy of the Bible. With this book in hand, Carnegie had plans to control the region but soon realizes this won’t be possible because the book is written in braille. Freed from Carnegie’s pursuit, Eli arrives in San Francisco, where he recites the whole Bible from memory. Now it can be printed again.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 sightless stories

#161. Philip K. Dick

If there were one author who could spawn some of the greatest stories ever written, it would be Philip K. Dick. This prolific writer wrote almost 50 novels and nearly three times as many short stories in his 30-year career. Even though his life was cut short at 53 due to a stroke, his influence and stories have taken on a new life on the silver screen. In fact, only a few months after his death, the most celebrated of all film adaptations of his works was released: Blade Runner (1982). This first adaptation of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? paved the way for many other adaptations, even if some of them weren’t as critically acclaimed as Blade Runner. This week, we will examine two films adapted from the prolific works of Philip K. Dick, extending his legacy out decades past his untimely death.

PaycheckPaycheck
Year: 2003
Rating: PG-13
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours

One of the many themes we see through Dick’s writings is that of the mind. Even though we often consider our memories to be “truth,” we can usually be mistaken based on many factors including our perception of a situation in hindsight. If our memories can be adjusted due to a mere suggestion, what’s to say that memories can’t be removed or implanted? For instance, in We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, Dick writes about implanting memories of a lifestyle different from your own, dreary existence. This was adapted in Total Recall (1990 and 2012). Similarly, what if we can “remember” the future? What if knowing what will happen in the next two minutes could save your life? This is the plot of Next (2007), an adaptation loosely based on the short story, The Golden Man. Finally, the short story, Paycheck (2003), seeks to regain erased memories.

The erased memories of Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) aren’t helping him out in the slightest. After a three-year job that was supposed to net him an obscenely large paycheck, he instead receives a smattering of random items with a total value under $5. To add insult to injury, the payroll office tells him that he signed away his fortune to replace it with those items a few weeks ago. Furthermore, the government wants to know what he was working on, which starts a game of cat-and-mouse as Michael evades the FBI and tries to retrace his steps to regain his memories. Along the way, the items he received as payment come in handy during crucial events, allowing him to continue to elude the federal agents and infiltrate the company where he worked for three years. Once he finds the machine he helped build, suddenly the items he gave himself make a lot more sense.

A Scanner DarklyA Scanner Darkly
Year: 2006
Rating: R
Length: 100 minutes / 1.67 hours

A few more themes often seen in the works of Philip K. Dick involve the government controlling our lives, as well as the effects of drugs on society. The adaptation of Minority Report (2002), which was a short story of the same name, shows how criminals can be controlled by a triad of psychics who can predict when and where crimes will happen, thereby allowing law enforcement to intercept the criminals before they commit the crimes. Another short story, The Adjustment Team, was adapted as The Adjustment Bureau (2011). In this story, the government is in control of our lives and will do whatever it takes to make sure we live out our destinies according to their plans. However, perhaps the most harrowing example of governmental control is that of A Scanner Darkly (2006), based on the novel of the same name.

I say that A Scanner Darkly is harrowing because it involves constant government surveillance of American citizens. Sound familiar? Not only is this another take on the surveillance society imagined in George Orwell’s 1984, but the revelations of the NSA spying on Americans makes it almost a prophetic story. Of course, the reasons for the increased surveillance are due to the prevalent spread and use of a hallucinogenic drug known as “Substance D.” Even undercover agents, like “Fred” (Keanu Reeves), have trouble keeping clean from the drug as they try to figure out where it’s coming from. In a bit of irony, “Fred” is tasked to watch the surveillance tapes of a suspected drug lord, Bob Arctor. The irony is that “Fred” and Bob are the same person, even if the drugs have caused him to think otherwise.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 stupendous science fiction stories

#159. Mindbenders

The medium of cinema has long been able to represent ideas that are impossible to see in real life. Whether it’s multiple personalities, the concept of time travel, or the high of illicit drug use, movies have been able to give an audience a look into a world that they would not otherwise be privy to. Through the use of special effects or just plain artistic license, filmmakers can make the intangible tangible. If a movie can make an audience stop and think, even if it is only for a moment, about the oddities of the psychological world around us, then it could be considered a Mindbender movie. For the most part, these films are best described as movies that require a second viewing immediately after the credits roll the first time. This week’s films examine two such movies that push the envelope of human understanding and cause us to rethink reality.

Fight ClubFight Club
Year: 1999
Rating: R
Length: 139 minutes / 2.32 hours

Every once in a while, you come across a film that requires an immediate second viewing. These films have such a shocking twist ending that you can’t help but wonder if the signs were there the whole time. One such film for me was Memento (2000). As the film progressed, the monochrome and color segments didn’t make too much sense together, but in the end, when they finally meet, everything came together and formed a cohesive narrative. As such, once the “trick” was figured out, a second viewing added a whole new level of depth to the film. Fight Club (1999) is a very similar film in this respect because of the representation of what goes on in a character’s mind. With Memento, it was short-term memory loss, but with Fight Club, the challenge of figuring out what’s real and what’s not ends up requiring a second viewing to catch everything.

What would you do if you found yourself in a dead-end job, unable to sleep, and homeless due to a freak gas leak? Well, if you’re the Narrator of Fight Club (Edward Norton), you’d make friends with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a soap salesman who has a rich and colorful history as varied as the jobs he’s held. When they move to live in an abandoned house, things start getting out of hand. In order to vent out all the pent up rage of being stuck in a mundane existence, the Narrator and Tyler start Fight Club, an underground battle arena. Continuing to grow upon word-of-mouth, the Fight Club becomes something much larger, and much more resembling a terrorist organization. Now, what if you were to find out Tyler wasn’t who you thought he was? In the mind-bending ending to Fight Club, the frightening reality of the mind’s power is fully brought to light.

Donnie DarkoDonnie Darko
Year: 2001
Rating: R
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours

For some reason, many “Mindbender” films end up being considered cult classics. This is probably due to several factors. First is the aforementioned “immediate second viewing,” which forces audiences to really focus on the movie, instead of just watching for entertainment. Secondly, the imagery used in these films can be seen as more artistic than a normal movie, thus spreading in popularity through a more viral nature, even if it was critically panned. While Fight Club definitely fits in the cult category, other cult classic Mindbenders would include Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Inception (2010). The visual aspects of these films certainly help to tell a story that’s complex and intricate. For Donnie Darko (2001), and its “time travel” undertones, the visual feel of the film, as well as its ideas and themes, helped to create a cult classic Mindbender.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is your average 1980s teenager. Well, average except for a few abnormalities. First of all, he sees visions of a giant and creepy rabbit. Secondly, he narrowly missed being killed by an errant jumbo jet engine crashing into his bedroom. Also, he knows when the world will end. Perhaps due to these abnormalities, Donnie commits some fairly impressive crimes that bring the quiet suburbia into an uproar. At first glance, Donnie Darko seems like an ordinary teenage angst film, but under the surface lies an intriguing science fiction. “Philosophy of Time Travel” is the name of the book given to Donnie that does a pretty good job of explaining the intricacies of the impossible. By the end of the film, the world hasn’t ended, but time has traveled full circle to Donnie’s demise.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 marvelous Mindbenders

#144. Con Artists

To succeed in this life, all you really need is confidence. No one is going to hire someone without confidence. Similarly, girls won’t go out with guys who don’t have confidence. And yet, if you say something with a deep conviction and confidence, there’s a chance you can get everyone else to believe it. This is where confidence (or “con” for short) can get you into trouble. If you can get enough people to believe something which will end with them giving you money, you can live pretty comfortably. However, this is considered fraud and, if you get caught, you’re liable to do some time in prison. This is why the genuinely successful con-men are regarded as artists of their craft: it takes real skill to not get caught in the web of lies. This week’s two films look at some successful con artists.

Catch Me if You CanCatch Me if You Can
Year: 2002
Rating: PG-13
Length: 141 minutes / 2.35 hours

As many parents know, if you say something with confidence, your child will believe you. The real trick comes when your child has more confidence than you do and can convince you of many erroneous facts. While ignorance on the receiving end helps cement the lies of confidence, there’s something to the innocence of youth that helps pull off some complex cons. Of course, in situations like those portrayed in Paper Moon (1973), the child is often part of the con and not the one singularly running the scam. Take the case of Frank Abagnale Jr., a kid who ran away from home when he was only a teenager and managed to milk $2.8 million from a major airline. When it comes to such large amounts of money, the cons become more elaborate to remain hidden but often require a life on the run.

Some of the most successful con artists are the ones who perfect a persona and use it in different locales to make their money. While this requires a lot of moving around, what if your persona was of someone who frequently traveled anyway? What if you were a fake pilot? Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) has run away from home and done just that. Posing as a pilot for Pan Am, he figured out a way to travel all across the country without actually flying a plane while also managing to rake in a paycheck. But one persona is not good enough for him. As soon as he adopts the personas of doctor and lawyer, this lands him in a relationship with Brenda Strong (Amy Adams). Unfortunately, Frank needs to keep running as Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is always on his tail, trying to fulfill his duty as an FBI agent: stomping out the source of some significant fraud.

The StingThe Sting
Year: 1973
Rating: PG
Length: 129 minutes / 2.15 hours

While the tale of Frank Abagnale Jr. is impressive, it’s actually quite rare. Most cons require multiple people to pull off. Whether it’s a handful like in Matchstick Men (2003), a small group like in The Italian Job (2003), or eleven in Ocean’s Eleven (1960/2001), the more people involved in the con make it easier to execute. It’s harder to discount the word of one person when it matches up with so many others. This adds credence to the lies. And yet, the more people you get to work on a con, the more ways the money has to be split, which is why many choose to only trust one other person for the job. Even though there have been many movies about heists (even more so in recent years, probably due to financial and economic difficulties), The Sting (1973) stands out as the best, having (legitimately) won an Oscar for Best Picture.

A con is only a good con if you don’t get caught. If someone finds out you conned them out of a lot of money, you’re going to have hell to pay. If that someone just happens to be a powerful mob boss, you don’t stand a chance. This is just such the case with Johnny “Kelly” Hooker (Robert Redford), who has managed to anger Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), a man who will kill to get his money back. Of course, Johnny not only runs away to Chicago, but he also looks up famous grifter Henry “Shaw” Gondorff (Paul Newman) to convince him to team up and go for all the money Lonnegan’s got. Since Henry is trying to hide from the FBI, he is hesitant to do something too big; but eventually, he agrees and pulls out one of the most elaborate cons ever: creating a fake horse racing betting house. It takes a lot of work, but will Lonnegan figure out he’s being played again, or are Johnny’s and Henry’s lives forfeit?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 classic cons

#016. All-Star line-up

Often, people will go to see a movie merely based on who is in it. After all, almost every movie poster in existence highlights the lead actor or actress as a means to get people into the theater. Generally, these actors and actresses are highlighted because they are good at what they do, be it action, drama, or comedy. They are stars of their profession. So, it stands to reason that if one star can elicit a monetary response from moviegoers, a whole lot of stars could exponentially increase that amount. If one star makes a movie good, a lot of them will make it great! Of course, that’s not always the case, as the 2010 film, The Expendables, showed us. There needs to be cohesion between the stars in order to make a great film. This week’s two films highlight some all-star casts that work well together.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World                                              It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Year: 1963
Rating: G
Length: 154 minutes / 2.57 hours

The cast list from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) reads like a “who’s who” of comedy. Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, and Buddy Hackett just to name a few. That’s not even mentioning the plethora of other comedy legends that made cameo appearances throughout the film. Jack Benny, Stan Freberg, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, and even the Three Stooges had screen-time in this film. With so many funny people showing up, you just know that the antics of this movie must be absolutely hilarious.

What makes this film so fun, aside from the star-studded cast, is the frantic way that so many people travel to get the first chance to find a buried treasure. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The movie starts with a car crash, where it is revealed that the driver was on his way to pick up his hidden treasure of $350,000. The four groups of people who were there to help immediately get the idea that they can strike it rich by discovering the treasure themselves. They just have to find it first, by any means possible. Driving, running, flying, boating, or any other method that can get them to the fabled “X” that marks the spot is utilized to fulfill these characters’ lust for money.

Ocean’s Eleven
Year: 2001
Rating: PG-13
Length: 116 minutes /1.93 hours

Where the stars in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World may have gone to Clown College, the “Rat Pack” in the original Ocean’s 11 certainly graduated from the Cool School. The group of singers more commonly referred to as “The Rat Pack” included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. The challenge presented to the 2001 remake was to be able to re-create a group of actors who were popular by themselves but made a dynamic team when put together. Of course, they could never replace the Rat Pack, but George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Matt Damon and even Carl Reiner (mentioned above) seemed to do a pretty good job, considering their predecessors.

In Ocean’s Eleven, George Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a recently released prisoner (much like the thief in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) who is ready to settle the score with Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). A clever con-man, Ocean gathers up some of his usual friends to start planning the biggest heist in Las Vegas history. Three casinos store all their money in one super-secure vault, and it’s Danny’s goal to take all that money. Why? Because it all belongs to Mr. Benedict. Of course, he can’t do it alone. With his few friends, he gathers more, until there are eleven guys ready to perform an intricate plan to get through the various countermeasures and end up with more money than they’d ever know what to do with.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 great groups of actors

#008. Fractured Storylines

Occasionally, a movie comes along that requires a second viewing. Usually, this is due to a fractured storyline. When the plot unfolds in a non-linear or non-forward fashion, many details can be missed the first time the film is seen. With so many movies pandering themselves as thoughtless entertainment, it is refreshing to see some films that require the audience to pay attention. This week’s two movies require the viewer to piece the story together, even if it takes a few times to do so.

Pulp FictionPulp Fiction
Year: 1994
Rating: R
Length: 154 minutes / 2.56 hours

I feel that one of the strengths of a good movie is a solid understanding of continuity and connections. It’s very simple, very Newtonian: cause and effect. Nothing happens in a vacuum, but instead, each action affects many other aspects of the film in ways that the characters don’t quite understand, but the audience is given full privy to. And yet, each piece of the plot gives a depth to the characters that perhaps wasn’t understood at first glance. This is what makes re-watching films like Pulp Fiction (1994) enjoyable. When you can see that a certain character acts a certain way early on in the film because of something that was revealed later as a semi-flashback, it almost makes it so you’re watching a whole new film.

Pulp Fiction starts out with a conversation about robberies and gets interrupted to tell the story of two hitmen (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) who were sent by Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) to pick up a mysterious briefcase. We then get to see Vincent (Travolta) take Mrs. Marsellus Wallace (Uma Thurman) out on a date. From the previous section of the plot, we can see why Vincent is a little bit nervous about this, especially when Mrs. Wallace gets into trouble. We then move on to a story involving a boxer (Bruce Willis) and a gold watch. It’s through this storyline that we finally meet Marsellus Wallace, albeit not in any measure of pleasant circumstances. Just when you think you’ve figured out the flow of Pulp Fiction‘s plot, it jumps back to the end of the hitmen saga, when Jules (Jackson) comes to the realization that they were saved by a miracle. Of course, another act of God gets them in trouble, and eventually, the audience finds themselves back in the diner where the film started. Full circle. The diner scenes act as a set of bookends that tie the three plots together and makes one wonder what they missed on a first glance.

Memento
Year: 2000
Rating: R
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours

While Christopher Nolan is certainly a big-name director after the successes of Inception (2010) and his reboot of the Batman franchise, his first few films tended to be very psychological. In fact, his very first film, Following (1998), was a black and white shattered plotline that becomes pieced together as the movie progresses. Memento (2000) took that idea and gave it a more linear flow. The first time I watched Memento, my mind was blown. I almost had to sit down and immediately watch it again, because now I knew what I was looking for in the strange progression of the plot.

Memento tells the story of Leonard (Guy Pearce) who suffers from short term memory loss and is searching for his wife’s killer. To keep two storylines separate, one is presented in black and white, while the other remains in color. SPOILER ALERT: The black and white segments progress a forward plot where the sections in color give a plot told in reverse. Therefore, when the movie starts, the audience gets a view of both the beginning and end of the plot and watch as it progresses toward a climactic middle. The method of breaking up the storylines, both forward and in reverse, gives a greater understanding of the main character’s memory loss condition, as the audience has seen what will happen, and not what has happened.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 non-traditional plot flows