#286. Inside the Mind

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

This quote by Arthur Fletcher can be interpreted in many ways aside from its original intent. One of these additional interpretations could be that the imaginations and creative muses of all people are unique and should not be ignored. After all, with as many new and interesting pieces of media being created each day, there seem to be no limitations to what our minds can do. Unfortunately, this power can be a bit overwhelming to some. Much like savants, who have startling mental prowess, usually at the detriment of social skills, many with mental disorders will have overactive minds. When the line between true reality and perceived reality is blurred, problems ensue. This week’s two films examine the effects of overactive minds and what the world looks like inside of them.

A Beautiful MindA Beautiful Mind
Year: 2001
Rating: PG-13
Length: 135 minutes / 2.25 hours

If Inside Out (2015) taught us anything, it’s that a lot goes on inside a person’s mind. Besides the variety of emotions we can experience, it’s where we go to solve complex problems, recall memories, or engage our imagination. But what if our imagination compensates for other aspects of our lives? What’s difficult to understand about mental disorders is that people who seem normal on the outside can have their own internal struggles as well. Often, we are shocked to learn some famous person suffered from depression, mania, or multiple personality disorder. If we can overcome the stigma of issues of the mind, perhaps some headway could be made on the medical front to solve some of these maladies. Of course, sometimes it’s these different mental conditions that give people the creativity and intelligence to solve some of the world’s most interesting problems.

Upon arriving at Princeton University in 1947, John Nash (Russell Crowe) meets his roommate, Charles Herman (Paul Bettany). While John is an up-and-coming mathematician, he gets along with the literary student. One evening, while he socializes with his mathematic friends at a local bar, he accidentally develops a new theory of governing dynamics. This new theory allows him to move to MIT, where Nash meets Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly). He has to be careful around her not to reveal the work he’s doing for the government via his handler, William Parcher (Ed Harris), as it could jeopardize the whole operation. Partly because of this, Alicia becomes suspicious and learns John imagines some of the people in his life. She stays with him through his treatment, despite the difficulties it places on their marriage.

Sucker PunchSucker Punch
Year: 2011
Rating: PG-13
Length: 110 minutes / 1.83 hours

When the world is too difficult to handle, sometimes the only way to make it bearable is to retreat into our minds. If we fabricate fantasies to help us perform simple tasks just to get through our day, then it can be easier to deal with the harsh realities of our situation. The trouble with this approach is understanding where the line between fantasy and reality lies. After an extended time in a fantasy, it becomes difficult to know what reality is. This was one of the main problems encountered in Inception (2010). Manipulating dreams inside the mind of a target is just as dangerous for the target as it is for those manipulating the dreams. Because it’s easier to create a world where everything works out, suddenly reality no longer has its appeal. I suspect that becoming trapped in our minds will increasingly become a problem as virtual reality becomes more ubiquitous.

After being wrongfully admitted to a mental institution, Babydoll (Emily Browning) escapes into her mind to deal with the harsh realities of her new life. Imagining her new home as a brothel, she connects with four of the other “dancers” in an attempt to escape. Since she is new to the brothel, she is asked to perform a dance. When she begins to move, she delves even deeper into another fantasy world, fighting robotic samurai giants as part of her “dance.” Recognizing her trance-inducing dancing, she continues to dive into these deeper fantasies in order to obtain four items to help her escape. Unfortunately, the owner of the brothel, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) gets wise of their plan and Babydoll has to realize the escape she has been planning isn’t for her, but for one of the other girls. When reality is revealed again, a lobotomy has erased everything in Babydoll’s mind as one of the girls boards a bus to freedom.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 mental manipulations

#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

#246. The Price of Simulation

What is reality? Is it the things we see? The ability to touch something? Do you have to smell or taste it? If we believe what our senses tell us, then reality is the manifestation of those sensory inputs. With the proliferation of screens and technology, a few of these senses might be tricked into thinking something is real when it is merely a simulation. All of our senses can be fooled, but if we’re oblivious to it, our perception of reality will remain unchanged. Similarly, if we know something is a simulation, we are likely to take more risks because we know the consequences are limited. We place such an inherent trust in reality that when our trust is broken, our minds have a difficult time processing it. This week’s two films highlight the dangers of simulation and the price paid for replacing reality.

Ender’s GameEnder's Game
Year: 2013
Rating: PG-13
Length: 114 minutes / 1.9 hours

Perhaps the best example of the simulation/reality dichotomy is that of the Matrix franchise. At the start of The Matrix (1999), Neo (Keanu Reeves) finds out that everything he’s ever known has essentially been a dream inputted directly into his brain by post-apocalyptic machines. It takes some time, but once he realizes the Matrix is a simulation, Neo evolves to a point where he can control the physics of it. By The Matrix Reloaded (2003), he has mastered the simulation of the Matrix but is now also limited by the reality of the real world. When it comes right down to it, Neo’s acceptance of the simulation allowed him to break the barriers that would normally be placed upon him in the real world. Of course, the simulation of Ender’s Game (2013) is a little different, as it was put in place to protect the savior of the human race from the startling reality of war.

Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) attracts the attention of Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) due to his aptitude in simulated space combat. Ender shows that he knows how to play the game and will win at all costs, which leads Colonel Graff to send the child to a Battle School in outer space. While there, Ender continues to show his technological dominance while also quickly developing strategy skills to use in a zero-gravity training room. In his spare time, he plays a game set in a fictional world that is meant to test his mental strength. Having arrived at the top of his class, Ender is taken to the battlefront and given the task to complete war-time simulations between the enemy Formics and the united forces of Earth. While he has some losses, he does eventually win his way to the final level: a battle at the Formics’ home planet. Only after his victory does he learn the horrifying truth.

The Truman ShowThe Truman Show
Year: 1998
Rating: PG
Length: 103 minutes / 1.72 hours

Technology has always been a vehicle for simulation, but it will always have its limitations. From the visual obstacle of the “uncanny valley” to the difficult-to-replicate smells of our daily lives, sometimes the best simulation for reality is reality itself. Many technological simulations must rely on peripherals like screens and speakers to convey its version of reality. If these output devices aren’t needed, then the simulation imitates life just that much better. Just like a play on a stage will evoke a greater sense of reality than a movie on a screen, the amount of freedom we are given as observers to notice the minutia not directly related to the primary action of the scene merely enhances the simulation. But what if someone went so far as to create an entire simulation around a single individual? An entire world would need to be created to accurately simulate this person’s life.

The simulated world of Seahaven was created to house the single, unsuspecting subject of a long-running television show: Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey). Behind the curtain of this literal reality show is Christof (Ed Harris), the creator of the ambitious project to use Truman’s life as the basis of an un-scripted television phenomenon. However, the artifice of Seahaven cannot last forever. Now in its 30th year, “The Truman Show” is close to its series finale when Truman starts discovering cracks in the façade of his simulated world. The only thing keeping him on the island is the fear of water implanted in him from a fabricated story about the death of his father. Once he realizes the entire world revolves around him, he finally builds up enough courage to take sail and leave Seahaven. Despite Christof’s best efforts, Truman arrives at the edge of the world: a painted backdrop with a single exit door.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 suspect simulations

#143. Leonardo DiCaprio

As was shown in a post from a little more than a year ago, Leonardo DiCaprio has been acting for a very long time. So long, that we’ve seen him grow up on the big screen. While many groaned at the sight of his name attached to a movie (especially after Titanic (1997)), now we almost expect his name to be linked to a great performance. I think part of this was due to the directors who hired him (or maybe he chose them instead). In fact, just looking at a short list of directors he’s worked with reads like a “who’s who” of the Hollywood elite. Directors like Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, Sam Raimi, and Baz Luhrmann pepper the list. He’s even managed to collaborate on multiple Martin Scorsese films. This week’s two movies look at DiCaprio’s ever-developing career.

Django UnchainedDjango Unchained
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 165 minutes / 2.75 hours

One of the other directors Leonardo DiCaprio has worked with is Quentin Tarantino. This does not necessarily mean DiCaprio has not worked on an extremely violent movie. As I mentioned earlier in this post, he has worked on many occasions with Martin Scorsese. Two of these films were Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed (2006). Even though DiCaprio has played the hero in many films, one of the few in which he plays the villain is Django Unchained (2012). As such, no longer constrained to play the “good guy,” he seemed to have a lot of fun really getting into the passion of his character. With his boyish charm having evolved into the cleverness of manhood, DiCaprio no longer has to rely merely on his looks to get by, but rather on his superior acting talent honed over the years.

In Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio portrays southern plantation owner Calvin J. Candie. Aside from his love for speaking limited French and eating sweets (hence the name (and delicious pun) of his plantation: Candyland), Candie is very proud of his collection of Mandingos: slaves who are pitted against each other in fights to the death. One day, he’s approached by Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a man interested in purchasing one of his Mandingos. Schultz has brought along a freed slave by the name of Django (Jamie Foxx), who is a self-proclaimed expert in Mandingos. However, Candie’s head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) thinks the two men are there for something other than Mandingos. Eventually, the truth comes out and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), one of Candie’s female slaves, is sold to Dr. Schultz. And yet, this powder-keg of tension eventually comes to a head, with most people ending up dead.

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

I would be amiss if I did not mention, in this long list of great directors, that DiCaprio has also worked with Steven Spielberg. And yet, in Catch Me if You Can (2002), he plays another villain of sorts: the anti-hero. While we would like to root for the side of law enforcement, there’s just something about the chase that makes us root for the criminal. Even though the term “anti-hero” can be loosely applied in many applications, I tend to look at it as someone who is usually on the wrong side of the morals and laws we’ve all come to conform to, but who lives their life in such a way as to almost have a freedom from these constraints. And yet, the freedom they express is in order to fulfill a deep need that was not satisfied in more traditional means, thus causing the anti-hero to attempt to fill the void with what essentially boils down to crime.

Set in the mid-1960s, Catch Me if You Can stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale Jr., a teenager who has run away from home after his parents’ financial troubles lead to their divorce. Having earlier posed as a substitute French teacher, Frank has found that confidence is all he needs to get by in the world. Unfortunately, as he runs out of money while living on his own, he turns that confidence into cash when he poses as a pilot for Pan Am. After almost $3 million in fraud is committed, Frank is soon chased by Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), an FBI agent who narrowly misses catching Frank upon their first face-to-face meeting. And if being a pilot wasn’t enough, Frank soon becomes a doctor and a lawyer, which gets him a girl, Brenda (Amy Adams). Unfortunately, he has to leave Brenda when Carl gets too close again. Will Frank disappear for good, or will Carl follow the clues to find him?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 DiCaprio “villains”

Bacon #: 2 (J. Edgar / Clint Eastwood (directed) -> Mystic River (directed/ Kevin Bacon)

#046. Christopher Nolan

While the list of some of my favorite directors includes such geniuses as Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Chaplin, perhaps the greatest modern director in my mind is Christopher Nolan. With a consistent output of one movie every two years, Nolan not only entertains audiences but causes them to think. The psychological aspects of his films are really what draws my praise as a film critic. Anyone can blow something up (Michael Bay has shown us that), but it takes an exceptional director to get us to think about a film; to truly pay attention to what is going on. The first Christopher Nolan film I saw was Memento (2000), and while it is still my favorite, he has nevertheless continued to impress me with his directing prowess. This week’s two movies highlight some high points in his career.

Year: 2010
Rating: PG-13
Length: 148  minutes / 2.47 hours

Even though the films after Nolan’s sophomore work (Memento) were well done in their own right, none really captured the public’s attention quite like Inception (2010). Sure, Insomnia (2002) was a good remake, Batman Begins (2005) was the founding for something bigger, and The Prestige (2006) was a good period piece, but nothing impacted audiences like Inception. In fact, this film was Nolan’s first nomination for Best Picture. While it didn’t win that award, it took away four Oscars for Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects. When you consider the strange world of your dreams, these achievements come as no surprise.

The beauty of Inception lies with its intricacy. Of course, this is a trademark of a Christopher Nolan film. In Memento, two intertwining storylines with different temporal properties are fused together to slowly provide insight into the life of a mental patient. Similarly, little hints in The Prestige lead up to a big plot twist. Inception‘s intricacy comes in its layers. For Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to successfully plant an idea in someone’s head, he and his team of dream thieves need to delve into multiple layers of dreams to get deep enough so the idea will stick. And yet, if you go too far, you’ll end up in Limbo, a place between reality and death. How does Cobb know about Limbo? He’s been there before and is trying to recover his life because of it.

The Dark Knight Rises
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 165 minutes / 2.75 hours

If there’s one thing that frustrates me with franchises, it’s the trilogy. Many times, a single film is so successful that Hollywood demands a sequel. Then, since a sequel’s been made, why not finish it off with a third film to make a complete trilogy? The unfortunate truth is that many times, the sequels cannot live up to the first film, and actually diminish from the original’s impact. Nolan’s “Dark Knight” saga is the exception to this rule. Started back in 2005 with Batman Begins, Nolan laid the framework for a gritty and dark adaptation of the Batman franchise. In 2008, he stepped up his game in The Dark Knight by casting Heath Ledger as the most iconic Batman villain: The Joker. With The Dark Knight surpassing its predecessor, the 2012 trilogy conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises, had a lot to live up to.

Picking up eight years after the end of The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises sees a Gotham that no longer needs its hero. While crime has been down overall since the posthumous enaction of the Dent Act, it’s starting to climb again. From the shadows appears a man, Bane (Tom Hardy), who terrorizes Gotham into a corner. Do they adopt his message of anarchy, or do they look to the hero that they have shunned as a murderer and vigilante? After all, both sides of this fight are merely men. Hero versus villain. No special powers, no unique attributes. In the thrilling conclusion, can Batman (Christian Bale) save the day, or will Bane succeed in establishing his rule over a ruleless society?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 examples of cinematic perfection

Bacon #: 3 (These Amazing Shadows / Debbie Reynolds -> Rugrats in Paris: the Movie / John Lithgow -> Footloose / Kevin Bacon)

#045. Mind Control

The one thing most people feel is the most sacred part of their being is their mind. Many will pay good money to figure out what they are thinking, and entrust the inner workings of their minds to psychiatrists, physicians, and (occasionally) psychics. If you can guess what someone is thinking, they are usually impressed, especially if you have just met them for the first time. And yet, the mind is the one part of someone that is truly their own. Sure, you can influence a mind, you could damage it, or even force it to think what you want it to (like those pink elephants everyone’s thinking about these days). Still, if you can control someone’s mind without them knowing it, how much more power will you lord over them than if they are aware of it? This week’s two films cover covert invasions into the mind.

The Manchurian Candidate
Year: 1962
Rating: PG-13
Length: 126 minutes / 2.1 hours

Being able to control someone’s mind is like having an incredible tool at your disposal. Are you weak? Get a strong man to help. Are you unpopular? Get a popular person to make you one of them. Are you insignificant? Get someone with the power to do your bidding. The basis of mind control comes down to one thing: manipulation. Obviously, there is a goal in mind, but how can you get others to accomplish that goal for you? Especially when your goal requires more sinister acts, how can you get others to take the blame? The real challenge is finding the opportunity to control someone’s mind. What better opportunity is there than severe mental and emotional trauma?

Having just returned from the Korean War, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is having recurring nightmares. The nightmares are so vivid that he begins to question the reality of his waking world. He wonders if his military subordinate, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) actually won the Medal of Honor, and when he finds out that others from his unit have the same doubts, Ben starts to look for the deeper problem. With a few simple triggers and a deck of cards, Ben finds out that Raymond is a sleeper agent of the Communists. How convenient for America’s enemy to be in the mind of someone so close to a political figure, Raymond’s father, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). Or is there someone even more unexpected pulling the strings?

Year: 2010
Rating: PG-13
Length: 148 minutes / 2.47 hours

For centuries, people have been trying to figure out how their minds think. A lot of money and effort has gone into studying the mind and what influences it. Psychiatrists have written prolific amounts of papers on hypotheses and conjectures behind the meanings of certain thoughts or ideas. And yet, the area with the most variance from person to person would be their dreams. While dreams may be simple concoctions of our basest desires, they also reveal to us our mind’s true thoughts. The foundation of Inception (2010) deals with that smallest unit inside our minds: the thought. The idea. How best to control someone’s mind but to have them think they arrived at the conclusion themselves?

Master dream thief, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is in the business of information. If he can get in someone’s mind, in their dreams, he has ways of making their subconscious give him anything he wants to know. Or at least, his sponsors want to know. However, for him to get back to the life he has lost, he needs to do the exact opposite. To implant an idea in the head of a powerful businessman is the goal that most deem impossible, but Cobb is convinced he can do it. Gathering a crack team of experts in dream creation, he sets a plan in motion that will allow him to finally see his children again. Of course, in order to succeed, Cobb must confront his past while diving deeper into the world of dreams.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 invasions into the mind