IDENTITY: THE JOY OF LYING

 

Here at The Thread, we’ve always admired the people who lie for a living: writers, directors, actors. 

 Filmmakers tend to be obsessed with the slippery nature of identity.  Part of the reason is obvious: people who make movies are self-invented, and all too aware of the thin line between self-invention and self-delusion.   

 But as audience members, we are intrigued too: these movies give us the exhilarating opportunity to slip the chains of biography and experience what it might be like to live in someone else’s skin.

 The TV landscape is full of anti-heroes who have reinvented themselves: Don Draper, Walter White, Nicholas Brodie, Lucius Lion, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings.   And out of all the lists we’ve done, this was one of the hardest to pare down – where is Persona, Mulholland Drive, Jacob’s Ladder?

But since it’s the next to the last weekend of summer, we decided to keep it lighter and more superficial — even though our lead title is one of the first in the mouthwatering wave of indies and awards movies that will start in September.   

 

 Complete unknown
COMPLETE UNKNOWN (2016)

As Tom (Michael Shannon ) celebrates his birthday with a few friends, one of them turns up with the new girlfriend he’s been talking about.

Tom instantly recognizes Alice (Rachel Weisz) – they were lovers 20 years before.  Except then her name was Jenny, and she disappeared.

As it turns out, she has spent the intervening years in serial reinvention – every few years she takes on a new name, a new career, new lover, then disappears.

Over the course of the evening, she tries to convince him to discard the life, the wife, the friends he has carefully constructed and join her in a life of serial reinvention.

YouTube

 

 

Momento
MEMENTO (2000)

Young directors are particularly drawn to movies about identity, maybe because they are still caught up in the first frenzy of self-invention.  Faking it until they make it.

 Memento is an extended mind game – but so exceptionally clever, both in conception and execution, that it catapulted Christopher Nolan into the Hollywood mainstream.

Memento was Nolan’s second film.  Its hero (Guy Pearce) suffers from “anteretrograde amnesia” – he remembers who he is/was, but can’t make new memories.  By the end of a long conversation he will forget how it started.  He is battling his condition on a seemingly impossible quest to find his wife’s murderer-rapist — the only way he can move forward is by using tattoos, notes and Polaroids to inform his future self about what he’s discovered.

As you watch the movie, the situation of the protagonist begins to feel somehow universal.  Aren’t we all making it up as we go along — scrambling to construct a consistent personality by surrounding ourselves with bits and pieces of past days, writing notes and Facebook posts that help remind us who we are?

We were surprised to find it currently available only on iTunes: iTunes

 

 

The Usual Suspects
THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

Five years before Momento, The Usual Suspects was the pitch-perfect tour-de-force by fledgling director Bryan Singer that earned him his seat at the big boys’ table.

More playful than Momento, the hero of The Usual Suspects is also its villain. A petty con man, a cripple (Kevin Spacey in his breakout role) is being interrogated by a customs agent (Chazz Palmentieri) about the explosion of a cargo ship.  The con weaves an increasingly complicated tale about a lineup of colorful characters, all working under the shadow of a fearsome master criminal named Kayser Soze.

In the penultimate beat of the script, the con man walks out of the police station.  Only then does the interrogator realize that the whole story was made up on the spot using bits of information from postings on a billboard – and that the little rat he just let walk away is actually the fearsome crime lord.

Like Momento, Usual Suspects is a delightful mind game that rewards a second viewing not because of its subtlety or poetic vision, but because it is so perfectly executed.

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Catch Me If You Can
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)

OK, Steven Spielberg wasn’t exactly a struggling young director when he made his 23rd feature film in 2002.

But the movie is so blithe and breezy that it makes some of his masterpieces feel contrived.  Likewise with Leonardo DiCaprio’s zipless performance as Frank Abagnale, a high schooler who teaches himself to become a master forger and con artist — half because he’s driven and half because it’s just so fun and easy.

The film is based on a true story – as fiction it would be too unbelievable.  And while it’s nominally a “crime” story, it’s very light on malice aforethought.  The crimes are almost a byproduct of the hero’s discovery that he can live the American dream by just literally being anything he wants to be.

When his parents divorce, young Frank runs away and starts impersonating airline pilots, eventually branching out into law and medicine, meanwhile forging millions of dollars in checks.  He is pursued for years by an FBI agent played by Tom Hanks, who over the course of his pursuit develops a kind of bemused affection for the kid – even after he himself has been scammed.

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The Matrix
THE MATRIX (1999)

An exploration of identity for those who habitually live two parallel lives – one online and one in the material world.

We who grew up before computer games became immersive (and even before Dungeons and Dragons), the question of which world is “real” one is far more abstract Zen than it is for a teenage kid today, who regularly split their time between two or more identities .

Keanu Reeves (in a marvelously serendipitous stroke of casting) is Neo, a hacker in a future world who is contacted by mysterious forces.  He becomes awakened to the fact that the great mass of human beings, himself included, live in a dreamworld called the Matrix.  The Matrix is a virtual reality created by sentient machines, who maintain the human population in a perpetual state of suspended animation, harvesting their energy for machine sustenance.

Along with a group of awakened human steampunk rebels, including the woman Trinity, and the leader, Morpheus, Neo battles machine enforcers across layers of reality, trying to rescue the human race from total subjugation.

The monolithic success of The Matrix franchise and its progeny has many allures – it’s a mind game that aficionados  can watch again and again.  It’s a Zen parable for those of us caught up in the waking dream of consumer society.  And the cascade of meanings are rendered even more resonant by the fact that since the both the Wachowski siblings have lived the transformational dream — both transitioning from male to female.

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Open Your Eyes
OPEN YOUR EYES (1997)

We’re painfully aware that this list is short on female heros – at one point we thought of going down a very different with much more female driven list — Breakfast at Tiffany’s, My Fair Lady, Persona; but somehow the POV wasn’t quite jelling.

So at least Alejandro Amenabar’s mindbending Spanish language parable has pivotal female characters and crazy karmic kickback for its male protagonist.

The film starts with a series of layered frames – a young man awakes to a voice saying “Open your eyes…”, he wakes a second time with a woman in bed, and finally he finds himself in a Madrid  prison cell, talking to a psychiatrist.

Finally, (like Complete Unknown) the narrative anchors itself in flashback to a birthday party.  A handsome young playboy (Eduardo Noriega) wants to dump his current lay, and is attracted to a friend’s date (Penelope Cruz).  In layers of circular storytelling he lives through a horrible accident that destroys his precious face, he sleeps with the friend’s date, and he may or may not murder the woman he wants to be rid of.  But to complicate matters, much of  what he experiences may be artificial, implanted as he languishes in the laboratories of a suspended animation company.

If this all sounds familiar, it may be because the Cameron Crowe/Tom Cruise collaboration, Vanilla Sky, was a close remake – even down to casting Penelope Cruise as the second woman.

We like the Spanish original better.  Another throughline — it was a young Amenabar’s second film and it bought him a ticket to them mainstream.   He went on to make the clever and spooky The Others starring Nicole Kidman, and Spanish language Oscar winner The Sea Within.

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THE FUTURE ACCORDING TO HERZOG

Why is it that the future we see in science fiction is so uniformly dystopian?    

In theory, the fictional future could just as easily be visionary — a fountain of creative alternatives that would allow writers and directors endless ways to experiment with new technologies and social structures.

But futuristic comedies have been few and far between, and futuristic romances even rarer.  

Instead, futuristic fiction is dominated by cautionary tales of artificial intelligence run amuck — HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the more recent Ex Machina.

In the end, these movies warn us against our innate tendency to anthropomorphize technology. We can’t blame machines for being machines – the problems come when we humans get lazy and let ourselves start thinking they’re human.    

Who better than Werner Herzog to explore the positive and negative impact that technology will have on our future?

Lo-And-Behold-Header_1050_591_81_s_c1 LO AND BEHOLD, REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD (2016)

In this documentary the legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog explores the limits of our future in a connected world. The documentary is broken down into 10 Chapters. Herzog conducted interviews with cyberspace pioneers and prophets such as PayPal and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, Internet protocol inventor Bob Kahn, and famed hacker Kevin Mitnick.

These provoking conversations reveal the ways in which the online world has transformed how virtually everything in the real world works, from business to education, space travel to healthcare, and the very heart of how we conduct our personal relationships.

Herzog remains a presence throughout—intrigued as he is by the possibilities that technology may yet afford us, it’s hard not to suspect that Herzog agrees with the speaker who states “computers are the worst enemy of deep critical thinking.”

The virtual future may be now, but Lo and Behold with its thought-provoking insights and ideas, always feels persistently and defiantly human.

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exEX MACHINA (2014)

Alex Garland’s directorial debut, the stylish and cerebral thriller Ex Machina, stars Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant who wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).  Think along the lines of Google’s Sergey Brin.

Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test—charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence.

The experiment is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a stunning A.I. whose emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated––and more deceptive––than the two men could have imagined.

iTunes    Netflix     Amazon     Vudu

her HER (2013) 

Spike Jonze directs this original love story that explores the evolving nature and risks of intimacy in the modern world. Set in the Los Angeles of the slight future, Her follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a complex, soulful man who makes his living writing touching, personal letters for other people. Heartbroken after the end of a long relationship, he becomes intrigued with a new, advanced operating system. Upon initiating it, he is delighted to meet “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson), a bright, female voice who is insightful, sensitive and surprisingly funny.  The similarity here to Apple’s Siri was widely touted on the films release.

Smarter and more believable than it looks, Her is a surprisingly touching love story. Phoenix pouts and sulks while Johansson delivers her best performance to date—using only her voice.

Refreshingly, the operating systems speak with human inflection that is not bent on world domination, more insidiously believable than the Terminators and I, Robots of evil A.I. past.

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existenzeXistenZ (1999)

David Cronenberg’s film centers on ‘virtual reality’ game technology. Electronic games consoles have been replaced with organic “game pods,” which are attached to “bio-ports” installed in the user’s spine with an umbilical cord. The industry is controlled by two competing companies – both of whom are battling against a rebellious group known as “Realists,” who are determined to halt its progress.

Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) is the world’s top game designer—while introducing her latest game ‘eXistenZ’ she is shot by a Realist. Ted Pikul (Jude Law) rushes to her aid and helps her to escape– she convinces Pikul to have a bio-port of his own installed, so that she can safely test the game. They visit Gas (Willem Dafoe) to have a bio-port installed, only for him to betray them – installing a faulty pod in an attempt to kill Allegra.

eXistenZ is a tale of humankind self destructing through sheer greed. We invent a product and get hooked before we fully understand its implications and complications.

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20012001: A SPACE ODYESSY (1968) 

Directed by the visionary Stanley Kubrick and based on Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Sentinel.

U.S. scientist Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) travels to the moon to check out the discovery of a strange object on the moon’s surface: a black monolith. As the sun’s rays strike the stone, however, it emits a piercing, deafening sound that fills the astronauts headphones and stops them in their tracks.

Cutting ahead 18 months, astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) head toward Jupiter on the spaceship Discovery, accompanied by three hibernating astronauts and the voice-operated HAL 9000 computer which runs the entire ship.

When the all-too-human HAL malfunctions, he tries to murder the astronauts to cover his error, forcing Bowman to defend himself the only way he can. Free of HAL, and finally informed of the voyage’s purpose by a recording from Floyd, Bowman journeys to “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” and the completion of the monolith’s evolutionary mission.

Despite some initial critical reservations, 2001 became one of the most popular films of 1968. Provocatively billed as “the ultimate trip,” 2001 quickly caught on with a counterculture audience open to a contemplative viewing experience of a film. Since then it has been on every critic’s top list of Sci-Fi films.

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metropolis METROPOLIS (1927)

Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece, Metropolis is set in a future high tech city ruled by a powerful industrialist Joh Fredersen.

Together with the children of the workers, a woman named Maria reaches the Eternal Gardens where the sons of the city’s elite amuse themselves and where she meets Freder—Joh Fredersen’s son. Later he goes on a search for Maria and witnesses an explosion in a machine hall, where numerous workers lose their lives.

He realizes that the luxury of the upper class is based on the exploitation of the workers in the Catacombs. Finally he finds Maria, who gives the workers hope with her prophecies for a better future. News of Maria’s influence on the workers has spread to his father who fears for his power.

Enter the inventor Rotwang who tells Joh about his efforts to create a cyborg—he orders Rotwang to give Maria’s face to the robot in order to send it to the underground city to deceive and stir up its inhabitants. Once the robot Maria has succeeded, the workers destroy the Heart Machine and as a result the Workers City.

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