Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Movie Review: Ink

SPOILER LEVEL: Mild to Moderate - includes discussion of themes, but does not reveal the ending or other major plot points.

So, recently I signed up for a trial of one of those online DVD-rental services, figuring it might be a reasonably economical way to get to see some interesting films I might not otherwise encounter. After filling out a little introductory questionnaire about my tastes I was presented with a list of "recommended titles", the first of which was a movie I'd never heard of called Ink. Curious to see how well the service had pegged my preferences, I placed Ink at the front of my queue, and received the disc in the mail shortly afterward.

Prior to watching Ink, I had only read a few (spoiler-free) comments from other people who'd rented the film. I had also scanned the synopsis on the DVD (which appears below):

Late one night, a lost soul named Ink snatches 8-year-old Emma (Quinn Hunchar) into the world of dreams. There, he hopes to use her soul to join the ranks of the evil Incubi. In the real world, Emma lies comatose, to the despair of her father, John (Chris Kelly). But the Incubi's benevolent opposites -- the Storytellers -- rally to help Emma, motivating John to wage war for his daughter.

...but had not read it closely, so I commenced my viewing really not knowing what to expect. Moreover (such is my preference), in writing this review I have avoided reading other reviews/analyses of the film, so this commentary represents my own minimally-biased impressions.

My verdict post-watching? Ink is very, very good. A bit rough in some places -- apparently, writer/director Jamin Winans did not have much of a budget to work with, relatively speaking -- but not jarringly so. The above synopsis doesn't do the film justice, at any rate, as Ink is not a film that lends itself to easy, accurate summarization.

Yes, on one level it's a modern, urban fantasy about supernatural "dream-people" (of which there are both Good and Evil varieties) vying to, depending on their alignment, either help or destroy the humans in their midst, but describing the film on that level alone fails to convey very much at all about Ink.

For one thing, Ink does far more "show" than "tell", challenging the viewer (especially in the first half of the film) to figure out the rules and mores of the universe being presented, and to suss out just what the heck is going on with the characters anyway. We are not given explicit biographies of anyone; we learn who they are through example, in snatches of (somewhat) non-linear imagery that manages to communicate quite a lot about the movie's denizens.

For another thing, Ink touches on what, for lack of better phrasing, I would term "deep themes". In my estimation, one of the primary marks of well-done fantasy fiction is that it manages to tell some truth about actual reality. I will elaborate further on this later on in the review; for now, suffice to say that I was impressed with Ink's treatment of (particular kinds of) good and evil, and with its conveyance of the distinction between stories and lies.

As for my overall impressions, I would say Ink manages to be both painful (at times) and fun to watch. By that I mean that I found myself thinking "gah, that sucks for that guy, wow, that's really sad, but whoah, cool, I think I just figured out what that thing in that other scene was!" throughout much of my viewing.

Ink is not a total angst-fest or anything, mind you -- in fact I would not classify it even remotely as a "dystopia", and there are a number of Whedonish "comic relief" moments. The little girl who plays Emma is also really cool, and impressively well-characterized for a kid that young (as in, she isn't just The Cute One or The Bratty One, she clearly has a mind of her own).

Effects That Drive The Story Rather Than Obfuscating The Lack Of One

As "special effects" (mainly of the visual sort) are now a mainstay of modern filmmaking, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres, I have started paying attention when I watch movies to how they employ these effects. As I am, admittedly, a bit of a sucker for Shiny Lights And Pretty Colors(TM), I can enjoy watching something silly and superficial so long as its Shiny Quotient is high enough. However, I much prefer it when (as the title of this section suggests) the shiny is used as a storytelling tool rather than a means to distract from lazy writing.

As such, in contrast to my reaction to Avatar, I walked away from watching Ink thinking along the lines of "Wow, okay, this is what movies can be like if people actually try!" It was very nice to be reminded of what true effort to tell a good story looks like.

Ink, while it does utilize its share of special effects (impressively so, in fact, for its budget), does not condescend in this manner; special effects are used in story-appropriate places as tools, not as a substitute for depth elsewhere. Ink depicts a world at once fantastic and "believable"; yes, we have things like inter-dimensional gates opening up mid-air at the command of various dream-people and their arcane devices, but both the shiny portals and the mechanisms that activate them are presented very matter-of-factly.

In other words, Ink succeeds in showing extraordinary things but having them appear quite thoroughly ordinary in context, which of course they would for the denizens of its fictional landscape -- and as far as I am concerned, this is another one of the hallmarks of fantasy well done.

That said, Ink also makes fairly heavy use of color filters, blurry edges, and other "post-processing" video effects, which I imagine some viewers will find annoying or "overly artsy". I liked it, though, and did not find it distracting, and in some ways I think it helped communicate what was going on (i.e., scenes representing one character's memories had a yellowish cast to them).

And as a final comment on the film's visuals (and overall visual-orientedness), I would actually be very curious to learn how Ink comes across to a blind person or someone with low/limited vision. I have not done much research into movie accessibility features for blind folks but I presume there are some out there (additional descriptive tracks, etc.), and am wondering how a story that to me seems very heavily imagery-dependent would be communicated to someone without the requisite sensory modality. (Also, I should note that this question occurred to me in the first place because there is actually a fairly significant character in Ink who is blind.)

Themes in Ink: Good and Evil/Stories and Lies

Now, I am an engineer, not an English major, and I certainly couldn't tell you exactly which ancient myths and fairy-tales Ink alludes to -- but I can say that the film definitely comes across as feeling rather like a fairy-tale itself. This, of course is not a bad thing. After all, there are numerous themes, images, and modes of character development that will tend to come up over and over again in creative works produced by humans, because some experiences are just very human.

As such, Ink reminds me vaguely of several old stories, poems and characters all at once, but "quietly" so, if that makes any sense. This film does not, unlike other recently-viewed works (*cough* Avatar *cough*) come across as a trite re-hash of something else; there was plenty of originality layered atop Ink's "archetypical" material.

E.g., the "good" dream-people (called Storytellers) and their "bad" counterparts (called Incubi) represent something fairly common (personification of good and evil is nothing new), but nonetheless, there was just something very fresh-seeming about the portrayals of both factions. For one thing, the Storytellers all unabashedly look different from one another, whereas the Incubi seem to be trying their hardest at homogeneity (even though you can clearly see behind their distorions that they are different from one another).

Now to elaborate on the good/evil and stories/lies thematic elements I referred to earlier: this is not something I can personally easily express in quantitative language, but one very real type of evil portrayed in Ink is that of distorting a person's sense of self and reality in a manner that can lead to their destruction (and in doing so, often set up a chain reaction leading to yet more pain and despair for yet more people).

In real life this brand of evil occurs when people are abused, discriminated against, and denied basic ethics -- but it also occurs when people just happen to encounter certain patterns and get "stuck" in them via the adoption of certain attitudes.

Again, language is failing me somewhat here, but basically I think Ink alludes to the same species of destructiveness that is portrayed by, say, the Echthroi (in Madeleine L'Engle's fantasy works), and by the "Nothing" (from The Neverending Story), and even by Bill Murray's character's attitude at the beginning of the film Groundhog Day (which, yes, I am reminded of because yesterday was February 2!).

In all those cases, regardless of where it comes from (whether it be a particular creature, or a set of societal influences, or something resembling depression, or any number of other sources), you have some sort of force urging people to effectively erase themselves, bury themselves under illusions (with these illusions presented as "undeniable truth"), and to drag as many others down with them in the process (whether this is done intentionally or not).

And, in all those cases, the way to fight the evil seems to be in basically standing up to the would-be destructive forces and refusing to accept or adopt their illusions (whether they pertain to you or someone else, or to reality-at-large). In L'Engle's works this is done through "Naming" (that is, asserting the significance and unique identity of everything and everyone, whether they be a human or a star or a tree). In The Neverending Story this is done through imagination, wish, and (ultimately) the distillation of what truly does matter from a whole slew of possibilities.

(And in Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors figures out via trial and error that maybe being a nihilistic jackass is not the optimum, or the most reality-acknowledging, way of going about life. Which is very...different in form from all the other examples listed here, but I wanted to mention it because Groundhog Day is actually a pretty good depiction, in my opinion, of the difference between good-producing and evil-producing attitudes, where the attitudes themselves are not personified as good or evil creatures.)

Along these lines, though again putting its own spin on things, Ink's good characters fight evil through a combination of storytelling (in that particular way which permits truth to be conveyed) and by something that is not labeled specifically but which looks to me to be a lot like "Naming". There is also a cool scene in which one character uses his particular capacity to play with probability in a manner that sets up an opportunity for one of the human characters to change the direction of his life for the better, but which does not force a given outcome.

To me, these things, while not literally having counterparts in real life, do represent ways in which actual people can (and do) triumph over real evil -- that is, by learning the difference between destructive illusion and the truth about who we are, what we could become, and what the world is genuinely like.

As for the matter of "stories versus lies": there is one particularly telling scene in Ink in which two characters are arguing over this very quandary. One character seems to actually believe that his take on things is the only truly rational way to interpret reality. The other character, however, asserts the falseness of this and insists that there is a difference between stories and lies.

The way I read this scene, the second character seems to be pointing out that sometimes one can actually end up trapped in lies because of being led to disavow the utility of stories! In other words, part of what I see happening in Ink is a kind of...backlash against the notion that in order to be Super Rational And Therefore Connected With Actual Reality,- one has to decide that the "worst case" (of who one is, and how the universe operates) is the best possible "default". I appreciate this backlash because it is one I see myself as taking part in -- the very name of my blog attests to this!

Put another way, I do not think you have to believe that Everything Ultimately Sucks in order to be a rational being, and I guess that compels me to appreciate it when I come across "hey, look, actually, there is no good reason to presume life is meaningless, because hey guess what, meaning isn't made by stuff outside you anyway, but by what you bring with you to the stuff you perceive!" messages in my entertainment.


So...yeah, if anyone is still reading at this point I will conclude by saying that Ink is definitely a film I would recommend, to pretty much anyone who enjoys a good sf/fantasy tale and who appreciates a bit of sustenance with their special effects. I would especially anticipate anyone who enjoyed films like 12 Monkeys or Brazil (there's a very Terry Gilliam-ish weirdness to Ink, which is always happy-making for me), or Dark City, or The City of Lost Children will like Ink.


codeman38 said...

I've got another suggestion along similar lines: Moon. I rented it knowing only the bare minimum about the plot, and I'm glad I did, because there are some very interesting plot twists. And it was made on only a $5 million budget!

codeman38 said...

And by "along similar lines", I meant in the sense of being a low-budget movie with special effects that were subtle rather than hit-you-over-the-head. It's not Gilliam-esque surrealness; it's more 2001-ish 'hard' science fiction.

(And as a fan of both Terry Gilliam and City of Lost Children, I might have to take a look at Ink...)

AnneC said...

Codeman38: Oooh, neat, I will definitely look up Moon. I like hard sf as well as the more fantasy-ish stuff, really if it's well done I am not particular about sub-genre. (And I have some fond nostalgic memories of 2001, which I saw when I was maybe 11 years old and loved, especially the bizarre ending sequence -- my taste for the surreal began fairly early in life I guess!).

And I also suspect you will like Ink -- just don't be put off by the guy at the beginning yelling "FUCK!" repeatedly. The whole movie isn't like that, one character is just really...angry.

Oh, and the DVD Netflix sent me did include subtitles, which made me very happy!

AnneC said...

Oh, and I am also pretty sure Ink was made on something like a $250K budget, which is tiny for filmmaking! (It weirds me out a little to think of that as being a small amount of money, but considering all the people and equipment involved in making even a very short film, I can see how things would add up very quickly.)

jimf said...

> In the real world, Emma likes comatose,
> to the despair of her father. . .

Presumably that's supposed to be "lies comatose", though "likes comatose" also works in a flip sort of way. I certainly like comatose from time to time.

> I would especially anticipate
> anyone who enjoyed films like
> 12 Monkeys or Brazil (there's a
> very Terry Gilliam-ish weirdness
> to Ink, which is always happy-
> making for me), or Dark City, or
> The City of Lost Children will
> like Ink.

Yeah, that's me, too. More "Do you know the way to Shell Beach?" than "Do you know the way to San Jose?".

> I was impressed with Ink's. . .
> conveyance of the distinction
> between stories and lies.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien are said to have once had an earnest discussion on this topic.

As described at
/08/myth-as-truth-jrr-tolkien-and.html :

"This meeting, which was to have such a revolutionary impact on Lewis's life, took place on 19 September 1931 after Lewis had invited Tolkien and Dyson to dine at his rooms in Magdalen College. After dinner the three men went for a walk beside the river and discussed the nature and purpose of myth. Lewis explained that he felt the power of myths, but that they were ultimately untrue. As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths were 'lies, even though lies breathed through silver.'

'No,' Tolkien replied emphatically. 'They are not.'

Tolkien resumes, arguing that myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. 'We have come from God [continued Tolkien], and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of true light, the eternal truth that is with God.' Since we are made in the image of God, and since God is the Creator, part of the imageness of God in us is the gift of creativity. The creation -- or, more correctly, the sub-creation -- of stories or myths is merely a reflection of the image of the Creator in us. As such, although 'myths may be misguided, . . . they steer however shakily towards the true harbour,' whereas materialistic 'progress' leads only to the abyss and to the power of evil."

Tolkien wrote a poem about this conversation, entitled _Mythopoeia_ (full text at:
jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm )

"The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, 'twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made."

(No, I am not a Christian, but I can appreciate Lewis and Tolkien nonetheless.)

AnneC said...


I've now fixed the "lies/likes" typo -- thanks for pointing that out! (Corrections of that sort are always welcome, and much appreciated.)

And, yeah, wow, I definitely concur with Tolkien re. "...myths, far from being lies, [are] the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible." I guess I've gotten to the point now where, though I'm certainly still an atheist (and don't see that changing), I can sort of "translate" through it when people start invoking "God-language" and see that sometimes they're making a good point, even if I totally disagree with how they're personifying the source of their insight.

Sponge Freddie said...

Excellent review! I just watched Ink tonight, and loved it. That makes two indie 'chances' I've taken in a row (no prior knowledge or review checking beforehand), and each has been profound in its own way, as well as entertaining. The other film was Let The Right One In; if you haven't seen it, give it a try. Streaming Netflix is threatening to keep me awake into the wee hours with relentless frequency.

Raven2019 said...

Just watched Ink tonight, and wanted to see what others thought. I love your explorations. I almost turned it off early on, but kept hanging on.

I think the turning point for me was Liev and Emma talking - Emma asking if Ink was bad. Liev's response, "well, he isn't good." so left room for redemption that I was hooked.

Who was it who said that the line between good and evil runs straight through our own hearts?

Anne Corwin said...

Raven2019: Yeah, the beginning of the film is definitely a bit "huh?"-inducing. I am glad you watched the film through, though! It is definitely the sort of movie that requires a degree of patience, in addition to being able to tolerate seeing weird stuff and not knowing what it means right away.

Jason said...

I don't think this movie requires patience in the beginning, just plain curiosity. The opening is so scary and powerful, I was hooked.

I very much agree with your thoughts on the effects. It was the perfect amount, that left me with a nightmarish uneasiness the entire movie. The effects never once got in the way, and in fact added so much, that is rare as of late.

One last thought is the incubis men, with the projected faces. That was beyond fantastic and felt like pinhead meets david lynch.

Who ever did this movie is able to tap into a real, tangible fear that is way more disturbing than anything I have seen in a while. Even though it's a sci-fi/fantasy flick, it's cutting realism was painful.

AK Works said...

I saw Ink for the 1st time this weekend on Hulu. AMAZING! I can't rave enough about it. I love the visuals and the original interpretation of evil. The Incubus is so cool. I love the thick glasses and the weird screen over their faces. LOVE IT. The fighting is great - but the story...SOLID. Love the blind "Pathfinder" and the "Storyteller" and all that. Amazing stuff.

As a Christian, I also see Biblical truths as in battlefield of the mind, how evil tricks us, tempts us, makes us think and do things that we would not otherwise do.

Most importantly, it's a redemption story that is well told! Loved the film.

Personally, I would LOVE to have played one of those Incubus characters.

Anonymous said...

I just watched Ink as well... netflix continues to blow my mind with indies. First outsourced, then moon, and now this! I must say, I found the pathfinder the most in depth:
(Spoilers ahead)
First of all, I was fascinated by his arrival. He almost seemed like he was hired, like he's a neutral in the grand scheme... he seemed to represent the flow of life. He is the good and bad parts of life, which leant to the blindness... (blind justice)
Yet, he is a pathfinder. A guide who can't see his way, again representing the flow of life...
If you try counting like he does, it matches up through most of the movie, which was cool.
But the greatest part was how how he fit everything together. He was behind the cause and effect. Everything he said was an effect of other people. Everything he did was a cause or an effect, including his arrival.
If you also like documentaries, I recommend you check out banksy's "exit through the gift shop"
Another all time favorite I saw on netflix
(Sorry if that comment was confusing, I typed it on my phone)

Tyler Francis said...

I absolutely loved this movie. The music is amazing in it, and has inspired me to make a Jacob the Pathfinder costume. The deep themes, subtle humor, and all around great storytelling is AMAZING. Highly recommended to anyone who likes movies that are subtle and to the point. Oh, and also, any points on the making of the costume would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading and responding,