Saturday, February 27, 2010

Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)

Directed by Guy Maddin.
Starring Gretchen Krich and Sullivan Brown.
In a Nutshell: A man reflects on his deranged childhood.

Brand Upon the Brain! is an insidiously enjoyable experience showcasing the joy of Guy Maddin being Guy Maddin. Maddin gleefully celebrates and distorts the silent movie into a nightmarish adventure fantasy with just enough space to cut into some of our most human of fears and desires. The film consists of twelve interlinking vignettes told in flashback by a grown Maddin. As a child, he tells of the orphanage his parents operated inside of a lighthouse. Father would work in solitude in his mad-scientist lab. Mother (Gretchen Krich, theatrically terrifying) would fixate herself on achieving eternal youth while trying to constrain her children’s budding sexuality. Outside of either parent’s eye, Guy (Sullivan Brown) and Sis (Maya Lawson) discover a sinister black market for the orphans. Teen detective Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhorn) investigates the case while disguised as her brother Chance (also Scharhorn). Already the object of Guy’s obsession, she falls into a forbidden romance with Sis that continues even after she discovers the real “Chance”.

Maddin intertwines sexual identification, memory and Oedipal attraction through the madness. That little elaboration is made is no detraction, but a testament to the command of Maddin’s visual style. He combines rapid editing with a reproduction of grainy film stock, awash in deep shadows. It is a style both playful and feverish, a complement to the film’s dark humor and bizarre themes. A fair number of viewers may become alienated but those with a firm grasp on Maddin will delight in his invention. Brand Upon the Brain! dips into some of the most perverse reaches of the human subconscious while tying in a detailed love for film history. It is bold, it is brilliant, and above all, it is undeniably Maddin.

NOTE: The film was originally presented live in an auditorium to recreate the silent movie experience. An unseen celebrity narrator and a live orchestra were also present. The Criterion DVD features a recorded soundtrack by composer Jason Staczek and the option to choose between any of the featured narrators (including Maddin himself).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

My Life as a Dog (1985)

Directed by Lasse Hallström.
Starring Anton Glanzelius and Tomas von Brömssen.
In a Nutshell: A troublesome boy is sent to live with relatives during his mother’s illness.

It is possible that the titular dog is Laika, sent into space by the Russians. The launch was a fantastic achievement, but only for the Russians. The dog starved in isolation. Or it could be the pet of twelve-year old Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius), a kind-hearted pet, prone to uncontrollable acts of mischief. Ingemar likens himself more to the former, but contents that his life is never as a bad as Laika’s. Though it is not without its share of turmoil, Ingemar continually tries to keep perspective, creating an enormous emotional burden for such a young boy. Ingemar’s mother is slowly dying of tuberculosis, and has just enough energy to loudly scold Ingemar and his brother. One too many disobedient acts results in Ingemar getting sent off to live with his maternal aunt and uncle, both entrenched in adolescence. Indeed their whole town is of a youthful air, finding Ingemar just on the edge of puberty.

Ingemar finds equal doses of love and loss at his new home, careful not to reveal his guilt over his mother’s illness. Director Lasse Hallström shows a light touch in balancing Ingemar’s joys, confusions, hopes and fears without sinking into saccharine. He gives his characters (many of them small-town eccentrics) an understated quality that welcomes sincere human comedy. Hallström’s later career has been marked by plodding Oscar-baiting melodrama. My Life as a Dog finds truer happiness and sorrow in smaller moments, moments that feel so much bigger when we were twelve. It may not make many daring departures to the “coming-of-age” standard, but rarely has the breadth of childhood turbulence been handled so gracefully. Nor have its hardships been so deeply felt by its protagonist. Ingemar muses how despite his pain, he is fortunate to live the life given to him. Hopefully we can all be that lucky.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
Starring Noriko Hidaka and Chika Sakamoto.
In a Nutshell: Two girls discover a hidden world of benevolent forest spirits.

My Neighbor Totoro is Hayao Miyazaki at his most gentle and melancholy, with deep respect towards nature and family. It acts on a smaller scale than his later work, but no less delightful. Miyazaki’s work acts as a fine contrast to the standard Disney film; Totoro has no villains, heartless adults, or manufactured plot contrivances. It is still a fantasy, but uses those elements lightly to complement its human story. Here, fantasy is an escape and a place of innocence for its two main characters; sisters Satsuki and Mei. They move with their father to the country in order to be closer to the hospital where their mother is ill. With their mother’s condition an ever-haunting presence, they discover a host of benign spirits that act as protectors of the forest.

Miyazaki’s dream world is one built on the comforts of nature and the thrill of discovery. The mere act of planting one of Totoro’s acorns becomes a celebration and a hope for the future. Both Satsuki and Mei are wonderfully characterized. Satsuki has been forced into an adult role to cope with her mother’s absence and it is a joy to watch her rediscover herself through Totoro and company. Mei’s wide-eyed exuberance never falters and we share in her infectious childish bliss. A family crisis presents itself (the girls’ mother is unable to see visitors), but is handled with a respectable realism. The girls’ concern for their mother speaks to every child’s fear of death, particularly to the ones we love. Miyazaki skirts an easy resolution, instead accepting the occasional hardships of life with strong optimism.

Totoro diverts the girls from their sadness, but the film achieves far more. My Neighbor Totoro is a heartfelt experience bringing the delights of imagination and the challenges that usher us into adulthood. Miyazaki is only too happy to welcome us into his world of sensible, trusting adults and wondrous landscapes. It understands the heartaches of life while longing to bring us into a warm embrace. A masterpiece of animation.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Dee Wallace and Henry Thomas.
In a Nutshell: A group of children befriend an abandoned alien.

A contemporary fairytale that has delighted generations of moviegoers, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is ever bit as sublime as you remembered. As a hallmark of Steven Spielberg’s career, it also stands as one of his simplest and direct works. Its emotions, terror, and humor all strike universal chords, only deepening over time. The story of its homesick alien botanist needs little introduction. E.T. is presented to us as both a healing Christ-like figure and an innocent child. He is impressionable and adventurous, but still pines for the comforts of home. But even as ideas on alien culture, government and family relationships develop, Spielberg never lets us forget our need to return to the ones we love.

E.T., both the character and the movie, both tap into areas that we never grow out of. Spielberg rarely keeps the camera out of a child’s distorted POV. The nighttime woods are a calm, mysterious and hauntingly beautiful. Halloween is a grotesquely fascinating parade and the onslaught of government forces become a faceless, voiceless monster. For both E.T. and his friend Elliott (the delightfully nuanced Henry Thomas) we all wish to find our sanctuary, with all the delights and fears that come with it.

On a purely technical level, E.T. is not flawless. Sometimes John William’s score is too much of a good thing; pacing in the middle can be too quick while it becomes more drawn-out at the end. But these are inconsequential nitpicks. Spielberg has solidified himself as a director capable of connecting to moviegoers on a wide scale. He taps into the personal fears and needs of modern suburbia while offering the same hope for interstellar peace that came with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The E.T. character is more than a marvel of puppetry and animatronics, but a wholly human presence. Both film and character find purity of childhood and all the highs and lows that come with it. An arrestingly heartfelt film, and one of Spielberg’s finest.