Sunday, May 26, 2013

Paprika

With the rise of modern civilization, dreams have lost some of their mystique and taken on a more clinical feel. Sleep imagery is no longer recorded for posterity, but instead dissected and examined in an effort to better understand the individual.

Doctor Atsuko Chiba is a research psychologist. Her team of scientists at the Institute for Psychiatric Research have developed a device called the DC mini which allows her to enter a patient's mind and interact with their unconscious to help discover the source of an anxiety or neurosis. Paprika is the alluring 18 year old alter-ego of Atsuko; She's the projection of Atsuko that people see in their dreams, the girl who takes troubled minds out for drinks at an Internet cafe and then to a movie.

In his 2006 movie Paprika, Director Satoshi Kon takes psychoanalysis to a new level, one in which therapists no longer interpret a patient's dreams through second hand account, but instead witness a person's unconscious struggle first hand. Although the DC mini has not yet been approved by the government, the chief of Atsuko's lab asks her to begin using it to treat one of his old schoolmates. The patient is Detective Toshimi Konakawa, a man that is plagued by a recurring dream of being trapped in a cage at the circus, surrounded by a mob of angry people, all wearing Toshimi's own face.

Not long after Paprika begins her treatment of the detective, one of the DC mini prototypes is stolen by what is presumed to be a terrorist, and that's when the cop and shrink team up to try and solve a potentially nightmarish crime (pun intended). One of the dangers of the DC mini, and perhaps why the government has been dragging their heals on approval, is its ability to wirelessly broadcast dreams into a person's mind (whether the recipient is asleep or awake). None of this bodes well for Atsuko's boss, who goes on a nonsensical tirade, jumping out of a second story window after someone shoehorns a crazed parade full of trumpeting frogs and walking toasters into his brain using the stolen device.

Over the course of the film, Paprika's storyline gradually degrades from concrete to abstract. Not unlike the interpretation of a dream, the film's second half is hard to decipher and it is often unclear whether we're viewing the character's unconscious thoughts or the waking world. I've watched the movie twice, once dubbed in English and once in Japanese with subtitles, but still don't understand all of the surreal imagery. Perhaps not every frame of this anime has a purpose, or perhaps Paprika's murkiness is a reason to see it more than once.

After a nightmare, we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that it was all "just a dream". But what is life if not a dream we all share, one that everyone eventually awakens from.

The story is based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2007
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese w/English subtitles
Genre: Animation, mystery, sci-fi
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What Maisie Knew

A 7 year old girl and her nanny answer the front door of their posh, Manhattan apartment to take delivery of a pizza. It's dinner time but, in the background, a man and woman are screaming at one another. The screamers are the little girl's parents and tonight's performance of bickering and insults is nothing new. What the girl knows is that her parents are making her nervous, and that her home life has become both unpredictable and stressful.

The nanny's name is Margot (Joanna Vanderham), and her little charge is Maisie (Onata Aprile). The audience never learns more about Margot than her having a cousin with a beach house, but it's clear from events that she's a good person and really cares about the child.

In the coming weeks, Maisie's parents will file for divorce and enter into a bitter custody battle. Her narcissistic, musician mother will go on tour and her unaffectionate, businessman father will move to London. Somewhere in the midst of all that, dad takes the nanny as his wife and mom marries a bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). It's evident that their re-marriages are ones of convenience, entered into only as chess moves designed to sway the court's decision about custody of the little girl.

For some of us that were "raised" by absent parents, left with strangers, repeatedly screamed at for no reason, and used as pawns in the sick games that narcissistic adults play, the escape from a nightmare such as Maisie's is to grow up and build a life where we feel safe, far away from the people that hurt us. There's often no happy ending to situations of neglect. But during the last quarter of this film, there's a silver lining that emerges and strikes me more as a child's fantasy than a likely outcome of the divorce. Maisie's newly appointed step parents, Lincoln and Margot, repeatedly find themselves caring for Maisie during the unscheduled absences of the girl's mother and father. The bartender and nanny form a friendship that blossoms into a romance, and Maisie finds refuge in their joint care.

One thing I like about this film is that it doesn't spend much time developing characters' back stories, but instead uses their behaviors and interactions to tell its tale. Some of the behaviors seem slightly exaggerated though. For instance, Maisie's parents are often both out of town at the same time, sometimes leaving her on peoples' doorsteps without first checking to see if the folks are even home. Another thing I like about this film is Onata Aprile's performance, both believable and flawless. I'm half afraid that she might end up being one of the youngest people ever nominated for an Oscar.

This story is a contemporary retelling of Henry James' 1897 novel What Maisie Knew.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2013
Countries: US
Languages: English
Genre: Drama, romance
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ernest & Celestine

Bears are big, hungry creatures that will eat just about anything, especially mice. But they won't stop at just 1 or 100 or 1000, they'll eat as many as they can find. At least that's the bedtime story that Celestine's house mother tells her and all of the other little mice.

In this watercolor-illustrated animation from France, bears live above ground and mice below. Each has built a thriving civilization of industry and commerce. There are the affluent business owners, the starving artist, blue collar workers, and the middle-class professional. However, due to a long history of speciesism, the two animals are forbidden to intermingle. Separation is fueled more by unfounded fear than any tangible rationale. Except, of course, that bears really do eat mice.

Celestine's career track finds her in a dental internship, but her heart isn't in it. She'd rather spend her days drawing pictures of bears and mice cohabiting than collecting replacement, false teeth for the teaching clinic where she works. Celestine's liberal attitudes aren't to the appreciation of her elders in the mouse establishment.

Ernest is a pan-handling musician who isn't above foraging through garbage cans or stealing to fill his belly. Celestine and Ernest are kindred spirits, free-thinking artists who chance to meet on one of the mouse's moonlight incursions above ground as a tooth fairy.

This film is a delightful movie suitable for children and adults alike. Though it is subtitled, the hand-painted frames will more than fill your youngster's attention. For the adult viewer, it is a commentary on classism and the division of wealth in western society, as well as a criticism of artificially created markets designed to prey on the consumer and benefit the rich. There are pokes at the national police and judicial system, but the take away message from the film is the importance for tolerance.

It has a happy ending.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2013
Country: France
Language: French w/English subtitles
Genre: Animation
Rating: 3.5/5

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB

Friday, May 3, 2013

Putzel

Definition of putz: A decoration built around a representation of the Nativity scene and traditionally placed under a Christmas tree in Pennsylvania Dutch homes.
Alternate definitions: 1. slang : penis ; 2. slang : a stupid, foolish, or ineffectual person : jerk.

Manhattan's Upper West Side is a significantly Jewish neighborhood, and home to one Jew in particular, Walter Himmelstein (affectionately known as Putzel). Walter has plans to take over the family business when his uncle retires, a smoked fish shop that he grew up working in after his parents were killed in a car crash. His parents' accident isn't a sad memory though; Walter recounts for the audience how he sailed through the car's open window and landed unharmed in a clump of bushes (a story that even made the newspaper). Throughout this movie, bad things happen to its characters, but everything works out for the best in the end.

Walter is not a penis, nor is he a stupid foolish jerk, in my opinion. He is ineffectual though, and lacks the ability to cope with even the simplest of situations. For example, Walter breaks out in hives when trying to cross beyond the borders of 116th or 59th street. He exists in the microcosm that is the Upper West Side and isn't able to deal with the world's existence beyond the boundaries of his neighborhood.

Stereotypes abound in this film. However, instead of overpowering the story, the boilerplate racial behaviors add color to the plot and help guide its progression. There's the greedy Jewish uncle, the persecuted Jewish nephew, a crazy Russian delivery guy, and a hardworking Chinese employee that wants to secretly buy the smoked fish shop with money he's scrimped and saved over the years. And then there's Sally (Melanie Lynskey), the bartender who aspires to be a dancer. She's the free spirited vagabond chick that Walter is destined to fall in love, and the girl that will help him overcome his fears.

There is nothing earth shattering or original in this film. It's a nice romantic comedy that any good Jewish boy could take his date to and not raise any eyebrows.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: SIFF 2013
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Comedy, romance
Rating: 2.5/5

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB