Friday, October 30, 2015

Watch This: The Brood

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Brood (1979)
Written and directed by David Cronenberg

When I was a child, maybe even as young as elementary school age, I saw part of a movie on television that gave me recurring nightmares.  I don't recall the circumstances in which I watched it, but I'm certain that I should not have been watching it at such a young age, even in a tamer edited-for-television version.  Even as an adult, there were images from the film that remained vividly etched into my memory.  There was the depiction of two child-sized monsters with deformed faces, clad in brightly-colored hooded snowsuits, brutally attacking a schoolteacher in her classroom.  There was the shot of a young blonde girl riding in the passenger seat of a car at night, her cheeks stained with tears, with a gradual move into a foreboding close-up of two small bumps that had formed on her forearm.  The film's nightmare-inducing effect was so powerful that, even to this day, I can't see a child in a monochrome hooded snowsuit without thinking of the film's deformed monsters.  It was only years later that I realized the film was The Brood, an unsettling work of psychological terror from the great Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg.

As the film begins, Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) has come to the remote Somafree Institute to pick up his young daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds), who has spent the weekend there with her mother, Nola (Samantha Eggar), who is a patient at the institute.  Frank and Nola are divorced, and Nola is being treated for rage issues by Somafree's director, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), who uses an unorthodox and controversial method known as "psychoplasmics" to help his patients expel their anger.  Raglan's techniques cause his patients' intense emotions to manifest themselves physically in the form of welts and boils on their bodies, with the implication that these physical manifestations will then be removed.  Frank has always been skeptical of Raglan's methods, but he becomes especially concerned after he discovers bruises and cuts on Candy's back after her weekend visit with her mother, who he assumes caused the wounds.  He confronts Raglan, who insists that Candy's visits are vital to Nola's treatment, and threatens legal action if Candy's visits cease.  We later find out that Raglan is himself the target of a lawsuit by a former patient, a man named Jan Hartog (Robert Silverman), who has an enormous cancerous growth on his neck that he claims is the result of Raglan's methods.

The situation becomes even more dire one evening when Candy is staying with Nola's mother, who is brutally murdered in her kitchen by what appears to be a child in a red hooded snowsuit.  Later, when Nola's father has come to town for his ex-wife's funeral, and is spending the night at her house, he too is bludgeoned to death by the child-like creature, who had been hiding under the bed.  Frank arrives just minutes later, only to be attacked by the creature before it dies suddenly and inexplicably.  A police autopsy reveals that the creature has no navel, meaning it was never really born, "at least not the way human beings are born."  What the viewer knows, but Frank does not, is that these slayings have coincided with therapy sessions between Nola and Dr. Raglan, in which Raglan was acting out the parts of Nola's parents.  There is seemingly a link between Nola's anger and the targets of these attacks, but what is it?  When Candy's teacher is murdered by two more of the snowsuit-clad monsters and Candy disappears from the school, Frank becomes desperate.  A clue from another former patient leads him back to the Somafree Institute, where he confronts Raglan and discovers the truth about the terrifying connection between Nola and the titular "brood" of childlike creatures.

Writer-director David Cronenberg is perhaps the best-known practitioner in the sub-genre known as "body horror," in which a fear of the mutation, transformation, and infection of the human body is the major thematic preoccupation.  This motif is especially apparent in the first part of Cronenberg's career, when films like Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), and The Fly (1986) featured gruesome depictions of biological transformation, often the result of scientific and medical experimentation.  However, even more prominent in Cronenberg's filmography is a preoccupation with human psychology, and The Brood marked the first time that his interests in the psychological and the physical, and in the link between the two, were explored in such depth in a single film.  The film's climactic sequence, in which the psycho-phyiscal connection between Nola and the monsters is finally revealed, includes one of the most squirm-inducing moments in all of Cronenberg's filmography (high marks should be given to actress Samantha Eggar for her commitment in filming the scene).

In addition to its grotesquerie and implicit criticism of the pseudoscience behind techniques like the fictional "psychoplasmics," The Brood offers a bleak portrait of failed marriages and their detrimental effects on children.  Nola's parents were divorced, and it is clear that their poor relations contributed to Nola's psychological problems.  The viewer cannot help but feel sad for little Candy, whose traumatic experiences with both her parents' marital strife and the horrific acts of the monstrous brood have caused immense psychological damage by the end of the film.  Cronenberg has stated that The Brood was inspired by his experiences during the break-up of his first marriage, and has called the film his own version of Kramer vs. Kramer, the Oscar-winning divorce drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep that was coincidentally released the same year.  I can't say which of the two films offers the more accurate depiction of divorce, but it's clear that Cronenberg's is decidedly less optimistic.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Annual Homecoming book sale!

Our annual Homecoming book sale is back this year after a post-remodel hiatus in 2014.

This year's sale includes an interesting mix of business titles, fiction, and computer and social sciences titles. Our pricing structure will once again be $1.00 per stacked inch!

The sale will take place Friday-Monday of Homecoming Weekend (October 23-26), or as long as the supply of books holds out, on the main level of the Learning Commons during regular operating hours.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Watch This: Children of Men

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Children of Men (2006)
Co-written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón

The past decade has seen an increasing number of dystopian visions of mankind's future make their way to the silver screen.  Some of these have arrived in the form of film adaptations of young adult science fiction novels like the Hunger Games series, the Divergent series, and the Maze Runner series, while others have been directly targeted at an adult audience.  Despite this sub-genre's potential for trenchant social commentary, imaginative plots, and remarkable visuals, only a handful of these films have really stood out (recent entries such as Snowpiercer (2013) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) come to mind).  However, no recent dystopian film has been as powerful and affecting as Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 masterpiece Children of Men, a gritty, visually-stunning portrait of humanity in decline.

Adapted from a novel by the acclaimed English mystery novelist P. D. James, Children of Men is set in Britain in the year 2027, at a time when nearly two decades of total worldwide infertility have resulted in global chaos and widespread despair.  Great Britain has avoided many of the atrocities that have plagued the rest of the world, but a strict, military-enforced ban on all immigrants has led to violence in the streets and a precarious social and political situation.  As the film opens, the world's youngest person, an 18 year-old South American youth still known as "Baby Diego," has just been murdered by one of his fans after refusing to give an autograph.  We learn of this from a news broadcast in a London coffee shop where the film's protagonist, government bureaucrat Theo Faron (Clive Owen), stops for his morning coffee on his way to work.  Just after Theo leaves, the shop is demolished by a bomb explosion, and a shaken Theo decides to take the day off and visit his old friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a former political cartoonist and activist who now spends his days growing marijuana in his small, well-hidden country house, where he lives with his catatonic wife, Janice.  Theo, it turns out, was an activist in his younger days, but became disillusioned after the death of his son during a flu pandemic and the subsequent break-up of his marriage to fellow activist Julian (Julianne Moore), whom he has not seen in nearly twenty years.  Theo makes his pessimism clear in his conversation with Jasper, stating that even if a cure for infertility is discovered, it's too late to save humanity, which was already a mess even before the infertility.

The following morning, Theo is kidnapped by an underground insurgent group called the Fishes, who are dedicated to fighting for the rights of immigrants.  Theo's ex-wife, Julian, is revealed to be the group's leader, and she asks him to use his government contacts to obtain transit papers for a young immigrant woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who must reach the coast.  Theo succeeds in acquiring the papers, but they state that Theo must accompany her, so he sets off in a car with Julian, her Fishes comrade Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Kee, and Kee's caretaker, Miriam (Pam Ferris).  On a remote stretch of forest road, the car is suddenly attacked by a large gang, and Julian is killed.  It is only after they have narrowly escaped and made their way to a safe house that Theo discovers Kee's secret: she is eight months pregnant.  As the selfish and lethal motives of the new Fishes leadership become clear to Theo, he decides to escape with Kee and Miriam and find a way to get them to the seaside refugee camp of Bexhill, where they can meet a ship belonging to the Human Project, a group of scientists working to cure infertility.

Children of Men offers a frightening depiction of a society on the brink of collapse, as the aging population faces its impending final years.  Immigrants are rounded up and kept in cages along the streets, awaiting their transfer to a refugee camp and their return to the atrocities in their homelands.  A product called Quietus, which promises a painless death by suicide, is made available to the populace with government approval.  The streets are strewn with trash and rubble from numerous past bombings.  There seems to be a gray pallor over everything, as though the gradual disappearance of children from the world was accompanied by the leeching of bright colors and sunshine from the landscape.

In such a setting, Theo's early pessimism is understandable, especially after we learn about the death of his son.  In a scene midway through the film, we hear Jasper talking to Kee and Miriam about the relationship between faith and chance, and how Theo lost his faith in the world and his own future after his son died of the flu (a chance event).  However, Theo's outlook begins to change after Julian's death and the revelation of Kee's pregnancy, and Kee's trust in him galvanizes him into action and restores his sense of purpose and hope.  It is this story arc, Theo's gradual progression from dispassionate pessimism to renewed faith and resolve, that underlies all of the film's harrowing drama and high-stakes action, creating a far more moving hero's journey than one usually finds in cinema.

Everyone involved with the film, both in front of the camera and behind, is working at the top of their game.  The script is brisk and intelligent, allowing the circumstances of the film's setting to be revealed organically rather than via heavy-handed exposition from title screens, narration, or superfluous dialogue.  The cast is uniformly superb.  Clive Owen suppresses some of his natural charisma to make Theo a more relatable everyman hero, and Michael Caine shines as Jasper, whose pull-my-finger gags and stork jokes grant the film a welcome dose of levity.  Alfonso Cuarón's assured direction keeps all the filmmaking elements, from the technically dazzling visuals to the top-notch acting, in perfect balance, and it feels impossible to find fault with any of his choices as director, co-writer, and co-editor.

But what really elevates the film, more than any other element, is the outstanding work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  The film's washed-out color scheme contributes immeasurably to the film's bleak tone, and the frequent use of a handheld camera from a slightly low angle places the viewer right in the middle of the action.  Many of the film's key scenes (the coffee shop bombing in the opening scene, Julian's shocking death during the forest ambush, the birth scene, and the extended gunfights between insurgents and military forces in the Bexhill refugee camp) are shot using single takes, and this decision pays off not only in added intensity for these scenes, but also in feelings of awe on the part of viewers, who might wonder how these shots were achieved.  The forest ambush scene, which consists of a single shot taken from inside the car, forcing the viewer to share the passengers' panic, stands out in particular as a remarkable example of Lubezki's immersive visual style.  Throughout his career, Lubezki has proven himself adept at working in just about any visual aesthetic, from the sumptuously-photographed period look of A Little Princess (1995) and A Walk in the Clouds (1995), to the edgier handheld style of Y Tu Mamá También (2001) and Children of Men, to the dreamy visual poetry of director Terrence Malick's The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011).  His work has become even more recognizable over the past two years, after back-to-back Oscars for his virtuosic work on Gravity (2013) and Birdman (2014), and if the immersive visual aesthetic on display in the trailer for his soon-to-be-released film The Revenant (2015) is any indication, he may well be on his way to a third consecutive Academy Award.  Lubezki is quite simply the best cinematographer working today, and Children of Men may be his finest hour.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Watch This: Good Morning

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Good Morning (1959)
Co-written and directed by Yasujiro Ozu

With the probable exception of the great Akira Kurosawa, no other filmmaker looms larger over the world of Japanese cinema than Yasujiro Ozu.  He is justly considered one of the greatest film directors of all time, and his stylistic influence can still be felt today, more than five decades after his death.  Ozu's poetic depictions of generational relations and familial life in masterpieces such as The Only Son (1936), Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953), and Floating Weeds (1959), reveal a keen eye for the nuances of human interaction and an astonishing depth of sentiment.  The later years of his career were devoted to making sober, often heartbreaking portrayals of parent-child relationships, in particular a series of films about aging parents sacrificing their own needs in order to marry off their dutiful daughters.  However, in the midst of all these somber domestic dramas came Good Morning (1959), a light-hearted depiction of suburban Japanese life and postwar modernization that stands not only as an oddity in Ozu's filmography, but also as a welcome reminder of his deep-rooted sense of humor.  Good Morning is that rarity among the works of the great cinematic masters, a film that reveals the director's predominant narrative themes and common stylistic motifs, but also contains a running fart gag.

Good Morning portrays the day-to-day lives of the residents in a small, suburban, middle-class Japanese neighborhood.  The film offers a delightful portrait of the interactions between neighbors, in a setting where one can slide open one's door and seem almost face-to-face with those living next-door.  At the center of the story is the Hayashi family, made up of the father Keitaro (Chishu Ryu), the mother Tamiko (Kuniko Miyake), and the two sons, Minoru and Isamu (Koji Shitara and Masahiko Shimazu, respectively).  The boys have been spending more and more time at the home of their pajama-clad, Bohemian neighbors, watching sumo wrestling on TV with their friends.  They beg their father to get a set for the Hayashi home, but he refuses, proclaiming that television will create a society of idiots.  In protest, the brothers begin a silence strike, refusing to speak at home or at school until their parents buy a set.

Meanwhile, Tamiko is dealing with the problem of missing club dues for their local women's association.  There are suspicions that the money was taken by the local group head, Mrs. Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura), who has just purchased a new washing machine.  The money is later found, and it is revealed that the washer was purchased on an installment plan, but the suspicions linger.  The theft rumors can be traced to Mrs. Okubo (Toyo Takahashi) and Mrs. Tomizawa (Teruko Nagaoka), both of whom seem to relish every chance to spread a new piece of gossip.  There is also an amusing, subtly developed romantic plot line involving the Hayashi boys' aunt Setsuko (Yoshiko Kuga) and their English tutor Mr. Fukui (Keiji Sada), whose obvious mutual attraction cannot seem to move beyond basic pleasantries and chit-chat about the weather.  One of the film's well-observed preoccupations is the way in which we pass so much of our lives in idle conversation.

Good Morning provides a fascinating glimpse of society in postwar Japan, in particular the effects of westernization and modernization that became apparent as the country began to rebuild.  The influence of western culture and innovation can be seen throughout the film.  Modern apartment buildings border the characters' small neighborhood, where the homes are surrounded by white picket fences.  French and American movie posters can be seen in the home of the young Bohemian couple.  The purchase of a new appliance such as a television or washing machine symbolizes not just a family's economic stability, but also their embrace of modernity.

More than almost any other Ozu film, Good Morning focuses on the perspectives of its child characters.  In most of his work, the protagonists are aging parents struggling with generational tensions as their grown children begin lives of their own, but in Good Morning, there is a sympathy with the neighborhood boys.  Their daily rituals and preoccupations, and even their growing obsession with television at the expense of their schoolwork, are presented with great affection.  The boys have a recurring joke, a sort of variation on the classic "pull my finger" gag, where one boy presses on a second boy's forehead, and the second boy passes gas.  However, the unfortunate Haraguchi boy cannot seem to master the skill, and always pushes too hard, soiling himself on an almost daily basis.  Ozu seems to share the boys' amusement with these activities.

Yasujiro Ozu has been called the "most Japanese" of Japan's great film directors, and it's undeniable that his films are very specific to their Japanese setting.  Indeed, due to the perceived difficulty of marketing his films overseas, Ozu remained relatively unknown outside of his native country during his career.  This was true even after the growth in popularity of foreign films among English-speaking audiences in the 1950s, when Ozu's fellow Japanese director Akira Kurosawa gained widespread international fame with films like Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954).  And yet, one reason that Ozu's films have stood the test of time, and have remained so beloved by cinephiles around the globe, is that they are so immensely relatable.  Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ozu's body of work is that his films are so intrinsically Japanese, and yet simultaneously so universal.

October DVD Spotlight: Horror Films

October is upon us, and that means Halloween is just around the corner.  Reeves Memorial Library will be celebrating all month long by featuring scary movies from our DVD collection.  We've got something to make everyone's skin crawl, whether it's vampires, demons, zombies, or giant mutant animals.  Featured titles include:

Audition (1999)
The Brood (1979)
The Crawling Eye (1958)
The Exorcist (1973)
Hostel (2005)
Nosferatu (1922)
Psycho (1960)
Saw (2004)
The Shining (1980)

Check one out today ... if you dare.