Criterion Sunday 440: Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)

Clearly Guy Maddin had been working up to a full-blown pastiche on silent films for quite a while at this point, and it’s a style that has largely defined a lot of his subsequent work: expressionist pools of darkness; rapid cross-cutting; fragments of frames as if rescued from decay; and bonkers storylines with incredulous, exclamative (!!) intertitles aplenty. To the extent that this has become his stock-in-trade, I didn’t even recall having seen this at the London Film Festival back when it came out, but reading up on it, I see that a number of its original presentations were accompanied by a live narrator in Japanese benshi style (whether this is how I saw it in 2007 is lost to my memory, but I don’t think so). In any case, it has an expressive beauty and it’s fun even if it still feels ultimately like a pastiche-y farce about weird parental manipulation of orphan kids, polymorphous sexuality and death — all of which is by way of saying, it feels very Canadian.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Chief among the bonuses are two 2008 short films that Guy Maddin made to go with this feature film. One is “It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today”, which deals with one of the cast members, but in a typically Maddinesque impressionistic — er, actually expressionist, I guess? — kinda way. It’s a blur of images and feelings that tend towards the dark.
  • The other short film is “Footsteps”, and if you’re going to do DVD bonus featurettes about the making of your film, this is about as good as they can really be. It’s Guy Maddin showing how the sound effects were made, by the working collective of the title, but filmed as a Maddinesque short film — and, like anything by Maddin, I’m not exactly convinced of how truthful it is, either. However, it is fun and funny, and it gives a good sense of the rather absurdist work of a foley artist.
  • There’s also a deleted scene which runs for a few minutes but which was probably excised wisely as I don’t recall very much about it having seen it a mere hour or two ago, but it was intended to up the ‘queer’ factor of a film which already plays enough with gender identities.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Guy Maddin; Writers Maddin and George Toles; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Gretchen Krich, Maya Lawson, Isabella Rossellini; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at NFT, London, Saturday 20 October 2007 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Sunday 20 June 2021).

Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

Moving back to proper indie films is another of Lynn Shelton’s small but well-crafted features dealing with relationship dramas in the Pacific Northwest. She always worked with the finest actors, and it really pays off at times (though it’s not my favourite of her films, preferring Laggies and Touchy Feely). I’ll cover her final film tomorrow.


I like plenty about the improvisational aesthetic that this film fits into, that world of “mumblecore”, low-key relationship drama, situations focusing on believable people in relatable circumstances. I like all three of the actors, and Lynn Shelton is a fine director. I did, however, feel like the set-up here was a little bit overwrought, as if a plot discarded from a telenovela or soap, which meant I found it difficult to connect with the characters. That said, of course, the acting was all superb, and it’s largely set in a striking part of the Pacific Northwest.

Your Sister's Sister film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lynn Shelton; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 27 April 2017.

Nights and Weekends (2008)

Greta Gerwig came out of the 2000s (and the so-called “Mumblecore” era) as something of an ‘It’ girl, at least for a moment, and parlayed that into both mainstream acting success and now as a director with her two most recent films, Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019). However, she did have a co-directing credit on one of her collaborations with Joe Swanberg in that initial period, and there’s a lot that’s fascinating about the collaboration, even if it hardly takes my weddings and romance-themed week on the blog in very much happier directions.


Joe Swanberg has made a huge number of films, many of which (like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), also starring Gerwig, or 2011’s Art History with Josephine Decker) have a sort of improvised, raw feel to them — perhaps the result of the budgets or the shooting style, but it’s a kind of style I feel an affinity towards, because it seems to be coming from a different direction from most mainstream cinema. Still, he’s in the business of telling stories, and it’s key here that his co-star Greta Gerwig is credited as co-director and co-writer, because this feels as much about her (probably more so, honestly) than it does about his character. Both bare themselves literally (hardly unusual for Swanberg, who often delves into on-screen sexuality, whether as director or as performer), but there’s something intense about the way Gerwig presents on screen that helps you move through her emotions, far more than Swanberg, who as an actor doesn’t seem quite as upfront. That said, they both have some great scenes together that are always just held that moment (or minute, or eternity) longer than you expect, meaning they move beyond the usual relationship moments to present something more ambiguous and messy and complex. I don’t love it all, but there’s a core of something that I like very much.

Nights and Weekends film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig; Cinematographers Matthias Grunsky and Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Le Cinema Club streaming), London, Tuesday 18 February 2020.

The Forbidden Room (2015)

It might be possible to recount the plot of Guy Maddin’s latest work (made with co-director Evan Johnson, presumably as compiling all this material must have been an exhausting task), but it would probably not be advisable. It’s a series of nested narratives, little fragments of stories as if rescued from some ancient decaying store of early cinema nitrate footage, stitched together with perfunctory transitions, which loop into and out of an almost dream-like consciousness taking in mystery, thiller, adventure film, romance and more. It feels like a pastiche of silent film serials overlaid by noirish pulp fiction and a hefty dose of Canadian wintery surrealism, that will probably be more rewarding to those viewers who are somewhat au fait with early cinema or already know the film work of Guy Maddin, and so have a fondness for his scratchy, grainy, alternately washed-out and hyper-coloured, stylised images. If it feels by the end a little long, it’s never short of inventiveness, and there’s a parade of guest actors, all introduced by a title card as they enter the narrative, without anyone really taking centre stage. Cinematic narcosis writ large.

The Forbidden Room film posterCREDITS
Directors Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson; Writers Johnson, Robert Kotyk and Maddin; Cinematographers Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron and Benjamin Kasulke; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Arthouse Crouch End, London, Wednesday 16 December 2015.

Touchy Feely (2013)

I gather from the internet that not everyone loves this film, which is both a shame, and understandable to an extent — it shares certain qualities with other low-budget improvised films (like Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas). You may know the kind of thing: that tentative awkwardness of the actors as they navigate conversations for the first time, not to mention some of the darker recesses of the characters’ emotions — the kinds of things that mainstream films tend to shy away from. For all that it’s clearly made as a labour of love, and it looks very polished, with a photographer’s eye for framing and cutting together. Rosemarie DeWitt plays the central character of Abby, a massage therapist who starts to become averse to skin, while her brother Paul (Josh Pais) is an introverted and unsuccessful dentist who suddenly finds popularity due to his presumed healing powers, and caught between these two are Paul’s daughter Jenny (Elliot Page) and Abby’s boyfriend Jesse (Scott McNairy). It’s a film of people who have trouble relating to one another, and who exhibit all kinds of social anxieties that may explain a low-level attachment towards various alternative New Age-y therapies — things that wouldn’t usually make for gripping cinema, which is probably why it’s not going to be a big hit with everyone. However, it does so in an attentive low-key way that pays off dividends in Shelton’s more recent Laggies, which marries some of this psychological character work to a bigger budget and stars.

Touchy Feely film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lynn Shelton; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Elliot Page, Josh Pais, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Thursday 20 August 2015.

Laggies (aka Say When, 2014)

Sometimes, even though a film isn’t the kind of thing you’d usually make much of an effort to see, you read reviews of it that just seem grossly unfair (hello, The Guardian), and it makes you feel more warmly disposed. It helps that I’ve found Keira Knightley more likeable as an actor in recent years, while Sam Rockwell has always been dependable. Add to that my resolution to see more films by woman directors, and I felt I had to catch this in its brief window of cinema release. I’m glad I did. The American title (not retained for the UK release) is rather idiosyncratic, but captures the sense of the central characters lagging behind their peers. Chiefly this is Knightley’s character Megan, in her late-20s but lacking motivation, with no sense of what she should be doing and with cold feet about her relationship, who hides out at teenager Annika’s home (Moretz). If the central character were male, this kind of regressive ingenuousness would no doubt be grating, but actually I found the friendship between Megan and Annika rather sweet. At a certain level, yes, the film is hardly original, and so many of its details suggest screenwriterly contrivance, and yet I’m willing to forgive all that, because it’s a likeable film which avoids relying on humiliation and pratfalls for its comedy, but rather focuses on likeable people grappling with real, if familiar, issues in an identifiable way.

Laggies film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writer Andrea Seigel; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Empire Leicester Square, London, Thursday 20 November 2014.