Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Movie Review: "Brazil" by David Pretty

Greetings, Big Brothers and Sistahs!

Y'know, I used to like watching dystopia-type sci-fi movies like Blade Runner, 1984 and even Demolition Man just to see what kooky and grim scenarios writers might project for our future.  But now I watch them just to see how close they've come to predicting the sad, current state of our society.  Brazil is no exception.  It's a brilliant cautionary tale, a triumph of production design, an imaginative visual palette and a veritable actor's showcase.

But before I confess my totalitarian opinion, here's the film's visionary trailer:

In Brazil, Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, a low-rung government drone who toils away in a cramped, tiny workspace filled with technology that barely works.  He escapes the repetitious doldrums of his daily work life with dreams of rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress.

One day his paranoid and tightly-wound boss (Ian Holm) asks Sam to untangle a bureaucratic nightmare which resulted in the state-sanctioned capture, torture and murder of an innocent man due to a printing error (!).  When Sam hand-delivers the resulting compensation check to the man's widow, he encounters Jill Layton (Kim Greist) who turns out to be the spitting image of the woman in his dreams.

After Sam grudgingly accepts a promotion with the nefarious Ministry of Information, he begins to dig into his dream girl's file and finds out that she's flagged as a terror suspect.  Soon his obsessive probing starts to raise the eyebrows of his peers and Sam begins to fall under their suspicions as well.

The screenplay by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown plays out like a veritable checklist of things that have come to pass.  We see people frustrated by reams of impenetrable red tape.  Sam is subjected to invasive security procedures.  The specter of terrorism is raised to foster a constant sense of fear.  Basic infrastructure is falling apart.  People are fingered as terror suspects and can be snatched up by the state without warrants or due process.  Interrogation and detainment techniques are questionable at best.

Into this dark world Gilliam interjects some truly magical imagery.  The dream/nightmare sequences are flawless, such as when Sam defeats the giant samurai during a flawlessly realized "David and Goliath" moment.  This is one of those rare films where the physical design of the sets are actually incorporated into the thrust of the scene itself.  I love Sam's titanic battle for desk space that occurs in his broom-closet sized office after his promotion.  Or when Spoor (Bob Hoskins) gets his nose out of joint and tears Sam's apartment to shreds merely due to his inability to produce the proper form.

The cast is so accomplished and talented that they're never overshadowed by all the spectacular visuals.  Jonathan Price is delightfully frantic, funny and sympathetic.  He's plays a terrific everyman who's clearly fed up with being an interchangeable cog in a cold and cruel machine.  Ex-Python Michael Palin is perfect as the twitchy, smarmy and superficial Jack Lint.  I love how Gilliam throws away little clues to the nature of his "work" while Palin himself fans the fire of our suspicions with deft humor.

Kim Greist is certainly fetching as "Dream Jill" but her "real life" persona is a refreshing contrast to how Sam imagines her to be.  Instead of being the helpless McGuffin in a Super Mario game she's sassy, unrefined and a more then a little bit dangerous.

Amongst the minor characters, Katherine Helmond is the real standout as Sam's mom.  Her character perfectly embodies society's obsession with chasing the impossible physical ideal.  When she's not exhibiting some bizarre fashion statement, she's having her face lifted to the breaking point by her quack plastic surgeon.  Her performance is a sheer delight and she's able to switch gears effortlessly from protective to pushy, from nosy to oblivious.

This is Terry Gilliam's best film.  I don't think the perfect storm of concept, scripting, performances, production design and direction has come together this well for him before or since.  But if you define cinema as a purely visual medium, I'm really hard-pressed to think of a film that's a better example of this.

In the documentary The Battle for Brazil we learn that the picture's original cut almost didn't see the light of day in North America.  Frankly I love the film's original bleak ending since it really drives home my belief that societal change can only be possible after we all experience the sort of epiphany that Sam goes through here.  When slogans like "Don't suspect a friend, report him" become an acceptable sentiment (if not an acceptable window dressing) then we know it's time to start humming "Aquarela do Brasil" and fighting for change.

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