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Imagination
Imagination
Actors: Ed Gildersleeve, Nikki and Jessi Haddad, Courtney Sanford
Director: Eric Leiser
Genres: Drama, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Mystery & Suspense
UR     2008     1hr 40min

Studio: Vanguard Cinema Release Date: 02/26/2008 Run time: 72 minutes Rating: Nr

     
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Movie Details

Actors: Ed Gildersleeve, Nikki and Jessi Haddad, Courtney Sanford
Director: Eric Leiser
Genres: Drama, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Mystery & Suspense
Sub-Genres: Drama, Fantasy, Mystery & Suspense
Studio: Vanguard Cinema
Format: DVD - Color
DVD Release Date: 02/26/2008
Original Release Date: 01/01/2007
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2007
Release Year: 2008
Run Time: 1hr 40min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 2
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Some of the most visionary imagery I've seen...
Nicholas Thomas | 03/19/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Why do we go to the movies, anyway? There are as many answers to this question as there are good films, but one of the reasons the medium more than any other stirs this critic is because it accomplishes visual exercises that simply cannot be done in any other art form. I specifically admire the boldest of filmmakers' attempt to marry dreamscapes with reality. Though it is one of the hardest types of genres in which to succeed because it allows for cheats in narrative logic, dream exploration is better accomplished in film than in any other artistic medium because it above all else demands a visual strategy: To take the intangible, silly, personal and essentially unfilmable succession of random unconscious images, successfully capture them, and actually give them logic and form without compromising their inspired lunacy. It is as difficult a process as it sounds, because we're talking about intangible images thrust into a medium that is by definition tangible celluloid.

That's why most cinema deals with corporeal storylines and shies away from vague abstractions--consider Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two masterful meditations on imagination that work because they allow fantasy and reality to operate together and stabilize each other. Purer, more avant-garde pieces are actually pretty hard to come by, and harder to recommend--early pictures from Werner Herzog (see Hearts of Glass, Fata Morgana) come to mind, as do the resumes of (take note) Germaine Dulac, Federico Fellini, Hayao Miyazaki, Lucio Fulci, David Lynch (of course), and recently Harmony Korine--whose maddeningly nightmarish Julian Donkey-Boy is just about the closest anything has ever come to perfectly capturing my idea of hell. Surrealism is a great genre when filmmakers can find the right mixture of tangible and intangible and allow the viewer to decipher which is which--that's what we do when we are dreaming anyway.

Now add Eric (who directed) and Jeffrey (who co-wrote) Leiser to the above list for their absorbing, fascinating Imagination, which contains stunning animated sequences that are often overwhelmingly lurid and oneiric. That's a good thing--for the film's several missteps in, yes, its narrative, its visuals successfully feed that need in me for surreal, abstract dreamscape. It's a rare accomplishment that so fearlessly abandons conventional cinema for astral overload that it often plays more like a music video or one of those Terry Gilliam animated vignettes than a film. But a film it is, ultimately--one that achieves aesthetic beauty and wonderment, even if it ultimately fails to connect emotionally.

The film concerns the ongoing fantasies of two twin sisters Anna and Sarah (real life sisters Nikki and Jessi Haddad), one who is blind and the other who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome ("it's like autism," a specialist explains). They spend most of their days jumping into what appears to be a shared fantasy world, represented in the film by abstract animation, which they use as a filter to make sense of their often bleak family life and disabilities. They are looked after by their parents (Courtney Sanford and Travis Poelle), whose relationship is growing increasingly unstable as their children slip deeper and deeper into their disabilities. The twins' therapist Dr. Reineger (Ed K. Gildersleeve), a neuro-psychologist who is more parental than their actual parents, researches the children obsessively in an attempt to crack down on their fantasies and find some sort of therapeutic approach to helping them. He grows especially fixated when it comes to his attention that their dreams, as they explain and draw them, are happening collectively, as if they share a telekinetic connection. As Reineger continues to investigate, he discovers that these shared dreams contain pretty precise predictions and symbolism that seem to foretell impending tragedies.

I'm stopping there with the plot summary, for two reasons: 1) Clocking in at just 60 minutes, there's not much more to tell--it's pretty obvious and predictable; 2) the plot in which actual actors perform are sandwiched in between the impressive stop-motion animation, and it is mere cushioning for these extraordinary sequences. Good thing too, because few of the actors are particularly convincing, and their dialogue is pretty stiff. Sanford, as the mother, is especially wooden in a part that could have used a little more meat on its bones. The twins seem to be emulating the ghostly sisters in Kubrick's The Shining--not recommended for characters who are supposed to be alive; nevertheless, their soft, distracted stares create an otherworldly quality that provides them some leeway in their acting. Only Gildersleeve emerges unscathed, thanks mostly to a half-mad role that lends itself to what seems to be the actor's natural awkwardness. It's either an effective performance or not a performance at all.

What Imagination gets right is its namesake--the animated sequences in which the twins escape into their fantasies and attempt to make sense of the complicated world going on around them. Think Pan's Labyrinth or Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, only far more abstract. These animated sequences are achieved with primitive-looking puppetry and stop motion animation, with abstract water color paintings serving as backgrounds, but these sequences' simplistic nature is part of its considerable style and charm: They represent the half-realized, continuously developing world of two children who are desperately trying to make sense of their lives. Each dream therefore seems to reveal just a few more rooms of their made-up world. By the end of the film, the sisters have developed a fantasy location in which every inch of the screen provides important details; the effect brings to mind the "living" castle in Jean Concteau's Beauty and the Beast, in which every wall, window frame, and candlestick seems to share a secret that the protagonists do not know about.

In these dreams, the twins fuse into a single body (though we hear both their voices speaking at the same time), and the film utilizes biblical and literary imagery that the children use as signposts to interpret the emotional absences of their parents and their increasingly overbearing disabilities. The single animated representation of the twins looks like a hastily-formed, unfinished angel, and this is precisely the embodiment of their reality, at least according to their parents' frequent disappointment with their handicaps. The world they inhabit is sharper, more graceful, and it contains some of the most visionary animation that I've seen--particularly in the details, which includes trees with eyes on its bark and a recurring fawn that turns from an creature of light to a messenger of death in a gradual transition that becomes remarkably terrifying. I'm not going to give away any more of this fully-realized animated world, except to say that they clearly spring from superior creative spirit and that they consistently top themselves in terms of mesmerizing feasts for the eyes. If some of the live action scenes are questionable, Imagination absolutely sparks to life and achieves moments of pure visionary greatness as soon as the children retreat into their dreams.

I am in awe of every animated frame that the Leiser brothers create. Eric's live action work, filmed on 16mm, is a bit more inconsistent. Some sequences are derivative and go on for too long, such as the extended earthquake sequence that begins strong with shots of crumbling rocks but eventually becomes overkill when the camera repeatedly shakes over images of cities, cars, roads, etc. There's another scene like this when the psychologist tosses and turns repeatedly; that he cannot sleep is a point made quickly--why do they linger for so long on his restlessness? On the other hand, some scenes demonstrate great power, such as the director's choice to provide close-ups of the twins' eyes and mouths as they overhear a heated argument between their parents. The effect is so intimate that it grows efficiently unnerving. Eric is also very good at framing--note the way that the doctor's hands overpower the rest of his body as he sits comfortably at his desk, explaining new strategies for approaching the twins' disabilities. He is a man driven completely by his toils.

Imagination has been a three years project for the Lesier brothers, and it was time well spent. There is something utterly hopeful in the thought that a blind girl's fantasy can take her to the Tree of Life, so that she can stand before it and observe both its splendor and its shortcomings, weigh the odds, and eventually decide to taste the fruit. Imperfections result, but the experiences gained are too important to miss--which is exactly how I feel about this movie. The Tree of Life, in the end, exists primarily in the sacred hallows of our minds, which is where the Lesiers keep it and nurture it--unblemished, beautiful, threatening, and quietly informing our dreams. Keep an eye on these fellows; they possess the boldness and, certainly, the imagination of the masters.

- Danel Griffin

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The complete works of the Leiser brothers available thus far:

Imagination
Eclectic Shorts by Eric Leiser
Faustbook"
A visually stunning avant-garde indie feature.
Leif Powell | 03/20/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A visually stunning avant-garde indie feature, three years in the making and made on a $110,000 budget, by the talented twentysomething Leiser brothers. Eric is director, animator, co-editor and co-writer; while Jeffrey is the co-writer and turns in a mind-boggling New Age musical score. The enigmatic film is about as clear as the white light of the imagination and as beautifully haunting as perhaps a Blake sonnet or a meadow in a Van Gogh. This brazenly original film uses claymation, puppetry, stop-motion animation and time-lapse photography with live action. It follows the same techniques as modern-day master Czech animator Jan Svankmajer.

The story concerns adolescent identical twin sisters Sarah and Anna Woodruff (Jessi and Nikki Haddad, real-life twins). Sarah is legally blind and has a degenerative eye disease that will lead to blindness; Anna, after much testing, is diagnosed by child neuro-psychologist Dr. Reineger (Ed K. Gildersleeve) with Asperger's Syndrome, a rare type of autism that afflicts high IQ kids who as a result show traits of difficulty in social interactions and become restricted into stereotyped interests and activities. The girls turn completely inward, shutting off the world and scaring their fearful and unprepared parents by their isolation and abnormal behavior. Their insensitive father, who can't deal with the twins, has left the family and their caring but unsuited mom (Courtney Sanford) dies on the highway in a major L.A. quake. The orphaned twins are taking temporarily into the befuddled Reineger's clinic, where he puts them under the microscope to learn more about how they live in a dream world that unites them on another realm and to see if he can decipher their prophetic visions. This plan is altered by the twins' more far out plan of escaping to a possibly higher realm of reality.

Obviously, the audience that would tend to appreciate such an off-beat surrealistic work are those who value the powers of the imagination and are willing to get into a different kind of film experience and overlook some of the film's weaknesses in its live action storytelling that falls short of the brilliant animation. The challenging storyline falters over a few scenes that come about so abruptly that they seem contrived (for instance, the death of mom during the earthquake seemed hard to fathom as anything more than a plot device to get rid of a pivotal character who unfortunately wasn't going to be developed any further). But this film won't disappoint such hearty souls who think for themselves, care about investigating better ways to treat children with special needs and do not require a linear story or a pat ending.

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Imagination"
Not sure what to think
wiredweird | Earth, or somewhere nearby | 07/15/2009
(3 out of 5 stars)

"A passage early on shows a child playing with a zoetrope (a pre-camera gadget for simple animations). That foreshadows a wide variety of techniques in this imaginative film, including live action, stop animation, hand-drawn cel animation, and combinations of any two or three. Stop animation evokes Svankmajer's use live actors as animation puppets, as well as use of food. Some macabre, skeletal puppets also bring the Brothers Quay to mind. None of that implies that Leiser's style is at all derivative, however - every scene carries his distinctive imprint, including dramatic imagery around a major, catastrophic incident.

After the technique, Leiser's content seems much harder to capture. I found it easy to dislike the ineffectual psychiatrist and to feel for the desperate mother. The twins, however, remained enigmatic to me. They lived as a symbiotic pair in a world governed by beings with huge powers. Neither the nature of their bond nor the rules of that world ever came clear, however. I don't need to understand every part of a pattern in a movie or the reason for it, but I look to see that there is some pattern somewhere. This time, not enough parts came together for me to perceive that any unified whole existed at all.

When logical structure in a movie eludes me, whether or not I understand that structure, I look to the visuals to pull me along. Although strong, this movie's imagery didn't have quite the power that others do. Fans of surrealist animation will find a fair bit to enjoy here, but I can't say it's a must-have for any personal library.

-- wiredweird"