by David Cornelius
“Magdalena’s Brain” comes from the same batch of cold, cerebral home-brewed science fiction that also gave us such recent works as the brilliant “Primer” - there’s a whole lot of talking and barely any doing. As such, this low-budget, direct-to-video release is bound to put off many a renter who takes a chance looking for something more along the lines of non-stop thrills and chills. Which is a shame, as “Magdalena’s Brain,” while a bit clumsy at times, has enough smarts in its corner that even the iffiest moments mesmerize with its withdrawn, methodical tone and a sense of uncertainty and unease that refuses to be lifted away.Amy Shelton-White plays Magdalena, a gifted surgeon whose husband, Arthur (Sanjiban Sellew), is “one of the smartest people in the world.” His great mind is trapped inside a broken body, his quadriplegic frame leaving him wheelchair-bound, unable to speak if not for a communication device built by Magdalena that allows her to hear his throat movements translated via computer. Together, they live and work in a warehouse where they have been aiming to build an artificial brain of sorts, a liquid mass that can hold someone’s memories. Magdalena hopes to use the liquid to also save Andrew (David Joseph), her former cancer patient - perhaps she can, in a sense, transplant Arthur’s brain into Andrew’s body.
"Smart, sophisticated, original B moviemaking."
All of this sounds like a cheap 1950s B picture, the kind with mad scientists talking to disembodied heads that live in pans and talk back to you. Yet the science is kept on a believable level; Arthur and Magdalena deal not with body parts floating in containers, but with large computers, plenty of wiring, and stacks of notebooks. In fact, there is, until the climax, a complete absence of terror elements here. Instead, the film is interested in the personal level: Magdalena is dealing with the guilt of not only not being able to fully care for her husband, but also for not being able to save Andrew through surgery. The film is not about Magdalena the mad scientist but Magdalena the real person, someone with genuine thoughts and feelings. (Shelton-White’s excellent performance here is the glue for all of this; we believe her and want to find out more about her, which helps sell everything outlandish that goes on around her.)
Through this more personal angle, the film then sets up an unshakable sense of dread, without ever revealing from where such a feeling is originating. When Magdalena’s troubled brother (Robert Weingartner) arrives at the warehouse, we begin to worry. But why? Is he up to no good? Is his presence bound to spoil some hidden plan? Surely Magdalena and Andrew have something unspoken on the side (or do they?) - could the brother ruin that somehow? For all of this, we do not know, yet we can’t quite shake the apprehension that comes with his arrival.
What filmmakers Warren Amerman and Marty Langford (Amerman directed, Langford produced, both wrote and edited) do with their movie is bring the pacing to a near halt - again, a choice that’s bound to put off many viewers demanding quick thrills. This does not kill the film, as one might expect; instead, it draws the audience in closer, locking into us with an eerie, almost rhythmic quiet. Amerman also served as sound editor, and his work with mixer Karl Kempter helps build the tone of the piece. Ominous hums and distorted dialogue add to the sheer weirdness of it all.
All of this helps set up a finale that does, finally, allow for some over-the-top thrills that are all the more effective because we have been lulled into a daze by all that came before. The third act is explosive and chaotic (well, within the confines of both the story - it’s not so much a departure in tone that we’re put off - and the budget), and the script builds the tension to a breaking point, leaving us properly chilled. The final scenes are as legitimately haunting than anything a big budget effort might provide. (Maybe even more so.)“Magdalena’s Brain” is the work of a group of Massachusetts filmmakers working on a budget that can at best be described as limited. What they accomplish here isn’t perfect (that languid pacing occasionally does trip things up, although the extremely brief 75 minute running time means things move quickly enough considering), but it does showcase what independent filmmakers can do despite their limitations. They have crafted a story brimming with intelligence, they have collected a group of noteworthy performers, they have used stunningly sparse visuals, all of which helps us forget that we’re watching something put together on a shoestring. This is smart, character-driven science fiction done dirt cheap, and it works.
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originally posted: 10/24/06 14:36:57