Tag Archives: Environmentalism

CAPSULE: PARADOX (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Daryl Hannah

FEATURING: , Lukas Nelson, Micah Nelson, Corey McCormick, Anthony LoGerfo, Tato Melgar, Willie Nelson

PLOT: “Many moons ago, in the future…” a gang of cowboy-style fellows scratch out an existence on a remote farm; they’ve been exiled there by women-folk, who have proven better stewards of the earth. And there’s also Neil Young concert.

Still from Paradox (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This odd little film would conceivably make the cut (albeit waaay down the list) if it weren’t for the fact that, mid-way through, it becomes a Neil Young concert movie for about ten minutes. During the narrative bit, though, performer Neil Young and director Daryl Hannah (yes, that Daryl Hannah) have assembled a passable bit of amateurish art-house and strangely compelling “W.T.F.” meanderishness that’s not without its charm.

COMMENTS: What do you get when you combine a legendary country star, an environmental activist director kicking around, and down-time? Paradox is one possible answer. Neil Young, in his 21st acting role, narrates and stars in this 60 + 15-minute[1] diversion, bringing along with him a couple of scions in Willie Nelson and other outlandishly talented musicians who, after all is said and done, make a decent fist of playing post-apocalyptic versions of themselves.

Daryl Hannah makes full use of every camera filter at her disposal and every little bit of editing trickery to render, visually, what might have once existed as a campfire tall-tale. Random shots of animals create an ambience that is both cute and natural, as well provide the occasional “What the…?” moment. (One shot with a very quizzical-looking deer seemingly watching over the action is particularly effective.) Our lads, of all ages, burn time talking, gambling, and digging up trash-treasure while waiting around for the “Gray Eagle”: a bus full of women who, in Paradox‘s loose narrative, are the Earth’s stewards. And Neil Young looks cryptic. Then he wanders the land toting a rifle. Then he plays his guitar. Then he looks like he might partake in a quick-draw with Willie Nelson. You get the picture.

Stripped of its concert footage center, Paradox would have made a nice little entry in one of 366’s appendices. But as this brief review has remarked, it’s nothing more than the sum of its circumstances: Neil Young and company with a few days to kill, Daryl Hannah with a movie camera and time to spare, and an impromptu feel derived from the director’s “one take” methodology. Lives will not be changed (though the occasional preachiness of Paradox suggests they wouldn’t mind if they were), but the world isn’t worse off for having this odd little digression into music, philosophy, allegory, and black hats.

Available exclusively on Netflix (at least for the time being).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once upon a time, a film like ‘Paradox,’ a vaguely hallucinatory sci-fi/Western hybrid with legendary rocker Neil Young at its hazy center, would have found its natural home on the midnight movie circuit. Alas, the midnight movie scene is practically dead, and it is therefore instead debuting on Netflix, which will at least make it more convenient for its target audience of Young completists, people too stoned to make it out their front doors and those who felt that ‘Masked and Anonymous’ was far too lucid and commercial-minded for their tastes.” – Peter Sobczynski,  RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

  1. The “movie” itself is about an hour; unlike many people who might watch this, I could have done without the concert interlude lifted from Young’s 2016 tour. []

312. MOTHER! (2017)

“And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.”–Revelation 11:18

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, , Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, , Kristen Wiig

PLOT: A writer and his wife live alone, rebuilding a house where the man used to live before it burned down. One day, a stranger shows up at their door and the husband invites him to stay, against the woman’s wishes. More uninvited guests arrive, first the family of the original man, and then hordes of the writer’s adoring fans, sowing complete chaos in the home just as the woman gives birth.

Still from mother! (2017)

BACKGROUND:

  • Darren Aronofsky says he wrote the first draft in “a fever dream” in just five days.
  • Per Aronofsky, 66 of the film’s 115 minutes are closeups of Jennifer Lawrence.
  • 20th Century Fox passed on distributing the film due to a controversial scene.
  • The movie received a rare “F” rating on CinemaScore (which measures audience reactions). Fewer than 20 movies have ever received such a low score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We won’t mention the scene that makes the most impact for fear of spoiling your reaction. (You’ll know it when you see it). That leaves us looking for a second place image to fill this space; we’ll go with the vagina-shaped wound that develops out of a bloodstain on the house’s hardwood floor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine-Seltzer; toilet heart; crowd-surfing baby

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Writer/director Aronofsky lets this movie go all to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene in particular that sent ’em packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood offering with an outsider’s beashness, transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Outraged moviegoers who came to see megastar Jennifer Lawrence’s horror film got a puzzling, punishing allegory instead. mother! was an all-too-rare “event movie” in the weird genre.


Original trailer for mother!

COMMENTS: The first act, with uninvited house guests arriving in Continue reading 312. MOTHER! (2017)

CAPSULE: SAFE (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Todd Haynes

FEATURING: , Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman

PLOT: A wealthy woman who finds herself suffering from nosebleeds, vomiting and other unexplained maladies is drawn into a New Age cult that promises to deliver her from her “environmental sickness.”

Still from Safe (1995)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like its protagonist’s non-specific malaise, Safe has an uneasy, hard-to-pin-down tone that’s subtly disquieting. Whatever is plaguing Carol, however, we aren’t comfortable with a final diagnosis of “weird.”

COMMENTS: Safe is a movie in two parts. In the first half, Carol, a bored housew—um, homemaker—sleepwalks through a wan, bourgeois existence. Sex with her affluent but uninspiring husband is unfulfilling, the furniture store inexplicably delivers the wrong couch, and post-aerobic conversations with her friends revolve largely around upcoming baby showers and fad fruit diets. Finally, the wrong kind of excitement enters her life: she begins suffering unexplained nosebleeds, vomiting, and wheezing panic attacks. The doctors are nonplussed by her vague symptoms, and allergy tests turn up negative (except for milk). Still, she’s hospitalized after suffering a seizure at a dry cleaners; she has something.

At this point, the film changes focus when Carol investigates a  health club flyer with the intriguing title, “are you allergic to the 20th century?” At first she attends lectures about “environmental sickness” or “multiple chemical sensitivity,” educates herself in the pseudo-scientific jargon about “body load” and “getting clear”; eventually, she declares herself a candidate for the expensive health retreat of Wrenwood, a “non-profit communal settlement dedicated to the healing individual.” Rather than getting better, however, Carol gets progressively sicklier the longer she stays within the carefully controlled atmosphere of the retreat: her body turns bony, her skin blotchy, she takes to lugging around an oxygen tank, and the slightest accidental sniff of fumes from a passing truck sends her into a wheezing spell. The psychobabble therapy—which insists that the patient’s illness is a result of negative emotions and of not loving themselves enough—keeps the residents in state of infantile dependency. Carol’s sickness actually gives her, for the first time in the movie, a sense of purpose and identity; her deterioration is, therefore, not surprising.

Haynes’ camera is deliberate; the film is shot mostly in clinical long shots, with very slow, ian pans. The soundtrack is low, rumbling synthetic drones, with vapid soft rock interludes. The feeling is of distant, gathering doom. The themes suggest layers of interpretation: the story could be a bourgeois satire, New Age satire, feminist allegory, AIDS allegory, or an existential nightmare manifesting itself as body horror. At Safe‘s heart are the subconscious concepts of “purity” and “contamination” (whether environmental, spiritual, or even demographic), and a warning about the danger of yearning for utopian homogeneity and withdrawal from the chaotic world. Ambiguous and creepy, Safe is a call to danger. In these gluten-wary times, Haynes’ message is still vital.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Alas, one waits through the entire two hours hoping that [Haynes] will save himself by puncturing his own balloon of self-seriousness with some of the bizarre humor and inventive genre-bending that has characterized his films to date. But it never comes.”–Todd McCarty, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard , who said “It features a great performance from Julianne Moore as a neurotic germophobe who becomes so paranoid in living in a modern industrialized society that she is shipped off to this naturalist colony where other neurotics wander around in these weird body suits that protect them from harmful pollutants in the air.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: POM POKO (1994)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (Disney dub) voices of Maurice LaMarche, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, , Tress MacNeille

PLOT: A community of shapeshifting “racoons” struggle to deal with suburban encroachment on their forest homes, inventing schemes that range from arranging hauntings to all-out war.

Still from Pom Poko (1994)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: To Westerners, much of the weirdness in Pom Poko comes from their unfamiliarity with Japanese folklore; however, there is a far deeper and more affecting strain of strangeness here than can be explained simply by culture clash. The hallucinatory “monster parade” sequence alone could be enough to put Pom Poko over the top.

COMMENTS: Written by and directed by Isao “Grave of the Fireflies” Takahata, Pom Poko was an all-star effort from Studio Ghibli. It’s also one of their most Japanese productions, made with no eye for how it might play for Western audiences, and it’s richer for indulging its indigenous roots. The epic story tracks the struggles of a band of tanuki (translated in the English dub as “racoons,” although the species is more closely related to dogs than to racoons) against the deforestation of their homes by the suburbs expanding outward from Tokyo. The tale embodies Miyazaki’s environmentalist concerns, although the mood is not so much one of activism as it is of melancholy. Since tanuki are spirit creatures, ancient tricksters who transform to play pranks on humans, their decimation symbolizes not only the degradation of the natural world, but also of the spiritual world, whose frontier continually recedes in modern times in the name of progress. The eventual fate of the tanuki is reminiscent of the Elves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as they cede their turn as the dominant culture to Men with reluctant dignity.

The tanuki are famous shapeshifters, and Pom Poko‘s creatures come in at least three forms: the quadrupedal state that we humans are familiar with; the anthropomorphic bipedal form in which they spend most of their time for exposition purposes; and, when they’re in a partying mood, the animals spontaneously shift into happy-faced teddy bears. That’s not counting the infinite variety of shapes gifted tanuki can take with practice; the best of them can even pass among us as humans. Watching their transmogrification training regimen, as young male tanuki show an unflattering aptitude for shifting into female forms, provides much of the comedy in the first few reels. Tanuki, though noble creatures, are also the buffoons of the spirit animal world. The helpful narration explains that they are basically lazy and hedonistic, somewhat gullible (Japanese children are able to trick them into revealing themselves by singing songs), and that they find hamburgers irresistible. Obviously, not all of this is strictly folkloric, but the mixture of legend and anime tropes makes for a surprisingly rich milieu: comic, tragic, and alien all at the same time.

Of course, it’s difficult for Westerners to discuss Takahata‘s tanuki without addressing their oft-prominent testicles, depictions of which have infamously given rise to the movie being described by immature sorts as “that raccoon ball movie.” Even worse than seeing the cartoon testicles is the fact that male tanuki occasionally stretch their scrotums to enormous proportions, large enough to serve as a parachute or a welcome mat for dozens of their fellows. That’s the perfect example of the film’s culture shock value. Other sequences from the film show cross-cultural weirdness, however, like the tanuki’s Nintendo presentation on their shrinking habitat, or the time they lured corporate functionaries into their Escher-esque flying cat shrine to steal a million dollars worth of yen. And the five-minute phantasmagorical “monster parade” of skeletal horses, fire-breathing tigers, and various misshapen yokai must be seen to be believed. Overall, Pom Poko is a remarkable adventure in Japanese mythology that is all the more involving because it makes no concessions to Western audiences.

Disney upgraded Pom Poko to Blu-ray in 2015. The film can be watched in the English dubbed version or in the original Japanese with subtitles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Quite frankly, if you’re over the age of 12, you’ll be impressed with the animation and creativity, and howling at the weirdness.”–Norm Schrager, AMC (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Benh Zeitlin

FEATURING: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana, Lowell Landis, Levy Easterly

PLOT: A young girl named Hushpuppy lives in an isolated bayou community known as “The

Bathtub”, cut off from the rest of the world by levees. A massive storm destroys much of her home and she, her ailing father, and their friends must find a way to survive in a flooded, dying land.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Benh Zeitlin offers a unique fantasy that is grounded in the reality of global climate change and environmental disasters like Hurricane Katrina. There is little exposition, and our understanding of this world comes through a six-year-old girl, resulting in a dreamlike and perplexing story that might just be weird enough for the List.

COMMENTS: Filmed in an intimate style and focusing solely on the perspective of the defiant but loveable Hushpuppy, Beasts of the Southern Wild presents an alternate way of living, one that is in harmony with nature even in the challenging landscape of a flooded bayou. Hushpuppy and her father care for numerous animals, residing in two separate trailers made up of composite parts and mementos of her long-lost mother. Their town frequently holds large celebrations, honoring a lifestyle free from the constraints and responsibilities of civilization on the other side of the levee. Hushpuppy is taught that everything in the universe is connected to everything else, and she believes the great storm that destroys her home has unsettled the world’s harmony. It is her mission to restore balance, working together with the Bathtub’s remaining denizens as they escape on ramshackle boats, hoping the land they’ve loved for so long won’t betray them.

With the lines between reality and fantasy artfully blended and fascinating waterlogged landscapes, the film is as much a visual treat as it is an environmental parable. Everything is familiar and yet somehow unreal, with slight dystopian elements that open the film up to myriad possibilities. Zeitlin’s camera sticks closely to Hushpuppy, with intermittent cutaways to the rampaging beasts of the title: great, ancient aurochs awakened after centuries encased in ice, who may or may not be figments of her imagination. Many of the film’s ideas and themes are epic in scope, but smartly distilled into something more accessible through the eyes of a small child.

Wallis is exceptional in the lead role. We see and feel her experiences so completely, though her precocious nature makes us wonder just how much she understands. She perfectly embodies this resilient, fierce character who loves her standoffish father but longs for the kind of tender affection she imagines her mother would give. Her relationship with her father is complex; he is volatile and at times abusive, tormented by a heart disease he can’t fight and an unwillingness to show weakness. He wants to imbue Hushpuppy with independence and self-sufficiency, pushing her to age rapidly while remaining emotionally distant to shield himself. Hushpuppy recognizes what is happening but cannot accept it, believing part of her mission for the universe is saving her father from the wild beasts coming to claim him.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is beautiful, ambitious, and strange, with a strong emotional center that resonates long after the credits roll. It is advertised as a kind of apocalyptic adventure story but in truth it is more focused on relationships and themes of community and responsibility. The cinematography is intimate and dreamlike, with a clear vision that rarely relies on special effects to impress viewers. The script is steeped in social commentary but never resorts to preachiness, as Zeitlin wisely maintains focus on the wonderful little fireball that is Quvenzhané Wallis. It is a thought-provoking and heartfelt tale of survival with unique touches of ambiguity and fantasy that keep it compelling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its fertility and its terror stem from the same truth: To the young mind, there is no sealed barrier cleaving reality from fantasy. Not yet. The wall hasn’t been built.” –Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Chronicle