Tag Archives: 2020

CAPSULE: QUEEN OF PARADIS (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Carl Lindstrom

FEATURING: Reine Paradis

PLOT: After a sold-out exhibit of her “Jungle” photography series, Reine Paradis goes around the United States to find the perfect locations for her follow-up, “Midnight.”

COMMENTS: When I experience art, I try to do so with a degree of ignorance–I typically neither know, nor care to know, anything about the artist. I eschew “director’s commentaries” for films because I want to see the work, and experience the story, on its own. I found Queen of Paradis, a documentary about an artist making art, somewhat awkward going—and knew half an hour in where it was going, and how it was going there.

We follow Reine Paradis, a Surrealist photographic artist, and her husband (who handily fills the roles of driver, prop repairman, photographer, and all around supportive swell guy) across the country as she puts lime plexi-plastic on display, making unreal, still-life vignettes from a real, photographed setup. The tone is typical talking heads-style documentary interspersed with intimate scenes (socially and emotionally intimate, that is)—including more “breaking-and-entering” segments than I was expecting, as Reine and hubby sneak into a salt mine for a white “mountain”top shoot, or onto a fenced-off billboard for a neon-lime-green spaghetti dinner “restaurant” shoot. It is a credit (I presume to director Lindstrom) that the tone never quite veers into satirical—any other movie with the line, ‘Okay! I have the fish!’ shouted by a French woman standing beside a train track would doubtless smack of parody.

But an interesting topic does not an interesting movie make. I also experienced this with the documentary about The Residents. While Queen of Paradis is competent, adequately assembled, and informative about its subject matter, that only hits a documentary’s minimum requirements. (And upon a little reflection, it seems unfair to be so dismissive of a documentary that does those three things; oh well.) Still, all and all, I found Reine’s imagery fascinating and playful and that, ultimately, is the point. Queen of Paradis could be dismissed as an advertisement for the artist, but I don’t begrudge her that. It worked on me.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

reine paradis – The titular artist’s homepage, with plenty of images and information about her, her work, and this movie

Surreal-Chic – In-depth article about Paradis’ first photo-set, “Jungle”

“Interview” by Plastik Magazine – This brief (1:18 minutes) segment conveniently condenses Reine’s process, and results, into a bite-sized chunk

“step into reine paradis’ surrealist adventure land” – Interview and article with the i-D people (a fashion culture, fanzine outfit) featuring many of the photographs from the “Midnight” shoot

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’m not exactly a massive fan of art documentaries. I prefer watching more of the pop-culture and modern-day artists…the ones with a quirky edge over the traditional. Paradis definitely fits the quirky side of art. Queen of Paradis is an excellent art film.”–Alan Ng, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HORSE GIRL (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Jeff Baena

FEATURING: Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, Matthew Gray Gubler

PLOT: A young woman with a family history of mental illness becomes paranoid that aliens are affecting her behavior.

Still from Horse Girl (2020)

COMMENTS: The title Horse Girl conjures up a specific archetype: not merely a girl who’s interested in horses (many girls are), but a girly-girl so relentlessly feminine that she makes people uncomfortable and ends up relating to steeds better than humans. Sarah (Brie) works at an arts and crafts shop selling beads and yarn, and won’t stop hanging out at the stable decorating Willow’s mane with her homemade lanyards, even though the owners hint that she’s not really welcome anymore. Other than a kind older lady at the shop (Shannon), she has no real friends, and spends most of her time watching the supernatural TV soap “Purgatory.” Her roommate tries setting her up with a friend-of-a-friend who’s on the rebound from a failed relationship. But Sarah’s social awkwardness takes a turn for the worse after she starts having dreams about a glowing ramp hanging over the ocean and a white-on-white room where she sees sleeping people whom she kind of recognizes…

What are we to think of a character who asks her ear nose and throat doctor, “Is there a test to see if I’m a clone?” Sarah has proto-schizophrenic fantasies about alien abductions and time travel, but the script never offers serious evidence that her theories are more than the ravings of a madwoman. Rather than suspecting and hoping (as we do with Donnie Darko) that there might be an alternate, plausible, high-stakes sci-fi explanation for our protagonist’s inner turmoil, we’re left watching a character’s sad decline into madness. Sarah’s total psychotic break happens abruptly, and the last act of the film is essentially a long hallucination broken up by a few conversations with her caseworker. The scenes are weird, yes, but we never get the psychological depth in her backstory that would make her delusions meaningful. We aren’t even explicitly told why she’s so attached to her horse—it’s left to us to put two and two together. Without a close emotional connection to Sarah, and without a narrative investment in her crazy clone theory, we can’t identify with her; we’re left to pity the poor horse girl rather than empathize with her. We watch Brie move through glowing white rooms; we watch her wrap herself (and her horse) in a homemade anti-alien suit. But it’s a depiction of madness rather than a submersion in madness. Despite it’s best efforts, Horse Girl keeps us on the outside of Sarah’s head, looking in.

Brie is very good in the role, socially stunted during the first half and dazed and terrified when her psychic dam breaks. Horse Girl is clearly a passion project for her (she co-wrote the script, basing Sarah on her own personal history, since Brie’s grandmother was a paranoid schizophrenic). This makes it all the more tragic that, despite her fervent portrayal, the story isn’t as gripping as it might have been.

Horse Girl comes with a tiny bit of controversy. The film has been accused of ripping off plot elements and story beats, and even lifting entire shots, from an earlier low-budget indie: 2017’s The God Inside My Ear. 366 Weird Movies is neutral on the question.

Horse Girl is currently a Netflix exclusive movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This is a dark movie that gets weird for no good reason, and it feels like the project becomes a victim of writers (Baena and Alison Brie) who can’t figure out the ending to their story so they take the weird route.”–Louisa Moore,  Screen Zealots (festival screening)

CAPSULE: GRETEL & HANSEL (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Osgood Perkins

FEATURING: Sophia Lillis, , Samuel Leakey

PLOT: Cast out by their poor mother, Gretel takes her brother Hansel into the woods, where they come upon a house inhabited by a witch.

Still from Gretel & Hansel (2020)

COMMENTS:There’s no gingerbread house in Gretel & Hansel, but there is an unnatural abundance of food that appears on the old woman’s table day after day, despite the absence of livestock or a garden. Near starvation, Gretel and her younger brother Hansel aren’t picky about where this abundance is coming from—at first.

Oz Perkins’ spin on the ancient fairy tale focuses on the relationship between Gretel and the witch, who is both an antagonist and a perverse sort of mentor for a girl without a female role model. To expand the slim folklore to feature length, the screenplay provides a rich backstory for the witch.  Wickedly played by a creaky Alice Krieg, she’s not just a boogey-woman, but a full-fledged herbalist and pagan practitioner. After a prologue describing her origins—a fairy tale inside the fairy tale—the story begins in earnest with Gretel discovering her prospects are limited in a famine-plagued village. With mom providing no help, she takes Hansel as a ward and sets off in search of a better life. An out-of-place episode involving what appears to be a mutant zombie, and a bout with hallucinogenic toadstools, provide a couple of bumps in the road before the pair arrive at the mysterious cottage. Once there, the eldritch atmosphere takes over as Gretel settles into a routine: days sparring with the witch, nights filled with nightmares. All the while, Hansel is getting fatter, and sees no reason to flee a good thing…

This gently spooky middle part of the film is the strongest. Gretel ends on a too-short climax that, while true to both the folklore and to the narrative the script builds, disappoints a bit in its obviousness. There’s not much budget for elaborate effects, but the dark cinematography is dreamy and intoxicating. Shots are filled with occult symbolism: not just the pentagram Hansel finds scratched on the tree, Gretel’s eye caught in a triangle like an Eye of Providence, and the pointy roof of the witch’s house framed alongside an eternally crescent moon.

Thematically, Gretel is a bit muddled. It’s a coming-of-age story, sure. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to menstruation. Gretel herself changes during the course of the story, growing from an unsure virginal girl to a confident virginal young woman; Sophia Lillis captures the transformation capably. More interesting, though, is the focus on fairy tales as warnings, and particularly a bit of play on the ideas of poison and gifts. The witch explains to Gretel that, although poison tastes bitter, imbibing a bit is salutary because it builds immunity. By contrast, the pastries on the witch’s table taste sweet, but hide bitter realities.

Gretel & Hansel is relatively slow paced, with art house aspirations that will please critics more than its PG-horror audience. It’s no wonder that it was dumped in theaters in February with little promotion; the bigger mystery is how this mid-budget horror got a relatively large scale release. Even though the movie’s not quite as filling as it might have been, we should be grateful for its relative abundance in a time of cinematic famine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s got ‘cult movie’ written all over it in strawberry jam, which probably isn’t actually strawberry jam, and audiences who tune into its unusual wavelength will no doubt be grateful for such a beautiful, frightening, intelligent new venture into an age-old nightmare.”–William Bibbiani, The Wrap (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sebastian Murrilo, who thought it was “Panos Comsatos-esque” and was “shocked to see this in a multiplex theater.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)