The Red Turtle (2017)

I made the mistake of believing that, because it was a PG-rated Studio Ghibli release, The Red Turtle would be able to hold my 10 year old sister in law’s attention for its brief 80min runtime. It turns out that this Oscar-nominated animation is less whimsical kids’ fare like a Kiki’s Delivery Service or a My Neighbor Totoro and more of a quiet art film reflection on existential stillness. The Red Turtle is a quiet, lonely fairy tale with no backstory and, more notably, no dialogue. Its grimly whimsical retelling of The Little Mermaid (now with a giant turtle!) feels much more closely aligned with its nature as a French Art Film than its distribution through Ghibli might suggest. I wouldn’t recommend making a small child sit through it (I really should have more thoroughly researched it beforehand myself), but it does have a quiet power in its visual, emotional storytelling style that makes it worthwhile for those with the right amount of patience.

A nameless man shipwrecked on a remote island spends his days building a raft that might lead him back to civilization and his nights dreaming of signs of humanity: bridges, string quartets, etc. His few successful attempts to build a raft are disrupted by a giant red sea turtle that, seemingly without purpose, destroys his vessel by ramming it from below. Angered (and now outfitted with a beard that makes him resemble the Sad Keanu meme), the man exacts violent revenge on the turtle that leaves it similarly shipwrecked on his new island home. At this point, the narrative’s similarities to The Little Mermaid emerge and the walls dividing fantasy & reality gradually break down. The turtle transforms into a human woman, the pair’s guilt over their violent acts & their isolation lead to lifelong devotion, and they form a romantic partnership that lasts decades, making room for both awe-inspiring triumphs & emotionally devastating downfalls as Nature take its course.

The most striking aspect of The Red Turtle is its fascination with the ebb & flow cycles of The Natural World. Plant life is treated with the complex visual detail of a classic children’s book illustration. An intense contrast is established between the muted grays of night & shadow vs. the vibrant colors of day & sunshine. Baby sea turtles & scattering crabs go about their daily business no matter the significance of the times in the human lives that surround them. Violence, love, survival, death, and rebirth flow across time in a full spectrum of the human condition. Even the back & forth cycles of dream & conscious reality are treated with a respectful awe & religious reverence for their Natural power. Without a word of dialogue outside a couple desperate shouts of “Hey!”, The Red Turtle finds a lot to say about the Natural course of human existence (and I suppose, by extension, turtle existence).

I don’t mean to scare parents off from sharing The Red Turtle with young children. The film’s themes sometimes stray toward the somber & the cruel, but there’s nothing especially traumatizing about its overall narrative. The film is more “adult” in its requirement of patience for stillness & quiet. If you’re watching movies with a child who isn’t easily distracted in long stretches of silence, you’re likely to have a better time of it than I did. My personal expectations of a Studio Ghibli animation release clashing with the delivery of a silent French art film was a poor exercise in Doing Research & Reading the Room. When I return to The Red Turtle, it’ll likely be at a time when I can watch it alone in that late night or early morning headspace where the walls between dreamworld fantasy & daytime reality are more malleable than usual. It’s the cinematic equivalent of what’s referred to in pop music as “a headphones listen,” so choose your audience with a lot more care than I did.

-Brandon Ledet

Silent Running (1972)

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fourstar

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The 1972 Bruce Dern sci-fi epic Silent Running offers an interesting moral litmus test for its viewers. Depending on how you see the film it can either play like an environmentalist screed against the evils of modern Capitalism (think Ferngully set in space) or a chilling tale of crazy-eyed hippie who gets so entrenched in his ideology that he’ll murder any humans necessary to save a few trees. Either way, it’s a strange little film loaded with the kind of production detail that sci-fi cinema nerds crave in their media, the kind that only improves as it becomes more outdated. Directed by a special effects supervisor who worked on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running‘s intricate space ship models & star-filled backdrops are exceptional for a modest pre-Star Wars production. It avoids the swashbuckling-in-space thrills of George Lucas’s future game-changing franchise, however, so that it can focus on its murderous hippie philosophical dilemmas. Once Dern’s long-haired, bleeding heart astronaut murders his entire crew to Save the Forest in the film’s first act, Silent Running proves to be something of a hangout movie, just a calm drift in a vacuum enjoyed by a lonely environmentalist soul, his forest full of wild animal pets, and a few stray robot “drones.” Pesky humanity taken out of the equation, the film finds a sense of peace. The question is where you’ll land on how that peace is achieved.

The film opens on close-ups of delicate animals in a natural habitat: frogs, turtles, snails, hawks, Bruce Dern. This Garden of Eden is soon revealed to be an artificial biodome (for lack of a better term) on a near-nude American Airlines space freighter in outer space. The status quo on this spaceship & the post-apocalyptic Earth they left behind is that Nature was a fixture of the past, not something worth worrying about now that everything worthwhile can be automated & manufactured. As Dern’s resentful hippie tends his space garden, the universe’s last hope for genuine plant life, his shithead co-workers casually cause havoc, running space age go-carts over his flower beds & maliciously smashing his self-grown cantelopes as a means of joshing him. He’s already a bit unhinged at this point, prone to ranting maniacally about how his fellow astronauts are poisoning their bodies with synthesized foods & how a world without Nature is a world without beauty. It’s when the crew’s ordered to abandon their project, nuke the biodomes, and return home that our hero/villain snaps and murders his entire crew. He feels occasional remorse for his actions once the cabin fever/space madness sets in, but mostly he just chills with his dinky robot pals in his pristine space garden and enjoys a peaceful life without his fellow man mucking up his ethereal hippie paradise. The only crisis that arises is when a “rescue mission” arrives to pluck him from isolation in the abandoned freighter and he must choose whether to rejoin humanity to pay for his crimes or to nuke himself into oblivion along with anyone who dares threaten his beloved plant life.

Whether or not you’re interested in the crazed hippie moral dilemma at the center of Silent Running, the film is interesting enough in its production details alone to deserve a look. Besides the obvious care that went into constructing the space freighter models which float by in endless lingering shots of outer space majesty, the dinky drone bots Dern’s savior/killer hangs out with are a strange practical effects novelty. Operated by bilateral amputees walking on their hands in seemingly heavy robot shells, they’re cute little pre-R2D2 buggers with plenty of unwarranted AI personality useful for keeping their crazed killer master some company. They’re also notably the only actors in the film who aren’t all white men, not that you ever get to see them onscreen. I should also mention that, in true hippie fashion, Silent Running features original songs by Joan Baez, who serenades the audience with poetic lines like, “Tell them it’s not to late, cultivate one by one. Tell them to harvest in the Sun” along with some proto-Jill Stein raps about the feeling of earth between your toes. I think there’s some distinct camp value to the way the film succinctly simplifies the cause to Save the Forest by making the forest a small, manageable space that can be saved by murdering a few careless capitalists. Whether you’re a no-bridge-is-too-far hippie activist, someone who’s terrified to death of those activists, or just a sci-fi nerd who enjoy looking at toy spaceships & hand-built robots, Silent Running has plenty to offer in terms of pure entertainment. Whether you see it as a horror film or an inspiring message of hope relies entirely on you.

-Brandon Ledet

Into the Inferno (2016)

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fourhalfstar

When I heard that there were going to be two Herzog documentaries released this year, I was pumped. I knew one was going to be about the internet. You may remember my review about that and enthusiasm. Then I found out that the second one was about volcanoes, which, if you can think of the internet as very in our control and of our creation, volcanoes are a destructive force of nature, out of our hands, and very capable of shutting down mankind’s creations.

Lo and Behold was very theoretical, nebulous, and introspective for a movie about how the internet has connected us all and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Volcanoes, while not 100% predictable or understood, are still well studied and more predictable than the future of technology (look at any science fiction novel that tried to predict what the year 2000 was going to be like). The great irony is that Lo and Behold had an actual theatrical release, whereas Into the Inferno was distributed by Netflix, a service that is almost entirely streaming over the internet at this point.

For Into the Inferno, Herzog teamed up with vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, whom had he met on the set of Encounters at the End of the World. They made a good team. Oppenheimer is a lovable volcano nerd whose exuberance and enthusiasm make the technical descriptions engaging. Herzog is himself, which is to say that he’s very interested in the small, very human details. Every documentary he helms ends up being just as much an anthropological work as it is art. Together they vowed to explore aspects of how volcanoes effected human culture, no matter how weird it gets. The result is a portrait of how nature has helped build and destroy humanity from the very beginning. And it also gets very weird, as they explore volcano based cults, North Korean mythology, and sift for early hominid bones with paleo-anthropologists in the Awash Valley, Ethiopia.

This is also one of the most beautiful movies of this year. It is just full of astonishing shots of rolling mountains. There are amazing scenes of visible magma inside calderas, just popping and bubbling up. The only sounds are the dangerous grumbles and the splatters. It’s as inside the inferno as many of us will ever get, which is really, truly amazing. When the camera isn’t on the volcanoes, there’s incredible footage of unique cultural practices, dances, and villages.

Into the Inferno is vast and beautiful. We are blessed to live a year with two feature length Herzog documentaries. This is a nature documentary but more so a cultural one. It covers so many parts of the world in a way that many of us will never get to experience and we shouldn’t, lest we destroy them.

-Alli Hobbs

Backcountry (2015)

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twohalfstar

There’s so much going for the bear attack natural horror Backcountry that it’s a total shame when the film can’t stick the landing. The opening hour feels like familiar man vs. nature territory, but it’s a familiarity that works. An urban couple slowly losing their way while hiking & camping in the woods has enough built-in suspense that it doesn’t matter too much that it feels like it’s all been done before, especially once the threat of a bear attack begins to build. The problem is that when the shit finally hits the fan in the climactic half hour the mess is disappointingly brief & easy to clean up. After a few minutes of deeply disturbing bear-related gore the movie finds its way back to the trail and leaves the more unfamiliar dangers of the woods behind.

Quick question: Why are couples always calling each other “Babe” in movies? Do a lot of people actually do that in real life? Backcountry proclaims that it’s “based on a true story” and I have to assume that the “Babe” pet names were part of that truth. It at least feels authentic to these characters. The film’s central conflict (getting lost in the woods & stumbling into killer bear territory) is a direct result of a bull-headed alpha male refusing advice, maps, and directions because he feels petty things like safety & common-sense threaten his manhood. This hubris, of course, eventually leads to the life-threatening disaster at the film’s core. His girlfriend, to her credit, sees right through his macho bullshit the entire time, starting with some light bickering early in the proceedings and then resorting to calling him a loser & a fuck-up once things go horribly, horribly wrong.

If those “horribly wrong” things had continued for the entirety of the final half hour, I may have been more won over by Backcountry. The comeuppance is indeed disgustingly brutal, but it’s short-lived. There are about ten minutes of this film that will haunt me for a great while, but that does little to justify the other 80 or so. For the most part, Backcountry brings very little of interest to the table. There’s some killer suspense in the way the central couple is voyeuristically filmed from behind trees and there are a few menacing characters that threaten to take the plot into some unexpected directions, but none of it amounts to much. Ultimately, Backcountry is a bear attack movie that doesn’t have much to offer outside a brief, singular bear attack and a bullheaded alpha male you can’t wait to see punished. A little more effort & creativity in the final half hour and it could’ve been something much more special, “true story” be damned.

-Brandon Ledet

When Björk Met Attenborough (2013)

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three star

At just over 45 minutes, the short-form documentary When Björk Met Attenborough is more or less supplementary material for the brilliant Biophilia Live concert film. The documentary’s central conversation between the idiosyncratic musician Björk and famed naturalist David Attenborough is philosophically stimulating, but is not all the film has to offer. The movie also serves as a key to understanding exactly what Björk was trying to accomplish with the muli-media Biophilia project, especially her ambitions in trying to change the way we “see, hear, think about and make music”. She says early in the run time that “It seems to be around this age I am now you have to make a sort of spiritual statement” and When Björk Met Attenborough does a great job of detailing just how ambitious her statement is.

In her attempt to position Biophilia as a spiritual statement, Björk looks back on the way she experienced music as a child. She speaks fondly of singing on her lonely walks to school through inclement Icelandic weather, music serving as a private conversation between her and Nature. She also expresses frustration with how schools taught her to interact with music through ancient Europen composers and non-intuitive instruments. With Biophilia, Björk attempts to rewire how music, nature, and technology interact with each other into a more innate process. She begins this journey with a tour through London’s Museum of Natural History, the largest natural history collection in the world, guided by Sir David Attenborough.

The central conversation between Björk and Attenborough is unfortunately a little stiff and, well, unnatural. Ignoring the artifice of the encounter, though, the ideas discussed about where nature & music meet are thoroughly engaging. Lyrebirds mimicking ring tones & chain saws, the evolutionary advantage of a beautiful singing voice, and the prevalent sexuality in modern pop music all make for great philosophical fodder. The true highlight, however, is their discussion of the Biophilia song “Crystalline” in the museum’s massive crystal room. Attenborough & Björk pick apart the “mathematical beauty” of crystal formations & other natural phenomenon and how Nature’s patterns are mimicked in music’s time signatures. It’s a lofty concept, but one made convincing by two abstract minds who love to look for such connections between science and art.

The “Crystalline” segment opens other threads for the film to follow, especially in how technology can be exploited to harness the stated connection between nature & music. First, the film demonstrates through cymatics (the study of sound’s visible patterns) how the song “Crystalline” looks, as opposed to how it sounds. Other inventions like the sharpsichord, a rigged Tesla coil, and swinging pendulum harps that use gravity to play their notes all prompt the audience to consider “the way we see, hear, think about, and make music”. Björk also collaborates with legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and several software developers to utilize touchscreen technology in computer apps that create new ways of making music in a more intuitive way. She not only integrates existing technology in Biophilia, but also pushes to create her own.

When considered in isolation, When Björk Met Attenborough is an interesting intellectual exercise. When considered as part of Biophilia as a larger multi-media art piece it’s a Rosetta Stone, documenting a vastly ambitious work that tries to encompass music, nature, and technology in one definitive whole. The matter-of-fact tone of Tilda Swinton’s narration and Björk’s titular conversation with Attenborough makes this ambition seem perfectly natural and reasonably attainable. It’s not the kind of documentary that’s going to pick apart the ideas at play and question their validity. After all, the movie ends with Attenborough paying Björk a huge compliment. Instead it’s the kind of film that offers strange ideas at face value so the audience’s minds can run away with them and draw their own outlandish, philosophical conclusions.

-Brandon Ledet

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014)

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fourhalfstar
“I do believe motion pictures are the significant art form of our time. And I think the main reason is, they’re an art form of movement, as opposed to static art forms of previous times. But another reason that they’re the preeminent art form is they’re part art and part business. They are a compromised art form, and we live in a somewhat compromised time. And I believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Federico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius in filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.” – Roger Corman

The concert movie is a disadvantaged art form, as it has a lot to prove out the gate to justify its place among other films. While documentaries & fictional films can pretend not to be what Roger Corman would call a “compromised” artistic commodity, the concert film is always conspicuously selling a product: the band or artist that’s performing. The blurred line between short film & advertisement is acceptable in a music video, because they’re generally free to access and easy to consume. A full-length concert film on the other hand, especially one with a theatrical release, has a much steeper hill to climb. It’s asking you to pay admittance to a long-form promotion, spectacle or not. This is an especially hard sell for someone that’s not already a dedicated fan of the product on display.

Although some concert films make no attempt to hide their commercial aspirations or reach an audience outside of their fan base (last year’s One Direction: Where We Are is a recent high-profile example), others bend over backwards to prove themselves worthy to be discussed among their less-scrutinized film peers. Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense proves itself a genre benchmark through its careful consideration of how the band’s literal stage presence affects its cinematic image.  Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars uses the silver screen to breathe life into the fictional character of the film’s title. The Band’s The Last Waltz uses some of that good old Scorsese grit to give the account of its “farewell concert” the feeling of an intimate late-night jam session shared between a few dozen (exceptionally talented) friends. I don’t mean to pick on the One Direction concert movie. The group has a wide enough fan-base that the demand for a no frills concert movie is loud enough on its own to justify Where We Are’s existence. I’m just trying to distinguish why Bjork’s Biophilia Live, a movie in the same distinctly commercial-minded genre, deserves to be considered among the best films of 2014.

Biophilia Live begins with the voice of famed naturalist David Attenborough making wild, unrealistic declarations over breathtaking nature footage befitting the TV series Planet Earth. Attenborough urges the audience to “forget the size of the human body. Remember that you are a gateway between the universal and the microscopic, the unseen forces that stir the depths of your innermost being and Nature, who embraces you and all there is.” He goes on to claim that “we are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovation.” Holy shit. That’s quite an ambitious opener. The film itself nearly delivers on this majestic promise, finding a unique visual language that combines “nature, music, and technology” into one cohesive whole.

This union of “nature, music and technology” is accomplished through a layered visual collage that matches the on-stage aspects of the concert being filmed to the beautiful nature footage & pixelated CGI that swirls around and above it. During the opening song “Thunderbolt” Björk appears in the Earth’s stormy atmosphere, her backing band’s synths (and a specially rigged Tesla coil) seemingly controlling the lightning that illuminates the air around her. The imagery then shifts from the earthly to the celestial, the rhythm of the music correlating to the phases of the moon and the glacially shifting lights of stars and galaxies. The focus then shrinks from the heavenly to the microscopic: Fantastic Voyage-style close-ups of blood moving through veins fade to pixelated bacteria attaching to strands of DNA before the images finally devolve into distorted television color bars & computer monitor static. My favorite use of the nature footage arrives during this microcosmic section when crystals form over the image of Björk performing the song “Crystalline”, only to disappear in a blink to match the song’s violent rhythms. “Crystalline”‘s “internal nebula” & “crystalizing galaxies” lyrical phrasing also feels like the film’s tone in a nutshell. It’s in the stranger moments like this and like when vibrant mushrooms slowly expand in the foreground, leaving the stage antics out of focus that Biophilia Live shines brightest.

These phases of the imagery are cleverly allowed to bleed into one another instead of remaining isolated, which leads to some transcendent juxtaposition: a lightning storm in outer space, the moon perched on a spinal column, crystal formations melting into prism light. Even Björk herself looks like a combination of two ostensibly separate natural phenomenons, her gigantic wig like a colorful galaxy & her asymmetrical dress like an underwater growth. Attenborough’s opening monologue defines “biophilia” as “the love for Nature in all her manifestations” and Biophilia Live tries desperately to capture all of those manifestations in one definitive catalog. Conceived as a single facet of a multi-media project alongside a studio album, music-composition computer apps, and a filmed conversation between Björk & Attenborough, the film itself is more than just a document of a single concert. It’s also an attempt to tie years of far-reaching ideas spread across various art forms into a single product, the same way it tries to tie all of Nature into a single entity. What’s most impressive is that the film succeeds.

Although Björk exhibited creative control through all aspects of the production, part of the film’s success is surely due to the involvement of British director Peter Strickland. Strickland had already established his skills in visually displaying reverence for sound in his 2013 film Berberian Sound Studio, a bizarre thriller that’s just as much homage to foley artists & sound engineers as it is to old school giallo movies. There’s a lot of maddening, horrific energy in Berberian’s dissociative conflict between its imagery & its sounds. Here he & co-director Nick Fenton instead synchronize sounds to their visual equals in the style of Björk’s previous music video collaborations with Michel Gondry. The dissociation occurs instead in how the images relate to each other: how the screens interact with the stage, how distant stars relate to plankton, etc.  Through various camera movement & editing techniques Biophilia Live creates a world that’s simultaneously intimate and expansive.

The live concert format is occasionally at odds with the film’s intimacy. The crowd sometimes intrudes mid-song, breaking the reverie with premature applause. Björk is appreciative of their presence at least, punctuating the end of each song with a polite “thank you”. Of course, the film’s very existence depends on Björk’s relationship with her audience, the same way the existence of One Direction’s Where We Are depends on theirs. Without a basic appreciation for Björk’s music, it’s unlikely that that someone would enjoy a feature-length document of one of her concerts.

What makes Biophilia Live remarkable is the ambition to reach beyond pleasing fans musically. It also asks its audience to contemplate the totality of Nature and how its individual parts interact and unite into a cohesive whole. It’s a zealous, far-reaching work that deserves to be included in the conversation of the best films released in 2014 as well as the best concert films of all time.

-Brandon Ledet