Embers

Director: Claire Carré. Starring: Jason Ritter, Iva Gocheva, Greta Fernandez, Tucker Smallwood, Karl Glusman, Roberto Cots. Poland, USA, 2015. IMDb: 5.3. Budget: unknown, but very small. Box office: none (direct-to-video). My rating: 2/4. Research about the human identity through memory loss epidemic in a post-apocalyptic world.

“How can a person who has no memories show up with shaved pits?”
(Bartolomeu from Portugal)

“Toward the end I was hoping to see some kind of point to justify the favorable reviews – instead the movie just ended.”
(J-J N from United States)

“…it was not that generic Hollywood garbage.”
(A1CashFlow from East Coast USA)

In the near future a virus has infected most of the population, causing a dysfunction of the short-term memory and the creation of new memories. That is the whole plot of the movie, which consists of several stories about how people survive in this world. I found “Embers” through various festival nominations (about 30 of them!) and decided to give it a try, despite quiet low Imdb rating. I couldn’t find any info about the budget, but the film raised $23,000 on Kickstarter.

Embers” is a very minimal movie. Mostly it tries to follow the mood of “Stalker” by Andrei Tarkovsky but with a more romantic flair. The ideas (and there are quiet many of them) are good, but the realization is not perfect. Unfortunately. When something is made of bare20170404_142135 bones, every millimeter should be of a perfect beauty. Otherwise… don’t do it that minimal? Tarkovsky was a master of long, haunting scenes with stunning visuals, photography and music, thus, he could create endlessly slow scenes where barely nothing happened. In this debut film by Claire Carré, this kind of maturity is missing.

20170404_142058The reception. The biggest problem of “Embers” is that it is desperately trying to look like an art-house movie or a video installation. It reminds me of people, who do various efforts to look smart/cool/intellectual – you know, meaningful quotes and pauses, unusual look, weird hipster pants, whatever. After few minutes of talking it’s pretty easy to recognize who is trying to imitate something and who is really different. Unfortunately, “Embers” is balancing very unevenly between both types – hence the festival success where all this artsy stuff is highly adored, but low ratings from the public (80% RT / 5.3 IMDb). IndieWire praised it as “the best sci-fi discovery of the year”. Just to remind you for a sec, that in 2015 were released such sci-fi movies as “Ex Machina“, “The Lobster“, “Chappie“, “The Martian“. What are they smoking there?

Screenshot_20171105-150346

Maybe these people weren’t informed that “Ex Machina” was released the same year too?

batman-v-superman-trinity-rising

20170404_142154The ideas and the plot. Let’s talk about the ideas. The film consists of several story lines. A guy and a girl, who supposedly are a couple and do not recognize each other every morning as they wake up. The do not remember their names and mostly sleep in abandoned buildings. As the day goes on, they find a way to restore the connection, but the next day the story repeats. Then there is a scientist, living in the forest with his everyday reminders how to heat up the water or start the fire. He is working on the cure to defeat the virus, but he struggles to keep all the things is his mind as they fade out too soon. A young fellow, who has unstoppable rage and violence inside, pouring it on anyone and anything he sees. Finally, 20170404_142321a father and his daughter, who managed to hide from the epidemy in the high-tech bunker and are only characters, who escaped from the virus. The daughter struggles with her boredom. Locked inside, she cannot create new memories because every day seems exactly the same to he. We don’t know more than that, the characters shown are pretty blank, just like their memory.

What I liked. The movie uses the memory loss as a metaphor, how people are locked up in a certain circle of behavior. In most circumstances, a person acts only in certain way and cannot see itself from the outside. It’s like for every event a human is programmed for several different reactions, but is it possible to overcome and do something else?20170404_142116 This reflection reminds me of brilliant “Ex Machina” by Alex Garland (the conversation about Pollock, remember). Every character in ”Embers” represents a certain commonplace – a romantic couple, a professor, a bully, a bored daughter seeking adventure. Most probably they would follow the same behavioral patterns in a normal world. So what makes them human? Memories? The ability to create new memories?

What I didn’t like. The realization of the movie is far from being perfect. Almost everything was shot with a shaky camera and from a very close distance. This was a little embarrassing (I do not have anything against a shaky camera, but what was the purpose of it here?). The music could be 20170404_142435much better and create more atmosphere. The location sets are great (Poland and USA), but the photography seems to be not that careful (again, why so many close-ups? Show us more of the abandoned city with abandoned streets). It’s not visually interesting enough to be a video installation either. All this prevents from enjoying the movie fully and connect with the characters who are pretty blank already. Many scenes could have been cut easily, being repetitive or just dull. So I can understand many negative reviews. The movie for sure is not just for some random moviegoer. But a science fiction and independent cinema fan (like me) may see it differently.

Spectacularity: 1.5/4
Acting:  3/4
Directing: 2/4
Originality: 3.5/4
Final vote: 2/4

Worth watching? Maybe. If you want a slow non-Hollywood dystopia. Well, “Embers” is not completely flawed for a first step. I’d definitely have a look at the next movie by Claire Carré though, because this debut feel a little bit incomplete and too artsy. Ironically, just like its characters who are struggling to create new memories, most viewers would do the same after watching “Embers”. The ideas are there and maybe for somebody it’s worth exploring this reflection upon human identity. I’d love to enjoy it more, though.

You can stream or buy “Embers” online here.

Watch also: “Sleep Dealer” is a very curious Mexican dystopia worth checking out. Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (which I consider one of the best films ever) seems like an obvious recommendation. Debuts as “Moon” by Duncan Jones and “10 Cloverfield Lane” by Dan Trachtenberg  are also excellent minimal dystopian thrillers.

Top 10 Soviet Science Fiction Movies

Here is my Top 10 Soviet sci-fi movies with a dozen of modern trailers I made specially for it while studying some video editing.

†1924-1988 selection.

Beautiful new ambient, shoegaze, dreampop, synthpop and techno soundtracks included.

 

 ***

1. ”Stalker”, 1979.

A cerebral timeless masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, probably the most renowned and influential Soviet/Russian director. Loosely based on a story by important Soviet science fiction writers Strugatsky brothers (and seen by many as a prophecy for several upcoming catastrophes including Chernobyl), “Stalker” could be interpreted as a philosophical tale about destiny and choices. But there’s much more that that. It’s simply one of the most important cinema achievements ever, let alone science fiction. The story follows three men as they penetrate deeper into into a mysterious area called “The Zone”, each of them for a different purpose. A thinking sci-fi geek’s must-see. This movie is like a Universe, there are always new layers to discover. Read more here and here.

Music by Bowery Electric.

2. ”City Zero”, 1988.

Theatre of the absurd, a mysterious tragicomedy, a dark metaphor. The late 80-s, without doubt, were the most prolific period for the underground culture in Soviet Union, especially rock music but also cinema. ”City Zero” is the finest dark offspring of that epoch. The film is normally classified as sci-fi/mystery – but if you analyze every single scene separately, there’s nothing completely impossible. It’s the sum of all parts that is greater than the whole… The famous headcake scene actually happened once in Russia. But looking at the whole story makes you feel like slowly drowning in the swamp… It’s kind of ”Donnie Darko” goes on ”Mulholland Drive” in ”The Twilight Zone” atmosphere. My full review here. Watch online here.

Music by Auktyon (Аукцыон).

3. ”Dead Man’s Letters”, 1986.

Directed by K. Lopushansky, surely the most faithful of all Tarkovsky’s followers (he worked as assistant on ”Stalker” set), this film is a heavy and realistic portrayal of the end of the world. Endless piles of rusty metal, interminable yellow twilight, dirty radioactive puddles of mixed water and blood. And dead bodies. Dead bodies everywhere. Men, children, women. Everywhere. There is no hope here. It’s finished. There is no ”if”. The doomsday clock has moved. We are just witnessing the final decay of small group of survivors that will last several months, probably. There is not even a single hint about their survival. It’s a death rattle. Just a matter of time. My full review here. Watch online here.

Music by Ital Tek.

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THX 1138

thx1138Director: George Lucas. Starring:Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie, Don Pedro Colley. Budget: $777,777. Box office: $2.4 mln. USA, 1971. IMDb: 6.8. My rating: 3/4. Disturbing art-house dystopia at its finest.

– Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy.
(OMM, the digital Jesus)

– I think I’m dying.
– Could you be more specific?
(THX 1138’s confession to OMM, the digital Jesus)

– Everything will be all right; we are here to help you. Stay calm. We are not going to harm you. Everything will be all right.
(chrome police robots)

 

First part and more GIFs about the numbers in ”THX 1138” here.

”THX 1138” is an impressive, visionary and visually striking science fiction movie that I found fucking boring but absolutely loved at the same time. It may be a pain in the ass to watch because it’s so desperately monotonous and emotionally deadened – but that was the aim of the film too.

But once you get through it… your suffering will be rewarded. You may even want to rewatch it over time. It’s still one of the best dystopias around (and almost 50 years passed since its release).

Besides of the visuals, ”THX 1138” has an incredible amount of cultural references and just that may make it worth a watch. Steel-faced chrome police robots (lets call them, uhm, T100?), futuristic car chases (long before George Miller touched his camera), Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor’s sampling source, dystopian underground drug-controlled society, infinite white prison with no walls (remember the Matrix endless gun warehouse scene?), early Star Wars designs, weird silent surveillance footage, erotic hologram dance, tape-recorded Jesus… A long and extensive analysis could be done on this movie.

z2

Discovering the depths of tape-recorded digital religion.

It’s inevitable to mention George Lucas’ persona when discussing “THX-1138”. The man was known for his little love in directing the movies, that’s why after doing this, “American Graffiti” (a coming-of-age cult film which I haven’t seen, but 7.5 IMDb and 95% RT may actually mean it’s worth something!) and the first “Star Wars” movie he stepped out of the director’s seat for 22 years, only to direct the dubious “Star Wars” prequels, which for the most part are not considered as good as the original trilogy. Anyway. I’m not a huge fan of Star Wars, although I’ve watched them multiple times and enjoyed it.

In short, “THX 1138” is everything that “Star Wars” is not. It is was the art-house face of George Lucas. Ultra slow, depressive and without even a hint of being funny. But its influence on the visuals of the latter is significant. Many of design solutions, like dominating sterile colours contrasted with black and white uniforms, holograms and other futuristic elements.

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This is not your average Interceptor.

What’s wrong with the The Director’s Cut. Oh, these freaking DC… It was released in 2004 and sadly it confirms that – with the exception of barely few scenes – Lucas lost the understanding of his own movie. He used the same approach as in Star Wars prequels with too much CGI out of place, thus many scenes were needlessly modified with new graphics, the corridors were extended (why, George? Why do we need extended corridors?) and extra space and colours added. Here‘s the full comparison and additional info here too. Several GIFs below (this may look fine out of context though):

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Copy-pasted humans and extended corridors of the infamous Director’s Cut.

Few words about the acting. Robert Duvall (born in 1931) is an interesting guy. He reminds me of Harry Dean Stanton (born in 1926), an incredibly talented American actor, who has made about 100 movies since 1956, including such titles as ”Alien”, ”Repo Man”, three David Lynch’s movies, ”Escape From New York”, ”Paris, Texas” and a literally lots of other stuff, yet the man never became a big star, staying in the shade of his colleagues.

So what has Stanton to do with Duvall? Well, both are those type of actors that we all have probably seen dozens of times (”MASH”, ”Deep Impact”, ”The Godfather 1/2”, ”Falling Down”) but struggle to recognize. So while Duvall certainly got more notoriety over the decades and received some important awards, his fate is somewhat similar compared to the Hollywood’s major stars and he is often overlooked. In ”THX 1138”, the man creates a wonderful and powerful performance, that ranges from emotional overload and despair to escapism, protest and silent consent. A very versatile role indeed.

Donald Pleasence (Carpenter’s ”Halloween”, Polanski’s ”Cul-de-sac”) was also wonderful as a psychotic and neurotic dweller of this huge underground world hospital. His characters was more one-sided than Duvall’s and that was a good contrast.

Maggie McOmie’s role as LUH felt a little bit underdeveloped given that it was her character that gave THX 1138 (the person, not the film!) a major input… She did not pursue an acting career after finishing ”THX 1138”.

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Worth watching? ”THX 1138” may seem overly slow and artsy at a glance, but nevertheless it’s a visually striking and original dystopia with various elements to be found in many forthcoming science fiction movies of all kinds. Wonderful performances from Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence, gorgeously sterile visuals, story’s depth and a well-developed deadened underground world prove that there were times when George Lucas was as a talented and original filmmaker. 

Watch also: dystopia is a good genre for experimenting and many filmmakers used that to create something unorthodox, like amazing ”A Boy and His Dog”, poetic ”Fahrenheit 451” or absurd Soviet masterpieces”Kin-Dza-Dza!” and ”City Zero”.

3/4

THX 1138 / faceless numbers

”The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

 

 

 

 

1t is n0t exactly clear, whether it was Erich Maria Remarque, the gre4t German writer of war, sadness and l0st generation, or Joseph Stalin, the blo0dy Soviet mastermind, to pr0nounce these painful w0rds, although surely b0th had the right f0r it. E4ch fr0m the opp0site p0int of view.

”THX 1138” is a perfect illustration for what it means to be a N° in an ill, mechanical, drug-oppressed society that is even more deadened than “Fahrenheit 451”, “1984” or “Metropolis”. Heck, people even had names there.

Here… everybody is just a number. Numbers are perfectly intertwined in the stunningly sterile visuals of the story, crawling here and there, mixed with muffled camera surveillance footage and faceless chrome police robots that keep on repeating “we are here to help you”.

We are here to help you.” A recurring nightmare motif now.

The exploration of THX 1138 continues here.

 

A Boy and His Dog

a_boy_and_his_dogDirector: L. Q. Jones. Starring: Don Johnson, Susanne Benton, Tim McIntire (voice), Jason Robards, Alvy Moore. USA, 1975. Budget: $400,000. IMDb: 6.6. My rating: 3.5/4. Eccentric post-nuclear black comedy.

– Civilization lies smother and decaying under an ocean of mud, belonging to anyone who’s strong enough to kick and fight and take it for their own. God, that’s dramatic, I like it.
(Blood the Dog)

– Now let run through the modern presidents.
God, what good’s all this history crap gonna do me?
– Just do the presidents.
(a dialogue between Vic and Blood the Dog)

– You’re still constantly overreacting. I’ve absolutely no idea how I managed to keep you alive so long.
(Blood The Dog is commenting Vic’s actions)

According to the pet ownership statistics from 2012, 36.5% of American households (43,346,000) own an average of 1.6 dogs. That means 69,926,000 dogs living with families in the United States.

It would be impossible to write about “A Boy and His Dog”, remaining a refined and delicate narrator, so let’s set it straight – we have a nuclear holocaust movie about the survival of a female-obsessed illiterate teen Vic who scavenges for food and his misanthropic telepathic dog Blood with a highly developed intellect and odd sense of humour. It’s also a story about friendship, love and helping each other (yeah, I am still talking about the same movie). The combination of both makes it an unusual and touching experience.

I really liked this film. It feels different and odd compared the most of the 70-s sci-fi (which I often find cheesy) and stood well the test of time. The film was also a huge inspiration for lots of cult stuff like ”Fallout” game series and ”Mad Max”. George Miller once said, ”to make Road Warrior, I took a Boy and His Dog and went commercial.”

”A Boy and His Dog”, with all its oddness and decay never feels too commercial or action-driven (nor too brainy/artsy) and you’ll actually see little gore – mostly, only reverberations and repercussions of the nuclear war.

”I like to talk to the audience for two or three minutes before showing the movie. I say, ‘I hope you like the movie. If you don’t, you’re screwed, because you’re never going to be able to forget it.”
(L. Q. Jones, the director)

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Turbo Kid

turbo_kid.jpgDirector: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell. Starring: Laurence Leboeuf, Munro Chambers, Michael Ironside, Aaron Jeffery, Edwin Wright. Canada (Quebec), New Zealand, 2015. Budget: $60,000. IMDb: 6.7. My rating: 3/4. An eccentric childish post-apocalyptic sci-fi with lots of gore.

– I thought all robots were evil.
– Depends on the model.
(The Kid and Apple are getting to know each other)

– You want to see something cool?
– I always want to see something cool.
(a conversation between The Kid and Apple)

“Turbo Kid” is  a faithful homage to the 80-s, a naïve love story occasionally slipping into a gory bloody post-apocalyptic trash. Sounds dorky? Well, it looks dorky too, and is entertaining as hell from the first frame.

The film doesn’t hesitate to borrow everywhere it can, but you don’t blame kids at the nearby playground for copying chases and fighting they saw on the TV screen, do you? Especially if they have a super-blaster-glove and BMX bikes.

turbokid3

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Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

a53c13372cc8d6fbcc97829b65d226f4.jpgDirector: George Miller. Starring: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells. Australia, 1981. Budget: $2 million. IMDb: 7.6. My rating: 2/4. Post-apocalyptic gory gasoline obsessed car chasing sci-fi.

– I’m just here for the gasoline.
(Max Rockatansky)

There are some things I cannot understand. Premise: I enjoyed “Fury Road”, I love post-apocalyptic themes, I fully comprehend that in 1981 it was ground-breaking (and in 1979 as well), that it was shot for laughable $2 million, it had the cutie Mel Gibson and it was an Australian movie.

But how the hell in a cult film that is widely recognized as one of the best action movies ever made there is so little action and so much talking?

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Dredd

Dredd

Poster by Jock.

Director: Pete Travis. Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Domhnall Gleeson. USA, 2012. Budget: $45 million. IMDb: 7.1. RT: 78%. My rating: 3.5/4. Gritty dystopian cyberpunk at its finest.

– Negotiation’s over. Sentence is death.
(Dredd)

– I was wondering when you’d remember you forgot your helmet.
– Sir, a helmet can interfere with my psychic abilities.
– Think a bullet in the head might interfere with them more.
(a dialogue between Dredd and the rookie Judge Anderson)

– I am the law.
(Dredd)

It’s not like I’m keen on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes ratings… but how often does it actually happen that a reboot of a non-Marvel/DC superhero movie has 78% RT and 7.1 IMDb, outgunning by all means the so-bad-that-it’s-good 1995 version?

You’re right – almost never. “Dredd” is probably the only decent superhero sci-fi flick released since Marvel/DC brainstormed (brainwashed?) the world. It seems though that nobody noticed that (myself included, till yesterday).

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Dead Man’s Letters

dead mans lettersDirector: Konstantin Lopushanky. Starring: Rolan Bykov, Iosif Rykliv, Viktor Mihaylov. USSR, 1986. IMDb: 7.7. My rating: 4/4. Post-apocalyptic portrait of mankind’s last days.

– The whole history of mankind is a history of a slow suicide of a living matter that by sheer accident acquired an ability to think – but that did not know what to do with this fateful ability. It could not find any better use for it than invention of the most effective ways of a total suicide.
(of of the main characters)

Endless piles of rusty metal, interminable yellow twilight, dirty radioactive puddles of mixed water and blood. And dead bodies. Dead bodies everywhere. Children, men, women. Everywhere. There is no hope here. It’s finished. There is no ”if”. The doomsday clock has moved. We are just witnessing the final decay of small group of survivors that will last several months, probably. There is not even a single hint about their survival. It’s a death rattle.

And imagine shot all of this in a Tarkovsky-like manner – the director Konstantin Lopushansky actually worked as assistant during ”Stalker” filming.

Perestroika was a crucial time for Soviet cinema as well. More and more things became allowed – the censorship started to close eyes on occasional nudity, violence, absurdism – things that were all cut ruthlessly before 1985. ”Dead Man’s Letters” and ”City Zero”, probably best examples of Perestroika cinema in the sci-fi genre, are the result and the reflection of that weird epoch, and it would be difficult to imagine them elsewhere. Continue reading

Hardware

Director: Richard Stanley. Starring: Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis, 238de25db1c5f601cbe1b1d56673a304John Lynch, William Hootkins, Lemmy, Iggy Pop. USA, 1990. IMDB: 5.9. My rating: 3.5/4. 100% natural cyberpunk.

– My heart…it feels like an alligator.
(Shades)

– This is Angry Bob, the man with the industrial dick, coming to you loud and clear on W.A.R. Radio with the good news and the bad news. Bad news is the heatwave’s not going to let up. As for the good news – there is no fucking good news! So let’s just play some music!
(Angry Bob, the DJ)

Post-apocalyptic future. The world became one big slum covered with radiation. Most seas and oceans have dri20170213_031230ed, leaving just a devastated radioactive desert. The space marine Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) buys a robotic cyborg head that some nomad found in the desert. It’s a gift for his girlfriend, Jill (Stacey Travis), who creates works of art of various metal garbage and broken robots. Pretty soon, the head of the robot reactivates and he starts to rebuild himself, preparing for a violent massacre.

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