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?

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

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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.

400 Days

400Director: Matt Osterman. Starring: Brandon Routh, Tom Cavanagh, Caity Lotz, Ben Feldman, Dane Cook. USA, 2015. IMDb: 4.5. Budget: unknown, but very low. Box office: $58. My rating: 0.5/4. Comatose fight of Solaris vs 2001 vs Alien vs Moon.

 What is your current mood?
 Tired… and a little hung over.
 Tired and hung over aren’t moods, I need something like happy, sad, depressed, angry.
(a dialogue between main characters)

400 Days” is a brilliant showcase of how with very little you can achieve even less. I found it on some faraway dusty sci-fi forums thanks to a viewer who complained about ”10 Cloverfield Lane”, criticizing it as a dull and uninspiring movie with bad acting. Thank you, dear unknown viewer! I must confess I feel like a snob by saying this, but… should a basic cinema education be introduced in secondary education program? At least, as a short course?

Still, I am particularly proud I have seen a movie that grossed $58.00 (fifty eight dollars). Way better than ”Man Down” with Shia LaBeouf that took just £7.00 at UK box office during its premiere, isn’t it? I am also deeply convinced that even worst movies can tell you something new – for example, this year NASA will be actually testing 6 potential cosmonauts for 8 months in closed environment to examine psychological issues. On Hawaii.

20170427_062257400 days is the length of the preparatory mission for a space travel to the Moon. 4 people selected. They will live together in a claustrophobic underground environment, kind of a spaceship simulator, in order to see how psychologically prepared they are for a real mission. As their voluntary imprisonment is reaching the end, something starts to go wrong. It seems that it wasn’t exactly a preparatory mission.

Sounds cheesy? Well, that’s actually the least cheesy part of the film. NASA actually is developing a similar program right now on Hawaii, it’s called HI-SEAS. 6 people, 8 months, Mars-like simulated environment and geology exercises. You can read more here, it’s interesting.  Here is a photo of how it actually looks like:

habitat

20170427_062124The problem of the movie is not the idea. It’s actually pretty good. The problem, as it often happens with the low budget sci-fi, is the realization. I also have no idea why exactly 400 days are needed, not 399? Doesn’t sound like a cool name for the movie? Pardon my vocal gymnastics, but it may give you a general idea of the internal logic of the film. Or, to be more precise, its absence. What is the characters background? What kind of program is that? Why20170427_062109 these 4 people are selected? Why one of them is taken right out of jail? Where comes from the image from the poster? Why the slogan is ”time to kill”? We will never know that.

Oxford Dictionary has a pretty good definition of this movie. “Comatose – of or in a state of deep unconsciousness for a prolonged or indefinite period, especially as a result of severe injury or illness.”

20170427_062223The first 40 minutes are particularly hard to watch, since this is how much the movie actually takes to arrive to the main point (which was already clear to anyone who read the description or saw the trailer). Damn, in Peter Jackson’s ”King-Kong” it took more than one hour to show us the ape… but at least we saw it!

20170427_062151To make it even worse, these 40 minutes are full of broad hints that there is something wrong with the future mission (as if it wasn’t clear already), boring wandering around the ship and weird behavior for no apparent reason when the characters start to go mad (probably because it was written in the script?). The sets look cheap – but still would do fine for some secondary “Outer Limits” episode, if cut by half. “400 Days” feels infinitely long. Like 400 minutes (God bless you, Peter Jackson).

20170427_062243The acting is on the same level as everything else. But it’s not the fault of the actors because we have some good names here. I mean, these people can act. I don’t know what Brandon Routh (Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns“, Egdar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” which I adore) is doing here. Tom Cavanagh dilutes the ongoing sleepiness with some sinister lines, but that barely saves the movie. And Caity Lotz? She did a brilliant performance in “The Machine“, a cyberpunk movie I just loved.

Oh. Almost forgot.

The characters here have one bad habit. They talk.

I mean, they comment literally everything that is happening around, often several times – like we, viewers, have a 3-year-old-kid brain and are not able to get it. There is a remarkable episode, when the main characters have been 20170427_062137hanging around in one place for roughly 2 minutes of the onscreen time and one of them finally says, ”Hey guys, how long we have been wandering around here?”, and his mate replies ”I think an hour or two”. It’s curtains.

20170427_062209The ending could provide some catharsis to all this like it often happens in ending-based movies, but there is virtually no ending. Yes – when the movie ends, you have barely no idea of what actually happened. It’s simply not shown. There are some clues here and there though, so basically here we have same story as with lots of other dull sci-fi like “Primer” or “Uncanny“, when various geeks will watch the movie over and over 93455 times to solve the puzzle.

Worth watching? I think the Oxford Dictionary has a pretty good definition of this movie. “Comatose – of or in a state of deep unconsciousness for a prolonged or indefinite period, especially as a result of severe injury or illness.” The Oxford Dictionary is right – with a huge choice of great sci-fi of all kind like we have now, there is very little reason to watch ”400 Days”.

But if you don’t take the movie too seriously, it can be plenty of masochist fun to watch too. It will be a tough experience you’ll never forget.

Watch instead: anything else. Perfect “Ex Machina“, ”Moon” & ”10 Cloverfield Lane”, quite good “Exam” & ”Signal”, all of these are valid flicks for some mind-bending thrills, not mentioning old classics like ”Solaris”.

0.5/4

Kill Command

fcd8861acdbf8bbb9d79dd7a098acbdfDirector: Steven Gomez. Starring:  Vanessa Kirby,  Thure Lindhardt, David Ajala. UK, 2016. Budget: $1.5 mln. IMDB: 5.7. My rating: 3/4.  Creepy sci-fi thriller about military guys and 1 cyborg vs huge rogue robots on a remote island.

– It’s like watching 1.5 hour long cut scene from some shitty video-game.
(ola_norsk)

– This is exactly what a B-movie should be like.
(InterArmaEnimSilentLeges)

– If you remember your feeling from watching the Predator for the first time – you will certainly enjoy Kill Command.
(Stasulos)

I didn’t have any kind of expectations from “Kill Command”, one more movie about the military guys vs the robots. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much? Probably, but that would also diminish the movie’s quality.

Just look at this beautiful picture. It says it all. Those who still are not fully convinced, scroll below…there are more pictures.

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Do you smell death in the air? No?

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Well, now you do.

The plot. In the not so distant future, a military group is sent to an island for training. The purpose or type of training is unknown. They are accompanied by Mills (ice-cold Vanessa Kirby) – half-human, half-android, who has significant difficulties in gaining the trust of the others humans due to her ‘impure’ nature. As the unit deploys on the island, they unexpectedly lose any connection with the outer world. Soon the group encounters robotic creatures they did not expect.

The production. “Kill Command” is a debut by Steven Gomez (responsible for both directing and writing), who has built a career in visual effects. It has a budget of around $1.5 million (it was hard to find the precise info, but it’s about that), which is very low for a movie that includes massive robot fighting scenes. But it looks as great as $150 million movies. Visually, I enjoyed ”Kill Command” much more than “Passengers”. Only that is a great praise already. The location is outstanding. It’s an island with hills, deep forests and some abandoned facilities – a perfect place for a sci-fi scenario like here. The movie was shot entirely in the UK.

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Of course, technically it is still one more movie that explores the idea of a group of people going somewhere remote where they encounter something scary and unknown. But somehow ”Kill Command” still manages to be an original movie. It leaves a good aftertaste. When you watch these kind of movies, it often happens that it’s actually fun to watch, but they quickly fade out of your memory and the impression worsens as time passes. Strangely, with “Kill Commando” a reverse effect happened. What makes it stand out?

Several things. It’s quiet slowly paced. You will not see a continuous sequence of extremely quick cuts that resemble more a video clip, than a movie (hi, Michael Bay!). It somehow reminded me of the sci-fi wave of the 80-s/90-s. Even the action scenes are not that fast. You have enough time to see everything in detail and I think, it was more typical of a good old sci-fi film of 20-30 ago, than some newer stuff. In one of the interviews, Gomez said he tried to show the robots in all the detail from close distance – and he succeeded.

Kill Command” is quite a minimal movie – remember, it’s set on a tiny remote island – but what you see has great design and lots of details, starting from abandoned facilities, uniforms, weapons and, of course, robots. Reminds me of Far Cry in a way (well, except for the robots, but that’s a mino-or detail). The other thing is the location set and it’s used to a great extent. I would even dare to say that I had a feeling – pardon – that some scenes come close to being almost meditative. Maybe I am wrong. But even remote feeling like that says a lot about the impression you can get from a movie. I still remember well one of the scenes – in the light of a sunset, the soldier is on the roof of an abandoned building, aiming with his rifle somewhere faraway, waiting for the enemy. His body posture is tense. Around him you see the see, the sunset, the forests. In a “normal” low budget robot movie, that scene would last half a second, here it lasted 3 or 4 and seemed like an eternity, but in a good way. And there are some scenes like that that here and there – it’s not something straightforward, but more of something you understand later.

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The main problem of the movie comes from here too. I don’t know though if it was Gomez’ intention to film in that way  (from trailer and posters, it seems no and probably that’s why some part of audience didn’t like it that much – they didn’t see that was expected compared to how the movie was promoted). That would be interesting to know and it’s a pity that the movie did not develop more in this direction. It looks like it can’t decide whether if wants to become an action movie or something slower and deeper. The acting is quiet good, but uneven. The characters could have been developed more. You could easily find other things to criticize. But should you?

The reception. The movie has a whopping 5.7 on IMDb – totally undeserved, but 67% on RT may render some justice. I guess most IMDb bad reviews come from guys from were expecting a fact-paced action robot movie, but ”Kill Command” is better than that. Most reviews over the web are quite positive too, check out here, here and also this amazing insight here.

Worth watching? Yes! Far from being perfect, it’s a beautifully shot and richly detailed warfare movie. Tense, minimal and with its own nerve. No useless philosophizing about what makes human a human or robot a robot bla bla bla because it’d ruin the movie. Just keep in mind that it’s just not an average fact-paced sci-fi flick with humans and robots, like the recent hypnotizingly beautiful but rather soulless “Ghost in the Shell” adaptation, nor it is an arthouse film. So if you are a fan of “Terminator“, “Predator” (which reboot is coming out in 2018!) or, maybe, “Far Cry”, definitely have a look.

3/4

Never Let Me Go

never_let_me_goDirector: Mark Romanek. Starring: Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley. UK, 2010. Budget: $15 million. IMDb: 7.2. My rating: 2/4. A love triangle story in a dystopian society.

– We didn’t have The Gallery in order to look into your souls. We had The Gallery to see if you had souls at all. Do you understand?
(Miss Emily)

There is something deeply weird with “Never Let Me Go”, the third feature film by Mark Romanek. Mostly, it’s the tone. Continue reading

Augmented reality. Day 4. Weakness and strength

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Let them laugh at their passions.

Because what they call passion actually is not part of their soul, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world.

And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a giant, and strength is nothing.

When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies.

Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.

(Stalker, 1979)

Kong: Skull Island

kong-skull-island-posterDirector: Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson. USA, 2017. Budget: 185 million. IMDb rating: 6.9. My rating: 2.5/4. Giant gorilla vs. giant everything.

– Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. This is his home, we’re just guests. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight.
(John C. Reilly’s character)

It’s interesting to note once again the Hollywood’s tendency of last years to invite young indie directors for blockbuster production – Garreth Edwards/Star Wars, Colin Trevorrow/Jurassic World, James Gunn/Guardians of the Galaxy – probably hoping they will deliver a fresh breath.

And forget the bearded romantic from New Zealand, who was responsible for his own beautiful and canonical version of King-Kong. Peter Jackson, of course, was relying on the classical King-Kong story of 1933, even though with a more modern and refreshing approach. New Kong is several times bigger, stronger, more dangerous and more… boring.

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Continue reading

Dark Star

dark_star_ver2Director: John Carpenter. Screenplay/story: Dan O’Bannon, John Carpenter. Starring: Dan O’Bannon, Brian Narelle, Dre Pahich, Cal Kuniholm. USA, 1974. Budget: $60,000. IMDb: 6.7. My rating: 3.5/4. Odd science fiction space comedy.

– Now, Bomb, consider this next question very carefully… What is your purpose in life?
– To explode, of course.
– And you can do it only once, right?
(Doolitle convinces the bomb not to explode)

– All right, Bomb… prepare to receive new orders.
– You are false data. Therefore, I should ignore you.
(Doolitle convinces the bomb not to explode)

I must confess – I have never really liked John Carpenter. And I barely enjoy horror movies (with some notable exceptions like “The Shining”). I watched “Halloween” recently and enjoyed it at times, but if we forget for a moment its heritage, I find this cult slasher pretty mediocre. While admitting Carpenter’s immense influence, I’ve always seen most of his films made with little creativity, without that special sparkle that would lighten up everything. He is too technical in his approach, like an artisan, not an artist, who is methodically repeating similar feel and techniques in different movies. Note: I didn’t watch “Halloween”, “Escape from New York” or “The Thing” when they were released – movies that I don’t find bad, but just… pretty average in everything and with superficial characters? I’ve always felt Carpenter cares most about showing what happens to his characters, but not really the characters themselves.

But “Dark Star”, Carpenter’s and O’Bannon debut movie, made me change my mind about him. This little space comedy is like a fireworks show that you setup by yourself on a New Year’s Eve in the backyard. It’s an extravagant parody on space movies and “2001: A Space Odyssey” in particular. Fresh, well-crafted, wry and weirdly funny. Continue reading

Mimic

Director: Guillermo del Toro. Starring: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, F. Murray Abraham, Giancarlo Giannini. USA, 1997. Budget: $30 million. IMDb: 5.9. My rating: 3/4. Gothic gloomy tale about giant bugs vs humans with incredible visuals.

– How come you love bugs so much?
– These guys were building castles while dinosaurs were still wimpy little lizards.
(Mira Sorvino’s character about her passion)

mimic

I must confess that I approached “Mimic” with some kind of suspicion. I adore Guillermo del Toro. He is an incredible artist with unique visual style, but being just his second feature film (“Cronos” was the first one and it had good critical success, by the way), I had a doubt that it wasn’t already that Guillermo del Toro we all know and love. It’s also his lowest rated movie on IMDb. Damn, I couldn’t have been more wrong. A thousand apologies. Darkness blended with acid colours, gothic gloom in Victorian style, church-like sewers, unborn creatures, gore and blood. Pure joy for the heart. Continue reading

Triangle

TriangleDirector: Christopher Smith. Starring: Melissa George, Michael Dorman, Rachael Caprani, Henry Nixon, Liam Hemsworth. UK, Australia, 2009. Budget: $ 12 millions. IMDb: 6.9. My rating: 1.5/4. Unscary horror wrapped in a dull time-looped puzzle.

– Well listen we don’t have to go today if you don’t want too.
– No I do… I… I… I wanna go.
– You sure?
– Yea… yea!
– Yea? OK!
 Lets go sailing!
(a typical dialogue)

Most movies about time travel/time loops share one thing in common. No, it’s not what you thought. It’s an immense and inexplicable character obtuseness. I mean, what would a normal person do if he travels in time and meets his friends or even himself? Of course, kill everybody, do odd stuff he wouldn’t normally do, write scary messages to your counterpart and maybe slaughter him as well! Otherwise time travel is not fun, right?

It’s also the first thriller I have ever seen that takes its own plot so carelessly – the poster itself is already a spoiler. Continue reading

Lazer Team


Director
: Matt Hullum. Starring:  Burnie Burns, Gavin Free, Michael Jones, Colton Dunn, Allie DeBerry, Alan Ritchson. USA, 2015. IMDb: 5.7. Budget: $2.4 million. My rating: 3/4. Action sci-fi comedy about four losers saving the world.

– My calculations show that, scientifically, we’re screwed.
(Neil)

– Guys, guys, guys. Help, help. Hagan, I promise I won’t try and bang your daughter.
(Zach)

It’s going to be a tough one. Probably I have never seen a movie that borrows so much elsewhere while still has its own little charm. Bashed by critics and mostly loved by the public, it holds the record as the highest-funded film through Indiegogo. With a decent amount of dick weird humour and tons of pure geeky fun, ”Lazer Team” may not always convert quantity into quality, but it’s itching to start a fight. If you adored stuff like ”Paul” or ”Iron Sky” (and I bet you did…) and are ready to embrace “21 Jump Street”-style humour, here’s a new piece of nerdy sci-fi awesomeness. Add ”Galaxy Quest”, some warm 80-s low budget sci-fi feel and here we are.

Continue reading