Tag Archives: Post-apocalyptic

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: NO TRACE (2021)

Nulle trace

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DIRECTED BY: Simon Lavoie

FEATURING: Monique Gosselin, Nathalie Doummar

PLOT: After a smuggler escorts a woman and infant across the border, her draisine is stolen; she encounters the woman she smuggled on her trek back north.

Still from No Trace (2021)

COMMENTS: If Andrei Tarkovsky had made a film about a human smuggler in a post-civilization world, it would look (and feel and sound) like Simon Lavoie’s No Trace. The mystical energy of Canadian wildlands is punctured only by a pair of iron rails as our nameless protagonist navigates her track-bound wagon through the soft palette of black and white trees and scrub. Religion and doubt vie for dominance. And soft aural cues warn of danger. As with the journey into the heart of “the Zone“, metaphysicality in No Trace flourishes the farther our hero travels from her anchor to civilization.

What little civilization She (Monique Gosselin) comes from is made abundantly clear at the start. There is no state, just men with guns. But men with guns are often open to bribes, and so She has a living. Her latest job is transporting a young mother (Nathalie Doummar, credited as “Awa,” though I do not recall her name ever mentioned) and an infant girl across a border whose demarcation is all too unclear. The smuggler’s vehicle breaks down after She receives another assignment, and She is forced to hide in the wilds near the rails. Awa is there. And, in a tragic way, so are her daughter and husband.

No Trace‘s strangeness is carried primarily by its steady drip-drip-drip of unlikely filmic characteristics. The score is spartan, but when the “doom western” chords swell and plang, it’s all the more powerful for it. I’m at a loss for another example in which the primary musical cues climax after a fade to black. The black and white cinematography is as beautiful as the world is bleak, with soft greys highlighting the lush variance of the ever-present forest. And the dialogue, scarcely present in the first half (maybe half-a-dozen brief lines), merely elucidates what little exposition that isn’t made clear in the image.

The subtlety of the action and the actors further renders No Trace a contemplative picture. The slightest raising of the smuggler’s hand in a key scene resonates far more than any flailing histrionics or wild gyrations could. This and the surrounding quietude scream Tarkovsky, yes, but it’s the film’s climax that swerves No Trace into spiritual wonderment. Awa and the smuggler are in a ragged shack, and Awa— a devout Muslim—asks the smuggler, “You are not a believer?,” to which the smuggler coldly replies, “I’m not that desperate yet.” The closing scene, with Awa embraced by leaves and the smuggler embraced by her precious railway, culminates in a theological twist worthy of the late Russian master.

No Trace is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By stripping away artifice and taking a surrealist route and view, Lavoie ponders what lies beyond what we think we know, about an uncertain and obscure future.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Sumi Shimamoto, Gorô Naya, Mahito Tsujimura, Hisako Kyôda (Japanese); , , Mark Silverman, James Taylor, (English dub)

PLOT: In a post-apocalyptic earth plagued by toxic jungles and giant bugs, opposing factions clash in a struggle to survive and eradicate the pestilence.

Still from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This beautiful dream of a movie is right on the borderline of true weirdness. On the one hand, it is glaringly original in its inventiveness, while on the other its universe is so meticulously constructed and populated that it seems more real than reality. In a league with The City of Lost Children or Fantastic Planet, Nausicaä earns its weird wings through the vividness of its vision.

COMMENTS: Imagine coming to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind cold, and all you know is that it’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi where Earth has been taken over by giant bugs. The movie you just imagined, possibly inspired by Bert I. Gordon, is the exact opposite of what you actually get. Or how about being told that the true danger of this world is an invasive jungle that spews poisonous spores into the wind, and everyone has to wear masks? Evocative as this is of the current COVID-19 pandemic, that still doesn’t convey the story you’re about to see. The title character is both a kick-ass pilot and a friend to all beasts, but this only suggests an amalgam of Amelia Earhart and Pocahontas. Nausicaä (Sumi Shimamoto) carries traits of both those legendary women, but there is much more to her character.

If we’re talking about an impossibly plucky young female lead in a fantasy universe that is the equal of Oz or Middle Earth, then we must be talking about a  Hayao Miyazaki movie. This was the first of such films, the model on which Miyazaki soon founded the mighty Studio Ghibli anime empire. The world of this Earth, a thousand years in the future, is far from a grim Mad Max Thunderdome. It’s a lived-in world of new wonders and exotic peril, beset by an impending environmental crisis and a looming world war—because, of course, those rotten humans never change. As the princess of the valley, Nausicaä leaves no doubt that she is in charge, barking orders at the villagers as soon as any action starts. When war comes to the village’s doorstep, she greets it with a swinging sword. And when there’s an emergency, she’s the first to think of a solution.

Sadly, it turns out that Nausicaä is going to meet problems without easy solutions. The environmental dilemmas of Earth and of the people struggling to live on its last inhabitable bits come down to—big surprise—jingoistic nationalism vs. science and reason. Guess who has the floor? A complex plot of conflicting kingdoms and slippery alliances unfolds, far beyond Nausicaä’s immediate political power to fix. The salvation of this story is that each character has a “why,” and not even the heroes are right about everything. You’ve seen this story before, but never told with such clarity. At the same time, it’s a hardcore science fiction story with a larger-than-life world and flights of adventure, so you have mind-boggling scenery if the political allegory doesn’t hold your attention.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is such a seminal cultural artifact that declaring it the Citizen Kane of anime would not be far off the mark. It influenced movies that followed, such as Neon Genesis Evangelion; it’s legacy can also be seen in  the works of video game studio Square-Enix, evident in titles from the “Final Fantasy” franchise to “Secret of Mana” and “Illusion of Gaia.”

What can I add to this awe-inspiring classic whose reputation is cemented in anime culture? A couple of crumbs of fair criticism, as always. The Aesop-style morals are hammered in a bit too heavily. The pacing is at the same time too fast and too slow; it takes a while for the plot to get moving, while we would prefer learning more about the setting. Our title princess is a bit too stereotypical as a Big Damn Hero, complete with Messianic Prophecy. But these minor quirks are the inevitable baggage that comes with political stories and environmental themes. This masterpiece, with its fully realized fever dream of a world, has more than enough license to preach to us. It’s not like we’re going to learn something from it and improve or anything.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What a weird movie. Seriously, it’s just so strange. But that is definitely not a criticism!” — Jonathan North, Rotoscopers

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRUMBS (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Miguel Llansó

FEATURING: , Selam Tesfayie, Mengistu Berhanu, Tsegaye Abegaz

PLOT: A long-dormant spaceship hovers over an apocalypse-blasted earth, so Candy goes on a quest to secure himself a seat on board.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Plenty of post-apocalyptic movies capture the dregs of civilization as well as Crumbs, but no others that I can think of have a “raised-hand” spaceship, Michael Jordan the god, or Santa Claus inside a bowling alley ball-return.

COMMENTS: Smirking absurdism and epic pathos are in constant tension in Miguel Llansó’s directorial debut. This friction is perfectly encapsulated during an encounter near the end of Crumbs, when we watch the protagonist, Candy, unbutton his shirt—in a display of machismo directed at a burnt-out Santa Claus—to reveal the iconic “Superman” garb. Only, Santa doesn’t recognize it, saying “it looks like a Nazi symbol.” This quip cuts right to the chase: the “superman” was a Nazi ideal, and it was such displays of toxic machismo that brought about the nuclear war.

“Crumbs” aptly describes of what civilization has been reduced to: scavenging and subsistence-level survival, all man’s machines crumbled to rust. Crumbs intersperses its quest narrative with history-laced interludes courtesy of a pawnbroker to whom various wanderers try to sell their findings. A cheap plastic “Max Steel” sword toy is not, as is commonly presumed, from the great artist “Carrefor“, but by “Mattelo“; a Samurai Turtle dated “third century” was “worn by Molegon warriors as a lucky amulet”; “Dangerous“, by Michael Jackson—a third-century farmer—is a gift worthy for a wedding. These items, and more, are crumbs left along Candy’s path as he travels to find Santa Claus in an abandoned pond in the old city.

The narrative is triggered by ominous signs at the bowling alley which Candy (Daniel Tadesse) and Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) have adopted as their home, untold numbers of years after a hinted-at world war. Birdy is convinced that the spaceship—which had hitherto been idling in the sky—has begun to start its engines, and the magnetic field being emitted has triggered the alley’s lights to flicker and the ball-return machine to reactivate. Candy goes off to find the one man who can secure their place on board, while Birdy stays home. She regularly prays at their shrine to Michael Jordan, but is haunted by the voice coming from the ball-return. Investigating it, she finds Santa Claus inside, pacing around a display of toys, asking what her Christmas wish is.

While Llansó’s sophomore feature tickled with its high energy and zany surrealism, Crumbs is a more contemplative work. Its tongue-in-cheek tone is couched within a soft, dreamy tone. The natural beauty of Ethiopia’s wildlands, alongside decayed industrial hulks of machinery, is on full display at the hands of an able and loving cinematographer. Candy is an unlikely hero, a deformed (though not un-handsome) fellow trying to do right by his lover. The weight of Crumbs‘ reality anchors the absurdity until the final moments of the credits. The spaceship sails peacefully toward the æther as two men inside talk about vintage music; then it explodes. Even if reduced to crumbs, Earth is all we’ll have.

Crumbs is available for separate purchase, but it was also released as a bonus feature on Arrow’s 2020 Limited Edition Blu-ray of Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it’s hard not to succumb at least somewhat to this sci-fi whatsit’s strange, whimsical spell.”–Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SPIRITS OF THE AIR, GREMLINS OF THE CLOUDS (1987)

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DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Norman Boyd, Michael Lake, Rhys Davis

PLOT: A drifter is escaping his pursuers by heading north, but a vertical mountain range blocks his path;  he encounters an eccentric pair of siblings, and the trio plan to head beyond the pass in a homemade flying machine.

Still from Spirits of the air, gremlins of the clouds (1987)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Surreal music-video visuals combine with stage-like theatrics in this odd little story of a crippled inventor, his child-like sister, and a stranger on the run. The post-apocalyptic milieu is both sand-swept and candy-colored, and the claustrophobic atmosphere feels about to burst into the wild blue yonder.

COMMENTS: Judging from the natural backdrop in Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds, Australia’s outback is a combination of desolate sand and technicolor hues. As such, it’s custom-designed for post-apocalyptic wasteland movies, and Proyas takes advantage of this nigh-unreality to great effect. But not satisfied with a vision of lifeless wind and dust, he places eccentrics lifted straight from David Lynch onto his barren stage, in the process creating one of the most eccentric and eerie melodramas to spring forth from celluloid.

The remnants of humanity are, it seems, scattered about like so much paranoid dirt. When a wanderer dressed in black (going by the name “Smith”) appears on her homestead’s outskirts, Betty Crabtree (dressed in dime-store Kabuki regalia, and playing an over-trinketed two-string violin) seeks her brother to warn him of a coming devil. Brother Felix sports the wild hair of a mad inventor or a crazed hermit, and is confined to a wheelchair seemingly designed by Tim Burton during his “blue period.” Felix is eccentric, but also a genius, and is eager for Smith’s company and assistance. Betty is having none of this newcomer, and makes her hostility increasingly clear: first with adamant Bible quotations, then with a hand-scrawled note reading, “Leave now, or you die!,” and finally with a painted message covering the homestead’s workshop exterior, “Go home or burn in Hell.” Smith does not go home; instead, for reasons of his own, he agrees to help Felix build the impossible.

The Crabtree compound is like a survivalist’s Bible camp. The pair have stocked their basement with countless shelves of Heinz baked beans (the company received a shout-out in the credits) and hung crosses from every wall and support beam (we learn that the siblings’ father is he used to be religious—but then stopped). Other unlikely touches convey this future reality. Felix’s prized possession is a history of early flight, and he wistfully calls attention to the trees in the photographs’ backgrounds and the “nice, clean clothes” everyone wears. The Popol Voh-style soundtrack and dissociative camera tricks offset this grounding in reality. Proyas interrupts medium shots of action—such as the strange meal (of baked beans) that follows Smith’s arrival—with altogether too-close close-ups. And it seems that he intermittently removed frames of film, creating a stilted, jagged appearance in the flow of machines and people.

With a cast of three people, Proyas creates a grounded human world. With a solitary household as a location, he shows this world to be foreign to our experience. Like Felix with his mad dream to fly, Proyas (all of twenty-four when he made this) defies the doubters. Using practically nothing, he firmly establishes himself as a cinematic visionary. There is certainly something personal in this tale of staggering success against oppressive odds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a genuine shame the melding of big budgets and Proyas has never really gelled, possibly because the larger the budgets got, the more Proyas discovered what he couldn’t do with them out of responsibility for making the film as palatable to general audiences as the studio demanded. Because, dammit, Proyas has an amazing eye, one evident from his first feature film…Proyas’ eye for imagery is in fine form, and it’s not difficult at all to find the line that connects SPIRITS OF THE AIR to DARK CITY..” -Jon Abrams, Daily Grindhouse

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SHE (1984)

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DIRECTED BY: Avi Nesher

FEATURING: Sandahl Bergman, David Goss, Harrison Muller

PLOT: Two brothers in a post-apocalyptic wasteland go off on a quest to rescue their kidnapped sister, meeting a menagerie of mid-grade antagonists along the way as a million flavors of all hell breaks loose.

Still from She (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: What a tragedy that She (1984) is so obscure, its title so Google-unfriendly, and its competing versions so better-known. If not for these handicaps it might have squeezed onto the List. It is a gonzo anything-goes claptrap of nonstop action with costumes, sets, and indeed whole scenes made out of whatever the filmmakers had lying around. If weird movies are a flea market, She rolls in Crazy Glue and runs through the bazaar, buying whatever sticks.

COMMENTS: The first rule of She (1984) is that it sets out to break every rule of filmmaking, and the second rule of She is that it circles back to break the first rule again. The goal of all this seems to be to make film reviewers look like fools; so allow me to draw the roadmap for the twists and turns ahead. She starts out bluffing with a trite and cliched approach, then steadily gets friskier along its run-time, until by the end it has become a completely different movie. It’s like the whole crew grew up over the course of shooting, or else they just improvised and got lucky. It starts out as a tired post-apocalyptic action clunker in the same vein as Mad Max and Tank Girl, only way less interesting than either of those. Somewhere between shooting the beginning and the end, the crew must have discovered—I’m guessing—Monty Python, Mel Brooks, something in that vein. It’s like they tried to make a serious Road Warrior-ripoff, but gave up after twenty minutes and decided their budget was better suited to making a campy satire; but, rather than withering away the fun, as you’d expect, they discovered they happened to be really good at comedy. Whatever happened, they sure as hell chucked the source material. This is allegedly an adaptation of “She: A History of Adventure,” but if you’re expecting anything to do with H. Rider Haggard‘s typical Victorian adventure universe of Allan Quatermain and King Solomon, you’re queuing in the wrong line.

After elaborate animated credits which also have nothing to do with the movie, we’re plopped “year 23 after the Cancellation.” Siblings Tom, Dick, and the sister Hari pilot a barge to a post-apocalyptic flea market selling cereal and chess sets, when a warrior tribe of “Norks” (composed of Clockwork Orange droogs, bikers, quarterbacks, Roman centurions, and Nazis) raid the market and haul Hari away screaming. The brothers now have a convenient plot: they have to go rescue Hari! If you liked that fight scene, you’ll look forward to the rest of the movie, which has one noisy brawl after another. The defining characteristics of post-apocalyptic people here are that they’re all Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SHE (1984)

CAPSULE: IRON SKY: THE COMING RACE (2019)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Lara Rossi, Kit Dale, Vladimir Burlakov, Tom Green, Renate Richter, Udo Kier

PLOT: In 2047, humanity’s last survivors cower in the crumbling Moon base after nuclear holocaust; to save the species, Obi must journey to back to Earth to find a mystical power source.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Hitting about a ten on my ridiculosometer, Vuorensola’s follow-up to his unexpected 2012 hit digs deep into a bag of outlandish premises; it’s often hilarious, and quite fun, but not weird. Just… silly. Really, really silly.

COMMENTS: Whatever other qualities Timo Vuorensola has, he’s a great salesman. With his not-quite-debut Iron Sky, he made a pitch to investors that a movie about Moon Nazis was a viable project. Having established his own universe to play around in, he tops himself thematically and financially with the sequel Iron Sky: The Coming Race. Not content to rest on his laurels and just have the Nazis regroup, he dives into the “Hollow Earth” myth and concocts an origin of species theory whose only time-spanning equal might be Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus.

Renate Richter’s daughter Obi (Lara Rossi) works tirelessly to keep a decrepit Moon base operational while a Steve Jobs cult hoards the facility’s scant resources. Led by their charismatic preacher, Donald (Tom Green, with scene-stealing deadpan), the Jobsists demand the perfection of a “closed system.” Obi’s mother is an acolyte, but she is dying —and her cure lies in an unlikely place. Crazy-Russian-Stereotype Sasha (Vladimir Burlakov) literally crashes onto the scene with some Earth refugees and his ship enables Obi to go on a mission at the behest of the erstwhile Mondführer (Udo Kier, again) to retrieve a powerful vessel containing “Vril-Ya”. And so, with Donald, Sasha, and beefcake Malcom (Kit Dale), Obi rigs the Russian’s clapped-out vessel for a final journey … to the Center of the Earth!

I’ll spare you more plot rehashing to segue now into just what it is Vuorensola is trying to do here: everything he can. There are explosions, chase scenes, cults, backstabbings, and Vril-Hitler on an allosaurus. Whatever enthusiasm Udo Kier lacked in the first movie, he makes up for with his double role as a pair of ancient alien brothers who… ah, but that’s some more plot. There’s just so much plot in this movie, and while the rational part of my brain knows that this isn’t a good thing, the softer side of my brain laughed loudly very regularly. This movie pokes fun at everything: iPhone advocates (the send-up of the iconic “1984” Apple commercial is a treat), conspiracy theorists, blockbuster classics (including, but not limited to, The Planet of the Apes and Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade), Vladimir Putin… Like a young Mel Brooks with half the talent but twice the sense of urgency, Vuorensola just does not stop.

I wouldn’t want to risk this site’s credibility by slapping a ” label on this, but I haven’t had so much fun watching a movie in quite a while. A caveat, though, is that I can easily turn my brain off as the situation demands: if you go into this movie thinking, you’ll think I’m some sort of idiot for enjoying it. But Tom Green was great as a silly-sinister cult leader, Kit Dale somehow managed to make his “red shirt” death wish boy scout both funny and charismatic, and Udo Kier just felt right as dinosaur-riding Hitler. Of course there’s a set up for a third installment, and I look forward to seeing what nonsense they get up to on Mars. Catch you on the Red Planet, comrade.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This better-funded, more lavish sequel seeks to be equally engaging and wacky, but the result is an incoherent if well-made mess that will find most favour with the more fervent devotees of ‘trash’ cinema.”–Dave Aldridge, Radio Times (contemporaneous)