Tag Archives: Post-apocalyptic

CAPSULE: FRIEND OF THE WORLD (2020)

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Friend of the World is available for VOD rental.

DIRECTED BY: Brian Patrick Butler

FEATURING: Alexandra Slade, Nick Young

PLOT: The lone survivor of a mass-execution awakens in a bunker to find that an eccentric ex-military survivalist is her only company.

Still from friend of the world (2020)

COMMENTS: There is a small detail I’ve often noticed concerning low-budget films: they are either stuffed to the gills with smartphones, or such technology is mysteriously absent. Such dystopias fall broadly into two categories: “we’re all connected, and it’s horrible”; or, “once we may have all been connected, but a terrible event occurred, and it’s horrible.” Given a choice, I’d opt for the latter—which is to Friend of the World’s credit.

Taking place (almost) exclusively in an underground warren of rummaged-through rooms and cluttered corridors, Friend absolutely nails the claustrophobia of subterranean survivalism. Faces regularly dominate the frame, both skewing the sense of scale as well as bringing the characters’ personality extremes to the fore. “General” Gore (his claim to the title is questionable) dominates his frames, with one of those expressive—even “burly”—faces found on military blowhards through much of cinema’s history; Diane Keaton (no, not that one) is a millennial who survived a nasty massacre of many in her age group. Gore saves her, sort of, and then he saves her when they’re exposed to an unspecified-but-ubiquitous disease. Sort of. Then, hallucinations start. (You guessed it… Sort of.)

Friend‘s strengths, and weaknesses, are the double-edged swords of exiguous narrative, exaggerated performances, and elevated Art-Housery. Nick Young, who plays the gruff old-timer who never met a young person he could take seriously, had better be a stalwart of his local am-dram society. Half the time his bitter excesses are what’s needed, the other half, well, to quote a cohort he dislikes, are a bit “meh.” Innovative body horror spices up the proceedings with regularity (or at least as often as might be hoped for over a fifty-minute movie)—I’ve never seen one man excreted, fully formed, out of another’s back. The story contains an unclear sociopolitical agenda that is enthusiastically conveyed through audio cassette and Super-8 within the story. And then… well, it just kind of ends.

So I will, too.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A hybridised blend of Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), Friend of the World is low in budget, but big in ideas, mystifying the viewer with its surreally lysergic adventures in underland.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures

(This movie was nominated for review by Dan B., who described it as “…a bizarre, dialogue driven story that follows two complete opposite characters working out their differences while finding their way through a body-horror post-apocalyptic bunker.. a surreal and absurd existential trip into madness with elements of social satire, scifi and horror.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

CAPSULE: SLIPSTREAM (1989)

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DIRECTED BY: Steven M. Lisberger

FEATURING: , Bob Peck, , Kitty Aldridge, Eleanor David

PLOT: In a future devastated by a geophysical catastrophe, a two-bit hood steals a bounty hunter’s prey in hopes of a big score.

Still from Slipstream (1989)

COMMENTS: There is an alternate universe wherein three of the biggest names in the cult of science fiction—Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz, TRON writer-director Steve Lisberger, and the legendary Mark Hamill himself—all found a renewed life in the cinema thanks to an out-of-nowhere box office smash about a future world where a steady round-the-world wind has upended human existence.

Yeah. Back in our universe, that movie was a flop that barely saw the light of day. Kurtz was bankrupted, Lisberger would never direct another feature, and Hamill would retreat into the world of voice work, rebuilding his reputation over the next three decades. The film itself (reportedly) slipped into the public domain, which does at least make it easier for us all to summon up a screening and see if we can figure out where all this potential went so wrong.

The story seems like a good place to start. The post-apocalypse summoned up by Tony Kayden’s screenplay doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Whatever disaster the shifting winds wreaked upon the planet left some people huddled in dusty hovels, to be sure. But why would planes thrive while cars (and even carts) have vanished? How are there diners? Compact discs? Keypad locks? Why is Bob Peck on the run in a suit that makes him look like a London stockbroker? Is it really a career option in the detritus of a wind-related apocalypse to dream of hanging up a shingle for your own hot air balloon agency? And that’s long before our heroes take an odd turn into a bunker/library/country club that just… is.

The casting doesn’t help, either. Mark Hamill—God love him—just isn’t made to play grizzled and hard-bitten, and his tough-guy dialogue sits uncomfortably in his mouth. Bill Paxton, sporting a Robert Plant hairdo, tries to portray a desperate mercenary while still exuding his signature goofy affability. (In fact, a whole lot of people in this movie are trying to do their best Han Solo impersonations and coming up short.) And then there are the cameos. Slipstream manages to land two of the decade’s Best Actor Academy Award winners—Ben Kingsley and F. Murray Abraham—and then fails to do anything with them in their allotted 3 minutes of screen time.

What’s most frustrating about Slipstream is that there is so much talent in service of a story that literally goes nowhere. (Lisberger is quoted as saying the film is essentially a road movie with planes, but the only destination is indeterminate and quickly jettisoned, so we’re just really wandering from cave to cave.) The film’s English and Turkish locations are suitably alien and intriguing, and they are captured with some lovely aerial cinematography. There’s Hamill’s genuinely cool-looking plane. And every now and then, the story stumbles across an idea—some people now worship the wind as a deity—or an image—a man strapped into a kite buffeted by terrifying gusts—that hints at something grander. But it never gets there. Instead, the few stakes there are feel listless and empty. And you can tell the filmmakers know it, because they’ve made the great Elmer Bernstein work overtime to provide some juice in the score that can’t be found on the screen. (When not trying to generate suspense, it pieces together elements borrowed from other Bernstein scores, from The Magnificent Seven to Heavy Metal to Ghostbusters.)

Time and again, we get a tantalizing glimpse of the inventive movie they thought they had. It’s like being invited on a treasure hunt, and your host shows you the cool map he found and the shiny doubloon that proves the treasure is real, and so you search and search, only to come up empty. That’s Slipstream. No treasure. Only hot air.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It never quite gels into a complete whole, but also never lacks for ambition…  There’s a lot of weird aerial imagery that’s much appreciated if too oft repeated… There’s a cheesy core to this film that shoots for awe and wonder more than action and doom.”–Ed Travis, Cinapse (DVD)

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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Recommended

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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Recommended

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