Film review – Pandorica

Well, hello there internet friends. I’m back! I took another little writing hiatus to do more book outlining (on which I made great progress) and visit my awesome friend Alex in Australia (on which I ate many delicious indigenous animals). Despite my concerns about that crazy island, I managed not to get mauled by any adorable furry creatures or giant bugs and return home in one piece to you good people.

Although, that meant leaving behind one of my favorite people on that crazy island. Alas.

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Now that I’m finally over my jet lag and back in the swing of things, I’m delighted to get back to the blog with another film review. After my recent watching of Refuge I’ve been optimistic about the increasing quality of independent horror in both writing and production value.

When I saw that another indie film I’d had my eye on was available, I naturally jumped at the chance to see it. Pandorica could be categorized in a number of ways – thriller, horror, apocalyptic, dystopian – and I think that’s one of the really appealing aspects of the film.

It picks up several generations after what they call The Great Reset, some sort of worldwide disaster that decimated all but the most isolated communities. Three youth of the Varosha tribe – Eiren, Thade, and Ares – are preparing to take part in a selection test, during which the tribe’s current leader Nus will select his replacement.

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The selection test is a rather vague process that comes with folklore (told over a campfire, naturally) and is carried out whenever the previous leader feels the next crop of kids are old enough to compete. Normally that would be too generic for my taste, but I do think Pandorica‘s story benefits from being intentionally ambiguous. When things seem to go awry during the test, there’s still a little voice in the back of your head that’s saying, “But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to play out.”

What immediately grabbed my attention even from the trailer was how intensely dark it is. And I mean that quite literally. Most of the action in the film takes place over the course of one night, illuminated only by the moon or torches or campfires. Dealing with shadows in that way is seriously tricky business and I think they handled the self-imposed lighting challenge wonderfully.

There are also several sweeping aerial landscape shots that are absolutely breathtaking. In particular I was enamored with a series of wide pans over the forest as they traveled from their tribal home to the location of the leadership test. This can be attributed partly to the inherent natural beauty of the set location, but even that can’t stand on its own without skilled camera and editing work.

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The plot is not the most original construction – A group of headstrong kids in their late teens or early 20s compete against each other in a selection process to shape the future of their community. That’s kind of par for the course when it comes to modern dystopia, and director Tom Paton has even said in interviews that he sees the setting more as a way to explore interpersonal relationships than explore a likely apocalypse scenario.

The film at its core is about leadership, and earning the right to call yourself a leader. I believe in today’s world, power it [sic] too easily acquired by some and is likely the reason that people at the bottom find themselves mistreated… I think it was about looking at a big message and then applying to the world I know so that hopefully, whatever industry you are in, you can see shades of how you lead and who gets promoted in these characters. (lovehorror.co.uk)

In another interview, he even went so far as to self-identify the setting as cliché.

After reading his thoughts, I went back and watched some sections a second time. A lot of interactions that had previously felt sort of “apocalypse light” to me now play out like the most amazingly intense office team-building retreat ever taken. (And if you’ve ever been subjected to one of those personally, you’ll understand why that’s appealing.) Whether that was his intent or not is kind of irrelevant if it means I enjoy the experience more through that lens.

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The film is not without flaws. There were character actions that were easy for me to telegraph. You don’t really get much introduction to the world beyond a text-on-screen opening montage. Some of the potential impact of the script was lost by having the main characters speak English using an awkwardly manufactured accent.

In the grand scheme of things these flaws are really just minor bumps on an otherwise picturesque road. There’s plenty of imagination involved in setting the scene – especially in makeup and costumes – and it’s easy to see just how much heart went into making this film. It’s clear the cast was fully on board with Paton’s vision and I appreciate his attention to detail.

My overall recommendation – Watch Pandorica. The film takes a well-worn genre and uses it as the backdrop for something intimate and unusual. Though the plot is more about the journey than the destination, it’s still an interesting journey to take. And if nothing else, the movie is a visual feast.

3/5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film review – Refuge

Cbq_dLcWAAAbBvTIf you’ve been around the blog long enough, you’ll know that I’m a sucker for an apocalyptic tale. Even though I tend to gravitate to zombies, I’m an equal opportunity end-of-the-world enthusiast.

In fact, having spent six years living in Beijing (with a population of over 20 million crammed into tight quarters), I really connect with storytellers who imagine the collapse of society as the product of disease rather than creatures. I was once on a Beijing bus so crowded that a man couldn’t help sneezing directly into my mouth. In addition to being terribly grossed out, I had the flu within 12 hours.

 

I also made the grand mistake of watching Contagion for the first time at the start of the 13 hour flight back to China. Halfway through the film I realized everyone around me was coughing and spitting into paper bags and I spent the next 12 hours very consciously trying not to touch my face.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that Refuge resonated with me in a very real way. The premise of the movie is that a so-called “Nightmare Superbug” resistant to antibiotics has spread globally, decimating the population. The country falls apart, and the only people left are those who have isolated themselves and avoided contact with the infected.

While I wouldn’t consider them spoilers, I am going to talk a bit about the characters and very general plot points. Keep this in mind as you read ahead.

REFUGE: Available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Youtube & VOD on Comcast, Time Warner, Fios, etc. from Passerby Films on Vimeo.

Aside from a montage flashback during the opening credits that outlines the pandemic, the movie is set several years after the complete collapse of society. Survivors have been reduced to roving bands of scavengers, trying to glean whatever scraps of food and medicine are left in abandoned homes, all while continuing to protect themselves from coming into contact with any infected corpses.

In essence, Refuge is a movie about tribes. There are no lone wolves, no solitary hunters, but instead people have grouped themselves into what could be considered post-apocalyptic family units. Jack, Nell and their daughter Birdie are an actual biological family, with the supplementary addition of Kyle – an artist they took in and who serves as a secondary patriarch.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum you have a sort of hybrid of The Lost Boys and the Manson Family, a pack of young men who revel in violence and mayhem. Led by the cold, brutal, and arguably sociopathic Rez, they take whatever they want and kill indiscriminately. Russell is running with Rez’s crew, but it’s clear that he’s not on board with their methods. When he crashes his motorcycle trying to get away from them, Jack finds him in the road and takes him home to set his broken leg.

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Other groups cross their paths over the course of the movie, each categorized as being on either extreme side of this morality scale. It’s not necessarily new ground being covered here in terms of characters or themes, but that’s par for the course when it comes to exploring human nature. It’s not about coming up with a unique scenario, it’s about coming up with a unique approach to immersing the viewer in that scenario.

This movie’s approach immerses you fully, putting you right in the thick of things. You see, more than anything else, ambiance is what revs my horror engine. Refuge leans heavily on the sounds of an abandoned world – crickets chirping, leaves crunching underfoot, the labored sound of breath through a gas mask, papers rustling, wind pulling at branches – and all that natural atmosphere makes you as the viewer really feel the weight of the emptiness. The soundtrack weaves in between these sounds and amplifies their impact.

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The loyalty Jack’s family members (related and adopted, old and new) show to each other is fierce, and when they are not together the separation anxiety is real and intense. He can be a bit sharp, to the point where it feels almost cruel, but you get the impression that this is a well-honed survival reflex and his family understands and respects that. None of them seems to question why they press on, they just continue to live because living is what they do.

In my opinion, Refuge nails the pacing – not so much slow as it is deliberate, punctuated with moments of intensity. It is not an action-packed thriller in the traditional sense, but it still does have both action and thrills. For maximum effect, I’d recommend you watch it with the lights out, on a larger screen. If you’ve got surround sound, even better. It’s available to purchase VOD from a variety of services.

3.5/5 stars

How to feed (another) niche: Brunch edition

It has apparently been over a year since I last explored the bizarre treasure trove that is Williams-Sonoma. This must be remedied immediately. Since we all know that the only thing I could possibly love more than a collection of completely frivolous items is a thematic collection of completely frivolous items, this time I entered their cave of wonders with brunch on the brain.

The obvious place to start when it comes to brunch is eggs. They’re tasty any way you cook them, but there is something childishly delightful about whacking the top off a soft-boiled egg and dunking strips of buttery toast in it. However, Williams-Sonoma thinks that childish delight is… well, childish. Civilized adult-persons engaging in brunch do not decapitate their eggs while screaming like a samurai.

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Instead, they apparently open them up with the cold, calculated precision of a serial killer. The Rösle Egg Topper description explains that it gives you “easy access to the silken white and creamy golden yolk inside.” Which is not creepy in the slightest. Nope, not at all.

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The instructions read like the wet dream of a breakfast-loving mad scientist:

Simply place the topper on your boiled egg, pull the handle up, then release – the spring-loaded mechanism causes just enough vibration for the sharp blade to cut through the shell.

Unsurprisingly this item is made by Germans and only available online. They wouldn’t want you acting out your egg-topping fantasies in the store.

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And that aforementioned toast? Yeah, they’ve got something for that too. You can purchase Toast Tongs, which “deftly remove slices of bread from a toaster while safely keeping your hands away from the heat.” They also come complete with a magnet so you’ll never lose them (if you stick them to the toaster) or never lose any other metallic utensils that end up in the same drawer you shove them in.

Luckily, these are available in stores. You may want to go road test them so you don’t end up as disappointed as this customer was.

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I figure we may as well add some good fats into the mix to counteract all that buttered toast, and nothing fits the bill quite like avocado. There are all sorts of ways to enjoy avocado with your brunch, but the first step is getting it out of the skin. I’ve always just used a spoon, but apparently I am a savage who knows nothing about the finer points of avocado liberation.

The Avoloop, in addition to being terribly named, is “ideally shaped to scoop out the flesh from an avocado half in one clean sweep.” They make a point of letting you know that you could also use your Avoloop for “peeling mango, papaya, baked potato, squash and melon.”

But not kiwi. You’ll need to buy a Kiwi Loop for that.

Avoloop and Kiwi Loop

I don’t know about you, but my biggest fear is that I’ll no longer be able to serve properly made salsa at my post-apocalyptic brunches once the power grid fails. Recognizing that this is a fairly common fear, the crack team at Chef’n developed the VeggiChop Vegetable Chopper exclusively for the discerning customers at Williams-Sonoma.

I can’t decide which feature I love most – The blade’s “safety sheath”, having to pre-chop vegetables to fit inside the VeggiChop, or the fact that you operate it like a stubborn lawn mower that refuses to start. Apocalypse be damned, we will have salsa at this party! Reach for the sky, Chef’n!

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Stream themes – Flirting with disaster

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, there will be many sites out there that offer romantic viewing suggestions for you and your special someone. This is not one of those sites. Not in the traditional sense anyway.

Just as my first love of literature was science fiction, my film and television soulmate is the end of life as we know it (in its many splendid forms). While we have an open relationship that leaves room for horror and dystopia, the apocalypse knows who I’m coming home to each night. If you’re looking to woo me, the second step is a shared love for all-out disaster.

The first step is pancakes, obviously.

Z Nation

I was skeptical about this series at first. It’s produced by The Asylum, a company known for such fine cinematic works as Mega Python vs Gatoroid and Sharknado.  But it turns out I love seeing the zombie apocalypse through their eyes (incidentally they’ve also produced several zombie movies, including the deliciously cheesy Zombie Apocalypse).

Z Nation succeeds in walking the line between horror and humor with only the occasional facepalm moment. There are a few legitimately startling jump scares, creative zombie kills (egg beater!) and honestly some of the most realistic interpersonal relationships I’ve seen in the genre.

DJ Qualls, as a lone NSA agent trying to guide survivors from a snow fortress, pulls off the difficult task of acting in isolation. Everyone else in the ensemble cast can play off each other, but even though he speaks with them he’s never in the same room as the rest of the team. And Nat Zang impressed me in his first professional role (also half the teenage internet, judging by all the fanfic out there).

It was surprising to me that a show written by two men could do such an amazing job capturing the survival challenges of women. Especially considering how The Walking Dead completely fails at that. I got angry at TWD when I realized that any time a woman started exuding strength or confidence the writers killed her off. But not only is Z Nation full of strong, confident women, it also broaches the subject of these women still having to make different compromises than men in order to survive.

The entire first season is now streaming on Netflix, with a second season in the works for later this year.

How I Live Now

This film (based on the YA novel of the same name) follows a girl named Daisy who goes to England to spend the summer with distant relatives on their farm. While she’s there, World War III breaks out and the kids are forced to fend for themselves sans adults. I haven’t read the book, but my understanding is that the film follows fairly closely to the plot (with just a few creative diversions). One of my favorite elements of the story is that the instigators of the war are referred to as “terrorists,” yet given no description of nationality or religion or mission. You don’t know why they’ve started a war, only that they have.

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It’s unique in the apocalypse genre in that the kids are mostly left alone to make it through. This is not a Hunger Games dystopia where there are a bunch of adults pulling strings, but there are soldiers who try to enforce some semblance of order. Even with that, it’s a fascinating look at how the primal survival instincts kick in and I think the author masterfully weaves in moral dilemmas. Also, Saoirse Ronan was a perfect casting choice for Daisy.

Also, also, the film opens to the sounds of Amanda Palmer’s “Do It With a Rockstar,” which was a surefire sign I was going to like it. (Video very much NSFW)

Black Mirror

It’s not apocalyptic, per se, but I’m still including this British series on my list. It’s an anthology (so far two “seasons” of three episodes each are available to stream) which means that each episode is a self-contained story. It explores various themes of how society interacts with technology and the often disastrous outcomes.

This is hands-down the best show I’ve seen in ages. It’s dark, but not soul-crushingly dark, and has moments of levity as well. The alternative futures that the creators imagine are not so far outside the realm of possibility, and that dose of reality is what really drives the message home. The second episode of the first season (“Fifteen Million Merits,” pictured above) is my favorite – a decidedly sci-fi look at a world of constant stimulation.

Rumors are flying that they’re looking to make an American version of the show (much to my dismay) and apparently Robert Downey Jr. bought the rights to one of the episodes looking to turn it into a film (even more to my dismay), so I’d recommend watching the original before someone ruins it for you.

Honorable mention for this list goes to Pontypool, for being a zombie-esque film that also takes place on Valentine’s Day. It’s a bit of a slow build, so much so that I found myself getting bored, but the premise (once it eventually gets going) is interesting. Points for creativity, but not much else.

I’m always looking for a good disaster to curl up with, so leave your suggestions in the comments!