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

The year in reviews

Recently I’ve had a bit of brain spark on an idea for a novel that has been stewing in my head for a while. I’m going to try to focus my creative energy on outlining it, which probably means fewer blog posts for a few weeks. Rather than leave you in the lurch, I thought I’d pull together everything I’ve recommended you watch over the past year.

Though I’m not much for year end roundups, anyone who knows me well knows that I can’t pass up a perfectly good opportunity to compile a list.

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I started out the year with a few thematic collections, the first being romantic films that are decidedly odd. This includes FrequenciesIn Your Eyes, and The One I Love. As of this post date, all three are still available to stream on Netflix. They’re all worth watching for different reasons, but if you only have the time or inclination to watch one, I’d say go with The One I Love.

Original post: Stream themes – Bizarre romance

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The second thematic collection were apocalyptic (or otherwise dystopian) movies. A personal favorite category, which some might say makes me a bit of a downer. But I see my interest in societal collapse as a curiosity in human behavior rather than a desire for actual chaos.

The list is mostly television, with a film pick and also an honorable mention that gets points for trying (but ultimately failing to entertain with) a novel premise.

Original post: Stream themes – Flirting with disaster

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My next review was also one of my favorite films of 2015, and definitely a film I’m glad I first saw in the theater. While you no longer have the opportunity to see It Follows on the big screen, you should watch it on a screen that has a robust sound system.

The film is not really all that scary, at least not in a classic horror way. But it is the absolute best kind of creepy, and if you’re someone who finds atmosphere to be engine-revving (I definitely am), then you are in for a treat.

Original post: Film review – It Follows

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What struck me in particular about Advantageous is that it’s dystopian sci-fi with a decidedly female voice. It was written and directed by a woman, all the main characters are women, and its messages are particularly poignant to the female viewer.

Which is not to say that this is a film only for women – I think that men could also gain a lot of insight from watching it. More than the messages though, it’s also beautifully shot and expertly acted.

Original post: Film review – Advantageous

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Next up were two very goofy reviews, and I will admit that I rated them on my B-movie scale rather than a more discerning cinematic one. If you don’t like cheesy horror, they are not for you. But if you do like cheesy horror, they are cheddar-tastic.

Zombeavers (pictured above) is campy as all get-out, but it’s really not trying to be anything otherwise. And Love in the Time of Monsters (pictured below) has its tongue squarely planted in cheek. Both are absolutely ridiculous, but the second is definitely my favorite of the two.

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Original posts: Film review – Zombeavers and Film review – Love in the Time of Monsters.

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This final series of reviews is probably the most ambitious project I’ve ever tackled on this site. It’s also my favorite undertaking of the year, and the longest post I’ve ever written here.

In a moment that was either madness or genius (I am still undecided) I decided to spend a long weekend watching every Hellraiser film in order. With nine total movies in the series, that meant three each day for three consecutive days.

I’ll understand if you don’t want to read the post (either because you’re just not into gore or you’re just not into long reads) but I hope you do. It would be nice to feel as though I’m not just blogging into the void.

Also some, but not all, of the Hellraiser movies really are worth watching. Clive Barker has a unique way of crafting monsters who are not 100% monstrous, and Pinhead is a prime example.

Original post: The nine lives of Pinhead – a Hellraiser experiment

Bonus round

While this isn’t a movie review, I couldn’t leave this post off the list. Partially because I’m proud of the wordplay and partially because, even though I vowed not to, I actually caved and watched the movie a few nights ago.

The movie was absolutely awful. The post, on the other hand, is absolutely delightful.

Film review – Zombeavers

Last night’s Season 2 premiere of Z Nation spread the camp on pretty thick (just the way I like it). Nuclear fallout? Little House on the Zombie Prairie? Undead strippers? Using zombies as a shuffling hat rack? And that’s just a fraction of what they managed to pack into an hour.

So, when I woke up this morning to a dreary, rainy day, I was inspired to tackle another bit of zombie camp that’s been sitting in my Netflix queue. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Zombeavers:

For starters, I love comedic horror with a passion. My favorite kind of comedic horror is the particular brand of meta horror perfected by the late great Wes Craven (I’m watching Scream right now as I write this). My second favorite kind is comedic horror that is more self-aware than meta, and Zombeavers definitely falls squarely in this category. They know they’re campy, they’re proud they’re campy, and they’re just going to keep dialing up that camp-o-meter until they break off the knob.

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The premise of the movie is fairly classic as far as zombie plots go – toxic waste accidentally falls off a truck, resulting in the creation of zombies that terrorize hormone-driven coeds in a remote cabin. Except the truck accident is a totally deadpan chuckle-fest, the zombies are beavers, the coeds are comically sex-crazed and the remote cabin is adjacent to a second remote cabin where a charmingly foul-mouthed, totally hip-to-the-kids older couple lives.

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Yes, there is gratuitous nudity. Yes, there are ample beaver jokes. But there’s also genuine hilarity in all of it. When the girls go swimming, one of them peels her top off and revels in baring her chest. Later on, one of the dude bros gets maimed by a zombie beaver, and they need to make a tourniquet. The same girl goes to take off her bikini top and her boyfriend dismisses her, saying, “No, that’s too small” and grabs her dog’s life vest instead.

It’s goofy, the special effects come in just above low-budget level, the zombeaver attacks are amusing to watch, and the characters develop in (very) unexpected ways. Perhaps what I liked most about Zombeavers is how the film thumbs its nose at the tired final girl trope. That and how the beavers were intelligent enough to chew through all the phone lines (those lovable scamps!), which were of course the only means of communication since the cabins were too remote for cell signal.

All in all it’s an enjoyable watch and the perfect diversion for a rainy Saturday. My verdict: 3.5/5 stars

Film review – It Follows

When I visited Detroit last summer, my first impression was that it would make an amazing setting for a horror movie. I’ve never driven through such a large city that seemed so empty, void of both cars and people. And it wasn’t just a regular kind of empty. It felt stuck in mid-stride, as if it were suddenly but calmly abandoned.

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When I heard someone actually had filmed a horror movie in Detroit, I was instantly on board. Honestly, just knowing that Detroit was the backdrop for It Follows was enough for me to know that I was going to enjoy the film. It was really just icing on the cake when the critics started raving about its fresh take on the genre, although I’m generally wary about any piece of entertainment that comes to me pre-hyped.

The basic premise of the film is fairly simple, and is laid out right there for you in the title. There is some… force. It’s not clear exactly what it is, whether it’s a creature or a spirit or maybe just fear personified. Once you’ve been cursed (more on curse transmission in a moment), this unnamed thing follows you. If it catches up with you, it will kill you. The only way to get it to stop following you is to pass the curse on to another person. But even then, you’re really not safe, because if the person you infected is killed by this force, then it will turn its attention back to following and killing you.

I should pause and say that I’m going to discuss some plot details and cinematography. While I wouldn’t consider them spoilers, if you want to go into the theater knowing nothing else beyond the trailer, here is your point to stop reading. Just know that if you’re a fan of horror (in particular psychological horror) I would recommend you see it, and see it on the big screen.

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So, how exactly is this curse transmitted from person to person? Sex, naturally. I’ve been jokingly calling it an STD – Sexually Transmitted Demon. While it could come across as tired horror trope, there are a few reasons I think it doesn’t. For starters, there’s nothing gratuitous about any of the sex scenes. That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair amount of nudity in the film, but the nudity does not come from the people you would expect it from.

Second, while the characters are young they’re not teenagers (not all of them, anyway). They are not fumbling around, having their first sexual encounters. I think this is an important point, because your classic puritanical horror equates sex with loss of innocence but It Follows definitely does not. What it also does not do is introduce rape into the equation.

Jay (the main female protagonist, played expertly by Maika Monroe) is given this curse from a guy she’s been on several dates with. He doesn’t force himself on her, he woos her. He takes her out a few times and waits for her to initiate sex. It’s not exactly spelled out, but I get the distinct impression that consent is part of the package deal with passing along the curse. That, more than any other aspect of the sexual transmission, is why I would say that this movie is more than just groundbreaking horror – It’s mature horror.

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The other main reason to go see this film (and see it in the theater) is the unbelievably delicious ambiance. It’s due in part to the Detroit setting, but all the choices in cinematography really come together to create something new and exciting. Visually, what I like most about the movie is that it’s totally unclear when it is supposed to take place. The interior home shots could be right out of the late 70s – heavy shag carpeting; wood-paneled television sets with dials and antennae; melamine trays, bowls, tea pitchers and glasses; landline telephones with long spiral cords.

But then again, one of their friends spends the entirety of the film scrolling through The Idiot from an e-reader shaped like a clamshell compact. They drink beer out of modern pop-top cans, iced coffee from Starbucks-esque plastic cups. The cars are classic, the wardrobe both vintage and contemporary. There are no computers in their homes, and aside from the appearance of one in the opening scene, no cell phones in their pockets. It takes place now, and yet it doesn’t. It has no definitive place in time.

The other essential component to setting the mood is the stellar soundtrack. All of the music in the film was composed and performed by an artist named Disasterpeace, and the movie would not be what it is without his contribution. I think the most apt comparison would be Air’s soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides (honestly one of my favorite albums, soundtrack or otherwise). It’s the kind of music that causes the hairs on your arms to stand up, that crawls slowly into your ears and makes its way to your brain. The music is a huge part of what makes seeing the movie in the theater imperative.

Considering it started in very limited release (and only just got wider release from some larger theater chains last week) if I were you I would haul ass to a theater and see It Follows while it’s still available to watch on the big screen. The film isn’t perfect, but the plot flaws are minimal and in my opinion overshadowed by the enormity of the concept and the symphonic complexity of the execution.

4.5/5 stars