Tag Archives: Science Fiction

CAPSULE: THE SHASTA TRIANGLE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Barry W. Levy

FEATURING: Dani Lennon, Ayanna Berkshire, Helenna Santos, Deborah Lee Smith, Madeline Merritt

PLOT: Paula returns to her hometown of Shasta, CA where unexplained phenomena regularly occur, to look further into one such instance—the disappearance of her father. With the help of four childhood friends, they go into the surrounding woods looking for answers—which they do find, and quite a bit more.

Still from The Shasta Triangle (2019)

COMMENTS: The Shasta Triangle is an above-average low-budget genre film of the type that you’d expect to see on the SyFy Channel on a Saturday night, and if you temper your expectations to that level, you’ll enjoy the film. There’s nothing that’s particularly new here in terms of playing with the tropes, but it is refreshing to have the “group going into the woods” be all-female in this variation. You might recognize some of the cast from other genre work, particularly Lennon, Berkshire and Santos (also a producer and the co-story writer). These three also give the film’s better performances.

The premise is solid for what’s essentially  a friends-go-into-the-scary-woods movie. It all plays out fairly well, although the ending is somewhat muffed and may leave some dissatisfied; there’s a resolution, but it also feels like the filmmakers left themselves room to continue the story. Some may not feel a compelling need for them to do so. Still from The Shasta Triangle (2019)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays out much like a Luc Besson film. That is, it’s filled with audacious, original ideas worth exploring and experiencing, even if they don’t always hit the mark like you’d hope…  Subtle camera movements and transition-heavy editing create a disorienting effect that underscores the dream-like elements of the film.”–Justin Andress, The Model American (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

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“I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen … I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”– Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to Between Time and Timbuktu

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: George Roy Hill

FEATURING: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Valerie Perrine

PLOT: Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the thick of WWII,  comes unstuck in time and yet endures, partly through the philosophical guidance of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.

Still from Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: While this movie is no weirder than it has to be, it is the most faithful movie adaptation of as novel from one of the strangest geniuses in American literature, so it has that going for it. Standalone, it punches the same weight as the war movies we honor here, while taking a novel that was seemingly impossible to film and making it look so natural you wonder that it wasn’t written as a script in the first place.

COMMENTS: At last, our quest for the ideal Kurt Vonnegut adaptation brings us to Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). This is the Papa Kurt movie that comes most highly recommended, with a promising directorial credit. George Roy Hill also directed the film adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), another difficult book-to-film challenge with another author of sophisticated black comedy, which he pulled off with somersaults. Hill’s resume is bursting with offbeat cleverness like Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the weirdest musical about a roaring-20s flapper busting a human trafficking ring. Charged with putting Kurt Vonnegut’s most acclaimed novel to film , Hill made an effort which the author himself would go on to praise, miracles never cease! Now let us pause to quaff a shot of something that will make our breath smell of mustard gas and roses, and prepare to be thrilled. I will try to explain what it means to be unstuck in time: take a normal life as a deck of cards, then shuffle it. That’s all; there’s no time-traveling DeLorean here.

We open with Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) in an unexpectedly graceful setup: he’s typing a letter explaining how he is unstuck in time, jumping back and forth in his life, with no control over where or when… Then we segue into the war. Billy served as a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army during WWII; he revisits this part of his life at random. He also shifts to the planet Tralfamadore, where he is held by aliens as an intergalactic exhibit with a mate, Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine), who was chosen for him by his alien hosts—who are quite pushy about having them breed. She’s sweetly Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Steven Paul

FEATURING: Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn, , Pat Morita, Jim Backus, voice of

PLOT: A pair of rich, American, and (allegedly) beautiful parents give birth to hideously ugly and mentally-challenged twins, who turn out to be super-intelligent aliens implanted by a galactic civilization to fight back against the Chinese.

Still from Slapstick of Another Kind (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Slapstick tries hard to reach comedy by piling on the surrealism, and ends up just being surreal. This is a time-honored path to mediocrity taken by many a crashed comedy, but adding in the ham-handed Hollywood fumbling of Papa Kurt’s source material is the icing on this insanity.

COMMENTS: We’re coming up on a review of Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) so I opted to review Slapstick of Another Kind (1982) first, as an aperitif. I choose it for this honor solely because I consider Slapstick to be the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation I have seen so far. But don’t mistake this for praise: this movie is mostly unfunny and a chore to sit through. Reading the book first helps, but only a little.

As bad as Slapstick is, it has several million more miles of hell to plunge through before it lands at the same level of awful as Breakfast of Champions (1999). Slapstick has a coherent and logical structure and attempts to make good use of Vonnegut’s novel. Somebody gave at least a fraction of a rat’s ass about it. Most admirably, it feebly attempts to capture the spirit and letter of Vonnegut’s ethereal humor, sometimes catching a whiff, but often losing the scent. When it fails, it settles for sight gags, prop comedy, and actual pratfalls. It’s a mix with a rough texture to choke down.

Caleb and Letitia Swain (Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn) are well-to-do glamorous celebrities who give birth to hideous fraternal twins, boy and girl. Meanwhile, China has announced that it’s severing all ties with the rest of the human race because the Chinese are just too advanced to talk to the rest of us anymore. Among their other achievements, they’ve mastered miniaturization, shrinking themselves to inches in height. This news is delivered in an interview between a newscaster (Merv Griffin) and the Chinese ambassador (Pat Morita), who travels about in a fortune-cookie-sized flying saucer. Cut to 15 years later. The twins, Wilbur and Eliza (also played by Lewis and Kahn), mature in isolation, tended to by Dr. Frankenstein (John Abbott) and butler Sylvester (Marty Feldman). The adult twins are truly disturbing to behold and act insane, but this is actually a put-on because they feel people want them to be dumb. The Chinese ambassador, observing through planted spies, pays a call to the parents to inform them that their twins are actually secretly clever and advanced aliens. Since the parents haven’t bothered to check on their offspring in fifteen years, this comes as news Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)

CAPSULE: STAR LEAF (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Cranor

FEATURING: Julian Gavilanes, Tyler Trerise, Shelby Trerise, Russell Hodgkinson

PLOT: Ex-Marine James Hunter is stricken with PTSD after a tour of duty in Afghanistan; back home, he finds a trek to discover the legendary “star leaf” strain of marijuana to be less relaxing than he’d prefer.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aliens, drugs, and psychedelia do not a weird movie make. But in the case of Star Leaf, they do somehow make a rather enjoyable exploration of redemption.

COMMENTS: I’ve watched a great many films over the years, both professionally and otherwise, deserving of their IMDb ratings in the low single digits. Some are gloriously inept; others, just straight-up inept. Despite this, it was without trepidation that I sat down to watch Richard Cranor’s stoner/horror/sci-fi outing, Star Leaf. Despite having attended one of those herb-laced, East Coast liberal arts colleges, I’ve never quite understood the allure of marijuana. Fortunately, while Star Leaf is heavy on the cannabis, the weed merely serves as the leafy wrapping over a heart-felt, and fairly funny, musing on PTSD.

James (Julian Gavilanes) is a Marine sniper in the Hindu Kush, stationed with his friend Tim (Tyler Trerise). During a hillside stake-out, Tim encourages James to embrace the “pink mist” and take a shot at a boy whom they witness being fitted with a suicide vest. Fast-forward two years to civilian life in the Pacific Northwest, James, still haunted by this event, joins Tim and his girl Martha (Shelby Trerise) on a different mission: to find, and smoke, the fabled “Star Leaf,” a powerful strain of marijuana allegedly left on earth by extra-terrestrials. Things get crazy and then a little sinister when a strange Park Ranger appears mid-buzz.

There is a lot that Star Leaf doesn’t get right. The extra-terrestrial angle is underdeveloped (or should have been ignored); grey alien-types appear from behind trees every now and again and hassle the drug seekers without much purpose and zero scares. A time-loop/stacked realities “thing” doesn’t stack up logically, even allowing for the speculative physics. And then there’s the final problem that I often have with horror films: having made some fairly interesting characters, the director seems happy enough to kill them off. Or does he?

That final ambiguity is also problematic, but I know I’m giving you the wrong impression. Star Leaf actually hits a lot of right notes: witty banter, a good message, and yet another of those great nightmare-vision police officers (or, as he repeatedly corrects the trio while tapping his shoulder insignia, “Park Ranger”). This sinisterly-stilted entity is played by none-other than director Richard Cranor, and his Ranger Dave goes a long way to making Star Leaf into an odd-ball mix of hipster/stoner “Twilight Zone.” Russell Hodgkinson even appears as the ex-biker, still-Jewish stoner guru (if that name isn’t familiar, he plays a doctor in The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle). And then there’s the underlying message: forgiveness of one’s self and others. Star Leaf has all the makings of a “throw-away” movie (as well as a “throw-away” review), but it’s one those gems that makes the trash heap worth sifting through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the biggest qualm is in the form of the film’s second half… It’s unclear whether this is all just a part of the bad trip from the weed (judging from their weird trips after first smoking), or if it’s really happening. As such, there’s a question of whether the situation is a dangerous one or just head games. There’s just never a concrete feeling of real fear for the characters’ wellbeing, which is off-putting when there are aliens and terrorists after you.”–Mike Wilson, Bloody Disgusting (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: UNDONE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Hisko Hulsing

FEATURING: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay

PLOT: Following a car accident, underachiever Alma discovers that… well, I’ll let her tell you: “I’m seeing my dead father because of my big ventricles, and he’s training me to travel in time so I can save him from being murdered.”

Still from "Undone" (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we’ve previously discussed, TV is very much its own thing, and we probably won’t be inducting any ongoing series into the pantheon of weirdness. But Undone has legit weird chops, and deserves to be part of the conversation about the joys of entertainment that departs from the norm.

COMMENTS: Fans of s Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly 1 will be familiar with the technique of rotoscoping, in which filmed footage is traced, colored, and enhanced, combining the benefits of actor-driven performance and real-world situations with the flights of fancy and reality-bending leaps of animation. It can be used to make animation seem more real (see almost any Disney fairy tale), but it can be used to arguably greater effect by lending surrealism and surprise to a concrete, grounded universe. You could conceivably throw animated techniques into a live-action movie (Speed Racer comes to mind), but when everything appears to be drawn, you’re actually starting out with a more comfortable sense of uncertainty.

This makes rotoscoped animation an almost perfect medium for a story that pertains to an examination of the mind and the possibility of mental illness. Undone, the tale of a young woman who is either developing extraordinary powers or is steadily losing her grip, may open with perfectly ordinary, even bland scenes of a heat-blanched San Antonio, but the slight wobble of the frame, the distinct outline of people and things, the trappings of animation start us off in an unsteady place. So when we go into Alma’s brain and watch those things start to deconstruct, we’re fully prepared for the journey, even as it leads us into stranger places. Form follows function.

“Undone” is the creation of Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, two veterans of the popular, traditionally animated “BoJack Horseman.” That show has itself played with linear time and the inner workings of thought and memory (in particular, two episodes–“Downer Ending” and “Time’s Arrow”–seem to have directly informed this new series), but “Undone” has none of the blatant satire or absurdity of its predecessor. It manages to feel both more real and dreamier.

Like another streaming series I’ve reviewed recently, a lot of weight rests on the shoulders of one woman to sell both the likeability of her frequently unlikeable character, and the terror and wonder of confronting fantastic forces that feel beyond her control. In this case, that’s Rosa Salazar, who earned her chops in animation-enhanced acting in the title role of Alita: Battle Angel. Salazar’s Alma is by turns charming, selfish, independent, and righteous—but always compelling and deserving of empathy. We are given several opportunities to consider that we are putting our faith in a mentally unstable hero, but the urge for her to win out is consistent. Ably supported by a cast of supporting characters who could all headline their own show, Salazar is a true star.

It’s worth noting that one of the most delightfully weird elements of “Undone” is the way it mainstreams voices and cultures that are typically ignored, tokenized, or fetishized. Alma, for instance, is Latinx, Mestiza, half-Jewish, millennial, Texan (her rant about the Alamo is spot-on), but never any of these things exclusively to advance the plot or at the expense of being relatably human. Similarly, her father’s faith or her boyfriend’s home country are essential to understanding them and who they are to Alma, but they don’t feel like they came from a diversity checklist devised to maximize revenue streams. They’re interesting, they add complexity, and they make a surreal enterprise feel very real. If it’s weird, it’s because it’s finally not weird at all.

“Undone” is hardly perfect. The limits of the animation can be felt most in the “real-world” scenes, when actors walk awkwardly in and out of scenes like they’ve stepped out of the cutscenes from a 1990s CD-ROM game. Perhaps even more awkward is the basic limitation of the TV series itself. To spend time in a created universe is to ultimately need some kind of understanding; we’re gonna need to know how the transporter works, even if it’s just a device to get Kirk down to the planet. The more Alma begins to take control over time and space, the more invested we become in knowing what’s going on, and that can be incredibly dangerous for a series. Explain too much and you’re “Lost;try and pile on the mysteries for too long and you’re “Twin Peaks.” It’s a fine line, and with the prospect of a second season teased by this season’s finale, “Undone” is teetering right on the edge. But for now, the show is an easy-to-binge, well-balanced mélange of sober and strange.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages somehow to be both surreal and yet strangely hyper-real, a sensation enhanced by the technique of rotoscope animation, which traces live-action actors (all terrific) against oil-painting backgrounds to shimmering, hypnotic effect.”–Matt Roush, TV Insider

366 UNDERGROUND: BLOODSUCKER’S PLANET (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Beal

FEATURING: , , Adrienne Dobson, Joe Grisaffi,

PLOT: Responding to a distress signal, the crew of a cargo spaceship find themselves on a remote mud-harvesting planet inhabited by the charming Bartlett, who harbors a dark secret.

Still from Bloodsucker's Planet (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While it’s difficult to tell the deliberate weirdness from simple budgetary limitations, there’s no denying that this film’s minimalistic approach to its seemingly simple tale of vampires in space gives rise to some creepy and trippy visuals.

COMMENTS: The idea of vampires in a science fiction setting has a great deal of promise, but it’s been largely restricted to B-movies. It’s hardly a more ridiculous conceit than that of many films that break box office records. Yet personally, my sole encounters with the genre have been 1985’s Lifeforce, a film whose genuinely intriguing concepts were hard to take seriously thanks to the film’s needless sexualization, and Dracula 3000, an embarrassing bore from South African Darrell Roodt.

Point is, Bloodsucker’s Planet—which, really, spells out its whole concept right there in the title—has a promising premise right off the bat. It’s true that there are parts of it that, through no fault of the filmmakers, I probably didn’t fully understand (I unfortunately never saw Bloodsucker’s Handbook, the film that this is a prequel to; and I’m not especially familiar with 60s-era sci fi, from which Planet draws many cues); but still, I can recognize a solid and underutilized concept when I see one.

Bloodsucker’s Planet evokes the classics right from the opening, with the crew of a small cargo ship responding to a distress signal that leads them to the isolated planet of Mara, home to an abandoned mud harvesting operation now occupied only by the charming Bartlett and his gynoid assistant Adrianna. The sci fi parallels to the classic vampire tale are evident almost at once. The solitary Bartlett has that gentlemanly charm and likeability befitting the more romantic sort of vampire overlord (though he himself doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the condition); Adrianna brings to mind one of Dracula’s concubines; the somber graveyard on the planet’s surface evokes traditional horror imagery; and the vampiric disease, it seems, is spread by a native species closely resembling (and, indeed, explicitly referred to as) bats.

Unfortunately, this intriguing setup, which promises a sci-fied take on a classically Gothic setup, ends up feeling underexploited. A big reason is clearly the limitations of the budget.

I don’t look down upon a film for having a low budget. I don’t think any fan of arthouse or independent cinema could ever justify such an attitude. But I do think that, to execute certain concepts, a certain level of resources is required. Low budget charm is all well and good; but sometimes, a film’s resources can be so limited that a great portion of its central concept gets lost. And in this case, the plain sets and scenery don’t evoke a far-distant future to any significant degree. And while this might be forgivable in a film where the  setting was more incidental, it becomes noticeable in a movie that is centered on the novelty of “vampires in space.”

There are moments of brilliance, to be sure, where the limited budget evokes the setting in a creative, surrealistic manner (most prominently in several brief shots of uncanny, slightly-off miniature models of characters wandering the planet’s surface or hurtling through space). Moreover, there’s a classic subplot centered on Adrianna struggling to reconcile her emotions with her artificial nature, and all that. I get the sense that it’s there to reinforce the connection to classic science fiction; but despite taking up a good portion of the film’s midsection, it doesn’t go anywhere or relate to the plot in any significant manner (though, not being an expert in classic vampire lore, I’m more than ready to admit I might be missing a reference). If nothing else, I’d have appreciated a few more scenes of the wisecracking space roach; sure, he also had little bearing on the central plot, but he was far and away the most entertaining character.

As much as I genuinely hate saying this about any indie effort, I do feel that Bloodsucker’s Planet attempts to tackle a concept a bit beyond the reach of its resources. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad effort by any means—there are moments where that surreal shoestring charm does its job, and Joe Grisaffi, at the very least, takes to his role with an elegant charisma. But all in all, Bloodsucker’s Planet has more promising potential than solid execution.

Either way, Planet made me more than a little curious to check out Bloodsucker’s Handbook—a film which, allegedly, was far weirder than this one. It struck me that embracing the inherent weirdness of the premise could have spiced up Bloodsucker’s Planet and helped it overcome its limitations. After all, weirdness is one of the few things that, personally, I don’t believe can be held back by budgetary constraints.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Viewers who love such recent mind-bending indie retro outings as Joe Badon’s The God Inside My Ear (2017) and Drew Bolduc’s Assassinaut (2019) are bound to have a blast with Bloodsucker’s Planet, which is an absolute delight from before its ultracool animated opening credits to its postcredits cracker jack.”–Joseph Perry, Horror Fuel (festival screening)