If throughout this short you’re wondering where exactly it’s headed, so was the director. This short was improvised week-by-week throughout 2017 with no destination in mind. The result is a sci-fi adventure that, outside of its creative process, defies description.
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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)
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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.”
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 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.s
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
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.
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)
DIRECTED BY: Scott McQuaid
FEATURING: Yi Jane, Damien Zachary, Briane Narelle, Dirk Benedict
PLOT: Five high schoolers are doomed to spend their Saturday night at school in detention, then doomed by an infiltration of space ninjas.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Some movies are so bad that they’re good, some are so bad that they’re weird, and some suffer from the misconception that you can try to be that bad. I could not figure out which of these (or what combination) Space Ninjas falls into: suffice to say, I never lost my “WTF?” expression throughout this mash-up of The Breakfast Club, ’80s horror, and low-budget flair that seemed to oscillate between winking at the audience and accidentally tripping over itself.
COMMENTS: A big part of me wonders if this whole thing was just a massive set-up to allow Scott McQuaid (the writer and director of this gem) to slip the line, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead!” into a Teen-Sci/Fi-Horror movie. That’s the kind of picture this is. Slippery. Some poking around online suggests it may be doing what it’s doing on purpose, and I’m inclined to believe it. However, the whole exercise gives off the vibe that McQuaid & Co. only mostly know what they’re doing, using a charming kind of amateur ineptness as a crutch to carry them across the “self-aware” finish line. But hold on a second, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Enter five teenagers: the jock, the nerd (Damien Zachary), the prima donna, the punk (Yi Jane), and the Japanese exchange student. These archetypes find themselves, for various not-altogether-specified reasons, confined to a classroom for detention on a weekend—the only way, it appears to the school’s “Deputy Head,” Mr Hughes, to actually punish them. (I’m bothering to tell you his job title because, like so much of the rest of the plot, it’s established to set up a hack n’ slash joke later in the movie.) Quips fly, barbs are jabbed, and the lights go out. A dark figure appears from nowhere. And for the rest of the movie, our band of teenagers finds itself increasingly failing to escape the menace of… Space Ninjas!
Two questions came to mind about halfway through watching this movie. First, how does 366’s radar pick up this kind of nonsense? Second, what drives a man to make this kind of nonsense in the first place? The visual tone is thrown from the get-go, appearing to have been captured on digital film from the early ’00s (those who remember “mini-DV” tapes will know what I’m talking about). The dialogue was—probably—dubbed in after the fact. The gore shots were achieved with, once again, some early ’00s-looking CGI. In fact, the whole movie, on the surface, felt as if Mark Region had finally gotten a correspondence school degree in filmmaking and decided to do a horror movie to follow up his taut psychological thriller. This extends to the delivery of the dialogue, which in Space Ninjas hews somewhere between “realistic” and “high school film class” in quality, but is pretty regularly (and obviously intentionally) funny.
The movie is bookended by a campy Mysterious Mysteries-meets-Horkheimer’s “Star Hustler” television show, which sets up the premise (its host, “Jack ‘don’t-call-me’ Strange”, is played by B-movie stalwart Dirk Benedict, who is mysteriously omitted from the IMDb credits). Judging from how those scenes play out, I am inclined to suspect that McQuaid (probably) knows what to do. I’m impressed that he was somehow able to obscure this skill set for most of the movie. Had I not been given grounding, I’d have readily slipped Space Ninjas into the “ ” category. I consider it far more impressive a specimen for having (probably) pulled the wool over my eyes.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
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)
FEATURING: Julia Dietze, Christopher Kirby, Götz Otto, Stephanie Paul, Udo Kier
PLOT: Having regrouped on the dark side of the moon, the Fourth Reich finds that the computing power of a visiting astronaut’s smart-phone is just what they need to launch their super-ship, “Götterdämmerung,” and conquer the Earth.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As one of the last places for narrative fiction to wedge them, the whole “Nazis-on-the-moon” thing isn’t so strange. The movie itself is merely a tongue-in-cheek diversion that errs on the side of (sometimes) dumb humor over anything weird. A serious dissection of the premise’s socio-military implications, however, would have been a shoo-in.
COMMENTS: Unlike the fabled whalers of old, Nazis on the Moon found a great deal to do during their stay. Though this isn’t the first vision of that possibility, Tim Vuorensola is probably the first film-maker to pull the trigger on it, and he provides an intermittently funny send-up of classic science fiction, B-movie sensibilities, and even a bit of political commentary. The combined efforts of maybe a dozen European production companies, as well as some crowd-funding (including me, having drunkenly splashed out eight years ago for a limited edition copy one evening) resulted in Iron Sky.
Earth-side, we root for a Sarah Palin-esque president of the United States (Stephanie Paul). She sends a black astronaut, James Washington (Christopher Kirby) to the moon as a PR stunt for her re-election. Moon-side, the Fourth Reich is ruled by Mondführer Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier, dropping in for a paycheck and a chance to hold the ceremonial “Führer baton”), with his right-hand man Klaus Adler (Götz Otto). Stuck in the middle is Renate Richter (Julia Dietze), daughter of the Reich’s preeminent scientist, as well as a 97% genetic (and therefore, romantic) match of Klaus. After Washington stumbles across the Nazi base, he is captured, and the fascists discover his smartphone. With it, their super weapon almost gets up and running, only for the phone battery to die. So, off go Klaus and Renate to the Earth to pick up a new machine and lay the groundwork for a full-scale invasion.
So far, so good(-ish). The story, such as it is, doesn’t really pick up until about the halfway point, with the long-form introduction acting primarily as an opportunity to crack wise about Nazis, race relations (Washington has an African-American persona straight from the mid-’90s), and the trajectory of US politics. 1 Beyond the premise, though, the only things that stand out are the art direction—the ominous, sleek, and deadly armaments look just as you imagine real Nazis would want their space machines to look—and costuming (for similar reasons). I just wish…
I just wish, I suppose, that Vuorensola had put more time and effort into the script. Shortly before writing this, I found that I had only watched the “theatrical” cut, which he was obliged to throw together very quickly to make before the premier at the Berlinale Film Festival, instead of the “Dictator’s Cut”, which has twenty more minutes fleshing out characters and scenes. With that in mind, I’ll advise a “Probably Recommended” for that version, because even in its slapdash form it maintains a good pace and has enough laugh-out-loud moments to justify itself. Only a humorless sourpuss should not-see it.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Ultimately, ‘Iron Sky’ is neither good enough to rep a proper breakout hit nor bad enough that it might attain cult status; it’s just kind of lame, the worst of all possible worlds.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)