Tag Archives: Science Fiction

CAPSULE: TAMMY AND THE T-REX (1994)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Walker, Theo Forsett, Terry Kiser, Ellen Dubin

PLOT: Mad scientists transfer Tammy’s boyfriend’s brain into a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Still from Tammy and the T-rex (1994)

COMMENTS: What can you say about a movie called Tammy and the T-Rex that the title doesn’t already tell you? The movie indeed gives us both Tammy (debuting 90s bombshell Denise Richards, whose earnestness as a dino’s gf helps sell this absurdity) and a T-rex (a 13-foot animatronic model capable of rolling its eyes, lowering its eyelids, curling its lip, and clamping its jaws—and not much else).

Obviously, the latter of those two is the star and the film’s raison d’être. Literally so: the movie’s producer funded the film specifically because he had access to the animatronic model for two weeks, and asked writer/director Stewart Raffill to create a screenplay to showcase the prop. All credit goes to Raffill for taking the lemon he was handed here and making reasonably palatable lemonade. Tammy and the T-rex garnered no awards—it didn’t even get a theatrical release—but the energy never flags, and it’s a reasonable way to burn 90 minutes.

Raffill’s checkered resume included the Star Wars spoof The Ice Pirates, the execrable E.T. ripoff/McDonald’s commercial Mac & Me,  and a forgotten sequel to Mannequin; so to say that Tammy and the T-rex is his greatest contribution to film may seem like moderate praise, at best. But the movie fills its “dumb fun” niche admirably. It’s helped by some lucky casting: Richards is joined by fellow then-unknown Paul Walker, making for an attractive couple of young leads. These two play their ridiculous situation relatively straight, while the comic mugging is left to the villainous mad scientists and the gay black sidekick (a stereotype, sure, but a pioneering character in 1994). Terry Kiser (Weekend at Bernies) shows what he can do in a non-corpse role, which is speak in a funny German accent, pose as a chain-smoking surgeon, and deliver lines like “We must remember that he’s going to a far, far better place… Helga, take him to the morgue.” That said, none of his antics are quite as funny as the scene where Tammy plays charades with the T-rex, or when the dinosaur checks a pay phone for quarters. The film is aware of its own cheesiness, but unpretentiously so; it hits the difficult mark of self-mockery that isn’t self-congratulatory, something that more recent spoofs like Sharknado miss badly.

The broad comic tone is like a film without the misanthropy and shock value. It feels like one of the campy, late night B-movies that used to run on cable’s “USA Up All Night” in the 1990s, movies edited for content to produce PG-13 versions of goofy-but-exploitative drive-in features. Which leads directly to the next point: although Tammy plays mostly like a PG-13 creature feature/teen rom-com, it does feature incongruous moments of R-rated gore—heads getting ripped off torsos by tyrannosaurus jaws, that kind of thing. The original film was released in most countries in a “clean” version, while the alternate cut with gore and more swearing played in Europe. The U.S. VHS tape, where most people originally saw the movie, featured the sanitized version. The “gore cut” was thought to be lost until Vinegar Syndrome found and restored an Italian 35mm print. I’m not sure the extra blood and guts adds too much (does making your actors clutch pig intestines to their abdomens ever add too much?), but it is a novelty, and it did provide an excuse to re-release Tammy to film festivals and in a deluxe Blu-ray set. Look for it to run as a second-tier midnight movie when repertory theaters reopen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…ludicrously, brilliantly weird; a ‘bad’ movie that, by embracing its campy tone and demonstrating a slight-but-significant self-awareness, is really anything but.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (festival “gore cut” screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kristie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: GENIUS PARTY (2007)

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DIRECTED BY: Hideki Futamura, Yuji Fukuyama, Shoji Kawamori, Shinji Kimura, , Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Various voice actors

PLOT: Six short animated films from different directors associated with Japan’s Studio 4ºC.

COMMENTS: There’s no better way to enjoy the Christmas/Saint Stephen’s/Saint John’s/Holy Innocent’s holiday run than to nestle back with coffee and cartoons, so I kicked up my heels and dove deep into a very fine collection of anime wonderments (as well as a mixed metaphor). Each entry in this 2007 anthology gets its own paragraph.

“Shanghai Dragon” – dir. by Shoji Kawamori

Somehow the fate of humanity rests in the snot-covered hands of 5-year-old Gonglong when a mysterious, magical piece of chalk is crash-delivered to his schoolyard. “Shanghai Dragon” playfully riffs on the Terminator premise, showcasing the likely whimsicality if mankind’s savior were a very, very young boy. Kawamori’s short is, in a way, straight-up action anime, including a cybernetically enhanced, cigar-smoking badass; killer robots; hundreds of explosions; and a giant AI-controlled dog robot. But it’s also one of the cutest cartoons I have ever seen.

“Deathtic 4” – dir.  Shinji Kimura

Four young school friends plot to save a (live) frog that was somehow transported to their (zombie) planet by the hazardous Uzu-Uzu weather event. While “Shanghai Dragon” was cute, “Deathtic 4” (presumably the planet’s name) is one of the ickier cartoons I’ve seen—but it still immolated me in a fire-wall of charm. The quartet inhabits a sicklier variant of ‘s “Halloween Town“, and are all losers (despite three of them claiming “super powers”). The Zombie Police discover the living froggy, they sound the alarm–via a detachable siren nose that turns out to be one of those “moooo” canisters. The lads then flee toward the MASSIVE cyclone, Uzu-Uzu, with a plan ripped from a Garbage Pail Kids’ E.T.

“Doorbell” – dir. by Yuji Fukuyama

Fukuyama’s short is by far and away the most cryptic of the bunch, but that isn’t what made it my least favorite—or maybe it is. My suspicion is the director is attempting a philosophical exercise concerning infinite realities, all variants centered around one focal point: in “Doorbell”s case, that of a young man whose versions of himself keep splitting off and cutting him off from future paths. Neat, and pleasantly understated—and as such, feels a little out of place here.

“Limit Cycle” – dir. by Hideki Futamura

Playing like a cyber-theological TED talk, Futamura’s short lacks narrative and characters, but is the most fascinating entry. Its layered visuals, which combine classic animation, computer animation along with symbolic numbers, images, and math, are lush and hypnotic—prompting me to sorely regret my lack of fluency in Japanese, as my eyes had to stay anchored to the persistent subtitles to have any grasp of what was going on. Beautiful to behold while raising many profound philosophical points.

“Happy Machine” – dir. by Masaaki Yuasa

Humanistic allegory meets wacky animation in this short. The story begins with a happy infant (whimsical mobile above his bed, toys lining shelves, loving mother approaching to feed him) whose reality is sucked away, forcing him on a strange journey through a wasteland. Animation itself is deconstructed as its artifice collapses along with the infant’s home—and that’s just one of the dozen or so dissections of life, etc., that Yuasa performs with his singular ‘tooning style.

“Baby Blue” – dir. by Shinichiro Watanabe

Boy is going to be moving away from his school–and his girl-crush–and so suggests that he and she cut class and head out. To anywhere. Those seeking a melancholic musing on maturation may find this quite satisfying. While it lacks the temporal/scientific/divine themes of its fellow entries, I wasn’t unhappy about its inclusion, particularly the scene where the boy busts out a grenade (acquired, against the odds, in a wholly believable manner) to fend off a gaggle of ’50s throwback goons.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the average level of quality is staggeringly high… If you have any love for animation as a medium of art, I cannot recommend this collection enough.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead,” who described it as “pretty weird. It’s a series of mind-blowing anime shorts, specially the short ‘Happy Machine.'” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984)

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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

CAPSULE: “WILD PALMS” (1993)

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DIRECTED BY: Peter Hewitt (Ep. 1), Keith Gordon (Ep. 2 & 4), Kathryn Bigelow (Ep. 3), Phil Joanou (Ep. 5)

FEATURING: , Dana Delany, , Kim Cattrall, , , , Ernie Hudson, Ben Savage, Nick Mancuso

PLOT: L.A. in the year 2007: Harry Wyckoff (Belushi) is a patent attorney with a wife, Grace (Delany), son Coty (Savage), and a mute daughter, Deirdre. He ends up in the employ of Senator Kreutzer (Loggia) who owns the Wild Palms media group, heads the Church of Synthiotics, and is about to unveil a new VR process for TV. A former lover, Page Katz (Cattrall) asks Harry for help in locating her lost son, which leads Harry into a convoluted world of two warring political factions, the Fathers and the Friends, wrestling for control of the country. Wyckoff discovers he is an integral part of both factions’ plans for success.

Still from "Wild Palms" 1993

COMMENTS: The debut of “Twin Peaks” on network television in 1990 was a watershed moment. It furthered the possibilities of challenging material getting into the mainstream and finding a dedicated audience, and proved that television didn’t have to stick to a lesser aesthetic just because it was on a smaller screen. TV didn’t have to be considered a step down, a place where feature directors were put out to pasture before their careers died. The “Peaks” influence can still be felt some 30 years afterwards. Of course, once something has proven successful, others jump in hoping to get a piece of the pie. So it was inevitable that ABC, the network that took a chance on “Peaks,” would attempt to replicate that success—with stipulations, of course.

Which is how, more or less, how “Wild Palms” came into being. Created by Bruce Wagner (based on the comic he wrote that ran in Details Magazine) and executive produced by , ABC saw it as a safer bet than “Peaks.” Having learned from their experience with to set certain terms at the start—like the property having a definite beginning, middle and end—“Palms” was billed as an “event series,” running about five hours spread over five nights. Like “Peaks,” it had a healthy budget, a distinctive look, and an incredible cast and crew. But “Palms” did not duplicate the cultural tsunami of “Peaks,” despite some pretty good marketing.

There are distinct similarities between the two shows. Both were inspired by and are, to an extent, parodies of the prime-time soap opera format. “Palms” embraces melodrama more in performances and in Wagner’s florid writing. The dialogue is packed with literary and cultural references and wordplay. Both shows exhibit elements of surrealism  and perversity: in the latter case, “Palms” tiptoes the line of prime time acceptability with less subtlety than “Peaks,” especially with the demise of a particular character.

“Palms” distinguishes itself from “Peaks” by being more overtly political and straightforwardly science fictional. It’s sci-fi in the vein of , involving virtual reality (VR) and a drug used to enhance the experience (Dick’s “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” is very much a touchstone). It’s also very “L.A.,” with many, if not most, of the characters having direct ties to the Industry and to the religion “Synthiotics” (this depiction surprisingly not raising the ire of a certain other L.A.-based religion notorious for being extremely litigious).

Some 25 years later, it’s clear “Palms” is not as timeless as “Peaks.” Some choices (the fashion and phone technology) now look quaint, anchoring it firmly in the early 90’s. Other aspects feel prescient, like a direct commentary on our current landscape: especially the political war between the “Fathers” (right wing) and the “Friends” (left wing).  Looking past its contemporary setting and lack of dragons, the way the conflict plays out between two families intertwined by circumstances, with side characters becoming disposable pawns, has a quasi-medieval tone that “Game of Thrones” fans might appreciate. Although the acting all around is good—Delany, Cattral, Loggia and Dickinson are notable, and Belushi reminds you that he’s a good dramatic actor when given the opportunity—very few of the characters are likeable; they don’t captivate audiences the was Lynch’s characters did.

Kino-Lorber released the series on Blu-ray and DVD in the fall of 2020, remastered and including commentaries: Bruce Wagner with James Belushi on the pilot, Wagner paired with Dana Delany on Kathyrn Bigelow’s episode, director Keith Gordon on his two episodes, and Phil Joanou on the last episode. They’re all informative, although Joanou’s is the weakest of the bunch.

A Grantland article on the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut features an interview with creator Bruce Wagner.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…another provocative exercise in television-for-people-who-don’t-like-television — a six-hour ‘event series’ that makes ‘Twin Peaks’ look like ‘Mayberry R.F.D.’… a jaw-dropping combination of disturbing imagery, dark humor and startling moments spread over a narrative that’s virtually impossible to follow.”–Brian Lowry, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “WORLD OF TOMORROW, EPISODE 3: THE ABSENT DESTINATIONS OF DAVID PRIME” (2020)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: A time-traveling clone appears to David Prime to warn him of future danger.

Still from "World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime"

COMMENTS: There’s probably no one coming into “The Absent Destinations of David Prime” without having seen “World of Tomorrow” or its sequel first—but just in case, know that this short does stand alone, and knowledge of previous episodes isn’t absolutely necessary, though such knowledge will obviously inform and expand your enjoyment.

The rest of us will find the new World of Tomorrow familiar, yet different. The thing that’s most obviously missing is Winona Mae, the child star of the first two episodes. Her imaginative chattering  provided both a ground for Hertzefeldt to bounce his speculative ideas off of, and a comic foil for Julia Potts (who voices Winona’s adult clones). The emotional and thematic core of the first two episodes was the tension between adult realities (represented by Potts’ hilariously flawed and damaged clones) and the innocent potentialities of Winona Mae’s candidly captured childhood. Now, at about age 9, the child has aged out of the role, and with her exit, Hertzfeldt has been forced to adapt the series. Potts still voices an Emily clone (Emily 9, to be precise), but the protagonist is now David, Emily’s love interest, introduced in the original through his brain-dead clone on display at a museum. David doesn’t speak (although his infant self babbles, courtesy of newborn voiceover from one Jack Parrett). The wistful melancholy for childhood lost no longer forms the emotional backbone of tomorrow’s world; instead, it’s the wistful melancholy of lost love—a romance that is complicated by the fact that it happens between various permutations of clones, each of whom share incomplete and faulty memories with their originals. This patchwork reflects the uncertainty (and fatalism) of romantic love. The theoretical construct of “shared memories” both drives the plot and serves as the chief metaphor.

“Episode 3” is less specifically philosophical and melancholy than previous installments, driven instead by its intricate time-travel narrative. What remains the same across all the entries is Hertzfeld’s incisive satire, Emily’s quotable non-sequitur dialogue (“I feel like I should like avocados more”), and the animation, which, although continuing to advance into ever more elaborate organic alien landscapes, remains stick-figure-based. The satire, in particular, hits a high note in this episode: the World of Tomorrow is a cybernetic nightmare of data overload chillingly reminiscent of our own fast-moving times. Tomorrow, humans will have neural chips—the equivalent of iPhones implanted directly inside our brains—that allow us to install and delete various functions as needed. Apps like Chinese fluency or basic ambulation can be removed at will to free up space for new content, such as Emily’s old bundled memories. Advertising is omnipresent; Emily’s memory cache is partly funded by pop-up ads, including one for “holograms that yell at you!”

“Episode 3” also continues the series’ trippy visual style, which has always featured simplistic stick figures marching against colorfully-envisioned digital backgrounds. Hertzfeldt throws in some new tricks, blurring some of the action to depict Emily’s faltering attempts to materialize herself—time-travel creates backwards-compatibility issues—and adding bewildering layers of content and chryons fighting for our attention. David’s hallucinatory journey to a distant moon to collect a trove of memories stored inside a robot could be Hertzfeld’s compressed stick figure tribute to 2001‘s Star Gate. With less dialogue this time around, the director pays greater attention to the sound design, which is stronger and stranger than in previous outings; there are ambient space noises, Emily’s messages are often glitchy and buried in layers of static. The soundtrack is classical and original music, sometimes used ironically (as when “relaxing music” meant to calm an agitated David is overlaid with an insistent electronic alarm directing him to his next destination).

“The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is the most ambitious “World of Tomorrow” yet, clocking it at over thirty minutes long, about double the previous two episodes lengths. The knotty time-travel plot will generates discussion and exegesis (charts may be helpful), without unduly sidelining the series’ main asset: its tragicomic empathy for the human condition. Each episode now is like a clone of the original “World of Tomorrow,” deteriorating in some aspects, but developing their own quirks or mutations, all the while maintaining a basic identity. Having survived the maturation of Winona Mae, it appears that Hertzfeldt’s imagination is capable of spinning out the series indefinitely into the ever expanding World of Tomorrow—and perhaps even to the day after that.

“World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is currently available exclusively for purchase or rental on Vimeo. I predict that someday all three episodes (and maybe even a future episode) will be available bundled together on physical media. No time traveler has yet appeared to me to divulge the release date, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…. there was no way [Hertzfeldt] was just going to pack up his toys and call it a day after mashing ‘The Jetsons’ and ‘Brazil’ into the kind of digital sandbox that someone could play in until the Earth blew up without ever growing bored of the existential crises it allowed them to imagineer along the way… ‘Time is a prison of living things,’ David tells us, and like any prison, we are always looking for a way out. The impulse to escape will never change, it will only grow weirder.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SYNCHRONIC (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides

PLOT: New Orleans paramedics discover that a series of bizarre deaths are linked to a new designer drug called “synchronic.”

Still from Synchronic (2019)

COMMENTS: The designer drug “Synchronic” is not “red marijuana,” as some (including us) had speculated, but comes in pill form and is passingly described as “bath salts.” The “chronic” in the drug’s name doesn’t reference weed at all, but has a different derivation, and the movie doesn’t have any relation to the story shared in Moorhead and Benson’s Resolution and The Endless. Synchronic is, instead, a slightly bigger-budgeted turn towards the mainstream for the pair, with two moderate movie star leads in Anthony Mackie (Marvel universe’s “Falcon”) and Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Gray).

Unusually, I found Synchronic‘s dramatic setup more entertaining than its sci-fi twist. Steve (Mackie) drinks a lot and pops codeine pills. Is he turning into a “junkie paramedic cliche,” as his partner fears, or is there a deeper reason? While Steve is an aging bachelor still playing the field, Dennis (Dornan) long ago settled down with a wife and kid. Each partner envies the other’s lifestyle just a little.  Dennis’ daughter, Tara, is a good kid but, like a lot of 18-year-olds, unsure what she wants to do with her life; right now, her passion is for staying out all night partying. Meanwhile, the two paramedics are called into scenes where they find zonked-out druggies with strange, sometimes inexplicable injuries—like the skull-faced voodoo practitioner who won’t stop laughing despite his compound fracture—all linked to a new designer drug that’s plaguing the city.

So the characters are likable, their situations dramatic and relatable, and they’re all set up for a speculative blast that will blow the hinges off. The problem is that when the sci-fi twist arrives, it’s basic and contrived, and not weird enough to compensate for its unbelievability. The drug’s mechanism is revealed in explicit detail less than halfway through the movie, taking away a potential source of mystery. If you accept the silly premise, what follows is logical—too logical. Even the characters’ emotional arcs are predictable. The trippy promise of the opener, with reality dissolving and reassembling as the synchronic kicks in on an elevator ride, never materializes. All in all, it’s like a run-of-the-mill episode of the “X-Files”; watchable, but nothing special. Synchronic would have been a promising debut film from a new director, but it’s a bit of a letdown from a duo who looked like they were pushing boundaries and getting weirder and weirder.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With believability being pushed too far, and the film’s direction needing a tighter pace, even the surreal visual effects and trippy weirdness aren’t quite enough to make it work.”–Zoe Margolis, CineVue (festival screening)