5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Movies

By Anne E. Johnson

Science fiction is a genre almost as vast as space itself, and even its sub-genres can be approached in wildly varying ways by filmmakers. Stepping away from Hollywood’s beaten path to indies and smaller releases can uncover astonishing imagination and daring. The following movies available from Kaleidescape, all dealing with space travel and/or aliens, demonstrate this range. From energetic heroes tearing past the stars to exhausted travelers who never asked for such a strange life, these movies represent a bit of all of us.

The Last Starfighter (1984)

Thanks to the original Star Wars in 1977, space became a cinematic backdrop for both individual heroism and humor. Like many movies of the ’80s, The Last Starfighter, directed by Nick Castle and written by Jonathan Betuel tends toward a particular flavor of sweet goofiness. And while it hardly qualifies as lofty art, it’s a fun family movie with excellent alien makeup that looks ahead to the creative wackiness of the Men in Black films.

A young man named Alex (Lance Guest) longs to escape from the trailer park where he grew up. He keeps his sanity by obsessively playing Starfighter, a video game. When he reaches the top level, he’s visited by an alien named Centauri (Robert Preston, resurrecting his Music Man slickness), who recruits Alex as a gunner for a real intergalactic war. Call it Tron meets War Games. In space.

Castle wisely had the spaceships and battle stations animated rather than photographed from models. This not only avoided the inevitable problems of making viable effects for a movie without a Star Wars-level budget, but it also fits thematically with the video game that Alex pictures as he fights. Dan O’Herlihy turns in a touching performance as Grig, the turtle-faced alien who pilots Alex’s ship.

Gattaca (1997)

The longing to escape also underpins the much more serious film Gattaca, but the focus here is on the longing, not the escape itself. Ethan Hawke, as a man born without the genetic preselection that has become commonplace, must take on another identity in order to reach his life-long dream of flying in space. The underlying theme here is defiance against societal prejudice. Writer and director Andrew Niccol employs the trope of a future society that looks perfect and ordered until one scratches the surface to reveal its rotten foundation.

Visually and aurally, it’s a film of great beauty. Michael Nyman’s powerful score is the ideal match for the costumes and Oscar-nominated art direction, together evoking a sepia-toned Art Deco future world. The intriguing story, if a bit too reliant on narration, is given life by a fine cast: Jude Law as the man who sells his identity to Hawke on the black market and Uma Thurman as Hawke’s co-worker at the space-travel corporation, along with appearances by Tony Shalhoub, Ernest Borgnine, and Gore Vidal.

Moon (2009)

Not everyone in space wants to be there, as quickly becomes obvious in Moon. Laboring alone on a lunar energy-mining base, Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of his three-year contract and can hardly wait to get home to his wife and daughter. GERTY, the computer and its robotic extensions (voiced with HAL-like eeriness by Kevin Spacey), keeps asking Sam if he feels all right. We watch Sam struggle with sudden physical and mental problems until they quickly become extreme, and we wonder with him whether any or all of this is in his imagination. It eventually becomes clear that the movie’s theme is not solitude, but corporate exploitation of workers.

Director Duncan Jones won a BAFTA for this film debut. Gary Shaw’s cinematography is gritty and gray to evoke the lunar atmosphere as well as Sam’s emotional state, while the base interior glows threateningly through orange filters. While the visual illusions are very different from those usually needed in science fiction – I can’t explain without spoilers — they are integral to the plot and well enough executed that they don’t become an annoyance. After Sam’s battle to learn the truth of his own existence, the film’s final moments are psychologically satisfying if physically nonsensical.

High Life (2018)

Solitude in space has a different context for Monte (Robert Pattinson) in High Life, directed by Claire Denis, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Pol Fargeau. Monte started his voyage with a dozen fellow violent convicts as part of an experimental space-survival program, accompanied by a supervising doctor (Juliette Binoche). For him, space is just another version of prison.

At the movie’s opening, Monte is the only one still alive, with the exception of a baby girl. We learn his backstory through the rapid intersection of his memories, both from his early life on Earth and the more recent time on his current voyage when is co-travelers were still alive. This is a violent tale of blood and sex, society’s outcasts reduced to their most primal urges. In that sense, it’s a horror movie.

The sound engineering is raw and thrilling. Occasionally Stuart A. Staples and his band, Tindersticks, supply spooky electronic atmospherics, but Denis is not afraid of long stretches without music, letting the aging ship’s creaks and groans be the score.

Midnight Special (2016)

One might argue that this film is not about space or aliens. But there are many definitions of being not of this world, and while the child Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) was born of humans on Earth in our own time, he has powers that connect him with something beyond humanity.

In a feat of highly skilled storytelling, writer/director Jeff Nichols starts near the end of Alton’s story, yet explains what led to that point piecemeal throughout the movie without resorting to either flashbacks or the “info-dump” exposition so common in less well-crafted science fiction. Michael Shannon is Alton’s father and the member of a cult called The Ranch, led by a pastor (Sam Shepard) whose sermons are interpretations of the mysterious phrases and numbers that Alton speaks during his “fits.” Among those numbers are coordinates for satellites, which alerts the FBI to Alton’s existence. Alton’s father and a friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are trying to bring Alton to a certain place at a certain time, without knowing why; the cult leadership pursues them, wanting Alton back; the Feds chase both parties, thinking a terrorist attack is in the offing.

Despite this complex, high-stakes plot, the hallmark of this film is its underlying calm. Nichols hints at violence without showing it, thus maximizing the impact of the violent onscreen episode that starts act three. Throughout, the small-mindedness and greed of those in power is muted by acts of love – the father’s sacrifices for his son, Lucas learning to reopen his heart to a friend he lost to a cult, a social scientist (Adam Driver) who really listens, and a mother (Kirsten Dunst, in the best work of her career) who understands that someone can belong to this world and another at the same time.

Women and Non-Binary Musicians Invited to Apply for #NextJazzLegacy Inaugural Class. Deadline is November 29.

New Music USA Partners With Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice to Launch New Program Next Jazz Legacy For a More Inclusive Jazz Future

New Music USA and the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice have announced the launch of Next Jazz Legacy, a new program focused on increasing opportunities for women and non-binary improvisers who are underrepresented in the art form. Next Jazz Legacy will address these statistics by supporting early-career-stage artists whose access to resources has been limited. By offering creative and professional experience through long-term apprenticeships, financial support and promotion, Next Jazz Legacy aims to inspire change that will benefit everyone in the jazz community. Thanks to funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this program represents a major investment in 20 artists and band leaders over the next 3 years. 

The inaugural class of Next Jazz Legacy artists will include six candidates chosen by an esteemed panel of musicians, chaired by Carrington, with gender justice and racial justice as guiding principles. The overall direction of the program is being shaped by New Music USA and Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, with guidance from the advisory board, and in alignment with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s current priorities and values.

The program launched today and is accepting submissions HERE through November 29. Candidates must be U.S. residents, fully vaccinated, and not enrolled in an academic institution during the duration of the program or contracted with a third party recording company. Selected artists will be announced in January 2022.

Record review: ‘1975’ by No-No Boy explores the Asian immigrant experience

No-No Boy


Smithsonian Folkways Records, 2021. Produced by Julian Saporiti and Emilia Halvorsen. Mixed by Seth Boggess.   

No-No Boy

Music historian Julian Saporiti is the son of a Vietnamese immigrant and a Boston Italian-American who moved to Nashville. With 1975, the debut album for his larger project, No-No Boy, Saporiti lets music tell the history of immigrant struggles in a powerful yet entrancing way.

Buoyed on a range of genres from bluegrass to rockabilly and from Western-influenced Hanoi easy-listening to jazz, the lyrics do not back down from social activism. No-No Boy is named after the 1957 novel by John Okada, the title referring to Asian immigrants who resisted joining the U.S. military during World War II while their families were held in internment camps.

A recurrent theme is the conflict of allegiance felt by immigrants. “The Best God Damn Band in Wyoming” imagines life in the George Igawa Orchestra, a jazz band formed in one of the camps. Through a western rock energy with tinges of Japanese folk rhythms, Saporiti’s informal narrative expresses the joy found through music even in the direst of conditions.

The album’s sound world combines acoustic instruments with percussion sampled from Saporiti’s field recordings of meaningful materials. On “Where the Sand Creek Meets the Arkansas River,” he uses the bong of a tank, the only relic remaining of the Crystal City internment camp in Texas. Other samples include struck wooden planks at San Francisco’s Angel Island immigration station and the twang of barbed wire at the U.S./Mexico border.

The retro musical styles, like the Hawai’ian country slow-dance vibe of “Tell Hanoi I Love Her,” work surprisingly well with the lyrics’ reflection of social-justice issues. It helps that the arrangements and playing are solid and skilled, like sugar to help the medicine go down.

An interview with the creators of HADESTOWN

Welcome to Busker Alley!

Before it came to Broadway, Anaïs Mitchell’s wondrous musical Hadestown followed a long and winding road as it sorted out what, exactly, it was meant to be.

In 2016, when it was playing off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop, I had the privilege of interviewing several of the show’s creators, including Mitchell, director Rachel Chavkin, and orchestrator Michael Chorney.

The piece is on Classical Voice North America. You can view it here. Enjoy!

Early Music as Theater: The Alehouse Sessions

by Anne E. Johnson

The first clue that The Alehouse Sessions show would not be your typical Baroque music concert came when an assistant laid out eight glasses of beer on a high round table onstage. Since we were at the performance venue SubCulture on Bleecker St. in Manhattan, you can be sure it was fine craft beer from their bar. But still.

Members of the Barokksolistene performing The Alehouse Sessions

In the September 25 issue of Copper Magazine, I’d reviewed the new album by the Norwegian string ensemble Barokksolistene (you can see the review here), led by Bjarte Eike.  It featured 17th-century music — mostly English — played as you might have heard it in a tavern when it was new. I went on and on about how much fun The Alehouse Sessions (Rubicon Classics) must be in its live version. When I got an invitation to hear them live on Oct. 11, I was thrilled.

All sense of time and history dissipated as soon as the men came onstage, stalking around each other as they played: there were baroque violins, viola, double bass, vihuelas (early guitars), and a harmonium. One of them danced hornpipes in his old leather shoes. One of them sang Henry Purcell’s arch, repeating melodies in a way that turned them into down-to-earth ballads. They cracked jokes — canned and corny, but then, barroom humor is not famous for subtlety. They played the hell out of Purcell and Playford, Scandinavian and English folk tunes, and even some Spanish songs. Even the classical pieces were freely arranged with new composed and improvised accompaniment.

One has to wonder: is this a trend? Everything about the experience was a sign of the times. We people of the 21st century crave engagement and visuals. And refreshments. There’s a bar right next to the seating area at SubCulture, in the same room as the performance. Good or bad, the age of sitting in absolute silence and watching musicians move nothing but their fingers may be coming to an end.

Bjarte Eike leads The Alehouse Sessions. (Photo: Matthew Long)

There’s an excellent argument to be made — which the band does make — that historical precedent exists for this kind of musical experience. The album and show Alehouse Sessions takes its name from the Cromwell-era practice of English musicians, out of work thanks to strict Puritan laws banning theatrical performances, meeting in taverns to play together. Eike laid the lore on pretty thick, claiming there was a traceable line from those pub sessions to the invention of concert halls. But what do historical details matter if everyone is swept away and having a great time? The music brought us joy, and that’s historical truth.

The space was friendly and relaxed. The music was vibrant and relevant. Thanks to the Alehouse boys, historically informed performance — HIP — is now actually hip, and even a little bit hipster. The barkeep did have a very nice mustache.

@WildProjectNYC hosts a spirited, supportive theater benefit for @NYCLU

by Anne E. Johnson

The Wild Project is a venue in New York’s East Village, hosting theater, film, and other performance genres. It is also a community center of sorts, where artists and art-lovers of every stripe and style join to keep the light of self-expression burning in these dark times. On January 18, two days before the presidential inauguration, they hosted “Freedom of Art,” an evening of performances to benefit the New York Civil Liberties Union (the regional voice of the ACLU).

The atmosphere at the 89-seat theater was by turns defiant and joyful. Wild Project


Marie Faustin and Sydney Washington (photo: Jose de Quesada)

artistic director Ana Mari de Quesada first introduced Pamela Zimmerman, Leadership Gifts Officer of the NYCLU. Zimmerman explained the importance of not only supporting, but also participating in her organization, which shares all contributions evenly with the national group.

After that sobering message, the real fun commenced. The evening’s MCs were the comedy duo Marie Faustin and Sydney Washington. These two women combined the perfect ratio of feistiness and friendliness — not to mention real enthusiasm — to guide us through the hefty program. The acts, all volunteering their time, were too numerous to detail completely here, and that in itself speaks volumes about how the arts community is rallying together. Here are a few highlights:


Ryan F. Johnson (photo: Jose de Quesada)

Two writers represented Poetic Theater Productions, both revealing outrage and determination from an African-American perspective. Ryan F. Johnson read from his work We Lost Ourselves, and Teniece Divya Johnson shared her poem Baltimore Is Burning.

Group theater works spanned a wide range of styles. Broken Box Mime Theater offered three touching vignettes. Two members of Cherry Picking performed And the Law Won. In this piece, Charlotte Rahn Lee’s insightful script laid bare the difficulty white liberals sometimes have in grasping the social issues facing African-Americans.

There was music in the mix, too. Composer and electric guitarist John King played his Requiem for Eric Garner, astonishing the crowd with his skill at live sampling and looping on a gadget he called the wacky box. (Co-MC Marie Faustin mined some comedy gold out of that phrase.) And in an understated, haunting voice, composer Eve Beglarian sang What Justic Looks Like, the true story of Esther Hobart Morris, who became a justice of the peace in 1870 in Wyoming.


Eve Beglarian (photo: Jose de Quesada)

Other performers included composer Paula Matthusen, comedian/writer Jill Pangallo, the Brooklyn Actors Troupe, composer Angela Di Carlo, cabaret performer Nicholas Gorham, composer Randy Gibson, and trombonist Will Lang.

“Freedom of Art” was a happening in the 1960s sense, giving performers the chance to explore, appreciate, encourage, support, and protect each other, their community, and the wider world. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of this spirit over the next few years.


David Yazbek’s ‘The Band’s Visit’: A gentle look at Arabs and Israelis…as people

by Anne E. Johnson


Tony Shalhoub

When Tony Shalhoub first took the stage as Tewfiq, conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra in David Yazbek’s new musical The Band’s Visit at the Atlantic Theater, he quietly reminded his players that they were representing Egypt on their trip to an Arab cultural center in Israel.

The band is trying to get to the city of Petah Tikva, but accidentally ends up in the small town of Bet Hatikva. The show covers the day and night the Egyptians are stranded in the wrong place. We watch them getting to know a few residents and revealing themselves in the process.

There are moments of tension between the Muslims and the Jews — sexual, economic, political. There are moments of love, understanding, epiphany. And there’s some captivating music by the chameleon Yazbek, who’s as comfortable writing R&B and American popular standards as he is writing Israeli folk songs and Arab classical pieces. Much of it was played onstage by multitalented cast members such as trumpeter Ari’ El Stachel, violinist George Abud, and clarinetist Alok Tewari. Powerhouse singer Katrina Lenk played Dina, the owner of a coffee shop and a lost soul happy to welcome any breath of the new into her little town.

Although at its surface The Band’s Visit is merely sweet, this is an important musical. Profound, even. It’s a tender approach to the Israeli/Arab question; Yazbek’s focus on relationships rather than relations suggests that peace might be attainable, at least at the level of individuals.

One of Roger Rees’ lesser-known roles

by Anne E. Johnson

As a besotted fan of the late Welsh actor Roger Rees, I collect the many works to which he contributed. Audiobooks and made-for-TV movies are especially fun ones to find. Yesterday I acquired a TV film called God’s Outlaw, about proto-Protestant William Tyndale, who risked his life to translate the Bible into English during Luther’s early days.
To be honest, I was dreading it, but I braved a viewing out of love for Roger. With the story’s shamelessly subjective bent in favor of Church of England (apparently only the Catholics ever did anything ill advised or selfish), it should have been unwatchable nonsense, yet it was surprisingly well done. Then again, when you people a cast with nothing but classically trained British character actors, there’s only so bad a piece can be. I particularly enjoyed Keith Barron as the fickle and irascible Henry VIII.


Roger Rees as William Tyndale in “God’s Outlaw.”

Encores Off-Center Brings Vonnegut Novel to Life

by Anne E. Johnson

There probably weren’t many of us in the audience at City Center for the Encores Off-Center production of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater who had read the Kurt Vonnegut novel on which the musical was based. I’d read it three times. I got hooked on Vonnegut by a forward-thinking high school English teacher, so by college I was seeking out the more obscure books. Decades later, Rosewater remains my favorite of his works.Rosewater

Given that the music was by Alan Menken and the lyrics by Howard Ashman, I expected a saccharin, Disney-esque treatment of the material. Not so! The ruthless criticism of the status quo and power structures; the baffled wonderment at life’s purpose; the deep-seated love of all humanity despite its considerable foibles — these trademarks of Vonnegut’s worldview, present in all his writing, were offered in the music, lyrics, lively direction and spirited performances.

And, a fun surprise: we all knew James Earl Jones’ recorded voice would be used for narration, but in the last scene Jones actually came onstage to play the role of the wise science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout (who is mentioned in most of Vonnegut’s novels and clearly represents Vonnegut himself).

Rufus Wainwright Really Did Judy This Time

By Anne E. Johnson

To commemorate ten years since he first performed his “Rufus Does Judy” show, which recreates a 1961 concert by Judy Garland, Rufus Wainwright got the gang back together (once again conducted by Stephen Oremus), and put on quite an extravaganza at Carnegie Hall last night.

You know what the best thing is about great musicians getting older? They become even better musicians. Now in his forties, Wainwright sings with more sophisticated emotional nuance and phrasing. And while he no longer has the superhuman breath control of his youth, ten years haven’t diminished either his vocal range or power. What a glorious instrument!

Like all of us, Wainwright’s been through a lot in ten years. He’s seen darkness and joy. His mother died, he got married and became a father, he had his first opera produced. He’s absorbed all those experiences into his understanding of the songs, and somehow it all just makes him more like Judy.

The highlight came in the second half, where any seasoned entertainer knows it belongs: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” sung while sitting at the edge of the stage (where else would he sing it?) was heart-rending. Ten years ago, his mother, Kate McGarrigle, accompanied this song on piano. Now that she’s gone, Wainwright pointedly used an arrangement with no piano at all.