Saturday, November 29, 2008

Red Dwarf - Series One (1988)

A twenty year old cult phenomenon at this point, Red Dwarf began in 1988 as the long gestating brainchild of Spitting Image writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Riding the wave of the alternative British comedy programs of the 1980s, along with influence from John Carpenter's irreverent Dark Star and the long tradition of English science fiction (Blake's 7, Dr. Who), the show showed that melding sometimes broad comedy and hard sci-fi could be done in a sitcom format. The first season is at times rather inconsistent, but it's clear even now that the creators were onto something.

The six episodes of the first series are:

1) The End - Lister is sentence to 18 months in stasis (a sort of suspended animation) for keeping a cat on the ship, but awakens to find it's three million years later and the entire crew has been killed by a radiation leak. His only company is the ship's computer Holly (Norman Lovett), a human/cat hybrid that evolved from his pet (Danny John-Jules), and the holographic representation of his former roommate: the uptight, bureaucratic Rimmer (Chris Barrie).

The first episode quickly introduces the viewer to the premise of the show and rather smoothly brings us into it's futuristic world. The Odd Couple dynamic of Lister and Rimmer may seem like a sitcom cliche, but both actors take great joy in jumping into their roles and their interplay (and the deft script) makes for very entertaining viewing.

2) Future Echoes - As Lister debates returning to stasis while the ship heads for earth, the crew begins to experience strange time anomalies. Discovering it's the result of them traveling faster than the speed of light, Rimmer appears to witness a future vision of Lister being killed and Lister has to find a way to avoid this eventuality.

Mixing hard science fiction with sitcom style would become what Red Dwarf would be known for, and they jump right into the rather murky territory of time anomalies in the series' second episode. Featuring some rather ambitious special effects for the time, this is one of the stronger efforts from the first season.

3) Balance Of Power - Frustrated with Rimmer's unwillingness to let him date the hologram of former ship-mate Kristine Kochanski, Lister decides to get his chef certificate so he will outrank him. Rimmer, of course, attempts to stop this from happening by any means necessary.

A rather standard episode, though it gives plenty of opportunity for the two leads to insult each other with the terms (Smeghead, gimboid, goit) the series became known for. Fun, but the episode feels a bit like a throwaway, which is rather disappointing when you're talking about a brief, six-episode series.

4) Waiting For God - Lister discovers that he is considered God by Cat's people and becomes distressed when he reads about the the violence that has been carried out in hi name during his time in stasis. Meanwhile, Rimmer becomes obsessed with a (unknown to him) garbage pod brought onto the ship and mistakenly believes that it may contain alien life.

The main story of this episode is an interesting, though heavy handed, commentary on religion; a rather heady topic for a sitcom. It was nice to see a bit of development of the history of the cat people (the Felis sapiens), but it seemed like the writers were still trying to find their feet with The Cat as a character at this point. Rimmer's discovery of the pod's actual purpose is classic, however.

5) Confidence And Paranoia - After Lister contracts a mutated for of Paranoia, his dreams begin to manifest in solid form. This includes living personifications of his confidence (played by Scottish talk show host Craig Ferguson) and paranoia (Lee Cornes). While at first pleased with the company, Lister soon finds that unbridled confidence comes with a dangerous price.

Likely the weakest episode of the first series, though it's certainly interesting to see a pre-fame Craig Ferguson and it does include quite an impressive body explosion at the end. It's rather heady stuff as a whole, but the episode doesn't really have enough time to properly explore the idea.

6) Me² - After the events of the previous episode, Lister finds himself having to deal with two holographic Rimmers aboard the ship. While at first they get along perfectly, they soon begin to despise each other. Eventually it's decided that only one can stay, but how will they choose?

A strong final episode of the first series, with the idea of Rimmer's perfect copy being intolerably irritating taken to its logical extreme. This episode also features Lister watching the tape of Rimmer's death and discovering that his final words were "gazpacho soup". The explanation of this (with a fun Citizen Kane reference) is actually a reference to an actual incident with Rob Grant and Doug Naylor where they were unaware that "gazpacho soup" was served cold.

There have been a number of DVD releases of Red Dwarf, but I watched the BBC Warner DVD of the first series which includes the episodes as broadcast. These episodes (as well as those from series two and three) were later remastered with different special effects and editing for alternate broadcasts and DVD release. The full screen transfer looks strong, though a bit on the dull side since almost every set is painted a rather drab gray.

There are commentaries on every episode by Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Norman Lovett, and Danny John-Jules. The first episode also features a bonus commentary by Rob Grant, Doug Naylor, and Ed Bye. It's almost a shame that this wasn't reversed as the Grant/Naylor/Bye track on episode one is wonderfully informative. It details briefly what influenced the show, the casting, and where the names of the characters came from amongst other trivia. While the cast commentaries are fun, it's obvious that the actors haven't seen the episodes in a long time and spend more time watching and laughing at the lines than revealing any information.

There is talk of new episodes of Red Dwarf being filmed this year to be shown in 2009, and it's tremendous that the show remains so fresh after it's original broadcast. It's unlikely that anyone would argue that the first season is the best, but it's a strong introduction to the seven series (at this point) that have been produced. Strongly recommended for fans of British humor or science fiction.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pulgasari (1985)


Facing a peasant revolt, the king decides to confiscate all the available iron from a poor farming village so that the local blacksmith can forge weapons. The blacksmith, being a sympathetic fellow, hides the iron instead and blames their disappearance on an iron-loving monster named Pulgasari. The king is understandably upset at this news, and decided to imprison and starve the blacksmith until they get the truth. Before his death he fashions a small figurine, which his daughter eventually comes to own (and, eventually, bleed on). Soon, the figurine has (unconvincingly) come to life and begun to eat everything in sight made of iron! UH-OH! Pulgasari grows rapidly from this iron intake and soon helps the villagers as they revolt against the rich king. Eventually the peasants overtake the leaders, but now find themselves at the mercy of Pulgasari who continues to munch on their farming tools. It's up to the blacksmith's daughter to cry, and cry and cry and sacrifice herself for the greater good.


This may shock you, but Kim Jong Il has been known to get a bit nutty. He's also reportedly a huge fan of movies, particularly Western films, and in the 80s as he was taking over in North Korea as their "Dear Leader" he deemed it incredibly important to kick the North Korean film industry into high gear. Now, he could have opened up film schools or poured money into the technical training of potential filmmakers and eventually produced a solid, internationally renowned cabal of filmmakers (like South Korea has produced since 2000).

But, forget that noise.

Why not, instead, just kidnap a well regarded South Korean director and get him to make movies for North Korea? In 1979, that's exactly what he did, kidnapping Shin Sang-ok and imprisoning him and his wife until they were properly brainwashed and prepared to enter the movie-making machine. Kim Jong Il himself had actually written a book on film-making (he's a renaissance man), and recognized that North Korea needed a bold new vision to introduce themselves to the world cinematic stage.

What was that vision?


Thankfully Shin Sang-ok and his wife were able to escape before Pulgasari was complete (which led to his name being removed from the credits), but we're left with a rare artifact that may or may not (opinion seems to vary) have ever actually been screened in North Korea. Have we been denied the North Korean kaiju Godzilla knock-off that we've always wanted?

What strikes the viewer very early into Pulgasari is that this is a film with a point to make. Unlike the dozens of Godzilla and Gamera films, which tend to take place in major city centers, this takes place mostly in and around a poor and repressed village in 14th century Korea. There are no spaceships or science fiction elements (except some out-of-place rockets that appear near the end). But it's difficult to watch the film and not try and uncover its political symbolism, particularly in regards to its views on a poor underclass standing up to a military regime and that the monster (representing capitalism?), once a savior of the people, almost ends up destroying them. Or that could all be nonsense, and it might just be a really good excuse to smash up some neat models.

Also, despite the rather limited scope of locations in the film, there are literally thousands of extras onscreen during some of the battle scenes. While not unheard of in epic Hollywood films, the sheer numbers of extras in the film are impressive to witness, though again demonstrates the power of the political machine behind the film's production.

Pulgasari him(her?)self is an imposing creature once he reaches full size, though his early appearances give off an annoying Son Of Godzilla vibe that had me fearing the worst. The suit seems fairly stable, though the blank eyes give their share of unintentional laughs. Staff from Toho actually worked on the special effects of the film, including Kenpachiro Satsuma, the Godzilla actor at the time who also played Pulgasari in the film.

The special effects as a whole are a tad uneven, though there are some impressive miniatures in the second half of the film. The back-projection Pulgasari attacks have aged badly, and certainly there isn't as many lasers or tanks (or skyscrapers) as you would see in an average Godzilla movie, but when models are employed things generally look good.

The acting is difficult to gauge, though the subtitles are (thankfully) reasonably coherent. The sets often have a bit of a Shaw Brothers feel to them, with a lot of the village scenes seeming a bit artificial. This artificiality is enhanced by the sound, which appears to be post-synced. Direction is rather flat and the non-Pulgasari action scenes feature inconsistent choreography and sometimes resemble bad 60s sword-and-sandals films. Oddly, the second half of the film feels rather episodic, almost like episodes of a television show rather than a movie, with the military coming up with a plan, almost capturing or killing Pulgasari, and then the monster eventually stopping them.

The film, to my knowledge, has not had a legitimate DVD release in North America. ADV films released the VHS in 2001 (following a successful theatrical release of the film in Japan to combat the 1998 American Godzilla film), and the DVD i've procured may have come from that release. The film is presented full-screen, and the film looks much older than the mid-1980s. While the actual quality of the image is quite good, the film stock makes things appear washed out and bland.

Pulgasari is an interesting historical artifact, and an incredibly wrong-headed attempt to invigorate the North Korean film industry. As is often the case, the story behind the film's creation remains much more interesting than the film itself, though there are enough entertaining moments in the slow moving tale to make it worth seeing. Strangely, Pulgasari (with the help of Shin Sang-ok who eventually sued to get his name put back on the film) was eventually remade in Europe in 1996 as Galgameth.

Fans of kaiju, or for those with an interest in North Korean art and culture, might want to check it out.

The whole film is actually available on Google Video (and presented here) for anyone interested.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Blood Sucking Freaks (aka The Incredible Torture Show) (1976)


Sardu (Seamus O'Brien) runs a grand guignol torture show in New York along with his diminutive assistant Ralphus (Luis De Jesus) to enthusiastic crowds. What these folks don't know, however, is that the tortures and murders they are witnessing are real, and that Sardu is dealing in white slavery to get his victims. Football player Tom Maverick (Niles McMaster) starts to get suspicious after his ballerina girlfriend vanished, and buys the help of a corrupt cop to track her down. It turns out she's joined Sardu's sickening S&M show (after being kidnapped by Ralphus), but Tom starts to believe there's something funny going on. Along the way there is brain sucking, cannibal women, an ass dartboard, necrophilia, and a climactic cock sandwich(/w lettuce).


It seems appropriate that director Eli Roth is so involved with the special features on the Troma DVD of Joel M. Reed's Blood Sucking Freaks, as his name has become synonymous with torture and sadism in film for the past few years. Films like Hostel, Saw and Wolf Creek have carried the (rather reprehensible) label of "torture porn", and the public has devoured many of these (and similar) films with fervor. Critics have pointed to the political landscape, particularly the interrogation tactics of current international conflict, as having an influence on the growing genre, and it's interesting to go back to what many consider the simultaneous peak and nadir of 70s exploitation to see what distance (if any) cinema has traveled in regards to it's portrayal of torture.

It should be noted that Blood Sucking Freaks is, at its heart, a fairly broad black comedy. It pokes fun at its audience's love of violence, the corruption and filth of 70s New York, and the theatrical scene in general (particularly in Sardu's wish to be taken seriously as an artist). When Quarterback Tom Maverick calls 911 to help with the search for his girlfriend, he gets a recording and is asked to leave a message, and Sardu's kidnapping and torture of the critic who refuses to take him seriously smacks of satire. Even particularly vile lines (such as the classic "Her mouth will make an interesting urinal.") carry with them an exaggerated sense of outrageousness. The essence of the film isn't far away from John Water's classics.

Certainly the film is not afraid to push the boundaries of good taste. The most famous scene likely being the one where a doctor (Ernie Pysher) pulls out the teeth of a poor victim, before shaving her head bald and inserting an electrical drill into her brain. He proceeds to slide a clear straw into her wound, sucking out blood and brain matter (actually oatmeal), while a clearly disgusted Sardu and Ralphus watch on. It's as if even the film realizes it has gone too far, confirmed by Ralphus then feeding the doctor to his cage of starving cannibal women.

It's difficult to take the film very seriously, which is helped by a terrifically campy lead performance from Seamus O'Brien as Sardu. He can be appropriately menacing, but also sniveling when threatened and even occasionally comedic. Luis De Jesus as Ralphus is, well, awful. But, he brings a surreal flair to the proceedings, and he went on to be both a porn star and an Ewok, and that has to count for something. The rest of the cast is passable, though Viju Krem is often grating as the ballerina love interest.

This is seriously low budget stuff, though director Joel M. Reed wrings the most out of his few sets. The often darkened backgrounds enhance the theatrical staging of the tortures, though the camera remains mostly static throughout with a few shaky zooms being the only memorable cinematic touches. The FX are very rough, often just rising above early H.G. Lewis levels, though this tends to help soften the often unpleasant proceedings.

Troma's DVD release is, as if often the case with their releases, a mixed bag. The film presented in full-screen in a dark, though very watchable print. Sound can be slightly muffled, though it's all very audible and at the levels of most low-budget 70s releases.

The extras are diverse, though familiar to those with Troma DVD experience. You get the usual Tour Of Troma, the Troma Intelligence Test, a few groan inducing PSAs, The Radiation March short film, and ads for Lloyd Kaufman's biography and Troma's website. You also get Eli Roth's interviews with cannibal girl Arlana Blue, Ernie Pysher, and co-editor Victor Kaefsky.

The film also has a screen specific commentary with Eli Roth that is both informative and irritating. He displays a strong knowledge for the film and its stars, but often makes intentionally outrageous statements about the film's influence that makes it a bit of a chore to sit through. Still worthwhile, but a straight commentary would have been preferred.

Finally, there's also a stills gallery, as well as trailers for Blood Sucking Freaks, G.I. Executioner (also from Joel M. Reed), Cannibal: The Musical, The Toxic Avenger, Def By Temptation, Class Of Nuke'Em High, The Toxic Avenger II, Surf Nazis Must Die, Tromeo And Juliet, and Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D.

One could make the case that Blood Sucking Freaks is the ultimate 70s exploitation film. It's sleazy, packed with nudity, contains sadistic (though comical) amounts of violence, and features just enough satire to redeem itself. This is a film more about S&M than modern torture methods, and it's better for it.

Certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you can handle the modern variations with less humor and state of the art special FX, then this one might be up your alley. Watch it with friends, and marvel.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Shock and Awe - The Grindhouse Experience #2 (11/08/2008)

On November 8th, 2008 at the lovely Fox Theatre in Toronto, Ontario, a group of lucky folks were treated to a night of cinematic delights the likes of which are rarely seen outside of the bedroom of a socially awkward college student. But, it's more than a shared experience amongst like-minded film-lovers.. It's also a test of will. 12 hours (or so) of Grindhouse cinema in the form of hippie science-fiction, moralizing blaxploitation, 80s valley girl comedy, psycho-sexual slasher, exotic porn, and the first super-hero from New Jersey.

Those who made it through the whole night found themselves with a smug sense of self satisfaction and a greater sense of self worth. Those who failed.. well, it's best not to speak of them.

Dark Star (1974) -John Carpenter (Halloween, Big Trouble In Little China, The Thing) and Dan O'Bannon's (writer of Alien, director of Return Of The Living Dead) trippy student film, expanded into feature length. Obviously inspired by 2001 and Silent Running, it uses some impressive low-budget special effects, along with a goofy sense of humor, to keep things humming to a surprisingly effective climax. The highlight is the character of Pinback (played by O'Bannon) tangling with an the ship's pet alien, realized as a beach ball with feet. A fun start to the evening.

The Bus Is Coming (1971) - Slow moving Blaxploitation effort about the conflict between a black Vietnam veteran, the radicals in his home neighborhood, and the racist cops that may have murdered his brother. Very political, and an interesting time capsule, but neither as incendiary nor as interesting as the poster art would leave you to believe. Interesting historical artifact, and competently made and acted, but too preachy to be consistently entertaining.

Mystery Film (1986) - Attendees have been sworn to secrecy in regards to the title, but anyone possibly nodding off at this point were assisted in wakefulness by the distribution of noisemakers. We were instructed to let off warnings whenever a limousine appeared onscreen, or whenever a character mentioned the word "chauffeur". Needless to say, this led to some significant squawking, which continued for several films afterward.

This one is a Mid 80s fish-out-of-water comedy about a valley girl (Deborah Foreman, star of, well, Valley Girl and the original April Fool's Day) suddenly finding herself working at a limousine company. After some various misadventures, she finds herself melting the cold exterior of Patrick Bateman-like Battle Witherspoon (played by Sam J. Jones a.ka. Flash Gordon). It's all plenty of fun, with small appearances by Howard Hesseman, the great E.G. Marshall, and the first film appearances of Penn and Teller. A bit uneven, but with a sharp script and an uneasy incest subplot. Hooray.

Night Warning (1983) - My surprise of the night, and my favorite film of the evening. Amazing slasher/thriller starring Jimmy McNichol as a basketball star who, after the bizarre (and violent) death of his parents, is raised by his slightly unhinged aunt. Susan Tyrell plays the aunt and turns in an absolutely amazingly crazed performance, while Bo Svenson is a lot of fun as an asshole cop working to investigate a mysterious murder involving the two. An early death-by-log signaled that we were in for something special, and everything about this one kept me riveted for the entire running time. Highly recommended.

Sensations (1975) - I have to say, I didn't know what I was getting into with this one. After the light porno comedy of Danish Pastries from the first Shock and Awe, I expected something similarly tame. I was incorrect.

Sensations is about a young American woman's experiences with the sexual freedoms of Amsterdam, eventually finding her turned into a pillow-of-pleasure in a sometimes surreal orgy scene. This one has it all - B/G, G/G, Anal, Hook Hands, Piss, Cocaine, a rather verile 68 year old, and lots and lots of 70s hair in all the places you might imagine. There are things in this that, once seen, can never be unseen.

The Toxic Avenger (1984) - Uncut version of the Troma classic. Admittedly, my familiarity with the subject matter (or, possibly, my brain trying to escape from the memories of Sensations), had me on the verge of sleep several times.

And this was certainly uncut, as some of the montages seemed to loop a bit, going on comically long. I've seen numerous cut versions of the film over the years, and this was the most complete I remember seeing, including the biker's head being run over, and the gym equipment face smashing. An appropriately fun and silly way to end things off.

Once again there were prize giveaways, appropriate goodies from the concession stand, and breaks between movies so we could slowly cower from the impending daylight. When we finally emerged from the darkned theatre at 10:30 AM, shielding our eyes from the sun, there was an audible sense of relief. We were all a little battered, but not beaten. Shock & Awe is a theatre full of diverse backgrounds and interests, but those that attend have a common love for films that exist slightly off the beaten path. One cannot help but be immediately excited for Shock & Awe #3, tentatively scheduled for June, 2009.