Tuesday, December 30, 2008

SS HELL PACK TRIPLE FEATURE: Lest we forget the horrors of Nazi Germa -- hey, nice rack!


Trailer for SS EXPERIMENT LOVE CAMP

Three tedious Nazisploitation efforts, each largely indistinguishable from the vast majority of pictures in this genre.

SS GIRLS (1977), a SALON KITTY knockoff from the feeble mind of Bruno Mattei, is set in a secluded mansion wherein a crazy and debauched Nazi commander (Gabriele Carrara) employs prostitutes--each highly trained in ballet, weightlifting, fencing, gunplay and schtupping the spectrum of physically disgusting men--to lure unsuspecting Nazi traitors to their doom. The nudity quotient is high but the sex scenes, not unlike most of the male participants involved in them, are flabby, unrealistic and repetitive. And then there's some unpleasant business between a whore and a severely deformed man that, had this not been directed by one of the worst Italian directors of all time, would surely have engendered ill will. But with Mattei, it's tough not to have anything BUT ill will toward virtually everything he's ever done, so I suppose exploitation of the diseased should come as no surprise. The film is by design rather low on the torture and "cruelty" one associates with this genre, with even the mass suicide ending--which at last releases us from the company of these ridiculously smarmy actors--almost completely devoid of blood. In an interview included on the disc, Mattei reveals that he hates watching nearly all of his own films because he always sees many things he could have done better with more time and money. One would think that a director who worked extensively (and repeatedly) on low budgets and tight schedules would certainly not hurt for ingenuity, or style, as often as Mattei has, but such was not the case, if his long, depressing trail of visually ugly and sloppily plotted exploitationers is any indication.

Moving up a rung on the ladder of quality--arguably a lateral step, really, as the production value isn't much better--is Sergio Garrone's SS EXPERIMENT LOVE CAMP (1976), a once-notorious "video nasty" in England which features more full frontal nudity and butcher-meat-laced cruelty than the Mattei picture, though the romantic couplings are again rather uninvolving despite their showcasing far more attractive performers of both sexes. In this camp, ladies not chosen to improve the German race through ridiculous sex experiments are instead deemed fit for ridiculous medical experiments. (Garrone was known to do research for his films, so in all likelihood his onscreen experiments also happened in real life, and were equally as pointless) The film's key plot device--and arguably it's wildest asset--involves the camp commandant's desire for a new pair of testicles with which he can get a proper leg over for Der Fuhrer's greater glory, items duly (and seemingly unwittingly) removed from one of his officers. When good guy Helmut discovers he's a nut-free by-product of the Nazi machine just before mounting his love camp lovely, he races naked throughout the compound until he finds the duplicitous Colonel von Kleiben (Giorgio Cerioni, who looks very much like one of the puppets on Gerry Anderson's THUNDERBIRDS), furiously demanding to know "what have you been doing with my balls!?!" before inciting an all-out riot. Still, it's decidedly a case of parts surpassing the whole, as it tends to be with Nazi pictures that don't star Dyanne Thorne in a lead role.

The set concludes with Sergio Garrone's SS CAMP: WOMEN'S HELL, actually known as (and ID'd onscreen as) SS CAMP 5: WOMEN'S HELL. Exploitation Digital's sleeve for this dates it to 1977, though it's obvious Garrone shot it at the same time as SS EXPERIMENT LOVE CAMP using the same locations and most of the same cast in different roles. Garrone admits as much in the accompanying interview, and the comparatively stronger plotting, acting and action elements on offer suggest this was actually the first of the two pictures completed. Thanks to its meatier scenes of torture and medical experimentation, WOMEN'S HELL ventures closer to being a "video nasty" than LOVE CAMP, but then as now, it's tame stuff, notable mainly for introducing a Pam Grier blaxploitation vibe in the form of Rita Manna as the cunning Jamaican whore Alina, who takes advantage of besotted camp commandant Col. Strasser (Giorgio Cerioni, again sporting a THUNDERBIRDS coiffure and the plastic complexion to match) to plot the bullet-riddled liberation of her fellow prostitutes. Again, Garrone's superficial research informs the film's scenes of cruelty and degradation--including a cheap-but-effective optical that allows dead bodies to jerk and twitch in the camp's ovens (a trick used several times in LOVE CAMP as well)--but the vintage newsreel footage of actual Jews being stripped of their belongings and their lives sits uncomfortably amidst all the gratuitous boobs and beaver on display. But this was Italy in the 70's: "anything goes" was the cinematic order of the day, but cheap moralizing in a film such as this is offensive.

Thankfully, this thematically-challenged genre wasted away on the merits of films such as those included in this set. They're worth watching if you're new to the genre and want to see three average examples at a budget price rather than getting burned on the individual releases (which each cost nearly as much as this triple feature), but there are better examples out there, most notably ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS. Extras on each disc include an interview with the respective director (running 10-15 minutes), meager still galleries, and selections of trailers, including some for other Nazisploitation titles.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

THE MIDNIGHT MOVIES COLLECTION, VOL. 2: Steckler's dark period

Once you watch this trailer for BLOOD SHACK, you won't need to watch the film. In fact, you'll be lucky if you make it through the trailer.

THE MIDNIGHT MOVIES COLLECTION VOL. 2
D: Ray Dennis Steckler
Exploitation Digital/Guilty Pleasures/Media Blasters

Four excretions from the bowels of Ray Dennis Steckler comprise this collection, and one wonders if Guilty Pleasures/Exploitation Digital was contractually obligated to release these in order to get their hands on the superior, better known Steckler opuses (comparatively speaking) in their first Midnight Movies Collection box set. These four films pretty much exemplify the dismal, indifferent remainder of Steckler's "career", at least that part of it during in which he wasn't cranking out pornography. Having viewed the four films in the first MIDNIGHT MOVIES collection, I was compelled to discover what came afterwards. It wasn't pretty.

The most famous "title" in this package is probably THE HOLLYWOOD STRANGLER MEETS THE SKID ROW SLASHER (1979), a wonderful moniker fronting a woeful production shot on the sly on seedy Hollywood locales. Steckler's real-ife housepainter (and a veteran of two dismal Charles Nizet efforts), Pierre Agostino, plays the Strangler, while his wife and regular leading lady, the alluringly paralytic Carolyn Brandt, plays the Slasher. Agostino poses as a photographer and slices up nudie models he picks up in the Hollywood sex papers. Brandt despises the winos who blight the porn-theatre infested neighbourhood in which she has oddly chosen to run a used bookshop and slashes their throats in her off hours. These lethargic "maniacs" never speak, either to each other or to anyone else in the cast, because Steckler was too cheap to rent sound equipment for the picture. When dialogue exchanges are required, he instead utilizes the time-honoured Wishman Method of having one character speak their dialogue while another character is onscreen. This, of course, allowed Steckler to loop in whatever dialogue he deemed appropriate, but since he evidently didn't have a script, the whole thing sounds ad libbed. Poorly. Often by Steckler himself! ("Diiiiieeeee Gaaaarrrrbage, Diiiieeeee") Eventually, these two will meet, but only after Steckler repeats their boring and predictable killing routines ad nauseam. On the plus side, there's plenty of breastage on display from a parade of what are presumably real-life prostitutes from the Hollywood sex papers, and Steckler's modest talents as a cinematographer ensure that his images actually registered on the film stock in a reasonably pleasing manner.

An older, paunchier, and rather sad-looking Agostino reprises his role as Hollywood Strangler Jonathan Klick in THE LAS VEGAS SERIAL KILLER (1986). Thanks to Steckler's ongoing resistance to recording actual sound (which, like the plot, was added in post), the brightest city on earth is also the quietest as Agostino, his character free on a technicality because they never found the bodies of his victims in HOLLYWOOD STRANGLER (!), mopes around Vegas with his camera, crashing creepy "celebrity" parties and looking for fresh meat when he's not working at a pizza joint decorated with posters from Steckler's movies (of course!) and banging the occasional panty-clad delivery customer who apparently can't resist a little pepperoni on the side. By this time, even Carolyn Brandt wouldn't appear in a Steckler film--and this was a woman who appeared in virtually nothing but Steckler films her entire career--so for balance Steckler has a couple of yahoos hit the strip for a little purse snatching and armed robbery, then has them cross paths with the killer Klick in the final moments of the film, in what Steckler presumably thought was a delicious twist of irony but which is actually just lame. As with any Steckler picture, the viewer is subjected copious amounts of padding, including strolls around tourist attractions, down city streets, and even a through a parade, sequences which have nothing to do with the story. As a time capsule of Vegas before the monoliths hit town, this stuff has value. As filmmaking, it's a last ditch effort by a seriously washed-up filmmaker to squeeze a few bucks out of both his own name and the poor souls who would spend their money on it. Like me.

Venturing further back in time, we come to 1971's BLOOD SHACK (aka THE CHOOPER), a gritty, ugly-looking "horror" effort shot in the middle of nowhere (with live sound!) and heavily padded with rodeo stock footage just so it can wheeze toward a one-hour running time. The story concerns a "famous" horror movie actress (Carolyn Brandt, playing herself, supposedly) who inherits a desolate, dilapidated ranch haunted by an evil Native American spirit known as the Chooper. The house and the stained mattress within represent the only real "production value" in the entire film outside of Carolyn Brandt's pants and a few half-customized jalopies driven by various cast members. It's not spoiling anything to reveal that the Chooper, which appears at regular intervals to scare and/or kill people, is not a real spirit at all, but someone with a grudge against the leading lady (so small is the principal cast, you'll figure it out in the first ten minutes). The get-up on this "creature"--plush brown PJs and a ridiculous mask) must truly be seen to be believed. This DVD also contains a "director's cut" of the movie that runs about ten minutes longer than the theatrical version: advisable only if you're a fan of Steckler's unique brand of padding.


Trailer for BODY FEVER.

Finally we have BODY FEVER, presented here under its alternate title SUPER COOL (I'm not sure why the packaging differs), a 1969 detective thriller that, owing to it's chronological proximity to the better films in Steckler's oeuvre (namely, the four films included in the other Midnight Movies box: RAT PHINK A BOO BOO, THE LEMON GROVE KIDS, THE THRILL KILLERS and THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES yadda yadda yadda), actually manages to be modestly entertaining on a typically Stecklerian budget. It even features live sound, to boot! Steckler plays a P.I. wading through an underworld of sleazeballs to track down a sexy thief who absconded with a bag full of mob heroin. Once he finds her, they fall in love, and run through a park tossing the bag of heroin between them like smitten schoolchildren before ultimately facing the drug kingpin himself. There's a charm in this film that would never be seen again in a Steckler feature, and it compensates for the fact that much of the film was shot in and around Steckler's house. The film may be best remembered for Steckler's charity to the seriously down-and-out director/actor Coleman Francis, a Hollywood fringe dweller (and cast member in Steckler's LEMON GROVE KIDS and narrator of his THRILL KILLERS) who was literally found drunk on the street by Steckler and offered a few bucks to clean up and play a rather touching scene in a bankrupt laundromat. Short of a bit part in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS the following year, Francis would never again work on or in film, and would be found dead in his car in 1973.

Each DVD in this set qualifies, more or less, as a special edition, with trailers, interviews with Steckler and Brandt, and commentaries from Steckler on all four features, though these are of questionable value as he provides perhaps 5% insight and 95% narration, and if you've seen a Steckler film, you know the last thing any of them need is narration. The best extras of all are the commentaries on HOLLYWOOD STRANGLER and BLOOD SHACK by drive-in movie scholar Joe Bob Briggs, who seems to know far more about the films than Steckler (!), and has a whale of a time trying to help us understand just how they ever got made, let alone released. Briggs' participation alone makes these two discs worth keeping, since they're much more tolerable in his company. Without it, the whole box would basically be a write-off to all but the most die-hard Steckler aficionados, despite the good-natured participation of Steckler and Brandt in the supplemental features. Of course, at this price, and even moreso when it turns up in various online discount sales, it's a far better value than buying any of these titles on their own.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

MIA on DVD: HOT STUFF (USA; 1979)


Great little movie with a fun cast and a script co-authored by the venerable Donald Westlake. Sadly, it's not on DVD, but I managed to dig up these credits of the inimitable Reed's theme song and post them on YouTube. Enjoy!

And, for your further viewing pleasure, Dom Deluise blasts off!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

DOG BITE DOG (Hong Kong, 2006)

A fight at the opera: the bits they really didn't need.

DOG BITE DOG (Hong Kong, 2006)

D: Soi Cheang Pou-soi

Bleak made chic, with hip nihilism taken to nearly laughable extremes, as grungy Cambodian assassin Edison Chen hits Hong Kong for a paid hit and is immediately pursued by tenacious cop Sam Lee across a dingy, trash-strewn city. The picture moves at a relentless clip, forgiving those moments where it slows down for Chen to "act," but the central message that men will revert to basic instinct in desperate times is nothing new, so the filmmakers make sure to blame bad daddies for good measure (or is it absentee mommies?). The metaphor is mercilessly pounded home by Silver Cheung's production design, which consists largely of spreading copious amounts of detritus and grime onto every location--as if having one major character live in a shanty on top of a garbage dump wasn't obvious enough--and cinematographer Edmund Fung, who bathes the festivities in a sickly yellow-green hue. Okay, we GET it! But just in case we don't get it, one setpiece fight between the grunting protagonists is augmented by dog growls. You see, they're all feral and stuff, so...ummm... But the worst is saved for last, a self-contained, thematically unneccessary and nigh-operatic blast of pretentious Cambodian slice 'n dice that could have saved all involved one hell of a lot of embarrassment had it been dropped entirely. Real life party boyz Lee and (especially) Chen look too young for these parts, and are surrounded by any number of actors who might have been better in their places. Of the two, Lee comes the closest to convincing, while Chen finally appears to have found the outer reaches of his limited talents, and it was a very short search.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

THE TIRED CITY (Hong Kong, 2008)


THE TIRED CITY (Hong Kong, 2005/2008)
D: John Chan and Pam Hung

An official selection of the 2008 Hong Kong Independent Short Film Awards, presented here via the YouTube Screening Room.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I.C. KILL (Hong Kong; 1999)

I. C. KILL (1999)
D: Mihiel Wong Chung-ning.
Y2K jitters conjure up yet another ghost in the machine in this moderately (but surprisingly) witty, suspenseful videogramme that has slacker Michael Tse fearing for his life after roommate Jason Chu intercepts a date with his pretty new internet ICQ chatmate (Liz Kong) and turns up face down at the Ma Liu Shui pier in Sha Tin shortly thereafter. Tech-dumb detective Vincent Wan sizes up the clues, discovers a small chain of victims—including an embarrassed, defensive young female survivor in the hospital—and deduces that the perp is, in fact, a vengeful ghost with a firm deadline for Tse’s departure from the mortal coil. Taking their cue from last year’s phenomenally successful RING pictures from Japan—not for nothing is this film’s bogeywoman named Hiroko—director Mihiel Wong and writer Andrew Wu, who shared these duties between them last year on their debut project B. FOR BOYS, think cinematically on a home video budget and come up with a (very) rough gem distinguished by smart blocking in visually interesting locations—aided in no small part by cinematographers Ng Wing-sin and Lau Wai-kwan, and art director Ginnie Fung Suk-fun (the lamp in Tse’s apartment radiates golden-orange like something from a Wong Kar-wai movie)—and two lead characters that are generally more rounded, both in the writing and the performances, than one usually finds in this corner of the shot-on-video arena. The picture’s most notable asset might very well be it’s unvarnished depiction of computer user interface and online chat sessions (watch the video), something far too many filmmakers unnecessarily “enhance” with phony graphics and sound effects. It should be interesting to see what Wong and Wu are capable of should they return to shooting on film.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

BLACK MAGIC 2 (Hong Kong; 1976)


BLACK MAGIC 2 (Hong Kong; 1976)
D: Ho Meng-hua
Heeding what I can only assume was a public outcry for a followup after the success of the previous year’s wild dark arts exploitationer BLACK MAGIC, director Ho Meng-hua, writer Ni Kuang and their mischievous horror elves not only come up with a more intricate story that repurposes most of the earlier film’s leading players, they crank the freak-show dial way, WAY up.


Lam Wai-yiu, Ti Lung, Tanny Tien Ni

More gore! More nudity! More zombies! More lesions, skin ulcers and blood worms! More lactation! A miscarriage! Wait a minute...ewwww! The opening credits haven’t even rolled before a topless native girl is devoured by a fairly convincing crocodile, after which a frizzy-haired old wizard (Yeung Chi-hing) guts the beast to retreive a cherished bangle for her grieving family. Things get decidedly more outlandish from there as skeptical Hong Kong docs Ti Lung and Lam Wai-tiu take wives Tanny Tien Ni and Lily Li on vacation to what a title card informs us is “A Tropical City,” where they run into all sorts of gooey Southeast Asian mysticism at the hands of suave sorcerer Lo Lieh.


Lo Lieh

From his basement lair, Lo whips female pubic hairs and breast milk into powerful zombie potions, controls his creations via giant metal spikes pounded into their heads (the removal of which expedites the decomposition process in Hammer-style dissolve-o-vision), and doesn’t take kindly to city folk sniffin’ around the rotting corpses of his victims. Not only does he turn Li into an walking husk after luring her from the group, he casts a love spell on both Ti’s wife (Tien) and his colleague (Lam).


Lily Lee

Shaken free of Lo’s remote-controlled adultery by a rightfully perplexed Ti, Lam’s subsequent race to rescue his own wife from Lo’s clutches ends rather poorly for both of them, leaving Ti to seek out the services of wily old wizard Yeung, who helps him break Tien’s spell by extracting live worms from the oozing sores on her back. After he loses a subsequent battle of the hex dolls with an agitated Lo, Yeung bequeaths his own eyeballs to the young hero, who’s not a little nauseated that he has to eat them to gain the arcane powers needed to take on Lo and his battalion of druid-robed zombies.

The increased budget is not only evident in the quality and abundance of the movie’s visceral special effects, including some fairly effective process work during the fiery finale, but also in soft, atmospheric lensing by Cho Wai-kei and an eerie, detail-rich production design by Chan Ging-sam that works as hard as the actors to play up the popular Hong Kong perception of Southeast Asian countries as literally crawling with all manner of evil and exotic threats. Definitely one of the all time great Hong Kong horror pictures, with a few bits of Yuen Cheung-yan’s martial arts play thrown in for good measure—dig that kooky fight atop the gondola lift— and a flavorful music score by Frankie Chan Fan-kei.

I'm told you can pick this up on DVD in Region 1 from Media Blasters some time in the Fall, but when I want to see a movie—especially one as hyped as this one has been over the years—I don't like to wait. And like others in the know, I grabbed a membership at www.jaman.com—a LEGAL online distributor of a phenomenal selection of international cinema—and downloaded it myself, an act all the more necessary when IVL/Celestial apparently withdrew it from their release schedule for some godforsaken reason. And while I'm glad I didn't wait, I'll still pick up the Media Blasters edition when it streets or better yet, when it inevitably ends up in one of their price-reduced three packs that follow about a year or so after they release the titles individually.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

THE PLOT (Hong Kong; 1991)


THE PLOT (Hong Kong; 1991)
D: Chui Chik-lim (as Teddy Yu)

Greedy, traitorous Simon Yam usurps the throne of a weapons syndicate, only to contend with freshly-paroled rival Sun Chien and an abundance of undercover cops in the organization (dude needs to run better background checks!). Cheapo actioner strains plausibility at regular intervals, and lacks a strong leading character: puggish Sun Chien and Emily Chu, as one of the cops, vie for the honor but cancel each other out, leaving the impeccably-apparelled Yam to steal the show. Highlight action sequences, co-choreographed by Sun Chien, pit him against a Japanese hitbitch (To Gwai-fa) in a shanty-trashing deathmatch, and the entire cast against each other in a sprawling shipyard shootout that goes on for nearly 12 minutes straight!

Friday, March 28, 2008

BRAVEFUL POLICE (Taiwan/Hong Kong; 1990)

Nightclub wrestler To Gwai-fa meets with disapproval. Bet your local Amvets ain't got a show like this!

BRAVEFUL POLICE (Taiwan/Hong Kong; 1990)

D: Hon Bo-Cheung
This lesser-known Kara Hui vehicle should probably stay that way. It's a soapy thriller that looks like it was shot for free and sends the veteran martial artist to Tokyo where, with the help of a plucky prostitute (Yip Ka-ling) and a sexy lady wrestler (To Gwai-fa; don’t ask), she takes down the syndicate that’s squeezing her restauranteur uncle. Lotsa yap about displaced Taiwanese folk sticking together (all the girls hail from the island), but the only real highlight comes when Kara yanks the bikini top off a snooty roundeye peeler and tosses her into the audience at one of those only-in-a-Hong-Kong-movie nightclubs where well-dressed society couples gather to furiously applaud spastic stripteasing—and female wrestling—like it was a night at the friggin’ opera! Stay home. New wave band Berlin performs “Take My Breath Away,” though I’m fairly certain they’re not aware of it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

KILLING ME TENDERLY (Hong Kong; 1997)


WARNING: Clip contains spoilers, but also many of the things that are cool about Hong Kong cinema (even if this isn't one of the great Hong Kong films), so view at your own risk.

KILLING ME TENDERLY (Hong Kong; 1997)

D: Lee Lik-chi

Craving a change of scenery and pace, rural village leader and police chief Leon Lai transfers to the big city, where he’s less than thrilled with his first assignment: babysitting low-ranking pop singer Sammi Cheng through a gauntlet of rehearsals, mini-concerts, press conferences, petty rivalries, radio interviews and photo ops, all the while pretending to be gay both to fit in with her all-gay “mistress house” of handlers and to keep her from suspecting he’s actually investigating an increasingly homicidal stalker.

Cute blandness very nearly defines bubblegum Hong Kong filmmaking, but the scenario might have sparkled more brightly had Lai dialed up the camp to something even half approaching the levels seen in his concerts, and had Cheng played something a little edgier than a trusting dove of innocence who just wants the world to hear her sing (essentially her own “public image” made manifest). Then again, this is the kind of movie in which the hero grudgingly allows his charge to carry on with her first big stage show and, despite the threat of a psycho killer on the loose in the auditorium, allows groups of tear-streaked young girls to deliver flowers to the singer ON STAGE! Because he loves her, you see, and she trusts him with her life, which she doesn’t fear losing in front of her adoring fans because they’re the most important people in the world, even when the man sworn to protect her is 30 rows back while more of them run up on stage to greet her and cry some more and . . . did I mention that a man-child whacko who kills cats is loose in the house?

Sammi Cheng and Leon Lai (the latter somewhat surprisingly) give warm, natural performances, although the contrivances that turn their working relationship into a romantic one are far less convincing (particularly Cheng’s reaction after discovering Lai’s undercover status and the fallout that ensues). Industry milieu and minutiae have a sanitized air of authenticity about them, which weighs nicely against the film’s ultra-conventional catch-that-stalker scenario.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

BIZARRE (Canada/USA; 1980-85)


Apropos of nothing, I thought I'd take a look back at one of the great viewing pleasures of my youth, one of the last great sketch comedy revues and one of the few things televisual that Canadians should rightfully be proud of, even if their American cousins got the version with all the boobies.

Bizarre has aged much more gracefully than one might expect, and a series of DVDs issued in recent years as THE BEST OF BIZARRE should attest to this fact. Sure, it dates from a time when names like Bella Abzug, Henry Kissinger, Tom Snyder were punchlines in and of themselves (though barely, and more often because they simply sounded funny as punchlines), and sure, host/cast leader John Byner was probably given too many opportunities to run through a surprisingly (for his talents) limited range of impersonations that had been serving him well since THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW in the 60's (Paul Lynde, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Marlon Brando, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Mathis, John Wayne to precise, and usually in the form of "audition reel" sketches for famous movie and TV characters like THE GODFATHER and FANTASY ISLAND's Herve Villechaize), but when I transferred several season's worth of old Betamax tapes to DVD-r for safe keeping not long before the DVD series started appearing (figures!), I can safely say I still found myself reeling with laughter despite knowing much of this material from heart. (this piece references some of the sketches contained within the DVD volumes, as well as many others)

The show's writers, directors and cast had a remarkable collective ability to spin old jokes into seemingly fresh full length sketches that would usually feature heavy padding via Byner's antics and asides. Distill just about any sketch down to it's raw elements - minus sets, cast, and the usual digressions for time - and you've got jokes that had been done on any number of variety shows in the decade before this one - BIZARRE reformulated the brew in large part by added healthy doses of cynicism, sexism and slapstick violence - and of course the naked women (keen eyes would be right in noticing a thankfully mute Ziggy Lorenc—later a vee-jay for Canada's MuchMusic channel—as a piece of furniture, clad in a bikini just like four other "pieces" placed in a slum apartment rented out by crotchety landlord Byner).

And, of course, the inimitable Super Dave Osborne (played by series producer Bob Einstein, the brother of Albert Brooks).



Cast lists at places like IMDB fail to give credit to the contributions of many bit players who went on to greater things, most notably Canada's own Mike Myers (as Byner's nephew in a show closer in which Byner reacts to a review that claims he stuffs the audience with relatives, only to learn that all but one audience member is family!) and future CROW villain Michael Wincott (look closely at the Mexican Nephew seated beside Luba Goy in the legendary Bigot Family sketches). Donnelly Rhodes, another Canadian mainstay who had a memorable run on the U.S. sitcom SOAP, plays one of Super Dave Osborne's stunt coordinators in a second-season sketch involving a mechanical bull. There were others including early, popular appearances of a young Howie Mandel, though guest stand-ups were generally more along the lines of Willie Tyler and Lester. For whatever that's worth.

In the first and, to a lesser extent, the second seasons, BIZARRE would include sketches filmed outside of Toronto, including an amusing bit filmed in an L.A. cemetery in which "priest" Redd Foxx sends bad TV shows to their rightful resting places surrounded by a platoon of LET'S MAKE A DEAL contestants), and a peculiar filmed segment where a gorilla holds up a grocery store and speeds off in a stolen Mercedes.

When something clicked on BIZARRE, viewers could rest assured the idea would be tweaked and repeated on a future episode. Witness the ever-increasing insanity of the Super Dave Osborne stunts, or the "Byner Originals," in which the host would claim to be introducing some new comedy creation - Boy John, Johnny Jackson - that were blatant ripoffs of actual personalities of the day which would prompt producer Bob Einstein to interrupt the sketch, calmly berate Byner, and then suffer a litany of insults in return ("it's called the wandering Jew and it'll be here in about 5 seconds", went one memorable line from a similar sketch). Or better yet, it might involve yet another unsuspecting audience member and end with something like this:



The aforementioned Bigot Family proved popular enough to fill several repeat sketches with well-delivered ethnic humor (although 90's syndication episodes oddly removed what few Asian gags there were and cut several watermelon gags). Other popular returning characters included: the Reverend T.V. Seewell, who broadcast from the Enzlo Veal Animal Healing Pavilion (the location of which changed from bit to bit); a Yoga For Health instructor with fake stretchy legs who invariably closed his sketch to Devo's "Whip It"; and a perennially bottom-rated news team featuring a sportscaster who only favored black athletes, a drunken film reviewer (Saul Rubinek in some sketches) kept on a leash, a clueless weatherman (Don Lake) with an atrocious toupee and a lead anchor (Byner) who took exception to his female co-host's bitter digs by punching her out of her chair.

Another great repeat gag was often played on regular Tom Harvey (another Canuck), who would be whisked from a sketch to correct a "makeup problem", only to return to the re-shoot and discover doors nailed shut, breakaway furniture and real booze in the drinking glasses. Audience members were often used to supplant "underwhelming" actors, or to heap further indignity on Tom Harvey. And finally, long before Conan O'Brien thought he came up with the idea, the creators of Bizarre used the process of superimposing real lips over cardboard celebrity cutouts to often delirious effect (politicians of the time singing lite-FM love ballads, for example)

BIZARRE's peak seasons were probably 1982, 1983, 1984 and even most of 1985-86, after which other comedy shows on then burgeoning cable networks (and regular broadcast TV) started to steal their thunder, signaling and end to the sketch comedy format as many had known it throughout the 60's and 70's. Nonetheless, these shows represent one of the last bastions of political incorrectness in broadcast comedy, particularly for something shown on a major Canadian network during early prime time hours!

At long last available on DVD, BIZARRE might not provide the hearty laughs it once did to those of us who were there to witness it during its initial run, but there are still many fond memories to be savored in these volumes.

Friday, February 15, 2008

BATTLEFIELD BASEBALL (Japan; 2003)


BATTLEFIELD BASEBALL (Japan; 2003
D: Yudai Yamaguchi

This low-budget baseball zombie comedy is arguably a mixed bag, but one likely to develop a sizable cult following if it hasn't by the time you read this. While it successfully pokes fun at the clich├ęs inherent in most sports movies, particularly those emotional cheats where spectators spontaneously applaud the most mundane, often personal actions of the main characters, it doesn't deliver on the action and gore quotient promised by the concept. And yet, as a budget-conscious live-action adaptation of a Shonen Jump manga, it plants tongue hard in cheek and certainly feels faithful to the source material, never for a minute taking itself seriously and gleefully indulging in the most eye-rollingly obvious visual gags.

Desperate to make it to the big leagues, the Seido High School baseball team must face their much more successful rivals at Gedo High, a team made up entirely of well-armed zombies. Their ace in the hole may well be transfer student `Jubeh The Baseball' (Tak Sakaguchi), whose signature fastball killed his own father, a tragedy which prevents him from helping the team. Directed by the writer of VERSUS (Yudai Yamiguchi), produced by that film's director (Ryuhei Kitamura) and starring that film's lead (Tak Sakaguchi), BATTLEFIELD shares that film's low-budget ingenuity, but wisely knows when to take up stakes and call it a day around the 90 minute mark. Can't speak for the R1 release of this title, but the Japanese R2 DVD I picked up has English subs and includes a hilariously inventive short film called Ramen Baka Ichidai, about a kid who hunts down the perfect Ramen noodles for his dying grandfather. Primo stuff.

Friday, February 8, 2008

TUBE (Korea; 2003)


TUBE (Korea; 2003)
D: Baek Woon-Hak

While I can't highly recommend it, TUBE is kind of fun, provided you don't think too much about the plot, which has a stereotypical loose-canon cop (Kim Seok-hoon) battling a terrorist (Pak Sang-min) onboard a hijacked subway train. The terrorist is a former government eraser that the government tried, but failed, to erase, and he's taken the train, and Seoul's mayor, hostage to uhh, well . . . to apparently have the plan be doomed from the start.

Equal parts SPEED and THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, and lesser parts DIE HARD and MONEY TRAIN (the hero's boss does his best crazy Robert Blake impersonation), the film has few pretensions, which make it easy on the derriere, but overall it's a victim of ridiculous logic and a story that begs a few too many questions. Poor Bae Doo-na gets one of the stranger film roles in film history, as a pickpocket who apparently knows she must love the hero even before she knows the hero, and indulges all the necessary Korean histrionics along the way (as well as almost bearing more physical brutality than the hero!) while our glowering protagonist poses with a series of unlit cigarettes in his mouth (and which only one person will ever be allowed to light, care to guess who?).

Production wise, though, TUBE delivers the goods, with slick production values throughout, and some nicely handled chase and fight scenes. Turns out, if I read the docu-stuff on the Korean 2-disc set correctly, that the Korean subway trains don't even look as hi-tech as they do here, and the ones in the film were almost entirely CG apart from the sets for close-ups! Columbia Tri-Star's sleeve is highly reminiscent of the art for TRANSPORTER and, not entirely unexpectedly, substitutes a generic Asian face for that of star Kim Seok-hoon. Nice.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

FATAL TERMINATION (Hong Kong; 1990)


The only reason you'll probably get this movie in the first place!


FATAL TERMINATION (1990)

D: Andrew Kam Yeung-wah

Dark, serpentine action thriller, sharply written by Lee Man-choi and Pang Chi-ming, from one of the colony’s most unsung filmmakers. Andrew Kam, co-director with Johnnie To of the Heroic Bloodshed classic THE BIG HEAT (yeah yeah, I know. . .) and, later, the excellent HEART OF KILLER, shows his singular knack for taming an abundance of lead characters and converging plotlines into a lean piece of work.

To hide his middleman dealings with Arab terrorists and a vicious gun dealer (Phillip Ko, who also co-produced) from hound-dog Political Division investigator Simon Yam, dirty customs chief Robin Shou frames, then kills fellow customs officer Michael Miu. The dead man’s sister (Moon Lee, in a career highlight performance) and her husband (Ray Lui), both Special Forces operatives, begin their own investigation, but soon find their lives virtually destroyed by the bad guys.

The movie plays like a nicely stripped down version of some of the great American police corruption flicks of the 70’s, although the Yanks rarely contrived finales in which all the principals go at each other with cars, copters, grenades, machine guns and rocket launchers on an open battlefield! Of interest: FATAL TERMINATION contains one of the most frightening stunts I’ve ever seen in a Hong Kong movie, as a bug-eyed gwailo goon holds Moon’s little girl by her hair outside the window of a visibly speeding car with Moon on the hood desperately trying to punch through the windshield. The story goes that the kid was never in harm’s way and that the “arm” was actually a strong steel contraption, but it still makes for one of those jaw-dropping, “holy shit!” moments that separate the cinema of Hong Kong from any other.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

NO MERCY FOR THE RUDE (Korea; 2006)

Shin Ha-kyun

NO MERCY FOR THE RUDE (Korea; 2006)
D: Park Chul-hee

Superb production values aside--and really, what Korean movies aren't well made these days?--NO MERCY FOR THE RUDE has a lot of the elements that, when viewed in too many consecutive movies (which can happen in this country's films), tend to shift people away from Korean cinema for short periods of time, and help to explain the terrible financial slump that is plaguing the K-film industry right now. You'd think they could avoid it by mixing genres, but there's often a streak of emotional violence in many (but obviously not all) Korean movies --including comedies--that takes a toll after awhile, and this film has some of that, in addition to some rather cringe-inducing physical violence at odds with it's self-consciously quirky characters.

It's the story of a mute, loner assassin (Shin Ha-kyun, essaying yet another oddball like he did in SAVE THE GREEN PLANET) who lives by his own code of "cool" and dreams of becoming a bullfighter despite being a bit of a bumbler in his profession. His best friend is also an assassin and former ballet dancer who is saving up to buy a warehouse to make into his own studio. Isn't that just quirky and cool? He picks up and beds a sexy bar girl (Yoon Ji-hye) from a favourite post-kill gin joint, and she comes and goes from his life as she pleases, at least until a little street-urchin attaches himself to Shin, at which point a weirdly dysfunctional family is created. Oh, how inventive!

The killer's motto is summed up in the title, as he only kills those who deserve it (of course, the victims are so one-dimensionally sketched that we have to take the filmmakers' word for it that they're really deserving of the grisly deaths they receive). When a hit results in the death of the intended victim's twin brother, the usual volleyballs of revenge start getting served, leading this wannabe black comedy to a typically melodramatic and tragic ending that is almost a foregone conclusion in these kinds of films. Especially the ones from Korea.

Watching this as a double bill with CITY OF VIOLENCE (released the same year as this film; check the archives for a look at the love affair with J&B that it shares with this film) makes for an interesting contrast in styles of on screen physical carnage. Where CITY is cartoonish and winkingly overblown, MERCY marks each kill with the juicy pop of an exit wound or the nauseating (and repeated) "chukks" of knives thrusting into chests and stomachs--all lovingly and realistically recreated in crispity-crunchity DTS and effected as realistically as possible. A flashback scene involving a paid hit on an unsuspecting fisherman is a queasy highlight only because the filmmakers cleverly place the audience in the shoes of the first-time assassin, who (initially) has difficulty with the job because he knows nothing about his scared, misunderstanding victim, and neither do we, which makes it all the more difficult to watch. After that, blood flows with an abject realism but in the end there's no point to anything these self-consciously eccentric characters do, and their fates are made predictable by the very genre!

Some films in the "oddball assassins" genre will take at least modest pains to show the pointless and unrewarding nature of killing and its inevitable consequences, and I guess this one MIGHT be trying to get that across, but I find some of the more effective ones have at least a believable hero worth rooting for: MERCY's hero is practically a byproduct of his own imagination, but he's not even a remotely likable character once you see how viciously he can dispatch targets that usually don't get much opportunity to fight back. Nor is anyone he comes into contact with particularly likable beyond their wardrobes. By the time the festivities climaxed with the by-now de-rigeur Korean blend of melodrama and spitting blood, I found I couldn't have cared less.

Always remember, labels out! Yoon Ji-hye and Shin Ha-kyun

Just tell 'em Emily sent ya!

Promo ad included in the VCD of QUEEN'S RANSOM a few months back. She might not be on every Hong Kong film producer's run-to list—and she damned well should be—but it's good to know the vastly under-appreciated Emily Kwan can still land nice promo gigs on the side!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

SPICE COP (2002)


SPICE COP (2002)

D: Amen Wu Ga-kan.
AKA: HOT & SPICY

"Kooky" cops Louis Fan and Patrick Keung (two names that don't exactly scream "hilarious!" playing characters named F-Bomb and Mojito) are hired by the estate of a millionaire to shield his prized daughter from her shifty relatives, who are soon murdered one by one in the tycoon's opulent mansion after arriving there for the execution of the will. Writer Michael Yeung and director Amen Wu play out their mystery with a winking, Dutch-angled cartoon sensibility, most shamelessly embodied by the hero detectives: every line of dialogue they speak, every movement they make, is accompanied by the broadest possible gestures, including funky little dance steps and outsized facial contortions like googly eyes or flicking tongues. In the end, this liberal coating of "wacky" fails to make us forget that this is a formulaic whodunnit. Thankfully, Fan participates in several well-choreographed and crisply edited martial arts fights, including a climactic style-versus-style doozy in a garage with henchman Sze Hung-bor, and these make the title worth at least one viewing.