Thursday, January 29, 2015


Science-Fiction on television is mainly dominated by American shows - from THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS to FIREFLY & THE X-FILES among the sublime to the downright goofy but entertaining shows by Irwin Allen (LOST IN SPACE), who passed that torch to Glen Larson (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, BUCK ROGERS). Shows from other countries will occasionally make their way across the pond; witness the popular DR. WHO, TORCHWOOD and ORPHAN BLACK now on BBCAmerica, older shows like BLAKE'S 7, SAPPHIRE AND STEEL, RED DWARF, SURVIORS and the serialized DR. WHO with Tom Baker whom many first saw on their local PBS stations in the 80's and 90's and the Gerry Anderson shows of the 60's (FIREBALL XL-5, THUNDERBIRDS), 70's (UFO, SPACE:1999) and 80's (SPACE PRECINCT).

What many don't realize is that British Television has had a long history of Sci-Fi quality programming pretty much from the start. Most in America are familiar with Nigel Kneale's Quatermass series, but probably from the Hammer films. They were originally done as live television plays and even after the era of live television passed, the British kept the concept of doing the television play, well into the 1980's. Most of the plays and series were taped 'live' - that is, shot in a multi-camera setup with the cast running through much like recording a theatrical performance, with filmed inserts for certain scenes.

There were the Quatermass serials during the 50's and adaptations of material like Orwell's 1984, as well as series like A FOR ANDROMEDA, and an anthology series of science fiction for ABC Television, OUT OF THIS WORLD, which was hosted by Boris Karloff and featured stories by Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Clifford Simak, John Wyndham, among others. The show was a success, but only lasted a season, due to the creator of the show, Irene Shubik, being hired by the BBC.

Shubik pitched another anthology series, OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, which was accepted and went into production in 1965 and lasted for 4 series (seasons) until 1971. Most American fans never heard of the series until the late 70's - early 80's when some of the British shows started being imported into the U.S.A. I suspect the first mention of it (along with other British product) was in the book FANTASTIC TELEVISION by Gary Gerani & Paul H. Shulman, the first extensive book on genre programming on television up through the mid-70's.

The show was never imported to the U.S. In fact, the only time that I ever got to put eyeballs on an episode was when surviving episodes got uploaded to YouTube just a few years ago. And 'surviving episodes' is probably another factor for the show not being broadcast here - The BBC had the custom of wiping tapes, as a cost-savings measure, of shows, which is why the early history of British Television is very spotty - most of the shows simply don't exist anymore, except for stills, audio and the occasional clip.

So knowing this upfront, one can imagine what the response was when the BFI, as part of their "Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder" celebration announced the release of OUT OF THE UNKNOWN on DVD.

If you are a fan of science-fiction... and I don't mean that you like STAR WARS and watch the SyFy Channel on occasion - I mean that if you are the person who not only watches, but also reads science-fiction; if you know what the names Asimov, Pohl, Sheckley, Kornbluth and have read their work; if you're a fan for the ideas of sci-fi more than just the spectacle. then it is worth your while to track down a copy of this. If you are indeed a fan, then discovering OUT OF THE UNKNOWN is tantamount to when you discovered THE TWILIGHT ZONE and/or THE OUTER LIMITS (60's) for the first time - now imagine that only 40% -60% of either of those shows were all that were in existence.

One important distinction between the American and British approaches (besides budget and production value, obviously) is that the British were more apt to adapt material from writers in the genre - OUT OF THE UNKNOWN adapted several Isaac Asimov stories, as well as stories from Frederick Pohl, Ray Bradbury, Kate Wilhelm, J.G. Ballard (whose story 'Thirteen To Centaurus" was also an inspiration to the recent SyFy miniseries ASCENSION), John Brunner, John Wyndham, Clifford D. Simak, Robert Sheckley, E.M. Forster, amongst others. Most of the American shows really didn't pull from the pool of material from established sci-fi writers.

The bulk of surviving episodes are from Series One; Series Two has two notable episodes of the show, "The Machine Stops"  by E. M. Forster (A Passage To India) and "Level Seven" by Mordecai Rashwald and adapted by J. B. Priestley. Both series were broadcast in black and white and where the 'classic tv vibe' is the strongest. Series 3 and 4, the series changed producers and started broadcasting in color - it's also where the majority of missing episodes lie. In cases where the surviving material is audio and stills, there are episode reconstructions, to give the viewer a sense, at least, of the story.

Series 4, the show shifted from most of the 'space opera' type of science-fiction towards more psychological and occult type of material; probably due to concerns that the fantastical type of sci-fi couldn't credibly compete with current real-life events (the Apollo space program was in full swing at the time). Nigel Kneale contributed a story, "The Chopper", which unfortunately is among the missing/wiped shows.

Overall, if you're the sort that still buys physical media to enlarge your personal library AND a fan of science-fiction, this is obviously one of the Releases of the Year. It's also a very important historical release for British Television - the set includes 11 commentaries on selected episodes, all of which did add some value, especially about the environment in which these shows were created. In addition to image galleries and episode reconstructions, there's a 40 min documentary 'Return To The Unknown" which goes into the history of the program and includes surviving clips from some of the missing episodes.

Being a R2 release, if you're in the U.S. and don't have access to an all-region player, or haven't taken the step to hack your player to all-region (if it's possible to do so), then the only way you'll be able to see some of the eps will be via the uploads on YouTube, if they'll remain up for anytime past this.

In the U.S., the best way to get the set - and indeed, pretty much any DVD/BR import - is through DiabolikDVD - it should be about $90, including shipping, but that may depend on the exchange rate at the time.

The Digital Fix did an extensive breakdown on the set, as well as this excellent review from Mondo Digital. You can also find more specific info about the show on the British television site Archive Television Musings.

The definitive guide to the show by author Mark Waid can be ordered here.

And if this gives you a taste for British Genre Television beyond just DOCTOR WHO, know that there's a considerable amount out there that may make going all-region in one form or another pay off; there's also the plays of Nigel Kneale, and shows such as THE CHANGES and CHILDREN OF THE STONES, and GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS, just to start out...

Recent viewing: Inherent Vice, Brewster McCloud, The Babadook

As mentioned earlier, some accounting of recent media viewing...

The first reviews are a motherfucker...


By now, most of the critical reaction to Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel has turned out decidedly mixed and disappointing box office turnout has making the analogy that this is PTA's "1941" [Steven 'Bulletproof' Spielberg's infamous Bete Noire of 1979 which pulled him from the top of the heap until RAIDERS]. Which might be overstating things slightly, but you really have to wonder if most of these people have even heard of Thomas Pynchon or even put any thought into what an adaptation of his work would even be by a director whose love of subverting expectations is pretty much his established style?

That said, it's no big surprise that this adaptation - a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel - would probably not go over well with the general audience, despite what seems to be a can't miss setup... a stoner-noir of hippie private-eye 'Doc' Sportello (Jocquin Phoenix) who gets pulled into a mystery by an ex(?)-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) whom he still carries a torch for and which leads him into other mysteries which all seem tied into one BIG conspiracy/mystery with many players, most who work with him/against him depending on whatever situation he turns up in.

This sounds like a hoot, like THE BIG LEBOWSKI - which is basically Pynchon-Lite appropriated by the Coen Brothers which had Jeff Bridges as a clueless stoner who gets caught up in a neo-noirish mystery and which turned into a beloved cult film. Unfortunately, most didn't seem to take to INHERENT's languorous approach to plot or character and seemed to be pissed off that the movie wasn't anything like LEBOWSKI.

Not to jump on anyone for not liking INHERENT VICE - after all, it is based on a Pynchon novel and anyone who's read him knows that straightforward plotting is not what draws one to Pynchon - but what was surprising, to me at least, was the hardcore dissing of the film by people who profess to love the work of Robert Altman. [Residing near Kansas City, MO, those connected to film are very quick to invoke the name of Altman, especially when it also involves his successful work, like M*A*S*H]. Watching VICE put me in mind of another misunderstood film that also got little respect and box office at the time of its release, but is now regarded as a classic - THE LONG GOODBYE, directed by Saint Altman.

INHERENT VICE isn't as audience friendly as THE BIG LEBOWSKI was; and nowhere near as concerned with plot trajectory -- it's not the destination that's important, it's the journey and the characters met along the way. And maybe more of the public will be more appreciative in 20 years - when Everyone will LOVE the film.

Fuck Da Haters, Dude


Speaking of Altman... those aforementioned acolytes that like to invoke the holy name apparently don't feel the same of invoking the work which doesn't fall under the 'Success' banner, which with Altman seems to be missing the entire point - my guess is that they'd felt the same about BREWSTER McCLOUD at the time of its release as they felt about INHERENT VICE now. Of course 40 years later, they're bound to look at BREWSTER with some fondness.

BREWSTER is best described as an Altman fantasy, the first before delving into later works like IMAGES, 3 WOMEN and QUINTET. Basically pulling one element from a script by Doran William Cannon (SKIDOO) - the idea of a boy building a set of wings to fly - the script was tossed out by  Altman, and the story reworked by Altman and writer Brian McKay and during production, much was improvised constantly. That the resulting film makes any sort of coherent sense at all is a testament to the talent of everyone involved because it does seem to be the sort of film whose charm is mainly due to the death-defying act of not collapsing into chaos, but always being on just the verge of doing so.

Altman manages to keep the absurdities aflitter around that central concept - set in Houston, our title character (Bud Cort) secretly lives in the Astrodome while working on a set of wings for human flight. At the same time, Houston is plagued by a series of random stranglings, which bring hotshot San Francisco detective, Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) to town. Amongst those two plot tentpoles are a variety of characters: Stacey Keach as a miserly landlord of rest homes, Sally Kellerman as Brewster's guardian (fallen?) angel; and in her debut, Shelley Duvall as a Astrodome tour guide who gets involved with Brewster. There are also a lot of allusions to birds throughout - pay close attention to names of places and license plates, as well as Rene Aborjonois as a lecturer on birds who acts as a chorus. Micheal Murphy's character is a parody of Steve McQueen in BULLITT and there is also sequence that parodies the famous car chase.

It may not be for everyone, but for those in the mood for a bit of whimsy from the late 60's/early 70's, it'll fit the bill nicely. Available on Burn-On-Demand DVD from Warner Home Archive.



Jennifer Kent's feature has been hailed as one of the best horror films of the year, and I get in line with the rest to back up that statement, although calling it a 'horror' film somewhat marginalizes it - by rights, Kent and her two main actors should also be amongst the list of nominees for awards, but such is life.

One of the  refreshing things about the film is the situation that sets the events in motion - the relationship of a grieving single mother and her problematic son, which is a change from the usual gang of idiots waiting to be killed, or some lame franchise creation. The two main influences of the film are REPULSION and THE SHINING, as well as the feel of a Grimm Fairy Tale come to life. Also refreshing is the level of ambiguity that Kent allows in the story; audiences nowadays are not huge fans of ambiguity, as witness by some of the pushback on the film, calling it 'not scary'. If you're expecting the usual jump scares and blood, yeah, it certainly ain't in that league -- THE BABADOOK isn't 'thrill ride horror', it's meant to be The Real Thing.


This weekend has two good film events scheduled: in Lawrence, KS, there's the Free State Winterfest, Friday & Saturday Jan 30 -31 which will screen THE SUBLIME AND BEAUTIFUL and GONE DOGGY GONE,

And in North Kansas City, The Panic Film Festival returns to the Screenland Armour Fri-Sun. Jan 30 - Feb. 1 for an eclectic selection of horror and sci-fi films, as well as special guests and events. Films of note are LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY'S 'THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU', WOLFCOP, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, DARK WAS THE NIGHT, STAR TREK II - THE WRATH OF KHAN, HEAVY METAL, among others.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

TWICE UPON A TIME on TCM Underground, 1/30 w/THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T

For fans of animation and/or of the obscure, this 'lost' Lucasfilm gem will be shown as part of Turner Classic Movies' TCM Underground series late Saturday night, January 31 - this has had a rabid cult following since it was made over 30 years ago and promptly was buried with only rare clandestine screenings every now and then, and broadcasts on HBO in the 80's and the occasional rare screening like on Cartoon Network.

TUAT was intended as family-friendly entertainment, done in a process ("Lumage" - basically cut-out animation with translucent materials) that gave it a look different than most of the animation that was being done at the time. The dialog was voiced by members of an improvisational comedy group, The Committee, and the result was a sophisticated work that had the wordplay of a Jay Ward cartoon and the look of nothing else at the time.

Of course, kids hated it... well, it certainly went over their heads in test screenings. And a decision to to spice things up with language and some inneundo pretty much doomed this from any kind of release at the time. Although that didn't stop it from gradually accumulating an audience from the chosen few who actually saw it and who got it. (And a split over which version is the 'original' amongst those few.)

I was lucky enough to see this at SFSU in the early 90's when an errant flyer caught my eye - since then, the movie's hard to find. It's on laserdisc, for those who were stubborn enough to keep their players, and was on VHS, but you can expect to pay big sums of cash if you happen to find someone selling a copy.  You can also find it on YouTube, usually the last resort for the obscure and unreleased (and which is the 'adult' version, with some fan-edit tinkering done at the end).  

However, if you've never seen this before, I'd recommend setting the DVR to catch it... those of you with kids, maybe you can watch it with them when they get tired of watching FROZEN for the 5834th time, although kids will probably like the visuals, most of the humor will be over their heads -- that will keep the parents invested, along with the visuals, as most if not all family entertainment should do, instead of just acting as a babysitter for the brats.

I've deliberately avoided story details... after all, you must have some expectations of discovery if you've read this far. If you're the type that needs some incentive, there's plenty of plot descriptions out there as close as your search engine. But here's a fun fact: TWICE UPON A TIME was a nexus of talent - involved in the production were people like Henry Selick (THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, CORALINE), Harley Jessup (Pixar) and a young David Fincher (GONE GIRL, SEVEN) just starting out his career. Also animator Brian Narcelle might be better known as Doolittle from the film DARK STAR.

Also paired with TWICE UPON A TIME is the Dr. Seuss musical THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T, so make sure there's plenty of room on that DVR!

Twice Upon A Time (trailer) from Cinefamily on Vimeo.