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DVD Reviews for 6/16: This Is My DVD Column And It Freaks Me Out!
by Peter Sobczynski

Zombies, mermaids and crime-fighting monkeys--this week has got everything.

By all rational standards, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” should have been one of the all-time disasters in the history of Hollywood. For starters, it was originally conceived as a cash-in sequel to one of the dumbest and crassest films ever made, 1967's “Valley of the Dolls” (itself based on the equally dumb, crass and successful Jacqueline Susann best-seller), though the final product would have absolutely nothing to do with the original. Later, after attempts at writing a straightforward screenplay (including a couple of attempts from Susann herself) fell through, someone at the studio had the idea of hiring Russ Meyer, the fiercely independent skin-flick auteur who had made a mint with the cheerfully sleazy likes of “The Immoral Mr. Teas,” “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” and “Vixen,” to make his big-studio debut with the project. To assist him, Meyer turned around and hired some ink-stained wretch out of Chicago by the name of Roger Ebert to help him write the screenplay. Somehow, all these disparate elements managed to come together and the resulting film remains one of the damndest things ever made–a goofy, grisly, screw-loose combination of sex, drugs, psychedelic rock and lurid excess that still has the power to blow minds 35 years after it first appeared.<

Although the idea of attempting to summarize the astoundingly byzantine plot is a terrifying notion–there are David Lynch films that are easier to recount–I will try to give newcomers a taste of what they can expect from “BVD” (as it is affectionately known). Kelly (Dolly Read), Casey (Cynthia Myers) and Pet (Marcia McBroom), the members of an all-girl rock trio (imagine the missing link between Josie and the Pussycats and L7), head out for the glittery lights of Hollywood so that the band can seek fame and fortune and Kelly can collect a share of an inheritance from her long-lost aunt, glamourous fashion designer Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis). Once they arrive, they are taken under the wing of flashy music producer Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar) and quickly become the toast of the town. Before long, the once-innocent girls (okay, semi-innocent) are swept up in a wave of drugs, sin and depravity–Kelly forsakes longtime boyfriend Harris (David Gurian) for sleazy movie star Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett) while fending off the lurid advances of her aunt’s sleazy lawyer (Duncan McLeod), Casey finds herself the target of seduction by the sexy lesbian Roxanne (Meyer regular Erica Gavin), Pet finds love with handsome law student Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page) but risks it all for a roll in the hay with heavyweight champion Randy Black (Jim Inglehart) and Harris finds himself in the clutches of the man-eating hedonist Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams). All of these plot threads–and a few that I haven’t mentioned–all come together in a final act that is so luridly over-the-top that “Grand Guignol” doesn’t come close to describing it adequately. Without exaggeration, I can assure you that the finale involves, among other things, a crippling accident, a miraculous recovery, a mass murder vaguely reminiscent of the antics of the Manson family, Nazis, a triple wedding and the shocking discovery that there is more to Z-Man than meets the eye.

Those of you who have never seen the film before are probably thinking that there is no possible way that any film could possibly live up to the expectations created by such a description–I know I felt that way before I finally got a chance to see it for the first time. Not only does it live up to those expectations, it actually manages to exceed them. Instead of allowing himself to be second-guessed and defanged in the way that so many iconoclastic directors do when they first attempt to work within the studio system, Russ Meyer charged in full-speed ahead and came up with a work that had all the things that made his films unique–a whiplash editing style, bizarre humor and an approach to erotic material that manages to suggest a lot while showing comparatively little (this may be the mildest of all the films tagged with an NC-17 rating)–with the addition of a glossier style that fit perfectly with the story he was telling. The screenplay cooked up by Meyer and Ebert is a hilarious satire of practically every Hollywood cliche you can think of (even throwing in a weirdo homage to “Citizen Kane” at one point) which is made even funnier by the fact that most of the actors seem to believe that they are in a serious movie. (The exceptions to this are LaZar and Williams, both of whom start off cranked up to 11 and proceed to go even further as things progress.) And while one can certainly laugh at the hilariously outdated fashions and slang (which probably came across as over-the-top even back in 1970), it isn’t “camp” by any means–this is a film that belongs in a category all by itself.<

Although a box-office success when it was released, “BVD” has had a checkered life in the years since–for a while, Fox seemed embarrassed by the title (along with its even-more lurid contemporary “Myra Breckenridge”) and it didn’t get a major VHS release until 1993–but this amazing 2-disc DVD makes up for all of that with a package that will exceed the wishes of even the most devoted fans. The first disc features two commentary tracks, one by Ebert and the other with Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page, John LaZar and Erica Gavin. Ebert’s talk is a fun and breezy history of the creation of the film and if there is a flaw to it, it is that many of the stories he tells will be a little familiar to the hard-core buffs. The cast commentary may not be particularly profound or enlightening but it is fun to listen to them as they confront their collective past with equal parts humor and disbelief. The second disc features several short documentaries that offer a general overview of the film, detailed looks at specific aspects (such as the music and the sexual material) and observations on its enduring cult appeal, some of the original screen tests for the stars, trailers and a few hundred still photos chronicling every facet of the film (including the Good Parts). Even if it had been released in a bare-bones version, it would have been worth it to get a “BVD” DVD but this set is a happening that will freak everyone out. (Fox is also releasing the original “Valley of the Dolls” on DVD this week in an equally overstuffed package–it is amusing enough as camp but “BVD” beats it like a gong.)

As many of you probably know, Roger Ebert, my colleague in Chicago, is undergoing surgery this week as part of his ongoing battle with thyroid cancer and I would like to take this opportunity to wish him good luck and a speedy return to the back row of the screening room. Besides, if I have to sit through the likes of “Little Man,” so should he.

Written by Roger Ebert. Directed by Russ Meyer. Starring Dolly Read, Cynthia Meyer, Marcia McBroom, John LaZar and Charles Napier. 1970. 109 minutes. Rated NC-17. A Fox Home Entertainment release. $29.95.


AQUAMARINE (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): If you are a pre-teen girl, you are probably going to adore this silly fantasy about a couple of pals (sweet-natured Emma Roberts and the unrepentantly surly JoJo) who discover a mermaid (Sara Paxton) in the swimming pool of the local beach club and, as anyone would do in a similar situation, help her try to get a date with the local smooth-chested hunk. If you aren’t, however, you will probably spend most of the time trying to figure out what the hell Bruce Spence, the oddball among oddballs in “The Road Warrior” is doing here playing the weirdo caretaker.

BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD: VOLUME 2 (Paramount Home Video. $39.99): In this second collection of shorts personally selected by creator Mike Judge, the dumbass duo perform charity work, attempt to score some Spanish Fly, rag on videos from Madonna (“Secret”), the Beastie Boys (“Sabotage”) and Radiohead (“Fake Plastic Trees”). And yes, there is even an appearance from the Great Cornholio himself.

THE BETTY GRABLE COLLECTION (Fox Home Entertainment. $59.98): One of the bigger stars of the 1940's gets her DVD due with a collection of four of her more popular musical films; the serious-minded “My Blue Heaven,” the goofy “Moon Over Miami” and “Down Argentine Way” (which also features the screen debut of Carmen Miranda) and the biopic “The Dolly Sisters,” which features the indescribably weird production number “Darktown Strutters Ball” (complete with Grable and June Haver in blackface).

CEMETERY MAN (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.98): Arguably the best zombie film of the 1990's and easily the funniest of the bunch. Rupert Everett, a million miles away from “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” plays a cemetery worker whose primary job is to rekill the fresh corpses that keep inexplicably rising from their graves. After a tryst with megababe widow Anna Falchi (who can raise the dead all by her pouty-lipped self) goes hideously wrong (partly because it occurs on her dead husband’s resting place), the line between fantasy and reality gets even blurrier than it already is. Really bloody (director Michele Soavi did work under Dario Argento) but really funny for those with a stomach for such things.

DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY (Universal Home Video. $29.98): Well, at least some good came out of that aborted $50 million payday, as Michel Gondry’s wonderful document of the shindig thrown by Chappelle in Brooklyn clearly shows. A lot of great performances from the likes of Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Mos Def–even the Fugees got back together for a brief set–and Chappelle’s short comedy bits demonstrate that he is still as quick and funny as anyone out there today.

DHARMA & GREG: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98): I’m stuck–do I go for the Cartman-esque “Hippies Suck!” comment, the snarky Scientology joke or some comment about Jenna Elfman possibly being the absolute embodiment of all that is evil and dark in the world? Tell you what–follow your heart and fill in the blanks yourself.

DIE SCREAMING, MARIANNE (Shriek Show. $19.95): In one of those not-bad British suspense films from the 1970's that undeservedly slipped into mild obscurity, Susan George (at her Susan Georgiest) plays a sexy go-go dancer who inherits a lot of money and some incriminating documents from her late mother. Unfortunately for her, her psycho half-sister wants the money and her equally unhinged father, a corrupt judge, wants the documents and both are willing to go to any lengths to acquire them.

FOLKS! (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $14.98): In what must surely be one of the most tasteless and unfunny films ever released by a major studio, this dismal attempt at black comedy stars Tom Selleck as a Yuppie scum who winds up taking in his elderly parents after his senile father (Don Ameche) burns down the house–after a series of catastrophes destroy his marriage, job, finances and a testicle, he clumsily plots to kill both of them. From the writer and director of “Weekend at Bernies”–need I say more?

A GOOD WOMAN (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. $26.98): The idea of making an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in which a notorious woman of a certain reputation hightails it to Italy in search of a new benefactor and becomes involved with a pair of newlyweds, is a good one. Casting Scarlett Johansson in the ingenue role of the young bride is also a good idea. However, the notion of casting Helen Hunt as a wanton seductress is one that is so ridiculous that it completely undermines the entire film right from the start. (No wonder the film spent a long time sitting on the shelf before

GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS (Warner Home Video. $27.98): Of course, Helen Hunt as a wanton seductress comes across as pinpoint casting compared to the notion of Elijah Wood as a soccer hooligan-in-training. Sadly, that isn’t the most questionable aspect of this deeply offensive, quasi-fascist bit of twaddle that attempts to show us the lighter and friendlier side of beating the crap out of people who don’t like the same sports team as you.

KISS KISS BANG BANG (Warner Home Video. $29.98): One of the best films of 2005 that you never got around to seeing, Shane Black’s directorial debut (after a screenwriting career that saw him pen the likes of “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight”) was a hilarious deconstruction of the private-eye film in which a lowlife criminal (a brilliant Robert Downey Jr.) is mistaken for an actor and sent to Hollywood to screen test for a film, a move that throws him into a twisty tale involving lies, secrets, murder, severed fingers, a sexy dame (Michelle Monaghan) and a wise-cracking gay detective (a great Val Kilmer). A real sleeper that deserved better than the half-assed distribution it received from Warner Brothers last fall.

LANCELOT LINK, SECRET CHIMP (Image Entertainment. $24.99): In what may possibly go down as the single greatest series in the history of television, at least of those featuring all-monkey casts, we follow the title character, a master spy for the Agency to Prevent Evil, as he dons numerous disguises to battle the forces of the diabolical CHUMP. When he isn’t saving the world or flinging his own crap, Lancelot also serves as the leader of the psychedelic pop group The Evolution Revolution. A DVD that deserves a proud space on the shelf of every family in America.

MEDIUM: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $54.99): And yet, do you think Patricia Arquette saw it coming when NBC decided to bump this reasonably popular show to serve as a mid-season replacement so that they could hand its slot over to the latest Aaron Sorkin nonsense?

NEIL YOUNG-HEART OF GOLD (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): In what will surely go down as one of the all-time great concert films, Jonathan Demme (whose classic “Stop Making Sense” is another contender for the title) beautifully captures Neil Young, in his first performances since undergoing surgery for a brain aneurysm, as he premieres the material for his recent “Prairie Wind” CD at Nashville’s famous Ryman Auditorium. The songs, quiet and reflective tunes in the mode of “Harvest” are among the most direct of his career and his delivery of them (as well as some old favorites during an encore) is as naked and emotional as he has ever allowed himself to be. Fans of Young will be especially thrilled to discover that this DVD also contains a bonus song, behind-the-scenes footage (including rehearsals) and clips of his appearance on “The Johnny Cash Show” back in 1971. A must.

THE PINK PANTHER (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. $29.98): Okay, so this attempt to restart the popular slapstick franchise, in which Steve Martin stepped into the shoes of Peter Sellers, Kevin Kline stepped into the shoes of Herbert Lom and Beyonce Knowles wore a series of outfits that ensured that no one would be looking at her shows, turned out to be not quite as horrible as the trailers made it out to be–that still doesn’t make it right.

16 BLOCKS (Warner Home Video. $29.95): Although it turned out to be little more than an uncredited remake of “The Gauntlet” (with the only difference being that the evil cops have finally learned that if you are trying to stop a bus from barreling its way down a crowded city street by firing 17,000 bullets into it, you should make sure that a few of them are aimed at the tires), this was a pretty good genre exercise with lean and effective performances from Bruce Willis (as the screw-up cop determined to do one right thing, no matter what the cost) and Mos Def (as the oddball criminal who becomes the target of a group of corrupt cops trying to prevent him from testifying in court).

THIS IS AMERICA, CHARLIE BROWN (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): Perhaps the last great Peanuts television special to date, this was an unusually ambitious eight-part miniseries, in which the gang went back in time to witness key historical moments (such as the landing of Plymouth Rock and the signing of the Constitution) and met such important figures as Ben Franklin, the Wright Brothers and Scott Joplin, that managed to be both entertaining and educational.

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originally posted: 06/16/06 00:06:31
last updated: 06/23/06 15:08:50
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