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DVD Reviews for 1/16: The Incredibly Strange DVD Column That Stopped Being A Number And Became A Man

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/15/09 06:29:49

As you can probably guess from the title (and if you can't, you really need to work on your arcane pop culture references), this weeks' column is dedicated to two great figures from the world of entertainment--indie horror filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler (the man behind the immortal "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies") and Patrick McGoohan (the creator of the equally immortal TV classic "The Prisoner"). Of course, having a column that includes the likes of "My Best Friend's Girl" may not seem like that much of an honor but, on the other hand, this week also sees the long-awaited release of an underground comedy classic as well as enough other bits of interest to hopefull sway you from the likes of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

Once upon a time, there was a man by the name of Michael O’Donoghue who liked to tell jokes and funny stories. However, the jokes and stories that he liked to tell were ones that were quite different from the one told by you or I or your Aunt Martha. No, the ones that he told were dark and brutally satirical pieces in which he took the sacred cows of the day and brutally hacked them apart in such a cheerfully deranged manner that when you read them, you often laughed twice--the first time because they were so funny and the second in response to the simple fact that someone out there actually had the audacity to say such things. Although his brand of comedy was defiantly bleak and brutal, his contributions to “National Lampoon” magazine (where his contributions included the infamous “Vietnamese Baby Book” in which baby’s first word was “Medic”) and “Saturday Night Live” (he actually wrote and appeared in its very first sketch and penned pieces in which the “Star Trek” crew battled cancellation and the show itself was attacked by giant mutant lobsters)during their formative years were so noteworthy that when he left “SNL” at the end of its third season in 1978 on highly acrimonious terms with both producer Lorne Michaels and NBC, both were still so convinced that he was the future of comedy that the former agreed to finance an original project that he would write and direct and the latter agreed to air it during one of the nights when “SNL” was off the air. What they got in return was “Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video,” a work that was little-seen at the time and almost totally forgotten today except by comedy fans who continue to debate whether it was a work of genius or one of the most shoddy and tasteless things ever placed before a camera. No, 303 years after it was first produced, Shout! Factory has given “Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video” its long-awaited (by some) DVD release so that a new generation can experience its decidedly peculiar charms and carry on the debate for themselves.

The conceit of the film is that it was to be the contemporary equivalent of the so-called “mondo” documentaries that became a brief fad in the 1960s with their poorly shot and haphazardly edited clips of weird rituals and activities from across the globe that inexplicably held audiences spellbound. (Of course, they may have just been fans of Julius LaRosa, whose haunting “More” became the theme song for the most famous film of this particular cycle, 1965’s “Mondo Cane.”) After an opening in which O’Donoghue, hold a gun and surrounded by bunny rabbits, warns of the savage and bizarre sights that we are about to see, the film becomes a patchwork of weird archival footage, and even weirder new material, most of it presumably consisting of material that O’Donoghue couldn’t get onto “SNL” over the years. In rapid-fire fashion, we are treated to such sights and sound as Gig Young’s groceries, topless African women dancing in a living room, the mating call of the harpooned humpback whale, women in wigs jumping over a campfire and that old piece of film shot by Thomas Alva Edison in which an elephant is electrocuted. Among the more elaborate sketches, we are taken to an island where all of America’s tacky fads disappear to after they go out of style and visit church that worships “Hawaii Five-0” star Jack Lord. We witness a man as he teaches cats to swim and the secret government plans for “Laser Bra 2000.” There are even a number of famous faces on display--punk icons Rootboy Slim, Klaus Nomi and Sid Vicious perform (the segment with Vicious performing “My Way“ would become even funnier when “Mondo Video“ briefly hit home video in the mid-1980s and composer Paul Anka refused permission to use the song on the video--instead, the entire segment plays silently while a title crawl slowly explains the situation), Dan Aykroyd appears to show off his webbed toes and prove that he is indeed a genetic mutant and a group of women (including Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Margot Kidder, Teri Garr and Debbie Harry) discuss the disgusting characteristics that they supposedly look for in a man. (“When my date blows his nose into his handkerchief and then looks at it, I can’t say no!”

It goes without saying that when O’Donoghue finally turned “Mondo Video” in to NBC, the network heads were uniformly appalled with the final product and demanded an enormous number of cuts before they would even consider airing it--they especially insisted that the segment with Vicious, who was then accused of murdering girlfriend Nancy Spungen, be deleted.) After a protracted period, O’Donoghue arranged to have the show bought outright from the network and sold it to fledgling film distributor New Line Pictures. Unfortunately, the show was shot on videotape and in transferring it from tape to film, the visuals, which were already intentionally cruddy to begin with, were now almost literally unwatchable. When the film finally opened, the combination of the ugly visuals and uglier humor enraged the majority of the few viewers who turned out to see it and it was quickly pulled from distribution amid rumors that audiences were so incensed that they were tearing out chairs, slashing screens and even allegedly beating up a theater employee in one location. For O’Donoghue, “Mondo Video” would prove to be his Waterloo and while he would spend the 1980s writing a number of screenplays that, with the exception of 1988’s “Scrooged,” would never get produced (including a monster epic entitled “War of the Insect Gods” and a post-apocalyptic sequel to “Easy Rider”) and making a couple of ill-fated returns to “Saturday Night Live,” the heat surrounding his career had clearly vanished and his status as a true American original would not be reestablished until after his untimely death in 1994 from a cerebral hemorrhage, a cruel and sudden twist that was not that far removed from the ones that he loved incorporating into his art.

Attentive viewers will notice at this point that I haven’t offered any kind of critical commentary regarding the material in “Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video” and that has been somewhat deliberate. While it is easy enough to for us to be moved by the same dramatic elements as long as they are executed correctly, humor is such a subjective thing that you can take what you think is the funniest thing in the world and there will be plenty of people out there who will sit through it completely stone-faced and wonder when the laughs are supposed to start. That is especially true in the case of “Mondo Video” when much of the humor is based in material that few people would consider to be funny in a million years. All I will say is that while it does have its occasional moments of tedium here and there, “Mondo Video” is, for the most part, a laugh riot from start to finish in my opinion and that it now stands as a perfect tribute to O’Donoghue and his unique and ground-breaking comedic sensibilities. On the other hand, however, many of you will no doubt feel much differently and I can only hope that what I have written has thrown up enough warning flags to keep you from making a huge viewing mistake. That said, if you agree with me regarding the comedic brilliance, you will definitely want to check out the bonus materials assembled here. For starters, there is a commentary track featuring O’Donoghue’s longtime co-writer and cohort Mitch Glazer who offers up plenty of behind-the-scenes tidbits covering all aspects of the show’s production and aborted release. Next up is a couple of the hysterical “Least-Loved Bedtime Tales” that O’Donoghue performed on “SNL” during his heyday on the show--imagine Aesop’s Fables with a body count and you have the idea. Finally, there is another “SNL” segment, aired soon after O’Donoghue’s death, in which Bill Murray offered up a decidedly unique eulogy for the man utilizing the framework of the last, but not the Least-Loved Bedtime Tale.

And suddenly, the DVD column was hit by a truck.

Written and directed by Michael O’Donoghue. Starring Michael O’Donoghue, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Carrie Fisher, Teri Garr, Joan Hackett, Debbie Harry, Margot Kidder, Julius LaRosa, Wendie Malick, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman, Klaus Nomi, Gilda Radner, Paul Shaffer and Sid Vicious. 1979. 75 minutes. Unrated. A Shout! Factory release. $19.99.


NEW AND NOTABLE

APPALOOSA (New Line Home Entertainment. $28.98): Although it kind of got lost in the shuffle when it came out last fall amidst a number of high-profile titles, this was actually one of the happier surprises of the season--a lean, efficient and resolutely straightforward western featuring strong performances from Ed Harris (who also directed) as a freelance lawman brought in to clean up a town terrorized by thugs, Viggo Mortensen as his laconic right-hand gunman, Jeremy Irons as the main bad guy and Renee Zellweger as the pragmatic prairie pianist who comes between all of them at times.

BALLS OUT: GARY THE TENNIS COACH (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): Having previously collaborated on the semi-immortal “Dude, Where’s My Car?” (which actually wasn’t that bad, if I recall correctly) Seann William Scott and director Danny Leiner reunite for the stirring saga of a former tennis prodigy, now reduced to working as a high school janitor, who winds up returning to the sport when he takes over the school’s team following the death of their coach. If you are worried about the film being too subtle and refined, be advised that this direct-to-video item has been dubbed the “Extra Big And Bouncy Edition.”

BEHIND ENEMY LINES: COLOMBIA (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.95): No, this is not a documentary of my unfortunate trip south of the border to try to win the heart of Shakira. Instead, it is an in-name-only direct-to-video sequel to a long-forgotten Owen Wilson movie in which a bunch of Navy SEALS on a secret mission in Colombia to keep an eye on a top-secret peace meeting between warring factions find themselves on the run when after it is attacked and the leaders from both sides are killed. Amusingly enough, the film was directed by Tim Matheson, who once played Eric Stratton and who is presumably still damn glad to meet you.










BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S--PARAMOUNT CENTENNIAL COLLECTION/FUNNY FACE--PARAMOUNT CENTENNIAL COLLECTION (Paramount Home Video. $24.99 each): As the latest entries in their reissue program feature the crown jewels of their catalogue, Paramount offers up two-disc collections of two films featuring the eternally popular Audrey Hepburn--the former is, of course, the legendary 1961 adaptation of the Truman Capote novella in which she plays party girl Holly Golightly while the latter is the 1957 musical in which she plays a bookstore clerk who becomes a famous model under the tutelage of photographer Fred Astaire (whose role was inspired by real-life shutterbug Richard Avedon). My guess is that if you have any interest in these titles, you already own them but on the off-chance that you don’t, the combination of the films and the special features collected here (commentaries, documentary featurettes and archival materials) should be enough to push you into finally picking them up for your collection.

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): Although handsomely mounted and featuring a strong supporting performance from Emma Thompson as the stern and cruel Lady Marchmain, this attempt to bring the acclaimed Evelyn Waugh novel just didn’t click--it plays more like a collection of greatest hits from the book than a full narrative and the approach is so stiff and starchy that it will drive most viewers to boredom and distraction. Unless time is of the essence, you are far better off watching the still-impressive 1981 TV miniseries adaptation instead of this one.

HIT AND RUN (MGM Home Entertainment. $26.98): In what appears to be a variation (to put it mildly) on Stuart Gordon’s hilarious black comedy “Stuck,” this direct-to-video horror epic tells the tale of a college hottie (Laura Breckenridge) who thinks that she has hit a cat during a drunken drive home from a party, only to discover that the “cat” is actually a half-dead guy impaled on her bumper.



HUMBOLDT COUNTY (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): After getting flunked out of class by a professor who happens to be his own father, a disillusioned med student (Jeremy Strong) takes up with a nightclub singer (the always-welcome Fairuza Balk) and winds up spending the summer in the redwoods Northern California with her extended family, a group of pot farmers. I’m sure that you are feeling just as sorry for this guy as I am.

MIRRORS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): If this week’s return of “24” hasn’t satisfied your jones for all things Kiefer Sutherland, perhaps you will enjoy this dippy horror film in which he plays a former cop-on-the-edge who gets a job as the night watchman of the smoldering ruins of an old department store and finds himself haunted by the malevolent spirits lurking within the surprisingly intact mirrors. This is the latest effort from director Alexandre Aja, the auteur behind such exercises in tedious sadism as “High Tension” and the “Hills Have Eyes” remake, and while it is slightly more competent than his previous efforts, it is still arguably the second-lamest theatrical release DVD of the week.

MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.95): The lamest, by the way, is this excruciatingly unpleasant comedy about a desperately unfunny scumbag (played, in a bit of spot-on casting, by Dane Cook) who is recruited by his droolingly idiotic pal (played, in a bit of spot-on casting, by Jason Biggs) to date the guy’s Spam-brained ex (played, in a bit of spot-on casting, by Kate Hudson) and treat her so badly that she will run back to him. Sadly, I couldn’t tell you how it all turns out--this one was so awful that even I found myself fleeing the theater after about an hour or so and bear in mind, I managed to make it to the end of “Bride Wars.”

MY BLOODY VALENTINE (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.98): As with any number of horror movies that one could mention, there have been rumors circulating for years that a bloodier version of this 1981 Canadian slasher film (in which the hot young denizens of a mining town are pick-axed by a mad killer getting revenge for an atrocity 20 years earlier) existed somewhere. As it turns out, the rumors are true and this previously unseen and unexpurgated version has turned up just in time to promote the upcoming 3-D remake. As these things go, the film never comes close to hitting the heights of “Halloween” or “Scream” but it contains enough moments of gruesome inventiveness to make it worth checking out for fans of the genre.

PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE (Palm Pictures. $24.98): You might think that it would be virtually impossible to make a documentary about the seminal priestess of punk rock that was anything other than absolutely electrifying. And yet, director Steven Sebring spent 11 years following his subject and somehow managed to only come up with this boring and aimless home movie that never comes close to approaching the passion, energy and focus that are always on display in her music. Even her most dedicated fans will find this one a chore to sit through.

SUPERCOP (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $18.98): Having spent years purchasing the American rights to Hong Kong action epics and then trashing them with slipshod releases featuring heavily cut and badly dubbed versions, the Weinsteins have been restoring those films to their former glory through their Dragon Dynasty imprint and have finally gotten around to rehabbing what may be Jackie Chan’s greatest film to date--his jaw-dropping 1993 comedy-thriller in which he and fellow cop Michelle Yeoh take down an international ring of bad guys with some of the most eye-popping stunts ever put on a movie screen. This 2-disc set also includes a commentary track from HK expert Bey Logan and interviews with Chan, Yeoh, director Stanley Tong and Ken Lo, who appears in the film as well as serving as Chan’s bodyguard and training partner.

SWING VOTE (Touchstone Home Entertainment. $29.99): Though corny to the extreme and never quite as fascinating as the actual election that was going on when it was released last summer, this Capraesque comedy about a Presidential election that comes down to the single vote wielded by a drunken stumblebum (Kevin Costner) was actually kind of charming and amusing without ever laying the schmaltz on too thick. If nothing else, it is worth renting just for the sequence in which the two presidential candidates--Republican Kelsey Grammer and Democrat Dennis Hooper--try to pander to Costner’s supposed beliefs with a series of increasingly hilarious campaign ads.

TESS OF THE D’URBEVILLES (BBC Warner. $34.98): The classic Thomas Hardy novel, previously brought to the big screen in 1980 by Roman Polanski and to the small screen in 1998, gets yet another go-around in front of the cameras with this 2008 version done for the BBC in which Gemma Arterton (the Bond Girl in “Quantum of Solace” who essentially stole the entire show before getting dipped in oil) plays the innocent young woman who finds herself cruelly seduced and exploited through no fault of her own by two very different men in ways that led to tragedy for practically everyone involved.








TYLER PERRY’S THE FAMILY THAT PREYS (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.95): In the latest effort from the tragically tireless Perry, two matriarchs--socialite Kathy Bates and working-class Alfree Woodard--find their long-standing friendship threatened thanks to the various social, sexual and business scandals caused by their dopey kids and decide to go on a road trip in order to straighten things out. If that isn’t enough Tyler Perry for you, this week also sees the release of his syndicated TV hit “House of Payne, Vol. 3” (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.98).








UNDERWORLD/UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.95): Just in time for the eagerly awaited prequel (I am assuming that someone is eagerly awaiting it), Sony is offering fans of the bizarrely banal action-horror craptaculars about the ongoing battle between vampires and werewolves for control of something or other another chance to purchase the previously issued DVDs, this time in a two-for-one package. No doubt correctly assuming that the only people who might be interested in such a thing presumably already own them, Sony has sweetened the deal slightly by including a free ticket for the new one, a move that will also help soften the blow when those fans hit the multiplexes and discover that Kate Beckinsale is nowhere to be found in it.

VISITS: HUNGRY GHOST ANTHOLOGY (Facets Home Video. $24.95): This horror anthology from Malaysia offers up a quartet of intriguing tales of terror in which the survivor of a teen suicide pact is visited by ghostly visions, a paranormal spirit appears to enter the lives of two friends, a student filmmaker tries to conjure up a spirit for his cameras with unpleasant results and a woman is stalked through the halls of her apartment building by the maintenance man. Although the one involving the suicide is the best of the lot, the other three are intriguing enough to keep genre fans interested.

WALKER, TEXAS RANGER--THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON (CBS DVD. $49.99): Another sixteen hours of Chuck Norris doing what he does best--delivering justice-filled roundhouse kicks to anyone he even suspects of being some kind of punk. This time around, he goes swinging after drug dealers, killers, corrupt cops, survivalists, industrial polluters, IRA terrorists, child pornographers and even a group of Satanists about to sacrifice a group of kidnapped children as part of a Halloween ritual. Other TV-related DVDs on tap for this week include “Alvin and the Chipmunks: A Chipmunk Valentine” (Paramount Home Video. $14.98), “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Chippettes” (Paramount Home Video. $16.98), “Dallas--The Complete Tenth Season” (Warner Home Video. $39.98), “Little Britain, USA” (Warner Home Video. $29.98), “Matlock--Season Two” (CBS DVD. $49.99) and “Skins--Vol. 1” (BBC America. $39.98).









WITHOUT A PADDLE: NATURE’S CALLING (Paramount Home Video. $29.98): In yet another in-name-only and direct-to-video sequel to a film that most of us had presumably forgotten, a trio of dopes venture into the treacherous woods of Oregon in search of a sexy back-to-nature babe and wackiness (or something resembling wackiness) ensues. Of course, the first one managed to offer us the sight of Burt Reynolds in one of his more embarrassing performances--this one, on the other hand, can only muster up the likes of Jerry Rice in the role of a woodsman who claims to be Al Gore’s long-lost brother Hal. Let the merriment begin.

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