Beyond Good and Bad: camp sex and violence

beyond-the-valley-of-the-dollsBEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS Russ Meyer, director/Arrow Blu-Ray ‘This is my happening and it freaks me out!’ A personal note. I saw this film on its original release, and I may have been one of the few people in a Liverpool cinema who already knew about the films in Russ Meyer’s CV. I wasn’t surprised by the hilarious mix of excess, tongue-in-cheek camp sex, bloody (and ridiculous) violence and women with unlikely proportions. The Liverpool audience I was watching it with clearly interpreted it as a very bad film, and hooted throughout – although there were clearly enjoying it. But was Russ Meyer another filmmaker like Ed Wood, who genuinely thought his films worked on some non-crass level? Here’s your chance to find out. Arrow Video’s disc of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is released on Blu-ray and DVD, and this extra-packed special edition will be limited to 3,000 copies only. Co-scripted by film critic Roger Ebert, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a satire of Hollywood and the music business, a no-holds-barred psychedelic thrill-ride that gleefully stirs sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, fashion, lesbianism, transvestism and Nazis into one of the most riotously unhinged mainstream films ever made. This special edition also includes the rarely-seen The Seven Minutes (1971), Russ Meyer’s Hollywood swansong, an adaptation of Irving Wallace’s polemical novel about the absurdities of American obscenity laws.

OFFBEAT Cliff Owen, director, Network This is a valuable issue for fans of hard-to-see British crime movies, because Offbeat – despite the reputation it has acquired over the years – has been particularly hard to see. The film has even had an entire book of British film reviews named after the film. The most notable aspect here is the moral equivocation shown towards the undercover hero who does things in the course of the film that no conventional protagonist in Britcrime film would normally do, although the ending is something of a compromise. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating piece. William Sylvester heads up the cast of this aptly titled early-60s suspense thriller featuring an MI5 man entrusted with a high-tension undercover assignment. Co-starring Ingmar Bergman-alumni, the Swedish actress Mai Zetterling in an underwritten role, Offbeat is available here in a brand-new transfer from the original film elements, in its as-exhibited theatrical aspect ratio. Equipped with the name and background of a former crook, an MI5 agent on undercover assignment for Scotland Yard coolly carries out a bank robbery to establish his criminal bona fides. His mission is to infiltrate the world of the new breed of criminals whose skilfully planned robberies outwit the Yard – a mission fraught with danger.

TOUCH OF ZEN King Hu, director/Eureka Blu-Ray The cult martial arts classic receives a new 1080p transfer of the film on Blu-ray, with a progressive encode on the DVD. It sports eye-catching extras, including a commentary by critic and Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns and a 1975 interview with the director King Hu by Rayns. The exquisite visuals that so impressed when we first saw the film look even more striking on Blu-Ray.

SO EVIL MY LOVE, Lewis Allen, director/Screenbound. The neglect of this overheated slice of melodrama is inexplicable, given that many a lesser film enjoys a higher reputation. But this one is great fun, with the ever-reliable rangeland on top form as a charming swindler seducing hapless Ann Todd in a compelling tale of betrayal and deceit. It’s hard to imagine a film such as this being made today, but it’s precisely that retro conviction which makes it such beguiling viewing (given, that is, the necessary adjustments that have to be made for the modern viewer.

DEEP RED, Dario Argento, director/Arrow Blu-Ray Usually unspooling to the throbbing, high-decibel accompaniment of the music of Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin (his long-time collaborator), the films of this energetic Italian were once (before his decline) breath-stopping rollercoaster rides consisting of painterly visuals and graphic horror. Argento’s feature film debut, the poetically titled The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo, 1970), augured well for his career – a commercial success in 1970, it looks a fascinating dry run for many ideas to be more fully developed in later films. Tony Musante plays an American writer in Italy who witnesses a murderous assault through glass (prefiguring David Hemmings in the later Deep Red (Profondo Rosso, 1976); he is trapped between sliding glass doors while attempting to aid the bleeding victim (Eva Renzi) – and this sequence seems to be the one people remember over the years – probably because Musante’s subsequent tracking down of the black leather-clad murderer is handled with rather less panache than Argento was to develop in subsequent films. The later Deep Red was stunning evidence that Dario Argento’s delirious visual talents had been consistently in evidence from his earliest films to Inferno (1980). A tortuous Hitchcockian thriller (with a relatively unguessable denouement), it is better constructed than Suspiria (1977) – the film it has most in common with – and the plot-spinning between the big, operatic set-pieces is better throughout. However, it is obvious that the director’s real interests lie in the heady exploration of baroque architecture in front of which his characters are gorily dispatched. David Hemmings, in a nod to his Blow Up persona, is almost witness to a murder, and, with the ambiguous aid of a young newswoman, threads his way through several menacing expressionist settings before, inevitably, confronting the deranged killer. The murders along the way are highly imaginatively staged – the death-by-boiling-water makes the similar sequence in Halloween II look thin stuff indeed. Several frissons are provided by Carlo Rambaldi’s effects – the most shocking being decapitation by necklace and lift (not exactly a hackneyed demise). Limited to 5,000 copies, this exclusive 3-disc release offers up a stunning new 4k transfer of both the international cut (105 mins) and the director’s cut (127 mins). This new release also includes a wealth of bonus content, alongside the complete 28-track original soundtrack recording, housed together in deluxe packaging including an all-new exclusive booklet, 6 x postcard set and feature newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx.

FIXED BAYONETS!, Samuel Fuller, director/Eureka Blu-Ray Of all the celebrated American cult directors, I have to confess – personally speaking – that Samuel Fuller is my least favourite. The energy and inventiveness are undeniable, but the primitive mindset and lack of sophistication that admirers see as virtues is a problem for me (notably in such cult favourites as Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss). No reservations, however, about Fixed Bayonets, Fuller’s startlingly realistic and harrowing depiction of the Korean War, issued as part of The Masters of Cinema Series. The iconoclastic American director’s first production for a major studio was this tense, snowbound Korean War drama. A small platoon of army grunts are ordered to stay behind to protect a 15,000-man division as it moves out under heavy enemy fire. One corporal, whom the platoon has mistakenly come to believe is a hero, is left with the responsibility of protecting the men – a decision that may cost them dearly amidst escalating and unpredictable circumstances.

ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, Tom Stoppard, director/RLJ Entertainment For anyone (like myself) who has seen this quintessentially theatrical play on the London stage, any film version will almost certainly be a disappointment – but wait! Tom Stoppard’s directorial debut (in this version of his own play) may be only a qualified success, but has much to offer, not least in its acting talent. Tim Roth and Gary Oldman play the titular leads, alongside Hollywood great Richard Dreyfuss. The film comes to DVD in a brand new remastered version courtesy of RLJ Entertainment. Winner of the prestigious Venice Film Festival Golden Lion award, RAGAD follows two lesser-known characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. To celebrate its 25th Anniversary the film comes to DVD in a special edition two-disc set, on 8 February 2016, complete with more than three hours of bonus features including interviews with Stoppard himself, Roth, Dreyfuss and Oldman. Like the similarly over-reaching Dennis Potter, Stoppard did not prove to be as accomplished a film director as he is a playwright (and he frankly admits as much), but Rosencrantz & Guildenstern is still a cherishable stab at the play.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, various directors/Fabulous Films As a child, I once sat utterly mesmerised by a disturbing and chilling piece of television drama, The Glass Eye – a show that was in fact reminiscent of the ventriloquist dummy episode in the classic Ealing film Dead of Night. It was an episode of a half-hour series called Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and back then I perceived him (via his on-camera introductions) as a slightly sinister uncle – not realising at that tender age that this was one of the greatest directors the British cinema had ever produced. Ironically, that particular episode – included in this handsome collection — is not in fact directed by Hitchcock, and the Master’s own contributions to the series are relatively few. But there are treasures galore here, not just from the cream of the film fraternity in the directing stakes, but with performances from such top stars as Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre. The set itself is as unmissable as the companion volume from Fabulous Films of the hour-long Alfred Hitchcock series.

VALENTINO, Ken Russell, director/BFI Is it time to reassess one of Ken Russell’s less well-received films, receiving a splendid new transfer? While Valentino is no neglected masterpiece, it is still more than worthy of interest. The controversial British director tells the story of one of the screen’s greatest legends, Rudolph Valentino, in this flamboyant and sexually charged film, with Rudolf Nureyev – as inexpressive as an actor as he was superb as a dancer. Made in 1977 and previously unavailable on Blu-ray, it is released in a Dual Format Edition (contains both Blu-ray and DVD discs) by the BFI on 29 February 2016. The film is presented with numerous special features including an audio commentary, a new interview with cast member Dudley Sutton and other interviews. Valentino traces the adored silent film actor’s journey from humble beginnings as an Italian immigrant in New York, where he worked as a gigolo, to Hollywood, where he seduces famous lovers and ascends to stardom. Despite such towering success, tragedy beckons however, as Rudy falls prey the mass-hysteria of his audience, the blood-thirsty press and his own indulgent lifestyle. Valentino is an enthralling biopic from one of Britain’s most distinctive and celebrated filmmakers and is the first of three DVD/Blu-ray releases of Ken Russell films by the BFI this year, five years after his death in 2011. On 28 March, Ken Russell: The Great Composers (containing Elgar, The Debussy Film and Song of Summer) and Ken Russell: The Great Passions (containing Always on Sunday, Isadora and Dante’s Inferno) will be released in Dual Format Editions.

THE JERK, Carl Reiner, director/Fabulous Films Okay, let’s be honest, it’s not as funny as we thought it was the first saw it, but The Jerk will still pass the time beguilingly in the 21st-century, and has more than its share of laughs. The Jerk is a 1979 American comedy film directed by Carl Reiner and written by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, and Michael Elias. This was Martin’s first starring role in a feature film. The film also features Sondheim soubrette Bernadette Peters, M. Emmet Walsh and Jackie Mason, making the most of the fact that he’s not an actor. It was box office smash earning over $100 million, having been produced on a modestly low budget of $4 million. It has an 84% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The website IGN ranked the film as the 10th top comedy film of all time. Stanley Kubrick was a big admirer of this film. He would often recite lines to cast and crew on his films and he once invited Steve Martin over so they could play chess. By 1977, comedian Steve Martin was hugely successful as a stand up, but he wished to cross over to a film career, believing it promised more longevity. Basing his film proposal on a line from his act — “It wasn’t always easy for me; I was born a poor black child”. He was able to pick which director he wanted to work with, and chose Carl Reiner. Reiner is a legend of American comedy, having achieved great success as a comic actor, a director, producer and recording artist. He has won nine Emmy Awards, three as an actor, three as a writer and two as a producer. He also won a Grammy Award for his “2,000 Year Old Man” album, based on his comedy routine with Mel Brooks. The duo met constantly, and the film’s title grew out of their conversations: “It needs to be something short, yet have the feeling of an epic tale,” Martin remarked. “Like Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, but not that. Like The Jerk.”

TRACEY ULLMAN’S SHOW/RLJ Entertainment Generally well received on its TV showings (though with some dissenting voices), we now have an opportunity to re-evaluate Tracey Ullman’s character-driven comedy series, Tracey Ullman’s Show, which comes to DVD courtesy of RLJ Entertainment’s Acorn label following its run on BBC One. After several decades of fame and acclaim in the US, Tracey returns to British television for her first UK sketch show in 30 years, with her unique take on some famous faces and some of the extraordinary characters who live in, or are visiting the global hub that is the UK. Discover the secret life of shoplifter and hooligan Dame Judi Dench; Dame Maggie Smith’s home-filmed auditions for blockbuster feature films; an inside look at the life of Germany’s Angela Merkel; topless feminist MP Sally Preston; Hayley the obsessive zookeeper; Dominic, the coffee-shop app-conceiver and find out what happens when Camilla Parker Bowles and Carole Middleton take turns babysitting the smallest in line to the throne.