The Bottom Shelf: ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s UHF + Videodrome

Our latest DVD and Blu-ray round-up, from anywhere but the mainstream section...

Firstly, could it just be made clear that David Cronenberg’s body horror classic Videodrome isn’t the latest target for Eat It Hollywood maverick ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s questionable spoofing skills, as much as any sensible film fan would positively relish this prospect. Any crossover is purely in this writer’s head, though both do make an appearance in this month’s round up of the good, the bad and the ugly of cult cinema, starting with Mr Yankovic’s 1989 cult favourite UHF, getting a largely unasked for, but stubbornly here anyway, Blu-ray release.

Standing for Ultra High Frequency, the analogue broadcasting band used by many an obscure TV station in the U.S, UHF sees Al playing daydreaming and down on his luck burger flipper George Newman, whose luck suddenly changes when his uncle gives him creative control of the financially failing Channel 62 in a last-ditch bid to save it from collapse. Of course, this offers the opportunity for endless Kentucky Fried Movie-style TV/cinema parody and oddly incisive reality TV satire thrown together into one unwholesome gloop.

From the characteristic guilty laughter at poor but chucklesome Yankovic punnery (Conan The Librarian the prime example) through to a brilliantly, hilariously accurate (yet still sledgehammer-subtle) Rambo piss-take, you can immediately taste all of the ingredients more familiar in later (better) films, from the obvious Wayne’s World 2 and Hot Shots: Part Deux through to the seemingly endless cycle of ‘Movie’ movies the Wayans brothers long-since jumped ship from.

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With a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards stealing the show with his trademark slapstick buffoonery as a janitor-turned weirdo kids’ entertainer and loads of highly inappropriate bad taste moments puncturing the otherwise family fare, this oddball excursion for ‘Weird Al’ is best suited to the stoned or terminally silly.

Taking a less scattergun though similarly anarchic approach to film-making, next up, we take a belated look at the recent Blu-ray release of Japanese lunatic Takashi Miike’s surprising foray into musicals and animation, The Happiness Of The Katakuris. Whilst the prolific Miike’s 2001 production was an unexpected turn for the director of endless brutal Yakuza hits and the effortlessly controversial Visitor QIchi The Killer and Audition, less shocking is the gory content of this blackly comic blend of J-pop, stop-motion and The Sound Of Music

Starring singer, actor and professed Julie Andrews fan Kenji Sawada as the patriarch of a family attempting to scrape a living running a hotel in the shadow of an active volcano, the grimly quirky plot sees various guests stop by for the night, only to come to increasingly unpleasant ends, inadvertently at the hands of family members and other guests.  With pop-culture references thrown into every spare moment, Miike’s directorial flourishes ranging from the beautifully colourful through to the downright baffling and an utterly bonkers plot involving Queen Elizabeth II and a sumo wrestler among others, this willfully weird concoction is quite unlike anything else you’ll see this or any year. 

Something quite like everything else you will have seen this year is the formulaic swords ‘n’ sorcery ‘epic’ (this really isn’t epic, by the way), The Four Warriors, featuring Game of Thrones‘ Hodor (Kristian Nairn) as a genial seer helping a gaggle of battle-weary Crusaders to track down a Grendel-esque nasty who’s gone and snatched a village’s menfolk and childrenfolk. Despite the overwhelming feeling of cheapness low-budget fantasy action flicks like director Phil Hawkins’ film often suffer from, some entertaining demon-centric set-pieces and serviceable performances from our forgettable stars makes for a watchably bland DVD foray into the dark heart of… whatever.

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With a slightly higher budget and bigger ‘stars’ in the form of a post-Hercules Kevin Sorbo and an, erm, pre-Relic Hunter Tia Carrere topping the bill in what should have been a third Conan film (apparently Arnie was otherwise engaged so they renamed the character), also on DVD this month is the justifiably largely forgotten Kull The Conqueror. A few decent turns and mildly strange appearances aside (somehow Mrs Doubtfire‘s Harvey Fierstein plays a pirate), this wooden adaptation of Conan author Robert E. Howard’s stories suffers from a lack of involvement from the Hercules TV show’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek team of Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. A quick aside for Sorbo fanatics (ahem) – a reliable source informs this writer that last year’s God’s Not Dead, starring Sorbo as a school teacher, is a treasure trove of brilliantly unintentional comedy. Go seek it out.

Swapping swords for bullets and evil sorceresses for Triad bosses (give us a minute and we’ll think of something better), we now head into the arena of that rare beast, the actually good movie, and Milano Calibro 9, Fernando Di Leo’s 1972 Italian pulp classic. Starring The Godfather: Part II‘s Gastone Moschin as an ex-con trying to avoid the wrath of his former boss after an ill-fated heist, Di Leo’s spare direction and a granite-faced performance from Moschin offer a perfect counterpoint to the often brutally violent content and larger than life antagonist, Rocco (Mario Adorf).

With Arrow’s nice DVD and Blu-ray set packed with extras about the book’s original author and the Italian crime genre, this release beautifully highlights the influence of Di Leo on the likes of Tarantino and John Woo, though perhaps neither match Milano Calibro 9‘s effortlessly stylish brand of film-making.

Finally, we go back to Videodrome, which gets a more than welcome tent-pole Blu-ray release, again by Arrow, this month. Cronenberg’s savage media satire is perhaps his greatest film (no mean feat when we’re talking about such a master of the midnight movie) and remains as relevant to today’s society, with its torture porn and reality TV, as ever. A never-better James Woods plays Toronto cable TV boss Max Renn, a low-level pornographer yearning for something harder than the norm until he discovers the mysterious snuff TV channel, Videodrome, and a darkly seductive Debbie Harry, and starts to regret his life choices.

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Cronenberg’s prescient script has all the hallmarks of his best work, blending the wit of earlier efforts Shivers and Rabid with the delirious nightmare wanderings of William S. Burroughs (whom he later adapted on film with Naked Lunch) to delicious, unreal effect. Introducing the motifs that would haunt a distinguished career (organic machinery; the transformation of the self), this wonderfully vivid eighties classic is up there with the best in thoughtful dystopian fiction and has that extraordinary quality of leaving the audience entirely, spectacularly disorientated after viewing.

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