Blu-ray: Richard Lester’s ‘The Knack’ and more

KnackWhy isn’t Richard Lester more celebrated? An American who made his home in England, Lester earned an Oscar nomination for The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a lark he made with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and others, made his reputation as a fresh, innovative filmmaker with Beatles rock and roll romp A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and proved his versatility with the acidic drama Petulia (1968), the comic swashbucklers The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), and the melancholy Robin and Marian (1976).

Kino Lorber has just released three of Lester’s British film on Blu-ray for the first time on their Studio Classics label, including one of his best.

Fresh from the playfully exuberant A Hard Day’s Night, which set the bar for rock and roll cinema and inspired the modern music video, Richard Lester continued the same acrobatic, tongue-in-cheek style in The Knack… and How to Get It (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), his adaptation of Ann Jelico’s lightweight play “The Knack,” creating a delightfully frivolous take on swinging London and the sexual revolution.

Michael Crawford is grade school teacher Colin, the meek landlord of a flat where lives Tolen (Ray Brooks), who has “a certain success with the ladies” (which Lester exaggerates in a simultaneously poetically delicate and outrageously dreamy image of identically clad young women lining up the staircase and out the door into the streets for their turn with Tolen). When Tolen agrees to teach Colin a few tricks he decides he needs a bigger bed. Meanwhile Nancy (Rita Tushingham) arrives in London. While Colin and his new border Tom (Donal Donally) push Colin’s new brass bed home through the streets of London (which Lester shoots with a “candid camera” technique to elicit surprised reactions from unsuspecting onlookers) they “pick-up” Nancy, but Tolen moves in for the make while Colin chokes on small talk. Crawford’s underdog desperation and mix of innocence and desire makes for an appealingly nerdish hero but it’s Tushingham’s kooky charm and deft comic delivery that steals the film. Lester’s offbeat sense of humor and zippy pace drive this goofy romance and compendium of sight gags and non-sequiters, while John Barry’s lovely score balances the energy and invention with a tender romanticism.

HowIWonJohn Lennon gets second billing in How I Won the War (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), Lester’s farce of confused priorities and skewed war stories in World War II but is no more than simply another member of the ensemble of confused, distracted and goofing soldiers under the command of Michael Crawford’s eager but incompetent Lt. Goodbody, a cheery upper class twit promoted to officer by virtue of class rather than any talent, intelligence or aptitude for leadership.

Lester had directed Crawford in the The Knack and Lennon in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, which are all better movies than this well-meaning misfire of a black-humored satire as anti-war statement. The absurd mission movie (to build a cricket pitch in the North African desert in advance of the invasion) is an awkward mix of British music hall lampoon, “Goon Show” whimsy and absurdity, gallows humor and gruesome scenes of death (actual battle footage is edited into the comic chaos), sometimes inspired, sometimes mugging shamelessly in overworked performances and bizarre antics. Lennon’s impish goofing around the edges can be endearing, but the slapstick often falls flat and the collision of comedy and cruelty gets confused. The cult of John Lennon has made this an essential film for completists, but it’s little more than an oddity for everyone else.

BedSittingThe Bed Sitting Room (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), adapted from the play by Spike Milligan (of “The Goon Show”), is another anti-war satire, this one a series of comic sketches about a post-nuclear London with a girl who is 17 months pregnant, a father who turns into a parrot, and others who become a chest of drawers and a bed sitting room.

All three have been previously available on DVD or DVD-R and are remastered for their respective Blu-ray debuts, and all three include the “Trailers From Hell” shorts on The Knack (with Allan Arkush) and The Bed Sitting Room (with John Landis) and a Lester trailer gallery.

Two years the label released Lester’s superb (and far too often overlooked) 1974 picture Juggernaut (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD), a kind of caper thriller about a terrorist who plants seven bombs on a luxury ocean liner. Richard Harris and David Hemmings are the disposal experts parachuted in to defuse the bombs and Omar Shariff is the captain who neglects his wife (Shirley Knight) under the pressure of the situation. It’s not a comedy by any definition—in fact, it’s a terrific thriller with as much personality as tension—but Lester weaves some terrific character humor through the picture, notably Roy Kinnear as the hapless Social Director, trying his best to keep spirits through the ordeal. Lester rewards the actor and his character with a lovely little moment of human tenderness amidst the chaos. This has never been on disc before and it is a welcome arrival as well as a good-looking disc. It’s not stellar but it’s mastered from a good source and has a strong image and color. No supplements.

More new Kino Lorber Studio Classics at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘Camelot’ is Lavish and Lumbering

Camelot (Warner), the 1967 musical epic starring Richard Harris as King Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as a flower-child Guenevere, is considered a classic by many and a disaster by others. I’m in that other camp.

The original 1960 Broadway production of the musical version of the King Arthur legend by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe was a smash hit turned cultural touchstone, associated forever with the idealism and youth of the John F. Kennedy. But by the time it came to the big screen in 1967, the old studio system was breaking down and youth culture was challenging establishment tastes. The movie version, directed by Broadway veteran and musical specialist Joshua Logan, tried to straddle the gap between old-fashioned Hollywood musical spectacle and the energy and color and themes of sixties culture. The resulting compromise is big and ungraceful and plodding, a lumbering three-hour spectacle.

Richard Harris, famous for playing rebellious, rough-hewn characters, took over the role of King Arthur (originated by Richard Burton) with a mix of regal dignity and working-class origins and Vanessa Redgrave brought youth and unapologetic sexuality to Guenevere (played by Julie Andrews on stage).

Italian actor Franco Nero, however, is neither a charismatic romantic lead nor much a singer as the conceited and sincere Lancelot, the night that captures Guenevere’s heart. He’s just one tone-deaf element to the simplistic take on the Arthurian myth. Lavishly mounted, with magnificent sets and costumes and castle backdrops, it’s also clumsily directed and haphazardly edited, alternately lighthearted and heavy-handed, often in the same scene. And while it has its fans, the bloated, overlong production was a huge financial flop and helped kill the old-fashioned musical.

The Blu-ray release features commentary by film historian Stephen Farber and two well made (if overly admiring) documentary featurettes among the supplements, and comes in an illustrated Blu-ray book case with a soundtrack sampler CD.

More Blu-ray releases at Videodrone

Blu-ray: ‘Unforgiven’ at 20

Unforgiven: 20th Anniversary (Warner)

“I don’t deserve this, to die like this. I was building a house.”
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Clint Eastwood’s 1992 western earned the director his first Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Director. In a way, it finally made official what critics and fans had slowly come to  realize over the last decade (and at least since his 1988 “Bird”): Clint Eastwood—legendary as both the iconic western drifter with no name and Dirty Harry—was one of America’s best directors. He had directed 15 features before Unforgiven and has made as many again since, but “Unforgiven” is still the film that defines Eastwood the director for most audiences.

Aged and sunbaked into a leathery hardness, he plays a former gunfighter roused from his retirement (he’s a widower, single father, and floundering farmer) for one last bounty, and Morgan Freeman (in his first appearance in an Eastwood film) is his old friend and former partner invited along for a piece of the bounty. Eastwood also directed Gene Hackman to an Oscar as the seemingly affable sheriff, a pragmatist who measures justice in terms of expediency, and gave Richard Harris the equivalent of a spotlight solo in a small role as a flamboyant British gunslinger managing his own legend through pulp stories.

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The Red Desert of Antonioni’s Industrial Landscape

Red Desert (Criterion)

The color debut of Michelangelo Antonioni continues his exploration into the cinema of alienation with a new dimension. And it’s not just the expanded palette, which he paints in the colors of waste. This drama of dislocation and neurosis is set against an industrial landscape where the rivers are choked black and oily with pollution, the barren lots around factories are dead, gray graveyards of junk and ash and waste, the horizon is made up of smokestacks belching smoke and flames and even the parks hiss smoke from pipes running under the sod.

Monica Vitti and Richard Harris in the modern landscape

Giuliana (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s great muse) navigates this world tenuously, a fragile woman in a world where the detritus of industry has almost eradicated the natural world. Richard Harris (his voice dubbed into Italian) is a visiting corporate recruiter who becomes infatuated with the beautiful but nervous wife of his colleague. There’s a flirtation of sorts, but it’s as emotionally smothered as the industrial world around them.

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