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

Fab film at 50: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

The rock movie was never the same after A Hard Day’s Night opened 50 years ago, on July 6, 1964. The Beatles black-and-white comedy, which is being re-released in theaters for the anniversary, immediately became the cheekiest, wittiest, most inventive film in the then-fledgling rock and roll movie genre.

Before A Hard Day’s Night, there were two basic approaches to the rock movie. Neither demanded much in the way of creativity. There was the Elvis model, where you cast a pop star in a dramatic or comic role and shoehorned a few songs between the scripted scenes, and the “Beach Party” model, where singers and bands simply dropped into a movie to perform a number and then quickly disappeared.

A Hard Day’s Night was something different. The Beatles played themselves, in a tongue-in-cheek fantasy of a day-in-the-life of the band. They were real and unreal at the same time, goofing their way through the world as a way of dealing with the insanity of superstardom, and they were likable and funny and just a little impertinent. If this isn’t how they were in real life, it’s how we wanted them to be.

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MOD Movies: ‘Ring-a-Ding Rhythm’ and other music films

Ring-A-Ding Rhythm (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is a 1962 British music performance film originally titled “It’s a Trad, Dad” (you can see why they retitled for the U.S.). The first feature by American-born but British-based Richard Lester (who went on to redefine the rock movie with “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help”) is basically a succession of performances connected by the thinnest of plots: a couple of teenagers defy a ban on jazz by recruiting bands for a big concert. And by jazz, I mean the traditional Dixieland style that had a big youth following in Britain in the early sixties: modern sixties youth listening to music that was new during prohibition. Can you believe those starchy adults and parents are still horrified? Dropped in with the dozens of trad jazz acts (including Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen and the funky Temperance Seven) are a handful of pop and rock performances by the likes of Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Vincent, and Britain’s Helen Shapiro, who also plays one of the leads.

This is a prime example of a director making something out of nothing. Handed a script that does little more than stitch together a succession of musical performances, Lester doodles in the margins, dropping oddball, surreal gags between the numbers and sometimes during the performances. The script is credited to producer Milton Subotsky but the cheeky asides and slapstick flourishes are clearly from the mind of Lester, who came to the film from a series of collaborations with Peter Sellers. It’s not that Lester makes anything particularly memorable from it all, but that his light touch and whimsical attitude keeps it buoyant and bouncy and far more engaging than you have any right to expect.

Also from Britain is Just For Fun (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), another Subotsky production with a nominal plot stitching together performances by a more familiar line-up of pop performers, including Bobby Vee (singing “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”), The Crickets, Freddy Cannon, The Tremeloes, The Tornados, and a batch of other British acts. Both of these, by the way, are the Amicus, before the company redefined itself as Britain’s trashier, second-tier house of horror.

“How I Won The War” on MGM Limited Edition Collection

Back in print on MOD

How I Won the War (MGM Limited Edition Collection)

John Lennon’s familiar face, unsmiling behind a pair of yellow-tinted glasses, stares out from the cover of the this release of Richard Lester’s 1967 anti-war farce How I Won the War. And though second billed in the credits, Mr. Lennon is not so much co-star as an impish member of the company, an ensemble of oddballs goofing behind the ineffectual strutting of Lt. Goodbody (Michael Crawford, from Lester’s earlier film The Knack… and How to Get It and later to star in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom Of The Opera”) spouting his memoirs to the sympathetic German officer that has taken him prisoner. Peace signs and psychedelic suggestion of the cover aside, this sixties satire is neither a Beatles-esque romp nor a counterculture blast, but a mix of British music hall lampoon, “Goon Show” whimsy and absurdity, gallows humor and grim anti-war imagery (some of it actual battle footage edited into the comically chaotic recreation of warfare).

The film shifts back and forth through Goodbody’s confused service with the sweetly stupid and misguidedly cocky upper-class twit of a college boy, promoted to officer by virtue of class rather than any talent, intelligence or aptitude for leadership, periodically turning to the audience to spin a narrative that has little to do with the incompetence and tomfoolery onscreen. His mission—to build a proper cricket pitch in North Africa—stands in for the absurdity of war as the men die in often brutally violent fashion for this misguided misadventure.

How I Won the War is a well-meaning misfire of curious bits and pieces awkwardly pieced together in an unbalanced mosaic. Lennon, who had worked with Lester on A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, is no comic genius but his good-natured goofing and mugging as Musketeer Gripweed adds a scruffily vulnerable touch to the more focused character comedy of Jack MacGowran (as the unit con man and self-appointed entertainment director) and Roy Kinnear. The gruesome and the goofy mix it up in scene after scene, but Lester’s grand plan of using farce for political commentary is sabotaged by his uncharacteristically​ clumsy handling of it all. It’s like a military burlesque with everyone too busy with their own act to notice that there’s a story here. Or there should be one, at least.

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DVDs for 06/01/10 – Tony Manero, For My Father, The Day I Became a Woman

The big releases of the week are Tim Burton’s weird but not particularly organic Alice in Wonderland (reviewed on MSN here) and the bloodless (spiritually, not literally) remake of The Wolfman with Benicio De Toro (I reviewed the theatrical release for Parallax View here). The most interesting release of the week is Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun, which I review on blog here.

Also from Kino Lorber this week is Tony Manero (Lorber Films), which was Chile’s official submission to the 2009 Academy Awards. The title of this dark crime drama refers not to a real person but the character from Saturday Night Fever played by John Travolta. Raul (Alfredo Castro), a middle-aged petty thief, lowlife and sociopath in the drab outskirts of 1978 Santiago, watches the film repeatedly at a local dive. He obsessively memorizes the dialogue and mimics the moves in a graceless recreation of Travolta’s commanding dance performance. He even has a replica of the iconic white suit, which he prefers to carry around like a talisman rather than actually wear it, at least until he unleashes his act on a chintzy TV talent show (the movie opens outside the TV studio but our would-be Manero got the wrong date and doesn’t realize he’s lined up with the Chuck Norris impersonators).

Alfredo Castro strikes a pose

Director/co-writer Pablo Larrain steers clear of overt political commentary but hints at the repression, the poverty and the underground resistance in the edges of the story. His commentary comes in his presentation of a miserable, impoverished world with a grimy style and murky palette, and the sociopathic thug at the center of it. Castro plays the part with a dead-eyed blankness, a hollow, terrifying a character who is as repellent as he is fascinating. Under his gray death-mask of a face, however, is a sexually impotent, impulsive, angry old man who fashions his identity after an American movie character and kills anyone who gets in the way of his fantasy. Disturbing, brutal, and with a streak of bleak dark humor, it’s a tough and often unpleasant film designed to discomfort viewers. The film features sexual acts, explicit nudity and brutal acts of violence. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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