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.
More music-oriented manufactured-on-demand titles at Videodrone
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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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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