Just Some More New Release DVDs – No Big Whoop

Yep, some more recent DVD viewings are now blog-worthy:

RESCUE DAWN (Dir. Werner Herzog, 2006)

“Inspired by true events in the life of Dieter Dengler” so says the credits at the beginning. After some basic-training back story, this film wastes no time – on his first tour of duty in 1966 Vietam Dengler’s (the yet again reliable Christian Bale) shot down over Laos within the first 10 minutes; 15 minutes in he is captured by the enemy. He refuses to sign a war criminal document and is dragged, literally, to a Viet Cong camp to be held captive. That’s what the bulk of this story is about – his and a few other fellow inmates (including the dead on and almost dead looking Steven Zahn and Jeremy Davies) tortuous imprisonment where there thoughts of escape are discouraged as futile from every angle. Dengler doesn’t think so and plots to overcome all obstacles. Obviously this story wouldn’t be told if he didn’t do just that – so no accusations of spoilers please. With its gripping storyline and clarity of vision RESCUE DAWN has a lot going for it but is bogged down with unconvincing dialogue and Herzog’s choice of fast fades that make this choppy where it should be fluid. “The quick have their sleepwalkers, and so do the dead” Bale says early on in his captivity and it falls flat – really not provoking much of a reaction. Perhaps because this film seems to sleepwalk all too quickly into oblivion.

HAIRSPRAY (Dir. Adam Shankman, 2007)

It would be hard to dump on this one. Though I have friends who are big fans of the original John Waters 1988 movie and its soundtrack, then the 2002 Tony winning Broadway musical adaptation and its cast recording, I didn’t understand why a new film version (with its soundtrack) was necessary – I mean wasn’t this pretty much covered? But this movie is so damn cheery – earnest and smiling right at you without a cynical frame on any of its reels that questioning or dismissing it makes one feel like a Blue Meanie. The most enjoyable of the cast is Nikki Blonsky (who fits into Rikki Lake’s shoes perfectly) as Tracy Turnblad. Blonsky is a triple threat who she out-sings, out-dances, and yes, out-acts everybody here. As the perky beyond belief Tracy she causes a stir on a local Baltimore American Bandstand type show in 1962 when she exclaims that “everyday should be Negro day” (the show only had one day a month that black kids were allowed to dance on the air). With her angsty-acting friends (Zac Efron, Ellijah Kelley, and Amanda Bynes) behind her, they plot to take over the program to sing the praises of progress and integration.

The supposed trump card here is – taking over the part from the legendary Divine – John Travolta in drag (including a fairly realistic looking fat-suit) but he and husband Christopher Walken as Tracy’s parents never rise above the level of SNL sketch caricatures. Travolta, who looks ridiculous and has an awful weirdly accented voice, is never believable as a woman but his shenanigans somehow breeze by. Queen Latifah fares better with some of the most sincere soulful singing here on some of the best songs though like the movie itself most of the set-piece musical numbers go on too long. In a movie where just about every older face is familiar (Michelle Phieffer as the villainous TV producer, and in incidental roles – Paul Dooley, Jerry Stiller and Allison Janey) it’s really the youngsters show – especially Blonsky and Kelley. If you love musical romps you’ll love it. Me, I have a mild aversion to romps but I have to admit that HAIRSPRAY is adequately amusing.

CIVIC DUTY (Dir. Jeff Renfroe, 2006)

Peter Krause, best known for playing Nate on Six Feet Under (HBO 2000-2005), is a downsized accountant who thinks a new neighbor (Khaled Abol Naga), whom he refers to as “that Muslim guy”, is a terrorist plotting destruction from his tiny apartment. Effectively crisp and creepy first half but the second half desolves into a worn out scenario – i.e. a hostage situation. Krause is a lot like his former character Nate – only more of an asshole; likewise Richard Schiff as a unsympathetic FBI agent is playing only a slight variation on his cynical Toby Ziegler part from The West Wing. What could have been a sharp cinematic study of post 9/11 paranoia is just another regular guy goes crazy and alienates all of society plot. I’m sure somebody has said this before but I liked this movie better the first time – when it was called ARLINGTON ROAD.

Now, this is more of my kind of romp:

HELP! (Dir. Richard Lester, 1965)

Superintendent (Patrick Cargill): “So this is the famous Beatles?”
John (John Lennon): “So this is the famous Scotland Yard, ay?”
Superintendent: “How long do you think you’ll last?”
John: “Can’t say fairer than that. Great Train Robbery, ay? How’s that going?”

A seminal film I saw many times in my youth reissued yet again – this time in a 2 disc DVD edition in fancier packaging than before * and it’s nice to have. Though the extras are inessential – the 30 min. documentary is fine but who’s going to watch a featurette about the film’s restoration process more than once? The movie does look better than I’ve ever seen it – sharper with much more vivid color. Colour (British spelling) was pretty much its only original gimmick – The Beatles now in full colour! Their first feature, black and white of course, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT is widely regarded as a classic, one of the best rock ‘n roll movies ever, blah blah blah while HELP! has been almost lovingly dismissed. I’ll say this – A HARD DAY’S NIGHT may be the better film but HELP! is a lot more fun. It captures the group right before they discarded their cuddly mop-top image and became another entity all together and it makes a strong case for their oft overlooked mid-period music as well.

* It is available also in a collector’s edition with book of the screenplay, lobby card reproductions, and a poster that all retails at $134.99!

The plot? Oh yeah, some ancient mystic religion hunts down laconic but wacky drummer Ringo Starr and his mates because he happens to be wearing their sacrificial ring. They hunt him across the globe with locations in Austria and the Bahamas (simply because the Beatles wanted to go there so it was written in). Along the way they play (or more accurately lipsynch to) a bevy of great songs – the title track, the Dylan influenced “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”, “Ticket To Ride”, and George Harrison’s unjustly underrated “I Need You” among them.

Watching it again I remembered why I loved it so much as a kid – it displayed a fantasy version of the Beatles’ lives in which they all lived together in a groovy connected townhouse flat that had grass as carpet in one section and a neat bed compartment sunken floor that John slept in, it has moments of comic surrealism like when Paul McCartney is shrunken to cigarette size (“The Adventures Of Paul On The Floor” the subtitle calls it), and has a silly James Bond spoofing plot that doesn’t matter at all. If you haven’t seen HELP! it’s one to put in your Netflix queue or on your Amazon wish list – if you have seen it before you should really re-discover it now because of how splendid this new remaster looks and how funny it still is. Or you could wait a few years ’til the next reissue or whatever the new format’s version of it will be.

Post Note: Another bonus that this new DVD set has is an essay in its booklet by Martin Scorsese. He writes “Everyone was experimenting around this time. Antonioni with BLOWUP, Truffaut with FAHRENHEIT 451, Fellini and Godard with every movie – and HELP! was just as exciting.” I would’ve never thought to put Richard Lester’s work on HELP! in that class but if Marty says it is – it is.

More later…

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