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DVD Reviews for 11/9: The Moore And The Merrier

by Peter Sobczynski

This DVD column is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Mr. Elias Howe, who, in 1846, invented the sewing machine.

There are few things that a film fanatic dreads more than revisiting a one-time childhood favorite after many years to see if it still holds up at all. When I was a little kid, I used to think that the animated version of “Charlotte’s Web” was one of the best movies ever made but when I got a little older, I quickly realized that it was actually a bland and terribly ugly botch and the only element that held up at all with the passage of time was the brilliant notion of casting Paul Lynde as the voice of Templeton the Rat. On the other hand, such youthful favorites as “Westworld,” “Duel” and “The Girl Most Likely To” have held up wonderfully over the years. This week sees the DVD re-release of another one of those favorites from my misspent youth, the 1965 Beatles romp “Help,” and while I doubt that it will be written up as one of the lasting works of the cinema anytime soon, I was relieved to discover that it has held up surprisingly well after more than 40 years.

While their previous film, 1964's “A Hard Day’s Night,” was a low-budget, black-and-white film that purported to offer viewers a glimpse into a typical day in their lives, “Help” took a 180-degree turn from those semi-realistic trappings to offer fans a fast-paced and brightly-colored goof that featured them cavorting in a variety of locales. The plot, for lack of a better term, kicks off with a bizarre Eastern cult that is about to perform a ritual sacrifice to their god until the leader, Clang (Leo McKern) discovers that the giant red ring that the victim is required to wear as part of the ceremony is nowhere to be found. Of course, the ring has found its way onto the finger of the lovable Ringo Starr and when he is unable to remove it, the cult decides that he will be the next sacrifice. Neither he nor fellow bandmates John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison realize any of this, however, and as they travel from London to Switzerland to Nassau, they are vaguely bemused by Clang’s half-assed attempts on Ringo’s life, vaguely concerned by the machinations of a mad scientist (Victor Spinetti) who believes that he could rule the world if he possessed the ring and vaguely bewitched by the presence of a mysterious babe (Eleanor Bron) who always seems to be hanging around, though it is hard to tell what side she is working for.

In hindsight, “Help” is nowhere near as good as “A Hard Day’s Night,” a film that remains one of the greatest rock movies ever made, and the notion of watching a Beatle being stalked by a fanatic hell-bent on killing him is not quite as funny to contemplate after what happened to Lennon and Harrison. If you can put those two things to the side, you are likely to find the film to be as much of a delight as I do. In virtually every aspect, from the outlandish plot to the surreal detail of all four Beatles living together under the same roof, the film is pure British nuttiness of a type that would be popularized a few years later by Monty Python. There are any number of hilarious gags on display (my favorites being the ferocious tiger that can only be soothed by playing Beethoven and the ending title card that announces that the film has been dedicated to the memory of the man who invented the sewing machine. And, of course, there is the wonderful, wonderful music–among the tunes heard here are “Ticket To Ride,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and, of course, the immortal title tune.

Previously released in a relatively bare-bones edition that has been out of print for years, “Help” has finally returned to DVD and while it may not the bonus-stuffed bonanza that some Beatles fanatics may have been hoping for (although for those people, there is a $135 deluxe edition featuring a hardcover book on the film and reproductions of director Richard Lester’s annotated shooting script as well as the poster and lobby cards that appeared in theaters back in the day), the extras collected here should prove to be satisfactory. The biggest attraction is the refurbished version of the film itself–both the sound and picture have undergone extensive restorations and the results look and sound better than they have in decades. The second half of this two-disc set kicks off with a 30-minute documentary on the making of the film that includes lots of behind-the-scenes footage of the Beatles goofing off on the set as well as new interviews with Bron, Lester and other members of the crew. (Needless to say, Paul and Ringo do not make appearances except in the archival material.) “Memories of ‘Help’” offers up further reminisces and there are also short features on the film’s extensive restoration and the history of a scene that was originally meant to be included and was later dropped because of pacing problems. (Alas, the scene itself doesn’t make an appearance.) Finally, the disc also includes three of the theatrical trailers prepared for the film, a number of radio ads hidden within the disc menus and a booklet including an introduction by Richard Lester as well as a recently written appreciation of the film by none other than Martin Scorsese.

Written by Charles Wood. Directed by Richard Lester. Starring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron and Victor Spinetti. 1965. Unrated. 90 minutes. $29.99.


AMAZING JOURNEY: THE STORY OF THE WHO (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although this is a reasonably well-made and informative documentary on the rocky career of the seminal British rock group, it winds up suffering in comparison with “The Kids Are Alright,” the still-invigorating 1979 film on the band (made just before drummer Keith Moon died) that did a much better job of capturing the anarchic spirit that the band maintained in their prime. That said, hard-core fans may want to check this DVD out, if only for the bonus features that include a rare bit of film of the band playing in 1964 under the name of “The High Numbers”–it is believed that this is the earliest existing footage of the group performing.

THE BEST OF THE COLBERT REPORT (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): Because quixotic presidential campaigns and extended WGA-related vacations don’t pay for themselves, Comedy Central’s beloved faux-man of the people offers his adoring public a collection of the best-loved bits from his television show–the best of the bunch being his bizarre kitchen-based threesome with Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem.

BLAME IT ON FIDEL (Koch Video. $26.98): Perhaps inspired by her own experiences as a child when her father, acclaimed director Costa-Gavras, made the film missing, filmmaker Julie Gavras tells the tale of a bourgeois French couple in the early 1970's who suddenly decide to reject their former lifestyle and become political radicals, much to the consternation of their nine-year-old daughter.

CHINATOWN/THE TWO JAKES (Paramount Home Video. $14.99 each): The bad news is that neither of these two so-called special editions of the 1974 neo-noir classic and its less-well-regarded 1990 sequel offers viewers much more than a few brief featurettes–neither Roman Polanski nor Jack Nicholson could apparently be talked into doing commentaries.. The good news is that the films themselves are so good that such extras are almost besides the point–Polanski’s original remains one of the best American films of the 1970's and one of the greatest mysteries ever made while Nicholson’s sequel is an above-average work that has some strong performances, a lot of quotable dialogue (“What I do for a living may not be very reputable, but I am. In this town, I’m the leper with the most fingers”) and is much better than its reputation (which seems to be borne entirely from its rocky production history–a 1985 attempt to film it with screenwriter Robert Towne directing a cast including Nicholson, Kelly McGillis and Robert Evans fell apart after a few days of shooting–and the fact that it wasn’t “Chinatown”) would otherwise suggest.

THE CHUCK JONES COLLECTION (Lionsgate Entertainment. $14.98): Those of you looking for the adventures of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck will be better off checking out last week’s release of “Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Five.” This is a collection of six animated specials Jones produced and directed for television–the Rudyard Kipling adaptations “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” (1975), “The White Seal” (1975) and “Mowgli’s Brothers” (1977).and his trilogy featuring George Selden’s popular character Chester C Cricket, “A Cricket in Times Square” (1973), “A Very Merry Cricket” (1973) and “Yankee Doodle Cricket” (1975).

DECK THE HALLS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99):Neighbors Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito feud over the ridiculously lavish holiday light display that the latter has erected on his lawn in one of the very worst Christmas movies ever made. Even DeVito must have thought so–it was this film that he was pushing on that infamous episode of “The View” where he showed up tanked on limoncellos. However, I can guarantee that no amount of fruity liquor will dull the pain of a film so bad that it almost (though admittedly not quite) makes “Fred Claus” seem tolerable by comparison.

ELECTION (Tartan Home Video. $19.99): No, this isn’t a new edition of the brilliant Alexander Payne satire that gave Reese Witherspoon her best role to date. Instead, this is a pretty impressive crime thriller from Hong Kong director Johnnie To in which the senior members of an Asian gang vote for a new leader between two candidates–when the vote doesn’t go the way some would like, they eschew taking the results to the Supreme Court and simply declare war on the others.

I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Unless you absolutely, positively cannot live without the sight of Jessica Biel in her underwear (an image which has already been videocapped all over the net), there is no reason for you to sit through this witless, heartless and deeply offensive comedy in which Adam Sandler and Kevin James play a couple of firefighters who pretend to be gay and marry so that one of them doesn’t lose his insurance benefits. Although it allegedly wants to remind us that hey, Gays Are Okay People!, this attitude is somewhat undercut by a finale that hinges on the duo’s plot being unraveled because they are too grossed out to prove their “love” by kissing each other.

LEADING LADIES COLLECTION VOLUME 2 (Warner Home Video. $49.95): Warner Home Video offers up an interesting grab-bag of five female-driven films from their vaults. “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” (1955) is a biopic in which Susan Hayward essays the rise and fall of Lilian Roth, a once-promising actress (best known today as the ingenue in the Marx Brothers classic “Animal Crackers”) whose career was undone by a domineering stage mother, failed marriages, a lot of alcohol and a rebellious attitude towards studio heads. “A Big Hand For The Little Lady” (1966) is an odd comedy-western in which poker novice Joanne Woodward takes over in a high-stakes game for her husband (Henry Fonda) when he loses their savings and then suffers from a heart attack. “Up the Down Staircase” (1967), a title that send shivers down my spine, is an achingly sincere melodrama in which Sandy Dennis plays a new and idealistic teacher at a public high school whose desire to make a difference comes up against both the sad backgrounds of her students and a faculty attitude that centers more on enforcing rules than in reaching out to the kids they are supposed to be educating. “Rich and Famous” (1981), best known as the last film from master director George Cukor, charts the ups-and-downs in the long-running friendship between best-selling hack Candice Bergen and a serious novelist Jacqueline Bisset, who spends her downtime doing for airplane bathrooms what she did for the elevator at Water Tower Place in “Class.” “Shoot the Moon” (1982) is a harrowing drama about the emotional blowback that occurs when a long-married couple (Albert Finney and Diane Keaton in some of the best work of their respective careers) decide to get divorced after fifteen years of marriage.

MANUFACTURING DISSENT (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.95):The idea of a documentary that utilizes the tactics that Michael Moore made famous in the service of a film on Moore himself sounds like a potentially provocative idea and Lord knows there are presumably enough people around on all sides of the political spectrum who would be willing to dish about the more questionable aspects of his career as America’s agent provocateur. Unfortunately, this attempt to serve Moore with a taste of his own medicine is a clunky work that merely rehashes old stories (including the now-familiar tales about fudging chronology, making films that aren’t strictly documentaries and apparently being the only person in the history of show business to try to hog more credit for a project that he actually deserved) and does so in a way that results in a film that can be described with one word that is rarely used to discuss Moore’s work–boring.

NFL GREATEST GAMES: 1985 CHICAGO BEARS (Warner Home Video. $84.98):Those of you who are still reeling from the Bears’ woeful appearance in the last Super Bowl and their fairly disappointing current season will no doubt want to soothe their miseries by indulging in this 5-disc set that chronicles one of the most overpowering teams in NFL history via 12 of the key games they played that season, including their 46-10 shellacking of the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

OPUS N’ BILL IN A WISH FOR WINGS THAT WORK (Universal Home Entertainment. $14.98): The world’s most beloved flightless waterfowl and the former lead singer of Billy and the Boingers team up for this nicely done holiday special in which the former’s dream for the titular appendages leads to a journey to find Santa Claus and leads to them saving the holiday for everyone. From what I understand, “Bloom County” creator Berke Breathed wasn’t entirely happy with this lone (to date) TV adaptation of his work, but it is more entertaining and touching than he gives it credit for and is definitely worth a revival.

PIXAR SHORT FILMS COLLECTION–VOLUME ONE (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): Although justifiable hailed as the most consistent producers of high-quality animated feature films today, Pixar has also carved out a niche as one of the most reliable producers of short-form animation as well and this collection of shorts (many of which have played theatrically with Pixar features over the years) is sure to delight viewers of all ages. Among the films collected here are such classics as “Tin Toy” (in which the titular plaything tries to avoid an inadvertently destructive toddler until the surprisingly touching finale), “Knick-Knack” (in which a snowman trapped inside of a little sno-globe tries to escape his prison in order to join a party of his fellow souvenirs), “Boundin” (in which a recently sheared sheep gets a self-esteem boost courtesy of a roaming jackalope) and “Lifting” (a hilarious bit in which a young alien struggles with his abduction of a dozing farmer while under the eye of his stern instructor). Seriously–if you don’t find these shorts a pure delight from start to finish, there is something seriously wrong with you.

PROJECT RUNWAY: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Genius Products. $27.95): The insanely addictive reality series returns to DVD with a third season of would-be designers undergoing a gauntlet of challenges, critiques and oddball fashions in their quest to become the next great designer. Perhaps because it requires the competitors to have an actual talent to succeed instead of simply being the most “colorful,” this show remains the most entertaining reality show on television today.

RATATOUILLE (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): After the minor misstep of “Cars,” Pixar bounced back with this lovely fable about a common rat with the uncommon dream of becoming a gourmet chef who improbably finds himself running the kitchen of a Paris bistro. Like all of Pixar’s other triumphs, this film is funny, touching, visually dancing and filled with surprisingly deep performances from its vocal cast–in fact, Peter O’Toole’s final monologue as food critic Anton Ego may well go down as one of the high points of his long and distinguished career.

SEINFELD: THE COMPLETE NINTH SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $49.99): Even if you are as sick of all the “Bee Movie” hype as I am, you are most likely going to want to pick up this 4-disc set of the ninth and final season of the groundbreaking sitcom in order to complete your collection. Although this was perhaps the most uneven season in the show’s history since its early days, it still has more standout episodes than the best seasons of most other shows (I am especially fond of “The Butter Shave,” “The Merv Griffin Show” and the controversial “The Puerto Rican Day”) and I even have a soft spot for the grand finale, a heavily-hyped bit of weirdness that inspired as many passionate arguments in the day as the conclusion of “The Sopranos” did this past summer.

SICKO (The Weinstein Company. $29.95): Although it didn’t hit the box-office heights of his previous offering, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore’s expose of both the failures of America’s health-care system and the successes that socialized medical programs in countries such as France, England and Canada was just as moving, angry and darkly funny as his previous films while relying less on the shock tactics and over-the-top stunts (aside from his late inning trip to Guantanamo Bay to get some ailing Ground Zero workers the same medical treatment being offered to those suspected of terrorism). This disc includes over 80 minutes of footage deleted from the theatrical version, including a eye-opening look at the array of social services afforded to those living in Norway.

THOU SHALT LAUGH 2–THE DEUCE (Razor and Tie Theatrical. $19.98): Following on the heels of the popular DVD “Thou Shalt Laugh,” this program offers up another 90 minutes of clean, Christian-based stand-up comedy performed by one-time “SNL” performer Victoria Jackson and others and hosted by authentic comedy legend Tim Conway, who can usually inspire a few big laughs just by doing nothing more than standing around on his knees.

WINGS: THE COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $38.99): I will confess, I was never especially amused by this inexplicably long-running NBC sitcom about the wacky goings-on at a small Nantucket airport and a recent inspection of a few of the episodes on this 4-disc set chronicling its fifth season did nothing to disabuse me of my previously held opinions regarding its intrinsic worth. And yet, I shall not bash it in these column for one good reason–my beloved mother, a woman for whom laughter does not exactly come easily (as anyone who has tried to use her as the second person in a knock-knock joke can attest), used to find it funny and as I have always said, if she is happy, then I am happy.

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originally posted: 11/09/07 17:26:54
last updated: 11/10/07 07:50:23
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